Friday, September 23, 2011

Guess What I'm Up to Now??

So this is my first post in almost two weeks, when I'd resolved to post more regularly. Just like me, I might have thought, except...

I spent much of those two weeks thoroughly cleaning and rearranging my dining room, and considering what the rest of the house is going to look like when it's done. That means I:

Got rid of a load of garbage

Mopped the floor and washed the walls

Re-imagined a bookshelf as a pantry (my built-in pantry is too deep and dark for me to see what's inside it)

Re-imagined the pantry as storage for tools and small appliances that don't get used every day (it's a BIG pantry, after all, and perfect for this use)

Emptied out the grungy, algae-filled fish tank and cleaned it

Moved the fish tank stand to the other side of the dining room and set up a bigger tank, which I then filled with my four adult guppies and half million or so babies, as well as a pleco and a cory catfish

Cleaned off the table, and took two baskets of papers and books up to my office, as well as a few stacks of books that had been on the bookshelf

Brought the bar table with the cast iron foot upstairs (with the help of my autistic son), covered it with a nice vinyl tablecloth, and filled it with plants, all properly potted and watered

Put a nice tablecloth on the table

Washed the windows

Took down the faded posters stapled to the walls

Hung some nice pictures

Collected all my art stuff and moved it to the storage space under the fish tank

Arranged my cookbooks, gardening books, and art books on spare space in the new "pantry"

It took me just about the full two weeks because I was doing it in between living the rest of my life, and (or so it seemed) holding everyone else in my universe together. Just the usual...

But now I have a dining room that I like to eat in, plus healthy plants, plus a really nice looking fish tank, plus space to do art and the ability to find what I need in the way of art tools and materials. Add that to the fact that my living room and bedroom are organized the way I like them and occasionally have been know to revert to a "clean and tidy" state, and that's three rooms of the house that are livable. Six to go, including kitchen, entry way hallway and stairs, office, basement and bathroom...

And (surprise, surprise!) I've started a new project. Well, sort of new, anyhow. I came across a reference to doing 101 things in 1001 days, and after looking it up, decided that it might help me keep track of my progress on some of my life goals.

Now I know I started "school" back a while ago, and haven't really reported on any progress since then, but this will tie in with it, so it's not really starting something horribly new. Also, most of the 101 things I picked to be on my list were either on my immediate "to do" list, or have been on my "someday I'm gonna do this" list for a long while. Some others are quite simple and fun things that I never would have thought of doing, that don't take much time, and heck! I'm in it for the experience.

I broke my list down into sections like "Health and Fitness", "Finance", "Writing", etc.

So here's a sampler of my goals:

1) Lose 50 pounds. 1001 days is a workable length of time, and this will get me down to my goal weight. Thanks to the internet, I can develop a plan that will work for me. Related: Participate in the 200 sit-ups project, Get in the best shape of my life, Go without fast food for a month.

2) A bunch of goals that I NEED to do, but have been putting off due to finances: See a chiropractor (I recently injured my back), Get my eyes tested (last time was at least three years ago), Go to the dentist for a check up (last time was years ago--I had to have an emergency filling replacement recently, but no check up or cleaning was done).

3) Getting my finances in order, including goals for becoming stable, putting aside regular savings, donating regularly to my church, and controlling my buying habits.

4)"Go and Do" Goals: This is the largest section, but most of these are one-offs, fun things that will only take a day or two (or even a single session) to complete. But the fun things are here: Sleep in a yurt, Go kayaking, Ride in a hot air balloon, and so on. Also some cleaning goals in here (I might have given them their own section, but I didn't): Give away all my unwanted books, Get rid of 100 things, Clean and organize the house, then Paint the house.

5) Travel goals, because I stay at home too much. I'd like to Go on a Cruise, Go on a Road Trip, Visit a National Park, and Visit a New City, possibly Boston.

6) Food and Eating goals, separate from the Health goals: Make a pie on Pi day, Try a new recipe every month, and so on.

7) Art and Music goals: Learn all of the Suzuki viola repetoire, Learn to draw well enough to Draw a self-portrait, and others.

8) Writing goals: Of course! Participate in NaNo, and win this time! Also NaBloPoMo. Complete the Artist's Way, which I've started a few times and never really finished. Write a non-fiction book, Publish a novel.

9) Reading goals: Not too many of these, because I really don't need goals to motivate me to do this, unless the goal is to actually do other things instead of reading! But I'd like to read the Koran (or Qu'ran), and a book on Buddism that my son-in-law loaned to me a while back. Also, I'd like to read a book in French, and I have two candidates: Harry Potter and guess which book?

10)Photography goals: Picking up this hobby again would bring me great pleasure, especially since digital photography can be so much cheaper (due to lack of film and development costs) than old-fashioned film photography. So I've got a few goals relating to photography.

11) "Make and Build" goals: Again, a category of mostly fun, one-off stuff. The thing that's going to take the time is knitting this sweater, but what ya gotta do, ya gotta do!

12) Learning goals: Taking a Spanish class, Learning archery, Learning how to sew, Learning to Zumba dance. These, of course, tie in closely with my "Jackboot Masters of Everything."

13) Movie goals: Because what's life without a good movie attached? The primary goal here is to attend the midnight premiere of a movie, and I've got the movie all picked out. Only this time, I'm going to get at the tickets early enough to take my daughter, because ten years in purgatory for getting only one ticket for the Return of the King showing (that was all they had left), is long enough.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Living On Nothing (Almost)

This week has been a real eye-opener for me. I've never had things fall together so easily with regards to finances, and considering I don't and will not be getting a job, and am not going to applying for any government assistance beyond the tax rebates and credits I get already, that's saying something.

What did happen is that due to some effort on the part of my ex, I'll now be getting a fair amount in spousal support every month so that I can stay home and care for our autistic son. Add the almost monthly payments from various levels of governments, and I'm almost surviving.

All I need to do is cut my expenses.


I started out this morning asking myself, "What can I get for free?"

That question was in part brought on by my reading this weekend of the book Free: The Future of a Radical Price, by Chris Anderson. Although it's two years out of date (and a LOT has happened in those two years, especially in the book publishing area), it still contained some thought-provoking ideas, the most disturbing (but not surprising) of which, to me, at least, was the likelihood that as consumers get used to free, they'll resent paying anything at all for electronic information, including books and music. So how's a home-based writer supposed to make money?

I'm still thinking that through, but there ARE options, and they're good ones. Merchandising, public speaking, teaching, and so forth are all ways writers make money while giving away books. And the upside of free is that (hopefully) people will actually read my stuff. Which, really, is the only point of writing. If nobody reads my stuff, or if everyone who does read it hates it, I'll just fantasize in my head and spend my time playing viola or Sims.

And really, my basic income, while not excessive, is enough. And isn't that what we pray for? Give us THIS DAY our DAILY bread. Nothing here about retirement plans, or well-stocked pantries, or even enough money in the bank to pay the bills tomorrow.

Just enough for today. Which I have, with thanks and praise to God and my ex-husband.

So I stopped thinking about what I could GET, for free or otherwise. Instead, the question becomes, "How can I reduce my costs of living to as near zero as I can get?"

For some things, I may be looking at getting stuff for free, or trading stuff I have but don't want or need for stuff I want and/or need. Or re-purposing stuff I already have but don't use or need into something a little more useful. Or simply reviewing the need or want and figuring out if I really did need or want what I think I did.

Once I changed the question, answers started appearing if by magic. I got a book from the library about home organization that's so clear and simple even I can do it. The author starts at the entry way, and says that there are five things every entry must have, including a "landing strip" for keys, wallets, purses, bills, etc. I don't have one--I use the kitchen counter, which is awkward when I need to wash dishes (which I do at least once a week...).

I also got a book about sewing simple gifts, and one of the projects is a hanging with pockets that's so simple that even I could do it. I thought about adding a valence at the top with curtain hooks facing out to hang keys on (that courtesy of a book on sewing simple curtains I read a short wile ago), and voila! I will post a picture of my "landing strip/wall art" when it's done and hanging up. And the good part is, it will cost me some time, but I have all of the fabric and notions I need to make the thing.

I needed a fruit bowl that would go with my kitchen. I have newsprint, flour and water in abundance. I'll take a picture of the paper mache bowl when it's done...

(And did I mention that of all the free things most of us have access to, the public library system has to be at the top of the list, value-wise?)

I also realized that I need to give at least as much as I get. I'm not emotionally cut out to be a freeloader, and even though I'm providing real value to society by keeping my son out of a group home, I need to do more than just line up at the food bank. I need to give back.

So I thought about what I have. My record player is broken (thanks to said autistic son), so the records are being offered up on the altar of Kijiji (actually, I just checked my email and am arranging pick up as I type this...). The old, broken washing machine went just as fast, and will be gone from the house by tomorrow at this time, hopefully. These things are of real value to someone else, and worth less than nothing to me, due to the space they take up.

In return, a few months ago, I got a six-year-old washer and dryer set from someone who had upgraded their appliances. All I had to do was talk a friend into loaning me his van to pick it up. (And when the van broke down on the 401, who did he call for a ride home? Not the taxi company, that's for sure...) I also got a good used computer, which has been re-homed at my ex's school.

This fall, I'll be looking at my free time, too. I already do some volunteer work, but there's room for a bit more, especially if I can find something my son and I can do together.

It's not quite a return to the barter economy--I'm not giving directly to the person who's giving to me, but to someone else. And there is a place for money. But the real skill is in knowing when to give and get for free, and when to pay or charge.

Friday, September 9, 2011

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish...

I have an audition Sunday for orchestra. The Board of Directors, along with the Music Director, decided in the spring that all players must audition, I think as more of a placement and coaching thing than as a "you have to pass or you're out" kind of thing.

But you see, I don't know for certain, and as the least accomplished member of the orchestra (and I can say this with no pride and no exaggeration), if it so happens that it's a pass/fail, situation, I will almost certainly fail.

So I had to decide over the summer how I would handle it if that was the case. I'm a charter player in the orchestra. I haven't played every year, and I miss too many practices, but I'm one of the reasons the orchestra actually exists at all--it was founded by a friend of mine so that people like me would have a place to play. But I have to admit that the orchestra has improved (a lot!), and I haven't. Because I haven't been practicing, just playing.

And I decided that if I didn't "pass," instead of complaining, I'd ask to just play at practices, and not concerts, and re-audition after the first concert. In the meantime, I plan to practice my fingers off.

Which is where the fish come in.

My daughter is in the midst of training as a Suzuki teacher. One thing that HER first teacher did was have "fish" charts, where the fish had a hundred scales that could be coloured in, one for each scale or practice passage played. Ally made up a blank scale chart with 103 scales, and I photocopied it a bunch of times, and now I'm doing scales and practicing one particular passage in a Seitz concerto 103 times. I've been able to play that concerto movement all the way through for years, but never well. So my goal it to master that to performance level, so I've broken it down into passages to practice.

As well, I am (of course) practicing the passages of Beethoven's 7th that have been designated for the audition.

And an amazing thing has happened--after only an hour or two of concentrated work, I'm already sounding better.

20 scales down, 83 to go...

Monday, September 5, 2011

Numbers that Shock: 10,000

The book jacket blurb for Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers begins:

There is a story that is usually told about extremely successful people, a story that focuses on intelligence and ambition. In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell argues that the true story of success is very different, and that if we want to understand how some people thrive, we should spend more time looking around them — at such things as their family, their birthplace, or even their birth date. The story of success is more complex — and a lot more interesting — than it initially appears.

Except that it isn't complex at all, though I did find it fascinating. It turns out that birthdate and birthplace, family culture, and yes, even intelligence and ambition, have only one function in success: to allow the would-be successful person to reach that magic number.


Gladwell cites a study done in the early 1990's with a group of music students at the elite Academy of Music in Berlin. The school's violinists were divided into groups according to how well they played. The truly elite students had the potential to become world-class soloists. The second group was merely good — Gladwell doesn't say so, but knowing music as I do, these players would go on to become orchestral players and private teachers, much as my daughter aims to do. The third group were students who would likely not have a professional music career, but who would end up teaching in the public school system.

The students were all asked the same question: Over the course of your entire career, how many hours have you practiced?

Most of these students started playing at around five years of age. At that age, they might have practiced fifteen to thirty minutes a day, or two to three hours a week. But by age eight (the same age my daughter decided she was going to be a professional music teacher), differences started to emerge. Some students were practicing more than six hours a week by age nine, eight by age twelve, and by age fourteen, two or more hours a day. By the age of twenty, these top students were practicing, which Gladwell defines as "purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better" for over thirty hours a week. By the age of twenty, these top performers had reached that magic number: 10,000. Ten thousand hours of purposeful practice.

In contrast, the future teachers had totalled a mere four thousand hours, and the good students about eight thousand hours.

The same result was obtained with pianists, and when Gladwell scratched the surface of successful people as diverse as famous musicians, computer geniuses, hockey players, and chess grand masters, he found the same number cropping up. Ten thousand. That's how many hours of purposeful practice it takes to become truly masterful at something. Your age, your gender, the place and era into which you were born, your economic status, your intelligence and your natural passion for an endeavour — all of these things will help you, but only insofar as they gain you the opportunity to put in those ten thousand hours of practice.

The study of music students showed something else that is of enormous interest to me. In the entire study, there were no students who were "naturals" or "geniuses," gaining status and ability without putting in the prerequisite hours of practice.

More importantly, at least for me, there were no "grinds," students who worked harder and put in more hours of practice than their peers, without gaining ability.

10,000 hours is the only thing that's standing between me and my dreams, and I can't really blame any innate lack of ability for not being a better writer/artist/musician/researcher/scientist.

Gladwell says it takes a person about ten years to accomplish this feat. But starting from zero, and working purposefully for five hours a day, the actual time needed is five years, 175 days. (And I'm not starting from zero, at least in math...)

Ten years is a more realistic number, but even then, I realize that at age 51, I'll still only be 61 (and hopefully have lots of good years left in me) by the time I acheive mastery in whatever it is that I want to master. And to be honest, I'm partway there already in anything I'd care to try my hand at.

And a short note to the naysayers: No, I'm not so unrealistic as to think that I could, for example, become a world-class basketball player. My age, my gender, and my height are all against me. But if I wanted to, I could practice and become very good indeed.

Nor am I blind to the fact that the reason many people never acheive excellence is because they're too busy trying to live and survive. I think that one of the major aims of any just world order would be to give everyone that chance, though.

But I cannot any longer avoid the striking reality that if I so choose, I can become truly an expert at something, and that if I end my life being only moderately talented, it's my own damn choice.

I think one of the truly sad things about humanity is our addiction to the ideas of "fate" and "talent." Belief that it takes "talent" to succeed has kept many, many more people from succeeding than lack of opportunity ever did. Perhaps it's just because we've been fed this bs for so long, or perhaps it's human nature to wish to avoid taking responsibility for our lives, or maybe it's just easy to pretend that our lack of will to practice is due to lack of talent and not to the choice we've made not to practice.

Because it is a choice. Not an easy one, I grant you. In talking to my daughter, I realize that the choice she made not to be a top student was indeed conscious, and not due to lack of faith in her abilites as a cellist. She wants to spend time with friends and family, she wants to pursue other interests. So she's chosen NOT to be in the top group at her school

But it was a choice.

In my case, I too have a choice. My kids are grown. I have lots of interests and activities to fill my time, but I do have a burning desire to be really good at a few things, or maybe even only one thing.

My question to myself: What will it be, and am I willing to take the hours to purposefully practice that skill or skills?