Sunday, December 13, 2015

A List: After Susan Sontag

I have been reading Maria Popova's wonderful collection of quotations from writers on writing. You can find it at Brain Pickings. I have read most of these writers, and also several of the books on writing that she quotes from. This morning, I was reading some of Popova's nuggets on list-making as a writing starter activity, and I came across an excerpt from Susan Sontag's As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (a book that I haven't yet read) - her list of "things I like" and "things I don't like." It has inspired me to create my own similar list.

Things I Like:

Coffee, pine trees, our cat Oliver, lady bugs, snow, cheese blintzes, 100 recipe chicken cookbook, red wine, baby clothes, towels, marble, reflections on water, pebbles, mountains, paint, garden soil, new ice, dancing, watermelon, pens, pads of paper, Thai food, fields, hoar frost, yellow, the pattern tree branches make against the sky, pancakes, lists, the letter o, collections of objects, the Gulf Islands, purple violets, The Passing Cloud, K.D. Lang's cover of Hallelujah, cheese, Margaret Atwood, black tea, wood grain, leaves in autumn, butterscotch, words, terriers, rayon fabric, Tsimshian and Haida art, my family, brie. 

Things I Don'Like:

Sewing, green pepper, volley ball, intravenous needles, gore in movies, post-modern art, bullying, perfume, Stephen Harper's Canada, makeup, suicide, maggots, cigarettes, public toilets, undercooked chicken, hospitals, caraway seed, medical procedures on eyeballs, rose hip tea, vomit, foam pillows, nylon, being called a lady or a girl, scotch, frostbite, firearms, gold coloured cars, wire worms, amputations, wet socks, cluttered counters, anime art, haggis, torn medial meniscus, television, grey or beige shirts, litter, dried oolichan, gum recession, hairspray, the smell of diesel, going to work Monday morning, greasy hair, dog poop revealed by melting snow in the spring.

Things I Like:

Good writing of any genre, October, British Columbia, raspberry jam, Rob, cherry blossoms, walking, chocolate cake, magnolia trees, my friends, the Group of Seven, grandchildren, long hair, food columns, jazz singers, alpine areas, pear trees, log houses, pottery, art blogs, blues music, backcountry skiing, kisses, margins, finishing a project, ideas, quilts, swimming in lakes, the camper, language, wild flowers, kayaks, research, cycling, wilderness trails, fly fishing, beets, turquoise, folk art, the angle of the light, beads, view from an airplane window, a wood fire, Haida Gwaii, trees, Mom's shortbread.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Mind Thinks It's a Body

Today I was at the the ski shop buying skis and boots for my son for Christmas. My son was with me, of course, to choose the boots and have them fitted, and to choose the skis, bindings, and poles that he wanted. He has been an avid boarder for the past twelve years, and now is excited to get back into skiing again. Rob, who has researched all the hot ski gear in every category, also was present providing his insights.

Buying ski gear is not something that you walk in and do in a few minutes. We actually started yesterday evening, and spent nearly two hours with the ski shop guy, Steve, choosing the right boot. Then we came back again today to have the boots heat molded, and to pick out the rest of the equipment. During the hours we spent at the ski store, we were surrounded by ski stuff and ski talk. We swapped skiing stories with Steve, talked about technique and ski design, reminisced about skiing in the old days, and drooled over all the beautiful new powder skis, ski clothes, goggles, etc., surrounding us. The experience was a mini-immersion into ski life and served as a powerful impetus to get out on the slopes. 

However, I am on crutches, with a broken bone in my foot. I fractured the fifth metatarsal thirteen weeks ago, and it has been very slow to heal. It is healing, but oh so slowly. I am in an air cast, mostly non-weight-bearing, and am allowed to put limited weight on the heel only. Unfortunately for me, I am not likely to be out on the ski hill any time soon. Realistically, my next step once I can start to weight bear is to learn to walk again. 

Yet in the ski store today, my mind seemed oblivious to the facts of the matter. I could see so clearly in my mind the mountain where we usually ski - the runs on the Huckleberry chair, the Chutes in whiteout conditions, the traverse across the top of the bowl on the Red chair, and the way you can peek over the edge in one place to the sheer drop of the cliff to the left of the traverse. I can see the ski lodge, with red cheeked skiers at the picnic benches, peeling off their snowy touques and gloves, and parents down on their knees helping little kids to get their ski boots on or off. Hot chocolate with rum, and the terrible greasy burgers that cost an arm and a leg. In my mind I am there now, clomping in my ski boots, exhilarated from the last run.

In my mind, I am skiing that difficult ridge run under the Red chair, and I am swooping and turning with confidence, not stiffening up or having to stop every couple of turns to catch my breath. It is not just remembering. Rather, it is as if my crutches and current mobility limitations are irrelevant. I could be there on the slopes tomorrow, skiing just the way I always have. 

The mind thinks it's a body. I can ski, regardless of my present frailties, lack of fitness, or aging. And because I have visualized it so clearly in my mind, year after year when I go out to the hill, I can ski. I think I actually have continued to improve my skills, even though I no longer have the same courage, stamina, or flexibility of my youth. The stubborn, insistent mind has shaped the capabilities of the body. 

Yet sometimes it works the other way. The body teaches the mind. Really, when you rip down the slope between the trees in deep powder in the back country, your mind simply does not have time to consider and coordinate each physical component of the process turn after turn. The body takes over and does what the mind cannot as you float and dip into each turn, a rhythm that the mind chases to keep up with. "Turn here, and here," your mind instructs, but your knees and edges and arms have already completed that turn and are onto the next. It is beautiful and coordinated. You are flying effortlessly like a bird. The mind is a nagging old woman that you have tuned out. And later when you arrive at the bottom, your mind is incredulous, and replays the run over and over again trying to understand, feel it again, and tap into that flow. 

Many have written about the notion of a mind-body connection. But how it works remains a mystery. It is something that we all experience, and seldom even notice or remark upon. We take it for granted that our minds will bring our bodies to situations and then step back and let the body take over. Somehow those times when we are fully in our bodies seem to also be those moments when we are most intensely alive. And when we are not out there on the slopes, or paddling the kayak, or hiking over a scree slope, the mind is practicing for us so that when we go out on our next adventure, our bodies are already tuned up and ready for it.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Found Poem

The Organized Mind

Then, as now, printed words were promiscuous
"same as it ever was"
a kind of parallel, shadow economy 
a plate of black beans
nails, bits of wire, melon rinds, or shards of glass, 
most of the members of the category remain unnamed
a universal order of emergence
nuisances like rats and snakes
this preference for order
over and over every day
because of its affordance
and in and out you go
through the twenty-first-century world of ideas.

Found poem in: Levitin, Daniel J. (2014). The organized mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload. Penguin: Toronto. (pp. 14, 15, 19, 22, 25, 30, 30, 31, 31, 33, 36, 36, 36)

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Metatarsal Fracture - Jones

Today is exactly eight weeks and a day since I stepped in a pothole, rolled my left foot over, and fractured my fifth metatarsal bone. The fifth metatarsal is the outside bone on the foot, and the type of fracture that I have is the dreaded Jones fracture. Why do I say "dreaded?" Well, this fracture is known to be resistant to healing. For athletes such as soccer players, basketball players, and runners, it can be a career-ending injury. However, I knew none if this when it happened to me.

On September 12, a beautiful warm Saturday, we went to the mountains for our last camping trip of the season. We pulled into the campground late in the afternoon, and I took the dog on a leash and my purse and walked down the road to go and register while Rob and Alex got the campsite set up. It was glorious. The trees were in full colour and the sunshine was sparkling on the lake. The high rocky bluff where we planned to hike the next day was dramatically lit. I was staring about at the beauty of the place and not really watching where I was going. I somehow stepped into a pothole, turned my foot, and fell hard. 

I immediately knew I had injured myself seriously. I thought it was either a sprain or a fracture. I also was bleeding from gravel cuts on both hands and legs. I hobbled back up the road, probably a distance of about two bocks, trying to put minimal weight on my left foot. Back at the camper, I cleaned up the blood and elevated and iced my foot. We decided to stay the night and see how the foot was the next day. 

The next day, the foot was badly bruised and I could not put any weight on it. However, the pain was not very bad, so Rob and Alex went hiking while I hung around the camper. I had not brought my painting equipment along, so I sat outdoors taking closeup photos of the autumn foliage. 

That evening when we returned home, Alex went and got my old crutches (from the days of the medial meniscus tears in both knees) out of the shed. I drove myself to the emergency room at the hospital  and used the crutches. They took an X-ray, and the doctor diagnosed it as a Jones fracture. He said that a fracture of the fifth metatarsal bone was the most common foot fracture. He recommended that I arrange to be fitted for an air cast, a type of walking cast. In the meantime, he put on a fibreglass backslab (splint) and tensor bandage, and told me not to weight bear on the foot. He also said that I probably would be in the air cast for seven to eight weeks. 

My question to him was whether I would be ready for ski season. I didn't think to ask whether it would impact my work, or daily life, or whether there was anything in particular that I should do to aid the healing of the bone. I didn't ask whether I would be able to weight bear in the air cast. I heard "walking cast" and thought I knew the answer. I thought a fracture was not a big deal and that it would be healed up in seven to eight weeks, and in the meantime I would be walking around in a walking cast.

It was the orthotics guy who fitted me for the air cast the next day that alerted me to the fact that although the cast could be used for walking, I shouldn't walk in it unless the doctor had said I was ready to weight bear. So, it wasn't time to ditch the crutches yet. 

Regular readers will know that I have a demanding job with extremely long hours. Having not considered that the injury would impact my work (I work with my head and computer, and through interpersonal relationships and meetings; how would my foot have anything to do with that?), I went off on crutches to my usual hours of work, eleven-hour days. By the end of that first week, I was miserable. My shoulders, wrists, back, and right leg and foot were so sore from trying to get around at work on crutches. My usual parking space suddenly was way too far from my office, and it was impossible to even get to meetings in distant buildings. I did paperwork to get a special parking pass at work and for the city. I was exhausted. 

When I saw my doctor ten days after the injury, she told me that I had to continue to be completely non-weight bearing. She told me to reduce my hours at work to four hours a day (plus four hours a day at home), and to rest and put my foot up. But work was extremely busy, with some difficult issues facing me. I cut back my hours a little to about nine hours a day, and spent my time at home with my foot up, being waited on. 

Two weeks later, at the three and a half week mark, I saw my doctor again and she did an X-ray. She said that she saw very little healing. She shook her head about the hours I was working, and wrote a note restricting me to four hours a day at work. She told me to come back in three weeks for another X-ray. She acknowledged that sometimes the early healing does not show up well in an X-ray, and said I could start putting a little weight on my heel as I felt ready, then begin to wean myself off the crutches. 

I started putting my heel down for balance. At about five weeks post-injury I started weight bearing a bit on the heel. It didn't hurt to put a little weight on it, so by the sixth week I was walking short distances in the house with one crutch. A few times I actually forgot to grab my crutches and walked away across the room. I felt so thrilled to have some mobility back, and some of my independence! It was wonderful to be able to pick something up in one hand instead of having to have people bring me everything little thing. I wrote a post about it called I Cleaned the Toilet. A few times, I slept with a bare foot rather than wearing the backslab or cast. 

At the six and a half week mark, I had another X-ray. The doctor said that the bone was starting to heal, but very slowly. She said the bone was filling in on the inside (medial) side, but the bone separation was still clearly visible on the outside of the bone. I told the doctor about sleeping with a bare foot, and sometimes taking the cast off when I was resting on the couch with my foot up. She said that I must not put any weight on my heel/foot with the cast off, but that I could continue with light weight bearing with the cast on. I made another appointment to come back in three weeks. I was pleased that some healing was happening but disappointed that I would still be in the cast for another three weeks. 

During all of this time, work continued to be extremely busy and difficult, and I was getting little sleep because I kept waking up in the night with insomnia, worrying about work issues. This was exacerbated by not being able to exercise (walk, cycle, hike), participate in social events, cook, garden or paint. These are leisure activities that are great stress relievers, but now I seemed to have nothing to distract me from work thoughts. Also, my time at work was creeping upwards again, and even included one fourteen hour day.

The next day, a Thursday, the doctor's office phoned our house and left a message to call. By the time I returned from work, the office was closed. I returned their call late Friday afternoon. It was bad news. The radiologist had taken a look at Wednesday's X-ray and saw very little healing. I was told to stop weight bearing, and to keep the cast on at all times. I was told that the doctor was referring me to an orthopedic surgeon. When I asked how long it would take to see the surgeon, the staff member said typically five to six months. 

I was devastated. I hadn't anticipated that the fracture would not heal. I had thought that I would be out of the cast after seven or eight weeks, then have a few weeks of physio, and then be ready for the ski season. Going back to no weight bearing after a week and a half of greater mobility was very difficult. The thought of being on crutches for another five months while waiting to see the surgeon, then having to undergo an operation was horrible. And of course there would then be a couple of months of recovery time after the surgery. I became grumpy and depressed (which did not endear me to Rob). 

I decided that I needed to make a greater effort to rest, stop working so much, and to elevate my foot as much as possible. I contacted my supervisor at work and explained the setback that I had experienced regarding my healing. He was very supportive, and he, another colleague, and the members of my leadership team met with me this week to help identify what tasks could be taken on by each of them and what could be deferred. I am now strictly obeying the restriction of four hours a day at work. I have accepted my immediate future as a couch potato. If this is what I need to do to help the bone heal, this is what I will do. 

Although up to this point I had done a little reading on fractures and healing processes (which had led me to start taking calcium and a multivitamin, as well as to avoid ibuprophen and other NSAIDS), I had not researched my condition very thoroughly. have now begun doing more extensive research on Jones fractures and approaches to treatment. These fractures are often slow to heal and sometimes result in non-union of the bone. The section of the metatarsal where a Jones fracture occurs is poorly served by blood flow. I plan to write another post on what I have learned about fractures of the fifth metatarsal bone, and in particular Jones fractures. 

In the meantime, I am trying to rest, rest, rest. I am trying limit my focus at work only to those critical pieces that I must do, and let others do the rest. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

I Cleaned the Toilet

Today I cleaned the toilet. Not only that, I also wiped down the bathroom counter and scrubbed the sink. I also did the laundry. I baked a cake. I went shopping. I cooked supper. These things feel like a huge accomplishment. 

You see, six weeks ago today, I broke a bone in my foot. To be exact, it was a Jones fracture of the fifth metatarsal bone. My left foot is in an air cast. I have been getting around on crutches for six weeks. 

As anyone who has ever been on crutches can attest, it is not all that fun. For the first three weeks or so, I could not put any weight on the foot at all, even to balance myself. I quickly discovered that I don't have very good upper body strength. My shoulders, arms, and wrists became very sore from hoisting my weight around on my arms. My right leg, although quite strong, and my right foot ached from bearing all my weight. I was quite unsteady on the crutches. Going between buildings at work, usually a short walk and sometimes a longer walk of up to a kilometer, became next to impossible even for nearby buildings, especially if there were stairs involved.  I could manage only one trek a day of up to two blocks each way and that took lots of time and sweat. 

I discovered that there were so many little ordinary things that I could not do for myself. For example, because both hands were on my crutches, I could not carry a file folder or a cup of coffee. I had to leave a light on at night because I did not feel safe moving around on my crutches in the dark. 

I discovered lots of strategies to cope with my lack of mobility. I rescheduled meetings to my office whenever possible. I obtained a disabled plaquard so that I could park close to buildings. I had Rob move a chair into the bedroom so that I could sit to dress myself, and I learned to lay out all my clothing within easy reach. Similarly, Rob put a plastic stool into the shower so I could sit to shower. Getting ready for work in the morning took so much longer. Wherever possible, I simplified things - no hair products, no scarves, little or no jewellry. 

I have spent a great deal of time this last six weeks either at my desk at work or on the couch at home with my foot up. I have missed a beautiful autumn, unable to go out and walk, cycle, or garden. I have stopped painting (except once). I have stopped shopping, except once with Rob's help. Initially I couldn't cook, then I began some limited cooking with Rob and Alex helping (although with a team effort, we did have a full turkey dinner on Thanksgiving). Initially, I could only do the laundry with someone to help by carrying the laundry baskets, and then I mastered pushing the basket along the floor with a crutch.

Finally, this week I have been able to put significant weight on the left foot in the cast. I am putting most of my weight on my heel, not on the whole foot. I can get around in the house with only one crutch. I can even take several steps without a crutch. It is so wonderful to have one or both hands free! I can pick up the laundry basket and carry it. I can cook a whole dinner without help, including bending down to lift hot things out of the oven. Today, for the first time, I was able to carry a cup of tea from the kitchen to the living room, which involves going down three steps. Today I also went shopping by myself. 

Probably I overdid it a bit today, as my foot is quite sore tonight and swollen.  But it is so wonderful to be recovering, and to be able to to do even mundane things again, like cleaning the toilet. It has helped me appreciate the little ordinary things of life and see them not just as unwanted chores but as the elements of life that make up my existence in the world. 

My therapy cat.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Memoir and Story

I am reading a book called The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr. It is a book on writing, specifically about writing memoir. Karr has written three best-selling memoirs helping to popularize the form, and also has spent more than three decades teaching a writing course on memoir. A fundamental premise that is central to memoir, Karr says, is that a memoir demands truth.

She goes on to talk about what she means by truth. She says that "you're seeking the truth of memory -- your memory and character -- not of unbiased history" (p. 11). That is, the truth is not objective truth but the writer's or narrator's truth. She addresses ways in which the mind can be "wiggly" and not fully remember some scenes or events in detail, and also how retold memories (remember the time you did xyz) can insert themselves in your memory as if they were your real memory of the original event. She talks about how the writer can and should signal areas of doubtful memory rather than fictionalizing or, as she puts it, lying to the reader. To be a memoir, the acount must be true. Nothing else will suffice. 

Although I agree with Karr that a memoir must yearn toward an accurate recounting of a remembered event, and that this is how it differs from fiction and also creative nonfiction, I believe that one's memory does not record a "true" record of any experienced event. Rather, even the very first time a person tries to recall an event that occurred, he or she creates a narrative of the event, and that first narrative already has shaped the memory of the event. Essentially, the event has been turned into a story. 

The memory of the event shapes the narrative, and the narrative in turn shapes the memory. With each recall or retelling, the story (and thus the memory) evolves and becomes a little different than it was the previous time. Perhaps the individual doing the recalling now has some new piece of information that sheds a different light on the past experience and therefore gives the memory of it a somewhat different gloss. Or perhaps the memory story is told a particular way to suit a certain audience (e.g., a daughter, or a lover, or a social worker). Or perhaps the adult recalls the event with different developmental insights than the child would have had. Or the event may be remembered differently when one is exuberant and happy than when at the bottom of a pit of depression. 

These different variations of the remembered event layer over each other and each can feel true. Sometime multiple competing versions can feel true simultaneously, or sometimes only the most recent reworking is the memory that feels most true. It may be that there are a few core elements that do not change -- the image of the way the knee was twisted at an unnatural angle, let's say, or the three words the narrator screamed as she ran from the room. But the remaining details and interpretations will vary over time. This slipperiness of memory makes the capturing of one precise truth challenging for the memoirist. 

Consider that as autobiographers, each of us tells a story about our own life that gives our lives meaning. That means that our life story (and therefore the memories it is based on) will be shaped differently depending on whether we see ourselves as the hero, the villain, the victim, the incompetent, and so on. We benignly leave certain bits out and highlight other bits that support this point of view. 

I know that my own life story and my view of myself as the protagonist of my life changes depending on circumstances. For example, I may have led a highly successful project to completion at work recently and received accolades, and for a time, I will tend to recall memories or reshape memories that support my current view of myself as indispensable and a heroic problem solver. Or perhaps someone breaks into my car overnight while it is parked right in my own driveway, and it happens to occur the same week that someone steals my purse out of my office at work. I may for a period of time see my protagonist self as a victim, and begin recalling those times in my childhood that I was taunted at school, or beat up by a sibling, or scapegoated by a teacher. I will call memories to mind that support this new victim view of myself, but also I will inadvertently reconstrue memories to glean evidence for this current view of myself. 

So, I have argued that while a memoirist might strive for the idea of truth, truth itself as presented in one's episodic memories is not that easy to pin down. As a writer, the truth that I reach for is emotional truth. How did I feel when that experience occurred? If I can nail that emotional truth, I am less worried about getting all the facts and sequences right. And as I recount that past event, I also want it to be a good story. That might mean that I compile a series of observations that took place over time into one scene. Or that I have an antagonist say something that perhaps he did not actually say in exactly those words, but that would have been typical of what he would have said. So maybe I'm just not a memoirist, but really a novelist writing novels that are based to a greater or lesser extent on memories. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Crazy-making by Design

In my job as an academic administrator, I am so embedded in the organization that it can be hard to think of my work with any sense of separation. Stepping in the door in the morning is like shooting out of the gate of a ski race onto a mogul course: the moguls are coming at you, you're going as fast as you can, the side of the course is lined with spectators shouting things, and if you don't make a great time you might be dropped from the team. And before you step through the door, you're thinking about the course - how you will take this section of it, preparing your mind and body, trying to quell the anxiety. After the race, you mentally go through the critical turns where you lost a second or two, or caught an edge, or made up time, and you're thinking ahead to tomorrow's race on the same mogul course but it will be different because it's going to warm up and there will be a huge dump of wet snow and one of your top team members will be out of the race because of injury.

Okay, enough with the skiing metaphor. It works for me because I am a skier and because skiing a race, while challenging, still gives the competitor some control. But in fact, many days at work feel way more out of control than that. Daily, I am bombarded by problems and bizarre situations that seemingly come out of nowhere, and have expectations thrust upon me over which I have little choice. Maybe a more apt metaphor would be that of being thrown into an old fashioned wringer washer. In the washing machine, you are being vigorously agitated, crashing against and becoming entangled in poorly defined problems spinning about in murky water, and then at some point being dragged out and squeezed dry.

The point of all this is that, it seems to me, academic organizational structures have evolved to be such that leadership is doomed to be done poorly. The lived experience of leadership is extremely frustrating to boot. I have read many leadership books and attended many workshops and courses on academic leadership. While I have gleaned useful tips along the way and some strategies to survive, it seems to me that the books and courses are missing the boat. They focus on skills,  strategies, and leadership styles rather than addressing core underlying issues. I will talk about some of these as I perceive them: the macho culture, the career ladder, the collaborate/compete conundrum, and the confusion of purpose. 

The Macho Culture

Although women now proliferate at the bottom levels of the academic hierarchy and some are even inching onto the upper rungs, the overall institution is steeped a macho culture of, "when the going gets tough, the tough get going." No matter what they throw at you, you take it like a man; you are a wussy if you cry; you suck it up; you don't complain. Being way too busy at all times is a given, as is working long hours every day and showing up for evening and weekend events as well. Leaders who don't let it get to them or who can feign that they don't, who float unscathed above the mess, and who can crack an inside joke are admired as successful, regardless of what they actually accomplish. For here's the thing: this culture of being the tough guy leads to a lack of reflection and real acknowledgment of the practical challenges of leadership. It breeds a context of overwork where there is too much too do and little time to think, so therefore projects may not be clearly defined, completed in a timely way, or done as well as they might. Triage is necessary, and without time to reflect or consult, many times the urgent will trump the important. 

The Career Ladder

One result of the culture of of machismo pervading academia is that people who are willing to play this game and who master the art of of looking like they are unruffled and in control are more likely to be seen as successful and rise on the career ladder. Hence the culture perpetuates itself. Another career ladder factor is that whatever leadership role people are in, they have risen to it from some other lower  step on the career ladder, probably quite recently. As an example, recent statistics show that the average length of time that a university president remains in his/her position in Canada is three to four years. I don't have the statistics on other academic leadership positions, but I would guess they are somewhat similar. This means that most academic leaders are beginners at their job. They are just learning. They haven't completed the seven years or ten thousand hours of experience that research suggests is necessary to achieve mastery. By the time they have completed the seven years in their role or before, those with ambitions as administrators have moved on and up. 

The Collaborate/Compete Conundrum

Academia is a fishbowl in which all the members are under surrveillance by all the others. It is called "peer review" or peer evaluation. Peer review is used to determine whether research is worthy to be published or presented at a conference. Committees of peers also decide whether professors should be promoted or receive tenure. This kind of committee approach has been extended to most aspects of decision-making in academia. Just about every decision, whether regarding program development, curricular change, hiring decisions, or the annual budget goes through a consultation process and approvals by various committees. There is an underlying tension between collaborating to get broad buy-in for your project and competing to make sure that your pet idea wins approval over the many other proposals vying for attention and approval. Status also plays into this. The big fish's proposal is likely to slide through the consultation process with only minor feedback (e.g., change this comma on page 17), whereas the little fish's proposal will be shot down (if it even makes it to the table). So the little fish get together or cozy up to a big fish to win support ahead of time. The status of the little fish goes up for each visible win, so picking easy projects rather than hard ones is rewarded, as is self-promotion (which to avoid the appearance of hubris has to be framed as "communication").  It would be naive to think that this type of personality politics could be avoided - it is after all the way the game is played - but it does not ensure that the best ideas come forward or ultimately win support. 

Confusion of Purpose

Canadian academic institutions do not exist in a vacuum. They exist within a local, provincial, national, North American, and global context. Each institution looks to its peers and also to broader societal trends. So while on one hand, universities are resistant to change because of their structure and by necessity on a slow change curve, on the other hand they are subject to being judged on the latest trend or hot topic. This leads to a "follow the shiny squirrel" mentality, whereby each institution copies other institutions, says the same buzz words and implements the same initiatives, but with just enough differentiation to brand them as unique. This investment of effort in copying each other on rapidly changing issues of the day uses up our precious energy and time and distracts us from the very real challenges universities are facing. 

I believe that globalization, the new Information Age created by the participation in and affordances of the Internet, and the sustainability challenges facing humanity have created a context in which universities as we currently know them may not survive. But we the leaders are not putting our brilliant minds to work on this huge issue facing us because we are caught up in and exhausting ourselves surviving the macho culture, climbing the career ladder, building local alliances, and chasing shiny squirrels. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Fall Plein Air

Fall At Police Outpost, oil on canvas board

Today was one of those fabulous early Fall days with the sun shining brilliantly and all of the trees in colour. We went to Police Outpost Park, a beautiful place at the foot of Chief Mountain, Montana. On the Canadian side of the border, this park has lots of history. During Prohibition, it was an outpost of the Northwest Mounted Police, who were stationed here to intercept the cross-border trade in whiskey. Some of the original log buildings are still standing. 

It is also a great place to hike, camp, fish, and paint. It is hilly and has a large lake, several smaller lakes, forested areas, open fields, and some marshland. It is an important nesting area for birds, including species like the mountain bluebird, common loon, eastern kingbird, American golfinch, common snipe, and the sandhill crane. It is on the western edge of the prairie flyway for migratory birds. In the past, Rob and I have explored all of the trails on our mountains bikes and on foot. 

Sadly for me, I have broken a bone in my foot. My left foot is in a cast, and I get around by hobbling on crutches. So this afternoon, while my companions went off on a hike, I set up my painting things on a picnic table and painted a small plein air painting of the fall colours. For a quick little painting, I am fairly pleased with it, although if I had had more time, I would have added some shadows to the path and made it a little less straight, and also worked on the grass, trees, and shadows on the righthand side a little more. But the light was going, my companions had returned from their hike, and the temperature was dropping, so I signed it and that was that. 

It was a lovely day. The final bonus of the day was that as we drove back, we had the opportunity to see the super moon go into full lunar eclipse. It was an amazing sight, something that only happens every few decades, and something I have never witnessed before (I have seen a super moon, and I have seen an eclipse before, but not an eclipse of the super moon.) Also know as a blood moon, in our sighting, the moon was huge and yellow, not red. 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Helping the Earth for my Grandkids

I began to become concerned about the long term environmental sustainability of human behaviours before I reached my teens. I remember doing a science project when I was about 11 or 12 or 13 in which I implemented several rules at my household that involved reducing, recycling, and reusing. This was long before awareness of environmental issues was a common thing, and before these words had become a mantra for us all. This was around 1969-70. I can no longer remember all of the environmental rules I presented to my family, but I do remember two that "stuck." I created a compost bucket for kitchen vegetable waste, and I put concrete blocks into the tanks of our two toilets to reduce water usage. My family was somewhat bemused but went along with it. It was one of my first lessons that one person's actions can influence others' beliefs and behaviours with respect to big social and environmental issues. 

Some 45 years later, I am still concerned about environmental sustainability, and I still compost and try to use water wisely. I am far less sure, however, that my small actions are enough to make a real difference. Although I am am quite diligent in many small environmental actions, I am uncomfortably aware that some of my large actions are many magnitudes more damaging to the environment than the little preventative things that I do to increase sustainability. A list of some of my environmentally reponsible behaviours follows.


- Grow some of my own food in a backyard garden
- Garden organically
- Use square foot gardening method (intensive rotated plots)
- Compost vegetable waste and yard waste
- Use compost to build the soil
- Avoid the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and inorganic fertilizers
- Use the least amount of water necessary in the yard and garden
- When possible, choose food grown locally, humanely, and organically
- Buy groceries in smaller quantities and use leftovers to reduce food waste
- Bring leftovers home from restaurant
- Choose items with less packaging
- Use reusable cloth shopping bags
- Recycle cans and plastic and glass bottles
- Take newspaper and cardboard to recycling depot
- Take paints and other chemicals to recycling depot for proper disposal
- Donate used clothing and household goods
- Bring my own mug or water bottle
- Reuse plastic bags and glass jars
- Choose environmentally sustainable household cleansers (e.g., Citrus cleanser)
- Cloth diapers rather than disposables as much as possible
- Plant trees
- Use short cycle on washing machine if possible
- Turn off lights and electronics when not in use
- Eat less meat
- Reusable lunchbag
- When possible, choose glass, metal or paper over plastic
- Installed water cooler at work to reduce staff use of bottled water
- Use the items I have until they wear out, and avoid shopping unnecessarily (eschew materialism)


- Water by hand or with soaker hose
- Water in the morning or evening, not under the hot sun
- Have planted drought tolerant perennials 
- Choose wild salmon, not farmed salmon
- Purchased low flow toilets
- Purchased hot water on demand system
- Wash in cold water
- Wash full laundry loads rather than a few items
- Don't run the tap when brushing teeth, or only a trickle
- Do not use the garburator


- Do not use air conditioning in my home
- Turn the thermostat down at night and when away
- Chose a smaller more fuel efficient car over a larger gas guzzler
- Sometimes walk or bike rather than drive
- Carpool when possible, e.g., to social or work event
- Live relatively close to work so don't have to commute far
- Have natural gas furnace and fireplace rather than oil, coal or wood
- Do not purchase aerosol cans
- Do not use motorized "toys" for entertainment (quad, motorboat, motorcycle, sled)

These are strawberries that I grew in my garden.

However, there are other bigger things that I do that are not very sustainable. I fly in airplanes far too much, both for work, and to go visit my grandchildren as often as possible. We own two cars, and one is a big truck and camper rig that is not fuel efficient. We live in a house that is much larger than we need. We have not invested in household systems that are more environmentally friendly, such as solar panels, a grey water system, or energy efficient new windows. We had begun doing this in our previous house, but not since we moved here. My house is not close enough to my workplace that I can walk or bike to work. Much of my pension funds are invested in energy funds and other big corporations that are engaged in non-sustainable practices. Rob and I like to go on long driving/camping holidays. We have backyard and camping bonfires. I eat sushi that is made with farmed Atlantic salmon. 

I feel conflicted because some of my behaviours are not aligned with my beliefs and values. I guess it is still worth doing the environmentally conscious things that I do. But I know there is a lot more I could be doing. Those remaining things are the hardest kinds of behaviours to change, however.

Monday, May 18, 2015

May Long

This weekend was the Victoria Day long weekend in Canada, fondly known as May Long. The May long weekend is one that people especially look forward to, as it seems to mark the beginning of the summer season. It is the weekend that locals will tell you is the earliest date to put in your garden. As well, most parks and camping destinations open on the May long weekend and close the Labour Day weekend, the first weekend of September. For us, the dilemma this weekend was whether to go camping or to plant our garden. 

The garden won out, as it almost always does on May Long. I had already cleaned out and weeded the perennial flowerbed in the front years a couple of weeks ago, and the plants are coming in nicely although nothing but the tulips have flowered yet. This weekend we dug up and planted the annual flowerbed at the front of the house. It is a raised bed that Rob built with garden ties two years ago. There are three bushes down the middle of it - a spirea and two pontentiallas - and we planted wave petunias in assorted colours around the front and sides. 

We also planted a container of pansies and more wave petunias in pipe planters on the back patio. 

Rob built the pipe planters out of ABS plumbing pipe. They have a concrete base. In past years we have planted trailing strawberries and cherry tomatoes in the pipe planters, but I like them best for flowers, especially trailing ones. 

I also planted potatoes in potato bags. I tried this for the first time last year. Basically, you start with a few inches of soil in the bottom of the bags, and put about three seed potatoes in each. Then you cover them with an inch or two of soil. As the potato plants begin to show, you add another layer of soil and another layer of seed potatoes. You should be able to get about three layers of potatoes in each bag. It is a great solution if you want to grow potatoes but you don't have a lot of garden space. The black bags also seem to catch and hold the warmth.  

This weekend, I also turned over most of the soil in my vegetable plot. When we first moved here, the soil was terrible, all clay and rocks. Now, going into our fourth summer, I finally have built up the soil to be better for vegetables. I have used compost, manure, black humus, and sand to improve the quality of the soil. I garden organically without the use of chemical fertilizers, so it is especially important to have good soil. 

The weather has been unseasonably cold all week with the possibility of minus temperatures and frost, so I have held off on planting much so far. However, I did put in some herb transplants: dill, thyme, and parsley, and I also planted some celeriac transplants. The oregano, sage, chives, and savory have all come up again and are doing well. 

My fruit garden that I just started last summer also is doing well. It is a tiny triangular bed with raspberry canes along the fence, a rhubarb plant in the middle, and strawberry plants at the apex of the triangle. Everything seems to be thriving and the strawberries are all in bloom. 

I have always loved to garden ever since I was a teen. Wherever I have lived, I have always created a garden. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

Moments of Joy

Life is not the perfection depicted in soft focus Mother's Day ads. You know the ones: a young, perfectly made up, smiling blonde woman with a picture perfect baby in her arms, a vase full of roses, and a piece of jewelry with a large diamond featured prominently in the foreground. That fantasy version of life is as thin as the paper it is printed on. And, despite what the marketers insist, true joy in life is not available for purchase.

Real life is more mundane, complicated, and ambiguous than that. Wherever I have gone in the world, whether to Heidelberg or Mexico City or Whitehorse, I have discovered that I bring myself along. My perspectives, emotions, preferences, and worries come along for the ride. I interpret the experiences I have there through my own point of view. Similarly, significant events in life -- the birth of a baby, a graduation, a wedding -- are experienced through my personal filters. Add in significant others, and their perceptions and preferences, as well as the dramas and agendas of acquaintances and strangers, and the complication index rises. 

Life is not a freeze frame snapshot. Things keep happening. The ten year-old is stung by a yellow jacket. The two year-old has a tantrum. The nuts you are toasting for the salad get left in a pan on a hot burner a little too long and they burn. You feel like you have a head cold coming on. Someone at work has made a critical remark on email about a project you are working on.

Not only that, but a lot of your time isn't your own to do with what you wish. Instead it may be filled with work or family obligations and mundane tasks. Like most of us, I spend much of my time engaged in everyday routine tasks at work and at home. I attend meetings, I answer work email, I drive here and there, I cook dinner, and I do the laundry. These tasks are not primarily associated with the pursuit of pleasure. My "free" time is limited, and so it carries a heavy burden. I try to pack into it all of the experiences and passions that my regular duties exclude. 

Recently, I had a very special opportunity. I had the chance to travel to a distant city to spend time with my daughter and son in law, my not quite three year-old grandson, and my newest dear little newborn grandbaby. I was able to hold my new grandson within six hours of his birth. I was able to spend a few days helping out with cooking and childcare, and bonding with both grandsons. 

There is nothing at all that can replace the joy of gazing down into the face of a brand new grandchild and holding the that warm little body close. I also experienced the joy of seeing my strong and beautiful daughter mothering her two sons, and my wonderful son-in-law looking after his family in all the challenging little ways that occur with a newborn in the house, all on four hours of sleep. And I had the special privilege of spending time with almost three-year-old "E." 

Together "Bamma" (his word for grandma) and E read and re-read the book about the spikey haired guy, shopped for groceries, flew to the birdhouse in the top of the tree on a swing, built a cage of pillows, and made sticker pictures. E taught Bamma the proper bedtime sequence, and showed Bamma how he managed the potty and setting out his dishes for mealtime and getting dressed all by himself. 

The last full day that I spent with my daughter's family, E and Bamma went to the beach. Together we gathered armloads of driftwood and carried it down the beach. E explored a log and driftwood fort built by someone else. He considered adding his stash of wood to it but then decided to continue on down the beach. We crossed a stream, took a look at someone's dock and boat that were pulled up beyond the tide line, and then came to a patch of sand. At this spot, E directed me to drop my armload of sticks and he began to build a house. He used the smaller sticks, poking them into the sand, and propped them up with rocks as well. Then Bamma took a picture with her phone to show Mommy and Daddy when we got back home. 

E's House of Sticks

We made our way back along the beach with a few stops to examine shells and kick at patches of sand. My heart was full of love for my little guy. I felt like the luckiest grandma in the world to have had those precious few hours with him. Experiences like this, and like holding my newborn grandson, are intense nuggets of joy in the everyday flow of life. The worries and "shoulds" recede briefly to make room for the most important experiences of all. Life with all its tangles is so much better than the airbrushed media images. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

La Casa del Pintor

I belong to an online artists' group that specializes in nocturns, or paintings of the nighttime. It is very interesting see works from painters around the world. It has really piqued my interest in painting nocturns. I have just started another one tonight, using a reference photo that I snapped last Fall. It shows a dark foreground, city street, and a western sky with the sun setting, illuminating dramatic layers of clouds.

Tonight I would like to feature a painting that I love, posted by a member of my online group. This amazing work is by Alan Fioravante from Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is "La Casa del Pintor" (The House of the Painter). It is a plein air oil painting. Aren't his colours fabulous?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Perfect Sunday

Today was a perfect Sunday. I started the day by sleeping in. Sometimes after a long week at work, sleeping in is the best thing ever. Then Rob cooked brunch for us, an omelette, and it was delicious. We sat around lazily sipping coffee and chatting.

It was a beautiful sunny day. So we loaded up our mountain bikes and the dog, and drove out to Pavan Park. It was a lovely spring day for riding around on the trails. Then we went down to the river and threw sticks into the water for Kate to swim out to and fetch. I think it was Kate's perfect Sunday too. 

After we came home and had a snack, I spent a couple of hours puttering around in my vegetable garden. I cleaned out dried leaves and so on left over from last Fall, and then began turning over the soil. My herbs are starting to reappear, even though it is still going down below freezing every night. I dug out some marjoram plants and chives to give away, as they are spreading and I have more than I need. I gradually have built up some good soil in the garden bed, and there are lots of worms. Once again, probably foolishly, I have high hopes for my little veggie garden!

Then Rob built a bonfire in our little backyard fire pit, and we had a wiener roast. I always love the first wiener roast of the season. There is something very satisfying about sitting outside on a beautiful evening, gazing into the flames. 

Throughout the day, I checked my phone frequently, almost obsessively, looking for messages. We have two more grandchildren on the way, and one of them could arrive any day now. I am one excited grandma!

Throughout the day, I managed to fit in a few minor tasks. And now, as soon as I finish this blog post, I am going to relax with a novel, some chocolate, and a cup of tea. This is, I have to say, a perfect Sunday.

Roasting a wiener at the backyard fire pit.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Gratitude and Troubles

This morning, Easter Sunday 2015, I am sitting in a treehouse in Los Angeles listening to the birds and thinking about gratitude and hope. I am so fortunate to have the life that I do, with many dear family and friends, and the freedom to make choices and experience the good life. 

My focus for most of the hours of the day, especially on work days, is on troubles -- problems and issues and interpersonal prickles. I function like an adrenalin junkie navigating, advising on, and solving problems. Life at work can seem like a sea of troubles. Thrashing about in those choppy waves takes a lot of concentration. Sometimes it seems like there is nothing but troubles. 

And then I step away. I step into the arms of my loving partner in life. We snuggle down to watch a movie together, or jump on our bicycles and ride into the wind until our eyes are gritty and our T-shirts are soaked with sweat. We stop in at our favourite little coffee shop for a latte and a butter tart or visit the bookstore and buy an art magazine (me) and a wooden boat magazine (him). The fat grey cat crawls up onto our laps and purrs as if his heart is breaking, while the dog dances around us to say, "Walk! Walk! Walk!" 

So walk we do, trekking up and down the coulĂ©e hills observing the first of the spring greenery beginning to push up under the dry grass of the past winter, and one hardy plant already putting out tiny white flowers. Meanwhile the dog sniffs along the path, seeking the scent of other dogs who have passed this way, or races down the hill and up the next looking for deer, or dashes into a copse of trees in the hollow after a porcupine. 

In this life that I have, we can load up the camper and go away for a weekend to the mountains where we hike and read and sit around a small bonfire. A couple of times I have taken my painting gear and spent a happy afternoon doing a landscape on location. Sometimes we take our mountain bikes, and grind our way uphill into creek valleys along gas well roads blocked off to vehicular traffic. 

We talk on the phone to our daughters and sons. We hear about the progress of the pregnancies and plans for our two little grandchildren who will be born this spring. They tell us about the recent move to L.A., and about their work, and their plans for the future. We FaceTime our grandsons, who dance for the camera and make funny faces to amuse grandma and grandpa. On a long weekend, I can book a flight, and spend a few days with them, and it gives me great joy. 

We talk to our friends on the phone, and keep in touch via social media. Sometimes we visit, or they visit us, our we plan to meet somewhere for a ski holiday or a conference. Even though the geographic distances are far, the social distances are not so far. 

Just as with my work, the world seems to be and is full of troubles. People are dying in wars; climate change threatens the future of all humanity; and the corporations are hurtling along an agenda and timeline towards massive social collapse that is unchecked by any regulatory system. 

It is easy to respond with anxiety and despair. Throughout my lifetime as a baby boomer, the narrative about the future has mostly been negative. I have lived through the Cold War, the population explosion, the increasing desertification of the earth, the famine in Ethiopia, Chernobyl, AIDS, the revelations about residential school atrocities, the financial crisis of 2008, the dwindling middle class, Ebola, the boom and bust of fossil fuel economies, many wars, and now the awareness of the implications of global climate change.

My generation has responded with science. We have believed that we can save ourselves with science, and for the most part have managed to stay one step ahead of the collapse of humanity looming on the horizon. Yet in North America, we are experiencing an epidemic of mental health issues: depression, anxiety, substance abuse. Physically, we are living longer, but at the same time, we seem to be experiencing a proliferation of cancers and immune disorders, and obesity is on the rise. My generation has created and is wallowing in a sea of troubles. 

Despite the real and serious troubles facing us as a species, I have faith in the future. I have faith because of the generations of people after the baby boomers. The post-baby boomers have stepped beyond blind worship of science and total obedience to organizational and bureaucratic structures. This generation has sidestepped the the monopoly of big telecommunications companies, publishers, and the entertainment industry via the global network of the Internet. In breaking the communication monopoly, all people around the world can have a voice, not only the rich and powerful. All people can distribute their creative works, or market their wares to the world, not only the corporations. 

The present generation is remaking work. The global digital network has allowed new notions of commerce and entrepreneurship to emerge, like Uber for in-city transportation which does away with the need to own a car, or organic grocery delivery to your door via the Internet, which ultimately will loosen the stranglehold of agribusiness and giant food retail chains. Separation of valuable societal work from employment servitude to a company is another way in which people get their voices back. 

This generation is also remaking the systems of generating and sharing knowledge. For the most part, universities haven't noticed it yet, but the medieval model of institutions of higher learning with its restrictions on who has access, what counts as knowledge, and how credentials are valued, will become obsolete very soon. 

For me, perhaps the most exciting new aspect of what young people today are doing is the infusion of social consciousness into their actions of working and living. For example, across Canada, as in a number of countries, people are lobbying for universities to divest of their investments in fossil fuels, and using their power of voting with their feet to press the point. People are choosing not to work for giant corporations such as the Canadian National Railway that view human beings, their employees, as interchangeable widgets. Instead, young people today insist on an alignment of values and work, and in so doing they are taking away the power of corporations and bureaucracies. 

Instead of the profound sense of helplessness and despair that is a byproduct of my generation's accomplishments, this generation is weaving a narrative of hope and gratitude. This is why I have faith in the future of humanity; our kids are changing the world for the better. 

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.