Archive for July, 2011|Monthly archive page

Silly iPod games

On Sunday I had to drive several hours to get home from a friend’s house where I had stayed the weekend. I was a little tired, and the road was not very interesting, so I took up one of my odder incidental pastimes: playing iPod games.

Most of the functional playlists on my iPod are based in one way or another on “play count,” the number of times a song has been played, and now and then I play games with these numbers. I have a list that contains the top 300 songs by play count that have not recently been played (once a song is played, it pops off the list for a month) — I’ll play that list hard and see how far down into the overall play count numbers I can get the list to reach. Or I have lists based on simple strata; songs played 5-10 times, 11-15 times, etc., and I’ll try to push songs from one list to another.

On Sunday I used a favorite band and one of my low-count playlists. I decided it was a tragic state of affairs that songs by this band had been abandoned in the lower levels of my iPod play-count lists, and that I was going to push all of them up toward the next list by giving them one extra play over every other song on the list. So with the list on shuffle (my lists pretty much always are on shuffle) I started at the top, skipped every song that wasn’t the right band, cheered every time I hit the right band and listened to that song striaght through, and then kept skipping until I got lucky again. This silly little game kept me entertained through hundreds of miles and hundreds of songs, skipping and listening, until I finally got home.

Why am I amused by playing weird games with my iPod play-count lists? No idea. Of what significance are the play counts and various statistics of the songs in my music library? None whatsoever. So why am I bothering to write about this?

Here’s the significant bit: when I play games with my iPod, I listen to more music, and listening to music makes me happier. I like music, but it doesn’t always cross my mind to turn some on, wandering around through my day-to-day life. Playing a silly little game, of whatever sort, makes me more likely to actually do this thing that makes my life better, and that’s what I’m interested in right now.

Yesterday I wrote about using goals as tools for making important things happen, and how I want to learn how to use the tool for a wider range of things than I do now. Playing silly little games is another tool, something to add a mental interest to something that could otherwise be dull, to help me actually engage in the kinds of activity that I want to do. The game doesn’t matter for itself; it matters if it tricks me into doing something that I think is important but don’t always get around to, or if it tricks me into pushing farther than I otherwise would.

Have you ever used a silly game to help get you through a task or make it to a goal? I’d love to hear from you if you have; please leave a comment or send me an email. For now, I have a word-count goal for the next seven days, and I need to go add the count for this post to the tally. 593 words — great progress already! Woohoo!

Spindle lessons

This past weekend I got to spend time with some good friends, most of whom are fellow spinners and knitters.  It was lovely to have time to hang out and catch up, and also to work on spinning — in such a gathering, working on some kind of fiber project is pretty much a given.  I had a drop spindle with me and the last of a dyed wool I’ve been working on for a couple of weeks.  One of my friends was tearing through a much bigger batch of wool with ferocious speed, using her spinning wheel, and now and then I would tease her that I was going to beat her to the end of my project before she got to hers.  In truth, neither of us really thought we were going to reach the end that day; in actual fact, we both did, and I was first (by a tiny bit, but still first!)

I was mildly struck by my progress, fiddling with a full spindle containing the end of a project that I only started a couple of weeks ago, having just torn through a quarter of it in a single day.  For me, this is ferocious speed too.  It used to take me weeks and weeks to finish a project like that on a spindle.  As several people quipped in different ways, it’s amazing how practice makes one better and faster.

They’re right, of course, and I know it.  I’ve been putting a lot of time in with a spindle this year, first spinning up a big bundle of wool to become a sweater someday, and then working my way through this quick little short project.  My spinning has grown hugely faster and much finer than it has ever been, after five or six months of constant work.  Not really a surprise.  But still, holding the tangible evidence of it in my hand, I had to marvel.  And as I’ve continued thinking about it, there’s a lesson I really need to learn here.

There are a lot of things I want to practice and get better at, and I’ve been writing about some of them — better at taiji, better and more consistent at exercise in general, better at keeping my house clean and orderly.  Consistency is a real bugaboo for all of them, especially consistency sustained over time.  I do all right for a few days, but sooner or later I tend to get distracted and thrown off my game, and then it’s hard to get back.

The thing that sometimes makes spinning projects (and knitting projects, and weaving projects, and other things) different is that they have a built-in endpoint, an inherent goal: finish the project.  At some point, all of the wool becomes yarn, or all of the yarn becomes a sweater, or the crappy scribbled draft becomes a finished post and gets published.  There’s a defined goal, and the more visible both the goal and any progress toward it is, the more compelled I am to get there.  I’m not interested in doing things if I can’t tell I’m really doing them, if I’m not getting better, or getting finished, or preferably both.

There’s nothing really new there either.  I may not have defined this so specifically, but I’ve had a sense of it for a long time, that my lack of consistency is partly because I’m bad at managing work on things that are too open-ended.  I’m thinking and writing about this now because there are so many things I want to make serious progress toward now, and I’m not living up to my intentions.  I feel better when I do, I generally want to live up, but I don’t carry through well.  I need to learn some way of making progress on bigger things, on life-long habits I want to learn and grow in.  I want to develop better consistency and focus about doing things that are important to me.  And using goals in a more intentional way is a tool that I think could help.

I’m not sure yet how to transfer the idea of setting goals over from places where they happen fairly organically, to places where they don’t — like the endless cycles of housework that sometimes depress me with their constant presence.  There’s some danger, too, in setting goals that are too unrealistic, and becoming demoralized by “failure” in reaching them.  If goal-setting is a tool, then there are both appropriate and inappropriate ways to use it, just like any tool; there may be some danger of hurting oneself, just like a hammer can hit thumbs as well as nails and a saw can cut skin as well as wood.  But there are still good reasons to use hammers and saws, and learning how to use them safely is just part of learning how to use them, period.  Using and setting goals is the same.

I’m still thinking about how to start incorporating these ideas into my life.  If any of you have any stories or advice, my kind readers, I would like very much to hear from you — please leave a comment, or send me an email.  And since one of my intentions is to write and publish more frequently, you’ll hear from me again in this space soon!

House Warrior: Entropy Blues

Today the House Warrior faced down the Glass Bandits and the Cutlery Hordes, both of which rampage across kitchen counters and camp in sinks. How one person can use so many spoons, I’ll never know.

For now, the House Warrior reigns triumphant: but they’ll be back. They always come back.

One of the demoralizing things about house work is that it refuses to stay done. I had quite a pile-up of dishes, mugs, and silverware today, and I took the time to wash everything up and put it away. I’ve reclaimed a good bit of counter space by doing so, and actually had space to cook dinner for once. But cooking means making more dirty dishes, and pots, and forks and spoons. I was done this afternoon, all done, and now I’m not done anymore. I got most of the pots washed, but not the plate I used for my dinner, nor the forks and spoons used for cooking and eating. It seems no matter what, I always have “seed dishes” hanging around in my sink, waiting to grow the next crop of messy kitchen chaos.

A couple of different friends have quoted versions of this proverb to me before: “Before war, there is washing dishes and chopping wood. After war, there is washing dishes and chopping wood.” Some things, it seems, are simply constants. The stuff life is made up of, pleasant or not, pointless or not. I wonder what deeper meaning there may be in the constant-ness of washing dishes, but the House Warrior’s philosophy helmet is all the way over there across the room, and I’ll leave that pondering for another day.

What I’m wondering about right now is if a focus-shift may be useful, in facing down the always-returning hordes of dirty glasses and spoons. In the cosmic scheme of things, I will never be done with these daily, mundane tasks of running a household. There’s always more work to be done. So maybe looking at the cosmic scale isn’t the right place.

For a while this afternoon, I was done. I finished everything I set out to do: I washed every relevant cup, plate, and fork in my kitchen and put them away. I was done. And tomorrow, if I catch up on the leftovers from today, I’ll be done again.

I find the process of finishing things really motivating, which is why it’s demoralizing to think about a task (like washing dishes) as never ending … but what if I could think about it as an easy win, something that I can finish and check off every day, something that I can take to done on a regular basis? No matter what other ends are left dangling, what if I claimed a finish and a win for things like catching up on dishes, or dusting, or vacuuming, or folding laundry?

I wonder if claiming daily catching-up in ongoing tasks would help me build the sense of control that I lack in regards to my house, the feeling that yes, I really can keep this place in a state that I want it to be in, I can set up a home that reflects me more than an assortment of random things? I’m wondering if it will help me ditch the entropy blues, and start grooving to a more zen kind of beat when confronted with yet another sink-ful of dirty dishes?

House warrior

I moved into this apartment about four years ago, and some of the things that were moved in then haven’t really moved again in the time since. I feel like that was the last time that this place was really clean and tidy; ever since, it’s just been a continuing slide of dust and clutteriness, that occasionally gets pushed back for a while here or there, but never really goes away.

The last few months have been sliding toward chaos again, entropy having its way with my rooms and possessions. I look around and don’t really like what I see, but have not had the will, or the focus or energy or something to fix it.

It’s more than a few months of slack effort, though. It’s four years of inattention and dangling loose ends, of never really making this place my own, other than the fact that it happens to have a lot of my stuff in it. I don’t always feel relaxed and happy here, even when it is cleaner than it sometimes is — when things are overly dusty and cruddy, it becomes very hard to relax indeed. I manage to sort-of not notice by keeping myself distracted, but when everywhere you look there’s something that makes you vaguely unhappy, it’s hard to escape completely.

I’ve got a guest coming to visit me in a couple of weeks, a very good friend who is going to stay with me for a bit, and that makes cleaning things up a more serious issue. I want my friend to have a nice time while she’s here, and part of that is giving her nice surroundings, as nice as I can manage.

But it’s more than that. I think about the day a couple of weeks ago when I crossed paths with my brother and nephew, Smiley Boy, while I was taking a walk into town toward their house and they were driving to my place to visit me. In the end, they went back home and I walked to their place and visited there, so that I could get a good walk in. But I was relieved when that was the final plan, because I would have felt ashamed to have them over to my house in the condition it has been. I wouldn’t have been happy to have my family there, especially my dear sweet nephew, who I want only the best things for. He’s really important to me and to a lot of other people, and if he’s going to be in my house, I don’t want it to be a dirty wreck.

So the space and conditions I’ve been living in is not good enough for someone I really love, but it’s good enough for me? Who am I, chopped liver? I’m a daughter and a niece, just like Smiley Boy, and I am also a sister and an aunt and a friend to a lot of really good people, and I’m worth taking care of just as much as any of them.

I wrote some things a little while ago about how I’ve lived with a sense that I’m somehow excluded from love and provision, that those things are available (and should be) for other people, but somehow not for me — that such things were just not intended for me. I keep thinking about that now and then, and I’ve been working to get to the bottom of that terrible, false idea and uproot it. I think that the way I keep my house is part of the same thing — that it’s just for me and nobody else is here, so it doesn’t matter what it’s like and it doesn’t matter if I’m not really happy, because it’s just for me anyway. I haven’t articulated it until now, but that’s underneath why things are the way they are around here. And that’s not how I want them to be anymore. I want a space that is open and clean and uncluttered, that has enough room for me and for things that I love, that makes me smile when I come home to it, that I wouldn’t be embarrassed about if someone came by unexpectedly. A place that nurtures who I want to be, rather than fighting against me.

I started making changes this afternoon, reclaiming my guest room from the evil forces of dirt and wickedness. (Or something.) I vacuumed, decluttered, discarded. There’s a long way to go, but battle has been engaged, and I shall be victorious.

The Essential Energies: Lu

For more context about the essential energies, start with this introductory post.

July 7, 2011 update: I have been informed since publishing this article that the Chinese word for this energy is correctly spelled “lu” rather than “liu,” and I have edited appropriately. Apologies for the error.

The second essential energy is called lu (pronounced “lee-YOU” with a very short initial syllable, the two sounds run together). If you know the saying “you’ve gotta roll with the punches,” then the basics of this one should be familiar.

To describe lu, let’s return to the metaphor of an inflated rubber ball, one with enough internal pressure to make it bouncy and resilient (in other words, a ball that is peng). Imagine setting this ball on the floor, and then pressing down on it with one hand — if you have such a ball handy, try it for real. As you press harder and harder on the ball, it starts wobbling under your hand, trying to roll out from under the pressure you are putting on it. If you press on it off-center, it will roll you off. This energy of rolling away from an advancing force is lu. In my school, taiji movements which engage lu are thus called “roll back.” They depend on first assuming peng, that sense of relaxed fullness and expansion that enables the body to be resilient and strong. Then when an opponent attacks, one responds by staying relaxed and turning the body, channeling the force of the attack away by rolling with it, redirecting it to the side and past.

Lu is a type of yin energy, it is responsive rather than assertive. It is a receptive energy, but not a passive one. Lu responds to force by motion, it receives energy in order to deflect it, so as not to be bowled over by it. It is yin with a kernel of yang, a reaction that creates opportunity.

As with the other essential energies, lu shows up throughout life, not just in martial arts. There’s a reason “roll with the punches” is a familiar saying, because it’s a valuable life skill. Bluntly stated, stuff happens: things break, plans go wrong, people argue, luck runs out. Life creates challenges, and we choose how to respond — by becoming tense and stressed, by blowing up with anger, by trying to force our own way through, by giving up and becoming despondent … or by rolling with it.

When the electricity goes off, lu may build a campfire and roast hot dogs. When a little league game is rained out, lu brings the team home for pizza, games, and movies. If a car breaks down in the middle of a long road trip, lu means exploring the town you’ve washed up in while it gets fixed, rather than pining for the destination you didn’t reach. Good customer service agents (bless them) become masters of lu, accepting whatever problems and moods come at them without taking anything personally, refocusing on what they can do to resolve problems and make their clients happy. Lu never engages in a shouting match, it sidesteps manipulation, it shunts aside negativity. It prevents one from wasting energy on what cannot be changed. It is utterly practical, requires one to stay engaged with the realities of the moment, and is intentional about seeking out new possibilities when old ones close. Powerful stuff, lu.

The thing I’m realizing about lu that I didn’t see before is that, just as in taiji movement, you can’t engage lu as a practical life skill unless you first have peng. Until you develop that sense of relaxed fullness, it’s practically impossible to respond well to life’s casual disasters. For most of my life, I’ve been too deflated, too insecure, too timid to bounce back quickly from difficulties; I had no internal fullness, no assurance and confidence in myself, and so I’ve been prone to depression and passivity, letting life sweep me along and sometimes knock me over, rather than choosing my own course and responses. The more I learn how to express the fullness of peng in my daily life, the more I become able to look for new opportunities, to let go of perceived slights and misunderstandings, to roll with hardship and experience life as it is, with the help of lu.

The nicest people I’ve ever been kidnapped by

Yesterday evening I had an unexpected adventure. I’m glad to be alive to tell you about it today.

In the late afternoon, out of the blue, I got a phone call from The Brother. Who happens to be one of my own brothers. He said that him and his gang were coming to kidnap me from my apartment, and I didn’t have any say in the matter. I knew better than to argue, though I pleaded for 15 extra minutes so I could toss myself into the shower and out again before my kidnappers arrived to drag me away, and he agreed. The Brother is a big dude, but he’s a pushover compared to the rest of the gang that was coming for me.

At 7:15, the car pulled up outside. I was a little late to emerge, but they were very patient, waiting right outside my front door. I didn’t try to make a run for it out the back; I know better.

I slung my canvas chair and some blankets out to the car, as I had been instructed. The Brother was driving; SassyMama was behind him in the back seat. And sitting beside her was the one to really look out for, if you know what’s good for you. Smiles the Kid.

I’ve known Smiles for a long time; pretty much his entire life, you could say. He used to make me dance when I’d come into his place — you know, like the clichéd thing from old westerns, where some tough outlaw shoots at someone’s feet and tells them to dance? Like that. Except with less gunfire, and a much greater possibility of stuffed-animal involvement.

I had to get into the passenger seat, right in front of Smiles, who was ensconced in his special chair as always. It’s not enough for Smiles to sit in the back, like gangsters and high-powered business types always do; oh no, he’s got to have his own chair, so he sits higher than anyone else in the car (though he still ends up being the shortest one — but I wouldn’t tell him that). Smiles smiled, as he does, and we set off across country. Listening to music for kids, chatting politely with The Brother and SassyMama, but really there to obey Smiles. If he wants a hand-puppet to pop up over the seatback in front of him and talk in a silly voice, well, that’s what you do. If he wants to see a little two-finger walking person hop around on the seatback and on the sill of his door and be goofy, you listen. The sun had the audacity to shine in Smiles’s eyes partway there; he told it off straight away. “Get out of here, sun!” You know someone’s got pull when they tell the sun what to do.

(The sun didn’t actually listen to him, I have to say. Tough old ball of fire; I guess it’s been around long enough to have heard plenty of two-year-old trash talk in its day. Better it than me, is all I have to say.)

It took a while, but eventually we got off the highway, headed into a small town, turned right at the square and headed straight back out again. On the edge of town we joined a long line of cars, which displeased Smiles. He demanded to know why we had to wait, asking “Why??” over and over. The Brother and SassyMama tried to appease him; I had to do the hand-puppet routines again, which mollified him most of the way to the front. We finally got our chance to pass the gate, wind our way through the treeline and into a field, where The Brother pulled up. Many cars had already parked; others were still coming in. It seemed we would have some time to kill. Gulp.

The Brother pulled out chairs, while SassyMama announced she had (brace yourselves for this one) snacks and drinks. Smiles had his own special provisions, a peanut butter sandwich. (You know you’re someone when you get your own peanut butter sandwich.) SassyMama spread a blanket on the ground beside the car and set out some of Smiles’s favorite toys. At which point I had to sit on the ground and run Smiles’s second “digger,” so I could help him fill up his dump truck with pretend dirt. We “dug” and drove the backhoes around on the blanket for the better part of an hour, with brief breaks for other toys.

Hauled out of my house, stuffed in a car, pitched out on a field and told to pretend-run a backhoe. You’d be forgiven for thinking it couldn’t get worse. And then it did.

When it started to get dark a big screen at the end of the field lit up. It started playing some movie about cars, which are one of Smiles’s favorite things. I sat in my canvas chair, with a woolen shawl around my shoulders, and Smiles had the audacity to sit in my lap and watch the screen. Even though he had his own special chair along, he had to share mine.

It got darker, and the movie went on, and Smiles was sometimes quiet, sometimes wiggly. Eventually he got tired of sitting down and wanted to lay down on his blanket, still laid out on the ground by the car — not just lay on it himself, but he wanted me to lay down beside him and watch the movie too. Later on he spent some time with SassyMama and The Brother, but he came back in the end to my chair, and I had to pick him up and share my blanket again, with the night getting chilly. He looked up now and then and said how there were a lot of stars “stuck up there,” and I looked up and watched them too and agreed with him (can you blame me? If you were in this situation, would you have done otherwise?)

The movie ended, and it was decided that it was time to leave. Grateful that nothing worse had (yet) happened to me, I helped The Brother pack chairs and blankets back in the car while SassyMama got Smiles into his special seat, and we left. Less than an hour later I was back at home, escaping with my own chair and blankets, thanking The Brother and SassyMama politely for the evening (I mean, you can never be too careful — always better to be polite to characters like these). As for Smiles, I was spared his further attentions. He had fallen asleep.

So there’s the story of my bold adventure, the one I’m glad to be here to tell you about. I would say that I feel a lot braver for having survived it, except I’m afraid I did something very rash: I said that I would go to the gang’s house tonight for dinner. I even said that I would bring dinner along. I must be getting reckless in my old age.

If you don’t hear from me again, my kind readers, please know that I left my house a brave aunt. Remember me well.