Archive for the 'Self-improvement' Category

I Pledge for 2014

Jan 01 2014 Published by under Self-improvement

By the middle of the year…

  • Everything I eat will be raw or homemade (unless I’m at a restaurant).
    • I will eat at least 3 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
    • At least once a week, I will drink a little wine and eat some fish.
  • Every day, I will exercise for at least 20 minutes, write for at least 30 minutes, and meditate for at least 10 minutes.
  • At least once a week, I will draw.
  • At least once a week, I will practice a musical instrument.
  • I will transform my back garden into primarily a vegetable garden. I will harvest, eat, and preserve those vegetables.

By the end of the year…

  • I will adopt a pet.
  • I will read twice as many books as movies I watch.
  • I will study three books, reading them deeply for insights. This may be the second or third time I read them.

Here’s how I will do this:

  • Every Friday, when I get groceries, I will buy some fish and a lot of salad. I will make a fish-and-wine meal that weekend.
  • Every weekend, I will make a large meal that can be used as leftovers for the rest of the week.
  • I will default to a salad for dinner every night. I will keep a pantry of things to put on that salad (fruits, nuts, tuna, etc.).
  • Every evening, after dinner, before I do anything else, I will exercise (jogging the neighborhood on nice days, doing Tai Chi otherwise), then meditate, then write.
  • I will set aside one evening of the week for musical practice. (Not that I’ll spend the entire evening on it.)
  • I will set aside one evening of the week for drawing practice.
  • I will set aside two weekends in early spring to transform my garden. I will invite friends and family over on one of those days to help, and feed them.
  • I will keep a pile of books next to my bed. I will go to bed early enough every night that I can spend some time reading before going to sleep.

And I will not beat myself up if I don’t always manage this.

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Happiness, Happiness, and Happiness

Aug 19 2013 Published by under Self-improvement

'snow-globe' by Jenny Downing on Flickr

‘snow-globe’ by Jenny Downing on Flickr

As I learn to improve myself, I’ve been learning to unpack the idea of happiness. We use happiness in at least three ways: the emotion, the attitude, and the state.

When we’re in the state of happiness, we feel happy all the time. This is the dream world we’ll live in after we’ve won the lottery: a big home, a fast car or two, and lots of pleasurable activity. In this world, we fulfill every need. This is bliss.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this state exists for more than an hour. I don’t think anyone on this planet lives in a perpetual state of happiness, because everyone has to deal with rude people, the grimy sides of culture, and their own insecurities.

Moreover, humans recalibrate their baselines for contentment. Once you have food, you want flavorful food. And you want healthy food, because you want to live as long as possible, and you can afford it. Then you want food that’s healthy, flavorful, and an exact match to your current mood. Repeat for every other aspect of our lives.

The emotion of happiness often surprises us. We enter this state when we sit at a nice restaurant at the end of a fine meal, or as we walk around an amusement park on a thrill high. It’s that warm, expansive feeling we get when we realize we’re comfortable and content. C.S. Lewis chronicles this in his autobiography, and labels it joy. Buddhism encourages this feeling through prayer and exercises in mindfulness.

This emotion fades. While we can increase its frequency, it cannot turn into a state. It’s a burst of pleasure, like a mouthful of cheesecake, but we can’t eat cheesecake all day. Other emotions crowd in.

Then there’s the attitude of happiness. I had a co-worker who was always awake and attentive, with a ready smile to her face. She was quick to joke and ready to get down to work. I call this cheerfulness.

Cheerful people are occasionally stressed and sometimes sad. However, they separate their emotions from their attitude.

This relates to the topic of recovery. When someone wrongs you, how quickly do you return to normal? That return should not be instantaneous; feelings help us deal with the many facets of a situation. Neither should that return take so long that it robs us of other opportunities.

A cheerful person, upon feeling sadness or anger, learns to move away from those emotions towards happiness. A cheerful person seeks contentment and even joy throughout the day.

Which leads us down the road to the question: How do we build an attitude of happiness? One method I’ve been using lately is a daily reading of Just For Today, which was written by Sybil Partridge about a hundred years ago. I’ve placed this at the beginning of my daily journal, so I see it as I start every day:

  • Just for today I will be happy. This assumes what Abraham Lincoln said is true: “Most folks are about as happy as they make their mind up to be.” Happiness comes from within; it is not a matter of externals.
  • Just for today I will try to adjust myself to what is; not try to adjust everything to my own desires. I will take my family, my business, and my luck as they come and fit myself to them.
  • Just for today I will take care of my body. I will exercise it, care for it, nourish it, not abuse or neglect it, so that it will be a perfect machine for my bidding.
  • Just for today I will try to strengthen my mind. I will learn something useful. I will not be a mental loafer. I will read something that requires effort, thought, and concentration.
  • Just for today I will exercise my soul in three ways: I will do someone a good turn and not get found out. I will do at least two chores I don’t want to do, as William James suggests, just for exercise.
  • Just for today I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, speak diplomatically, act courteously, be liberal with praise, criticize not at all, nor find fault with anything, and not try to regulate or improve anyone.
  • Just for today I will try to live through this day only, not tackle my whole life problem at once. I can do things for twelve hours that would appall me if I had to keep them up for a lifetime.
  • Just for today I will have a program. I will write down what I expect to do every hour. I may not follow it exactly, but I will have it. It will eliminate two pests: hurrying and indecision.
  • Just for today I will have a quiet half hour by myself and relax. In this half hour sometimes I will think of God, so as to get a little more perspective into my life.
  • Just for today I will be unafraid. Particularly, I will be unafraid to be happy; to enjoy what is beautiful; to love; and to believe that those I love, love me.

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The Middle of my Media Fast

Jul 03 2013 Published by under Self-improvement

'Running dog' by ali_gata1970 on Flickr

‘Running dog’ by ali_gata1970 on Flickr

I’m halfway through my yearly Media Fast, a week where I consume no mass media. That means no movies, no TV, no DVDs, no books, no newspapers, no magazines, no blogs, and no music.

As happens most years, I struggle most on the first day, the middle day, and the last day. I come home from work and, after making dinner and taking care of a few duties, I dive into some form of entertainment. Might be a DVD, or a podcast, or a a YouTube video.

Instead, I come home and I have a good 5 empty hours, which I can spend cooking, baking, gardening, writing, or just relaxing with a mug of tea.

When I get into the groove of my fast, I’m amazingly productive without hurrying. It feels great.

As happens most years, I’m now promising myself that I will continue in this spirit after my fast ends. Maybe I’ll give myself half an hour of entertainment for every hour of productivity.

Most years, I don’t keep it up.

Still. I wonder how much entertainment is a treadmill. Like so many things, it’s not bad in-and-of itself, but I wonder if we haven’t surrendered our time to it.

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Make Something Every Week: Ray Harryhausen Tribute Video

May 13 2013 Published by under Make Something Every Week,Self-improvement

I resolved at the beginning of this month to try something new for the next 3 months:

  • I will read twice as many books as movies I watch.
  • I will spend at most 30 free minutes on the computer each weekday evening. This time includes email, social networks, YouTube, and general surfing, but not time spent writing or otherwise making things.
  • I will spend at most 90 free minutes on the computer each weekend day.
  • I will make something every week, and I will publish something every month.

I might not complete the weekly thing by the end of the week, but I should have at least a solid draft. The thing may be a dice game, a short story, a gardening video, or anything else that takes creative effort.

Last week, with the death of stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen, I read tributes in which people promised to re-watch a Ray Harryhausen movie. I was struck that Harryhausen (and his estate) probably profited nothing from this. I doubt he received any royalties from the movies he worked on. So I thought: what would Ray want us to do?

I think he’d want us to make some stop motion ourselves.

So I grabbed a Gundam model kit and made this:

I learned a few things:

  1. With a basic understanding of lighting and camera position, you can create something very quickly. My camcorder has a photo mode, so I used that to record each frame of the animation. Once I set everything up, the actual animation took maybe 10 minutes.
  2. Tape down your model.
  3. Gundam model kits are perfect for stop motion. They have a wide range of limb motion and stay where you put them.

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Better Off?

Sep 22 2012 Published by under Self-improvement

Yesterday, I finished reading Better Off by Eric Brende. It left me breathless and thoughtful, pacing the length of my hotel room.

It’s a book about living without electricity, and the destructive cycles of modern technological dependence. These books worry me in many ways. Usually, I just dislike their mindless tone, as though anything the author can’t personally comprehend is automatically suspect.

Fortunately, Brende is honest about his prejudices and thoughtful about technology. He chronicles the eighteen months he spent in a mostly Amish community, sprinkled with philosophical asides about machinery and the nature of work. He appreciates work without desiring it. Work’s not an end in itself, but it has value beyond its result.

One of Brende’s central beliefs: the more complex the machine, the more likely its full costs outweigh its value. Big tractors enable farmers to plant more acres, but their surplus is quickly consumed by the tractor’s initial and ongoing costs for fuel, repair, and insurance. Owning a computer requires the time to learn and update software besides the financial cost.

I know plenty of reasons to dismiss such arguments. I’ve also spent enough hours struggling with software to regret that lost time.

I’ve also been thinking about the life I want to lead, and the hours I want to spend. If I have a spare hour or two, do I really want to spend it scanning Google+ or watching something on NetFlix? Or would I rather be sipping a glass of sherry and reading a good book? Or ambling around town taking photos?

There are so many awesome low-tech activities I could be enjoying. Why not spend most of my time on those?

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Exploration of Houston, A Museum, and Japanese Art

Sep 19 2012 Published by under Self-improvement

As I travel for work, I’ve found it’s easy to spend a week in a place and barely leave my hotel room. After 8 hours of standing in front of a class, actively teaching them, I don’t have much energy to explore.

So, I spend half an hour Sunday evening planning a small excursion for some evening that week.

Houston was a challenge. I stayed in the business district, where everything closes at 5:00 to 6:00pm. But after some digging, I found the Museum of Fine Arts Houston was open late on Thursday.

Hokusai - View of Fuji

One of Hokusai’s “36 Views of Mount Fuji”

Even better, on the Thursday I was there, the museum was presenting a talk by Dr. Kirsten Cather on Japanese art and culture, titled “From Genji to Godzilla.” Perfect!

I knew I was destined to go when I mentioned this to one of my students, and he exclaimed, “Oh, you can take the train!” Turns out that the light rail that passed right by my hotel went right next to the museum.

So, with some trepidation, I used the light rail. I’m always nervous about taking public transportation in a city I’ve never visited before. I’m afraid I’ll get arrested for having the wrong ticket, that I’ll somehow stand out as being obviously not a native and attract the scrutiny of some prejudiced cop. It’s childish, but real.

Fortunately, I had no problems. Bought a ticket at a kiosk, boarded the train, and got off at the Museum District several hours before the talk was scheduled to begin.

The Museum of Fine Art Houston is a beautiful place, with plenty of space to show off its large collection. It showcases pieces from Greece to the modern day, from Korea to South America. The placards are clear, if relatively brief, and all the pieces are very accessible. It felt more like a science museum than an art museum.

To my delight, Dr. Cather was warm, easy to talk to, and very interesting. She began by highlighting the Japanese tendency towards imitation, then gently led the audience to an understanding that this was intentional, and a trend to be celebrated rather than derided as “unoriginal.” As a bonus, she showed us and compared trailers for the original Japanese Godzilla (Gorjira) and the American edit, as well as a fascinating sequence from Sukiyaki Western Django.

Afterwards, I was able to chat briefly with the speaker about Japanese culture and anime, and recommend serial experiments lain, which she promised to watch.

A pretty perfect evening.

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Jul 06 2012 Published by under Self-improvement

From Tim Kreider‘s article “The ‘Busy’ Trap” in the New York Times:

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

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Jun 24 2012 Published by under Self-improvement

As I mentioned in my last post, I feel lost. Not depressed; just unmoored. So I’ve been thinking about how I want to spend my time.

That’s a clichéd phrases and an important thought. How do I actually spend my time? What do I actually do every night?

I work on lots of little things. I keep up with Google+ and email. I chat on IRC.

That’s not how I want to live my life. Unfortunately, I don’t know how I do want to live my life. So I’ve been experimenting.

On Wednesday, I met a friend at a nice restaurant. I arrived about an hour early (work ended early and traffic was merciful) and wandered into a nearby stationery store. My eyes flickered over the explosion of colors, and were drawn to a wooden counter stacked with new copies of old games. I ran my fingers over the wares on display, particularly a wooden transformer which I now want to build myself.

I bought a set of jacks. I chose them for one reason: there are no jacks tournaments. No jacks leagues or rankings. There are no international jacks competitions. It’s the least competitive sport I know of.

I’ve played and practiced a couple of times, nervously. It feels strange to play a game that I’m playing just to play. A game that’s just there.

I think I’m going to be just there for a while.

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No More

Jun 19 2012 Published by under Self-improvement

Good gravy, I’m tired.

'Mist' by frielp on Flickr

‘Mist’ by frielp on Flickr

I’m tired of outrage.

I’m tired of walls.

I’m tired of anger.

I’m tired of working late into the night on yet another project. Because everybody’s busy. So what are you working on?

I’m tired of feeling tired.

This exhaustion is thanks to a wonderful Monday night with historicula (not in that sense!). We saw Snow White and the Huntsman, which lived down to its reviews, and afterwards we talked for hours. I laid out my recentre-evaluations of my life. She provided excellent advice (no surprise there).

I’m tired of this. I’m tired of always striving for my artificially high standards. I’m tired of staring into a glowing rectangle, hoping to find satisfaction there.

I realize I’m whining. I think I’m allowed one rare emo post.

I spent this evening eating fish and chips at a local restaurant, then reading an odd book, then watching a documentary about horror hosts. A complete “waste of an evening” to yesterday’s self.

Today, I think differently.

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Advice Taken

Jun 17 2012 Published by under Self-improvement

It’s 1:00am. I’m writing a distressing number of these posts after midnight.

A few days ago, my Google+ stream gave me this video of photographer Scott Kelby.

In the video, he exhorts a room full of photographers to understand the basics of photograph composition. He spends no time on lenses or cameras; he explains concepts like the Rule of Thirds and filling the frame, then walks through his experiences of “working a scene,” looking for a good shot. My eyes opened as if newborn to photography.

I knew that if I just said “Awesome!” and went on with my life, I’d forget what I learned. So I’ve re-watched the video every day, and I’ve taken photowalks every day. Today, I took my tripod along. Scott’s advice improved my photography at least twofold:

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