Monday, December 6, 2010

On inaction

Friday morning, I posed a question to my students that was something I had asked them early in the term: How can young people today succeed? They wrote an essay on this topic, and most of them chose lovely-sounding characteristics such as having dedication, perseverance, and organization. Now that some time had passed, I asked them if they wanted to add or change anything based on their experiences over the last 11-12 weeks. Even though they weren't very specific, I could tell by their knowing looks that they had indeed come a long way.

After we discussed a bit, I had them write a letter in their journals to a high school senior that offered some words of wisdom on the subject of achieving success. They wrote for a very long time (I don't stop them until about half them have their pens down), and while the letters I've read so far vary greatly, I sense that they are finally seeing how far they've come in just this short amount of time.

As is often the case, I wrote along with my students, and, as is often the case, I arrived at an idea that I suppose is common sense but really struck me this time around. I wrote about the problem of inaction.

Let me elaborate. Everyone wants to be successful. That's what successful means; it's something desirable. But there's often a long road between wanting and having, and usually the road has some potholes. In fact, sometimes the road forces us to take a detour, and sometimes our vehicles break down completely. Still, with the right attitude, we can recognize that we are still on the road to success; it's just a matter of action.

Inaction, on the other hand, is a success-killer. It's one thing to actively reflect, plan, or otherwise take some time to think about your situation. The key, though, is that you must be active. You should come away from those quiet moments feeling like you have a better idea of the direction you're headed. If you're just replaying your failures, then you're indulging in inaction.

Inaction is also what happens when you start telling yourself, "If I just keep waking up every day and going through the motions, eventually, my problems will be solved." This kind of inaction is sneaky because it poses as action. You get up, you go to work, you clean your house, and you do everything else that's expected of you. You tell yourself you're being productive, yet you don't feel satisfied or successful. This is because while you're technically in action, the action is not helping you get what you want from your life.

I've been guilty of the previous two offenses many times. It's like I encounter an obstacle in my life, and instead of acknowledging it and working towards overcoming it, I do nothing or I do something that's unrelated.

So, as I wrote this letter to an imaginary high school student, I found myself saying, "Always be actively working on achieving your goals and solving your problems." On your path to success, you cannot control everything, you cannot plan for everything, and you cannot solve everything. You can, however, be conscious of your options and act in ways that get you closer to your goals. You might never reach the goal you set out to achieve, or you might find that achieving the goal doesn't make you as happy as you once thought it would. Still, if you've arrived where you are by deliberate action, you are less likely to feel defeated and more likely to say, "Okay. I'm here now. What can I do next?"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Giving thanks

It only seems appropriate to have a post about what I am thankful for on this day before Thanksgiving. I've never celebrated Thanksgiving with a lot of fanfare, but it's one of the few times during the year where we do something that's genuinely good for ourselves and each other (nevermind the copious amounts of pie). It might have had a questionable start, but the spirit of Thanksgiving is all about appreciating what we have and not worrying about all the things we don't (that worry comes the day after).

So, I am thankful for:

  • my health
  • being inspired
  • my community college
  • beer
  • recycling
  • the olive bar at Safeway--specifically, the spicy olive and pepper concoctions
  • this climate--This will be my last rainy winter for a while
  • Zumba--I get to take my favorite Zumba class again in January!
  • my friends--here, there, and everywhere!
  • all the people who are working to make this world a better place

What are you thankful for?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Simplifying Christmas

Yes, I know it's a little early to be thinking about Christmas (unless you're in retail), but I think we all know it's coming.

A few days ago on Good Morning America, one of their regular financial advisors, Melody Hobson, was talking about ways to afford Christmas. The segment was not about finding ways to save money in a permanent way but just to skimp enough from now until December to be able to buy a bunch of stuff and then go back to living your normal lifestyle come January. Granted, I applaud the effort to get Americans to plan for their upcoming purchases in order to avoid charging everything and being stuck with the debt a month later. Additionally, some of her suggestions (like canceling cable TV) were things that you could continue doing after Christmas, although she didn't emphasize that part.

There's something more important going on here, however. We all know how commercial Christmas has become. We all know that kids and relatives don't really need most of the stuff that people buy for them each year. We all know that it's a financial strain. Furthermore, we all know that the most memorable parts of Christmas involve family gatherings, trips, and other experiences. Regardless, for reasons I don't want to detail here, we keep the cycle going.

This year, I recommend that you think about ways to simplify your Christmas and make it about experiences rather than items.

My immediate family draws names and we each buy gifts for just one person. We set a $50 limit. When I tell people this, I often see this look of, "That sounds way more reasonable than what we've been doing." Sometimes they'll even say something to that effect, but usually they will muse, "I don't know if my family will go for it."

Put it this way: I can't imagine someone who loves you would say, "I don't care if you can't afford it. You're buying me Christmas gifts, God damn it!" Or maybe they might say, "You want to donate money to charity this Christmas instead of buying grown people a bunch of stuff they can afford to buy on their own? How dare you be so inconsiderate?"

I've also been thinking that even my family's version of drawing names could be modified to make it a little more experience-based. We draw names, we give out wish lists, and we never end up with weird stuff that we can't use. It's all very logical, which is nice, but we've been doing it for so long that I think it's time to change it up. We have the simple part down but not the experiential part. I don't have any good suggestions, though. I thought about taking myself out of the drawing because I don't really need anything, and I'm trying to cut down on clutter. Then again, gift-giving is a special thing, and if done right, it can bring people closer together.

I welcome your thoughts and suggestions on this. What are some ways to simplify Christmas?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Another mantra

My dad came to visit a week ago. I picked him up at the San Jose airport and we drove up the coast to visit my aunt and uncle in Oregon. We stayed for a few days and drove back down to spend a few days here in Monterey.

While visiting my aunt and uncle, we spent a lot of time just shooting the breeze at their awesome house with their fluffy cats. I bought some yarn at the local yarn shop (photos to come). It felt like we were locals instead of tourists, and that's a nice feeling to have, I think.

The grownups were talking about lifestyles, houses, retirement, and whatnot when my uncle said something along the lines of: "We have everything we need. Now, it's all about experiences."

Pretty good mantra for this blog, huh? The thing is, it's not just about resisting the urge to spend and clutter my life. When it comes to physical belongings, it's about choosing items that are durable and useful. I didn't notice anything at their house that seemed brand new, but everything was in good shape. Nothing was cheap looking, and there wasn't much that wasn't being used. Everything about the house just felt content.

When my uncle said that bit about the experiences, he really meant it. They talked about how they don't really like going to the movie theater because they'd rather watch the movie at home where they can settle in with some cheese and crackers or olives (they were really into Safeway's olive trays apparently) and a couple glasses of wine.

I don't know about you, but that sounds way better than our version of movie night. We do watch movies at home, but we certainly don't make any kind of event out of it. When we go out to see a movie, it's usually not worth the time and money.

I'd like to learn from this and make a more concerted effort to create a life that's full of experiences, not stuff. This isn't the first time I've mentioned this, but I like having a specific image in mind when I talk about experiencing life more fully. People have this tendency to think that living life to its fullest means going out and doing really adventurous stuff, but I love that my aunt and uncle keep a much more steady pace about life; they just give their everyday lives a little kick. They've developed a pretty good sense of what they enjoy and then they do it. Simple as that.

So, they're my new role models.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Technology & Simplicity

I'd like to think that this blog is evidence that the two titular ideas can coexist. Yes, I think machines are sometimes used for evil, but they can also be used for good in a way that no manual task can rival.

Still, there's something that's just not right about it all.

I watched another documentary (I'm way more into real life these days than fiction) called Digital Nation*. It's one from the PBS Frontline series. I watched it when my class was discussing the impact of technology on community. While most people are past the initial fear that the internet will Google-handedly send the world to hell in a handbasket, and while research suggests that social networking does not in fact make us socially inept in the "real world," I cannot escape the disgust I feel when I see two people having dinner together, both on cell phones. I cannot help but make awful faces when I see groups of students (the same students who would probably say that they wished they knew more people on campus) with headphones on, sitting next to each other, not saying a word.

I mean, there is something wrong with that, isn't there? I don't want to be an old fart, and I don't want to be hypocritical either (as I plunk away on a keyboard to a faceless audience), but my instincts tell me that we're missing out on something when we spend so much time plugged in. Mostly, that thing we're missing out on is the ability to appreciate real life. Of course the internet and cell phones and iPods are part of real life, but it's gotten to a point where those gadgets aren't just a part of real life; they are our lives or at least they are our way of life.

What happens when we are faced with the decision to play around on a bright screen with buttons, music, and people who care about our mundane lives or to clean the house or cook a meal or plant something? I know what I choose all too often. It's an addiction, an addiction of ease and self-centeredness. Just like drug addicts will say that real life doesn't give them the high that drugs do, I believe we're getting to the point where things without screens are ceasing to give us joy. The more we get away from the physical world, the emptier we feel, and the more we turn to the internet to stimulate us.

Again, I'm sure this is about finding a balance and using our modern technology to enhance, not govern, our lives. However, it seems that our world demands us to overuse technology. If I leave Facebook, I will not have as much contact with my friends, and some might even be upset with me. It's unrealistic to say that I could just remove myself from all this technology, and it isn't particularly smart of me to do that anyway because I would not be very well equipped to live in today's world. So, how do I find a balance between digital stimulation and real-life stimulation when the scales are tipped? This is a rhetorical question, but it's one that needs asking.

*There's a really interesting part in this program about multitasking. I started to go into it, but it's probably just better if you watch it yourself.

Friday, July 23, 2010

So this is what it's like... have your working life reflect the values of your home life and to have a life that feels continuous rather than compartmentalized.

My summer class is over. This class made a significant imprint on me. I've never taught a condensed (6 weeks instead of 15 weeks) course like this, and while I always enjoyed them as a student, I was unsure how I would feel about them as a teacher. It turns out, I feel even better about them now.

One factor that sets summer classes apart from other classes in general is the motivation coming from the students. First of all, they have motivation. Most people in a summer class are either catching up or getting ahead. Either way, they have a clear reason for being there, and that changes everything.

In regards to what I started off saying about compartmentalizing, this is something that came up during class. We talked about farmers, their connection to physical places, and the cyclical nature of the agrarian lifestyle. The writer-farmers that contributed to our textbook talked about the way that everything in their lives is challenging and fulfilling. They don't make a clear distinction between "work" and "home." It's all the same thing. I thought, "Wouldn't that be nice?" "Work" wouldn't have to be a place where you struggle to find satisfaction; it would just be a place where you continue being you. Likewise, of course, "home" would come with its own obstacles and efforts.

My life, of course, isn't what I would consider an ideal cycle like this, but this summer I was able to take something I want to learn more about and have an enthusiasm for into the workplace. For an entire semester, my (personal) life philosophy of simplification combined with my (professional) philosophy of empowering my students. I never felt like my values of one arena conflicted with the values of another. It was peaceful.

Many students in this class told me they enjoyed the class. Now, I've heard this before, but honestly, it always felt like they were saying, "We liked you." And that is nice. It is. But this semester does seem different in that I believe they actually enjoyed the class--the subjects we explored, the dynamics of the discussions, the occasional documentary, etc. The theme was community, and while we could argue over whether or not we are currently facing unique challenges with interacting with one another (or if it's been happening over time), the fact remains that students at a community college are or should be trying to figure out what roles they want to play in their communities. I don't think we ever came to any conclusions about anything, but we did all leave with something to think about and possibly even to do.

After just 6 weeks, I find that I'm truly sad to say goodbye to my class, but I am also thankful to have experienced it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

On planning

It's not a new thought to me that simplicity requires planning, but I'm becoming more keenly aware of it as I try to simplify.

Example: If I want to hang my clothes out to dry on the clothesline, I must plan to start the laundry so as to get the clothes outside by 11am; otherwise, they will not dry before dinner*. I must plan on doing laundry on nice days, and if the weather is cloudy but not rainy, I have to get the clothes outside earlier in the day.

Example: If I want to ride my bike into work, I must plan on changing my clothes or at least my shoes and pack my bag accordingly. I must plan on riding on days when I am not going to be carrying anything terribly heavy (a stack of essays or one extra book is crucial when most of your weight is perched on a bicycle seat) to or from work. I must plan to style my hair in such a way as to avoid getting it messed up from a bike helmet. I must also plan for the extra time it will take to get to/from.

Example: If I want to cook at home and eat more cleanly/simply (buying local produce, preparing healthy meals, etc.), I must plan a meal and buy groceries. I must plan for hunger so as to avoid making impulse fast-food purchases.

These are just a few. Like, I said, I'm not saying anything new here, but what I'm faced with is, again, a conflict between what I have come to value and what our culture values. We live in a "have it now" world thanks to the automobile, factories, strip malls, the internet, McDonald's, and plenty of other factors that give us instant gratification and make us crave immediacy. In general, if we want something, we like having the freedom to just hop in the car and go to the nearest Wal-Mart to get it.

Of course, what we have sacrificed for immediacy is long-term satisfaction. We are forever chasing quick-fixes to problems that were caused by quick-fixes.

This is something I have to remind myself when the planning gets irritating. Easy does not mean simple. Fast does not mean simple. And neither of these means happy.

*Often, the days that I hang clothes out to dry are also the days that Rich likes to BBQ, and I can't have the clothes hung up while the grill is producing smoke.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

On Community

I've been reading Peter Lovenheim's In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time, and actually, I assigned it for the summer class I'm teaching. As a book, I think it tends to be redundant, but if I think of it as a very long essay that needs editing, then I think it brings up some excellent points.

At any rate, I want to talk about its theme in relation to simplicity.

The premise of the book is that following a murder-suicide on his street, Lovenheim sets out to meet his neighbors and really find out what's going on with the people he's geographically closest to. He does this by basically spending at least an entire day with them--including spending the night. I thought it was a cool basis for a social experiment, and so far, it's generated some decent discussion in my class.

I just finished reading it today, and at the end of the book, Lovenheim recounts a conversation he had with a neighbor who asked him how he had met one of his other neighbors. As part of the response he writes, "I met Patti because at some point it seemed both absurd and wasteful to be living unconnected to the people all around me."

I love that he treats people/relationships as resources. Why leave the neighborhood to make friends when you could have friends right here who would probably be more useful to you in a time of need? This is not the only time in the book he speaks of efficiency in examining community, and I love that very non-hippie way of looking at community. In my class, multiple students and I have used the word "nice" as in, "It would be nice to know my neighbors, but it isn't necessary to my survival." True. But if you want to persuade someone who doesn't want to know his/her neighbors, well, "nice" can't be quantified.

What can be quantified, however, is the time it takes your closest friend to come to you when you need help. Twenty minutes? If it's an emergency, you can call 911, but what if you're not sure it's going to be an emergency? What if you hear a noise and you just don't want to be alone while you investigate? This has happened to me twice, and I can tell you that having a neighbor close by that I trusted was a much less embarrassing and emotional experience.

What can also be quantified is the time and money spent forging friendships and communities outside the neighborhood. Think about the cost of entertainment, gym memberships, fuel, wear and tear on vehicles, etc. What the author (and I) concludes time and time again is that it's just plain easier and simpler to create community based on proximity. He also mentions the idea of social capital, which I'll admit I don't know much about, but I have a feeling I'll know more about it at the end of this class.

Now, I might agree with all of this, but while I talk a good game, the truth is that I don't know my own neighbors. Since I live in military housing, I do know several people who live in the neighborhood, so I'm not a complete hypocrite, but I don't know anyone on my street beyond the occasional "hi" or silent wave. Ideally, shouldn't the people I'm closest to be the people I'm closest to?

Of course, in my defense, my two next door neighbors won't be here anymore in a matter of a couple weeks. That isn't my fault.

Still, I wanted to post this because I think community that is based on proximity is important. Yes, it's "nice," and it might even be the morally correct thing to do, but beyond those benefits, it keeps things simple. It helps us use the resources that are literally right in front of us.

If you're interested in meeting your neighbors, the book mentions two websites designed to help neighbors connect (yes, there's some big, fat irony with this): (mostly for apartment buildings in big cities)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On fear and simplicity

Fear makes us do stupid things. Of course, some fear is warranted, but generally what we fear is usually something that isn't really going to hurt us in a literal sense. For example, it's more likely that I'll get in a car accident, but I don't walk around panicking over the thought of being in an automobile. Instead, I fear things that are pretty inconsequential and/or harmless. I think most people are like that.

Fear makes us eat too much, buy too much stuff, lie awake at night, be mean to others, procrastinate, dump pharmaceuticals into our bodies, and have myriad health issues. We clutter our lives in order to cushion us from the stuff we fear when really, it would be much simpler to confront and deal with the fear.

In the past, when I've talked about my definition of a simple life, I've said that it involves permanent solutions or things that solve multiple problems in one step. This is what I mean. If we recognize and manage the fear, the clutter won't be necessary.

Every year around my birthday, I have this renewed sense of self. I feel like it's the beginning of...something. I never know what, and usually it's not anything big, but it's a good feeling. I've already begun feeling this way (5 more weeks to go!), and one of the primary reasons my life is more complicated than I'd like it to be is my fear. I'm feeling like this year, this milestone year, is a good time for me let go.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Beginning again

Happy New Year, everyone!

I've started this blog as a way to record a directional change in my life. That is, a change towards all things simple. Not simple as in stupid, although I can't promise anything there, but simple as in uncomplicated or traditional.

But isn't a blog kind of, um, modern and complicated?

I suppose, but it's my blog, and I can define what's simple any way I want to. My real response to this, though, is that when I was writing in my personal blog (right up until a few weeks ago), the blog was the end product, the creation. Now, my intent is to keep this as a journal of products or creations. I could do this in a hand-written journal, which would admittedly be more in the spirit of simplicity, but I really do like sharing my various projects with others. If I can find and collaborate with like-minded people or persuade people to become like-minded via an online community, then it'll be worth it.

As of right now, my "simple" projects mostly just include knitting and cooking, although I'm sure I'll have other things to post once I get going. Basically, what you'll see here is anything that's homemade, doesn't require much machinery or technology, solves multiple problems simply, or is just plain old-fashioned.

I'll probably talk more about why simplicity has become important to me throughout my posts, but briefly, it's about getting in touch with real life again and finding solutions for multiple problems just by going back to the basics.

I welcome comments, suggestions, and advice. Thanks for reading!