One hop to happiness: learning kicks in when needed

phoenix-rising
Phoenix rising from the ashes (public domain)
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Dry way or the highway: version 2

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On a big scale, a dry hill path is a worry. Fire risk. Global warming. All that.

But it’s easier to walk down a dry path than a wet path. In the wet, you’re constantly grabbing branches to stop yourself slipping and falling. It’s a bit tricky.

In dry conditions, one hazard remains: you must not plant your foot unthinkingly on those small gravel patches. They can act like ball bearings and hurl you off your feet and on to your back. Hasn’t happened to me, but to a friend. Ambulance, specialty ambulance, stretcher, hoist, topped by six weeks before her torn tissues healed.

So I trod with care down Mt Victoria today.

I think … about metaphors… about ageing.

To audit one’s elderly eating habits: sensible or obsessive?

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(Edited excerpt from Boot Camp for the Bonus Years, November 2015.) In which I scrutinise my almost perfect diet for ways in which I should improve it, if any.

Auditing my eating habits was one of the official challenges of my Boot Camp for the Bonus Years. But truthfully, I couldn’t imagine why this one was on the list, because (as Smugilla said) my eating habits were superb.

According to any checklist of a healthy diet, I passed with flying colours. I was a walking talking role model of the ideal elderly eater.

For example, I ate masses of vegetables and fruit every day, not for scientific reasons but hedonistic ones. I cooked for myself from scratch every day. I drank enough water, I think. I took no supplements (or medication).

So stick my old face on a banner, said Smugilla. Erect a statue of perfectly nourished moi in Civic Square or outside Macdonald’s for all to worship.

Pretend I never said that

Let’s start again.

No, I haven’t audited my eating habits formally but I have been thinking about them. So have you, because we can’t avoid it. Almost daily we’re told about some new research with implications for our personal diet. Do eat salmon, don’t eat salmon. Do/don’t drink coffee. Do/don’t consume dairy products, red wine, gluten, black tea, bread, chocolate, pasta, potatoes, tuna, sauerkraut. Almost any food item may be cited as a magical cure for every disease known to mammals, or a lethal package of toxins, or an endangered species or all three.

Think think think about what you eat day after day, week after week? This is no fun, and anyway, you can’t win.

Maybe I tweaked my nutrition a tiny bit in that year of being old. Maybe I didn’t. Must I really give up chocolate brownie? Am I really supposed to have two alcohol-free days a week? Must I eat sardines twice a week?

Well, bugger that. Very very good is good enough.

Pleasure good. Evangelism bad.

People get religion over nutrition. They preach, they proselytise, they pooh pooh, and it’s not pretty. I hear myself doing this from time to time. ‘You should eat Brazil nuts for the selenium,’ I hear myself say—yep, I can turn into an evangelist at the drop of a hat, and yet what you eat is none of my business.

This realisation hit me with a wallop many years ago. On the one hand, my vegetarian friends used to pressure me to eat a horrible, coarse, prickly leafy vegetable called comfrey, for some daft egg-related reason. On the other hand, a dear friend’s son (living in a commune at the time) suddenly died of liver damage as a direct result of eating comfrey.

That’s probably why I have resisted auditing my own eating habits. Because then what?

You do your thing. I’ll do mine.

I eat what I love. I love what I eat.

That is healthy and positive and excellent advice for all and sundry.  I’m not about to dish up a plate of advice: if you eat the food you love and love the food you eat, then you might be eating very differently from me. Enjoyment is the key.

Thank you, Celia and David

I deserve no credit for my healthy diet: I just do pretty much what my parents did. Lifetime habits are hard to overcome, thank goodness. Just as my mother did, I cook every meal without fuss but with great speed and enthusiasm.

Speed is part of the fun. At lunch time I run down the stairs and on the second-to-bottom stair I decide what to eat. The menu depends on the contents of the fridge, the weather, the day’s plan, and a whim.  In the evening, I enact another old-fashioned habit. As Celia did, every day I make a main meal of meat-(or fish or eggs or cheese or tofu or lentils or some other protein)-and-3-veg.

Our Dad did his part, growing veggies, milking Daisy the cow, feeding the chooks. As kids we used to sing or say grace with every meal: we were formally, loudly, and quite musically thankful for our food. That’s healthy too. I don’t do that now but I do make embarrassing appreciative noises — whether over a simple mushroom omelette and salad, a lazy ploughman’s lunch, a tagine of chicken, olives and preserved lemons, a Japanese assemblage, a weird Bhutanese chilli-and-blue-cheese vegetable stew, a toasted sandwich—whatever.

A hierarchy of food habits

So there will be no audit of my eating habits. I’m not going to start a nitty-gritty food diary and I will continue to take the food-of-the-day with a grain of salt.

Instead I’ll just keep my priorities straight.

  • Food as fun.
  • Variation in colour, taste, and texture.
  • Joy in the making (or arranging) and eating and sharing.

Beyond that (granted that I’m a veggie-lover), the vitamins will look after themselves.

Disclaimer

If or when I get sick, I’ll be the first to use nutrition as a first line of defence and to take advice from experts.

Image: from “Larkin housewives’ cook book; good things to eat and how to prepare them” (1915) Larkin Co.

Lessons in ageing, from mother to daughter

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The New Dance Group: early modern dance in New Zealand 

“I was lucky. My mother taught me about growing old,” said my friend.

“That’s interesting,” I said, thinking about my friend’s mother, now deceased: a brilliant, determined woman with a clear vision, years ahead of her time in the causes she fronted. She introduced modern dance to New Zealand. She fought for peace and workers’ rights. She was part of a small group that alerted New Zealand to the very existence of our nation’s founding document, The Treaty of Waitangi, not to mention its content and significance. In other words, an extraordinary woman with seemingly infinite energy and strength.

Ageing must have come hard to such a dynamo!

“What do you mean, she taught you?”

“She would sit me down and make me listen: ‘This is what it’s like to grow old.’ I was young, I was sure it would be different for me, but she would insist that I listen.”

“So what did she teach you?” I asked, curious. Here’s what my friend replied.

  • “You learn what you can and can’t do.
  • “You can push yourself as far as possible, but that’s not necessarily the best thing. If you keep on pushing yourself past your limit, you end up annoying everyone.
  • “You have to slowly learn to give way and give up. It’s a loss, but if you don’t, you’re pissing everyone off, and also doing yourself no good.
  • “I became far more aware of my body, and of what I did and didn’t want to do. I’m old enough not to have to oblige. I just make a quick decision — otherwise I just mull and mull, and that is bad for you.”

Different teachers, different truths. I think this advice is valuable for me right now.

It’s so puzzling to notice your previous interests, energy, activities, and focus have begun to change of their own accord.  This wise woman took charge of those changes simply by acknowledging their reality, and choosing how to respond. Thus she maintained her dignity, self-respect and grace. I’d like to do this too.


 

In praise of the humble hobby

Boy on hobbyhorse, illustration from Little Songs, 1889 (public domain)
Boy riding a hobbyhorse

 

bootcamp2015-small 2(This article is adapted from the original record of my Boot Camp for the Bonus Years.) In which I consider certain peripheral amusements and reject a paradoxical call to regard them all as significant vocations.

 

The fifth item on the agenda of my Boot Camp for the Bonus years was “Commit to hobbies.” Thus commanded my inner Sergeant Major. How strange, I thought, as I wrote it on the list of 12 tasks. Wasn’t that a contradiction in terms?

I struggled to perceive any logical reason for this task, but eventually conceded that the following might be true. As we gear up for the final decades of life, it seems sensible to have hobbies that demand our very best, because hobbies can provide so many of the essentials for a good (older) life. For example, a social life—endless learning—a sense of mastery—inner or outer travel—a weekly schedule—aesthetic or physical or mental satisfaction—self expression—a purpose in life, even. I could carry on all day about the theoretical benefits of hobbies.

Also, while spying on other retirees, I could see that the lack of hobbies could be a handicap. After leaving paid employment, your days and weeks can seem shapeless, lonely or bleak if you have to construct a schedule from scratch. A hobby is often much wider than a personal pursuit: it may involve regular meetings or rehearsals every week, and a role to replace the old one.

Mind you, starting a hobby after retirement is a bit on the late side for some people. Best have at least some hobby-habits set up in advance, I thought.

Hobby: the etymology belittles the passion

I have been rather puzzled about hobbies all my life. Stamp collecting was the archetypal hobby of the 1940s, and as a child I couldn’t see the appeal, not at all. I had no idea about the many pleasures of philately, including a potential income. One person’s hobby is another person’s job.

 

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Le Philateliste, Francois Barraud, public domain

Hobby is a peculiar word. It looks kind of silly on the page. This noun does not invite us to take it seriously. Two dictionary definitions:

  1. An activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure. Synonyms: pastime, amateur interest, sideline…
  2. Short for hobby horse.

Now, what’s a hobby horse?

  1. A child’s toy consisting of a stick with a model of a horse’s head at one end.
  2. A preoccupation or favourite topic.

With such a heritage, no wonder hobbies have a bad name. A crude toy, a cheap imitation, a childish, pointless substitute for a real occupation, an autodidact’s boring obsession… No wonder I was shocked to see this item on my own agenda: did I even have hobbies, and if so, why was I supposed to take them seriously?

Whenever I think I’ve got it sussed, I am so wrong.

For a retired person, which are leisure time activities?

I am still trying to figure this out. What is my work, now that I’ve stopped running a business, and what are my hobbies? Surely writing is still my job. Wait, I decided that keeping fit is my job. Then again, being the body corporate chair is certainly not something I do for pleasure, so is that an unpaid part-time job?

What’s a job, after retirement? Is it something you have to do whether you like it or not? Is it your top priority, something you were born to do? Is it simply work that you’re paid to do?

As for my own hobbies, should I include reading, watching TV, walking, socialising, Tai Chi, cooking,  travel — the list is endless, the list is life!

My two designated hobbies: singing and dancing

It took me until November of my boot camp year to even consider this particular challenge, but then suddenly, it became easy peasy. I was home and hosed, I’d passed before I even started examining my so-called (sarcastic quote marks) “hobbies”.

That’s because I cheated: I decided arbitrarily that dancing and singing should be my designated hobbies, because I was already fully committed to both.

By November 2015 I had been dancing in the Crows Feet Dance Collective for 9 years and singing in Wellington’s Capital Choir for 12 years. As for commitment — that year we danced a major new work The Armed Man five times in three venues, and the choir premiered a brilliant new work that I’d been heavily involved in creating: Shaky Places: a song cycle of New Zealand poems for mixed voices. Whew, what a year.

So you’d think I would just need to tick the boxes, wouldn’t you? Commit to hobbies?Pass!

The boot camp was a serious short-term hobby

However, my Boot Camp for the Bonus Years was never about ticking boxes. I undertook the boot camp in my leisure time, from choice, but it never felt like a hobby. It felt like a serious commitment that might cause me some pain, and would end after my year of being old.

Which is a bit like what my inner Sergeant Major was calling for. I think she wants me to give my best to every activity that I choose to do for my own amusement. To do each one to the best of my ability, or not at all. It’s about a professional commitment to do my best at leisure activities that I love, even though they are not my life work, and may seem trivial to others.

Tough titties, Sergeant Major! I’m not going overboard just because you say so. I’m not a perfectionist: I’m a very very-goodist, which is better. I’m right, you’re wrong, suck it up!

Aiming for perfection is counterproductive

As I said, commitment is natural for me with dancing and singing. But how about my other possibly-hobbies, like reading and gardening and Tai Chi? To heck with it— I’m letting myself off the hook.

  • I love reading, and I do it all the time; but I don’t write reviews or join book groups or read scholarly journals.
  • I like gardening, and I like to do this about four times a year.
  • I love Tai Chi, and I do it for 7 minutes every morning.

Enough. If I gave the same level of dedication to every hobby, what a mess my life would be. First to suffer would be dancing and choir.

A modified version of the boot camp task

Commit to one or two leisure activities, and enjoy others without commitment or guilt. And blob out whenever you need to, OK?

What are your thoughts? I’ve got a lot to learn and I hope you’ll help me!


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Joy of Gantt charts: documenting a Summer Writing School as a project

 

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Gantt chart of tasks for the Summer Writing School project, 2018

Why did I get such delight out of creating my very first Gantt chart — let alone admit that I’m proud of it?

  • If you use Gantt charts (made by someone else), it’s a big “ho hum” from you.
  • If you make them, I see an indulgent head-shake, because you know this is the simplest Gantt chart in the world, using a template from Someka.net (bless them).
  • If you don’t use them, I caught you rolling your eyes.

A Summer Writing School: analysing the project

About my summer writing school, January 2018, in Wellington

I wanted to break down the jobs involved in running a summer writing school in accordance with the principles of project management. The thinking took most of the time required to construct the Gantt chart, of course. After I succeeded, I spent the next week in a glow of self-satisfaction. And I think that’s fair enough.

  1. I found a template that worked — what an achievement.
  2. It’s something I have admired for years.
  3. I don’t have an IT department to help me.
  4. It took a week: long enough to require perseverance, short enough to avoid frustration.
  5. It certainly helped me to analyse what I need to do to make the summer writing school a success.
  6. It also showed me what a massive project this is going to be.
  7. Mastering a new skill is a pleasure: end of story.

Now I just have to do all those jobs, untouched since I created the Gantt chart! The danger is, half of me now believes that I am ready, all those tasks done and dusted. Not so fast, lady…