Best doormat ever!

We wanted to get a doormat in advance of our Groundhog’s Day Eve party.

Because we had left it so late, I had already resigned myself to getting a merely ordinary doormat. We had good intentions of getting a good doormat later, but I knew we’d almost certainly end up using the ordinary doormat for years. It would be “good enough” and there’s always too much important stuff to do to get to less urgent tasks.

Since we weren’t even going to try to get an excellent doormat, we went to Tuesday Morning, a shop in our old neighborhood that sells mostly surplus and discontinued stuff.

We get our cocktail napkins there, because they have odd, random, cocktail napkins for cheap. Most of the cocktail napkin designs are generic birds or flowers, but we can almost always find one or two packages with something funny or interesting.

We figured they’d have odd, random doormats, and that maybe we’d be able to find one that was funny or interesting.

The first few doormats were generic birds and flowers, but then, near the bottom, was an octopus doormat!

Octopus DoormatIs it not awesome? Is it not the best doormat you’ve ever seen? I mean, yes, a doormat featuring a hedgehog and a sloth might have been even better, and one featuring a groundhog would have been more topical for our party. But honestly, even including one of those, I can’t imagine a better doormat than the one we found.

I should also mention: the party invites have gone out. If you didn’t get one, it was purely an oversight on my part. Let me know (my email address is on my contact page), and I’ll get you the details of the party.

Bad meditator

I’m a bad meditator. While writing this piece, I was briefly tempted to claim to be the world’s worst meditator, but I’m sure that’s not actually true. At least, it’s not true if you include the people who don’t meditate at all—they’re worse than me. Even among the people who have a regular meditation practice there are certainly people who are worse at it than I am. Well, almost certainly. But probably not very many. I’m really a very bad meditator.

For one thing, I haven’t taken my meditation practice seriously. For a long time, I just went through the motions, not even really trying to meditate. In my taiji class, the teacher included a period for meditation, so I “meditated.”

Even just going through the motions of meditating, I quickly found some physical benefits to standing meditation, but the more subtle benefits—the insights into my mind that meditation is supposed to provide—eluded me. This was not a surprise; I did not expect much benefit from a practice that was as slipshod as my own.

(As an aside, I should mention that there are also physical benefits to sitting meditation. They were not as obvious to me, mostly because of my own foolishness in viewing standing meditation as a successor to sitting meditation, rather than a complementary practice. This kept me from giving my sitting even the rather feeble effort I gave my standing. Even so, I eventually perceived the physical benefits of sitting meditation as well.)

Only after three or four years did I begin to find the other benefits of a meditation practice. In particular, I felt like I began to acquire insights into the mechanisms of attention. (At around that same time, I read an article about Steve Jobs that talked about his meditation practice, saying that, “Sitting zazen offered Jobs a practical technique for upgrading the motherboard in his head.”)

One thing that made a difference for me was attending a free meditation workshop by Mary Wolters, a local yoga instructor. Her guided meditation sessions were excellent—sitting rather than standing, 30 minutes rather than the usually 10 minutes or less that we did in taiji class, and (probably most important) separated from the effort of (both learning and doing) taiji—I found that I actually was meditating.

Having begun to perceive the benefits of meditation, I find myself wanting to do it more, but have not yet found a way to add it to my daily routine, except as part of my taiji practice, which is good, but not enough. (And I hesitate to spend more class time on meditation, on the theory that the class should take advantage of there being a taiji instructor present to focus on the movements, whereas we could all meditate successfully on our own.)

Still, even if I haven’t added time to my meditation practice beyond what I do in taiji, I have at least added meditation to my meditation practice. It’s a start.

Ragen Chastain on IRONMAN training

I happened upon a post by Ragen Chastain, a writer and activist on size acceptance. She’s also a dancer and an athlete, and I mention her because a recent post on training resonates with my experience, without quite matching it.

She’s training for an IRONMAN race, and the post in question compares the difference between training skills versus training fitness. In training, for example, dancing, you’re learning stuff. It may be really hard, but once you learn a move, you’ve learned it: For a long time it’s hard and you suck, and then you get it and then it doesn’t suck any more. Running (and swimming and bicycling, but especially running) is very different:

One of the things that is interesting about training for the IRONMAN is that it is a process of constantly increasing distance and time (sometimes alternately, sometimes at the same time.) such that “progress” doesn’t necessarily mean that my workouts feel better, but that my general feeling of suckiness remains constant at an increased time and/or distance.

Case in point – Wednesdays are speedwork which means intervals at the highest speed I can manage.  The interval time has increased four minutes, and the speed has increased 5 minutes per mile since I started training.  I still feel like I’m going to die at the end of each workout but I’ve gone farther, faster, for a longer time period.  It’s the stasis of suck.

I totally get where she’s coming from: running as fast as you can (or as far as you can, or as long as you can) is hard. But my experience is different.

Especially when I’ve gotten out of shape, I absolutely feel the massive suckage of starting to get into shape again. Many times I’ve gone trudging around my old 1.5-mile loop near Kaufman Lake, gasping for air, thinking “I’m going to die.”

But after three, four, five runs—such a short time that I can’t possibly have made more than a tiny improvement in my fitness—my perspective is completely different. I’m still trudging around the same loop. I’m still gasping for air. But now I’m thinking, “Wow, I’m getting a great workout!”

Perhaps this is because I don’t have a coach. Maybe if I had someone carefully measuring my performance and matching it to a model of my theoretical maximum performance, that person could arrange for my experience of suckage to remain constant.

But I don’t really think so. A lot of the experience of suckage is in your head. With one mindset I experience the physical sensations of slowly running as far as I can as miserable, because it’s so hard. With a different mindset I experience the exact same physical sensations as wonderful, because I’m doing what I want to do, accomplishing something that’s difficult and yet rewarding.

That doesn’t suck, even if it’s hard and painful.

Noveling along

I’m making steady progress on my novel rewrite. Since getting back to work on it back on the solstice, I’ve put in a nice block of time nearly every day. (Besides Christmas Day, which I took as a holiday, I think I’ve missed two other days.)

The first third had already been rewritten back in the summer. I spent the first couple of days reading through that part and making minor edits. Happily, the edits were in fact minor. I fixed typos and minor sentence-level errors like poor word choice. I fixed the sort of scene-level errors that can only be spotted on a close re-read, such as saying something that I’d just said in the previous scene.

Once I got through that first third, progress slowed down quite a bit. The middle third of the novel had some serious structural problems. It had too many locations where too little happened. I’d already figured out that I needed to collapse that into two locations, and I’d taken a first pass at identifying which things happen in location A and which in location B, but now I had to make all that work.

That turned into kind of an odd mix. Sometimes I could just fix the name of the location and otherwise leave the scene alone. Other times the scene needed to be completely rewritten, because the action was only appropriate for a location that the characters no longer visited. (The latter was more work, but the former was worrisome in its own way—if the exact same thing could happen in the exact same way, perhaps my characters and locations were overly generic.)

Just yesterday and today I’ve been working on a bit that had (in an earlier draft) been written to be chapter one, to be followed with the story running along in two alternating threads, one present and one a flashback. I was pretty pleased with the chapter as a first chapter, but here in the middle, it’s all wrong. In particular, it has several bits written to establish the characters and their relationships. Those bits need to go, which is hard because they’re pretty good bits. Worse, they really ought to be replaced with references to stuff that happened earlier in the book—except that some of the bits they reference never got written.

So, that’s my task for tomorrow—spot those references, then go back and make sure that there’s actual text that establishes that aspect of the character’s relationship. Then decide which of the references should be edited to refer explicitly to those events and which should just be plucked out.

Writing this pass is weirdly different than writing a first draft. I spent a lot of mental effort trying (and often failing) to resist the urge to go back and edit as I went along. Now that I’m in the edit phase, my problem is just the reverse: each time I come upon something hard like this, my urge is to say, “Oh, I’ll leave that for the next pass.” Except that there is no next pass, at least not until my first readers come back with comments.

Still, steady progress is good. I’m about half-way through the middle third.

The final third, where the text draws heavily from the previously existing short story, will no doubt be yet another different experience. I’ve already gone through that part fixing stuff in the sequence of events and adjusting for how the characters had evolved in the writing of the novel-length work. At this point I really have no idea if I got most of that right, and that (having already been rewritten once) it will be like the first third, or if it will be like this middle third, needing major work. I know there’s be some significant new writing that needs to be done—I have a list of scenes that I’ve realized are missing—but beyond that I really have no clue how much work is sitting there needing to be done.

I’m can say that I’m happy with the draft up through this point. If I’m as happy with the second half, I’ll have no hesitation about sharing it with my first readers.

Projects for winter and spring

We have a bunch of things we’re hoping to do this year, and most of them require some amount of preparation—preparation which will have to occur in the winter and spring.

My plans stretch out to the end of July, because the last week of July I’ll be in Lille, France to attend the 100th Universala Kongreso de Esperanto.

As preparation for that, I really want to spend half an hour almost every day practicing my Esperanto. That should be plenty—I already read and write the language and I’ve attended international Esperanto gatherings in the past. But just a bit of practice listening to spoken Esperanto (podcasts and such) and a bit of practice actually conversing (with my local Esperanto group, and such other folks as I can find) will go a long way toward making attending this kongreso a rich and satisfying experience.

About a month before that will be the solstice, and right around then—second half of June or very early July—is the only good chance do the Kal-Haven trail walk that we’ve hoped to do each of the last two years. (In those weeks because only then are the days long enough to finish the walk in daylight.)

As preparation for that, we need to go on several walks each week, including a very long walk roughly every other week, working our way up to being able to walk the 33.5 mile trail.

Several months earlier—just one month from now—we’re going to have a little party for people to come see our townhouse. We’ve fixed the date as February 1st, and are thinking of it as a celebration of Groundhog’s Day Eve, or  Imbolc, if you prefer. Invitations are forthcoming. If you don’t get one, it is surely an oversight—let me know.

As preparation for that, we need to finish unpacking!

Without a specific deadline, but very soon now, I want to finish revising my novel so I can get it out to first readers.

As preparation for that, I need to spend an hour or two every morning writing.

Normally at this time of year we’d also be planning our garden, but Jackie has convinced me that working a garden plot this summer will be more than we can manage.

Writing in 2014

I haven’t published any fiction this year, but I did finish the zeroth draft of a novel.

I hesitated to claim this milestone, holding out for a proper first draft that I can share with a few select first-readers. But the end of the year has arrived and my novel remains (as it has been for several months now) this close to being a first draft. Still—a zeroth draft is something.

We moved. Granting that moving is not writing, and acknowledging that this post is where I review my writing in 2014, I’m still going to mention the fact, because moving takes so much time and effort. And we didn’t just move once. We moved three times: To our summer place, then to our winter palace, and finally to Winfield Village. Because of that, I totally gave myself a pass on productivity for the summer and fall.

However, I officially revoked that pass as of the solstice. I really, really want to get the novel out for people to read, and the only way to do that is to work on it every day. To that end, I’m back to working on it daily—and did in fact work on it every day for the last 10, except that I gave myself Christmas Day off (hat-tip to ol’ Ebenezer).

I’m actually quite confident that I’ll get the novel done (that is, in a proper first-draft state) in fairly short order. Confident enough that I’ve started to do trivial stuff, such as tweaking the formatting. (I’m assuming that most of my first-readers will want an ebook, rather than paper, so I’m fiddling with Scrivener’s ebook generation parameters. When I finish, I want to be able to generate a book right away, and not have to spend three days on ebook configuration to get what I want.)

I did a few other small bits of fiction writing. In particular, I wrote a very short story in Esperanto and submitted it to the UEA Belarta Konkurso. It didn’t win a prize, so I should follow up by submitting it to some Esperanto literary magazine, but I haven’t done that yet.

I wrote a lot less for Wise Bread than I have in past years, but they did publish 6 of my articles:

Very late in the year, that last article got featured on Business Insider as The Simplest Way to Live Simply and Cheaply.

Not a link to my year in pictures

Google gave me a link to my year in pictures. And they have a lot of my pictures, because they have all the pictures I took with my phone. (But not the pictures I took with my camera, which is what I use if I’m planning to take pictures.)

However, the video that Google produced is hilarious, because way over half the pictures I took with my phone were taken to document the condition of the various apartments we moved into.

Whatever Google’s algorithm for selecting pictures is, it’s is pretty good—many of the pictures they selected are the better ones. So half the pictures Google shows me are pretty good pictures of Jackie and Barbara and Rosie and fall color and interesting things we did.

But about half are pictures of damaged carpets, damaged tiles, damaged plaster, damaged trim, damaged closet doors, etc. Here’s one:

IMG_20140802_105258908
Preexisting carpet damage in our winter palace

But, now that I think about it, maybe that’s fair. Maybe that’s a pretty good representation of my year.

I’m so glad we’re done moving.

Why we moved

After our old apartment complex changed hands, our neighbors spent the whole summer worrying aloud that the new management company would raise the rent.

We declined to join in. I expected the rent to go up, but we had been getting such a good deal for so long, I figured that the rent could go up by 20%, maybe even 30%, and still be competitive.

Then we saw the proposed lease from the complex’s new owner, and went straight from “wait and see” to “let’s find a new place to live.”

You see, the new lease (I almost put the word in scare quotes) was an internet-style agreement. You’ve seen them—you’ve probably clicked through to agree to hundreds of them by now. They’re the ones with these two characteristics:

  1. There’s a long list of “terms and conditions” that they can change at any time.
  2. They doesn’t promise that the service they’re providing actually works.

For a broad range of internet stuff—especially stuff that’s free, like an email address or a web tool—a contract of that sort is perfectly reasonable. If someone is kindly letting you use some service for free, it’s fine if they decline to stand behind it, and understandable if they ask you to agree that the service is offered as-is and shouldn’t be relied upon for anything important.

For real-world stuff—especially real-world stuff you’re paying for—signing such an agreement is a terrible idea. Any adult with experience in the real world would know better.

Sadly, young folks don’t have much real-world experience. Worse, the current generation of young folks—having clicked through hundreds or thousands of such contracts—see them as normal.

I bring this up now because the new management company’s so-called lease was my first instance of such a contract for a real world thing.

An Internet-Style Apartment Lease

They raised the rent of course; this was not a surprise—and would even have been okay. But the proposed lease was an internet-style agreement. That was a deal breaker for us.

They Can Change the Terms and Conditions

A lot of internet-style contracts allow the other party to change the terms and conditions at any time, just by updating a document on some website.

This is fine for certain kinds of things, such as an internet service. Specifically, it’s acceptable for any service where you engage in individual transactions. Maybe it’s a video service where you pay $x to stream a video one time. Maybe it’s a service that will print your photo on a t-shirt or a coffee mug for $y. If they change their terms in some way that makes the service no longer attractive, you can just quit ordering.

It’s even true of a service with a subscription format, as long as you can cancel the service at any time. An example might be a service where you get to listen to unlimited music for $z a month. If they change the terms so that it costs too much, or they put limits on the music (or they lose access to the music you most want to listen to), you can just cancel.

Where it becomes completely unacceptable is when it’s a longer-term contract you can’t just cancel, such as a lease.

The contract the management company wanted us to sign said that they could change any of the terms at any time. If we didn’t like it, we’d have 30 days to move out.

That’s not a lease at all! The whole essence of a lease is that I know that I have an apartment I can live in for a year, and I know what I’d have to pay.

This is more like month-to-month renting, where I have to be ready to move out at any time. Except that it’s worse than month-to-month renting, because I’m committed for the full duration of the lease.

In fact, it’s even worse than that—the plain terms of the contract would allow the apartment company to change the duration of the lease as well: They could have come back the day after we signed and said, “We’ve tripled the rent. Oh, and we’ve also changed it from a 1-year lease to a 99-year lease: You have to pay for the rest of your life.”

I doubt if a court would tolerate such a thing, but I’m not going to sign a lease with unacceptable terms and hope that the court will take my side.

They Make No Promises

The other thing that’s common in internet-style contracts is that the party offering the service doesn’t promise anything.

That’s perfectly reasonable for a free service. If a company offers to let me use their cool thing for free, I’m fine with clicking through an agreement that says that they don’t promise that the thing even works and don’t promise to fix it if it breaks.

You know where it’s really not reasonable? In an apartment lease.

The whole point of an apartment lease is that you give them some money every month in exchange for a habitable place to live. They promise to keep it habitable if stuff breaks (you promise to pay for anything you break), and when the term is up, you return the apartment in the same condition you got it, except for normal wear and tear.

The contract the new management company wanted me to sign specifically said that they didn’t promise the apartment would be habitable. They also specifically didn’t promise that it would have any appliances, nor that they’d fix them if they broke.

They would have been within the terms of the lease to show up one day and take down the doors and windows, pull out the fridge and stove, shut off the heat and water, and drain the pipes. (It would probably have been illegal, but it wouldn’t have violated the lease.)

I saw this coming some time ago, and have written about it before. (Specifically, in a post called Reject Variable Terms and Conditions that I wrote for Wise Bread back in 2009.) I didn’t expect that I’d start seeing them in apartment leases this soon, though.

No sane person would sign such a contract—unless they’d been trained by click-through internet contacts that such terms were normal.

An internet-style contract is fine for an internet service. It’s even fine for a real-world service that’s not critical to your life or your business, as long as you can cancel it at any time.

It is not fine for anything you depend on. And it’s never fine for a contract that they can change but that you can’t cancel.

We looked around for a new place to live, and found one easily—one with a real lease.

Other Issues

Most of the above is an edited version of an article I originally wrote for Wise Bread, but that the editors didn’t want. For the Wise Bread article, I was focusing on internet-style agreements and why they’re bad for real-world stuff. The rest of this post is just a short description of the other reasons we decided to move. There were two of them.

First, they were going to start charging separately for utilities that had been included in the rent. This is something that I’d be fine with in theory—we probably use less heat and water than average. Except that heat and water were not metered per apartment. Without actual per-apartment numbers, the plan was for the complex to charge us made-up numbers. (They had hired company to make up the numbers for them, supposedly by allocating the complex’s actual costs to apartments by size. But there was no transparency, so I stand by my characterization of the charges as being made-up numbers.)

Second, they were also going to start charging extra every month because we have a cat. (We had already paid an extra pet deposit to cover any damage the cat caused, including a non-refundable part to pay for a more extensive cleaning.)

All told—higher rent, made-up utilities cost, cat rent—the increase would have been several hundred dollars—something like a 50% increase to our monthly housing cost.

We might even have paid that, to avoid the hassles of a move. But we weren’t going to sign an internet-style not-really-a-lease agreement.