Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Envy: Spoiling the Enjoyment of Others' Pleasure Since 1500BC

I just got back from visiting friends who have moved into a beautiful new home. It's gorgeous and has many features I've always wanted in a home. It's also well above any price range I'm likely to afford in my lifetime, unless things change radically very soon. I'm thrilled for them, but I'll admit I also felt some envy.

I WANT, so much, to have something so nice. We wanted to move to a bigger place years ago but financially we can't swing it. Even before we both lost our jobs, we weren't ready, quite yet, to do it. If we had stayed employed with our last jobs, we might have been ready to move in the next few months, but it's been a year since my husband lost his position and 9 months since I lost mine, and neither of us seem any closer to finding a new one, so we're definitely not at that point now.

Envy. It's a horrible emotion. I found myself comparing their lives with ours, thinking about what I would do with such a house (it really is quite lovely) and wishing I had the sort of money they have. It was harder to feel happy for them, sometimes, because of the negative feelings I had about myself.

I know it is silly. My friends have worked hard for their success and I am thrilled to see them getting settled in a place that brings them so much joy. We are also happy to have them as friends and we've done a lot of cool stuff because of our friendship with them, which is a nice bonus. They are also very generous and they understand our current financial situation without ever making us feel bad about it, so it's not like they are rubbing our noses in the disparity of our wealth. We're currently dirt poor; they are doing quite well. We are still friends.

Still, I could feel a small part of me resenting their home, wishing it was mine, and then having to be trampled into submission by the rest of my mind which knew this was the wrong way to feel. I guess there is part of me that is like a little kid who sees something she wants and has trouble with the idea that it is out of reach. Part of me cried out, "Mine!" and was unhappy about it not being true. I guess this is something I'll have to work on, to be a better person.

Envy does nobody any good. It doesn't help me in any way, and if I let it fester, it could ruin my ability to be a good friend. I've recognized it in myself and now I'm trying to rid myself of it.

My friends' home is beautiful and I hope they are happy in it. I look forward to visiting it again and seeing how they decorate it and entertain in it. They are an important part of my lives and I am lucky to have them.

Monday, December 27, 2010

December: Monthly Update

Another month has come around. Every year I feel like time is moving more swiftly and this year has been no exception. The past month has been particularly fast forwarding, with all the holiday season plans and projects. I can't believe how soon my 42nd birthday is from today. I really need to get moving on my projects if I want to feel satisfied with myself when my birthday rolls around.

Here's my status so far:

Cleaning/Organizing: some success and some setbacks. The front of the house looks pretty good (had company over) but I sacrificed a clean office for it as I moved a lot of half-finished stuff in there to make the rest of the house look nice. I now need to pull that stuff back out.

Half-Finished Projects: Still have too many projects to do and a lot of stuff started that I haven't finished.

Jobs: No interviews in over two months for me, and only phone interviews from my husband in just as long. No job prospects on the horizon. I have a few things to apply for, my portfolio to finish, and some references to gather for one job application. Otherwise, we need to work on projects which could bring in money.

41 Things list: No progress at all. I need to print out that list and plan some of them for January. I'd love to have most of them finished before my birthday, like the plan called for but which looks harder to do. I think I have only 1/4 of them done.

My Plan for January:

No resolutions for me--not anymore than what I already resolved for this year-long project. I will continue to work on my goals for this year before I turn 42--to organize myself, get better about completing projects (including my novel), and to find out what I really want to do with my life (like a job, etc). I wanted to explore my life and figure out how to make myself happier and more successful. That's what I'll continue to work on in January.

It's been quite a 2010. I lost my job and turned 41 in the same week. I ran a large event with national publicity (and lost money on that event) while completing several interesting personal projects. I wrote in a blog on a regular basis (something I've never kept up with before--but struggle to come up with content and have few readers--hi there reader, speak up if you are joining in on my quest). I cleaned, organized, and found myself disorganized again, several times this year, and discovered that I have a really hard time with procrastination and completing projects, even ones I claim I really want to do. I wrote on my novel but haven't managed to complete the first draft even with a good start at NaNoWriMo. It's been a complex year.

I hope that I can make 2011 a better year. I know it is up to me.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Garland of Cards: Keeping in Touch at the Holidays

I have an archway in my home which I decorate with Christmas cards each December. We string a ribbon across the arch, pinned up in the middle, and hand the cards on the string as they arrive. So far there are 18 cards dangling above me as I walk by, and a small stack of photos and letters on the shelf to the right.

They are beautiful and cheering as a decoration but they mean so much more than that.

For some of these cards are the only time I am in contact with family members.

It's odd. Many of us probably have people we only contact once a year. I barely know some of this family anymore. My parents still go to visit these relatives in the summer but I've not seen them since I was a teenager. My memories of them are vague, but I know that they are family. Each year a card comes filled with a long letter detailing their year. I read it and feel connected. I send them a similar card and we are all fine with our annual tradition.

It seems strange, as I write it, to have family one knows only through an annual card exchange. My "real" family is much smaller--those I actually communicate with on a regular basis. There are my parents and one grandma, with an occasional communication with an aunt. Only my parents are local and we see each other at least once a month (or more) and speak several times a week by phone. We'll be spending Christmas eve and day together.

We're a small family, with an extended family out of state (the ones I get the cards from, mostly). I look forward to the annual card exchange. It makes me feel in touch with my family and friends. As the ribbon fills up, it is a colorful reminder of the people connected to me.

Connections are important, but I think over the next year I need to work on making it be more than just a Christmas card which connects me to my family.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Handmade Gifts

This week I am finishing up a number of small handmade gifts. Since we are unemployed and our families have basically insisted that they don't want us buying them ANY gifts this year, I didn't want to be without gifts this Christmas season and have made a few things.

This year I am doing cookies and ornaments. I just finished sewing my second ornament for my parents.

It is kind of fun and reminds me of previous years where I used to learn a new craft every year in order to make a good gift.

I have learned how to mosaic tile, make glass paperweights, make "shrinky-dink" ornaments, paint custom welcome mats, paint glass candle holders, illustrated cookbooks, and crochet. I've been considering stained glass work, someday. This year it is felt animals for the tree.

I had given up doing crafts a few years ago because the time pressure of my dissertation combined with running out of crafts to try made it seem too hard.

This year I am photoshopping some photos, baking cookies, sewing some ornaments, and transfering some family cassette tapes to cd (audio letters from the 70s, recently rediscovered in a cupboard).

It is always hard to figure out what to do for gifts, especially with spending little to no money (I have maybe $6 in felt invested so far). It also take a lot of time. But it does show you were thinking about the person, and I guess that is what counts.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Holiday Baking and Adult Responsibilities

Is there anything more delicious than holiday goodies? This time of year, it is so nice to be have a hot eggnog or hot buttered rum, some christmas cookies, and wrap some presents.

I think the best part about these treats is that, in addition to their great taste, they are also a tradition--something I yearn for every year. I'm a big person for traditions. I love the repetition, each year, of certain actions or objects--the first ornament on the tree, the coolies, the carols. Perhaps because we moved so often when I was a child and I never felt like I had a solid home or roots, I always yearn for solid childhood traditions.

Of course, as an adult, I find that these traditions come with a price--not just the cost of groceries but of time--the hours it can take to make all the goodies. When I was little, I was not aware of all the work but as the years pass, I find out the work can be time consuming.

It's one of the interesting things about becoming an adult. As a child, you can't wait to grow up and do whatever you want. As an adult, you realized that you have so many more responsibilities along with that long awaited freedom.

So with holiday baking, I find that being an adult is more work, but I also find that I can still get the enjoyment out of a holiday tradition.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas "Brag" Letter: Why I Like It

Every year my family prepares a one-sheet letter which is sent to their Christmas card list along with a greeting card. It has long been a tradition. When I established my own home, I started my own letter to tell people what had been up in my life. I like these letters. They are a good way for me to have a record of what has been going on in my life over the years and to keep distant family apprised of my doings.

Every year I hear complaints about such letters in the media. There are comic strips that complain about how they are phony and filled with false bragging. People complain that they are pretentious or boring. I don't see it that way at all.

This year I've already received 4 of these letters from friends, some I see fairly often, some I correspond with by email a few times a year. Either way, it is nice to get caught up on what they are doing. I see nothing wrong with annual updates to make sure people know what is happening. I think most people appreciate it.

As long as it is truthful, I don't see the harm. If you get one of these letters, you don't have to read it, after all. Although if you don't care enough about these people to make sure you know what they have been up to, why are you exchanging Christmas cards?

My letter this year will, as always, be truthful. We are unemployed. We volunteer. We ran a big event. Our cat has a terminal illness. We are keeping busy with projects and have done some fun stuff. The good, bad, and ugly will be there for people to see. My friends and family can read it or not, but I like writing these letters and I like receiving other people's letters, so I'm not going to apologize for the much maligned Christmas letter. It serves a purpose and I'm keeping it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Avoidance Mentality

I've noticed that I can be very good at avoiding work I don't want to do. It doesn't matter that what I am avoiding might only take a few minutes and that I've been needlessly delaying for hours, making myself unhappy over something that could be over and done with, but I can still find a way to delay doing the work.

I'm not the only one. My husband is excellent about delaying things he finds embarrassing or uncomfortable. In our old house we had a large desk in our office which we didn't actually use. We mostly stored things in it. I discovered that my husband would stash things he didn't want to deal with under the desk, where he could find them later but wouldn't have to see them until then.

I took to calling avoidance putting things "under the big desk" and I'm afraid that I am pretty good at it.

Right now I have some work to do. It isn't that it is difficult or that unpleasant, but it isn't exciting and I've delayed it just long enough that I now feel guilty about it. That guilt is not something I like to face, so I delay some more. This, inevitably, leads to more guilt and so I'm in a loop of nonwork which is ridiculous when I examine it but, oh so easy to fall into when I don't examine it.

Examination is probably the key here. Silly excuses and petty delays are harder to keep going in the cold objective light of examination. The problem is that those of us who are good at putting things under the big desk, don't generally like to drag things out into the light of day.

It is for that reason that I keep this blog. To force myself to see what I am doing--sabotaging myself and my progress. I could finish my work and enjoy my internet surfing in peace or I can poke at the internet as guilt festers and more work builds up, making me forced to put in a long day of catch up fueled anxiety.

If you are good at avoiding what you know you should be doing, drag the reasons out into the light of day. They seldom hold up when examined. Then, like me, you can simply do the work--and feel better afterwards, wondering why you put it off in the first place.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Clean House but Cluttered Mind?

I've been working on organizing and cleaning my house for most of this year. My paperwork has been disorganized and I have too many possessions for the room we have--making for crowded rooms and messy areas.

As I've been trying to get Christmas decorations out, I've been cleaning and organizing the house. My kitchen and office are still a bit messy but the main rooms are starting to look pretty nice, which is a big relief.

However, I've also been finding that I don't feel that much more organized. You see, I'm still cluttered in my mind. I don't have clear processes to keep my areas clean. I don't have established habits to put things away immediately instead of "waiting" and "coming back later."

I am behind in my work and have a long to do list. It is not just physical clutter which causes problems in our lives. I'm finding that out. Instead it may be that my physical clutter is a symptom of a larger problem--a need to get my mind more in order, and the processes I use to get my work done.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Like Most Blogs: not in it for the money

There are tons of articles out there touting the ways to make your blog pay--to earn money for writing articles at home in your pajamas. Indeed, "get rich quick" schemes and "work from home" plans are getting increasingly popular and many people believe the internet is the place to go for most of these schemes.

My mother, helpfully, pointed out that people make money on the internet and I should give it a go. Really? People make money on the internet? Why didn't I think of that? Never mind that I've had a personal website for over 10 years, several other websites for 6 or more years and an Amazon Associates account for 8 years which has yet to earn me enough for them to ship a check to me.

The thing is:

1. most of my websites were never intended to make money. Most of the sites, like this blog, were meant for my own personal enjoyment and to share my interests and knowledge with others who wanted to read it. I don't run ads on the sites or otherwise try to monetize them. I did start up a web-based business earlier this year, you might say, and I've been earning between $30-$100 a month on it since April when I started it. I will probably continue it next year and hope to increase the sales (we have a Cafepress store and Lulu store--so essentially we are designing and selling products online). However, that isn't the way I approach most of my web work.

2. Most people don't actually make a living from blogs or websites. My mom made it sound like something I should start up and it would replace my lost wages right away. Most people will never make a living wage off of their blog or website. Sure, some people do. I read Zen Habits back when it first got started (when it was still good) and I know that the writer, Leo, succeeded quite rapidly by web standards (and he isn't the only blogger I've read who has done well for him/herself with book deals, ad income and other income). However, the statistics show that these people are actually quite unusual. To make money with a blog, I'd need to be working almost full-time on promotion. First I'd need a niche market where I could write good content. Then I'd need to write a lot of good content and work very hard to get it out to a large number of people. If I was lucky I could start to build an audience and monetize my blog in various ways. Frankly, it isn't for everyone and few make it.

I know from experience that it is hard to keep up with writing content for a blog. I write on this one three days a week and this is the first time I've started a blog and kept with it on a posting schedule. It helps that I'm anonymous here and that this is essentially a personal blog--about my experiences and my self-improvement--something I obviously know a lot about. Writing about an exterior topic would probably be even harder.

I may not get any money from this blog--I don't expect to, that's for sure, and have never tried to--but I gain so much more. I enjoy the chance to write for an audience (true, it is a small audience but that's okay) and it gives me a chance to clarify my thoughts--allowing me to grow as a person. That's worth more than money to me right now. If I can become the best I can be, hopefully the money will follow the passion for what I decide to do with my life. It's that passion which I am searching for--this blog is about the life I want to have and the struggles I find along the journey. Money isn't the only thing in life.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Christmas Lights: One of My Favorite Things

I generally don't like to drive at night but in December that changes. There is nothing better than driving in residential areas at night at seeing the houses decorated with lights. Sometimes you even seen a tree aglow with lights in the window.

There is something about that bright, festive tradition that always pleases me. Even the poorly done attempts at holiday decorations are a bit heartwarming. Of course, some people go all out and end up with beautiful creations (or sometimes monstrously tacky but overwhelming decor).

The video that went around a few years ago with the synchronized house lights or the homes we've all seen with the yard full of moving dolls--a bit excessive perhaps but for a month out of the year, it seems like it is kind of sweet and exciting.

Our lights are up once again. We are one of about 5 houses in our neighborhood that always put light sup (and take them down in January, thank goodness). We don't do anything spectacular but we have the normal line of lights (2 lines of lights actually, one at the gutter in white and one colored below it) at the roof, lights around the porch and entrance, lights at the big front window and one bush in the front with a lightbulb net. It's pretty but nothing like some people will do.

We'll be doing the small tree today. We don't have room for a large tree like my family does every year but I still want to see my ornaments--most of them are from my husband's and my childhoods--and then new ones we got on trips together since we were married. Every ornament has a story, I guess, and so each one is precious to me.

But what I really love is the twinkle of the lights.

Of course, the fact that we always have to clean house before decorating is good too. The house is looking so much better than it did last week. It's amazing what seem cleaning and some holiday decorating can do for the spirit. I feel positively cheerful, almost as twinkly as the lights that I love.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Cool December Days and the Sunshine Tax

This is one of the times of year when I remember how much I like Southern California. Many areas of the United States have snow and below freezing weather. Today, here, we are in the 60s, with partly cloudy skies. It might go down to the mid-40s at night.

Sure, I've gotten out the blankets and throws, turned on the heater, put on the heating blanket at night--but by many people's standards, this is very pleasant weather indeed.

True, I miss the fall colors (we really don't have seasons here) and I like the snow for visiting (although not living in it long-term). Southern California can get way too hot in the late Summer and early Fall--although not this year, which was fairly mild. I don't like the hot weather, but when we get to this time of year, it is hard not too like our weather.

I was talking to a person the other day (an academic) who said it was hard to get jobs in the area partly because everyone else wants to move here for those jobs. I gave him the line about "sunshine tax" and he had never heard it before. That surprised me. I thought the "sunshine tax" concept was common knowledge.

If you live in SoCal, you pay for the beautiful location and weather with more crowds, more traffic, higher prices, higher property costs, and more competition for jobs. If I wanted to move to Iowa or Michigan or other states where people aren't clamoring to move, maybe I'd have a better chance at finding an academic job and I'd certainly not deal with the high prices and crowds around here. But then I'd have to deal with the location and weather--two things I don't want to do--plus I'd be away from family.

Thanks, I'll pay the sunshine tax to stay here.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Cutting Back on Christmas

My husband and I are unemployed. We're part of the long-term unemployed who are on federal extension of our benefits and now face losing them (my husband as soon as two weeks from now) because Congress is not voting to continue the extensions (and who knows when or if they will).

It's not that we want to be unemployed nor was it our fault that we lost our jobs. The economy is tough and people aren't hiring at the rate they usually are. I'm overqualified for too many jobs (so people tell me) and underqualified for ones I really want (apparently, since I don't get interviews for those).

As you can imagine, I've done no Christmas shopping this year. So far I haven't put the decorations up either. It's hard to feel Christmas-y when people all around you, including yourself, are struggling financially. I know three families with kids who are having trouble affording gifts for the kids. My parents have forbidden me to buy any gifts for the family and they've cut back on buying too because they want to be able to help us financially, if needed (something I've been avoiding all year but may have to fall back on to avoid losing our house).

It's a sad end of a difficult year. We're going to muddle through this month the best we can and keep looking for work but people don't tend to hire around the holidays so who knows how long that will take. I was looking for work even when I had my last job because I wasn't crazy about it and was hoping to find better. Instead I lost the job I hated and continue to look for work with no success. It's disheartening.

In discussions about the unemployment benefit extensions I see a bunch of employed people complaining about the lazy bums who should just go get a job. Really? Don't you think I would? How do you think I got the last job I had (which I hated)? I applied for it and accepted it because I needed the money. I was lucky to get it; it paid well and had benefits. I considered that enough, despite the work I was doing. True, I kept looking (secretly) but I'd do it again in a heartbeat to be bringing in that paycheck again.

We're not lazy. In fact, I still work all day (for free) and hardly rest at all. I'm as busy now as I was when I worked. I apply for jobs, I'm designing an online portfolio of my work, I do volunteer work, and I am working on some projects which I hope might make some money. I'm anything but lazy.

What I am, right now, is depressed. December is one of my favorite months of the year (because I love traditions, not because I'm religious) and this year the whole thing seems forced. We'll pretend things are normal but we're a month away from not being able to cover our bills, thanks to losing unemployment insurance benefits and so we have to cut back on everything (even more than I've been doing already)--and that means a Christmas without presents, feasts, entertaining, or events. Those all take money and money is something we simply don't have.

Santa--can you bring me a job? I've been a good girl.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Out of My Time? A Love of Old Things

I've heard the phrase "born a generation too late" and sometimes I wonder if it applies to me.

You see, I love old things. We collect old books. We love letterpress printing (and own a printing press). We have older artwork on our walls and mostly older furniture or replicas of them. I love quilts and depression glass and, well, lots of material things about the past. I love the looks of pre-1930s cars and wish modern cars looked as classy. I'm into steampunk, historical fiction, and victorian/western reenacting.

Of course, any time I start wishing I could hop into a time machine and go back to the past to live, I remind myself of several things:

1. I love computers. I live on my laptop and am addicted to the internet. I'd never survive in the past.

2. I'm a woman. Let's face it. The past is better if you are a white male. Privilege and all that.

3. It's a dirty, dangerous place. Medical advances. Toiletry advances. This time frame has a lot to offer.

I guess I'm lucky that I can support the music, art, books, and printing techniques of the past and still enjoy all the pleasures of the present.

Friday, November 26, 2010

November: My Monthly Progress Report

This weekend marks the start of the 9th month of my blog. I'm not sure I've kept proper count in past progress reports since I think I already said something like this. Regardless, I started my blog on March 28 (on the occasion of my 41st birthday) and have been writing it ever since.

The goal of this blog is to have a place for me to write about my concerns and thoughts on self-improvement--because at 41 I realized that I was unhappy with the way my life had been going lately and I wanted to make it better but wasn't sure how.

If you've been reading my past posts, which a few people have been doing to my surprise, you'll know that I have been examining my difficulty with getting and staying organized, my issues with procrastination (particularly with various projects I have been working on, including my novel), and trying to determine what career choices to make.

I've had some ups and downs. I finished a major event which was a lot of work but afterwards I was so burned out that I spent months being depressed and getting nothing else done. I've just started getting out from under this but the holidays always mess up my schedule and add new stresses.

I've been unemployed since the first week of my blog, unfortunately (although I did hate my job so there are some feelings of happiness about this), and my husband has also been out of work for that same time period, having been laid off from his work a few months before me. This obviously has led to financial issues and stresses, which has not made my quest easier, although it certainly has led to more time being available for pursuing what interests us.

I made a list of things I wanted to do this year which would expose me to new experiences and force me to stretch myself more (break out of shyness, fight my fears, and try new things) but I've not been following through on this list for the past few months and would like to get started on it again. I enjoyed it when I was doing it. I tried a new hairstyle, wore a costume, tried some new recipes, etc. I don't know if I will finish all of them before my 42nd birthday but we'll see. I can, at least, try.

I was participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this month but it will come as no surprise that I've not been following through and probably won't meet my goal of 50,000 words in 30 days. I'm not sure why I've been holding back. Even on days when I had time, I've made excuses and not written that much. I did make some progress with my novel, more than some months, but I wish I had been more consistent on writing every day. I will have to work on that for the next month.

The end of the year approaches and I know that this is a time of the year when many people, myself included, often spend some time reevaluating our lives. For those of you on the journey of self-discovery and improvement like myself, I hope you will share your insights with me in the comments. There is no reason why we need to be alone while we strive to have better, happier lives.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Accept/Expect: Finding the Balance for a Happy and Fulfilled Life

"I want to accept myself, yet also expect more of myself."

Gretchen Rubin, of the Happiness Project, often talks about self-improvement in ways that get me thinking about my own project to find myself (my own version of a happiness project, I suppose, although I've not defined it that way).

Recently she wrote about the balance between accepting and expecting. This was a thought which has surfaced for me a few months ago but not stated as clearly: if self-acceptance is important for happiness, where does the need to improve, strive, and change fit with the need to realize that we are good as we are?

It can be easy to beat oneself up while seeking to improve oneself. I can remember clearly the self-loathing and anger I'd feel while trying to lose weight. One time I was actually borderline for a eating disorder, my first year in college, and I would look at other young women and hate myself. I starved myself and did other dangerous things because I wanted to change and my need to change was driven by a deep hatred of who I was right then. Naturally, this was a terrible motivator and I eventually woke up to the dangers I was putting myself through. I managed to talk myself out of a very dark mindset, but my eating habits stayed negative for a long time and affected my health.

In a similar way, I am currently driven by a deep sense of dissatisfaction in my life which came up around my 41st birthday. I was in a job I hated (which, ironically, I lost within a week of starting this blog thanks to layoffs), having recently finished my Ph.D. but unable to find work in my field (still looking for work, 6 months after being laid off). I am childless, originally by choice since we delayed this for my schooling and then because it just didn't seem to happen, and every birthday reminds me of the increasing likelihood that we will never have kids. I want to write a novel but have done little to make progress on it (better but still a ways to go). I want to be organized but my house was a mess (this is improving). I had a long list of projects to accomplish but never seemed to finish any of them (also improving).

I know the dangers of change driven by an anger or hatred of one's self. It can cloud the judgment and also mask who we really are. My goal is to find out what will make me truly happy, to push myself to go for the life which will satisfy me, to improve myself but to also see myself for who I really am and find ways to make that work for me. It would be ridiculous to change myself into some other person because that person seems more successful. I'd never be happy that way. Sure, I envy some of my friends with their successes, but I'm a different person and there are different measures of success.

I'm seeking to make myself a better person--to accept who I am and make that person the best she can be, not to change myself into something I am not. It's the parts of me that don't work well, which hold me back and make me unhappy (the fear of failure which keeps me from finishing projects, the shyness which keeps me from making contacts, the depression which makes me become more disorganized) which I am trying to improve. That is where the expectations and striving come in.

The Real Me I hope to know better before I am 42 is not a different me--it's just a me who has worked past the obstacles holding her back from a happier life. Hopefully this Real Me will have figured out a way to make a living (finding a job which is more than just a paycheck--but hopefully one that pays!) and accomplish the goals she has set herself. I'm spending this year trying to get organized, accomplish goals, stretch myself a bit (with my 41 Things to Do Before I'm 42 list), and think a lot about what I want in life.

Part of what I want in life is the ability to accept who I am, including the fact that I'll be 42, childless, and maybe still unemployed--but very lucky to have a great husband, family, and potential. I can have a great life, striving to maintain the balance of self-acceptance and expectation, so that I can improve myself without hating who I am now.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Inflexible or Follower of Traditions: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

If I find a way to drive somewhere, I tend to stick with it, even if I think another way might be more efficient. My parents used to live at the end of a deadend street but years ago the street was continued and now leads out of their neighborhood to the main street, just as much as the way in and out I've always taken. Even though the new way is probably more direct, I have used the old one the same way I did when they first moved there because I'm used to it.

In the same way, I used to go to college by one route and home by another (because I believed that the traffic was best that way, found it worked the first week I started college, and never varied unless I heard there was a terrible accident along the route and I had to make emergency plans).

I have certain ways I like to do laundry or other chores. I have routines I want to follow for some activities. I find it upsetting when these ways are unsettled. It feels like there is a right way (the way I've always done it) and a wrong way (any other way).

Many of us, myself included, plan Thanksgiving dinner around what we've always done. It's tradition to have yams (or for some people it is tradition to have potatoes). Is there stuffing? Is it cooked inside the turkey? Pumpkin pie, mincemeat, or something else? People have traditions. The question is: when is it tradition and when is it being inflexible?

I think that it might be merely a matter of when the tradition becomes a problem to yourself or others. When it is a problem, then it becomes inflexibility. This can be when someone wants to change things, when a problem arises that necessitates a change, or when something isn't working but it is still followed in the old way because that "is the way it has always been done." I find some groups get like that with older members; some tasks or events are done not because anyone has a good reason for it anymore but because years ago there was a good reason and since then it has just continued, outliving its purpose or being handled in a non-efficient manner, all for the reason for tradition.

I've been trying to learn to be a bit more flexible. I think traditions are a good thing--but not if the traditions are held too rigidly and are causing problems for one or more people. Also when people get together there may be conflicting traditions, and when possible the traditions need to be a bit flexible to honor all the people involved.

I think this is particularly important during the holidays when stresses are sometimes higher and people are getting together with their families.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Little Things: How Disorganization Affects the Details Which Make a Difference

I've been rather disorganized the past few months. I was in the middle of a reorganizing session, hit a bad patch with depression (I guess that is the best way to describe it but basically I got done with an enormous project and was burned out, exhausted, and unhappy), and let things get out of hand. I'm just now getting back out from under the mess.

Here's one lesson I've learned from this disorganization--it leads to lots of small mistakes and problems which make things much worse in the long term.

In the past few weeks I've discovered that:
1. My calendar had a note on a particular evening that I had a "6:30 mtg" but no further information. I noticed this the day before the notation and spent the next 30 hours trying to figure out what meeting I was supposed to go to and never discovering it. I have no idea what thing I was supposed to do that night.

2. I put some wrong info on a flyer for one of my groups. I didn't catch an error in a telephone number until it had already gone out to many people (of course, neither did the three other people in my group who approved the flyer before it went out, but it is ultimately my responsibility). I got the info wrong because I copied it from an old flyer they gave me which had the number wrong--but I was too disorganized to bother to track down the other info they had given me to verify my facts.

3. I couldn't find some supplies when I needed them for a project, which kept me from being able to do something I wanted.

4. I misplaced a bill and didn't find it till the day it was due. I don't want to have late bills!

5. I filled out an EDD form incorrectly and now have to wait for a replacement unemployment check after I caught the error and notified them. This delays money I need to cover my bills.

These are 5 ways that being disorganized made my life more difficult. Luckily things are looking better around here. I still have some stacks of papers to go through and a few areas to clear off, but it is much better.

Each of these problems was small--no life shattering errors--but these little things all caused me problems with extra work, time wasted looking for things, and possibly affecting my credit and reputation. These are not small effects. I've heard the phrase "The Devil is in the details" and "God is in the details." Either way, disorganization often causes these details to be messed up, and then there is hell to pay.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Beware of Ides: Why Fake Deadlines Didn't Work For Me

Procrastination. It affects most of us to some extent. I know I'm not the only one who has put off important projects or had trouble completing a big project on time. I'm certainly not the only Ph.D. candidate who had trouble writing my dissertation. One friend even talked about "ironing shoelaces" as what typically happens to people writing their dissertation: they'll do any trivial and unnecessary task to get out of doing more writing on their big project.

There is also lots of advice out there for fixing procrastination. One of the techniques frequently recommended is to set personal deadlines for a project or steps within a project.

I've tried that a number of times. I tried setting deadlines for my dissertation but I was always giving myself excuses. The same thing happened with my novel. I thought I had the perfect solution--to make myself work on my novel more often, I would set a deadline every month where I had to share my progress with my husband, and he'd do the same with his writing project. Since we'd have to be able to show progress every month, I thought this would keep us from slacking off too much on our writing.

I chose the Ides (the 15th of the month, made famous as the Ides of March when Julius Caesar was killed--"Beware the Ides of March!"). It was easy to remember, had a slightly ominous sound to it (thanks to the play) and was in the middle of the month so not too close to a lot of major holidays, so it seemed perfect.

The problem is that we haven't actually kept it even once since I started this program. That's right, in the 8 months since I planned to show progress on the Ides, my husband and I have not actually shown each other any writing.

The reason? Personal deadlines like this are fake. There is no bite behind their bark. I know there are no consequences for waiting a few days (which then turns into weeks). There is nobody holding me responsible for missing the deadline. I'm used to feeling guilty over not getting something done so this doesn't add enough guilt to make a difference.

During my dissertation, the only reason I finished was that my Chair announced that I was taking too long and set me a series of deadlines. If I missed even one deadline, she said, I would be asked to leave the program. Needless to say, I worked day and night to make each deadline (sometimes barely getting the chapter in to her on time, but never, ever missing the deadline). Those deadlines were serious deadlines and I didn't think about cheating.

I don't have the same pressure on me for any deadline I set myself. My husband would never hold me to a deadline in the same serious way and I know it. The pressure isn't coming from outside and is too easy to push off.

I suspect that this idea of setting personal deadlines only works for a small percentage of the people who have problems with procrastination. For some, it works because they don't have that serious of a problem with procrastination and the little extra personal competition (feeling like you should try to beat a deadline you set) or the discipline necessary to hold to a deadline was already there. Others may have a family member or friend who will hold them to a personal deadline with the same rigidity that my dissertation Chair did with me.

Unless one of these is true, a fake deadline may not work to stop procrastination. I'm still finding the perfect tools to help with my problems. People ar different in the ways they procrastinate, so the tools which are available need to be adapted a bit for the person having the problem. I seem to respond to hard deadlines, clear to do lists, strong motivation (reminding myself why I want to do something), appointments with myself, and timers. Sometimes these things work better than others.

I'm just coming out of one of my procrastination periods where I had a harder time getting things done. Things go in cycles – with my ability to get things done improving and then getting worse again. I'm now in the upswing so it is time to get caught up. Maybe I'll eventually figure out a way to keep me from crashing down into the nonproductive time periods, but I don't think it will have anything to do with the Ides of the month.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Accomplishing a Lot – but Never Enough?

Have you ever felt like you got a lot done but still felt like you should have done better because you have so much you still need to do? I've been feeling that way a lot lately. I have been working hard on an event and getting caught up on a number of projects. I've gotten a lot done. Still, I look around at all that still needs to be done and I'm not satisfied.

I'm sure this is a common problem. It seems that many of us find it difficult to be happy with our accomplishments. There is always a way we could have been better, tried harder, done more, or whatever it is that comes to our mind. Sometimes it is true, but even if it is, we often gloss over our accomplishments to focus on what could have been.

This may be the bias our mind has for remembering the negative. There are studies that show that people tend to remember the negative more. If you give someone 5 compliments and one criticism, the criticism is the one that will stick in the mind more. In the same way, bad experiences can linger, overwhelming good ones. I know that one trip I took with my husband is like this. Although I know I had a lot of good times, there were some rough patches (our airline caused a lot of hassle and stress and my husband didn't handle it very well, which stressed me). When looking back though, I mostly remember the overall negative feeling about that vacation, which is a shame because I'd been looking forward to that trip for 10 years.

In the same way, I have been feeling like I'm not getting anything done--while accomplishing lots of stuff. While it is important for people to see that there are still things to be done (and ways to improve), it shouldn't be done at the expense of recognizing the victories as well. We need to be careful that the negative doesn't begin to overshadow our perceptions and make things seem worse than they are.

For that reason, I'm trying to pay attention to all the things I do right this week--the goals I accomplish, the projects I finish, the progress I make. I can acknowledge all the things that still need to be done or the ways I could be better, but I am working on also celebrating all that is right too.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Holidays, Remembrances, Celebrations, and Traditions

Thursday was Veterans' Day here in the U.S. and Remembrance Day (or Armistice Day) elsewhere.

There were ceremonies, parades, parachuters, flags, and patriotic Facebook posts. Some people visited graves of veterans or helped the living vets with visits to VA hospitals or other groups.

Like so many holidays, I wish we could all be like this year-round. When Valentine's Day comes, we are reminded to make sure our loved ones know our feelings. When Thanksgiving comes later this month, we will be told to show our thankfulness for what we have. When Memorial Day comes around, we honor our dead.

These are all good things, but do we, as a society, need one day a year to be reminded to do these things? Why does it feel like so many people only do these things once a year, and not all year long? Why are the charities overwhelmed with gifts, toys, and money in December but lacking in help the rest of the year?

I think these holidays are good things. I see nothing wrong with all of us taking the time to be part of a larger celebration; I just wish that it seemed like more of these good deeds and thoughts were going around on the non-holidays.

It shouldn't take a holiday designed by Hallmark to treat your loved one to a good night out and a reminder that you love her. Do we only love our parents on the respective holiday assigned them? Do you celebrate Grandparent's day--yes, there is one--or do you try to express your love for your grandma all year?

When a holiday takes hold, people feel good about participating and then excuse themselves from doing similar actions later. That's a problem. Our society needs to encourage these actions all year round and reward it--not just on an annual basis.

As we near the end of the year and more holidays come upon us, ask yourself, isn't this something we should do more often than just once a year? Would our society be better off if we didn't wait for the one holiday but gave to charity or expressed our feelings or volunteered our time, or whatever it is which you do on these holidays, more often? If the answer is yes, do it more often. Don't wait.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Green and Pink Labelling: Making Us Feel Good But Little Else?

I've been reading a lot lately about "greenwashing" and the pink labels for the Breast cancer awareness campaigns.

For instance, did you know that there are now Carbon Footprint labels in Australia and the UK--and spreading across the globe--to tell you about the environmental impact of manufacturing and distributing the product? I'm sure you are aware of the growing range of products you can buy which are pink, carry pink ribbons, or otherwise are supposed to help raise money or awareness for breast cancer research. It's been everywhere lately.

First, let me say, I'm all for finding a cure for cancer--of the breasts or otherwise--but I'm sick and tired of the pink and the cutesy sayings ("Save Second Base!" "Boobies!"). I'm also less than fond of the idea of raising "awareness" for something that people are already aware of--can you imagine someone actually saying, "you mean, people can get cancer in their boobs? impossible!"

I want to raise money to find a cure--not to raise awareness. Too often the organizations behind these campaigns spend way too much money on marketing and administration and too little money on the research for the cure. That doesn't do anyone any good except the people in the organization who get paid for it.

Then there is the fact that we need to make people aware that heart attacks are a far more serious threat for most women than breast cancer--and is getting far too little money and research. And there are plenty of other illnesses which take people's lives which need the attention and research too. I think that the Breast Cancer people have been a bit too successful--making other causes suffer because people feel good donating to this cause--or worse, they feel good buying the yogurt and don't feel like they need to do more, even though buying the yogurt does little for anyone but the yogurt company.

I worry about this pinkwashing, and also the greenwashing, that is starting up in stores. I think it is great that we can find out more info about products--like whether they are local, organic (although let's get a bit more exact in our definitions, please), and environmentally sound. No reason why we can't get more info to make an informed decision. However, I worry about two things: how much we can trust these labels and will people simply feel like they are doing a good thing--while having little to no impact?

There are studies that show that we will sometimes do something "bad" after we've done something else "good" because we think the one excuses the other. Someone may not pick up their litter, excusing themselves as generally environmentally conscious--after all, didn't they buy that "green product" the other day. People may not give money to cancer research because they did their part--in buying yogurt, pink-themed products, and "Boobies" bracelets. That doesn't seem like the outcome we would want.

I think we need to examine products with Eco-Labeling or pink ribbon status and see what good it really does for the cause we care about. If we really want our products to be green, trusting the label isn't enough. We have to really examine the label's claims and who is claiming it--and know our definitions. If we want to raise money to fight cancer, we need to see how much of our money actually goes to the cause, how much to the product's manufacturer, and how much the cancer organization actually does to help fight cancer and how much it does for "awareness."

We can't get so lazy that the labeling companies do all the work for us. Then we are simply consumers driven by marketing, and not people making a difference. I'd rather make a difference!

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Love of Animals and the Pain of Loss

Today I was reading a story about a dog who, long after its owner had died, was still waiting for the car to come home at its normal time. I think we've all heard of Greyfriar's Bobby (I've visited the statue in Edinburgh and the replica of it in San Diego) who waited at his owner's grave for years. Animals are amazing in their capacity to give love.

I have two cats, whom I love very much. One of them is dying. Last January I was told she had between 3 months to 2 years, but probably closer to the lower side of that estimate. Obviously, she has made it 10 months now, which we are grateful for, even though it means daily medication. Although she has cancer, you'd never know it by looking at her. She has been active, happy, and affectionate. She is not suffering in any way, although she really dislikes getting her medicine so that is a bit of a trial every night. Otherwise, everything is normal with her.

It saddens me when I think about losing her. Right now she is sitting next to me as I write this, curled up in a little orange and black ball. I also don't think our other cat will handle being alone very well, something that worries me. Our ill girl is the more self-sufficient one while the boy is the needy and neurotic cat, more likely to miss her than for her to miss him.

It isn't fair that we will have to lose her, probably within the next year. Then again, life isn't fair. Cancer certainly isn't. It takes many people and animals, including the young and the otherwise strong.

I can only give my cat the best care possible, lots of attention and love, and enjoy what time I have with her. That was true before I knew she was dying, just as it remains true today. In turn, she continues to give me the love and affection she has given us since we brought her home from the shelter.

Every time we've lost a beloved pet, it has been hard. I have several cats and dogs from my childhood whom I still miss. So does my husband. Sometimes I wonder if we shouldn't have pets because it is so hard to lose them. However, when we've had no pet in our home, we've found our lives so empty and lonely that we had to go to the shelter and adopt. That's how we ended up with these two furry companions. Our previous cat had died, suddenly, and we had no pet for almost four months because we were so devastated by his death. Finally, though, we decided to get some cats. The day after we brought them home, I realized we had waited too long. We had been miserable without a cat in the house.

Pets bring so much to our lives, and ask for so little in return. I'm glad we have these cats in our lives. Although I will be heartbroken when we lose them, I can't say I wish I never had them. The world would be a darker place without their love.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Long Slog: Sticking With It Can Be Hard

I'm on my fifth day of NaNoWriMo and I'm already finding it hard to keep up with my word count. Like many projects, I went into it with enthusiasm and hope, certain this time would be easier. Then reality slips in when my back was turned and I see how much work I will have to put into my project, day in and day out, to succeed. That's when the real work begins.

It can be hard to do a project when things seem overwhelming. Despite being unemployed, I have enough volunteer work commitments that I already write a great deal every day. Then there is my internet addiction. Between the two I spend 16 hours at the computer already. Now add the novel I've been wanting to write for several years but somehow never got very far. NaNoWriMo is supposed to help me stay motivated, and so far I'm not that far off track (mostly because I worked ahead the first two days when I was still in that first flush of excitement).

I just worry that this will become like so much else--one of those things which I leave half finished or delayed because I became overwhelmed. Writing isn't that hard; it's writing every day and sticking to it that is hard.

Like so many projects, just DOING it is half the battle.

Here's what I propose to get past the problem:
1. I will work ahead in my count whenever I get the motivation so that on tough days when I don't get as much writing done, I won't be as far behind and get discouraged.
2. I will write everyday, at least somewhat, no matter what.
3. I will set up reminders to myself.
4. I will read inspirational pieces, but not spend too much time on reading when I should be writing.
5. I will remind myself about my goals and what I will gain from finishing this first draft of my novel.

I hope this will help. When projects pass that first flush of motivation and start showing the difficulty or complexity of the project, it can be hard to stick to it. I just need to remind myself that I am in it for the long haul. After all, this is my life and something I wanted to do. I should stick with it.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ranting, Venting, and Progress

When my husband gets on a rant about politics, I get very frustrated. First, while we have a lot in common, we belong to different political parties (something he finds difficult to accept). Second, I don't see the point in covering this ground with me (his only audience). I don't plan on changing my mind about these issues, I've heard the rants before, and he knows it makes me angry. It seems pointless.

Then again, I understand the need to vent frustration. I'm just not sure where the line is drawn between venting frustration and ranting for no reason. It is hard to tell the difference.

The question is--does either venting or ranting lead to any real progress? Does it do anyone any good?

I'm not sure it does. He argues that he shouldn't have to censor himself, that it is unfair of me to ask him to stop doing this. I argue that it is unfair to me to have to listen to these all the time when it doesn't do any good to anyone. The only purpose is to allow him to vent--but I'm not sure venting actually helps. In fact, it seems to build rage rather than release it. This is especially true since if the rant goes on long enough, I will probably say something which will make it worse. It is hard not to when subjected to this diatribe.

There have been studies about happiness that says that writing about or talking about negative feelings only reinforces the unhappiness--rather than releasing it or making someone feel better. I often wonder if this is true in the case of frustration and anger over politics.

This is a nasty cycle that comes up which we haven't yet learned to escape. He is hurt that I want him to change something which he feels is a major part of him. I feel that he doesn't respect my feelings if he can't stop bringing it up, almost like he hopes that I'll change my mind. Worse, even on issues we agree about, he'll rant about the topic when he hears news relating to it. I already agree; I don't need to hear all the reasons why it is a good idea and should be put in place by the politicians.

I don't like conflict, at all. I commonly burst into tears over any raising of voices or disagreements. This has been a truth in my life since childhood. Naturally, this means that these politic harangues are some of the low points in my life.

I don't think these rants help anyone. If he wants to make progress, he'd need to take action--to write someone who can actually cause change or join a campaign or write a political blog. All they do is make me unhappy and, if the study I read was true, increase his unhappiness. That sounds like a lose/lose situation to me.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Planner or Panster? Thinking Ahead

In the lead up to NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month--which starts today--Nov 1), I've been reading some tips on writing. One term that seems to be gaining popularity is to ask if you are a "planner" or a "panster." A planner is, obviously, one who plans her writing in advance. A panster is one who flies by the seat of her pants and does not plan ahead.

If you can't tell from reading my blog for all of these months, I'm a planner. In fact, I'm more of a planner than a doer, which is why I'm trying to change myself this year (thinking that this is the major thing holding me back from the life I want).

I've never been a "panster" or very spontaneous. I've envied people that ability to just go off and do things without planning. I have a friend who bought a house in early 2008, moving halfway across the country. 1.5 years later, he is selling that house to buy a different place 10 minutes from his first place. Why? Because he likes it better. I can't imagine just walking past a place for sale and deciding to chuck in all the plans for a place you just bought to buy a new home. It was so sudden and spontaneous. I've never been like that.

I have literally had to plan spontaneity into our lives. I'll be like, "next Saturday let's be spontaneous and go out to the park and see what we find." "Planned spontaneity" has become the phrase for let's go out and do something fun without too much prep or planning.

It's not like other people's spontaneity where they simply wake up one day and say "Let's go to the park now." In fact, when my husband has suddenly announced, "Let's go to the movies today" I've often resented it. I had plans for today. I had a list of things to do. Couldn't we plan to do the movie tomorrow so that I have time to adjust my thinking and figure out what I'll do before and after the movie? I know that I should be able to just roll with it and see these unplanned spontaneous moments as fun but I find them stressful instead.

In the same way, I plan my writing. In fact I have several stories in the planning stages. The problem is that, like my life, the stories continue to be in the future, not the present. I PLAN to write a novel, but am I ACTUALLY WRITING a novel? Not really.

That's why I decided to join in on NaNoWriMo. That's also why I decided to start this quest for my identity and life before my 42nd birthday. My planning hasn't gotten me to where I want to go. This either means that I don't really know where I want to go (a possibility) or that planning alone isn't enough. I need to figure out how to put the plans into action. Writing my novel is just one step to putting my plans into action.

Friday, October 29, 2010

October update: 7 months into my plan

Yesterday was the 7 month anniversary of this blog. Much like last month's report, I'm not very happy with my progress.

For awhile things were going well. I was organizing myself, I had changed to a three day a week blogging schedule and stuck to it, and I was feeling okay about my progress (although I was unemployed and uncertain about my future).

Then things got harder. Progress was first delayed by the enormous amount of time I put into a project and then completely derailed after the exhaustion and burnout I felt after completing that event. Since then I've been a well-meaning but mostly stuck in inertia person. I plan that "today will be the day" but then I pick up my computer and the next thing I know it is dinner and the house is a mess, the projects aren't started, and I have no idea how I managed to spend so much time on trivial things. I'm disorganized and depressed and I'm not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg.

This probably is natural for any project. There is the initial enthusiasm which then is faced with the reality of trying to do a lot in a little time. The burnout from overdoing it then creates a backlash which must be worked through and then the person climbs out of the low point and heads to victory. That, at least, how I imagine it will be. The question is how to climb to victory from this low point I've created.

I reached a plateau where I no longer see a clear path. The first stuff to do was easy, which is why I did it first. The habits I am trying to change now are the ingrained stuff that holds me back from being what I want to be.

I'm going to count my victories here and see if this can help me feel more motivated:

1. Started a blog and kept to it
2. Started a list of 41 Things to Do and did a bunch of things on it (although not nearly enough if I am going to finish them all before the end of March)
3. Began a major organizing project in my house (although this has fallen apart somewhat lately)
4. Did a major event which took all my attention 24/7 for 3 months and got national attention
5. Became more adept at marketing and networking--this is a major victory for a chronically shy person because I now can speak to total strangers and interact with them comfortably while speaking authoritatively and enthusiastically about a subject (I feel better about this in the last year as I've done more of it lately)
6. I've applied to many jobs which were interesting and challenging (and perhaps a bit out of my league, but I was brave and tried. True, I'm still unemployed but I am working on that)

The challenges ahead:

1. Getting myself back on track for getting organized
2. Write my novel
3. Find a job (preferably one which I am passionate about)
4. Get control of all those half-finished projects sitting around and those "I'd like to...." and "I really should...." plans

We'll see where I am at the end of November. I will start on Monday to start fresh and see if I can get beyond the planning to do stage and to the actually doing it stage.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sign of the Economy

Yesterday I got a response from one of my many job applications. Good, right? Well, sort of.

On Craigslist they didn't identify the company or anything about what they do, but the job position and duties were right up my alley. Since most applications I send are completely ignored anyways, I decided to go for it. I applied and expected that "that was that," as it were.

Instead, the next morning, I get an email which asked if I do freelance work and my rate. The email indicated that the person had received my resume through my application on a Craigslist post and in the footer it gave the company name.

The company is one of those business lead generation places, apparently. I'm sure there is nothing wrong with this sort of thing, but I'm a bit wary of certain kinds of businesses after recent experiences.

You see, I'm applying for marketing positions, mostly, and I've had a few people contact me that turned out to be less than legit. The companies most likely to do this sort of thing: call centers, coupon door to door salesmen, and "lead generation" companies. They will advertise for a marketing or publicity person, giving a great job description which sounds interesting and legitimate. Once they get your resume, however, things will change.

In one case, I was told that I would interview (all day) for the company, partly by being taken on a tour and shadowing an employee. Before I agreed to it, I did some Googling on the name of the company listed at the bottom of this response. I found that a bunch of people were complaining that the job wasn't what was advertised--that they did this and then made you go around with a coupon salesman all day (refusing to let you leave) and basically holding you hostage for a day in order to get you to take a job which was far different than the one they advertised. I turned them down for their day-long interview.

Since then I had tried to apply only to businesses that identified themselves in the ad and which I could research beforehand. However, I let myself slip on this one and here I was with another potential problem.

I emailed back with caution, asking for more info. A few minutes later the phone rang. This was also a warning sign to me, since that is how the coupon person had worked too. I answered and the person wanted to talk to me about the position.

We talked for awhile and she seemed pleasant. The job was temporary and part-time (neither of which was clear from the ad) and wasn't really what I wanted, but when she said she'd like to interview me the next day, I decided that in this economy, I really couldn't afford to be picky and interviewing wouldn't do any real harm. I said yes.

This morning I receive an email canceling the interview because they've decided they can't actually afford to hire anyone after all.

I don't know whether to be pleased and relieved or disappointed.

This experience reminded me that the economy is not yet recovered. Three signs: the number of job ads which are really opportunists taking advantage of people's desperation, the fact that I was willing to apply and interview with a less than optimal position because I can't find work, and the number of jobs I've seen where people have posted jobs but then funding didn't come through (my husband has seen two of these positions, a friend recently had a company which wanted to hire her but waited 8 months after the interview because of funding problems--all the while, she was unemployed).

I can only hope that the experts are right and things will be turning around soon.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Scares and Thrills: Not Just for Halloween

This started off as a scary week, but not because of the Halloween decorations going up. My mom ended up in the hospital. She's a baby boomer and, therefore, not that old. Both my mom and dad should have many years ahead of them since they had me fairly young. However, it is scares like this that remind you that life is never certain.

They are still running tests but so far they can't identify what is wrong with her. Hopefully that means that she will be okay but it is frightening when the doctors can't figure out what is going on with you. I've been there before for lesser things and it is a very frustrating place to be--waiting for a diagnosis.

As we approach Halloween, with its constant reminders of death and decay and humankind's fear of the unknown (including the unknown of what happens after death), this is a good time to remember that life is brief. We need to make the most of it. That includes telling your loved ones what they mean to you. You don't know when an innocent trip to a mall can end in an ambulance ride to the hospital.

Heart attacks and other illnesses can sometimes strike fast and without warning. We need to tell our loved ones NOW what they mean to us--and spend time with them while we have them. There is no telling when any of us will come to the end of our lives.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Importance of the Arts

I was reading recently about the move to encourage Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math in schools. I am thrilled by this idea because I think that too often this has been ignored in recent years. However, I worry about the lack of Arts in that equation (STEM rather than STEAM). Perhaps this is because of a bias on my part; after all, I have a Ph.D. in literature, took drama in high school, and support the arts. I believe that the arts are an important part of our education.

When I mentioned this to my husband, once a science major, he jokingly responded, "Ah, yes, the 'Do you want fries with that?' major."

I think that is the problem. Those of us who study the arts, whether that be drama, literature, music, painting, dance, or some other form, are viewed as unready for the workforce, dooming ourselves to low paying jobs and failure.

1. This is, for the most part, untrue. There are plenty of careers in the arts, although many are not very highly paid, and education in the arts does not stop a person from working in other fields. I have worked as a graphic designer, for instance, and in web design. Neither of these were part of my schooling but are skills I picked up over time. Also, many businesses want people who can think and write well--things which a degree in English or one of the other Liberal Arts can bring you.

2. This world would be a much sadder place without the arts. We need people to continue to pursue theatre, music, and the arts because our culture would be dead without these things.

3. The study of the arts is partly about self-expression, something that is very important for human growth, and therefore very good for kids in schools. I also found that drama class was one of the places where I was safe in school. Drama (and, I am told, Band) was a place for those of us who were geeky, shy, or otherwise "different" to hang out and grow up. I learned a lot from my time in drama--including how to become less shy (so much so that I now do a lot of publicity/public relations-type work for my nonprofit volunteer groups--"schmoozing" with people at receptions, talking to the press, etc.--something I could never had done with drama).

Much like steam is what makes a locomotive go, so STEAM can be good for our kids and our society--moving us forward through an emphasis on both science and the arts. I think that, hand in hand, these things will help our kids grow intellectually and emotionally and be prepared for the workplace. The Arts are not about preparing kids for a job of "do you want fries with that" but in exploring human potential--and they can prepare kids not just for jobs in the arts but for many things in life.

Besides, I don't know why everything has to be judged in terms of job preparation and future salaries. Sometimes we need to think about expression, culture, passion, and drive--things that don't always translate to money but which are needed in our society--and much as math and science careers are.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Rainy Day Emergencies

In Southern California yesterday, we had a lot of rain (for us, at least). It came down relatively hard for a time and kept up with sprinkling all day.

A couple of things occurred because of this:

1. My back patio roof leaked. I am not surprised by this because it has been doing this for the entire 11 years we have been here but we've not been able to afford to replace the screened-in patio roof. It is getting worse, however. The main problem was I had stored some items out there (temporarily, I thought, but it has been a month at least) and they were getting wet and had to be rescued and taken back into the garage.

2. We canceled a planned trip, partly because it is unpleasant to drive to the L.A. area in the rain.

3. I thought about how we are often unprepared for things like this happening, even though we know it is coming, eventually.

For instance, how many of you have an emergency umbrella and coat in your car? I used to, but it migrated out of the car at some point.

I do have a large emergency kit (with food, water, first aid, etc.) in the car because my husband made us two (one for each car--in those large buckets with lids that cat litter used to be in, making it less likely to be interesting to thieves who just think we are hauling cat litter around with us). I also have several cloth shopping bags (grocery style plus ones for normal stores).

It is not like we don't know it is going to rain. We do. I knew that the patio was a poor choice for long-term storage but I set those things out there because I told myself that it was just for a few days and it doesn't rain here that often.

In the same way, we often don't prepare for emergencies because they don't seem that urgent (until they are upon us).

I spent some of my rainy day yesterday thinking about how to better prepare myself for the unexpected (rain, earthquake, or whatever). I recommend that others do the same. We just never know when the rain will come in our lives (literally as well as figuratively) and it is better to be prepared.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Preparing for NaNoWriMo: Writing My First Novel (again/still)

If you have never heard of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, don't be surprised if you hear a lot about it starting in a few weeks. November is NaNoWriMo and I will be participating in it again this year, and I'm not the only one.

Every year this online event gets larger and more people hear about it. The idea is to write 50,000 words between the first day of November and the last day of the month. It doesn't have to be a great draft, or even a finished one, but it does need to meet or exceed the word count. There are no prizes, other than a great feeling and a certificate and web page badge, but you will have 50,000+ words of your novel written in a first draft, which is nothing to sneeze at, if you ask me.

I have participated several times. The first two times were during my dissertation writing phase and while I thought I could do my dissertation and my novel, I gave up on NaNoWriMo within the first two weeks or so. The third time I was going to finish but ended up uploading some nonfiction I had been writing that month (effectively "winning" the contest but not with a novel--so it was sort of a cheat).

This time I've decided to try again, with the novel that I was supposed to be writing ever since I lost my job at the end of March. I have an outline and a rough draft of the first chapter, but I will need to start fresh and try again starting November 1.

Here is my plan (and you might want to consider something like this if you decide to join the fun and write your own novel):

1. I'm going to use the next two weeks to review my character descriptions and outlines to reflect some changes I have been considering to the plot, structure, and characters. If you are starting from scratch, this is a great time to make some decisions about what sort of novel you want to write and make some notes or outlines about your plans.

2. I'm going to get some work for other projects done ahead of time (some publicity work for one of my volunteer groups which has an event in mid-November, for instance, could be prepared early, which will be good for the group and good for my ability to work on my novel).

3. I plan to set aside specific writing times where I am not allowed to look at online forums, blogs, or web comics. I am completely addicted to the internet and it is a problem.

4. I've been reading several books in the last few weeks. I will read a few more before the end of October, and think about how these books structure their plot and introduce new characters. I will also look at passages where I like the dialogue and see if I can figure out what works for these authors. I hope this will improve my own writing.

5. I will not only update my word count on the NaNoWriMo site but I'll keep an Excel spreadsheet which I had downloaded last year which allows me to track my progress and whether I am meeting my writing goals for the day.

I am hoping that this year I will be able to "win" legitimately, for the novel I planned to write when I started the month.

Are you planning on joining in on the fun? What techniques do you plan on using? Have you "won" in previous NaNoWriMo years? What helped you do so (or got in the way)? Let me know in the comments, if you are out there.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Procrastination, Self-Direction, and Identity

Yesterday I read an interesting article about procrastination which argues that we can learn a lot about people and identity by studying procrastination.

It was well written and researched, but, more importantly to me, it also struck home with me. This is probably because procrastination is the one thing which has probably caused the most problems in my life.

Procrastination may be a "basic human impulse" but it is also a terrible strain on our lives. As the article puts it, "The essence of procrastination lies in not doing what you think you should be doing, a mental contortion that surely accounts for the great psychic toll the habit takes on people."

It is true that I often procrastinate, even knowing that it won't make me happy, either in the future or even while I am doing it. I may be relaxing and enjoying that new book I wanted to read (rather than the work I need to be doing) but I won't enjoy the book as much than if I had done the work and then read the book guilt-free.

Strangely, I did disagree with two points made in the article (both on page 2). In one, the author points to a study that he says explains why in our Netflix queue we have a lot of great classics but in the short-term we are watching light comedies. He says it is because of “hyperbolic discounting," where the person's short-term considerations overwhelm their long-term goals (the light, fluffy movie presumably fulfilling the short-term goal of entertainment over the long-term goal of thinking it would be good to see the critically acclaimed but more difficult drama). I think this Netflix study, however, is tainted by the fact that people want to impress the questioner. People will tend to overreport their desire to watch "good" films (those they believe will impress others) in order to excuse their poor taste in watching the lower brow film now. This has little to do with time management and more to do with the desire to show off.

The second point which did not resonate as much with me was that procrastination was caused by “the planning fallacy.” This is where people underestimate how long a project will take so they think they have time to waste before starting. In fact, it is usually the opposite problem for me. I will be faced with a task (not terribly hard) but I will think it will take a long time and put it off ("I don't have time to deal with that now...."). I may keep delaying this important but dreaded task for quite awhile until I absolutely have to get started. Then I'll be surprised that the whole thing took less than a half hour. I could have done it when I first knew the task was on my plate and saved myself a great deal of stress and avoidance. I seldom believe things will take less time than they will (except perhaps on really big projects, like my novel, where I keep telling myself that I will be done in no time--but then I never get started and the next thing I know it is two years later and I am no further along).

Both of these reasons for procrastination end up being less compelling and persuasive than the other reasons shown (indeed, even to the author who believes that the planning fallacy relies too much on ignorance and not as much on "complex mixture of weakness, ambition, and inner conflict" which are better explanations for the problem).

Here is where the article really hit home for me:

Lack of confidence, sometimes alternating with unrealistic dreams of heroic success, often leads to procrastination, and many studies suggest that procrastinators are self-handicappers: rather than risk failure, they prefer to create conditions that make success impossible, a reflex that of course creates a vicious cycle. McClellan was also given to excessive planning, as if only the ideal battle plan were worth acting on. Procrastinators often succumb to this sort of perfectionism.

I have dreams of heroic success many times, but am well known to lack confidence in myself. I fear failure greatly and know that sometimes (with my dissertation, especially) I used procrastination as an excuse--"It was okay, but would have been better written if I had more time." I also love planning, something that has become increasingly clear to me as I write this blog. I will plan my attack on my problems but sometimes, like the past few weeks, I'll be all talk and no action. The planning alone seems to give me enough mental relief to allow me to put off the actual work I planned.

The article goes on to discuss a few solutions/ways of viewing the problem:

Divided self: if you see yourself as not a unified person but with an interior like a republic where each side of you fights for different goals, you can label one part of you the procrastinator (who wants immediate pleasure) who is debating with the part of you who wants the larger goal. Then you simply allow a negotiation to take place where both feel they win (usually by convincing the procrastinating part of you that you will enjoy the fun part more if you do the larger goal first). This sounds good, but I haven't had much luck with the idea.

Extended will: This refers to tools which force you to do things: like setting deadlines or having a program which cuts off your internet access to allow you to focus. Deadlines were the only thing that made me finally finish my dissertation, but I've learned that unless they are truly hard deadlines with real consequences, they don't help me. I tried setting deadlines with my husband but since I know there are no real consequences if I go to him and say that I don't have a chapter ready to show him, I never have a chapter ready by my deadline.

Reframing: This is something which has helped some and I want to do more. From GTD, we learn that many times we put off projects just because they seem big or vague (because we don't know what to do next). David Allen urges us to break the project down to smaller steps and concentrate on the Next Step instead of the larger picture. In the same way, narrowing our choices can sometimes make it easier to decide.

The article points out, interestingly, that all of these are a "voluntary abnegation of freedom" and I suppose that is true. Then again, much of our lives are giving up of freedom. We go to work or do things for others, giving up our freedom to do something else or do as we want all day, in order to get something (paycheck, gratitude from others, fame, etc.-- whatever it is we want). Freedom is only truly freedom when sandwiched between times when we are less free. None of us are truly free all of the time--there are always commitments to others or tasks we need to do but may not enjoy. The question is whether we can learn to give up our freedom effectively so we can do those tasks with less hassle and leave us more guilt-free time to do more enjoyable tasks and relaxation.

Can we learn to stop procrastinating as much and free our lives from its great burden? I certainly hope so. In many ways, this question defines my project for the year.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Just One Change Can Make a Difference

Sometimes making small changes can make a big difference for the world.

Last year I told my husband that although I was happy that we recycled paper (with a container in our kitchen to gather newspapers and other paper products to take out to our blue can), and we gathered glass and aluminum cans on the patio (to take to a recycling place for cash), I felt like we should do more.

We decided to add more things to recycling, particularly food cans (for cat food and our own food). These now go in the blue can to take out to the curb.

It's amazing the difference this has made to the amount of trash which goes out to the normal trash can. I didn't feel like we used that many cans, but apparently they add up. Now, however, they add up for recycling and not the landfill.

It was a small step which took only a little more effort on our part (rinsing the cans and putting them in the right container). That little extra effort, however, is making a difference in the world, I believe.

Each of us could take a small step today to improve things in the world. I started carrying shopping bags to the store early this year. I am sure I could do more, but each small step helps improve what I am doing.

In the same way, I've decided that in my own projects I may have tried to do too much all at once. With my recycling habits, I added one habit at a time and it was successful. I'm trying to step back on my other projects and see if adding one habit at a time will work for them as well.

My recycling and shopping bag habits have shown that just one small change at a time can make a big difference. I'm trying to apply that to the rest of my life now.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fall Back: Not Just a Reminder for Clocks

We are starting Autumn (otherwise known as Fall) and the weather will soon be cooling down (if it hasn't already). We will also soon reach the day for Daylight Savings Time where we'll be advised to "Fall Back" (a reminder to set the clocks back one hour). We'll also be advised that this is a good time to check our fire alarms and generally prepare the house for the coming winter.

I like Fall, and think these reminders are all good ideas. However, I also think that "Fall Back" can be a useful year-round reminder that sometimes when things aren't working, it is better to do a strategic retreat and regroup rather than forge ahead doing the same old thing and not succeeding.

In this way, I stopped job applications for a week, reviewed my resume and completely rewrote it, rewrote my cover letter paragraphs (personalized for each job but taken from a larger template depending on the job), and generally regrouped my energies since I was getting no where on the job market.

I got one interview (the first in 4 months) after this "Fall Back" (although I found out today I didn't get the position).

I've spent a lot of time recently complaining that I've not gotten as far as expected in my organizing and writing novel projects; in fact, that things were still disorganized and unhappy in many ways. I've decided to "Fall Back" and reevaluate what I've been doing and the techniques I've been using. Since I've not be succeeding, it seemed better to take a step back and reevaluate rather than just hope that things will improve.

Retreat doesn't not always mean surrender or defeat. Sometimes it is just a chance to regroup, rearm and rest--before tackling the battlements again.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Avoidance: Another Sign That You Need Organization

I can always tell when I am in trouble. My email inbox is full. My computer desktop is filled with files. My laundry is stacked up. This will mean that I am also behind on many tasks, not organizing my bills, and avoiding work tasks. I am probably spending too much time reading things on the computer or gone on a fiction reading binge.

I've done it many times before. These are all symptoms of a larger problem--but they also are part of a vicious cycle that makes me feel even worse.

Today I've got to face it. I'm feeling stressed and overwhelmed again.

The worse sign for me is avoidance. I used to do this all the time during my dissertation writing time. I know I have work to do and will even make a to do list, but then sit there doing "one more thing" for the rest of the day. This can go on for days, if I let myself, with each day the guilt piling on even higher, which, of course, makes me want to avoid the task even more.

The most frustrating thing is that sometimes the task I am avoiding ends up only taking 10 minutes. It doesn't have to be a hard task or a long one for it to build up like this. It just has to be something I am dreading--for one reason or another.

Sometimes I dread things because I really don't have a clear sense of the steps to take. Sometimes it is a task I simply do not like to do. Other times it is just something that seems large or difficult or which I worry about failing in some way.

Whatever causes the hesitation, I struggle with getting started and then with following through.

This is exactly the problem I dislike in myself the most and which I set out to find a way to fix (as much as possible) for this self-improvement project.

While I've become better at being self aware and knowing I have a problem, I have not yet truly solved it.

In other words, I've gotten better at reporting the problem exists but not in moving forward and actually doing the things I want without delay. Annoying, but true.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Productivity and "Self-Help": Admiral Ackbar and Merlin Mann say it's a trap

If you have been reading productivity, personal finance, and self-help blogs for long enough, you know there used to be a very active and cool site called 43folders, where people like myself used to go for tips on GTD (Getting Things Done) and Productivity Pron (cool aps, neat tips, etc.). It was/is run by a guy called Merlin Mann who awhile back changed everything about that blog. Instead of frequent updates it meant to occasional rants; these rants became increasingly about giving up exactly what the blog used to be all about--reading about productivity.

The latest rant is a bit hard to follow at times (and has language which may offend some readers) but it ends with an intriguing image of a recent tweet Merlin wrote: "Joining a Facebook group about creative productivity is like buying a chair about jogging."

This (and some of the other bits of the rant) struck home to me. You'll know from reading my blog that I have questioned the wisdom of getting too caught up in changing my system and making to do lists, charting my progress, etc. I've been guilty of letting the self-help get in the way of the very work I'm supposed to be doing. I've also been guilty of enjoying my RSS feed too much, even to the detriment of the novel I am supposed to be writing.

I know I am not the only one out there with this problem. I also know that the simple "just do it" statements of people like Mann don't actually motivate very well. Sure, I find myself nodding and feeling like "yes, I should turn myself around" but really I feel this way after many a "self-help" article about productivity and motivation.

There is no easy answer for this trap. Each person will find her way out of it (or not) based on the goals that drive her. I know that my journey for this year has been all about me seeking my path to being able to get work done consistently and to find work which makes me want to keep doing it.

I don't have the answers, and neither does Mann (for me at least), but we both know that reading more self-help blogs doesn't get me there. As Admiral Ackbar (and Mann) would say "It's a trap!"

Monday, October 4, 2010

TVs in Restaurants: Another Little Thing Which Annoys Me

Today my husband and I went out to lunch. We are reducing the number of times we go out, since we are both unemployed, but it is nice to go out for a meal out occasionally, even if to a casual place for a quick bite.

The problem is, too many places plaster themselves with televisions. Even nice places may have one or more TVs visible in their dining room. They all seem to have them in their bars and too often these are also very visible from the dining rooms.

Casual places are even more likely to have TVs on every wall. These TVs are often on sports channels, although some places do news channels as well.

I have nothing against television. I watch lots of it, too much really. When at home, we eat all of our meals in the living room (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and almost all dinners are in front of the television.

Doing this at home is one thing but when I got out to eat, I don't want these distractions nor to be forced to watch something I don't like (my husband and I don't watch sports).

We used to go to Pizzeria Unos but then they added TVs throughout and I stopped. There are several other restaurants where I've chosen to stop going because I can't enjoy a peaceful meal out if everywhere you look there is a TV turned on.

I've tried to ignore them but the movement and colors always catch my eye and I find myself noticing it. At lunch today, there was a TV just behind my head and I'd catch my husband being distracted by it when we were eating. Even a commercial can catch you eye. It's frustrating to be unable to avoid it.

Today we were at Joe's Crab Shack for fish and chips. They have two rooms, one with TVs and one without, but they were only seating in the bar room with the TVs on every wall because it was a slow day and there were only two waitresses, so we were stuck surrounded by televisions.

I know that people like to watch sports and I am sure that during the big events, like Super Bowl, having the televisions is profitable. I've also heard that restaurants and bars can't set up TVs just for the special events without paying a big fee but if the TVs are always there and set to sports then they pay nothing for showing the big games. I don't know if it is true but if it is, that would explain the growing number of places playing sports on big televisions on every wall.

I may have to eat only in really nice places from now on to avoid this annoyance.

I don't know if I am alone in this annoyance but if more people felt as I do and we all spoke out (and voted with our pocketbooks and only went to places without televisions) maybe we could have peaceful meals out again. Wouldn't that be nice? Anyone with me on this? Speak up, please!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Already Perfect?: Self-Acceptance, Self-Improvement, and Smugness

You may already by reading what is one of the most successful self-improvement blogs out there, Zen Habits. If so, you saw his recent post "you're already perfect." I have been a long-time reader of his blog, but Leo Z's change in blog style had already left me feeling cold about his blog for quite awhile. This post only continued that uneasy feeling.

He's right that most of the people reading such blogs, like Zen Habits and Unclutterer or the other half dozen personal finance/organizing/life tips blogs I have on my RSS feed, are there because they have things about themselves and their lives they want to improve. I certainly do. That's why I started this blog--to help me keep on track, to give me a place to think out loud a bit, and to share my journey with other people even just a little.

Where I think the post goes wrong is not in telling us that we are already perfect, because I certainly approve of self-acceptance, high self esteem, etc. I'd be the first to admit that I tend to be hard on myself and to be very critical of both myself and others; this is one of the things I hope to work on during my self-improvement project.

I was taken aback by two points: one, he jokes about how if you can be content with yourself as you are"You can be smug about it, like me." I wish that was completely a joke, but it is that smugness which radiates from Leo's blog for the past year which has turned me off of what was once my favorite self-improvement blog. He used to have interesting posts with specific tips; then he suddenly changed, both the style of writing and then the style of the site. The writing is now as bland, formless, blank, and (yes) smug as the uncluttered style of the site. I hate to think that accepting yourself has to turn a person into a smug individual, happy in his own superiority and way of doing things. That is the last thing I want for myself.

The second point that bothered me about this post was that he then recounts various things we should be grateful for--our eyes, hands, etc. I completely agree with being grateful for what we have. I am thrilled that my ears allow me to hear music or the birds currently outside my window; I'm happy to be able to read books I care about and to be able to dance (maybe not well, but enthusiastically) whenever I want. However, Leo words it in a way which I am afraid indicates that those who don't have those gifts, those who are blind, or deaf, or unable to walk, or use a hand, etc. are automatically not able to be perfect and be grateful for it. Maybe this is another example of smugness, the nonacknowledgment of privilege for the writer, but it certainly increased my discomfort with the post.

As for my feelings, I do think that I need to work on self-acceptance, but I don't believe that I am perfect. Nobody is perfect. That doesn't mean I can't accept myself, flaws and all. And that self-acceptance doesn't mean that I can't work to improve myself, to work to make myself a better person even while being grateful for who I am and how much I have.

I'm grateful to Leo for writing the article, not because I liked it or agreed with it (it actually furthers my belief that I may soon want to remove him from my RSS feed for being no longer worth my time), but because it helped me think about these issues. It was the most engagement I've had with his writing in almost a year and it made me think about what I want out of the self-improvement blogs I am reading.