Fitness goals for 2017

I decided at the start of the year that I wanted to be able to complete a sprint triathlon and bike a full century (100 miles). Ambitious fitness goals for 2017, but I always like to push. I don’t have any desire (at the moment) to compete, but the triathlon seemed like a reasonable framework for some fitness goals. Obviously, I have a lot of training to do, given that I don’t know how to swim, cannot run, and have never biked more than 20 miles at 15 mph. But, whether I succeed or fail I will be a much better athlete than I am now.

So running- obviously, I’ve posted a lot about my Couch to 5K progress here (and here and here). Next run is week 8, day 1! Almost done! But I wanted to talk a little about biking. I was finding it really hard to get either the mileage or the speed I needed. There are some nice, flat, 20-30 mile, recreational trails around my house that I tried to use. Technically, trail rules state that you must keep your speed below 15 mph. I thought I could just ignore this. But in practice, the trail is so crowded that you really cannot go fast, even if you wanted to. I tried going during the middle of the week, figuring there wouldn’t be that many unemployed bicyclists, but I was wrong. I don’t have a problem passing people, but when you have to pass four people in a row, and you have traffic from the other direction, you end up waiting. A lot. And then you end up with a bunch of time at 7 mph and a bunch of 20 mph bursts. I’m sure the sprinting is useful for something, but it was more frustrating than anything else. And all those people on vacation on rented bikes riding side by side across both lanes… well, I only heard them get cursed out once, but I’m pretty sure most of us were thinking it.

But I wanted to talk a little about biking. I was finding it really hard to get either the mileage or the speed I needed. There are some nice, flat, 20-30 mile, recreational trails around my house that I tried to use. Technically, trail rules state that you must keep your speed below 15 mph. I thought I could just ignore this. But in practice, the trail is so crowded that you really cannot go fast, even if you wanted to. I tried going during the middle of the week, figuring there wouldn’t be that many unemployed bicyclists, but I was wrong. I don’t have a problem passing people, but when you have to pass four people in a row, and you have traffic from the other direction, you end up waiting. A lot. And then you end up with a bunch of time at 7 mph and a bunch of 20 mph bursts. I’m sure the sprinting is useful for something, but it was more frustrating than anything else. And all those people on vacation on rented bikes riding side by side across both lanes… well, I only heard them get cursed out once, but I’m pretty sure most of us were thinking it.

So, I went old school with a new school twist. I bought a bike trainer, which is a device that you mount your bike in so you can ride it indoors. The trainer provides resistance, so you can get a good workout. The modern era version of a trainer provides detailed feedback about your efforts to a computer on a second by second basis. Useful. Boring. The old school solution was to set yourself up in front of a tv. But the new school spin on this is a smart trainer and a gamified riding environment. With the right program, your trainer can talk to the landscape you are riding through. You see a hill on your screen? Your trainer cranks the resistance so you actually have to climb. You want to race? You can join one with everyone else logged in at the same time. Currently, I’m using  Zwift for the virtual ride environment.   It is humbling to discover exactly how amateur a rider I am; the world is populated by extremely powerful bikers. But, I am enjoying myself. It isn’t as fun as riding outside, but I am more confident that I am making progress towards my 2017 fitness goals.

blue bike with trainer for indoor use

This is what my setup looks like. ( Yes, I have a fluffy saddle that indicates that I am not serious.  I don’t care. And yes, I have the coveted and now discontinued Jerker Desk.  There is apparently even a facebook group devoted to pressuring Ikea to bring them back.)

The Picture Plane

One of the hardest drawing skills for me is visualizing the picture plane.  And as I struggle to write this, is apparently also difficult for me to describe.  Essentially, the picture plane is the imaginary surface on which your object is projected.  It is what links the 3D object to the 1D drawing.  It is how the flattened image should look.

If you can visualize the picture plane properly, then your drawings have the proper perspective.  They look like they are representations of a 3D object.  If you cannot visualize the picture plane, then your drawing looks like a bad Escher print.  Something is clearly wrong with the world.

Drawing from photographs is easier because the image is already flattened out.  The turtle I drew previously was from a photo, so I could focus on just reproducing what I saw instead of trying to puzzle out how to represent a round object on a flat piece of paper.

In Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, you are encouraged to use a literal picture plane- a small acrylic window that you trace your scene on with dry erase.  Once you see how the object should look flattened, then you can draw it yourself on paper.  This makes a huge difference.

Below are two drawings of the same stool done at different times.  One drawing uses the picture plane heavily and the other one doesn’t.

In fact, the no picture plane drawing was so horrible that I stopped drawing for 4 months because I was completely discouraged.  This is certainly something I need to work on.  I need to balance the fun of being able to draw something recognizable (working from a photo or the acrylic picture plane) with harder and less fun sessions where I try to visualize the picture plane in my mind.  (Hmm, I cannot actually visualize, so this might be part of the problem.  I’ll post more about that someday.)  The fun sessions are less likely to improve my skills, while the harder sessions, while likely to lead to improvement might be too discouraging.

Camp NaNoWriMo

I am extremely motivated by external deadlines, so I’ve decided to add some pressure to my novel revision process.  I also really like winning.  I’ve signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo which is a more free form version of National Novel Writing Month.  Unlike the official NaNoWriMo challenge in November, where the only option is to write 50,000 words in a month, Camp NaNoWriMo lets you pick a variety of different projects and goals.  You can write a novel or revise something.  You can set your goal in word count, page count, or hours.  (There are other options for both the project type and the goal metric.)  If you achieve your goal by the end of the month, then you win!  (There are some discounts on some writing tools if you win, but I’m in it just to get the email saying I won.)

I’ve set the goal of 100 hours of revision.  So far, I’ve only put in about 26 hours of revision since I started working on it last month.  This is a big increase.  Obviously, I have time, since, yeah, jobless, but I do have several other commitments in April.  I am visiting my parents and brother for a week.  And I’ve taken on a fairly extensive professional project that I’m guessing will also take about 100 hours to accomplish.   All and all, I’ve ramped up the pressure for next month.

I’d like to get the novel revision completed in April.  Ideally, that would also include having other people read and comment on my draft, but I’m not sure I’ll be that far along.  I’d be satisfied if I could get it to a state where I am comfortable sharing it with other people.  I’m definitely nowhere near ready to share at the moment.

This next week I plan to make a substantial push to complete as much work as I can and then map out my battle plan for April.  I’m excited to finally push hard.  And, of course, I want to win…

Learning new things is hard

I’m a process kind of woman.  I like following a set procedure whenever possible.  It increases efficiency and reduces errors.  This is similar to my love of habits.  Having to think carefully and then motivate yourself to do that thing is hard.  It takes away from the energy that you could be spending on actually doing the thing.  Learning new skills is hard because you are usually spending effort on multiple fronts- learning how to physically or mentally do the thing, thinking about the best way to do the thing, figuring out how to fix your mistakes, etc.  That is why I really like courses for learning new skills.  Some people may chafe under the rigidity of a course, but I find the structure freeing.  I just follow the instructions/lesson plan and I can focus the bulk of my energy on learning the skills I want.   It is all execution and no overhead at that point.

That is part of the reason why I describe my process in so much detail, such as in my recent post on diagnosing my calf problems or my posts on revising my novel.  Are my processes the best ones?  Probably not.  But it is likely sufficient for a novice.  A beginner doesn’t need the best system.  They just need one good enough to get them to the next level.  As I build my skills, I will likely optimize my processes.  I may abandon them entirely.  But I hope that my posting my processes here, I can provide a shortcut for the next person.  Right now, I have three big projects: revising my novel, learning to draw, and improving my fitness level.  I let my novel draft sit for over a decade because I didn’t know what to do next.  I haven’t drawn since high school, and I was never good at it.  I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do.  And fitness, goodness, that is a complicated subject.  Couch to 5K is simple enough, but try to figure out a simple weightlifting routine, and things get complicated fast.  There are tons of resources for all these topics on the internet, but sifting through them is time-consuming.  So, hopefully, my work on these projects will provide

Right now, I have three big projects: revising my novel, learning to draw, and improving my fitness level.  I let my novel draft sit for over a decade because I didn’t know what to do next.  I haven’t drawn since high school, and I was never good at it.  I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do.  And fitness, goodness, that is a complicated subject.  Couch to 5K is simple enough, but try to figure out a simple weightlifting routine, and things get complicated fast.  There are tons of resources for all these topics on the internet, but sifting through them is time-consuming.  So, hopefully, my work on these projects will provide a set of great resources and a framework to accomplish these projects efficiently.  Obviously, everything will be filtered through the lens of what works (and doesn’t work) for me, but I’ll try to provide an alternate approach if I find one.

Pencil Drawing of a Box Turtle

For this week’s drawing practice, I drew a box turtle shell.  A friend suggested that I explore using color after he saw my mandala. So I bought some colored pencils and went crazy. I only planned to draw one tile of the shell, so I didn’t center everything up.  But then one tile ended up leading to a second, and then a third, and 3 hours later I had an entire turtle shell.  I’m not sure I have space to add the head, so assume that this is a scared turtle, with all the tasty bits pulled inside the shell so bad eagles cannot eat it.

This drawing is done on resume paper, which is not the most ideal material for colored pencils.  I wanted to be able to scan the drawing, so I was stuck with resume paper, copier paper, or trying to cut down my drawing paper with scissors.  I thought the texture of the resume paper would help it take the color better, but it was actually too textured, and it was hard to cover all the white paper in the depressions.  I also know nothing about colored pencils, so I was winging it.  Still, I think it came out pretty well.

Colored pencil drawing of an orange and brown box turtle shell.

Plotters vs. Pantsers

I wrote both my NaNoWriMo books as a pantser.  What is a pantser?   A pantser is someone who writes by the seat of their pants, with no pre-planning.  By contrast, plotters are those who outline and plot out their story before writing.  There is a fairly lively debate on the internet about which style works best.  See some pro-pantser arguments here and a very strong pro-plotter case here.  I’m pretty convinced Stephen King is also a pantser based on his description of his process in his memoir.

Here’s the thing, though.  I think you need to have a lot of experience with story structure to be able to successfully pants.  When you have enough expertise, and you have truly internalized the rules, then it just shows up in your writing.  See for example Jami Gold’s description here and here of how her pantsed novel ended up having pretty much the exact pacing of a standard type of story structure.

But, if you don’t have enough experience, I don’t think you’ll be quite as successful.  I think then plotting does help you create a story with a decent pace and enough plot that it is interesting.  I assumed because I read a lot (and write a lot of technical work) that I would be able to produce a halfway decent story.  I thought consuming thrillers and mysteries would be sufficient to internalize the needed structure and pacing requirements.  It isn’t  At least for not for me.

When I went to map out my story’s structure (using Jami Gold’s basic beat sheet), I found that I’m missing a lot of key “beats” or plot points.  The pacing is terrible.  Part of that is a consequence of the format of NaNoWriMo- having to produce 50,000 words in a month does tend to encourage padding when the muse has left you.  Part of it is because I’m missing a lot of obvious opportunities to increase the tension and drama.  So, I’ve started to revise my novel by plotting it.  I’ve already deconstructed everything into scenes, so next, I can plot it, and then I can fit my scenes back where they need to go.

Just for fun, I pulled a thriller/mystery off my shelf.  The author has won numerous writing awards, so I figured this would be a reasonable check of the basic beat sheet concept.  I sat down and read the book with pen and paper.  Every major plot point I wrote down along with the page number, and yeah, it matched the classic structure exactly.  Reading a book to understand the structure is a fascinating way to read.  Despite taking a ridiculous number of literature classes in college, I never was exposed to this way of reading.  I highly recommend re-reading an old favorite and mapping it onto a beat sheet so you can see how it all fits together.

For now, I firmly a plotter.  Hopefully, as my skill as a fiction writer improves, I will become able to pants.  It is a lot of fun just to sit down and bang out a novel with no pre-planning.  But it is less fun when you realize how much time it will take to revise the novel.

Calf Stretches for improved Couch to 5k

So, as I previously posted, I’ve been doing the Couch to 5K running program.  I want to talk about the method I’ve used to find the needed calf stretch to fix the tightness in my right calf.  I didn’t go into much detail about the problem-solving process previously, so I wanted to go a bit deeper here.

As I said then:

But, I do feel a huge difference in tightness between my right and left calves.  So I tested a bunch of stretches for tight calves, and found one targets exactly the tightest part.  One stretch I can do, and because it is targeting a specific problem, I can see improvement with every run.  This sets up a nice feedback loop that keeps me stretching.

Tightness in my calf doesn’t quite cover the problem.  I actually ended up with numbness/pain/tightness in my right calf after about 10 minutes of running or walking.  I could power through the rest of the run, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that this is an increasingly bad strategy.  The typical calf stretch, and the only one I knew, is the lunge.  This was pretty much the only stretch I remember from gym class and consequently the only stretch I regularly do.  But hey, at least it is a calf stretch!  The lunge doesn’t feel great, and I certainly had less range in the right calf compared to the left, but it didn’t feel like it was really the problem.

The lunge stretch, in case you don’t know it:

So I started to look for different calf stretches.  I did each one slowly, paying close attention to the differences between right and left AND if the feeling was similar to the feeling when I was running.  I learned that I have even less flexibility than I thought, but more importantly, my soleus muscle was in serious need of attention.

The minute I tried it, I realized that this was my problem.  I’ve been doing this stretch for about a month, and the pain/numbness is completely gone!  I can still tell that there is a difference between the left and right sides, so I am continuing to do the stretches.

This improvement makes it less likely that I will injure myself running, and undoubtedly has helped my performance.  I highly recommend applying this method to find a stretch to target specific problems that crop up during your workouts.

Drawing a Mandala

I’ve been working through the video lessons from Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain.  My skills have improved for sure, but the lessons are pretty boring.  As a consequence, my pace for going through the lessons has been one lesson per two months.  As part of my “reinvention” subsequent to being laid-off, I am committing to drawing at least once per week.  This may be a lesson from the series or it might be some other drawing exercise I’ve run across.  This week, I decided to draw a Mandala.  Several months ago, I saw a video by Paul Foxton on drawing Mandalas as a way to foster creativity.  I thought this might be a good break from drawing chairs and doorways and whatever else I should do as part of the Right Side of the Brain lessons.

One thing I liked about Foxton’s lesson was the emphasis on entering the meditative state while doing the drawing.  He doesn’t use a ruler or traced circles as a template like some how-to videos on Mandala drawing.  So it is less about achieving rigid perfection/symmetry, and more about experiencing flow.  This was appealing to me since the pressure of trying for realism (in the Right Side… course) was stressful.  Trying for perfect symmetry seems equally stressful.  But just meditating as you draw, well, that sounds very relaxing.

My drawing paper is too large for my scanner and I drew all the way to the edge of the page, so here is a not so great photo.

hand-drawn mandala, shaded in pencil

 

Revising my novel, Part 1

So, I’ve started to revise my novel.  As I’ve mentioned before, I wrote it as part of NaNoWriMo in 2004 but hadn’t even read it until recently.

So, good news and bad news.  It is much better than I thought.  Enough time has passed since I wrote it that I was actually surprised by parts of it.  Some of the plots twists are clever.  The mystery itself isn’t bad and the plot generally holds together as the mystery is solved.

It is filled with typos and “(insert more words here)” or “(blah)” where I didn’t have time to research something.  The typos are easy enough to fix, though it is more time consuming than I thought.  I’m done correcting twelve of sixteen chapters.  I haven’t filled in the (insert more words here) sections yet, though the day is coming.   Lots of the characterization sections are extremely dated- they mention tv shows and celebrities who are long gone.  They can probably be updated to more modern references or the characterization scenes can be re-written to be more timeless.

Parts of it are cringe-worthy though.  Me ten years ago was a much more naive person and that is reflected in the text.  At the time, I’m pretty sure I intended this to be a wildly feminist book, but reading it now, I see I reinforced a million sexist tropes.  In general, the way people interact with each other is superficial.  The interactions between the characters lack depth.

I think there is enough good stuff here that it is worth fixing up the larger problems.  But there is much more work to do than I had guessed at first.  I thought I’d read it, fix typos, write a few small scenes, do some light editing and then work on figuring out the publishing part.  What actually needs to be done is deconstructing the entire text into individual scenes, reworking each one or deleting them, and then reconstructing the whole thing as a novel.  And then figure out publishing.

I’m also writing the book in Scrivener.  I haven’t used this program much before and what I had done previously was mostly using it as a text editor.  The program is designed specifically for complicated writing projects such as writing a novel.  But there is a steep learning curve for the advanced features.  And the text is just hard to read in Scrivener.  It ends up all crunched up and tiny, no matter how I have the font set up.  I’m not really sure why this is the case.  But the ability to store information/ metadata about each scene (like point of view and location) or the ability to have sections of research (like character profiles) makes me think that once I figure everything out my life will get much simpler.

My goal for this week is to correct all the typos and grammatical errors.  I’m also deconstructing each chapter into scenes as I’m correcting the grammar.  I want to start filling in the metadata for each scene.  However, since Scrivener is pretty flexible, I need to decide what metadata I want to include.  Once that is done, I can check the pacing.  I’m pretty sure the pacing is a mess.  Fifty thousand words is much shorter than a typical novel, so things feel rushed.  But at the same time, the pressure of writing fifty thousand words in a month means that there is a ton of padding.   Being concise does not make one a NaNoWriMo winner!

Endings and Beginnings

So, my company has laid everyone off, myself included.  I’ve put a lot into my job, my work has been the focus of my life.  I’m the last one out, so to speak, since I was in charge of shutting down operations, selling off equipment, etc. Now I am officially done.   So, what now?  No idea really.

There are many fantastic resources on the internet that focus on the logistics of surviving a layoff- filing for unemployment, cutting cost, making sure your employer honors the severance deal, etc.  They even touch on some of the emotional aspects- feeling like a failure, grief, and more complicated feelings.  I admit I’m processing a complex set of emotions right now.

While I’m lucky to have enough savings to be okay for a while, none of us got severance, so I am draining my bank account every day.  I’ve also never worked a job that had any sort of retirement benefits, so I’m worried that if I use up too much of my savings now, I will be suffering badly in 20-30 years.

There are logistical difficulties around getting another job. I live in an expensive place with not great job prospects for my field. I re-signed my lease a few months ago, after being assured that my job was safe for a year, and there is no way to break it.  So a job that requires relocation basically will require paying off my lease, which is ten thousand dollars or so down the drain.

I have all the usual doubts that follow a layoff- I’m not good enough, I won’t get hired because I screwed up this job, that my bosses and coworkers won’t give me a good recommendation, etc.

And it is sad- I am grieving!-, that so much passion and hard work went into the company for nothing.  We all worked extremely hard and it wasn’t enough.  All that we built and accomplished will be lost.  We learned cool things, we made awesome discoveries, and no one will know about them.  The end.

So there is a lot of fear and panic.  Yet, at the same time, part of me is excited.  I have some time to work on my own interests and hobbies (like this blog).  I’ve focussed so much on my job over the last 5 years that I’ve become a boring person.  Now, I have time to explore and rekindle my passions.  In the short term, I have plenty of savings, so I can relax a bit.  There is a whole new beginning ahead and I have complete freedom to design my life.