Monday, January 30, 2017

Procrastination Tribulation

Yes, it is possible to get overextended in your Third Third. It is possible to fill up January until you don’t know how you’re ever going to face January. Except that January happens.

And then, rather than tackling your too-many projects and commitments, rather than chipping away at them one by one, you simply stop. Freeze. Become immobile. Paralyzed.

That’s why there were no blog posts the week of January 15. There was almost nothing the week of January 15. I was too busy procrastinating.

And then, just when I was analyzing my procrastination, NPR ran a story about Why We Procrastinate – And How We Can Stop. I was sitting in the car and Tim Pychyl was talking to me. It was like the voice of God. He said, “We have to recognize that procrastination is not a time management problem, it’s an emotion regulation problem.” While he said it’s a voluntary delay, it’s a self-defeating delay.

It’s true. Every day I put everything off, I felt worse. In researching this, I found Tim Urban’s very funny TED Talk. He said that procrastinators have an Instant Gratification Monkey who encourages them to do Easy and Fun Things. Hmm, paralysis didn’t mean I was doing Easy and Fun Things. It meant I’d entered the Dark Playground (his word). My Dark Playground is immobility.
So I made a list of my January ordeals: big party, fulfillment of resolutions (squats), coordinate interviews of high school students for my university, organize yarn bombing of more trees, do project for art group, prepare Olé presentation, arrange rental/flights for my future month in London, straighten out finances, host book club, etc. That doesn’t even count my usual teaching or painting signs for protests. It doesn’t even count cooking dinner or shoveling snow.
Okay, you don’t need my list. You have your own.

But I looked at my list and tried to figure out why some things were SO HARD. You will be surprised what was THE HARDEST thing for me: logistics, as in arranging airline tickets. First I had to find my rental and select my dates for London. That meant another VRBO gauntlet, which turned out to be miraculously less traumatic and more magical than my first time. But then I had to find flights.

That meant I had to go upstairs and hyperventilate a little.

I think it’s hardest for me to do things I don’t understand. I have no idea why certain flights cost more, why a flight shows up on one schedule but not on another, why a price suddenly changes in the middle of my search. Inexplicable forces bat me around willy nilly, and they make me pay if I do something wrong. It seems so irrevocable.
I opened PowerPoint on my computer. Once I’d done that, it followed that I’d create the presentation on my list. And then it was done. I’d made a dent.

So I pulled out a jigsaw puzzle and spent a few days working on it because I just couldn’t face the financial transactions. I guess that’s the Dark Playground.

There are different theories about conquering procrastination. My sister said, “Just do one thing.” But do you do the hard thing or the easy thing? The thing with the nearest deadline or the thing with no actual deadline but still needing to get done? Because you could keep putting those things off forever.

Which is why I have done exactly one set of squats in a month. They could take two minutes so obviously, time is not the issue. There’s no deadline, but if I never do squats, I’ll be an old woman who can’t get up from her chair.

Tim Pychyl says to do the “next action.”

Pressed “publish.” Done.

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Happy Yarn Bomber

I’m knitting again. (Still knitting, no purling. I haven’t progressed that far.) I’m still using very big needles and very fat yarn so I can see very fast progress.
Knitting was one of my first New Things in my Third Third, and it was part of one of my happiest discoveries: yarn bombing. We covered the trees in front of the Anchorage Museum with knitted art. You can read all about it here, but the big thing was that we made Art! It was spectacular and fun and … joyful.
So now, I’m knitting again. I still can’t do anything fancy, but I can make rectangles, and that’s all that’s needed. Then the rectangles get stitched onto the trees. And this time – next Friday – we’re decorating the trees at Westchester Lagoon and the nearby Coastal Trail. You can, too.

This is the amazing thing: Even my dopey, non-fancy rectangles with bizarre yarn combinations make Art. When all the knitters bring out all their rectangles, and all the trees get sweaters, it becomes Public Art. All those decorated trees! It makes people smile to see something unexpected, something colorful, something happy.

I’m thinking back over my recent year, and I have often been happy. I’ve even made people laugh when I tell a good story. But I don’t think I added as much happiness to the world as when I helped knit the trees at the Museum. And it mattered that it took many of us to make all that happiness.

So yes, I’m knitting again. I had to go back on YouTube to learn how to cast on and bind off. I still can’t do anything but knit while I knit because I have to concentrate. But there’s something meditative about moving needles, finishing rows, starting new rows, seeing progress. The transformation from ball of yarn to knitted rectangle is so concrete, it satisfies. I’d forgotten this. I even forgot that when I knit, I don’t snack.
I’m a confirmed beginner, a nincompoop knitter. I don’t want to get fancy about it. I’m just going to knit rectangles because that’s all I have to do to add to world happiness with my knitting. I don’t have to follow a pattern, count rows, worry about dropped stitches. I can just click my big needles, throw my fat yarn around, and it turns into Art. What a discovery!

If you’re a knitter, make some rectangles. If you’re not, help us dress the trees. Otherwise, just take a look and smile. That’s why we’re doing it.

(More details and updates on Facebook)

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Shovelsful of Snow

Let me tell you about snow. About how here in Anchorage we have missed it terribly for the last two years, about how we require its reflective light to brighten our barely-there daylight, about how we need it for our outdoor life of skiing.

Now, after shoveling almost three feet of snow from our driveway, let me tell you how I really feel about snow. There is snow for skiing (good) and snow for shoveling (bad).

Light, fluffy snow is not necessarily easier to shovel than wet, heavy snow. You pick up light, fluffy snow, and it fluffs right back at you. Those are the four words I have for snow. Other people may have 43, but I also have four categories of snow shovels.
The blue shovel: It’s big and substantial and heavy. It’s the push kind, but pushing is limited in Anchorage. You push till you get to the berm, and then you have to lift. (Note to non-Alaskans: a berm is the mound – no, the mountain – that collects after you have moved the snow to the sides of the driveway, roads, paths, etc.) Maybe the first snow presents no problem, but when the berm is several feet tall, lifting is impossible. Except that you have to do it, so …
…you switch to the aluminum shovel. It’s also a push shovel, but it’s smaller and lighter. Unfortunately, it’s also too shallow, so when you lift it up, the snow falls out the back end. On you. On what you’ve shoveled. So you come up with a newer plan: you scoop up snow and FLING it towards the berm, high in the air, hoping it will clear five feet of berm. Some of it does … and some of it slides back down the slope of the berm. The angle of repose.

So where, on a first snowfall day, you can push the blue shovel all the way across the driveway in one load; now you have to take six pushes. Push, fling, push, fling, push, fling, clean up stray snow.

I am a fastidious shoveler. I won’t let a car run on the driveway before I’ve shoveled because the tire tracks make stripes of packed down snow. Then you have to use the blue shovel with all its weight to dig into the stripes and scrape them off.

But by Day 4 of snow and husband’s exquisitely-timed convalescence from surgery and prohibition on strenuous activity, stripes are the least of your concern. Your big concern is lifting your arm to brush your hair. The whole driveway is one big, white stripe, and besides, it’s getting longer. It’s not your imagination. The plows are running out of space for their berms. The street gets narrower and you have to shovel out to where it begins – about seven feet from the curb. Tim says the plow guys must have decided the mail carrier is on his own. He actually climbs UP the berms to reach the mailboxes, and one of these days, he’s going to flip over.
I try to run out when the plow comes so they’ll see me struggling with my shovels and take pity. If they don’t, they spill plowed snow across the driveway. Plowed snow is like concrete. Blue and aluminum won’t do it; then you need the real shovel. The kind that shovels dirt. Or concrete.

My neighbors on either side have a different kind of shovel. Theirs is called Snowblower. They are in their 80s, and it reminds me of moving my mother years ago. I’d called up my cousin and asked, “Do you have a pickup so you and I can load up the furniture and take it to her new place?”

“Barbara, we’re 60 years old. If I move a household of furniture, I won’t be able to move for a year.”

And then I realized we weren’t in our 20s.

The day I moved two feet of snow, I wondered when I’d stop shoveling. I wondered it when I swallowed my Advil, when I soaked in my first bath in about eight years, when I tried to remember which truck had run me over. When will Snowblower move into our garage?

I’m not 20 and I’m not 80. I’m in my Third Third, but I still look out at our shoveled driveway and feel insanely proud and satisfied. It may be cognitive decline or delusional thinking, but right now, I’ll take this sense of accomplishment. And another Advil.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

I'm with her.

I am so proud of my town I could burst! In a huge snowstorm, with temperatures just emerging from days below zero, with snow sitting two feet deep and roads barely plowed; 2,000 women and men tromped through the snow to march for human rights.

Thank you, Anchorage.

Oh, friends and I had traveled the “What’s the use?” path, the “I hate marches” groan, even the “What if it’s 9° below?” complaint. But ultimately, it was the “Stand up and be counted” refrain that spoke to us all.

So I pulled out the paints, brushes, and butcher paper, my supplies for all the signs and banners I’ve made over the years. Mostly, they’ve been “Congratulations!” or “Happy Birthday,” but this time, I wanted to say everything important. I wanted my sign to speak loudly, to put my heart and mind out there. To make visible all the hopes I’ve had for our world, and how devastated I am at these steps backward.

I didn’t want to be negative. I didn’t want to be trite. I wanted to cover a lot. How could I fit in my fears about climate change? About reproductive rights? Even about public school funding! In the end, I just ended up being boring, but I was colorful!

Do you know what it feels like to be in a crowd of 2,000 people who all wish each other life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness no matter whom they love, what color they are, and where they came from? In this country where we battle discrimination and harassment for all those things – and the likelihood the battle will only get uglier – this was a friendly, welcoming gathering. A warm oasis in two feet of snow.

How do I know I’m in my Third Third?

This one moved me because my daughter was out marching, too. And my sisters and my brother in all their cities around the world. My mother – Another Mother for Peace – would have been proud.

I can’t remember the exact wording of this sign, but it looked just like this and was one of my favorites:

But then I realized this march wasn’t only about fear and anger; it was about camaraderie and support and standing together:

That’s really it. So I’m sending this blog post to my senators and congressman because they have to know we’re here and we’re numerous and we’re motivated. I’m with her and her … and her and her. And we’re not giving up.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

An Illuminating Story

The Quest
Last year, right about this time, I was on a quest for Light Up Balloons. This year, the adventure is luminaries. Yes, it’s that dark time of year.

Not for us, the paper bag luminaries. We have cold and we have ice. Years ago, we used to try to make luminaries by freezing water in containers, but (like Jello molds), I’ve never been able to master the remove-from-mold part. They always reverted to water. But then we discovered balloon luminaries.

Balloon luminaries are frozen water balloons. When the water freezes, it pops the balloons, and you’re left with icy globes. Or icy blobs. They assume their own, orb-like shape. Something extraterrestrial.

The Theory
The way it’s supposed to work is that the outside of the balloon freezes first, leaving unfrozen water on the inside. You make your hole in the globe, drain out the water, and voilà – a hollow for a candle!

Well, it’s voilà if everything goes right. Last year, it was too warm for them to freeze. Colored balloons rolled around our front door … until some of them popped. Then we had water around our front door … until it froze.

But this year, with temperatures hanging around the single digits, it was perfect for freezing. I filled up my balloons and carried them outside. I plunked one down on the snow bank beside the driveway. Yikes! Where did it go?!? It sunk right into the snow, just a bit of color peeking out.

“Tim, do you think the snow will insulate the balloons and they won’t freeze?”

“It’s 2 degrees out. Everything freezes. You’d better check on them tonight before they freeze solid.”

[overnight interlude while I forget all about luminaries]

The Failures
The next morning, I go outside to try to remove a frozen solid, colored bowling ball from a snow bank in 5 degrees. I realize this is no quick venture and race back inside to get gloves and jacket. I dig the bowling ball out, race back inside. Remove shoes, gloves, jacket, and throw bowling ball into the kitchen sink.

Shoes, gloves, jacket on. Dig out another balloon. Shoes, gloves, jacket off. Throw the balloon in the sink.

Shoes glove jacket on. Dig out another balloon. Shoes, gloves, jacket off. Throw it in the sink.

This is getting old and cold fast. I decide to go really fast so I can skip the gloves and jacket part. Attempt to dig out a balloon. Balloon isn’t really cooperating, nor are fingers. Not sure if I have fingers anymore. Get inside and stick fingers in sink, try to recover both sensation and situation: rock-hard, solidly frozen bowling balls do not luminaries make.

The Rescue Attempts
Discover that one balloon has a tiny bubble floating around in it. Stab the bubble with a knife a few times and manage to make a little hole. Amazingly, when the hole drains, A LOT of water comes out, emptying the globe. This could work after all!

Run outside with maybe-successful luminary. Grab another balloon. Grab door handle. Uh, oh.

Y’know the stories about licking pump handles?
Stick fingers back in sink, in towel, under armpits. Examine to see if I still have fingerprints.

Grab another solid bowling ball, find its bubble, stab it with a knife. Do this to a few more bowling balls. Until a bowling ball splits in two.
The Victory
Welding is so easy when you’re working with ice, water, and freezing temperatures. Let there be light … while now I look for candles.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Not Looking

When I began this blog over a year ago, I said I didn’t consider myself retired; I considered myself unemployed. My usual habit was to work hard, unemploy myself, take a break, explore some things, and find the next exciting job to occupy me. This was only my latest break.

In my mind, I wasn’t “retired” because I don’t have a pension. And I expected I’d get a job because that’s what I usually did. I liked having a regular place to go, helping something grow, being part of a long-term mission. I liked the identity that came with being part of an organization.

But the things that captured my imagination weren’t coming in the form of jobs. No, what was really interesting me was art, travel, community efforts. New Things.

But then – as readers of this blog know – after a while I just felt adrift and untethered. No structure imposed by work hours, no purpose other than what I could impose on myself. I was doing contracts – and I like them a lot – but they aren’t regular and don’t come attached to a workplace, co-workers, and an occupational identity. My existential crises ran amok. I was lonely. A job seemed a solution.
So now, here we are at today. A job prospect came my way that’s actually intriguing. I think it would involve working with interesting people, would involve some travel, would even include writing. Of course, it would ease financial pressure.

But if I took that job, what would happen to my month in London (the newest iteration of my month in Manhattan)? What about the prospects for an artist-in-residency at Hagley in Wilmington? What about all the things that I do between 9 and 5 each day? How will all my volunteering fit in? What about all the things that don’t get done even with all the time I have now?

How can I possibly squeeze myself back into the box that a regular job requires? 

See where I am? I think this is called a crossroads. Or just Identity Crisis #402. I really am on a different road, a road that for the time being does not involve a job. But because I can over-think anything to death, I have a whole bunch of questions for myself:
  • I have LOTS of years left in my Third Third. Have I opted for the pleasure route too early? When I decide I want something different, will employment opportunities have passed?

  • If not-employed is now my decided route – not just a de-facto-it-happened route – what does that mean? Do I get more serious about what I’m doing? What does that mean, to “get more serious”?

  • How many of my decisions are just laziness decisions, evidence of some responsibility fatigue?

  • How much of this is just incredibly selfish in not taking financial pressure off my husband (even though he denies feeling the pressure)?
In the end, none of these questions matter. I can’t do it. I just can’t take a regular job right now, can’t put myself in that box. I couldn’t sign on a dotted line, set an alarm clock every morning, sit at a desk in an office. It feels absolutely impossible. Every fiber of my being rebels. Why?

Because I like my days.

(Eye-opening wow.)

It took me a while to get to this point, but it’s true. I’m in my Third Third, I’m in charge of my days, and I like them!

Sunday, January 8, 2017

No Longer 30

Yet again, my friend Marj has given me the meat of a new blog post. This is what Marj sent me:
“I am so glad you are writing about the third third of our lives. It has changed the way I always thought. For years I had thought the thing to do is to pick an age, like 38, and then for the rest of your life make sure NOTHING changes. Stay the same weight, keep your hair the same color, keep wearing mascara when you leave the house, keep your same clothes style, keep doing the same activities – just DO NOT start looking and acting older. If you get health problems, fix them! Fast! DO NOT let any infirmities settle in!

“But as I have gotten older, it became increasingly hard to hold at 38. I was starting to feel like a failure. If only I had tried harder. When did I start to lose it? What can I do about it now?

“Then I started reading what you write about the third third. And I realized life really does have thirds. The third third just can’t be the same as the first. And that crazy second third! Who needed all that? I was aware of the concept of there being a season for everything. But I thought that did not apply to me personally. But now I have accepted that there are irrevocable thirds. And I’m in my third one. I’m no longer 38. Haven’t been for decades. And now I realize, I have not failed. I have simply progressed through life. As one does. If one is fortunate.”
It’s funny that one of the things I remember Marj telling me – years and years ago – was that my daughter thought of herself as a “work in progress.” That seemed so positive, such a healthy way of looking at the world. And yet here was Marj, thinking that we make healthy progress to a point … and then it’s downhill.

How many of us have thought – or still think – that way? What age did you pick?

I used to think I was 33. I don’t know why I picked 33. I was single, in charge of my life, a Big Boss in my organization, open to adventure, free of commitments. Long after, whenever I met people, I thought they saw me as a 33-year-old. If they were in their 30s, we were the same age (in my mind). We were all peers. I was 33 for a long time.

I stopped being 33 for two reasons. One was the crushing realization as I looked in the mirror one day that I looked old. Older than 33. The other was more positive: I was coaching, advising, and instructing 30-year-olds … and I had a lot more life experience than they did.
And I guess that’s the two sides of this whole progression through our Third Thirds: we win some and we lose some. I will never fool anyone into thinking I’m 33. Even cashiers in grocery stores offer me the senior discount unsolicited.

But I have life experience. I’ve been there, done that, and know how to make a phone call and get a reluctant company to remedy my problem. I know how to make a quilt, run a half-marathon, create a website – all things I learned after I was 33. I got to experience marriage and parenting … after I was 33.

After age 60, I got to experience Machu Picchu, re-discovery of art in my life, even the Chilkoot Trail. Less-than-60 Barbara hadn’t gotten to them yet, but less-than-60 Barbara had time constraints, obligations, resource limitations.

I’ve always known I never wanted to be 16 ever again. It’s interesting to realize that I no longer want to be 33 either.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Do-able Resolutions

This is the big thing I don’t understand: why – when I need to feel better – I don’t do the things that I know will make me feel better. I’ve talked with friends; I know I’m not the only one. Let’s say I feel sluggish and depressed. I know a run will make me feel better, but I don’t do it. Why is that?! What is the sabotage or lack of will that leaves me blobbing around, digging a hole for myself?

Maybe a run outside is not your thing. Maybe a hike or a social outing or a phone call does it for you. But then you don’t do it. Why is that?

Every new year, I start off hoping I’ll be a better person, maybe even Making Plans to intentionally be a better person, and it doesn’t happen. But as I mentioned here, my daughter taught me something about New Year’s resolutions: if I make them cumulative, I see progress, not the times I miss. My resolutions to work out three times a week always left me missing weeks and feeling failure; her resolution to run 500 miles in 2017 takes the miles whenever they come.

So I looked at how I wanted to grow as a person and how could I take baby steps to get there. Maybe it would be like exercising my oomph muscle. (And if I’d missed along the way, I could always race to catch up at the end of the year.)

I want to be more thoughtful, feel more gratitude.
I was so moved by the condolence cards after my mother died that I wrote thank you notes for them. I wanted people to know how much I appreciated their thoughts. My friend Linnea writes appreciation notes often. I save them (even though Linnea says, “You’re supposed to be de-cluttering!”) because they make me feel … appreciated. So: I will write 20 thoughtful notes in 2017.

See? It’s a baby step, but maybe it will feel so good, it will become a habit. If it doesn’t, I will still have written 20 notes.
I want to be more of a hostess, welcoming people into our home.
So: I will hold four dinner parties. Most years, I’ve done this, but this past year, I’m not sure. I’ve still socialized, but I want our home to be a welcoming spot. The point is, it’s not a killer task. It’s do-able.
I want to be more fit.
Here’s the 500 miles of running/skiing. I already do both irregularly, but I let things interfere. Maybe this will help on those self-sabotaging days when I’m digging my personal hole.

Since my exercise tends to be one dimensional, my muscles are pathetic. Tim and Sophie say squats are big, that they also help with getting up (for when we’re older). I hate squats. I can’t imagine anything more boring than doing squats. Tim says I should do three sets of them a day. With weights. Ha! I’ll do 50 sets (three times ten squats) in a whole year. I’ve already done one so far. Baby steps.

I want to eat better.
This one is really an odd one. I already don’t have meat in our house; I only cook vegetarian. So, of course, I thought I was getting my five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. I go through four pounds of Costco grapes a week, but I just read that it takes 32 grapes to equal a serving! Yikes! Maybe this means I need to move off beans, carbs, and cheese more. So: I will eat 15 servings of fruits and vegetables each week. Yes, I know that five a day means 75 a week, and that this isn’t a cumulative measure like the others. What should I say? Eat 780 servings in 2017? Too much recordkeeping. Besides, I don’t know how to count the vegetables IN my meals and this is just to get me thinking more intentionally about meal preparation. I’m going out today to buy baby carrots. It only takes nine of them to make a serving.
I want to keep up closeness with my sisters.
So: I’m going to have five Skype or phone conversations with them in 2017. We email regularly, but that’s email.
Missing from these resolutions are the things I already do. I read 75 books last year without noticing, trained for and ran my half-marathon as a matter of course, and wrote this blog because I do (This is post #203!). I don’t need to resolve to do those things. For whatever reason, desire and will are sufficient for them to happen.

Some researchers say willpower is a muscle to be exercised. Others say we can suffer willpower depletion if we have to rely on self-control too much. If you draw on willpower too much, you drain your self-control for the next situation.

Baby steps.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Citizen Amanda

A new year, a new beginning, a New Thing; and it’s not even mine. It’s Amanda’s. Amanda is a brand new American citizen.

Amanda came to the United States from El Salvador six years ago as a 20-year-old au pair. In El Salvador, she’d been a nurse’s assistant, but when she decided to come to the United States, she took another year and a half to learn English in preparation. Now, after a couple of years at the Alaska Literacy Program – where she was one of my students – Amanda is enrolled at UAA to get credentialed.

It’s hard.

Her whole venture has been hard. In six years, Amanda has not been back home, has only seen her mother on Skype. Her second year was the hardest, when most of her au pair peer group returned home, and she was lonely. Amanda is outgoing, creative, fun to be around; but 20-somethings don’t readily forge friendships with people whose English is developing. Think about it: how many of our friendships are with people who want to improve their English? The people Amanda meets in ESL (English as a Second Language) programs often return home after a year or so.

But Amanda persisted.

I read recently that immigrants have a future orientation; they’re looking to make a brighter day. That future orientation often leads them to giving the economy a push. Something in Amanda wanted the future, and she kept at it, making it happen.

Fortunately, her au pair employer appreciated her so much that she hired Amanda after her service ended. Eventually, Amanda met Ryan and they married. In 2013, Amanda applied for residency and now, years later, she could become a citizen.
My mother used to work for the Family Court, and she said the happiest days of her week were Thursdays: Adoption Day. I bet the happiest days in the Federal Building are Naturalization Ceremony days. Families come as parents and grandparents, wives and husbands, become citizens. Friends and colleagues, teachers and neighbors are there, and everyone is dressed up for the occasion.
The room was full with about forty new citizens from all over. There was some music, some singing, and a heartfelt address by a now-successful immigrant. All the speakers and the judge acknowledged that these new citizens may have to face a lot of negative comments and insults in the America we now experience – a sad message to people who swear an Oath of Allegiance pledging to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the U.S.

Many of these new citizens have left war or famine, persecution or other tragedies behind. They have lived here for the required three to five years of residency, may have learned a new language or a new vocation. None of it is easy. The only easy road is the one I traveled simply by virtue of the accident of having been born here … because my grandparents fled persecution and faced that tough road themselves.

When I was 20, I was a happy-go-lucky college kid. When Amanda was 20, she was moving alone to a new country.

Citizen Amanda, I’m glad you’re here!

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