Archive for Life


Leisure Time

I’ve been on a kick of trying to optimize my life, reading books about working habits, motivation, organization, etc. The latest one was Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It’s about optimal experiences, getting into the frame of mind in which you function almost on autopilot, but at a high level. This is what happens when you really get into a task, to the point you have heightened awareness of what you’re doing while tuning out distractions, time seems to fly, and what you’re doing seems both easy and challenging — there’s enough challenge to keep you engaged and stretching yourself, but you’re in the zone where it still feels easy. I mostly read the book because I want to find good ways to get into this state for writing, but there was some other stuff that really made me think.

One of the things that came up in the research related to the subject was that while few people would think they’re happier at work than during their leisure time, studies show that on measurements of things related to happiness, people actually do tend to feel happier at work. They’re more likely to get into this flow state, to feel like they’ve got a purpose, to feel engaged and challenged in a way that makes them feel alive. What generally makes people unhappy at work isn’t so much the work itself, but the environment, the people, corporate bureaucracy, etc. On the other hand, the way most people spend their leisure time isn’t that engaging. You don’t get into that optimal flow state by watching TV. The exception about being happier at work than at leisure was the people who have active hobbies, so they’re doing something other than watching TV in their free time. The author did consider reading to be “active” and something that can lead to a flow state. Practicing or performing music works, as does listening to music when it’s engaged and active listening, not just using it as background noise. Writing, painting, and making things, gardening, and even housework can also count. The book was written before social media and the Internet really took off, so I don’t know where he’d stand on web surfing or online discussions.

The author thinks that this may be one reason why people seem to be less happy even as life gets easier. Before TV, people had to be more engaged in their leisure time. There were fewer passive pursuits, and people did the passive things that were available less often. Even rich people probably didn’t go to the theater more than once a week, and now we watch dramatic productions every night on TV.

This really got me started thinking. I’d resisted adding more work time to my day because one of the perks of working for myself at home is having more free time, but that free time doesn’t do me much good if I’m not using it well. When I started writing first thing in the morning and was spending more of my day working, I was actually happier and more satisfied, and I didn’t miss that “leisure” time. I feel more like I’ve had a good weekend when I spend a good part of Saturday doing housework and organizing than when I don’t try to schedule my time and just goof off.

I’ve been trying to limit my TV time and instead use that time for reading or doing other things. It’s funny how TV has become such a default activity, or how if there’s something later in the evening, I’ll look for something to watch in the meantime rather than turning off the TV and doing something else. Not that I think it’s entirely bad. A little downtime for the brain is good, and I think you can be mentally engaged while watching. I tend to analyze story elements. But there are so many other things I want to do, and I’m trying to really think about how I use my time.

Apparently, there’s another book by this author that specifically deals with creativity, so that may have to be my next read.


Autumn Pleasures

We’ve been having my favorite kind of weather this week, cool and gray, not quite raining, just a bit misty. The autumn leaves do look glorious on a sunny day, but I love the way the golden trees almost work as a substitute sun on cloudy days, serving as a bright pop of color. I really enjoy my morning walks on these days, and then coming home and having a hot cup of tea.

Though this morning, I dressed a little too warmly for the walk once I got going, and I came home hot and just wanted cold water. I need to remember to expect to be a bit cold at first, and then I’ll warm up quickly.

I may be on the verge of becoming a bird watcher. There’s a network of waterways through my neighborhood, and we have a community of ducks that lives here year-round, but at this time of year, we also get the migrating birds. There’s one kind that I’m trying to figure out. They’re sort of duck-like, but very different from the mallards who live here. They look a bit like loons, but I haven’t heard any of the loon sounds. I’ve been hearing geese, but haven’t seen any of them. Then there are the egrets and herons. Watching all of these birds is fascinating. The other day, they seemed to either think that some leaves in the water were fish or they were playing a game because they were taking turns swooping out onto the water, picking up a leaf, and taking it to shore, where they’d throw it at another bird.

I also like trying to identify trees by their leaves. When I was in fifth grade, we had to do a science project in which we collected as many varieties of leaves as we could find, pressed them in wax paper, and tried to identify them. On the plus side, we lived on the edge of a great forest with walking paths through it, so it was incredibly easy to get leaves. The challenge was that we were in Germany, and the reference books in the school library were American, so the species didn’t quite line up (and this was long before the Internet). I can still identify a lot of trees, but the purely American ones are harder for me.

The squirrels are also fun at this time of year as they run around with their mouths full of acorns. Normally, they don’t seem to mind people, but now they hide from everyone, probably thinking we’re going to steal their stash.

Help! I’m starting to sound like a food blog. This is where I’d finally start talking about the recipe and how I like to eat it when I come home from one of these walks. We’d have a few more paragraphs about the recipe and what I like about it, then lots of pictures of it, then finally the recipe. I should have taken pictures of all these things I was talking about, but I’m usually so busy looking at it all that I don’t think to stop and take pictures, and since I’m walking for fitness, I don’t think about stopping at all. I just take pictures with my eyes and mind so I can remember it.


Organizing Urges

I’ve been getting things organized lately and have been on an optimization kick, trying to find the way to do things that works best for me. So far, I’ve got my kitchen mostly organized (there’s a bit of fine tuning to do, but I can live with the way it is now) and have established routines and procedures that have kept things in order and clean to the point that it’s only taking a few minutes a day to maintain it. I have my closet and dresser drawers mostly in order (though I could stand to do another big wardrobe purge and then do some fine tuning). I can find things easily, and I have a place to put everything, so I can do that “a place for everything, and everything in its place” thing.

What I discovered yesterday when I was searching for supplies for a children’s choir project is that I’ve become so accustomed to these parts of daily life being easy that the parts of my life that aren’t organized at all are even more frustrating. There’s no order to my office, where I store things like that. I do have a designated choir supplies bin, so it’s partially organized, but there are other things that I needed that are scattered all over the place or buried under things I got out when I was looking for something else. At the moment, I can’t even bear to be in my office because it’s such a mess.

Which means that needs to be my next project. I’d like to be able to go back to working in my office. Unfortunately, it’s become a sort of dumping ground for things from the rest of the house so that I can keep the living space in order. Getting the office together is going to be a rather massive project. I think I’m going to start by getting the desk straightened and cleaned, then move out from there. If I start working in there, I’ll be more driven to deal with the rest of that space, and that can become something I do during short work breaks — take a few minutes to go through that box and file things.

I’ve always had a bit of an organized streak — I used to alphabetize my band music in my folder. That made things easy during football season when I could flip through my folder to immediately get to any piece the band director called up. During concert season my freshman year, the one year I had to share a folder (after that, I played oboe and was the only one), fortunately my folder mate was as obsessive as I am (if you watch that reality show about the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, my folder mate was Kelli, the director).

But I’m also easily distracted and a perfectionist, which results in a lot of slobbishness. Instead of just tidying, it has to become a project, and then I’ll get distracted midway through, with the result being a bigger mess. I think I’ve reached a stage in life when the mess gets to me, and I’ve learned that making it a little neater is better than demanding perfecting and doing nothing. When I have things in order, then I can maintain them easily with less effort.

Also, I’m in the middle of a book, when suddenly I need to organize and clean all the things. Meanwhile, those new ideas are flying furiously. This is why finishing a book is such an achievement. It’s not so much about coming up with ideas and putting words together as it is having the discipline to power through when you keep getting new ideas and you desperately want to alphabetize the contents of your freezer.


Another Anniversary

When I recognized my anniversary of starting to write the Enchanted, Inc. books, I realized that there’s another anniversary around this time of year. It’s not directly related to writing, though it did sort of pave the way toward where I am now.

Around this time twenty years ago, I was working at a PR firm and got invited to lunch by a former client. It turned out that she’d gone to work for a different agency, and she’d been working on an account I used to have. We’d been working with a division of a large company, but the large company decided to consolidate all their public relations into one firm, and it was that other agency. Now that they had my former client, they wanted to hire me to work on the account.

I was really unhappy in my job, and I’d enjoyed working on that account. The client had become a friend (we’re still friends, and she helped me find a lot of work when I went freelance). An interview later, and I had the job. I set a start date for the beginning of November, figuring that would give me time to work out my notice and have a bit of a break, and it would be after most of my new office would be coming back from a trade show (since there wasn’t much point in starting a new job while all my coworkers were out of town). But when I gave my notice, they made me leave the next day. That wasn’t too surprising because people tended to just disappear at that company. The surprise was that they let me have that next day so there could be a going-away lunch. More often, the person giving notice was made to clean out their desk that evening — under supervision, so they couldn’t take anything relating to their clients with them — then walked out the door. Their office door was kept shut until a meeting was held the next morning to announce that they were gone (usually with what we’d later learn were lies about why they left — everyone was always supposedly fired because they just weren’t working out, but when I ran into those people later I learned that they took another job). I’d anticipated something like this, so I’d cleared most of the stuff I wanted out of my office before I gave notice.

But this meant I had a three-week break between jobs, during October, which is my favorite month. It was wonderful. I took a trip to Austin to meet up with some college friends. I took a few day trips around the area. And I took a lot of long walks around my neighborhood. I did some writing, finished unpacking (I’d moved into this house that summer), and read a lot. It was wonderful, and it was hard to go back to work when it was over. I remember thinking then that this was what my life would be like if I could ever just be a writer and not have to have a day job.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve lived up to that ideal. I don’t really take advantage of my freedom in a positive way. When you have all that time, it’s easy to waste it. Of course, there’s far more work than I was doing then. I was just playing around with some story ideas, not writing on a deadline. I wasn’t having to blog or maintain a social media presence or stay on top of sales numbers, or anything like that. But it would be nice to get back a sense of that freedom that I had then, making the most of the time I had and enjoying all the moments. Every year, I keep saying that I’m going to try to take the fall off to enjoy it, but I always end up with deadlines. Maybe next year. Or maybe I can do better at striking a balance, getting the work done and using my spare time on things I enjoy instead of refreshing Twitter or looking up random things that have popped into my head.


A New Start

I finished my edits on Friday and will be getting them off to the copyeditor today, and then I’ll start work on the new book I just sold to Audible. It feels like the first day of school or the first day of a new year, a time to reset and try to start again with new habits, or reviving the old habits.

I even set an alarm this morning. I had been using sunrise to wake me up, but they put a really bright LED bulb in the lamppost in front of my house, and that meant it was essentially as bright as daylight all night long. I kept waking up in a panic, feeling like I’d overslept because it was so bright outside, and then I’d look at the clock and see that it was two in the morning. So, I had to put up light-blocking curtains on my bedroom window. That let me sleep, but then it made it harder to wake up because the room was still dark even after the sun came up. I needed to set an alarm if I wanted to get up at a reasonable hour, but I hate waking up to an alarm because I wake up startled but still groggy.

Then I got the bright (pun somewhat intended) idea of trying one of those wake-up light alarm clocks. Instead of waking you with a sound, they gradually brighten a light, which replicates what I was doing with the sunrise. Most of them are pretty expensive, and I couldn’t see spending $90 on an alarm clock when it’s not even critical that I get up most mornings. But then I found a $20 version on Amazon and thought I’d give it a try.

I suspect that the difference between the $20 version and the $90 version is that the more expensive one really does light up gradually and changes color temperature to match the sunrise, so it does a better job of resetting your body clock and tricking you into feeling like the day has started. This one theoretically gets gradually brighter in the half hour before the wake-up time you set, but I honestly can’t tell much of a difference. Still, I find that I wake up five to 20 minutes after the light comes on, depending on how deep I’m asleep and which direction I’m facing, and I feel like I’ve awakened naturally instead of that startled, groggy feeling I get with a regular alarm clock. There’s a sunset feature that supposedly (again, I can’t tell a big difference) dims the light at bedtime before it cuts off, but since I read before going to sleep, I don’t have much use for it. That light’s not bright enough to read by, so it would mean having the clock light on for a while after I turn out the reading lamp, and then I’d be lying there with light on for a few minutes more until it cut off.

I’ll have to see how this works on an ongoing basis, and then I may keep an eye out for sales on the more expensive models that do a better job of mimicking a sunrise. Giving myself an extra half hour to hour of productivity a day (possibly even more in the winter) may be worth it.

And now to make use of that extra time …


Change and Renewal

I’ve had a weird bout of restlessness and dissatisfaction lately, where I find myself feeling like I need to change something. I’ve thought about moving someplace else entirely, looked at possible jobs, pondered going in different directions with some things in my life.

It only occurred to me yesterday what’s going on: my army brat background is acting up again. I grew up moving every three or so years. Every few years, everything got uprooted — new home in an entirely new place, new school, new friends, new church, new activities. It continued to some extent even after my dad retired because although we settled in one place, I finished high school four years later and moved to a different city for college, then moved to yet another city when I finished college. From birth to about the age of 22, my life was totally changed every one to four years. I was used to constant renewal.

I’ve had a tendency to uproot my life every few years since then. Before I bought my house, I changed apartments every 2-3 years. I stayed in my first job nearly five years, but it was about three years per job after that. I’ve lasted longer in churches, but have generally found myself drifting from one to another every 5 years or so. I even seem to do a bit of a friend turnover every few years, gravitating from one group of people to another.

But now I’ve lived in the same house for 20 years. I’ve had the same “job” of working for myself for 16 years. I’ve been going to the same church for about 12 years. I’ve been hanging out with the same group of people for about that long. No wonder I’m feeling restless. The problem is that I don’t necessarily want to change these things. I would like a different house, but that’s a complicated process that will require a lot of work and saving more money. I really don’t want a different job. I like my church and the community I have there. I like my friends. How can I give myself that sense of renewal and change without actually changing things?

My mom deals with the itch to move by rearranging furniture. My house is small enough that there aren’t many functional options for rearranging furniture (though I did swap my bedroom and my office after a few years in this house, which kind of worked like a move). I don’t really want to redecorate entirely if I’m going to possibly be moving within a couple of years, but I think maybe doing the big decluttering project I have planned may feel like a move. I’ve been working on mostly the same series for a while, so maybe writing something entirely new might help. Maybe I could travel more, and that would give me the sense of relocating. I could start a new activity that would bring me around new people, letting me make new friends without losing the old ones.

Just identifying the feeling and its source helps. Now I realize that I’m not unhappy. I just have that itch to change something. I need some renewal.


Garden Distractions

I didn’t last very long working on the patio yesterday before I was seized by the urge to get out the hedge clippers and trim the jasmine that invades the patio from the other side of the fence. And then the bare flowerpots started bothering me, so I found that I still had some seeds from last year. I don’t know if they’ll germinate, but I suppose I’ll find out in about a week. If they don’t, I can get more seeds or buy some plants.

I decided to move the morning glory trellis to a larger pot that I can put my plant waterer in, and I think I’m going to put zinnias around the edge, since the morning glories grow up and something needs to be around the base. That way, if nothing else survives any trips out of town, it’ll be the plant that matters most. The waterer is a slim terra cotta jar that you bury with just its top above ground and fill with water. The water seeps through the clay into the soil. Depending on weather conditions, it can keep plants alive more than a week. You start with a good watering, and the water only seeps through when the soil dries out, so the jar can stay full for a while until that last watering wears off, and then any rain will hold off on water coming out of the jar.

I did eventually get to work and got more than my word count quota done (though I was doing a lot of copying and pasting from the previous draft). Today, my arms and shoulders are complaining about those hedge clippers.

It seems to be a bit cooler and windier today, so I may have to work indoors. That may be good because who knows what gardening would distract me today.


Garden Time

I’m still making forward progress on the book and have reached a point where I can incorporate stuff I’ve already written, so I should really make my word count today. It may be a patio office day, since it’s warm but not too warm and it’s not too windy. I always seem to get a lot done when I work outside.

It’s also getting to the time of year when I can start playing with flowers again. We’ve had some freakishly cold snaps the last few weeks, so I’ve hesitated. I’m also going to be out of town for nearly a week next month, and I don’t want to have to deal with figuring out watering while I’m gone, but I’m getting itchy for having my “garden.” I had zinnias and morning glories last year, and the morning glories brought me a great deal of joy, so I want to plant them again.

I never thought of myself as a garden-type person, but I’m discovering that there’s something about a garden that sings to my soul. I’m happy surrounded by plants and flowers. I also never thought of myself as an “outdoors” person, but as long as the weather’s nice, I could pretty much live outside. My patio becomes another living room. A good outdoor living area is on my wish list for my dream house.

So, it may be time to head to the garden shop and see what I can plant because the patio is looking awfully bare right now and I have a lot of empty flowerpots.


Spring Fever

Fall is my favorite time of year, but I’m developing an appreciation for spring, as well. I’m enjoying seeing the trees leafing out and the flowers blooming. I like weather that’s warm enough, but not too warm, for being outside while the nights are still cool enough for comfortable sleep. Now, if only we could do something about that wind.

The change in seasons brings with it a change of habits, but it’s a transitional time, so both habits might apply at the same time, or neither might apply. This came up in a conversation I had with the checker at the grocery store the other day. The winter fruits and vegetables that I had been buying for the past few months didn’t look so good, and summer fruits and vegetables were starting to be on sale. I’d had to mentally adjust my menu plans and shopping. Meanwhile, I’d had to give up making homemade yogurt during the winter because it was too cool at night to maintain the necessary temperature without more specialized equipment, and it was hard (or expensive) to get the berries to eat with it, but I got into bread baking, so my standard breakfast became homemade fruit and nut bread instead of yogurt and fruit. Now berries are coming back (without having to be imported from Chile), and it may soon be warm enough for yogurt, while being too warm to bake bread.

At this time of year, I start waking up earlier and getting sleepy earlier, so my schedule shifts. I do more walking (when it’s not so windy that it blows me off my feet). I’m even a bit more social (I went to a party this weekend and a get-together with the church women’s group on Monday night).

The down side is that during this time of transition, I tend to get restless and unsettled, and that makes it hard to focus on writing. I really ought to take a look at my productivity throughout the year and graph it, and then if I ever feel like I’m caught up or am in a position to plan my working schedule, I can plan to write during certain times of the year and focus on other things during the times that are less productive.

But I’m not there yet and I have a book to finish, so I guess I can’t indulge in spring fever this year.


Ice Dreams

I had a very small children’s choir group last night because it was cold and rainy, and I suspect the parents didn’t want to drag themselves and their children out of the house. I don’t blame them. I might not have been there if I hadn’t been obligated. The weather we’ve had this week is made for staying home, making soup, and reading.

Which is what I’m doing today, though substitute writing for reading this afternoon and watching figure skating for reading tonight.

I’ve always been fascinated by ice skating. I remember the Ice Capades coming to town when I was a small child. They had a Peanuts theme one year, and Snoopy came to my kindergarten. We then took off our shoes and “skated” around the room in our socks. The first time I remember seeing competitive figure skating was watching Dorothy Hamill in the 1976 Olympics. I had our old black-and-white TV that only picked up one channel in my room, sitting on a table with a shiny laminated surface, so you could sort of see a reflection of the TV on it. I remember putting my Barbie in her ballet costume and putting on her short boots and making her skate along with Dorothy Hamill, following her reflection on the table. I also wanted that haircut, but it doesn’t work with curly hair.

In my tweens, Tai and Randy were the big deal. I’m not sure how much I actually saw them skate because I was living overseas at the time, but the tween pop culture magazines were full of articles about them. I made my parents take me to the Ice Capades to see them skate in person when we were back in the States and they were on tour.

Then there were the 1984 Olympics, and I started having these crazy daydreams about how if I got in really good shape and had all the other elements in place, if I started taking skating lessons when I went to college and was in a place that actually had a rink, I’d turn out to be a prodigy and would have a shortcut to the Olympics. After all, the one time I’d gone skating at a mall rink, I’d managed to stay upright and even got to the point where I could glide on one foot and use the edges of the blade. If I could do that in one time, figuring it out for myself, what could I do with actual training? I’m a little ashamed to admit how much time I spent in my room doing exercises, stretching, picking out my music, and designing my costume. The exercise was probably good for me.

Since I was living in a city with a skating rink after the 1988 Olympics, I did actually go skating a few more times, and those crazy dreams resurfaced. I took a ballet class because I thought that would be handy. Reality started to sink in after that, especially when I had knee surgery on the leg that would be used for landings, but then the retroactive daydreams kicked in — if I had started training way back then, where would I be now? My ambitions switched over to ice dance later (though I think there were still some daydreams in which I first won a gold medal as a singles skater, then switched to ice dance and won again, as the oldest woman to win a medal in figure skating).

I did finally admit to myself that it was never going to happen and never would have happened, and there wasn’t really even anything I could have changed about my life to make it happen. We didn’t live anywhere near a rink, so there would have been no way of figuring out if I had the aptitude at an age when I’d have had a chance, and I’m not sure I would have had the drive it takes to get to the top. There are too many other things I enjoy doing. I probably don’t even spend the time I need to really make it in writing because I also spend time on music, knitting, and other things. My music lags because I spend too much time on reading, writing, and other things. Even the music suffers because I’m trying to sing and learn multiple instruments rather than focusing on one thing. So maybe I’ll never have a “gold medal” equivalent in anything, but at least I’m well-rounded. I’m reasonably accomplished at a lot of things, and I think I like that better than being the world’s best at something but lacking in everything else (in my PR days, my firm dealt with an Olympic skater as a spokesperson for something, and she was utterly useless, as she had no thought in her head that wasn’t about skating).

This year, I’m able to just watch without wanting to be there. I haven’t even been mentally choreographing my programs (though if any ice dancers want hints on good music, I have ideas). I’ll confess that I have been exercising a bit more while watching, mostly because watching them use their knees the way they do makes mine ache, so I remember I need to do my therapy exercises.

I’m also kind of looking forward to it being over so I can get back on my regular schedule. These late nights are killing me.