Why does this make me feel dirty?

Self promotion makes me horribly uncomfortable.
Sell Art OnlineThe thing is, if this were someone else, I would advise them to advertise on their blog, duh!

How else will people know you are selling yourself if you don’t occasionally put out the streamers and the scary balloon-man with the waving tentacle-arms?

And another thing… I’ve noticed I feel depressed every time I finish a drawing. I think it is a reaction to the sudden lack of creative focus. The chemicals that swirl around my brain while I’m working on something make me feel really good, but then it’s done and they all dry up.  Maybe I just need to draw out the joy this piece gave me as long as possible by sharing it with as many people as possible.  Or maybe I’m just desperate for attention.

Either way, it wont last. As soon as I find a new idea to pour my mind into, this piece will become amateurish trash.

Practice makes Perfect (or, How to Draw a Horse)

I love to read, but I’m not a naturally good reader. Physically, I have a hard time keeping my eyes where they are supposed to be, they jump and skip all over the page. I have a hard time concentrating when there is too much description and not enough action and dialogue. But I read fast, and as a kid, my reading comprehension scores were off the charts. Why? Practice. If you do something often enough you will get good at it no matter your level of ‘natural’ talent.

That is why the 10,000 hour rule makes sense to me.  It is really just another way of saying ‘practice makes perfect,’ albeit it in slightly more scientific terminology. However, I’m not one to trust a theory without testing it out for myself.

Now back in my programming days, when you had to test a bit of code that took inputs from a user, you knew you couldn’t test every single possible entry, so you’d use a smaller range – just enough to test the code without taking too much time. Usually three samples would do the trick – one at each extreme and something in the middle.

So, to test the 10,000 hour rule, I figured I’d spend 3 hours doing something new, and see if there was any noticeable improvement.  Since I’ve always sucked at drawing, and since my niece asked me to draw a horse recently, (and then had the audacity to laugh at the result) I decided I would spend 3 hours trying to learn how to draw a horse.

First: I started out with what I basically drew for my niece (1.5 minutes)
Second – I looked at a picture of a horse on Wikipedia and tried to draw what I saw there. (2:00 min)
Third – I printed out that picture and traced it. This is not cheating – since there are no rules in this experiment. I’m just trying to learn and I say tracing is learning. And look at how much better this one is. It helps that it finally occurred to me that maybe it would look better if I colored it in. (8:00 min)


Ok – I’m not going to torture you with all twenty drawings (averaging 10 minutes on each drawing, plus the time looking up tutorials online – about 180 minutes total) – but here is a gif of the progression: (Click on it if it doesn’t play automatically)

some of these seem much better than others – I got really good at copying from photos and drawings – the ‘no reference’ ones are much worse.

So here is the proof that this works. Here is my final drawing next to the original:

the difference three hours of practice can make.

I admit – I didn’t really have any doubt that it would work, but I also have to admit I was surprised at how fast it worked!  I didn’t do the whole three hours at once, just an hour a day over three days. I think of myself as a person with no artistic talent what-so-ever, but this experiment has taught me that what I really lack is practice. Can you imagine how good I’d be at drawing a bird, or a tree or anything if I spent just thirty hours just drawing the same thing over and over again?

And this isn’t just me, of course.  Anyone could do this. With anything.

Next time you find yourself thinking, I suck at “fill-in-the-blank,” just think of my test.  Maybe all you need is a little practice.

This Wonderfully Small, Big Blue Marble

Something wonderful happened today.

Today I received a comment from a fellow blogger asking my permission to translate one of my stories into Spanish and repost it on her own blog.  Of course, I said, si!

(If you are curious, and can read Spanish, here is a link to the story: http://parapalabras.com/2013/10/23/mirando-el-reloj-de-jill-schmehl/ )

What makes this wonderful?

Here I am, a person sitting at a computer the USA, and I write a story.  The story imagines what it is like for a mother to watch her son growing up.

And there is a person in Spain, also sitting at a computer, and she reads my story and it resonates with her.  A total stranger from a far away land. We’ve never met and know nothing about each other, but she understands the feelings I expressed in my story and liked it enough to translate it and share it with her readers.

We live almost 3800 miles apart, separated by a vast ocean, but we can both understand the changing relationship between a mother and son.  Because we are both human beings, living on the same planet, at the same time.

I have interacted with so many people from all over our planet in my short time with this blog.  I look at the long list in the ‘Views by Country’ section of the stats page, and it awes me every time.

Big Blue Marble
Big Blue Marble (Photo credit: Roger Lynn)

When I was a child, I watched a show called ‘The Big Blue Marble’ on PBS. I don’t remember much about the content, but I do remember they hosted a pen-pal service.  They connected children from all over the planet, anywhere their show could reach, I imagine.  Through that service, I had pen-pals from South Africa and the UK and New Zealand and other countries I can’t remember now. (I know for some of the girls, English was a language they were leaning in school and having an English-speaking pen pal was an assignment.) In our letters we talked about the silly things children talk about, our favorite songs or colors or subjects in school.  It was all rather meaningless, and made for some really boring letters, but the foreign stamps and odd envelopes were cool.

But what I took for granted then, and what is so amazing to me now, is that we were all the same.  It didn’t matter where we were born, or what language we spoke at home: we were all girls, about ten years old, on the planet Earth, in the year 1981, writing letters to each other about our favorite colors in a language we could all understand.

And here I am still, all these years later, conversing with you.  You could live anywhere on the planet, you could be any age, any gender, and yet we reading each others words without a thought for the separations of borders or distance or culture. Because we are both human beings, living on the same planet, at the same time.

And that is wonderful.

Thank you, María, for sharing my story and for your work of translating it into Spanish.  And thank you for reminding me of how alike we all are and how wonderfully small our big blue marble is.

“You suck, please quit, now.”

A long time ago, I got off the phone with a recruiter, marched boldly down the hall to my boss/friend’s office and told her I thought I should quit and become a consultant because apparently I was worth $30,000 more a year elsewhere.

My boss/friend spent the next 10 minutes telling me, in many, many more words: “You suck at this job and the only reason you haven’t been fired is because I am your friend and I protect you.”

I didn’t believe her.  I thought she was just mean, or stressed out about things going on in her personal life, or taking out her own frustration with her lack of prospects on me.

The truth is, I had NO IDEA how bad I was at that job.


My performance reviews were always positive, I kept getting raises every year, nobody asked me to leave… All signs that I was worth paying, right?  Apparently not.

I have a sneaking suspicion that if I hadn’t eventually quit, I’d still be there.  Doing a terrible job, and getting paid lots of money for it.

This was all a very long time ago, back when I was in my twenties, still thinking I was a genius…. Look out world, I’m gonna be running things, ALL the things, before I’m thirty.

Well, thirty came and went… and there goes forty…  Still not running anything, except this blog… wooo hoo!

You see, with the big 3-0 came the realisation that my boss/friend was right.  By then I had taken that consulting job… and left it after only nine months. Why? Because I was terrible at that job.

Terrible. Awful. No good. BAD.

If I ever saw that boss/friend again, I would ask her why she didn’t fire me and why she kept giving me raises. I’m guessing she would say it would have something to do with her ideas of friendship and loyalty.

But if she were a true friend, (and I have no idea where she is or what she’s doing now) I think she should have fired me, or better yet, helped find be a better job within the corporation.

Because the first time a friend got me a job I wasn’t qualified for, it worked out differently….

In college, my best friend got me a job as a short order cook at the diner she’d been working at for many years.  As you can guess, I turned out to be a terrible cook.

Terrible. Awful. No good. BAD.

But this is what happened: Instead of just letting me go along, thinking, ‘I’m great!’ she told me the truth.  Sat me down and said, you suck, please quit, now.  The owner of the restaurant hadn’t fired me or said anything other than encouraging words to me because of her loyalty to her best waitress: my best friend.

So I quit.  My best friend from college is still my best friend today. True friends tell the truth.

Moral of the story –  listening to and accepting honestly meant criticism is the best way to learn what you are bad at, so that you can move on and find the thing you are good at.

The End


On Sharing

My mother says when I was a child, I was generous with my toys.  I always shared with my siblings.  I like sharing, its easy for me.  I don’t think about it, I just do it. I want everyone I care about to have what I have.

My generosity doesn’t extend to strangers. I very rarely give to charities. Strangers aren’t really real people to me.  They are just anonymous numbers.

But when a stranger crosses the line, makes eye contact, speaks, gives me their name, they become real and meaningful.


I was at the gas station, filling the car’s gas tank, when the man approached me.  His ragged clothing, dirty hair and face told me he was homeless.  There are a number of them in our part of the city, more now since the surge of gentrification hit its peak about a year ago.  I did not turn to look at him, I am afraid of people I don’t know.

The man reached out a hand and said something to me.  I did not understand his words, but since it was daylight and there were many people around, I turned my head and looked him in the eye for a moment, smiled and said “I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash.”

He motioned with his hand and I noticed the pile of coins he had there.  He said, “No, I’m not asking for money, I have money, I want soup.”

I was utterly confused, and slightly embarrassed, thinking I’d been mistaken in thinking he was homeless.  I turned all the way to face him and looked more closely.  He was middle-aged, unshaven, smelly. He had dirt-crusted hands and red-rimmed eyes. He wore way too much clothing for the summer day, and all of it ragged. He looked about as homeless as anyone could.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t understand.”

“I have money, I want soup. Cup O’Noodles.”  He gestured to the convenience store behind me, “They won’t let me in.”

Something exploded in my brain. I nodded my head and said, “let me finish with the gas, and I’ll help you.”

I didn’t actually let the tank fill up. I just put the nozzle back and hit the no button when the pump asked me if I wanted the receipt. I left the car where it was, blocking the pump.  I was angry and embarrassed for the man and not really sure what I was doing. A panicky feeling started fluttering in my stomach.

I gestured for him to walk with me to the store.  I held open the door for him and announced to the two men behind the counter, “He’s with me.”

At this point I started to shake.

I turned to him and asked him where the soup was, he pointed and I told him to pick out what he wanted.  I felt horrible, shaky and nervous, worried that I was doing something wrong, that I was being condescending, that I was being used, that the men behind the counter who stood there smiling at me through the entire thing were laughing at me.

I told the men behind the counter I was paying for the soup and handed over my credit card.

“Five dollar minimum,” one of them said, still grinning.

I turned to the homeless man and said, “do you want anything else?”

He said no.

“Are you sure, a bagel, or a banana at least?” I said, gesturing to the items nearby.

He shook his head.

I grabbed a pack of gum and a candy bar or something, I have no idea, just to get up to the five dollar minimum, and paid.

The shaking was getting ridiculous at that point and the blush on my face was so fierce I felt like I was glowing.  I had to leave.  I said to the counter men, “You will help him with the hot water for the soup?” Still grinning like maniacs, they assured me they would help and I scurried out of there.

I felt like I was having a heart attack.

Why?  I have no idea. When I am confused or embarrassed or scared or out of control – really, feeling any sort of unprepared for emotion – I panic.  Heart racing, stomach clenching, sweat inducing panic.

I wish I had asked his name. I wish I’d been brave enough or strong enough to ask how he got to where he was in life.  If for no other reason than to form a more complete picture of him in my mind.  I wish I’d been more calm and less panicked.  But then, I could say that about my whole life.  (“Easily Startled, Probably Panicking” isn’t a meaningless tagline)

But I learned something about myself.  Someday, not today, but someday when I am stronger, braver, less inwardly focused, someday I am going to do more stuff like that.  I am going to find more homeless people and I am going to buy them cups of soup. Because, despite my ubiquitous panic, it felt good.

Next time, I will be prepared. I won’t panic. I will ask them questions about themselves. I will turn them from nameless strangers into real people.

I like sharing, it is easy for me.  But it is easier to share with people I know.

September Reading List

I’m trying something new this month. Instead of just willy-nilly picking books based on Amazon’s and Goodread’s ‘Recommended for you’ lists, then reading the free preview, getting bored and moving on…  until I accidentally land on something I like, I decided to actually put some effort in to picking a month’s worth of books to read.

This morning I spent about three hours (much longer than I’d planned) putting together that list.  I wanted to pick books from a range of genres while also staying as current as possible.  This was not an easy task!  There are so many places, too many really, that recommend books.  I looked on library sites and book blogger sites and independent book sellers sites, and stayed away from the big lists, like the NYT’s Best Sellers, and Amazon.  I also had a hard time picking the number of books to read.  I read a lot and I read fast, but some months are busier than others, and it is hard to know how much time I’ll have.  For now, I’m going to go with a safe seven.

And so, here is the list:

  • Boredom: A Lively History – Peter Toohey (pop science)
  • A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life – Donald Miller (memoir)
  • The Broken Shore – Peter Temple (mystery)
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration – Isabel Wilkerson (history)
  • The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story – Lily Koppel (biography)
  • Redshirts – John Scalzi (sci/fi)
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman (fantasy)

(Click here for list on Goodreads)

I don’t promise to write a review of any of these books, I really don’t like writing reviews.  (What did you think of the book, Jill?  Oh, it was good.  That’s all?  Yup.)  But I’ll try to do the star rating thing over on goodreads at the very least.

Here’s a few of the sites I visited during my search:

I’m starting with Boredom, àpropos considering it was boredom that prompted me to make this list in the first place. 🙂

Happy Reading.


This is dedicated to:

If I ever get my fiction published, I will dedicate my first book to my seventh grade teacher. This is what the dedication will say:

To Mrs. Weigel, who gave me an award for a story I didn’t write.

Yeah, that story of mine that you gushed over, that earned me the only A+ I got that year, it wasn’t mine.  Oh, I didn’t copy it word for word, but the story came from the back of a puzzle box.

Every year my mom bought a new 1000 piece puzzle for us to complete over the annual two week shore vacation.  Something to do on rainy days I guess.  A part of the down-the-shore experience that she had inherited from her parents.  That summer the puzzle had been of a deep, dark jungle: palm trees and parrots and tropical fruit. On the back of the box there was a story about the picture.  I must have read it a dozen times over the course of that puzzle’s existence on the foldout table under the bay window that faced the ocean.

The story told of a Hawaiian style shirt that came alive at night while its owner slept.  I think the parrot might have flown around the guy’s bedroom and lost a feather or something.  I don’t actually remember it now.

But I knew the story well back then.  Well enough that when you handed out the mimeographed coloring book page of a jungle scene and told us to “Demonstrate your knowledge of the First Person Narrative” by writing a story about the picture (and color the picture for extra credit) I knew exactly what story to tell.

I wonder now if you made such a big deal over the story because it was the only decent thing I had ever done in your class and you felt like it was a good opportunity to let me shine.  You were everyone’s favorite teacher.  You were kind and affectionate and you were always fair.  I wonder now if you felt a little sorry for me, so much smaller than the other kids, smart, but totally uninterested in spelling, the rules of composition or memorizing poetry. I never really excelled at anything in your class.

You made such a fuss over that story that two things clicked in my brain.  First, that making up stories and writing them down can garner praise. And second, that someday I was going to write a story for real and show it to you in order to feel like I actually deserved that praise.

Well, it took me thirty odd years, and I don’t even know if you are still alive, but here it is, a real story, just for you.  I hope you like it as much as you liked the other one.

If you should ever stumble across this blog, Mrs. Weigel, I hope you read some of the fiction I have posted here.  All of it is a 100% my own creation, and all of it is for you.

Not this one – but you get the idea