Wednesday, January 25, 2023

SMART Goals? REAL Goals? YOUR Goals

 Every month, I set goals for myself. Sitting down and writing out what I want to accomplish focuses me and helps me to juggle the various aspects of my life -- one step in moving toward an often elusive work-life blend.

Often, I overshoot. Sometimes, the balls I'm juggling all come crashing to the ground.

Someone else reviewing my goals might suggest that I create goals that are more realistic, or that I pull back and set goals in fewer areas. If I were being evaluated by anyone but myself on the goals I set, or if my professional progress depended on meeting my goals, that's exactly what I'd do.

But I've come to like overshooting. My goals aren't the SMART goals embraced by businesses and, taken together, they're not even the REAL goals I've written about.

Separately, however, REAL goals is exactly what they are. They represent a combination of hopes, dreams and the actions necessary to make them happen. When I judge my progress on a black-and-white, success-or-failure scale, it's easy to feel defeated, but when I focus on growth, I not only feel better, but I also know exactly where to go with my goals for the next month.

When we fail, we have several choices. We can huddle in a corner feeling defeated. We can get angry and beat ourselves up. We can lament how we'll never amount to anything because we missed an imaginary goal post we erected ourselves.

That doesn't sound very smart, does it?

I prefer to take the growth mindset approach I teach my students. Failure teaches. It tells us whether the goal posts are too close, too far, or just right. Sitting down and writing a short narrative to myself about my progress on each of my goals helps me to reflect on whether or not my focus was in the right place and to shape the next month's goals accordingly.

No matter how realistic our goals, we will sometimes fail to reach them. Life intervenes, sometimes in good ways and sometimes in ways we'd rather not imagine. Tossing out our goals because we're afraid we won't reach them deprives us of the wonderful sense of accomplishment we earn when we do.

Life is full of failure. It's all in how you frame it. As for me and my goals, we plan to emerge victorious.

At least some of the time.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Waiting for the Muse to Alight

Bru-nO via Pixabay

As the days of January tick by, bringing the start of the semester closer and closer, I've been trying to get myself on a semester schedule. This means adjusting bedtimes and wake times, of course, but also reinstating the BIC (butt-in-chair) time I instituted last fall to try to make sure writing time didn't get swept away by a deluge of papers to grade.

How am I doing? 

Don't ask.

My BIC time got pushed back a little later than I'd planned today but, despite the reprieve, my motivation was nowhere to be found. Apparently simply writing it on the calendar doesn't guarantee that my muse will write it on hers, let alone show up to keep our appointment. 

I had a few choices. I could skip the BIC time altogether (not really what I had in mind). Or, I could bonk my muse over the head and drag her kicking and screaming into BIC time (that never works). 

So, I was left with choice #3. I had to cajole the muse. I had to tiptoe into writing and, with any luck make the task at hand so tempting that she couldn't resist joining me.

Last weekend, when I was cleaning and organizing my office, I came across a stash of writing articles I had clipped. I weeded out the ones I knew I wouldn't read and set the rest aside to read and use for brainstorming or writing exercises. Today, I sat down with a few of them and began to read. 

Totally non-threatening, right?

It wasn't long before the muse peeked in and tiptoed over to join me, nudging me to grab a pencil and make notes in the margins of the articles. I was on a roll, planning out what I wanted to do with all this great info when....

The phone rang. My daughter. 

I never turn down a phone call from my daughter.

After brainstorming something completely different with her, I hung up and returned to the articles. The muse gave me the cold shoulder for a few minutes but, by the time I reached for my notebook, she was ready to cooperate. 

On her terms. 

Not that notebook. new notebook.

Did I mention that the muse is also bossy? Given that she's my muse, that probably went without saying but, there you have it.

Why a new notebook? Because working on characters for a work-in-progress in a notebook filled with other unrelated ideas was going to make it unnecessarily hard to find those ideas when I returned to writing the novel those characters inhabited.

By the end of the session, I'd chosen a new notebook from my collection (yes, I have a collection -- and not just any notebook would do!). I christened the notebook "What a Character!" and got to work. 

moshehar via Pixabay

Henceforth (the muse made me use that word), I can work on all of my characters in that notebook. That way, I know just where to look when I want to retrieve those ideas and weave them into my story.

As usual, the muse was right. She may be capricious and a bit stubborn, but she's worth waiting for.

Or cajoling.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Has it Really Been Ten Years?

  Last night, I couldn't fall asleep. As I lay in bed, the myriad things I needed to do, organize, tidy, and put together running through my head, I determined that today would be a day when at least one of those projects took precedence. 

This morning, I decided it would be my desk. 

I allotted half an hour to sort through a pile of papers that I'd been moving from surface to surface for several days, but quickly decided that clearing off my desk was more important, and therefore worth extending the time. 

Two hours later, the desk looked beautiful -- well, almost. I had to stop working to head to an appointment, but  Unfortunately, several other surfaces look worse because organizing the desk meant clearing it off, and some of the things that I opted not to return to the desk are now taking up space on other surfaces until I find them new homes.

This is the way nearly every project this month has gone. Thus, my sleepless night, as I approach the one-week-until-the-semester-starts zone on the calendar.

What does that have to do with this post? The plaque below, a gift from my husband when I retired in 2012, still has a place of honor on my desk. While it's not (yet) quite accurate because one job in education replaced another, I'm finding myself daydreaming of a day when it does hold true, and when a project I don't fully complete one day can be picked up seamlessly the next. 

This post was originally written four years after I retired. Today seemed like a good day to look back from my current vantage point, ten years down the road. 

Ten years ago at this time, I'd just turned in my letter of intent as the first step in my retirement  journey. Things were emotional, to say the least. My family was less than thrilled with my decision -- the part of my family that lived in my house, anyway -- and I was alternately exhilarated and terrified. I was just beginning to share the news with my colleagues, very few of whom had seen it coming, as I was about a decade younger than retirement age. I was crying a lot, praying a lot and trying to act as though everything was normal, when, in fact, it was about as far from normal as my professional life had ever been.

Four years later, things were different. I still worried about money -- but I knew very few parents of high school seniors that weren't thinking about money. These days, I no longer think about money for college -- that ship has sailed -- but my husband and I are having a lot more conversations about money and actual retirement. 

A lot of other things have changed, too -- nearly all for the better.

Four years ago, my daughter, who was finishing middle school when I made the decision to retire early, was finishing high school, and on the cusp of changes of her own. In the intervening four years, I got to spend much more time with her than I would have if I'd stayed where I was. I'm was at home every morning when she left for school, and accessible nearly every day after school. I was around most days when she and her friends came by for lunch, and though I made myself scarce so they could have their privacy, I loved that I was here. 

Over Christmas, my daughter and those same friends went out to dinner and ended up back at our house afterward. As their laughter and bits of conversation floated through the house, I was reminded of those lunches, and once again grateful -- for the fact that my daughter has excellent taste in friends, for the fact that she feels comfortable bringing them here, and for those four golden years I would not have had if I'd stayed where I was.

My job is different, yet the same. I always thought I'd continue to work part time as a counselor, but when that door closed, I was more surprised than sad. As it turned out, being an educator was rooted in me more deeply. While I initially sought out jobs in community education to earn an additional paycheck because that was what I knew, once I got back into the classroom, I realized it was a part of who I am as well. And, though a part of me always thought it would be fun to teach at the college level, I never imagined leaving elementary education behind. Then again, I never imagined it would look the way it does today.

Ten years into "retirement" and eight years into my adjunct gig, I feel more at home in the college classroom. COVID messed that up rather substantially for a bit, but I look forward to a maskless spring semester, even if it's with a bit of trepidation. I've learned how to be myself in a way that fits with young adult audiences, and how to care less when I don't.

My writing is an enormous part of my life, which came as a surprise to no one. When I shared my intention to retire, all of my colleagues asked me if I planned to write. I'm not sure I'm cut out to be a full-time writer -- I'm used to the stimulation and interaction teaching brings -- but I love that writing of some kind happens nearly every day in this no-longer-new lifestyle. While I've been blogging for close to a decade, I didn't blog regularly until I retired. Though I had two nonfiction books published while I was working, I didn't publish a novel until after I retired -- and then, I had two out within two years. The combination of writing and teaching fills -- and drains -- the creative part of my personality.

My schedule is much more within my control. The first year, I had almost too much time on my hands, and in my early semesters of teaching, I had almost none. But the pace of the days is up to me much more than it every was. This is sometimes a good thing, and sometimes not. Again, a post-COVID world has found me seeking balance between work and play.
We never know for sure the impact of the decisions we're making when we make them. We can hope, pray and project, but every new choice carries new risk -- risk that inspires fear we can overcome only in the face of deadlines that force us to choose. Sink or swim. Now or never.

Maybe there's something to be said for the magic wands and crystal balls of fairy tales.

Or maybe they unnecessarily complicate leaps of faith.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Nurse Loretta, A Smooth Talker and the Jerk on the Train

 Pre-COVID, a trip to New York was part of our fall routine, especially once we had a 
daughter in college in Connecticut, making the City a good place to meet up. COVID concerns have kept me from missing this trip in the past two years, but last year, I did miss it. I've been working on a Times Square jigsaw puzzle to get my from-a-distance fix, but I'm thinking it's time to plan another trip.

Let's call it "research."

Creating characters is my favorite part of writing fiction. I like dreaming them up from scratch, so to speak, but since real life and fiction are intricately connected through the vessel that is the writer, the elements blur and blend. Though I've never used an actual person in one of my books, some of my characters definitely have traits in common with people I know. And sometimes, it's the other way around.

Last weekend, for example, I met Nurse Loretta from my soon-to-be-released novel, Chasing a Second Chance. She was disguised as a clerk at Macy's in New York, but I recognized her as soon as she spoke. Of course the fact that she was coming to my rescue (as Nurse Loretta does for Angel) probably colored my perspective, as did the fact that she was unfailingly kind to me, while refusing to suffer fools (other customers -- you had to be there) gladly.

That got me thinking about other characters I met over the course of the weekend. Here are a few of them -- along with one it's probably good I didn't meet.

The down-on-his-luck sweet talker. We met this man between 11pm and midnight while waiting for our connecting train at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. Quick to share his [prior] success and his sad story of the day, he was probably not who he said he was, but the desperation of his situation was most likely real. Though he appeared to appreciate the $7 we gave him "for a train ticket," his eyes lit up at the food I offered. Scammed? Probably. But in the end, we were safe, and I hope he was as well.  He left me wondering how he'd gotten from the success he professed as present truth to the alcohol-infused fast talker standing in front of me.

The Broadway "show sellers" at TKTS. These young people made a long line at TKTS seem to go faster (we even got to see a snippet of a number from Chicago). Most had the same opening line ("What show are you hoping to see?"), but they were full of energy and enthusiasm, along with a bit of trivia and insight. It was like getting an insider's view from a friend who'd seen everything, and it was fun talking to them. When I did a little research after the fact, I wasn't surprised to find that they're "highly trained working theatre professionals." They definitely had the energy necessary to bring a character to life on stage.

The jerk on the train. The train was "sold out" (more likely overbooked) on the way home, and we got split up. We figured we'd find new seats when people got off in Philly, but more people got on than off. My husband did find us seats with a bit more leg room, and while he retrieved our luggage from the overhead compartment and waited patiently to come back against the traffic of those seeking seats, my carry-on held his seat and I had to refuse many travelers. I felt bad about this in every case except one -- the 20-something guy who walked by (without asking if the seat was taken) loudly saying, "Yeah, that's right. Keep that seat for your bags." As it turned out, I didn't need to respond. Someone sitting nearby who'd heard me explain that the seat was taken called out to him, "Someone's sitting there!" followed by a sound that echoed my own frustration. The jerk on the train was a stock character. The woman who came to my defense is the one I want to write about.

Though I didn't meet the rude coffee drinker who spilled a substantial portion of his/her latte on the bench in the shoe department at Macy's, I did have a few choice words for him/her. While it's true that I should have looked before I sat, I didn't expect half a latte to be on the bench...or to soak through my pants, turning my solo shopping trip at Macy's Herald Square into a quest for dry clothing. This character may very well show up in a book, because I do, indeed, have a few things to say to her. And yes, she's already morphed into a female character because the bench was, after all, in the women's shoe department.

But without her less-than-desirable tendency to spill and run, unwelcome though it was, I wouldn't have met Nurse Loretta.

And, unlike the latte and the jerk on the train, she was a welcome surprise. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

It's the Little Things

 Lately, I’ve been missing my mom. It’s not as though that's unusual. It’s just that recently, I’ve had things I wanted to share with her and questions I wanted to ask.

Some things are rather trivial, the minutiae that made up many of our phone conversations. Like the new backsplash in our kitchen. One out of three Hesses gives it an enthusiastic thumbs up (that would be me), one is underwhelmed and the third is trying not to say anything, which actually says it all. 

I wish my mom could see it. She’d be as excited as I am about all the little details—how shiny it is, how the grout matches the tile, how it makes my little kitchen look a bit more spacious. My mom was all about those kinds of updates, and turning any house she lived in into the home she wanted to inhabit.

And then there’s the parenting of a young adult daughter. I wish I could talk to her about how she felt when my sister and I struck out on our own, how she made the transition from parenting us to guiding us to letting us live our own lives -- all things I thought I was doing pretty well until lately. It’s not as though I'm struggling with enormous, life-changing questions. It’s just that there's no one who understands the process better than another mother, particularly the one who knew me so well. 

My mom didn't handle things perfectly, which is something I need to remind myself when I put my foot in my mouth, struggle to find my footing, or strike an appropriate balance among my head, my heart, and my mouth. As I recall--from my side of relationship, anyway--my mom had those struggles, too and, although we annoyed each other from time to time, neither of us loved the other any less because of it.

Clearly, her lessons live on. It's just that there are things I'd like to ask her now, things I didn't know to ask her when I was in my 30s and 40s. I miss her reassurances (though my daughter's way of saying everything by saying nothing is a bit reminiscent of her grandmother) and the feeling that she always had my back. And while people so often say they'd give everything for just one more conversation with someone, no one conversation could possibly be long enough. 

But I would like to hear her voice again. And I'd really like to show her my backsplash.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Merry January

 This year, we once again have two trees in our house. One is in the man cave, which has morphed into a family room over the eight years that have passed since I wrote the original post. The family room tree is smaller this year, as the larger one now resides in my dad's living room. 

Our "main" tree, if you will, is in our sunroom, and both trees are enjoyed on a daily basis. Although nearly all of the Santas in the house have been replaced by snowmen, I'm in no hurry to take either tree down. I love not just the trees themselves, but the wonderful ambience of the soft lighting they create. It may be January, but I still need a little Christmas. 

We have not one, but two Christmas trees still up in our house. The outside lights are still up as well.

And you know what? I'm in no hurry to take them down.

Most of the Christmas decor has been dismantled, thanks to my industrious husband, but these two trees linger, gently lighting the rooms and creating a warmth inside that counteracts the polar vortex temperatures outside.
This is our first year for multiple trees. It's not as though we live in a mansion -- the trees are a mere two 
rooms (two-and-a-half, if you count the hallway) apart -- one in the dining room, one in the former playroom-turned man cave. The latter is a small tree -- about four feet tall -- and a perfect fit for the back corner of the room, as long as you scoot forward a bit on the sofa. Our "regular" tree is in the dining room, which is probably the room in our house that sees the most traffic. Both are artificial, in deference to my allergies.

Every morning, the first person up (usually my husband) turns on the dining room tree. Later in the day, I turn on the tree in the back room. And every time we turn them on, I smile -- something I also do with fair frequency every time I pass by them.

It's not as though the house will be bare once the trees go. For probably a decade, I've been putting up snowmen when I take down the Christmas decorations. Most years, they give way to Valentine's Day decorations and, if I'm still motivated when those come down, bunnies and flowers and pastels for Easter.

And it's not as though I'm clinging to Christmas. I'm happily ensconced in a new year, moving forward, making plans. Those plans just don't include taking down the trees  -- at least not yet.

If it weren't totally ridiculous, I'd probably leave the trees up until spring. By then, longer days, more sunshine and warmer temperatures would make them obsolete. Mother Nature would be warming and lighting even the corners and crevices of the house, and soft, comforting lighting would no longer be a bring-your-own-lantern deal.

But in reality, the trees' days are numbered. the deeper into January we go, the more obsolete they become. And one day soon, I'll know it's time.

Until then, I'll enjoy the ambient glow of one of my favorite seasons for as long as I can because before I know it, it will be time to groan about dragging out the very decorations I don't want to put away.

Merry New Year.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

C is for Cranky

 Today was supposed to be a productive day. My daughter has returned to her apartment and her life, my husband has returned to work so today, I had the run of the house. I crossed the day off on my calendar (something I do when the rest of the week is filling with appointments, as this one has) and eagerly anticipated a day when I could write, read, and focus on projects -- uninterrupted.

The only such day this week. 

Everything was going (mostly) according to plan until I headed out for my only errand of the day -- a trip to the UPS Store with a stop off at Starbucks to grab a chai I could sip on while I worked.

I started my car and it grumbled a little. Then the "check engine" light came on.

So much for my productive day.

I was extremely lucky. The car made it to the garage without any mishaps. They fit me in for an oil change that we all hope will solve the problem. They did some diagnostics and didn't find any major issues, so all it cost me was an oil change.

That, and the afternoon I'd been looking forward to -- the one that was supposed to be productive.

I'm all about gratitude and optimism. I fully realize things could have been so much worse. 

Well, my head does, anyway. The rest of me is cranky. 

There are many writers who believe that it’s essential to write every day. As someone who has a full-time job outside of my writing, I long ago abandoned that level of pressure. But when I go too long without writing, I get cranky. And, when I watch a perfectly good afternoon that was supposed to give me time and space for writing evaporate, I get cranky then, too.

As the rest of the day wore on, my head began to have some sway over my heart, talking it out of cranky and into a reframed perspective whereby I make writing a priority tomorrow to make up for today. Meanwhile, I'm writing this blog post, so the day wasn't a total loss writing-wise. 

And my optimistic side says tomorrow is another day.

I'm not leaving the house until I absolutely have to.