Monday, May 23, 2016

A Rocky Weekend

This weekend, it was all about the stones.

The planter is finished.  Before I upload the photo, though, I'd like to go on record as saying, "Never. Again."

Ye gods what a job that turned out to be.  And right up until the very end, I wasn't even sure it would even work: I pictured hours upon hours of work resulting in tiles that just peeled or popped off, one by one, into small heaps while I, the erstwhile do-it-yourselfer, collapsed weeping next to them.

But here it is (I really don't think I'll ever uncross my fingers when it comes to this project).

A couple of things.  I didn't realize that grout came in colors other than white, but obviously, of course it does.

Of course it does.  Of COURSE it does.

Thing was, because I didn't know this, I cheerfully picked up a little bucket of grout and didn't bother looking at the little color indicator on the side of the tub.

Sidebar to any grout manufacturers who might be reading this: you really might want to think about putting the little square that indicates the color on the FRONT of the container--you know, like the paint manufacturers do.  Just sayin'.

So what color did I pick up?  Gray.  Which was fine, and worked fine--actually better than white would have, in my opinion.  I think it went well with the tiles and created a nice weathered kind of look.

But YE GODS what a mess dark grey grout makes.  I mean, really.  If anyone out there reading ever comes to a point in their lives when they need to grout an entire bathroom or something with dark grey grout, please, take my advice on this: get a professional, and then book a vacation to Hawaii while they do the job.  You just don't want to be there to see it.

And can I just say, my dream of developing better grouting skills (yes, I know, I have odd dreams) was helped not at all by this project.  Because grouting uneven tile is the kind of task they're going to assign to murders and rapists in Hell, I think.

Very time consuming.  And getting the grout haze off the tile was particularly challenging at one point, because the grout dried more quickly than I had expected.  So that added a couple of extra hours to the process.

Finally, I told myself, "It's good enough."  And I put the flowers in it and put it on the corner of the yard, in the spot where the grass won't grow.  And this is what that looks like now:


So I think it's okay.  As you can see, I set various pots inside the huge tub, so as not to have to drill holes through the steel tub and risk rust.

I'm hoping that, over time, things will fill in and fill out a bit more--I may have to make some adjustments with the potting arrangement and the flowers as the summer unfolds.

We'll see.  But for now, it's done.

My other task for the weekend also revolved around rocks.  This spring, I had to have a few pine trees removed from my yard, and in one case, it left a bit of an odd situation.


The previous owners had put in a triangular section of rock wall, which was fine, so long as the tree was there to block the fact that the wall just basically existed rather randomly, and then ended with a similar kind of randomness.  Like so:


As you can see, I made what can only be described as a Valiant Landscaping Effort by putting in the Flowering Cleveland Pear Tree, but even I had to realize that this was not going to look good any time soon.

So I embarked on a quest to find out about rocks for my fragment of a rock wall.  It wasn't all that hard--I have a friend who is in the process of building a huge rock wall, so he was a wonderful resource for advice and information--and I knew that, given that the rocks were simply stacked, with no mortar involved, I would probably be able to do it.

Last week, I ordered a pallet of rocks, and on Friday, they delivered them.  I wasn't sure how many I'd need, but the thing was, the type of rocks I needed were only sold by the pallet, so I bought one.

I quickly realized that I would have more than enough for the wall, so I decided I'd make an edge around my herb garden.  I'd never really liked the light tan color of that particular raised bed, so I figured this would be a good chance to remedy that as well.  This was the result:


And wouldn't you know it?  As it turns out, I had EXACTLY enough rocks to do both walls.  Not a single stone left over. 

Not bad for a rocky weekend.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Firmly Planted

The grading is finished, which means the May vay-cay can officially begin.

Not that I'm going to be doing a lot of vacationing, really.  I need to get back in shape after a winter of illness and busy-ness and work, so in that spirit, I've been heading to the pool.

And in a fit of wonderful chance, as I was leaving the pool and thinking about how I need to get in shape, I just happened to bump into my former boxing coach.  Who just happened to tell me that she's teaching classes at a new gym, and that these classes just happen to fit perfectly with my schedule.

I can't begin to tell you how excited I am about this.  (Although, to be honest, I'm not terribly excited about that first workout.  I'm already a little queasy just thinking about how hard it's going to be.)  I'm excited at the thought of getting back into super-fit shape and having the option of a lot of different workouts--swimming, biking, Pilates, boxing.

I guess you could say I'm a fitness geek as well as a general nerd.  Oh well.

In that vein, I've been gardening up a storm.  I had to "level up" on one of my potato towers--that is, I had to add the next level of boards, because the plants I put in back in April have been doing so well.  Fingers crossed...

The latest project has been to create a mosaic planter.  I saw instructions for doing this on a Pinterest post last winter and I'd been wanting to try it.

Basically, it involved getting a steel container, adhering sheets of wall tiles to it using mortar, and then grouting the whole thing.

I got the container and the tiles, and I tried using thinset, the way the instructions suggested, to adhere the tiles to the container.  I'd read conflicting accounts of using thinset on metal--it would work just fine, it wouldn't work at all, it might work.  In short, the jury was out.

In my case, it didn't work.  But that may be because I was following the instructions and trying to adhere the tiles in sheets, and the tiles I chose were simply too heavy.  They peeled right off.

So I decided to try again and this time do two things differently: adhere the tiles individually, and use a mortar that is specifically identified as an "adhesive."  This is what that looked like:


I also read that "scoring" the adhesive/mortar might help the tiles adhere better, so that's why you see the criss-cross lines.  I really wasn't sure this would work any better than the first attempt, so I started with just a couple of rows, like so:


And, miracle of miracles, when I checked on it this morning, all of the tiles were firmly anchored in place--only one was loose, and that was easily fixed with a little additional adhesive.

So, I took the plunge and did the entire container, like so.

In case you're wondering, the plan is to use this huge container to hold several smaller pots with plants in them.  I'm going to put it on a corner of my yard where the grass simply won't grow.

This way, I don't have to drill drainage holes in the steel container--if I did that, I'd risk having the whole thing rust away before my very eyes, because apparently once you cut holes in the steel and expose the inner core, it can--and will--rust.

I'm going to let it sit for another day or so, to dry thoroughly, and so I can check for any loose tiles before I attempt to grout it.

I confess, I'm still skeptical that it will actually work out okay, given that the directions for the adhesive indicate that it isn't for "exterior applications" and that it warns against using it on "natural stone."  (Honestly, I don't know if what I have on there is "natural stone" or not--it sorta looks like it, but these days, you never can tell.)

But I've decided to wait and grout and then hope for the best.  If nothing else, I may be able to get a season's use out of it, and that will be nice.  (More than a single season would be nicer, obviously.)

I'll post another picture when I actually grout it (assuming it looks decent).  Even with all the uncertainty, I'll admit it's been kind of fun to experiment and see what happens.  So, to be continued...

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Redux (Or, Oops, I Did It Again)

Over the years, I've learned that the secret to moving successfully through the grading process at the end of the semester is to find other productive activities to help break up the time spent attached to the computer.

This spring, it's all about doing it all over again.  First, a small window into my own personal insanity:

Remember how I said I'd started a piece of knitting twice and wasn't sure I'd be stupid enough willing to try it a third time.

I tried.  And succeeded.  The stitch markers along the live edge of the knitting are what saved me this time around.

Because this little baby is a pattern called "Fox Paws," and it is not for the faint of heart among the knitting world.  And for some strange reason, I seem to be somewhat addicted to knitting it.  It is unlike any other kind of knitting out there, as you can probably tell from the design, and I think that draws me to it time and time again.

That, or I simply have a masochistic streak that has remained undiscovered until now, when the little Fox Paws dug into it.

I also made another potato bin.  Here's what it looked like in-progress:

It went far more quickly this time around, and not simply because I knew what I was doing.

I decided to use poplar for the corner posts, instead of oak, and I can't stress this enough: poplar is easier to drill holes in than oak.

Much, much easier.

The only thing that was less enjoyable this time around was stenciling the befrigged panels.

Apparently that's a job best done on a cold winter's day.  Because on a sunny, 70-degree day, one resents being trapped in one's basement with stencils and paint.

At least, I do.

But in the end, all was well that ended well, and this was how it all ended:


It is now full of dirt and compost and potato seedlings, and we can only watch and wait and hope.

I also went for a bike ride for the first time yesterday.  You may remember how, last year, I struggled mightily with a new road bike.  Specifically, the seat, the toe clips, the steering--actually, basically, just riding the bike in general.

But this time around, the only dilemma seems to be how out of shape I am at this point in the spring.  Because I hopped on, flipped my feet into those toe clips, and off I went.  I didn't take a long ride, because I'm clearly going to need to ease my way back into it, but I'm pleased to report that this year, the seat didn't make me rethink the entire purpose of human existence.

Sometimes, what's redone is well done.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Not About You

For the past year or two, for a variety of reasons, I've been reading a lot of books about narcissistic personality disorder.  So I'm going to offer my accumulated knowledge about this topic, for anyone and everyone who might be suffering with a narcissist in their life right now.

Because, the fact is, if you have someone with narcissistic personality disorder in your life, you're suffering.  On the days when you aren't actively suffering, you're passively suffering, wondering when all the niceness will end.  Again.  As it always does.

First, a couple of misconceptions.  Hollywood tends to represent narcissists as good-looking billionaires or corporate CEO's without a conscience, who amass wealth and power only to glower and gloat over the lives they have crushed.

Not all narcissists are smart and good-looking.  Let's start there.  Some are rather plain and pedestrian, in both thought and appearance, in fact.  I say this, because often people really can't believe someone can be a narcissist if they're not, you know, smokin' hot and sharp as a tack. 

Because it's too absurd--where do they get off thinking they're so great?

Exactly.  Where DO they get off thinking they're so great?  Where does anyone, if you get right down to it?  Because we all know smart, funny, intelligent people who are delightfully humble.  They just do one amazing thing after another, and you know, they don't even need to tell people about it, for heaven's sake.  They just do it because it's who they are.

A major discrepancy between the narcissist's beliefs about him/herself and the evidence of his/her reality (as seen by all of the rest of us) is one of the most immediate cues that you might be in the presence of the disorder.

Narcissists are never really humble.  If they do something good, everyone has to see it.  And if they do something not-so-good, it's everyone else's fault.

Bear in mind, of course, that all of the traits that I'm describing are possessed in varying degrees by all kinds of people--possessing any single one doesn't necessarily make a person a narcissist.  Narcissistic personality disorder is about a pattern of behaviors that are exhibited long-term, across the board, in all areas of life--work, relationships, finances, love, marriage, etc.   

Which brings me to the next misconception: not all narcissists are successful.

Say WHAT?

That's right.  Just because you think you're amazing, doesn't mean you actually are.  This holds true for all of us--including the narcissists among us.  The difference is, we all know that and, at some point, we admit that--to ourselves and, if we're confident enough, to other people as well.

Narcissists can't do that, and won't. 

What narcissists are good at, however, is drawing people in.  Because they need other people to feed their own sense of themselves, they instinctively know how to turn on the charm, get a foot in the door, and hook people in.  And they seem particularly good at spotting people who are accommodating and/or at a point in their lives when they're vulnerable to being drawn in by a narcissist.

Once hooked, though, you discover that you're living and dealing with someone who is very different from the person you thought you'd connected with.    

Once they've drawn you in, they cycle through a never-ending dynamic that focuses exclusively on maintaining their own overly inflated sense of self.  It's a psychological and emotional loop that's designed to keep you working and thinking, 24/7, about their favorite pet-project: themselves.

Over time, however, many narcissists do begin to experience problems in nearly all aspects of their lives.  As they age, their work-life, friendships, finances, love, and marriage(s) can begin to unravel at a regular--and at times alarming--rate.

Because while we tolerate a measure of narcissism in the young--we call it "immaturity" and consider it to be a normal part of the maturation process-- as people age, well, to put it bluntly, that shit just gets old.

In the case of someone who is not a socially or financially successful narcissist, the gap between what the person does or accomplishes and what the person claims they can do--and the rewards and accolades that they believe they are therefore entitled to, despite the lack of actual accomplishment--widens. And as it does, the person's narcissistic behavior and tendencies become ever more noticeable to the people around them.

Put simply--and very broadly--the primary attributes of a narcissist are an inflated sense of self (where claims of personal abilities and capacities don't align with the person's actual accomplishments), a tendency to "finger-point" and blame any and all failures on others, and a total lack of empathy.

Narcissists mimic emotion that they cannot actually feel or truly understand because they want everyone else to "like" them and pay attention to them. 

At the same time, however, Work/Life consultant Melissa Schenker offers the following useful list of distinctions between a "sociopath" and a "narcissist"--because obviously, the two can seem quite similar, but in fact, they're rather different.

In the case of a narcissist, the focus is never on you, always on the narcissist.  Their goals are often pretty short-term: they want the attention, and they want it now.  Always.  It's about getting the attention and keeping other people involved in a dynamic that fuels the narcissist's desire for attention.

And although they crave approval, if they can't gain your admiration, negative feedback is just fine with them, thank you very much.

They don't really care if you're positively furious with them, so long as you're paying attention to them.  Your fury is their fuel.  That's what it's all about for the narcissist, really--fueling their own needs despite (or at the expense of) the needs and well-being of others.

A sociopath, however, knows how to feign an interest in you (or in others) to achieve a desired end.  Sociopaths are self-aware in ways that narcissists aren't.  For example, a narcissist might try to bully you into agreement with their perspective when you register a differing opinion.  A sociopath, however, will register your objections mentally and then quietly figure out a work-around strategy to undermine or neutralize your objections.  They won't get defensive or angry when faced with your opposition, if such anger or defensiveness won't help them to advance their own personal goal.

The narcissist will react when opposed; the sociopath probably won't--or at least not openly.  Narcissists can get aggressive in situations where a sociopath will remain "calm" or "neutral."

A sociopath can focus on long-range planning in a way that a narcissist can't: where a narcissist will get angry or frustrated when his/her needs aren't met, a sociopath won't necessarily bat an eye.

Sociopaths can take other people's emotional input in as "neutral" information and then figure out the best use they can make of this information to advance their own agenda.

Narcissists will "enmesh" people in their lives and are fundamentally unable to see others as separate individuals.  As Schenker points out, a narcissist can't really see other people as, well, other people, beings with individual thoughts and desires that don't always necessarily align with their own.

A sociopath can register that others are different and have different needs and desires; they simply don't care because they don't believe those needs and desires matter.  A narcissist "cares" insofar as s/he can (and often will) respond defensively when confronted with others' differences, criticism, or lack of admiration and approval.

If you're struggling with a narcissist, I highly recommend Melissa Schenker and Tina Moody's "Sweet Relief" blog or--better yet, their book, Sweet Relief from the Everyday Narcissist (2012).

Both offer all kinds of advice and insight, and all of it is practical and helpful for dealing with real-world situations and problems caused by narcissists and their behaviors.  I won't attempt to summarize it all here, but if you're wondering what the key to this "sweet relief" is, it's really quite simple.

Pay attention to yourself instead.

Because believe it or not, the dynamic that the narcissist needs to thrive will function only so long as you pay attention to the narcissist and respond to his/her words and behaviors.  To change your life, you have to change the dynamic--which is easier said than done, obviously.

In the narcissist's mindset, the worst thing imaginable is being... ignored.  Or considered simply average and not all that interesting.  Treated as someone who's basically just like the rest of us.  No better and no worse.

In the long run, narcissists will always prove to be pretty ineffectual, once you stop playing their game.
  
Because really, life isn't a game.  It isn't about being right or winning the argument.

It's about realizing that not everything is always about you.  

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Swinging into Spring

I spent the day jamming.  Like so:


It's been a chilly and cloudy and rainy week here--the April showers thing apparently took a rain check (see what I did there?) and arrived in May instead.

First, I tried to fight it off with some yarn, like so:  

But that didn't help as much as you might expect.  

Because even though I have about seven uncompleted projects, I tried to start a new one, but then ran into problems, so I stopped.

I tried again, ran into problems, stopped.

The only remaining question is, will I be crazy enough to try for a THIRD freakin' time.  I'm not sure, really.  I might be.  It depends on whether I want to procrastinate on any upcoming grading--which I shouldn't do, because if I've learned anything in life, it's that papers and exams don't grade themselves.  They just don't.  You can wait for elves to show up and do them, but you'll be waiting a while.

So I decided to tap into the frozen blueberries I had from last summer--ye gods, I had a lot--and work on making jam.  Except I ran into the same problem I've run into with blueberry jam before: it's reluctant to "set."  Thus leaving me with a substance more like blueberry syrup than blueberry jam.

Don't get me wrong.  Blueberry syrup is just fine, and given that I've been eye-balling a new pancake recipe for a couple days now, I'll be just fine.

But I did want to know why this kept happening, because I'm like that.  I want to know why.  The best guess I can offer at this point is, freezing the berries may up the water content a bit.  Because the only jam I have this problem with is blueberry, and the only other time I had this issue, I used frozen berries (I think).

So, it may be blueberry syrup.  As I said, I'll be just fine.

I would also like to say that I honestly didn't think every single kale seed that I planted would sprout.  Really, I didn't.  Suffice to say, I'm looking at a lot of potential kale this spring.  Like so:

Picture a 4'x4 raised bed with two more rows that look just like that, and you've entered my world.

Kale freezes, right?  It has to, as far as I'm concerned. 

I was also pleasantly surprised to realize that my potatoes have all done quite well, both in the tower that I built and in the other raised bed.

They're looking like so:

The situation is a little bit better than it appears in this photo.  Setting aside the fact that I am, as I've repeatedly stated, a pretty crappy photographer, the potato plants are kinda buried under the pine-needle much.

I used pine needles because word on the street has it that potatoes like acidic soil.  So far, that seems to be true.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I'm also looking at the possibility of being buried alive in broccoli and tomatoes, because yes, all those seeds sprouted too.  In the case of these sensitive souls, though, I know better than to count my chickens (like that mixed metaphor?), because I've been in this situation in previous springtimes, and along about July, I begin screaming in rage as these little beauts die.  But for now, here they are, looking good:


That's the broccoli on the left, and the tomatoes on the right. 

I've also tried growing garlic this year, and it seems to be doing okay... for now.  I wasn't sure what would happen with it--and I'm still not, actually--because you're supposed to plant it after the first frost, because it needs the cold weather.

So I did what I was supposed to, and then it went up to 70 degrees in November.  Oh, and then again in December--remember Christmas in the Northeast, everyone?--and so the garlic did what any sensible plant would do and put up leaves which then promptly ran the risk of freezing.

But in the end, they seem okay.  I've got them in a grow bag next to the house, and this last photo is in fact a two-fer, because I also wanted to show off the fact that my peonies are finally looking pretty good. 

Those are the peonies on the left, the garlic on the right.

I've been struggling with the peonies, because I had to find the spots that would get enough sun for them to do well in the spring, without croaking in the heat in the summer.

I think I've found the right places for them.  Finally.  Fingers crossed. 

And yes, that's a lot of garlic in the grow bag, but I say again, I thought--nay, expected--that some of it would die.

Perhaps my thumb is greener than I realize.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Finishing

The end of the semester is finally here, which means I'll finally have time to get back to blogging.  As I've been meaning to do for the past four months.

It's been a busy time, but a productive one.  Back in March, I came across an article by Gwen Moran that identifies the twelve habits of the most productive people. 

I'm a pretty productive person in general--probably very productive, really--and I do think Moran's advice is good.  The only caveat I would offer is that I also refrain from subscribing to the idea that life is always about productivity.

There are benefits to laziness as well.  Perhaps in a future blog post I'll discuss those. 

Moran notes that the "super-productive" among us have a mindset that situates them for success: specifically, "they focus on what matters" and the recognize that "important" and "urgent" are two separate things.

Personally, I find that we live in a world that pressures us to regard every little task as somehow "urgent."  It's not.  It probably isn't even all that "important" either. 

Keeping on top of things, to my mind, means moving swiftly through the little things so that they don't pile up whether by doing them during the "salvage[d] wasted time" that Moran describes or by doing all the things I know I'm not going to want to do (another strategy on Moran's list), so that the to-do list doesn't turn into a "jesus-just-shoot-me" list.

And yes, organization is important.  Again, as Moran notes, "having a set routine" and "knowing where to find what you need when you need it" can be key to working efficiently.

That said, I hate to think of how many hours of my life have been lost to the "Absent-Minded Professor Syndrome.  You know, when you walk into a room a stare around blankly and think, "Wait, what did I come in here for?"  Or you stare at a cluttered desk and think, "Now when did I last see that form I need... I know I put it in a safe place so I could find it easily...".

Because as Moran also points out, the productive among us aren't perfect--specifically, they aren't perfectionists.  Really, there's no point beating yourself up about the fact that you should be "better about" X, Y, or Z.  You are who you are.  Do what you can with that, and don't waste too much time wishing you were "better," somehow, at anything and everything.

Which brings me to two of what I regard as Moran's most essential points: productive people "quit strategically" and "only attend meetings with purpose."

Sometimes, you gotta say, "to hell with it," and walk away.  If it's using up too much time and energy and phrases like "beating my head against a wall," "falling on deaf ears," or--worst of all--"no good deed goes unpunished" keep coming to mind, it's time to quit.

Or, if it's a project that doesn't involve others and is simply something you started working on all by your lonesome, I tend to think the number of times you use the phrases "tearing my hair out" or "going in circles" can be a pretty reliable index of when it's quittin' time.

The issue of meetings is a fraught one.  Over the years, I've come to believe that there are people who just... like meetings.  They don't care if they're pointless or tedious, because they seem to have subscribed to the notion that being "at" or "in" a meeting means that they're busy and that being busy in this way means that their lives have value and purpose.

I've always been particularly surprised to note that these are often the selfsame people who lament that things "can't just be put in an email."  They can, actually, but mark my words, when they are, you will have those very people coming around to tell you that the issue is "too important" to discuss over email, and we "need" to meet.

Sometimes, meetings are necessary.  Sometimes, meetings are good.  In my experience, the best meetings are the ones where the people in attendance agree that "we need to do X and Y" and that "A and Z" can be put in an email.  And they move swiftly to the things that really do need to be done and discussed, and come up with an action plan for doing it.

But those end up few and far between.  And when they are, I say, if you want to be a productive person, you're probably going to have to brave the feeling that you first braved back in the day when you contemplated skipping a class.  (And no, I'm not condoning skipping class.  Especially not MY class.)

Because really, there are only so many hours in a day, and gatherings that leave you feeling drained and... well, kinda sad, actually, aren't worth it.  If your job and your salary don't hinge on such exchanges or encounters, then be selective on the ones you attend.

And if your job and your salary do in fact hinge on such meetings, then I would say, consider whether you really enjoy your job enough to want to keep doing it.  If so, great.  If not, this might be why you're not as productive as you'd like to be: you're not happy.

Because in the end, I think productivity and happiness often go hand-in-hand.  When you're down and depressed, it's hard to even move.  When you're happy, you've got the energy you need to get things done, and doing them doesn't seem quite so difficult. 

So maybe it isn't you, per se.  Maybe you can change your circumstances--or tweak them a bit--and find yourself getting more out of any given day.  And out of life in general.