Friday, January 31, 2020

My Buy-Nothing Week

One of my goals for 2020 is to improve my financial health. With this in view, I decided to have a "buy nothing week" each month. 

Some people who take a "buy nothing" pledge for some fixed period of time exempt a narrow class of expenditures: groceries, gas for basic transportation, and other non-frivolous budget items. I decided it would be more fun to make mine a true "buy nothing" week, by filling my tank with gas and stocking up on groceries ahead of time. As I needed the cooperation of a certain family member, who has been using my credit card while he is (as they say) "between jobs," a more challenging buying ban would amp up the excitement of this adventure in frugality.

So last week, day after day went by when both of us charged nothing on credit cards. How lovely to check my balance online and NOT seeing it growing by leaps and bounds! 

The most fun for me was using up food in the pantry and fridge that I had long forgotten: a large container of yogurt left over from company who had stayed with me back in November (still perfectly good); dried fruit I unearthed on a shelf that was VERY dried out now, but still tasty. Yum! Oh, and that huge bag of potatoes I had purchased even though I only needed two potatoes, but it's SO much cheaper to buy five pounds at a time. I do love me a baked potato dripping with butter! Here I had the joy not only of frugality but of responsible environmental stewardship, since food waste in prosperous countries is a leading cause of global climate change. 

Hooray for me!

Alas, partway through the week, my son's car wouldn't start. Double-alas, it turned out not to need just a new battery, but some kind of hideous repair that ended up costing $1700. In one fell swoop, all my savings from proudly using up past-sell-date yogurt and rock-hard dried fruit were dwarfed into insignificance. 

WAHHHH!

Oh, well. If I hadn't done the buy-nothing week, the car repair would still have cost $1700, plus we might have spent $200 - or $300 - or more on who-knows-what: all those pesky little expenses that somehow add up to a whopping total. I'm still glad I used up some potatoes before they sprouted into grotesque formations and enjoyed a nutritious yogurt-and-fruit breakfast every morning. 

I can't say my finances feel appreciably more under control, but at least I did SOMETHING. Doing something, I firmly believe, is almost always better than doing nothing. At least half a dozen famous (and not-so-famous) people are quoted as saying, "Don't do nothing because you can't do everything."

For me, buying nothing counted as doing something. And in February I'll plan another week of buying nothing again. 


Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Don't Make It Harder Than It Has to Be: Rethinking My New Year's Goals


I pride myself on being something of an expert in goal-setting. I get paid to give motivational talks on goal-setting. You might even call me the queen of goal-setting.

But I'm here to confess that my goals for 2020 have been a dismal failure so far. 

It's now halfway through January, and my health-enhancing goals haven't made me appreciably healthier. If anything I'm more worn and weary than I was before. As I wrote in my previous post, my very stress-reducing strategies have been stressing me out.

I had forgotten one of my own cardinal principles: DON'T MAKE IT HARDER THAN IT HAS TO BE! Why did I choose daunting health-enhancing activities when less inimatidating ones are available? And why on earth did I try to do everything at once??

I've quoted before from Arnold Bennett's wonderful little book, first published in 1910, How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day. He speaks to exactly this issue in his usual brisk, no-nonsense style:

Let me principally warn you against your own ardour. . . . Beware of undertaking too much at the start. Be content with quite a little. Allow for accidents. Allow for human nature, especially your own.
A failure or so, in itself, would not matter, if it did not incur a loss of self-esteem and of self-confidence. But just as nothing succeeds like success, so nothing fails like failure. Most people who are ruined are ruined by attempting too much. Therefore, in setting out on the immense enterprise of living fully and comfortably within the narrow limits of twenty-four hours a day, let us avoid at any cost the risk of an early failure. I will not agree that . . . a glorious failure is better than a petty success. I am all for the petty success. A glorious failure leads to nothing; a petty success may lead to a success that is not petty.

Oh, Arnold, how wise you are!

So here are some of my petty successes so far and other potential petty successes I'm going to focus on for now.

My best success took ten seconds and improved my life enormously: deleting the Twitter app on my phone. It has not only freed me from painful self-doubt and despair from the contents of what I was reading, but saved me HOURS of endless, mindless, miserable scrolling. I've read six boks already this year, all from the time gained from this one ten-second life-hack. HUGE IMPROVEMENT IN MY EMOTIONAL HEALTH.

My second-best success came as the result of my last post, after I shared it on Facebook (which is why I can't bring myself to delete my Facebook app). When I bewailed lack of time for meditation, several friends suggested the Insight Timer app, where I can do a five-minute guided meditation right at home while lying on my bed. Those five minutes, or ten minutes, a day have been a huge gift to myself. HUGE IMPROVEMENT IN MY SPIRITUAL HEALTH. 

As my favorite successes are the one-and-done ones, rather the ones I have to force myself to do every single day for the rest of of my life, I arranged to have my carpets cleaned. It's going to happen on Friday. I can't wait! MODERATE IMPROVEMENT IN MY EMOTIONAL HEALTH.I had a consultation with a financial planner, which was sobering, but will allow me to make some further one-and-done decisions that will simplify my finances. MODERATE IMPROVEMENT IN MY FINANCIAL HEALTH.

For my physical health, hmmm. Maybe I'll go to the grocery store and buy some vegetables and fruits, on the theory that I'll eat more of these if I actually have some in the house. Maybe I'll take a kind yoga-teacher friend up on her mega-generous offer to come to my house and show me some yoga exercises that even I can do. 

For my environmental health, I returned library books today on foot rather than by car. 

For my social health, I'll contact three friends today to set up outings for next week. Ooh!

I'm not going to focus on the whole darned year right now. I'm going to remember another piece of wisdom I cling to, from William Law: "Be intent upon the perfection of the present day." Maybe each day I'll ask myself: "What petty success can I have (on any goal whatsoever) today?" 

Yay for petty success!


Wednesday, January 8, 2020

My Stress-Reduction Strategies Are Stressing Me Out

My new year's goal for 2020 is to improve my health on eight different dimensions to prepare myself to survive the stress of a hideous ordeal that lies before me. With typical new year's zeal, I've leaped into tackling the many health-fostering projects I listed in my previous post.

But now I'm discovering the sad paradox that my very efforts to prepare me against looming stress are themselves stressful!

They cost money (and one of my eight dimensions of health is financial health).

They take time (and time is our most valuable non-renewable resource).

How am I ever going to find that money, and even more dire, find that time?

For example: I've pledged to try some new form of exercise to supplement my faithful hour-a-day of walking with my dog, Tanky. But I don't want to do this in the morning, as that's my prime work time. I don't want to do it in the afternoon, as that's when I go visit my husband in the care home. I don't want to do it in the evening, as that's when I want to put on my nightgown, curl up with a book, and be asleep by eight. So that leaves... well, it leaves no time at all.

Ditto for meditation. Who the heck has time to meditate?

Even reading... I want to read more books, and I just ordered up a big stack from the public library. But how on earth am I going to get all of them read, plus write my own books and articles, teach my classes, advise my mentees, and do everything else I need to do in my life?

I need to figure out how to deal with the inescapable fact that every single thing we do takes time that could be spent doing something else. And every dollar we spend on x is a dollar we can no longer spend on y. Economists call these "opportunity costs."

So, here are my current musings on how to do this.

1. Accept that everyone faces this exact same dilemma, so I might as well get used to it instead of complaining about it. As Arnold Bennett wrote in his splendid 1910 self-help manual How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day: "You wake up in the morning, and lo! your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life!  . . . Out of it you have to spin health, pleasure, money, content, respect, and the evolution of your immortal soul."

2. Remember that I'M the one who said I want to prioritize my health this year. Prioritizing something means making this a PRIORITY. If I'm going to make good on this new year's plan, I am going to have to commit to the exercise class and the meditation retreat and a bunch of other things on my health to-do list INSTEAD of doing something else.

3. What are some of the other things I'm going to have to give up to do this? Well, by deleting the Twitter app on my phone on New Year's Day (itself the single best thing I could possibly do for my health), I freed at least an additional hour a day. I sleep an extravagant amount: I'm blessed in being able to do this, but really, eight hours should be enough even for someone who loves to luxuriate under the covers as much as I do - nine hours, max! When I visit my husband, what he loves is just my quiet company by his side: I can take some work with me, and do it there. Actually, the main thing I'm going to have to give up is totally aimless time-wasting, and that is hardly a loss.

4.Heed the dictum: if you can't find time to stay healthy, how are you going to find time to be sick? Well, I'm never actually physically sick - another of my blessings - but I do have the occasional total mental/emotional collapse, and THIS IS TO BE AVOIDED. (Along these same lines: there's a book, which I haven't read, with the wonderful title, If You Haven't Got the Time to Do It Right, When Will You Find the Time to Do It Over?) Everyone I know who meditates, exercises, and eats more healthily swears that these things allow them to use the rest of their time more effectively and energetically. In the end, they SAVE more time than they expend.

5. Right now I'm in the groping, experimenting stage of this new health project. I'm spending considerable time researching options and trying them out. These are one-time expenditures of effort to locate resources that will then be in place for me to draw upon. So I shouldn't panic. This current stage of time-crampedness will pass!

6. Finally, it's actually FUN to care about my health for a while. I can't remember the last time I did this. All this fussing and fretting I'm doing is to provide an enormous benefit for ME. What a lovely thing I'm doing for myself! So I should savor every new thing I'm trying - and be glad that I'll have the fun of blogging about it, too.

So, dear ones: we ALL get 24 hours a day: no more, no less. How we decide to spend those hours will determine a lot about what this new year brings for each one of us.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Survival and Strength: Part II (The Eight Dimensions of Health)

As I posted yesterday, my goal for 2020 is to improve my health along eight dimensions, as a strategy to survive whatever the universe gives me to survive. The eight dimensions I've identified are: 1) physical health; 2) mental health; 3) emotional health; 4) social health; 5) professional health; 6) financial health; 7) environmental health; and 8) spiritual health.

I'm making a list of things to do in each category. Some (the best ones!) are one-and-done tasks. Some will require constant attention all year long, but with luck will become habitual after a while. Others fall somewhere in between. My only rule for myself (with one exception) is that all of them should be things I'm actually looking forward to doing.

PHYSICAL HEALTH:
1. Walk 10,000 steps a day (more or less, give or take). I already do this, but it goes on the list anyway.
2. "Strive for five" servings of fruits and vegetables a day. I'M TERRIBLE AT THIS. But I'm so sick of how I've been eating that I find myself actually eager to ingest more green and red and orange fresh and crunchy things.
3. Drink water! Eight glasses a day! You'd think that after kidney stone surgery two years ago I would have already incorporated this into my daily routine, but I haven't. But I'm looking forward to it because it's so DARNED EASY. I can do it while lying on the couch if I fill a water bottle and position it conveniently ahead of time.
4. THIS IS THE ONE I ALREADY KNOW I'M NOT GOING TO DO, BUT HEY, MAYBE I WILL: Try to find some exercise class that involves strength training, balance/flexibility, and other things I don't get from daily walking. I found a suitable class last fall that's free with my Silver Sneakers benefit, but it meets mid-morning, and somehow that just disturbs the entire rhythm of my day, as morning is my prime work time. I have to think more about this one....

MENTAL HEALTH:
I already have this one in the bag, as I'm committed to teaching a philosophy class (starting January 13) at the University of Colorado, and a children's literature class online for University of Denver (starting in March), and a children's book writing creative class for Hollins University in person in Roanoke this summer. Plus, I've agreed to write three academic articles/book chapters, so my brain will get a wonderful workout with no additional effort needed.

EMOTIONAL HEALTH:
1. Do a month-long Twitter fast. In fact, give up Twitter for the rest of my life. I HATE TWITTER. I DO IT ONLY TO MAKE MYSELF MISERABLE ON PURPOSE. Here I've already deleted the Twitter app on my phone - hooray! One and done! Bliss and transfiguration!
2. Hire someone to clean my house twice a week. NOTHING WILL IMPROVE MY EMOTIONAL HEALTH MORE THAN THIS. A clean and tidy house is Nirvana for me.
3. Read more for pleasure. I want to lose myself in big, beautiful books during the time I'm no longer lacerating myself on Twitter. I already ordered five from the public library. Will one arrive today??
My goal is 100 books this year (some for adults, some for young readers).

SOCIAL HEALTH:
Here is where I already excel. I have so many friends whom I love so much! And I see so many of them so often! But here is where it will be SO MUCH FUN to do even more. So:
1. Make sure to have one delightful social outing on average every week (fifty for the year).
2. Plan six SPECIAL getaways with friends who don't live locally. This may involve flying on airplanes, or inviting them to come visit me via airplane, which works against my goal of environmental health, but I have some small way to deal with this (see below). I AM SO EXCITED ABOUT THIS ONE!!!!!

PROFESSIONAL HEALTH:
Also already in the bag - see MENTAL HEALTH, above. In addition to my teaching gigs and academic commitments, I'm also resolved to launch some new creative project for myself, most likely the verse novel I started and set aside last year.

FINANCIAL HEALTH:
This is a hard one for me as I am spending an average of $8000 every single MONTH on lawyer fees for the criminal case I'm involved with, and the retainer just for the week of the five-day trial in March is - wait for it - SIXTY THOUSAND DOLLARS!!!! And my husband's nursing home costs over $10K per month as well. With that much money hemorrhaging out of my life, money has almost lost meaning for me. (In case you're wondering how on earth I'm paying for all of this: I got a Home Equity Line of Credit - HELOC - against my home here in Boulder, where property values are ridiculously high).

But I miss being frugal. I love frugality for its own sake. So in 2020 I will:
1. Meet for the first time ever with a financial planner. Another lovely one-and-done item.
2. Have a buy-absolutely-nothing week every month. SUCH A FUN CHALLENGE!
3. Make a serious commitment to repaying the HELOC loan once the case is over.

ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH:
Oh, I so want to live more lightly on the earth - to take up less space in the world - to be burdened by less stuff. So my plan is:
1. Become a vegetarian and stick to it this time. Last time I lost my resolve because in my house there is Someone Else who is NOT a vegetarian and who wastes huge amounts of food, and I hate to see the waste, so I end up eating the leftovers myself. This can be justified from an environmental standpoint, I think, but I feel pretty terrible after shoveling in other people's half-eaten cheeseburgers.
2. Use up the (vegetarian) food that is already in the pantry and the fridge!
3. Radically reduce my car use. Go back to blissful bus riding for almost all local trips.
4. Declutter my attic - OOH! How I love decluttering!
5. Declutter my garage - OOH! OOH!
6. Buy carbon offsets for plane trips.

SPIRITUAL HEALTH:
Here my little United Methodist Church is a great source of solace and strength for me, but as with the category of social health, it will be a treat to explore ways to do more.
1. Try some new spiritual practice - SHOULD I finally try meditation? Other people rave about it.
2. Ask our wonderful pastor's wife for ideas for events I can attend.
3. Go to a spiritual retreat at a convent somewhere. I love writing retreats, but now it's time for a retreat for my soul.

That's my list for now. I don't have to do all of these. But I'd like to do most of them. And I've already deleted that Twitter app, so day 2 of the new year already has progress to report!

Here's to health in 2020 for all of us.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Survival and Strength: My Plan for 2020 (Part I)

If truth be told, my only goal for this new year that starts today is: SURVIVAL.

That's it.

Everything else in 2020 is dwarfed by an ordeal that looms before me and my family of a criminal case that has been causing us to live in terror for the past THREE YEARS and is going to reach its (perhaps hideous) resolution this spring followed by its (perhaps even more hideous) aftermath.

But, although I will be very proud of myself if I manage to survive this year, and count this as one of my life's greatest achievements, mere survival makes for a rather dispiriting goal. It's not the kind of project that makes one leap out of bed in the morning, eager to begin a new day.

Survival is also not a particularly helpful goal, as what one really wants are STRATEGIES for doing this. Survive, yes, but . . . HOW?

In the past when I've had to live in the space of radical uncertainty about my future, what has helped me is working on what I called the "five dimensions of health": physical health, mental health, emotional/social health, financial health, and spiritual health. These are all-purpose resources that would enable me to deal more successfully with whatever the universe had in store for me. Plus, they're just good in their own right. There isn't any downside to good health.

Then, last summer, when I was attending a class with my sister at her law school, I saw in the elevator a list of EIGHT dimensions of health and liked this list better than my original list of five. The eight dimensions of health on the law-school-elevator list were: physical, mental, emotional, social, professional, financial, spiritual, and environmental. This list disaggregated emotional/social health, added professional health, and (best in my view), added environmental health, an area of particular recent concern for me.

So: my goal for 2020 is to bolster my health on all eight dimensions. Because I like alliteration, and because "strength" sounds especially empowering as a means to "survival," I'm also calling these the eight dimensions of strength.

I pondered how to structure this project. In the past, I've done best with a goal structure based on the unit of the month. If I pledge to do something every single day, I'm setting myself up for certain failure; ditto even for the pledge to do something every single week. A month is just the right length of time to give needed urgency, but also to allow some equally important wiggle room.

With twelve  months, and eight dimensions of health, I could prioritize one kind of health each month for the first eight months of the year, followed by a fortnight of reinforcement on each one for the final four months of the year. Or I could simply allot six weeks to each dimension.

But I don't think this is actually the best way to go in this case. After all, health isn't the kind of thing you can focus on for a single month and then proceed to ignore the rest of the time; it really needs a more consistent, sustained approach. Also, for two of these eight dimensions (mental health and professional health), I already have heaps of projects to which I'm committed for 2020 (spread throughout the year) which will guarantee a sharpening of my intellect and a furthering of my creative and academic career.

For this reason, I'm brainstorming ways to advance simultaneously on all eight dimensions of health, in a way that will be FUN, as I'm committed to pursuing ONLY goals that make me want to hug myself with happiness. In my next post (or maybe posts), I will share details. Maybe you'll want to join me in these pursuits, or offer suggestions, or at least cheer me on from afar.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Mixed Results for My Goal for 2019

For the last several years, I've organized my new year's resolutions not as a grab-bag of random, uninspiring, dutiful items (e.g., lose weight, floss more, eat more veggies), but as a single, unified year-long project selected for its sheer deliciousness.

My goal for 2017 was to submit something somewhere every month: book proposal, completed book, academic article, article revisions, essay, poem. The goal was not acceptance, but mere submission: that wonderful tingly feeling you get when you have something Out There In The Universe with at least some chance that any day - any moment! - the universe may give you a favorable response. I ended up with about a 50-50 rate of acceptance to rejection, but I was happy all year long pursuing this objective.

My goal for 2018 was creative joy: to log at least ten hours a month of creative joy in a special small notebook, with stringent requirements for what could be counted here. It wasn't enough just to get joy in my ordinary creative efforts; I had to ADD an infusion of joy by trying some new creative activity, or doing my usual one (writing) in some new place, or with a friend, or even just with Cool Whip on my usual Swiss Miss hot chocolate. I was happy every single month with this one, too.

My goal for 2019 (the year I turned 65, and so officially became a senior citizen) was to embrace the new, to celebrate "newness" in lots of ways in my creative life.  I picked six new things to do: write a book on a topic on which I previously knew nothing; teach my first online course; make my first serious effort to promote my books; write a verse novel; write a picture book with a very spare text (under 500 words); and make an effort to publish my poetry.

I did the first three items on the list:

One: I wrote Lucy Lopez, Coding Star, and so had to learn about computer programming, which was a wonderful challenge. Here I am with the eleven-year-old tutor I hired, Lorelei Held.


Two: I taught an online course for the graduate program in children's literature at Hollins University on the figure of the female author from Little Women to The Poet X. To my great surprise and delight, I loved it.

Three: Here I am in my chef's costume to promote Nixie Ness,Cooking Star.


But then mid-year my project petered out. I didn't have time to work on the verse novel because instead I was researching and writing Boogie Bass, Sign Language Star (with sign language another topic totally new to me, so at least in the spirit of the year's goal). And I found I simply didn't feel like writing a picture book or submitting my poems. I had put those items on the list just because a list of three items seemed too skimpy.

So: I did some new things - and loved doing them - but this goal didn't sustain my motivation throughout the year. It lacked the right kind of structure: "do x every month" is an excellent structure. "Do these six things, where you don't even really want to do three of them" isn't.

I also think I needed to branch out from newness-in-my-professional-life to newness-in-all-aspects-of-my-life. My writer friend Tara Dairman, another person who loves goal-setting, designed a year of newness for herself that was a lot more fun. She wrote down twelve things she wanted to do but was scared to do and plucked one from her "newness jar" each month. That would have had a lot more appeal for me, in hindsight.

I've just - today! - worked out my plan for 2020. It, too, has a sub-par structure, alas, but I'm excited about it nonetheless. It gives me the requisite tingle of joy when I think about it. So watch this space for details when the new decade dawns!


Saturday, December 14, 2019

Waiting for a Plot Twist in My Life

I was recently alerted to the fact that this month is not only the last month of the year, but the last month of the DECADE. My husband always thought it was silly to make a fuss about this kind of milestone, with people either celebrating or agonizing over turning 30, 40, 50. . . He said this was just our cultural fetish for base 10 math. But I enjoy using such milestones as an occasion for reflection.

One post I saw about the impending end of the year/decade was particularly striking to me: "May the last month of your 2019 be the plot twist you have been waiting for."

Ooh!

Instantly I decided to take this not as a friendly wish, but as an actual prediction. My plot twist is coming! My plot twist is coming! What will it be? When will it be? I started checking my email even more obsessively than I usually do, thinking that perhaps email would be the mechanism by which the universe would notify me of my plot twist. I returned to my old vice of Sudoku on my I-pad to pass the dull, dreary time until the plot twist would upend my entire life in some spectacular way.

But then I had two sobering realizations.

First, most plot twists don't happen as the heroine of the story is lying on the couch doing Sudoku puzzles or frantically checking her email every two or three minutes. (It's a sign of the unreality of contemporary fiction that characters are NOT shown spending three or four or five hours a day staring at their devices.) Plot twists happen, not as she is passively waiting with her hands folded, but when she is out and about engaged in the ongoing business of LIVING.

Second, and more disturbing, I'm not just a CHARACTER in the story of my own life; I'm also its AUTHOR. If there's going to be a plot twist in my story, it may be up to me to make this happen. And of course, I haven't even factored in the consideration that not all plot twists are good ones, moving the story to a happy ending.

Sigh.

So I now have half a month left in this year, and this decade. If I'm going to have a plot twist between now and New Year's Eve, I have to think hard about what I want it to be and then think hard about what I'd have to do to cause it to be. (Though I would appreciate some cooperation on the part of the universe here. Come on, universe! Let's work together on this one!)

In any case, I'm wishing for this last month of 2019 to bring the plot twist you've been hoping for, too.