iPads! Huh! What are they good for?

I admit it. I have a love/hate relationship with technology. At my day job as an instructional designer, of course technology is essential and ever present. We all have dual monitors for our desktop computers, laptops, mobile devices, high-speed internet, fancy projectors, smart boards, clickers, lots of server space, an office full of enthusiastic early adopters, and plenty of people who will happily answer technical questions and give advice about cool new tools. I won’t lie. I was as excited as anyone to get my first iPad and start figuring out what it can do for me.

But in my other, perhaps more “real” life, I enjoy many more low-tech activities, and at our weekly lunch with the curmudgeons I often join in their conversations about the evils of being always connected, the intrusion of all the beeps and clicks in our lives, the irritation of dinner-table guests who keep glancing at their phones for updates, the absurdity of television screens installed at self-pump gas stations. Among the people I count as friends, you will find numerous artisans and craftspeople–the original DIYers–gardeners and people who are good with their hands, people who raise their own chickens for eggs or meat, bee keepers, farmers, healers and massage therapists, musicians and guitar makers, a luthier, woodworkers, weavers and spinners–but also web designers and bloggers and sound technicians and music producers. We also believe in repurposing: like the time we made a spindle for spinning wool out of a CD that arrived in the mail from AOL.

It’s not that we are anti-technology, but we tend to be the kinds of people who, once we have found the tool that works for us, see little reason to buy each latest model as it comes out. Rather than ask, “What new tools might I get?” we try to think about, “What do I need or want to do, and what tool will help me accomplish that best?”

My husband and I got a kick out of the sales reps from Century Tel who stopped by our house recently to congratulate us on our years of being “such good customers” and to offer us this really awesome deal where we could bump our internet speed up astronomically at no charge. All we would have to do is add a cable TV package. They were all smiling and nodding until we told them that we don’t have a television. The two young men stopped cold. Then one of them said, “My mom tried to get us to watch less television. I guess that would be one way.” Then the other one said, in apparent disbelief, “You don’t have a television at all?” We smiled and said no, and they thanked us for our time and headed on down the street to knock on the doors of other good customers.

Like I said, I was thrilled to get an iPad recently and am enjoying learning what I can do with it. However, I’m trying not to get caught up completely in the “cool factor” and start downloading apps willy nilly before I even figure out what I might need them for. Rather, I am trying to take a more thoughtful approach and think about the things I already do and then find out whether there is an app that would help me do those things more easily. But I can already sense what a time bandit this device could turn out to be.

This morning I decided to get out the list of books I want to read (which I have been writing down in a little moleskin notebook that I carry with me everywhere) and enter them into a virtual bookshelf using Goodreads. Oh my! That could turn out to be very addictive. So far, I have resisted the impulse to click “buy immediately” or “download this eBook now,” but I spent way more time than I expected entering book titles (already read and to-read), remembering other books I have already ready, checking out what my virtual “friends” have read, browsing the new releases, reading reviews, looking at photos of authors. It was just as fun as browsing in a library or bookstore, but I could do it in my pajamas, Before I knew it I had added 141 books to my “to-read” list. The trick will be to actually read some of these books and not just keep playing around with this really cool app and building more and more virtual bookshelves.


November is National Writing Month

For the second day in a row I find myself wide awake at 5:00 a.m. Must be feeling the energy of all those writers who have pledged to write 50,000 words during the month of November–whether as part of National Novel Writing Month or National Blog Posting Month or Academic Writing Month or Digital Writing Month or some other challenge they have set for themselves.

I personally thought this would be a great time to get back into my blog. I can’t believe I have not posted to my blog since July. As so often happens in my life, the years when lots of stuff is happening are the years when I tend to abandon my journals and blogs. I guess that makes some kind of sense, because when I’m not doing much of anything I have plenty of time to sit in my chair and write about not doing anything or imagine things I might do some day, whereas when life is more demanding, I don’t have the time or energy to write about what’s happening. By anyone’s standards, though, this has been one heck of a year, both at work and at home.

But trying to summarize where I’ve been sometimes has the unintended consequence of causing me to miss what’s going on in the present, as though I’m trying to drive down the highway while keeping my attention on the rearview mirror. I used to find it strange that my dad, upon returning from a year or 18 months at sea, would greet people as though he just saw them that morning. He seemed to make no attempt to catch up on news, and he didn’t offer any hints at what he himself had done during all that time. He’d say, “How about them Wildcats?” or “Nice dress” or “Think it’ll rain?” or “I’ll have the usual.” Strange, perhaps, but I’m beginning to realize that dad makes more sense than most people think. How could we really ever hope to make up for lost time? We might as well jump into the present with both feet and create some new memories.

On that note, I’ll let you know that my attention is on playing at the contra dance tonight for Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers. I will be playing keyboard with a band called The 32 Bartenders. (No, we won’t be serving up alcoholic beverages. We chose the name because all contra dances and tunes have 32 bars.) The other members of the band are Tom Verdot on fiddle and banjo, Thom Howard on guitar and mandolin, and Rebecca Logan on flute. This is the first time all four of us have played together for a dance. I am the newest member, so I’m a bit nervous, but I am having so much fun playing with these fine musicians. We will be playing mostly New England style contra dance tunes, which is somewhat new for this area. Many of the bands around here play oldtime stringband music and fiddle tunes. It’s been fun breaking out of the standard oom-pah, boom-chuck, I-V style of backup, but I have a long way to go before I am able to play the tunes the way I hear them in my head. For now, I need to focus on keeping a steady rhythm for the dancers.

Here we go again–A new year, same old resolutions

Every year I make the same list of resolutions, and this year is no different. Once again, I have resolved to do the following:

  1. Write more.
  2. Exercise more.
  3. Play more music.
  4. Set my house in order.

My son has an interesting approach to his budget, which I am also going to try to put in place. He basically only tracks money in four categories: household, child care, car and motorcycle, and discretionary. He keeps a cushion at all times in his checking account (i.e., the amount he needs to feel safe), but whatever is left at the end of the month, he drops onto one of his credit-card accounts or adds it to savings. I kind of like that. It’s simple and straightforward, unlike most budgeting systems I have tried in the past. He doesn’t try to track every single expenditure or split bills. For example, if he goes to Walmart and buys a windshield wiper blade in addition to his usual household items, he enters the entire amount into his budgeted “household” account. If he buys a soda at the convenience store when he fills up his tank with gas, that comes out of the car/motorcycle budget, but if he buys a case of soda at the grocery store, that comes out of the household budget. It’s the total amounts he is interested in and the proportions, which makes a lot of sense to me. He also has some complicated system for projecting out and modifying his budgeted amounts based on spending trends over the past three months, but I’m not going to worry about that part.

His overall system for budgeting money also seems like it would help me keep track of how I spend my time. I like the idea of only four categories, even if the “discretionary” category is huge. It helps put things into perspective somehow. Whatever you do (or spend) has to be allotted to one of four categories.

Following my son’s lead, here are my four budgeted money categories:

  1. Household
  2. Gifts and Charities
  3. Transportation
  4. Discretionary (i.e., everything else)

Here are my four budgeted time categories:

  1. Cooking, cleaning, maintaining home and gardens
  2. Writing
  3. Music and Dance
  4. Discretionary

I did the math and was shocked to find that if I divide my time equally (after subtracting out time at the office and time spent sleeping), I should have 18 hours a week to devote to each of the other categories. If I really did spend 18 hours a week writing or playing music, I’d have quite a few pages at the end of the month and would be able to learn quite a few new tunes. Of course, the discretionary time will be the one I have to watch, and much of the music & dance time will be taken up with traveling to dances (following my son’s rule of not splitting tickets). And right now, while I have a big freelance copyediting project to do, most of the discretionary time will be taken up with that. I probably should make a chart to keep track of my hours. Is that being too, too compulsive?

Okay, forget the chart. But here’s how it might look for just one of my four categories–writing.

Mom and I figured out that if we write even 500 words a day, we will produce enough for three novels (average 60,000 words) by the end of the year, which seems like crazy talk. I’ve heard that people generally overestimate what they can accomplish in a day and underestimate what they can accomplish in a year, which I guess must be right, because who would ever think you could write three novels a year by only writing 500 words a day.

At any rate, we decided that writing three new works really was crazy, but we would each try to revise two existing works and write one new one. When she was doing the math, I kept thinking to myself, “Uh huh. Sure. Whatever, mom.” But  now I’m thinking that if I really do write for 18 hours a week, that’s more than enough time to keep up with journals, letter writing, blogs, and our long-term goal of writing/revising books. I can easily write 500 words in about an hour, if I’m writing about something I know about (as opposed to something I need to research).

In the meantime, I am starting a new blog called A Mother’s War, where I plan to record my thoughts and feelings from my son’s deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past ten years, but I have not quite decided whether that will count as revising my book that I wrote during the first year of the Iraq war or if I am wanting to use the blog to see what kind of audience there might be for such a book. I’m thinking the book and the blog should be separate projects, with the blog more like a warm-up for the actual work of revising the book. I already know how to write short 500-word pieces, but I’m not so sure how to write a sustained work of 300 pages.

In addition, mom has started sending writing prompts every day or so, from a book she got for Christmas called My Book of Self. Mom is counting this as her new work, because she was already thinking of writing an autobiography. I had not thought about what new work I might like to write, so again, I’m not sure if this daily writing “counts.” It could be interesting, though, since we’re both writing the prompts together, if we put them together into a mother-daughter compilation. Not sure how that would work, but since we’ll be writing about some of the same topics, the same characters and settings, and using the same prompts, it could be quite provocative. So that may or may not be my new book.

I also want to go through my old poems and journals and prose pieces that are shoved in boxes in the basement, so that will be my second revision project. People used to say I was a good writer, and I won awards for both fiction and poetry while in graduate school, so there is probably something worth salvaging down there, something I could submit for publication. Okay, so here’s my writing plan for the year.

Three main projects

  1. January-April—Revise books of poems (submit individual poems for publication and enter contests)
  2. May-August—Revise war journal (post short pieces on blog)
  3. September-December—Write novel about 13-year-old girl (watch for ideas while writing autobiographical prompts)

Digging myself out of my hole again!

This may not be worthy of posting on a blog (what is worthy of posting on blogs, anyway), but my hope is that writing something—anything—will help me clear the system and find my motivation again. I have been in quite a slump lately and don’t feel like working or playing very hard. I know my energy and enthusiasm tend to go in cycles, but lately it seems that the cycles are coming closer together, and the highs are not quite as high as I remember them in the past. I get discouraged more easily. I break promises to myself. I ask myself what it’s all worth. I waste entire days going through junk mail or deleting emails.

I think a lot about retiring, and sometimes I even manage to convince myself that if I didn’t have to spend 40 hours a week at a paid job, then I would have more time and energy to do something important. Though what that might be, I’m not sure. I used to think education was important, so my job in online course development was satisfying enough, but lately everything seems like a big money-making scheme, higher education included, so I find myself disgruntled and wanting to get out and do something more satisfying and worthwhile. Of course, if I were to seriously consider retiring, there’s that issue of how to pay for health insurance and the very real fear that my modest retirement savings could vanish in the blink of an eye.

To try to counteract my downward slide, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time researching organizations that work on issues I care about—the environment, child protection, health, human rights, hunger, international relief and development, public policy—and I’ve been reading reports on various charities by Charity Watch, Charity Navigator, and Better Business Bureau. My thinking is that since I have limited amounts of time and money to donate to worthy causes, I should try to give to organizations that use their resources wisely to do good deeds, so I have been focusing on those organizations that spend at least 75% on direct program expenses and don’t spend excessive amounts on fundraising and administrative costs. But I don’t know how to think about chief executives and presidents who make over $350,000 a year directing charitable organizations. Of course, even that amount, which sounds outrageous to me, is a drop in the bucket compared to the $13.2 million compensation package that went to the president of Goldman Sachs in 2010. Such discrepancies make me physically ill.

I am so glad to see the Occupy movement growing as it has in a little more than two months and hope they are successful in “fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process” and shining a bright light on “the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations.” In recent years I had wondered why people weren’t out in the streets protesting, so I’m glad to see some change in the public discourse. I am fascinated by their process of decision making through the “people’s assemblies” and the presence of so many creative individuals working together to change the current paradigm. I wish them well. I hope we all have the courage and the stamina to resist “the factual ignorance, misinterpretations, bad advice, lies, and outright villainy of the uprising’s various critics,” as described in the Hightower Lowdown. Not to mention the police brutality and other crackdowns that have occurred in too many places. I don’t know what to think now that so many cities, including my own, have cleared their parks and public spaces of the Occupiers, but I hope the people’s assemblies are meeting to plan how best to keep their message in plain view for all to see.

I have also been trying to inspire myself by reading stories about people who are finding ways to live better on less money, as they downsize; reduce their carbon footprints; start their own businesses; engage in DIY projects; support each other in challenging times; rebuild relationships with friends, family, and community; learn to live sustainably; reclaim time; do things that matter. I subscribe to several progressive magazines, most of which tend to depress me with the facts and make me think we are all going to hell in a handbasket, but when I want to remind myself of the power of people to bring about important change and to work toward practical solutions to important problems, I turn to Yes Magazine.

My last strategy is to challenge myself to get out and take a walk. I have the whole day off, and it’s above 50 degrees out, so I really have no excuse whatsoever. Being outside almost always makes me feel better, although I continually forget that fact.

Way to Block That Writing!

Apparently, I always equated writer’s block with fear of facing a blank page, so I thought I was immune to the malady that afflicts many writers. After all, I have more ideas jotted down in my notebook than I will ever be able to write about, and I generally look forward to the blank page. But the last few days I have encountered real blocks to my writing, which stopped me in my tracks as effectively as a line of stalled cars on the Interstate, with no exit in sight.

The first block was at least somewhat familiar–more a detour than a block, I thought. We had overbooked our weekend, as we often do, so I knew I would have difficulty meeting my challenge to myself of writing every day. But I still thought I could do it, and I believed the extra activities would give me new things to write about, even though the time to write would be severely limited.

The next block was a physical limitation that I had not experienced before to this extent. After a week of cutting and pasting literally hundreds of files at work for a special project we were working on, which is too boring to even talk about, my wrist and index finger became so sore that I could hardly use the keyboard. I tried typing with an ice pack velcroed around my wrist, but that wasn’t very satisfactory.

Next, my built-in mouse on the Netbook I like to write on went haywire. At first, it seemed as though the buttons somehow got switched; then they would hardly work at all. I couldn’t click to open files or browse to my blog or do anything, without extreme aggravation and pain. Eventually I was able to get into the control panel and find out that the buttons were not, in fact, switched. So I got disgusted and went to bed early. The next day the buttons started working again, just for spite.

And now, I’m facing the most difficult block of all–that inner voice that says, in a sneering tone, “Well, well, looks like you might as well give up now. You missed writing for three whole days, so you lose. I knew you couldn’t write every single day!”

But I say to all of these clever blocks, “You’ll have to try harder than that! Get out of my way.  I’m coming through.”

Writing Challenge

After giving it some thought, I have decided not to participate in National Novel Writing Month, having neither plot nor characters in mind. But I am challenging myself to write a post a day during the month of November, in solidarity with those who will be writing entire novels this month.

The goal of writing a post a day seems manageable, because I have kept journals and morning pages for many years, and I have learned that I feel better and think more clearly on the days that I write.  Also, I don’t fear the blank page, as some writers do. I can always come up with ideas to write about.

My main problem is to stay focused on longterm goals and not let myself get distracted by all the other things I am interested in and would like to do besides writing.  In fact, as soon as I started to think about whether I could actually write a novel in a month, my monkey mind started jumping up and down saying, “Oh goody! I always wanted to write a novel! And while we’re at it, maybe we could also find time to paint and learn to play the fiddle, like you promised!”

And I say, “Shut up, monkey! I don’t have time to do all that. I have a fulltime job, you know,  not to mention all the other things that need doing around the house.”

And then Monkey goes off to the corner to sulk, and I am left feeling guilty and discouraged again, so I give up and go clean out some closets or sort through the stacks of junk mail rather than do any of the things I claim to want to do. Before I know it, the day is gone and it’s time to make out menus for the week or go to the grocery or do the laundry or some such mundane task.

While I’m sorting through unimportant stuff and wondering what is wrong with me, I think about all the people I know who are passionate about something–whether playing the banjo or making fiddles or teaching children to square dance or writing books or setting up saltwater aquariums or making quilts or organizing protests or making videos. It hardly matters what the passion is. I want to be more like these people, who stay focused on their overall purpose, who make hard choices, and who manage to find the time to do the thing they love, even while holding down fulltime jobs, raising children, or meeting other obligations.

So I’m going to post at least 500 words every day and see what comes of it. But in the meantime, I think I’ll go carve a pumpkin. Or start a batch of wine. Or rake some  leaves. Or clean up the garden for winter. Or help Jim scrape bee frames. Or update the dance website. Or organize photos. Or take a walk through the woods. Or go to the grocery store.