Monday, May 29, 2017

Photo Finish

Yes, I have been away from the blog for two weeks. No this was not what I had planned on doing.

BUT, it's been time well spent.

I've been writing. In fact, there's a good chance that by the end of the week, I will have not one, but two articles submitted to a couple of journals. This would be beyond good. Especially since one of them--on the French writer Zola--has been the bane of my existence for a very, very long time now.

I'm sticking with the concept of "deep work" and positive writing sessions, and so far, it seems to be going fairly well. If I stay on track tomorrow and Wednesday, I will be able to say that, for the month of May, I had 14 "deep work" writing sessions--and I think the results speak for themselves, insofar as I'm poised to submit two essays for consideration.

I'd like to increase the number of sessions to at least 20 for the month of June. I think that's do-able, given that I managed to have 14 in May, in spite of having a week of classes, a week of grading, and a conference to attend this past weekend.

I also committed to finishing up a bunch of projects that have been waiting in the wings for a while now. That's a story best told through photos.

First, there was this summer sweater. (Pay no attention to the blocking pins along the bottom edge.)

I'm actually no longer even sure when I started this, but given that it's lightweight and made of flax, I suspect it was when weather was warmer, so ... probably at least six months ago.

It knitted up very quickly, obviously. I know the armholes look a little funky, but trust me, they're just fine--once you put arms into them, it all looks very normal.

I'm embarrassed to say that the only thing that needed to be done one it was to knit what's called an "i-cord edging" around the armholes and the bottom. (I'd already done it around the neckline.)

And yet, there it sat, for months on end, and on an almost daily basis, I would mentally remind myself that I needed to finish it up.

Kind of like with these socks over here.

In this case, I succumbed to a pretty typical case of "Second Sock Syndrome."

I went great-guns on the first, and then slowed to a crawl complete halt when it came to the second one.

I finally took it with me to a movie, and got several inches of it knitted up there, and then chose my subsequent reading material for the next few days rather carefully, with an eye to being able to finish a sock while reading.

The sad irony in all of this is, it actually only took a few hours to finish both of these projects. One wonders why I spent so much time delaying the inevitable, since there was nothing un-enjoyable about finishing them up.

I actually also (nearly) finished a second mitten. As you can probably imagine, mittens, like socks, are prone to the Second Syndrome: you make one, then you get bored with working on it and don't bother working on the second one.

Yesterday, I picked up the second mitten and realized that, once again, I really only had a couple of hours left of work to do on it, so I did it. All except sewing it together, which I postponed doing because by the time I'd finished it was getting dark, and the yarn is a dark yarn, and sewing seams with dark colored yarn is just a lot faster and easier by daylight.

So I set it aside.  I meant to get to it today, but instead, I did a batch of writing, made a small cake (which tastes good, but doesn't look so hot, which is why there's no photo of it), and worked on clearing more weeds out of the various garden beds in the yard.

While I know a lot of people on the East Coast are probably bummed because they're barbecues were rained out this year, I have to say, I was kind of happy we had a rainy Memorial Day.

It's been good for the garden, and a good way to get all of the small tasks done, in anticipation of a busy summer.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Here and There

A few months ago, I started Marshall Goldsmith's What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful (2007). I finally had a chance to finish it this weekend.

Goldsmith makes a living as a "leadership coach," which means that Fortune 500 companies hire him to work with executives who are generally successful, but who either have the potential to become more so or who may have a behavioral habit that runs the risk of derailing their otherwise strong performance--in Goldsmith's words, "People who do one annoying thing repeatedly on the job--and don't realize that this small flaw may sabotage their otherwise golden career" (9).

His book is designed to explain his coaching process: "It's aimed at anyone who wants to get better--at work, at home, or any other venue" (14), and it operates on the assumption that "Interpersonal behavior is the difference-maker between being great and near-great" (120).

Goldsmith argues that the "four key beliefs" that "help us become successful" (16) may make it difficult for us to ... well, level-up, so to speak. To get from "here" to "there" in our careers. According to Goldsmith, the beliefs that help us succeed and then, paradoxically, hold us back are: "I have succeeded," "I can succeed," "I will succeed," and "I choose to succeed."

If you're wondering how these beliefs could possibly impede our path to success, Goldsmith's claim is that these beliefs-- that "we have the skills, the confidence, the motivation, and the free choice to succeed"--cause us to become "superstitious" (25). More specifically, they lead us to confuse "correlation" with "causality."

According to Goldsmith, sometimes we're successful "because of" our behavior, and sometimes we're successful "in spite of" our behavior--and being able to distinguish between the two is what can move us from "here" to "there" (26). But if we always think we're successful "because of" our behavior, we'll never take stock of the ways in which we may be successful "in spite of" the things we do.

Goldsmith outlines 20 specific habits that influence our interpersonal behavior in ways that hinder our success. (No, I'm not going to list them all--you'll need to read the book.) He also includes a "twenty-first habit"--"goal obsession"--a trait that is generally an asset for anyone seeking success, but that becomes a liability when "we get so wrapped up in achieving our goal that we do it at the expense of a larger mission" (99).

In particular, we fail to understand "what we want in our lives" (99)--we think, "I'd be happy if only [fill in the blank with your goal]," without taking stock of the fact that we may be misunderstanding and misperceiving both our goal and its ultimate consequences.

The quintessential example, of course, is anyone who works hard to earn as much money as possible with the goal of providing a better life for their children, only to create a situation in which they no longer have any time to spend with said children.

Goldsmith offers a 7-step process for change that involves soliciting feedback, apologizing for past behavior, advertising one's desire to change, listening to others, thanking them, following up with them (to find out whether the changes we seek to implement in ourselves are really taking root), and "practicing feedforward" (asking people to suggest ways in which we might improve in the future).

As you can probably tell from this list of behaviors, implementing the change that will move you from "here" to "there" involves reining in a whole lot of ego and getting used to accepting criticism without comment.

In fact, one of the most interesting points that Goldsmith makes is that, when we receive negative criticism, we should simply say, "Thank you. I'll try to do better in the future." (Our tone should be neither snide nor snarky when we do so.)

We should resist the urge to become defensive because, as Goldsmith points out, no one can actually force us to heed their criticism and change our behavior in accordance with their particular desires or perspective. It's always ultimately our own decision whether to take the suggestion or not.

However, when we become defensive, we risk creating interpersonal friction, a phenomenon that will obviously make it more difficult for us to get from "here" to "there." (To repeat: "Interpersonal behavior is the difference-maker between being great and near-great.")

If you're reading all of this and thinking, "Yeah, well, anyone who tells me I need to behave in a way that I think is just plain stupid should be told to go stick it where the sun don't shine," or "It'll be a cold day in hell when I let some smug bastard I work with tell me how I need to improve--talk about a train wreck!"  then you can see very clearly why change is so difficult.

(And perhaps, having realized that, you may also begin to realize why you are "here" rather than "there." Just a thought.)

Goldsmith's suggestion for changing our behavior is that we "Pick one issue that matters and 'attack' it until it doesn't matter anymore. If you're a bad listener, choose to become a better listener--not the best listener in the world" (192).

His argument is, we need to accept that there is no ideal human behavior, be honest with ourselves about whether we have a trait (or two) that needs changing, stop hiding from the truth about ourselves, and focus on changing the "one issue that matters."

And then, get started. Obviously, Goldsmith offers a range of concrete suggestions for how we can do that.

More importantly, though, Goldsmith acknowledges that we all have our own personal idea of what "there" looks like and if we truly want to identify what that is, we should simply imagine that we're 95 years old and have the opportunity to give our younger selves the advice--both personal and professional--that we think they will need to be successful.

Goldsmith suggests that, if we take the time to briefly write down both personal and professional advice for our younger self from our older self, we will find that ultimately, we have defined what constitutes our "there" (221).

And then, we can begin to get "there."

Friday, May 12, 2017

Springy

We've been having a rainy and chilly(ish) start to May, weather-wise, so I decided to strike while the iron was hot (so to speak) and try to get the yard and gardens under control.

The yard went okay until I hit a thick patch of grass and the mower crapped out. Never to start again.

I ordered a new starter, on the off chance that the whole not-starting thing was because, well, you get my drift, but no it wasn't the starter. But still, in the very fiber of my being, I did not want to send my little mower to the landfill.

So I found a place that repairs all kinds of tools and machines. At first, they were skeptical: it's not a pricey mower, so there was a good chance that repairing it would cost as much as a new mower. Maybe it was the motor that had "blown." Maybe it would be un-fixable.

It was "up to me."

I insisted they give it a look-see. When we got it inside and I showed them what was wrong, the guy said, "You know what? I take it all back. That just sounds like the starter isn't engaging--it may just need a new switch. This may actually be fixable after all."

They're going to call and let me know. Meanwhile, the grass is growing. Luckily I got the front yard mowed before disaster struck, so I'm at least presenting a semi-neat appearance to the world at large.

In terms of the garden, I've been able to leave the low tunnels up for a bit longer, since it's going down into the 40's at night. When I opened them up for the first time since January, imagine my surprise at finding a whole lotta leeks growing, as well as some carrots, brussels sprouts, beets and broccoli.

Not a LOT of these, you understand--just about one of each. Except for the leeks. Lots and lots of leeks coming my way this year, it would seem.

I also have garlic that survived the winter--or, more to the point, it survived the squirrels that like to dig everything I plant and fling it hither and thither.

I put in a bunch of strawberry plants in the new raised beds I installed last year. If I could create a situation in which I have strawberries in my own backyard every spring, I'd be a (relatively) happy woman.

As far as the rest of the garden goes, the plan this year is to attempt "square foot gardening."  I've put in a bunch of seeds (and some potatoes), but because it's been so chilly (and because it's only been 6 days), it's hard to see much progress just yet.

This is what the world inside the low tunnels currently looks like -->

(You can see all the leeks on the left. Unlike the current resident of the White House, I don't mind mine.)

The winter all but killed my huge rosemary bush, so I'm starting over on that front. The problem I always run into is, it inevitably gets so big it's nearly impossible to move indoors, and when I do, I don't have an convenient, sunny location to put it in.

So I try tucking it alongside the house. Some years, that goes okay. This year it did not.

Ditto for my lavender plant which was HUGE when I first moved into my house, so I finally gave it a home in the garden. The last couple of years have decimated it. If we get a winter where it rains, then turns to sleet over the course of a day, it wreaks havoc on lavender--that's been my experience.

To remedy this situation--and because I'm a little bit sentimental about my lavender plant, since it accompanied on many journeys through rental properties over the years--I've re-potted it.

I've decided that in its place I'm going to plant horehound. I need an herb that makes life easy for me, and this is an old-fashioned one that might actually give the pokeweed that likes to take over that particular corner a serious run for its money.

I need to get cracking on starting some tomatoes--I usually get them started in March, but this year, it was snowing and I just couldn't fathom a world in which I would come inside from shoveling snow and bust out the potting soil and containers and get to work.

So I may be a bit behind in that respect this year, except that in previous years, I start them super-early and then don't necessarily have all that much to show for it by May anyway, because it isn't really warm enough to put them outside and inside... let's just say, they reach a point at which they need to be outside.

And no, I don't use grow-lights. People think I'm insane, growing things from seed with no help from indoor lighting, but I kind of like just doing what I can with what I have on hand, and seeing what happens.

Yes, it means my garden looks a bit spare at times, but given that I can grow things from seed, without lights, I see no reason to stop doing that.

On a final note, I'm happy to report that the decorative pear tree I planted last spring is alive and well, and the lilac bush I put in alongside it looks... cute--all loaded with huge purple blossoms and all.

In short, I think it's safe to say that spring has sprung here on the "homestead."

The next big project has nothing to do with the garden: when I get a minute, I'm going to update the look of the blog. After nearly 7 years, it's time...

Monday, May 8, 2017

Still Crafty

As you can see, I haven't given up on the glorious Persian Blanket.

At this point, giving up really isn't an option, I don't think. Even though I have miles to go before I sleep (with it).

This is Square #6. There are 24.

So you might say that I'm a quarter of the way through, except that isn't really true.

Because in addition to the squares, there's a whole lotta edging that has to happen. Shortly after I stitch all 24 squares together.

So I guess we could probably say I'm about an 1/8th of the way through. But who's keeping track?

I do enjoy working on it, so that's good. And I started it with no illusions that it would proceed quickly. Because I knew it wouldn't.

Meanwhile, though, the writing is going quite well. I finished Joli Jensen's Write No Matter What and thoroughly enjoyed it. It helped me reconnect with some writing strategies I used back in grad. school and it offered additional insights that I've combined with Cal Newport's insights in Deep Work--and the result has been quite good.

In particular, it's helped me feel less "stuck" on a couple of projects that, for whatever reason, seem to be taking far, far longer than I ever planned. And at least some of that is because Jensen's advice helped me to rethink and reframe the way in which I was spending my writing time.

Instead of beating myself up for not spending ALL of my time writing, I've figured out how to better use my energy because, as Jensen points out, "we should treat our energy as a reliable renewable resource. We can learn how to use writing to energize us for other aspects of our life" (32).

This used to be my attitude towards writing years ago, but for whatever reason, I fell off of that particular wagon, probably when the stress level in my life ratcheted up because of illnesses in my family and stress at work.

So my commitment has been to return to this mindset--to not continue to immerse myself in a situation in which, in Jensen's words, "urgency--as indicated by my anxiety levels--determined my priorities" (35).

Perhaps more importantly, Jensen has reminded me that "Productive writing involves an ability to focus on our project rather than ourselves" (53).

I had drifted away from this mindset, in large part because I had a few projects in recent years that have taken just shy of FOREVER to shape up in a way that I'm happy with.

And without realizing it, I had been getting pretty down on myself about that, instead of thinking about what it was about the nature of the project that was causing me to lose focus and addressing that (much more manageable) problem.

As Jensen points out, "If we focus on just doing the project, and on mastering the skills we need to do it well, the more write-sized the project becomes" (54).

So this has been my focus over the past week or so: to implement the skills I have, nurture the ones that need a bit of help, and keep working in short, cheerful bursts on the project that's on the "front burner" of my writing activities right now, while also fueling the ideas that are on the "back burner," awaiting my attention in a few weeks.

Perhaps the most helpful advice in Write No Matter What has been this: "stay committed to short daily writing bouts that have a distinct beginning and end" (126).

Because when writing sessions are infused with that level of clarity and sense of purpose, the work not only goes more smoothly, but also shapes up more rapidly.

And that is a wonderful feeling.