Monday, May 23, 2016

It All Disappears

As I ponder whether and when to retire, I find my mind turning to the larger existential questions. This fact has taken me by surprise. 

Really, the decision to retire, at first blush, seems like not a big deal at all. A person works throughout life to earn a paycheque and and support herself and her family. Work, in every case, takes the most precious thing we have away from us – time. Some have argued that time is all we have in life, that life is time, and that when we are out of time our life ends. Straightforward, no? Therefore it makes perfect sense that as soon as there is no longer a financial necessity to work for that paycheque, a person should retire and take their time back. 

When I think of it this way, I want to retire right now. I want to paint those pictures, write those poems and novels, hike those trails, and travel to those interesting places. I want to do all of the things that I have been trying to fit into the little leftover corners of time that work and daily life affords me. And I want to spend more time with the people I care about – Rob, my friends, my kids and grandkids, and other family members. 

But wait a minute. I have worked very hard most of the years of my life, and I haven't done it just for the paycheque. Work has been an important part of my life. It has engaged me intellectually, creatively, and socially. Life isn't just time. It's also what one does with the time. In most ways, my work has been an integral and satisfying component of my life for all my adult years. It has been an interesting and important way for me to spend the time I have been granted, and also I have been able to contribute to my workplaces and to society in useful ways, which in itself is satisfying. 

When I think about it this way, I feel a great wave of fear. No, I can't retire! Not yet. Work is my life. Not all of my life, but a very big part of it. Am I really ready to walk away from it, this endeavour that has intrigued me, engaged me, and had me in its clutches since I was sixteen?

But, I argue with myself, work doesn't have to be all or nothing. I have the good fortune to work in education, and to have the choice in my place of work to reduce to part-time or to transition gradually to retirement over a three year period. Also, in my workplace, I have quite a bit of choice over the types of work assignments I take. Theoretically, in a full-time role, I also have the choice to work long hours or more reasonable hours (but, being an A-type high achiever, so far I have never managed to cut back to the number of hours in most people’s normal work week, so I'm not holding out hope for a sudden self-transformation). Also, if I were to quit, I could take on contract work (if I missed my work too much), or carry on with my intellectual work independent of an employer and paycheque. Finally, I could take on volunteer work, or serve on boards or committees. I don't have to stay where I am, working full time, and feeling the obligation that comes with a full time job and a paycheque. 

Another interesting notion has occurred to me as I prepare to step down from my current role as administrator. As I begin to plan my transition out of the role and a move to a different smaller office, I wonder what I am going to do with all of the files I have accumulated during my four years in this job. There is an over-stuffed four-drawer filing cabinet, and most of a bookcase full of files that pertain to the position I am leaving. Then there are the thousands, or maybe hundreds of thousands of electronic files. Do I just pitch them? Will they be of any use to anyone? 

This is the material manifestation of the problem. But the real problem is that a great deal of the knowledge is in my head. As I walk out of the job, that knowledge goes with me. The new person, my replacement, will have to do their own learning, identify their own priorities, and invent their own way of working. Just like that, pfffffft, all that I have strived so hard to learn and do just disappears and becomes only a memory. And memories are ephemeral. I guess the exception to this is that those bits of my work that have been reified within a system, program, or someone else's practice or thinking will not be completely lost. There will be a small trace. 

This is also the problem of our lives. When we die, all that we have learned, all of our knowledge and skills, die with us. I hadn't really thought about this much before. It makes me wonder, why have I tried so hard to amass knowledge and to perfect skills? Just like material goods, we can't take it with us. And what's in our heads isn't even left for others. It all disappears. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Early Year for Planting

This Mother's Day weekend, I had the opportunity to do quite a bit of gardening. Every spring, I look forward to getting out into the vegetable garden to dig and plant. As I have written about before, I have two tiny patches in the backyard, one for berries, and one for veggies. The previous owners landscaped the yard with shrubs and perennials, but I have reclaimed these two spaces for my annual food growing activity. 

I use a square foot gardening method to maximize the productivity of the tiny garden. The photo below shows how the food garden looked after my efforts this weekend.

In the foreground, there are chives and onions. This corner of the garden gets little sun, but the onion sets I put in about mid-April are thriving. Behind the chives are tomato transplants (the dependable Early Girl, and Lemon Boy, a new experiment). I have never, ever put my tomatoes in before June 1, anywhere that I have lived in Canada (except possibly when I had a greenhouse). 

I have also planted basil transplants and pole beans. This is very early to be planting tomatoes, beans and basil where I live, hardiness zone 4b. The rule of thumb here is to plant on the 24th of May weekend, and to expect frost on Labour Day. I also have planted from seed spinach and lettuce (mid-April), and carrots (today).

In this photo you can see the herbs that have returned from last year: parsley, savoury, thyme, sage, and oregano. In the little triangular garden in the back against the fence, the raspberries, rhubarb, and strawberries are thriving. Because I have so little garden space, I plant potatoes in potato bags and set them around the patio. I have started the potatoes in their bags, but they are not visible in this photo. 

We also have flower beds. I have a perennial bed at the front of the house and also a raised bed that the annual flowers share with potentilla and spirea bushes. Yesterday, Rob and I filled it with wave petunias and a few transplants of some strange orchid-like flower I have never seen before. 

The natural soil here is heavy prairie clay. I compost, and use it to augment the soil. For the yard waste component of the compost, I am very careful to use only leaves and grass, etc., from our own yard. Many people here seem to use herbicides and neonicotinoids indiscriminately, whereas I garden organically. I also have purchased bags of sand, manure, and organic black soil most years. 

Gradually the soil in the food gardens has become deeper, looser, and richer. The flower gardens get short shrift, though, as by time I get around to thinking about augmenting the soil, it is too late -- the perennials are already up, and we have already planted the petunias. 

I might have stayed in the garden a little longer this afternoon, but the thunder was rolling overhead. The wind was roaring through the trees and blowing things around the yard. Now, an hour later, the wind is still blowing hard, but the thunderstorm seems to have passed over. A slight misty rain is falling, barely enough to dampen the ground. 

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Big Six Oh

What is it about turning sixty? I and a number of my friends will reach this dreaded age this year. It seems to be a particularly tough birthday for several of us. I have already passed several significant birthdays: 
50 (half a century!); 
40 (middle age!); 
39 (last year to be a thirty-something); 
30 (joining the over-thirty crowd, definitely not cool); 
21 (a legal adult, everywhere in North America)
19 (voting and and drinking age, in British Columbia)
16 (not that sweet)
But 60 is different somehow. 

I was just in Vancouver, where I got together with a dear friend for an early birthday celebration. She turns 60 next week, and is not at all happy about it. I asked her why she was finding this birthday to be such a difficult one. She said, "because it means I am f*ing old!"

I asked Rob, who turned sixty a few years ago, whether he had found it hard to turn sixty. He said, "no, not at all." The reason why, he explained, was that the collapse of his first marriage a number of years earlier created such a huge and traumatizing change in his life that a little thing like a particular birthday meant nothing in comparison. 

I also have had a traumatizing a life-altering experience in my past, but it hasn't softenened the big six-oh transition for me. Rob is a pretty mellow person, not given to hand-wringing and introspection. He lives each day as it comes along. That might be why he doesn't stress about birthdays. 

I think that the reason that 60 (and similarly 65) is difficult for many of us is that it marks a time of significant transition in our lives. For me, from age 25 to now, I have been focused on having and raising my kids, and on my career. Much else has taken a backseat to those two dominating priorities. Although it has not been a straight, smooth path, nevertheless my focus on these two things has been consistent. But now I am having to make significant decisions about my life path, and indeed, about the rest of my life.

Suddenly, as I turn 60, I have discovered that my focus and priorities are changing. My youngest has graduated from university, and although he has lived with us for this past year, he is starting his first career-related job and soon things will be changing for him. 

I have made the decision to resign from my administrative role and to take up a different, less stressful and less time-intensive position at my place of work. As well, two months from now, I will be taking a lengthy leave before transitioning into that other role. This marks a significant change in my career "ladder-climbing." In essence, I have decided that I will not be pursuing further career progression. This represents a large attitudinal shift from my aims over the last 35 years. 

As I move toward stepping down from my role and the leave from work, my mind is turning to the next step, actual retirement. I am thinking about all the projects and life goals that I have been deferring for so long, because my work has dominated so much of my time and attention, not to mention also raising a family. When am I going to finish writing those novels, or really get into painting, if not soon? There isn't that much time left.

Breaking my foot last Fall has made me realize that deferring some things for much longer may mean that they will never happen. For example, my foot, although healed, is still giving me a lot of pain. Does this mean that my days of backpacking and long hikes is over? Speaking of that, when am I going to go heliskiing, river rafting, and to Machu Pichu? Sixty is a wake up call. 

I have a friend whose long and successful career is coming to an end, not because she was ready to retire but because a reorganization of her workplace now has made retirement seem to be the most appealing option for her. I have another friend who just turned sixty who has sold her longtime business, has begun travelling to many interesting parts of the world, and has started writing a book. Yet another friend who is turning 60 has made the decision to resign from her part-time teaching position and is trying to decide when to step away from her clinical practice to begin full retirement. 

While I muse about retirement, time keeps marching on. My grandchildren are having birthdays, and I live far away from them. They will only be toddlers for a short time. Our friends are growing older, and some are losing their health, and some have died. 

Sixty is just a number. But in our decimal system based on ten, it marks a decade. The decade of one's sixties is the decade of the culmination of career, leaving the work world, and taking stock of life. In turning sixty, one enters the late stage of life, a chance to review what it means to have a good life, and a final chance to decide whether there are still some other components or tasks yet to be completed in our individual projects of making a meaningful life. 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Becoming Irrelevant

Aging is a process of becoming irrelevant. It happens over a long time, perhaps a whole lifetime. But it is now, as I am entering my senior years, that it is beginning to become apparent to me, and it is not a happy discovery.

Throughout my career, I have been such a hardworking person, striving to accomplish more every day than was truly possible. I have been motivated by new and more difficult challenges. I have moved up the career ladder, struggling with and then mastering each new set of expectations. I have climbed a mountain and arrived at the top, sweaty, aching and exhausted, only to discover the next mountain beyond that one. This has happened again and again, and has defined my working life. 

Now I have finally reached the last peak. I am stepping away from the career trajectory that I have been on since I went off to my first year of university. It has been hard to let go, and hard to accept that this is it. All that I am going to accomplish in my career has already happened. 

That sounds pathetic. But for me it has been a sad and bitter realization. I have always set very high expectations for myself. Although I never thought I had it in me to become a Piaget or an Einstein, deep in my heart I did think that I was capable of some pretty great achievements. I didn't get there. I have had a good career, and I have made useful contributions. But not great, not outstanding. 

So it took me a long time to decide to step away from my position and my upward striving. Choosing to begin moving towards retirement has meant coming to terms with the fact that this great big career project I have been toiling at, and that I have devoted most of the days of the most productive time of my life to, is over. It's over and there is, as it turns out, not much to show for it. 

Strangely, now that my decision has been made and there are only two and a half months left in my job, I have discovered that I can't even remember what I thought was so important about my job. I wish I could walk away from it tomorrow, and never go back through that door. Yet only six months ago, I was working eleven or twelve hours days most days, and everything I was doing seemed so necessary and critical. Work was so all encompassing that when I broke a bone in my foot last Fall, I couldn't even find time to rest and put my foot up and the bone failed to heal. 

Just as I have been discovering that my work is not so important after all, many of my colleagues and staff members, now that they have found out that I won't be in my role much longer, have begun to treat me as irrelevant. It is understandable. I won't be around to see projects through to completion. There is no point in me starting new things as soon there will be a new boss in my place, and that person will have different ideas and ways of working. In the meantime, they have to form alliances and new ways of working together. My leaving creates a power vacuum and an opportunity for each of them to position themselves differently within the organization. 

I have seen this happen to colleagues before. It is the dead duck administrator phenomenon. The person leaving loses their ability to influence others and to effect change. The people around them experience a period of shifting relationships and alterations in how they do things. I was expecting that it likely would happen to me. 

What I didn't anticipate is how painful it would feel. My closest team leaders are kind and respectful, but although they try not to show it, they no longer really have time for me with all their responsibilities and frenetic work lives. It is strange and sad to realize that most collegial relationships exist to be primarily in service to the maw of work tasks and deadlines. Some other colleagues, the office bullies and the very ambitious seem to be wanting to make sure that I am aware that I didn't matter to the organization anyways. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Ouch, that hurts. To some others, I am now suddenly invisible, and my insights unnecessary. 

And then there are those good, decent colleagues who treat me the same way that they always have. I am so grateful for these people. For them, my knowledge and skills have not evaporated just because I will be leaving soon. And for them, the human relationship supersedes the pragmatic utility of the relationship or the authority of the role. 

Although I have focused this piece on work, I believe that this insight about my own increasing irrelevance will hold for the aging process in general. Once I am no longer of use to them, contributing to society and caught up in the culture of the workplace, I will become irrelevant to most people. As an older person, unless I fight it by finding ways to contribute and to have a voice, I will begin to exist on the margin of society.

Quite a few gloomy thoughts. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Painting Challenge

Tonight I blocked in my newest painting. I have painted the sky, using manganese blue, phthalo blue, titanium white and a touch of alizarin crimson. I have blocked in the rest of the canvas using thin paint and a limited palette. At this point, I have not worried too much about precise colours, but have aimed to place the main shapes and cover up most of the white canvas. I have also indicated the darker shadow areas.

Quite often, before I have finished blocking in, I get distracted and start putting in detail, or trying to represent the exact hue that I see in my reference photos. Usually, that just leads to trouble! A colour that looks just right on the white canvas will look wrong once other colours surround it. 

You can see in this one that I have suggested the texture of the reeds, the direction of the reflections, and the shininess of the pond. I have found that, even in the very early blocking in stage, I have to capture some of the key elements that I find interesting in the scene. Otherwise later on, I will lose the rhythm of the painting, or the concept I am trying to convey. I feel that I have been successful if I have left myself something interesting to work with in the next painting session.

Every time I start a new painting, I set myself a particular challenge. The challenges relate to things I want to learn, or issues that I have struggled with. With this painting, I have set two challenges. One is the long narrow landscape format of the canvas. I rarely paint in landscape format, but rather tend to choose a portrait orientation for my paintings (even though I mostly paint landscapes). And I have never tried a long narrow format. 

The other challenge in this painting is that I am aiming to paint with confident looser brushstrokes, rather than reverting to finicky, precise dabbing. I think this will prove to be particularly challenging for me, especially as I have chosen a complex composition.

In the previous painting that I just completed, Kettle River, Before the Fire, I had two challenges. One was to paint a large section of intense colour (the blue water). Although I am not afraid to use intense colours, I tend to daub it on in small bits, and therefore end up with very busy images. The other challenge in my last painting was to paint a large section of green trees. I find green very hard to work with, and always struggle when there is a lot of green in a painting. 

Other challenges I have set for myself in recent years include: painting nocturnes to force myself to use more dark values; working more with greys; using a larger canvas; painting large calm areas of muted colour; incorporating a figure in the landscape; incorporating buildings and other structures; painting en plein air, and painting waves or running water. I almost always run into trouble with a painting at some point. But I am always learning new things, and I never get into the rut of painting the same objects or themes over and over, in the same way, with the same palette of colours. For me, problem-solving a painting is half of the fun!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Kettle River, Before the Fire

I have just finished another painting. It's the one on the easel, titled: Kettle River Before the Fire

Kettle River Valley is one of our favourite places to spend time in the summer. It is located in southern British Columbia, Canada, just north of Osooyos and south of Kelowna (accessible from Kelowna by the back road). The area is most well known for the Kettle River Valley Railway, which was dismantled and turned into an amazing bike trail. We have biked the 25 Km section north from Rock Creek, and have fantasized about doing a multi-day trip along it or connecting to one of the other trails in the network of old rail lines. I took this photo on one of our biking excursions.

About seven km north of Rock Creek, there is an excellent provincial campground right on the Kettle River. Or, I should say, there used to be a great campground. Last summer, a terrible wildfire raged through the valley. People camping in the campground got out with minutes to spare. The tiny hamlet of Rock Creek also burned. I think I remember reading that 14 homes were lost. 

Last summer, we camped in the Kettle Valley. In fact, we had just left the area the day before the fire started. There had been a drought all summer, and the valley was bone dry. It was one of many wildfires that razed huge sections of southern BC and northern Montana last August. 

So this painting has special meaning for me. It reminds me of the happy times in the Kettle Valley, before the fire. I started painting this picture at the beginning of September. And then I broke my foot. For the four months I was on crutches and in a cast, I stopped painting. I just felt ready to start again in February. I am part of a painting group that meets weekly. But because of my work schedule, I miss a lot of the painting nights. I usually finish a painting in 4-6 sessions, depending on how large it is. 

Here is a closeup showing some of the detail. As you can see, I had fun with the palette knife in this section. It is great to be painting again!

Friday, March 4, 2016


The following quote is from the book Ru, by Kim Thuy. Her book was the 2015 winner of the Canada Reads contest.


"My parents often remind my brothers and me that they won't have any money for us to inherit, but I think they've already passed on to us the wealth of their memories, allowing us to grasp the beauty of a flowering wisteria, the delicacy of a word, the power of wonder. Even more, they've given us feet for walking to our dreams, to infinity. Which may be enough baggage to continue our journey on our own. Otherwise, we would pointlessly clutter our path with possessions to transport, to insure, to take care of" (p. 41).

From this brief excerpt, so concise and poetic, it is clear why Thuy's book was a winner. I am going to have the great fortune to attend a talk by Kim Thuy next week.

I, unfortunately, continue to clutter my own path in life with possessions, as I have written about here.

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This work by Dr Sock Writes Here is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.