Sunday, March 22, 2015

Where to Retire

There are a lot of questions to consider when one approaches retirement. Some of them are whether and when to retire. I wrote about this in a recent post, Retirement Dilemma. Some other questions are where and how to retire.

I recognize that I am fortunate to be able to make a choice to take early retirement. Many of my friends are not yet contemplating retirement because, financially, they are not in circumstances to be able to do so. Both of my parents worked into their 70's because they needed to continue working for financial reasons. On the other hand, my husband retired as soon as he was able to according to the pension guidelines at his workplace, and soon will have been retired for ten years. 

I am finding the decisions around retirement surprisingly difficult. There does not seem to be much written on it, aside from the financial advice put out by banks and financial journalists. The question I want to write about today is where to retire. 

To me, the ideal is to retire in place, in the community where one has been living and working, surrounded by friends and family members. In this scenario, you could live on in your same home until it became too much to manage, and then move into a senior's complex or assisted living setting when elderly or if needed for health reasons. This is the plan that my mom has. She is still in the house that I grew up in, and planning to move at some point in the future. She has family and friends around her in the small town where she lives.

However, I just visited an elderly relative who recently sold his home and purchased an apartment in a senior's condo complex. Although he is still in the same city where he has lived for over 30 years, the move has been difficult because he has no family remaining in the vicinity, and his few closer friends all live in the neighbourhood where his house was and he rarely sees them now. Many older people become isolated as family and friends move away or pass on, especially if they have reduced mobility or do not have interests that bring them into social contact with others. 

Rob and I do not plan to stay in the city where we are currently living, once I retire. Although we love our house, we feel no ties to this area. We have not developed a social network or become well integrated into the community. Our children, grandchildren, family, and friends all live far away. Therefore, we plan to move away when I retire. The question is, where will we go? 

Our friends and family are mostly in British Columbia, the province where we have both spent most of our lives, so we plan to return there. But BC is a large province, and our friends and family members are spread around, geographically. Because I have moved many times for my work, I have lived in several different cities and towns in BC, and have ties to many places. As well, our children have settled in various communities. So one question we are asking ourselves is which community, and another is what type of living situation? 

There is a large real estate industry designed around retirement communities for ageing baby boomers, and certain communities, for example, Kelowna in the Okanagan, and Parksville on Vancouver Island, are popular destinations for retirees. I do not feel drawn to seniors' complexes nor to the rows and rows of bland two bedroom ranchers with an ocean or lake view. Philosophically, I disagree with the notion of self-segregation in gated communities. I do not share the sense of privilege, fear for my own safety, and desire to lock myself away in conformist communities of well-to-do old white people. And, in any case, I am not that old yet! 

One factor in the decision relates to how we plan to spend our time in retirement. We are both active, and enjoy skiing, hiking, cycling, canoeing, camping, gardening, and fishing. I want to do some international travel. I plan to write and paint. I want to join a painting group and a writing group and a book club and exercise classes. I might do some consulting work. Rob enjoys working in his workshop building things. We would like to live in a community and type of home that supports this lifestyle.

At this point in our lives, we would like to have a house that is big enough to have a workshop and a painting studio. We would like a reasonably sized yard with room to garden and park our camper. We would like to have enough room for our kids and grandkids to come and stay for visits. I would love to be close to my grandchildren. Presently, we have grandchildren on Vancouver Island, and in North central BC. 

In terms of the community, I feel anxious about moving to a place where we know few people. It takes a long time to become integrated into a community. I have seen many older people people end up isolated and lonely. I am hoping that we move to a place where we already have friends, or where we will easily be able to make new friends. It also would be good if there is a senior's complex nearby, so that when we reach that next phase, we will not have to move far away to place full of strangers. 

Although we could go back to northern BC where we know many people, the winters are long and harsh. As well, there are few options for senior living (once we get to that stage). Vancouver Island is an appealing option in terms of lifestyle. One risk in moving to a city to be near kids and grandkids is that they might not stay there. In fact, it is quite typical for young people to move from city to city for reasons of work and schooling. I moved many times during my career. Whatever place we move to, it should be somewhere that we feel that we can settle and be comfortable living there for the long term. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Helpful Cooking Hints

I came across this great article about cooking in Architecture and Design, strangely enough. It is basically a series of diagrams and visuals that provide helpful hints about flavours and ingredient equivalencies.

Click here to go to the website. The 27 infographics range from how to make a variety of homemade soups to a handy chart on metric conversion. The one I can never remember is: how much is a stick of butter? I have some great recipes for baked goods that call for sticks of butter and I have to look it up every time. According to the chart in this article, a stick is half a cup.

Actually, come to think of it, I guess it is not strange for this publication to include this article. Design concepts are very much a part of cooking, including preparation, kitchen equipment, and the aesthetics of food presentation.

6. For Metric conversions.

For Metric conversions.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Writing Again

After, what is it -- three years? four years? -- I am finally writing again. I am almost afraid to announce this. I might jinx it. The writing is so tender and new. 

It is easy to explain why I stopped; in fact I believe I have done so in previous posts. I moved to a new city and a new job. My new job is extremely demanding. At the end of each very long work day, I am emotionally and intellectually worn out. Words have deserted my head. I have turned instead to painting as my creative outlet. 

Waiting for me, I have one complete first draft of a novel awaiting revisions. I have a first draft of another novel two-thirds finished. I have scraps of paper with poems on them waiting to be typed up, or refined, or sent off somewhere. For a long time, probably at least four years, I have not touched any of it. 

Harder to explain is why I have returned to writing all of a sudden. I am not working on any of the works in progress that I have described above. Rather, I returned to the speculative fiction piece that I first had the idea for 25 years ago when my second child was a baby. At that time, I scratched out 20 pages longhand while the baby slept, when I was supposed to be doing a multivariate analysis of covariance on my thesis data. 

I returned to it once again several years ago and rewrote those twenty pages in preparation for a NaNoWriMo that I ended up not participating in. And now I have returned to it once again. I have made a few revisions and added a little more to the modest initial few pages, but mostly I have been writing backstory. In the 25 years that have passed, the futuristic novel has now morphed into an idea for a series. Ha! We'll see if I can get one novel down onto the pages and properly revised and polished.

So what has nudged me into starting again? I give full credit to Margaret Atwood. I have been reading her recent wonderful short story collection, Stone Mattress. Her book begins with three linked stories that feature a Dark Lady, a male poet, and a writer named Constance. Constance has created a fantasy world named Alphinland that exists in parallel with her "real" existence. Alphinland disconcertingly becomes almost more real than reality in the lives of people she knew in her early twenties when she was starting out as a writer and world builder, and whom she reconnects with late in her life.

Beautiful writing, especially about writers writing, sometimes inspires me to write. Also, it was the words "world builder." They brought my own fictional story world flooding back into my head. Fortuitously, I happened to have an empty Sunday afternoon because there is so little snow that the ski hill is closed, followed by a long airplane ride a couple of days later. Instead of reading on the plane, I wrote. I gave myself permission to work on what was dancing through my head, rather than on the revisions to the previous novel that I "should" be doing.

So there it is. Wish me luck.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Laziness and Lethargy

I am not one to write out a set of resolutions at the beginning of each new year. However, I do take time each year as the old year wanes and the new year begins to reflect on the past year and to think about what I might like to achieve in the upcoming year. When I reflect on the year that has just ended, I never fail to be astonished at the complexity and richness of my life, the lessons I've learned, and the wonderful experiences that form the highlights of that period of time. I am fortunate to have a good life.

As I think ahead to goals in the upcoming year, I think about overarching themes (e.g., make more time to pursue my art), along with some specific strategies (e.g., sign up for a painting class; buy a lightweight collapsible easel for plein air excursions; leave work an hour earlier most days). I don't look at it as a self-improvement project, but rather as a way to live mindfully, identify what kind of life I want to live, and put in place the structures and actions that will enable me to have that life. 

An odd thing that I have noticed is that it is often hard for me to get started doing things that I want to do. I understand my feelings of reluctance to get started doing things that I don't want to do, like doing a radio interview, or dealing with a difficult personnel situation at work, or preparing to present bad news in a staff meeting, or cleaning the bathroom. But what perplexes me is my reluctance to initiate something that I love to do, once I am actually doing it. I can think of many examples: going skiing, working in the garden, working on a painting, going out for a walk, working on my writing. 

Let's take the example of going skiing. The first skiing excursion of the year, I actually dread going to the hill. I think of excuses not to go, and when we head out that first time, I dawdle while getting ready so that we are always late in arriving at the hill. My boots hurt, the wind is cold, I probably have totally forgotten how to ski.....and then we start skiing down the first run, and it is fabulous! I love it. I want to ski and ski, and it is only my shaky out of shape muscles or the last run call that finally causes me to call a halt to skiing for the day. 

Looking at the example of gardening, all week long at work I will look forward to the weekend, and the chance to get out in the garden. I'll think about working the soil, and how I am going to lay out the plants, and what new approach I might take -- for example, this last year, I tried out potato bags. And then Saturday rolls around, and instead of leaping up and getting out to the garden, I sleep in, sit around drinking coffee and reading newspapers online, get distracted by indoor tasks like laundry, and suddenly it is 2:30 or 3:00 pm., and I am going out into the garden. 

Rob says that I work too hard at work so that on weekends I need some down time to rest and relax. But for me, gardening is restful and rejuvenating. I think that I am just being lazy. 

Many writers have written extensively about motivation to write, and in particular about writers' avoidance of writing. Some writers suffer writer's block. They just cannot think of what to write or get the words to flow. (Luckily for me, that has never been my problem. I always have lots of ideas, and as soon as I start writing, the words pour out onto the page.) Other writers avoid writing because of performance anxiety. They have a hurtful interior critic who tells them that they are no good, not real writers, and the act of writing becomes derailed by self doubt. Again, for me that is not the problem. Although I do sometimes doubt myself, that is not the reason I do not write. My problem is with initiation. I just don't start. 

I have the same problem with painting. I will think about a painting that is in progress. I will go down to my studio in the basement and spend twenty minutes looking at the painting and thinking about what needs to be done. I will spend hours reading art magazines or painting blogs. I will plan to do a plein air painting on the weekend. But actually taking out my paints and working on a piece doesn't happen very often. If I was not part of a weekly painting group, I fear that I would not be painting at all. And yet I love painting once I am doing it. Why can I not get started?

Laziness. Lethargy. It is easier to be passive. It is easier to read a novel than to write my own novel, to read about painters and art than to actually paint, and to daydream about the garden than to actually turn over the soil out under the hot sun. I know that I will feel far greater enjoyment and accomplishment engaging in these activities than sitting and scanning Facebook for hours on end. So I have learned all kinds of techniques to help myself get started. Once I start, I know that I will continue doing the particular activity and at the end of the day feel happy and satisfied that did. 

I know that I am not the only person who experiences this kind of motivational stumbling block. Just think of all the hours every day that many people waste watching TV, or surfing the net unproductively, or texting or using other social media. Each of these pastimes has its place in moderation. But I am curious as to why I and so many others sink into passive lethargy during most of our leisure hours, letting the good engaging activities of life pass us by.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Fall Down!

The winter that I was three and a half years old, my Dad came home with two little pairs of homemade skis for me and my younger brother, who was two and a half. They were made of wood, with bear trap bindings, metal toe plates with a leather strap, green lino heel plates (the linoleum from our kitchen floor), and cables that cinched across the back of the heels. They had no metal edges nor bases. Dad waxed the wood on the bottom side to make them slide. One pair was painted red and the other pair was green. We didn't have ski boots, but wore our winter boots in the skis. At that time our winter boots were mid-calf height pile lined rubber overshoes that we pulled on over our leather shoes.

Dad started teaching us to ski. First he taught us to walk up the driveway and glide down. The driveway had a very slight incline. Then he tramped down the side hill by our house, which had a slightly steeper incline, and began teaching us to snowplow down the hill and sidestep back up. The next winter, we began taking Saturday morning ski lessons given by the Ski Club at Warren's Hill, a farmer's field just outside of town. There was no lift at Warren's Hill. We skied down and sidestepped or herringboned back up. As a founding member of the Ski Club, my Dad was one of the ski instructors. 

By the time I was six, I had a little pair of red rubber lace up ski boots (hand-me-downs from another skiing family) and my own poles with leather straps and baskets. That winter, another member of the Ski Club installed a rope tow on a hill on his farm. The annual Ski Club races were held there. I, of course, competed in the slalom and giant slalom, as did my best friend at school. We both won ribbons.

I had never skied at that hill before. It was much longer and steeper than Warren's Hill. I loved going fast down the big hill. The rope tow also was an exciting novelty, and I quickly caught the hang of it. 

In the afternoon, after all the races were done, and we had had our lunch of hotdogs and hot chocolate, we had time for free skiing. At some point, I remember skiing quickly past my Dad, who had stopped for some reason, maybe to assist my brother. I went racing down the hill, my long braids streaming out behind me. I was going really, really fast, and it was fantastic. (This is how I remember it, anyways. Perhaps I was not really going so fast or skiing as elegantly as I thought.)

Suddenly, I heard my Dad shouting my name. "Fall down!" he yelled. "Fall down!"

Why was he telling me to fall down? I saw people turning to look at me as I skied past them. I was a confident skier. I had no intention of falling down in front of everyone. That would be so embarrassing. 

As I came to the bottom of the hill, the snow became very rough and I managed to stop. Or maybe I did fall down; I no longer remember. My Dad caught up to me then, and he was angry and upset. He explained that there was a creek that went along the base of the hill, and he was afraid that I was out of control unable to stop, and that I might have ended up in the creek. I hadn't known about the creek, and I could vividly imagine falling into the freezing water. 

I remember that ski day with mixed emotions: the excitement of skiing on a bigger hill with a lift, the pride in winning the slalom race, the shame of everyone staring at me expecting me to fall down, the disappointment that my Dad did not see me as a fully competent skier, and the recognition of his love and desire to protect me from harm. 

My Dad has been gone for nearly eleven years now. I still miss him very much, especially on days like today that I spend at the ski hill. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Winter Scene

I have started a new painting. It is a winter snow scene set in an urban park. I am working from a reference photo that I took about a year ago of the location. At this time of the year, late December, the days in Canada are very short. The light fades by four o'clock. I took the photo on an overcast day in the afternoon just as the light was waning. 

What struck me about this scene was the dramatic composition. The arched wooden bridge on the left  crosses from an island in the foreground to a land causeway (not visible) to the far side of the small lake. The bridge and a tree are reflected in a bit of open water, whereas the rest of the lake is covered in snow. I like the way the snow-covered boulders and the bridge lead the eye toward the reflections, the tree, and the horizon. 

I began by drawing the main shapes with graphite. Today, I finished sketching in the lines of the main shapes over the pencil lines with thinned yellow ochre paint. 

I don't often draw the lines in with paint, but I wanted to for this one because it is a very structural painting. The arched bridge was challenging to draw, and I did not want to lose the drawing once I started to block in the colours. As well, the stark tree and its reflection, and the jumble of boulders add complexity that I would not have felt comfortable blocking in as masses without doing the drawing first. Redrawing the lines with paint over graphite also gave me a chance to correct some drawing errors. As you can see, I have indicated some of the areas of darker values -- the trees and the shadows of the boulders. In drawing the boulders, I found it helpful to give them some three dimensional form. However, I haven't indicated the areas of darkest values, which are the bridge reflection, the wooden bridge foundation and buttress, and the far treeline. 

This painting will be challenging for me in several ways. It is the largest painting I have attempted, 20 by 30 inches. I have been trying to start working larger, but the next largest one I have done in recent years is 18 by 24 inches. I am hoping that by working larger with larger brushes, I will be less tempted to pick away at tiny details and end up overworking the painting. 

Another way in which this painting will be challenging is because of the colours in it. I usually tend to create very colourful paintings, often dominated by light values. This one will force me to work more with a grey range (blue greys and purple greys), and I know I will find it hard to make the snow values dark enough. However, the snow has to be rendered in a mid value range so that the little bit of bright sky and reflected sky will really shine.

A final challenge will be the large areas of more or less solid colour, like the snow field in the middle right, and the large snow covered rock in the bottom right. I tend to create very busy images, and often  avoid painting larger "blank" areas. Yet they are so important to frame the focus of interest. 

So you can see that I have set myself quite a task with this snow scene. 

I presently have a dilemma with how to proceed with the blocking in. Initially, I was planning to do a value underpainting in a contrasting colour. In particular, I was thinking of magenta. However, I spent a long time contemplating the photo, and went for an afternoon walk to the same location today to look at the actual scene again. Although some snow scenes have a pink undertone (and I have used pink or red violet or magenta effectively in snow scenes before), I just don't see a pink undertone in this one. 

So then I contemplated cadmium orange or cadmium red medium or Indian red or burnt sienna as possible colours for the underpainting. Or another possibility would be to block in the main colour areas and values with the local colours that I see in each major shape. I am reluctant to do this though, because that would mean putting white in the mix right in the first layer in order to make the greys. I would prefer to block it in with transparent colour and only in subsequent layers begin to add white, because pigments mixed with white become opaque, which I find can lead to a chalky or muddy look. 

Hmmm. What to do? Maybe I should do a couple of small studies with various contrasting choices of underpainting. I am usually so eager to get on with the actual painting that I skip this step. Or I could finish blocking in the values with the yellow ochre, and then lay Indian red or burnt Umber over top of the darkest darks. Or maybe I could use one of my blues to create a unifying underpainting. Hmmm. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Protagonist Problem

Although I have not been working on my works in progress recently, sometimes I think about them. I have written most of two novels (and a very sketchy beginning of a third). The first novel is at the stage of the first draft being three quarters complete. The strength of this one is in its characters, and its primary weakness is plot. I became stuck, unable to bring the themes together into a satisfying conclusion. 

With the second novel, I completed an overly long first draft a few years ago with the help of a couple of NaNoWriMo Novembers. This novel has a more complex structure and plot than the first one, essentially a coming of age story nested within a coming of age story. Although most of the story is told from the female protagonist's perspective, some of it is expressed by the antagonist (who is my favourite character in the book). As well, a third character pops in midway through, briefly, and I have realized that she is quite important to the story, as her perspective serves as a counterpoint to a core identity problem that the protagonist is struggling with. I think I need to add more of this third character's voice. 

This second novel is at the revising stage. Doing the revisions seems so daunting that, while I have written a bunch of notes on what I need to do, I haven't really begun revising. One of my first readers made an excellent observation about my protagonist. We see the protagonist in adulthood and as a child. She is a white woman/girl who is concerned about and at the same time implicated in racist attitudes and social practices. My reader asked why she is so conflicted, as she seems to be doing and saying all the right (anti-racist) things. I was unable to answer this question at the time. 

Now, a couple of years later, I have come to recognize something that I am calling the protagonist problem afflicts both of my novels. While I have been able to develop the other characters quite well and have a good sense of their motivations, perspectives, and flaws, in both novels I have somewhat of a blind spot about the protagonists. I have trouble seeing why they do what they do. I am too close to them. My blind spot about these main characters is almost like the blind spot I have about myself and that each of us has about ourselves - that inability to look at one's self and actions with any kind of objective distance. However, I want to quickly point out that neither of the protagonists is autobiographical; I am not either of them and their experiences are not mine (although I recognize that there is some of me in each of my characters and in the dilemmas that they find themselves in).

Moreover, I feel ambivalent about each of these two main characters. Neither is a hero that is easy to identify with. In the first novel, the main character feels smugly superior to the two other significant characters that she has been thrown together with, and yet also is profoundly lacking in emotional self-awareness as she grieves a death of someone close to her. 

In the second novel, the main character is likeable as a young girl, but when we see her as a woman, she has isolated herself from her family. She has become judgmental and focused on efficiency and career, and is not very effective in being able to form or sustain relationships. The trouble is, how do we care about her and the situations that she is in throughout the book if we don't like her? 

The protagonist problem is this. I am writing each of these stories primarily from the point of view of the main character. Because I am seeing the world from her point of view, I suffer the same kind of lack of insight and self awareness that the character has, or that any any first person perspective has. I as the writer lack narrative distance, and this makes it hard for me to see the main character as a fully rounded complex person. Moreover, in both novels, I have given the protagonist have some personality characteristics that might not make the protagonist particularly endearing to the reader. 

I think that when I finally go back to writing and revising these works in progress, I am going to have to find a way, as the writer, to step back from the two protagonists. By stepping back and taking a longer view, I hope to see them as the characters that they are, interacting with the other characters on the stage of their story. 

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