It’s All About Choice

Whether to come or go,
Or to ignore the flow,
It’s all about choice.

Whether to love or hate,
Or to neglect others’ fate,
It’s all about choice.

Whether to produce or loaf,
Or to work as an oaf,
It’s all about choice.

Whether to succeed or fail,
Or to determine to rail,
It’s all about choice.

Whether to think or react,
Or to simply accept fact,
It’s all about choice.

The choices you make,
Affect the path you take,
Through life’s long journey hard.

But you have the voice,
In defining your choice,
And determining which path to regard.

Copyright 2014, John Paul Mueller

 

Encouragement, A Self-sufficiency Requirement

I’ve received more than a few e-mails over the years about the seeming impossibility of working closely with a spouse in our self-sufficiency efforts. Actually, husband and wife working together toward a common goal used to be the normal experience—working separately is a modern event and one that probably isn’t very good for relationships at all. In Making Self-Sufficiency Relationships Work I talk about the need for respect. Doing simple things that mean so much when it comes to displaying your respect for the other person and not simply assuming the other person knows that you respect them. As important as respect is to a self-sufficiency relationship, encouragement is even more important.

Rebecca and I encourage each other daily in both small and large ways. A peck on the cheek when the other person looks down is just the tip of the iceberg—sometimes the other person needs a hug instead. Being the other person’s cheerleader is a major part of keeping the other person active so that the two of you can meet the requirements you’ve set for your self-sufficiency efforts. A little encouragement goes a long way toward making an impossible goal quite achievable. Doing the impossible with less than nothing at times has become a somewhat common occurrence in our relationship. Believing that you can do something is an essential element in actually doing it. Knowing the other person believes in you too tips the scales in your favor.

Of course, the other person can fail despite the best encouragement we can provide. When failure occurs, it’s time to think about the failure and assess what went wrong. There are actually benefits to failure and failure is a natural part of life. Sometimes a little more encouragement will help the person get back up and try again. Other times, you must conclude that you’ve learned one more way to avoid failure and move on to something new. The point is that failure doesn’t mean the encouragement or idea were ill conceived or wasted—it simply means that you need to do something different. The world is full of untried possibilities, so pick one and give it a try.

When it comes to self-sufficiency, partnering with someone who understands the benefits of both respect and encouragement is a far smarter choice than choosing someone with skills. Anyone can learn a skill—not everyone can encourage another person and there is most definitely a lack of respect between people today. If you’re just starting your self-sufficiency efforts, don’t become discouraged. Anything worth doing takes time and patience, and requires a partner who both encourages and respects you. Certainly, the two of us have done both for each other over these many years. Let me know your thoughts about encouragement and respect at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

This Year’s Personal Flower Garden

Spring came later than normal this year and it has been quite cold and wet. As I discussed in Enjoying My Own Personal Flower Garden, Rebecca has created a beautiful flower garden for me. I go there during the spring, summer, and fall when I need a break from the office. It’s a sign of the most sincere respect of my need for privacy and of her love for me. The garden is quiet, cool, and serene during the hectic summer months. I go there to contemplate life in general and when I need to think about the specifics of a book. Of course, we also enjoy time together there.

Most of the flower garden came back this year. For example, the wild strawberries look just as beautiful as ever.

FlowerGarden01

We noticed something odd about the flowers this year. Not only are they more plentiful, but they’re also a darker pink than ever before. Some of the flowers almost look light red in color. I looked around online for a reason for the color change, but didn’t find one, so let me know if you have any idea of why they have changed in color this year.

Last year she had also planted some columbine for me. The flowers come in all sorts of colors and I’m delighted to have three beautiful colors to enjoy. The plants are much bigger this year and she has moved them around to provide this tricolor presentation.

FlowerGarden02

The bishop’s weed returned this year as well. The plant has gotten much bigger and has bloomed profusely.

FlowerGarden04

I’ve read a number of negative things about bishop’s weed (such as it will take over the garden), but so far we don’t seem to be having any problem with it. We’re either lucky or some condition in our garden, such as those pesky rabbits that eat absolutely everything, is keeping it under control. A few other sites tell of ways to use this plant successfully, but it’s one that you should probably enjoy from afar.

One of my favorite non-flowering plants is silver mound. Rebecca has tried a number of times to get this plant to stick around and she’s had some success, but last year’s plant succumbed to the drought. So, I have three new silver mound plants to enjoy this year (they’re so nice that the garden just doesn’t seem complete without them).

FlowerGarden03

A new offering this year is the English daisy. It’s quite pretty. Various places I’ve looked online have told me to enjoy it this year because it may not return next year. In England, it’s actually considered a bit of a weed, but something this pretty shouldn’t be called a weed.

FlowerGarden05

I also received  new color of coral bells (also called coralbells) with a dark pink flower. It’s not just the flower that is a different color, but the leaves as well. Even when these plants aren’t blooming, they present an interesting leaf shape and add to the splendor of the garden.

FlowerGarden06

Sharing the garden with me for the first time are the chickens. They come by and feed under the bird feeder (picking up all of the seeds the wild birds leave and reducing the weed count as a result). Of course, they’re curious as to why I’m just sitting there when there are so many lovely bugs to eat and wonder whether I might not just serve a purpose by petting them instead of being quiet. They really are funny birds.

FlowerGarden07

Our friend left behind a pair of his boots to use as planters last summer. Rebecca has made full use of them. We now have boot planters on the patio.

FlowerGarden08

 

Enjoying My Own Personal Flower Garden

Every year Rebecca works out a new arrangement and adds plants to her gift to me, a personal flower garden. Every morning I wake to the scene below our bedroom window of Rebecca’s hard work. I know it’s an effort because getting into that rock garden is hard. It’s on a slope that’s taxing even for me; I can’t even imagine how hard Rebecca must have to work to maintain it for me. I talked about my garden a little last year in the Making Self-Sufficiency Relationships Work post.

One of Rebecca’s goals is to make sure that something is always blooming in my rock garden. It’s a little difficult to accomplish, but I know that people in the past performed the same task to ensure that there would always be something pretty to see. I really respect her efforts to make the garden as pretty as possible and to keep it that way all summer. So, the pictures you see in this post are a mere snapshot of my rock garden. Later in the summer, the scene will change and then it will change again for fall.

A favorite new plant is a pincushion flower. The exquisite blue flowers are really hard to capture, but I managed to get a passable picture of them. The real world flower is even more beautiful than the one shown here.

RockGarden01

One of the flowers that came back from last year is the blanket flower. It’s a favorite of mine because the colors change slightly over time and I love the fact that the flowers are bi-colored. This year the blanket flower is paired up with fiber-optic grass. As you can see from the following picture, the combination is really nice.

RockGarden02

A few of the rock garden elements are edible. For example, the chives have some beautiful flowers that are also edible (as are the chives). I’ve always found chives to be a nice addition because they combine color and texture so well.

RockGarden03

Some of the flowers are quite bright. One of the flowers in this category is the coreopsis. Rebecca has them placed where their profusion of bright flowers will show up best. This is another holdover from last year. Immediately below the coreopsis in this picture is bugleweed ‘metallica crispa’, which has already bloomed for the year, but will continue to add its deeply colored foliage to the garden.

RockGarden04

Most of the pictures that I’ve found of wild strawberries online show white flowers. I’ve been assured that the plants in the rock garden are wild strawberries, but they have these dramatic pink flowers. As with many other plants, they’ve come up from last year.

RockGarden05

Another bright pink flower in the garden is seathrift (armeria). This year the seathrift is nestled in with some ferns and a happy looking frog.

RockGarden06

As I said last year, the view from our bedroom is for me alone. When I go out my back door though, I see some amazing beauty—the rock garden, our herb garden, the woods, and bushes surrounding our patio. Most importantly, I see the love my wife has for me in producing something so quiet and peaceful for me to enjoy.

RockGarden07

 

Developing the Reader Profile

A lot of people have written to ask me about writing books—about the techniques I use to develop a useful book. So far, all of my books are technical in nature. Not all of them are computer-related, but the majority are. The sorts of books that I write is changing and you’ll likely see me write books in other areas in the future. Whether I ever write fiction remains to be seen, but I do plan to branch out into other areas. No matter what I end up writing, I expect that I’ll use many of the same techniques when writing future books as I use to write my current books. Mainly, I need to find a way to communicate the ideas that I understand in a form that the reader can understand. It doesn’t matter what those ideas are—they exist in my head and I need to get them out of my head and into the reader’s head.

When I’m putting an outline together, I try to put myself in my reader’s shoes. Sometimes that means actually doing a little play acting and trying out things to see how I’d feel if I were the reader. Yes, conveying technology, or any other topic for that matter, means understanding the reader and how the reader feels. It means respecting the reader as a person and understanding that the reader has specific needs, as well as specific skills. Sometimes I’ll talk to the beta readers who are reading my books about issues or bounce ideas off the technical editor for my book. I’ll review materials online and see what people are discussing online. In short, I develop a profile of my reader and roll it around in my head until I can start to see a technology from the viewpoint of my reader. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s a necessary skill to develop.

In a way, I’m creating a relationship with what I think my reader will be. Beta readers do offer the opportunity to interact with actual readers, but my reading audience is relatively large, so it really does come down to creating a rapport with an idealized reader—one who encompasses everything I expect that my reader will be. The relationship takes form in a profile that I write down and review relatively often as I write the book. As I come across additional insights during the writing process, I develop the profile of my reader more fully. I keep constantly asking myself how I would talk about the subject at hand if I were sitting in a coffee shop (or some other relaxing environment) with the reader.

To a certain extent, I need to consider the reader’s need for self help. I can’t provide any reader with a specific answer for most problems the reader will encounter. To do so, I’d need to write immense books that no one would want to read because they’d be too bulky. I can provide the reader with knowledge and insights, but I can’t provide the reader with a precise response to any given problem because at the time I write my book, the problem is undefined. So the communication takes the form of ideas, rather than a specific procedure, in most cases.

Authors are hindered by a number of factors. The most important of these issues is the inability to communicate with the reader in real time. It’s the reason that I try to make myself so accessible through e-mail and by writing this blog. Even with these additional levels of communication, however, there are still barriers to communication. For example, I can’t easily read your body language to determine whether my response is actually helpful—I must make my best guess. When writing a book, I have to anticipate your needs and hope that my guesses are good ones because they are, in fact, guesses.

The reader profile doesn’t have to take a specific form, but it does need to provide you with a complete picture of the reader. Even if you define a few reader aspects incorrectly, having a reader profile will help you remain focused throughout the writing process on a particular reader. Here are the sorts of questions I ask myself when creating a reader profile:

 

  • What is the reader’s education level?
  • Will this reader understand these specific concepts?
  • When will the reader be reading my book?
  • How will the reader react to certain types of information?
  • Are there social biases I need to consider when communicating with this reader?
  • How does the reader view the subject at hand?
  • Is the reader likely to have language issues or special needs?
  • Will the reader be alone or part of a team?
  • How does the reader view me?


Most of my books require that I ask other questions, but this a good sampling of the sorts of questions that I ask myself. You’d think that with all of this effort spent considering my reader that I’d communicate quite well. However, there have been books where I ended up missing the reader completely with my profile. I directed the book at one audience, but another audience actually found the book more helpful and purchased more copies of it. When that happens, I get a lot of e-mail from a lot of disgruntled readers (and the online reviews are also less favorable). These failures require that I go back and review the premises on which I based my book and make corrections. I maintain statistics for the book, and if I get the chance to write an update, I tweak the reader profile accordingly to better meet the needs of the audience that purchased my book.

Anyone writing anything can benefit by creating a reader profile. If you currently write documentation, but don’t create a reader profile, I encourage you to do so because you’ll end up with a far better document as a result. As the years have passed, my profiles have gotten better, but I’m under no delusions that I’ll ever write the perfect profile. Even so, I’d never consider writing a book now without creating a reader profile first. Let me know your thoughts about using reader profiles at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Review of Creative Close-Ups

You may have noticed that I use quite a few photographs in my blog entries. Some of these photographs look nice (they aren’t art by any means) and some of themwell, they didn’t quite work out as I hoped they would. Over the years I’ve grappled with unwanted shadows and close-ups that aren’t quite close enough. Focus is also a problem and fuzzy pictures never convey what you want when it comes to factual posts of the sort I create. I was recently talking with Harold Davis about my photographic ventures and he graciously offered me a copy of Creative Close-Ups. As expected, this is a self-help book for people who want to create better close-up photography, which is the sort found most often in my blog posts.

The one thing that will strike you immediately about this book is that Harold is quite talented and is possibly wasting him time writing books, but I’m extremely happy that he did. The book contains page-after-page of striking images. Some of them have been Photoshopped, something that Harold readily admits and even recommends to an extent. Because I’m looking more for better real world shots and not necessarily art, I’ll very likely not Photoshop anything on my blog from an artistic perspective (I could very well use Photoshop to enhance images to make them better convey the information I want), but the book also pointed out the usefulness of creative croppinga technique I intend to employ from now on.

 

I’ll always tell you if I’ve modified a picture in some way. Otherwise, you can be sure that the picture you’re seeing on the blog is the picture as it came from the camera. I know that there is a certain amount of discussion about this topic and plan to be up front about any modifications or twiddling I perform.

Harold has convinced me that using a tripod isn’t quite the waste of time I thought it might be. The discussion starting on page 64 will probably change your mind too. There are few sections of the book that provide a purely artistic view of a topic, but you won’t find many. Instead, Harold tries to provide good solid reasons for doing things a certain way and then backs them up with stunning pictures. In fact, there isn’t a single photograph in the book where Harold has kept the technique secrethe exposes every technique for your learning pleasure. Where there are multiple ways to accomplish the task, you’ll find them listed, along with any pros or cons of that particular technique.

I found the discussion of equipment helpful in many cases. For example, in page 60 you’ll find a tip about the Lensebaby 0.42X Super Wide Angle accessory lens. However, the text isn’t formatted differently (as a Tip or a Note found in other books), so finding the information later isn’t as easy as it could be. In addition, there isn’t any picture of the lens taken apart so that I can see what he’s talking about. The information is probably quite helpful, but it’s less useful than it could be due to a lack of pictorial backup.

Overall, the book is more focused on technique, than on how to apply the techniquethe discussions of equipment left me scratching my head and I ended up researching the information on my own online. (Harold also kindly answered my e-mail queries.) Admittedly, there is a short list of URLs on page 234, but you won’t find a resource for every piece of equipment listed in the book. Creative Close-Ups lacks pictures of any of the equipment, so someone like me has no idea of what these devices look like. If I were to go to a store, I’d be completely lost. It would also be nice to know if there are places online to buy equipment where I won’t be cheated since the nearest camera shop is in Milwaukee (170 miles away). So, this book will tell you how to do something, but not provide you much in the way of describing the means to accomplish the task.

That said, there are many sections that make the book worth the purchase price (if the amazing photography and associated setup instructions isn’t reason enough). The section on focusing on page 68 is especially insightful. In fact, the tips on page 70 are precisely what I need to do a better job with my own photography.

This book provides me with plenty of room to grow. The discussion of focus stacking starting on page 124 will require plenty of work on my part and I may never master the technique in the same way that Harold obviously has. Still, the discussion gives me some ideas and I hope that I’ll be able to use the technique in my blog.

Creative Close-Ups provides inspiration, food for creative thought, and lots of technique. I don’t think that a complete novice will be able to use the book because Harold doesn’t explain many terms such as ISO and what an f-stop is, making notations such as ISO 100 and f/40 useless. (There is a short description of these terms on page 72, but hardly enough for the novice and not early enough in the book to make the initial discussions helpful.) However, for someone who is truly serious about taking better photographs, this book provides a lot of informationmore than most people will be able to absorb in a single reading. I personally plan to read through some sections multiple times and use the book as a reference in the future. Whether this book makes me a better photographer remains to be seen. (As Harold says on page 46, “Cameras don’t take pictures; people do.”) I wish that there was more about the mechanics of performing these amazing tasks and better descriptions of the equipment the author used, but that may be asking too much out of a single book on a complex topic. Overall, I think the author has achieved his goals admirably and that anyone reading this book will truly be dazzled by what is possible.

Making Self-Sufficiency Relationships Work

A comment I regularly receive is that people can’t understand how Rebecca and I can work so closely together and for so many years. (We recently celebrated 31 wonderful years together, 25 of which we’ve worked in business together and 13 of which we’ve been self-sufficient.) Of course, there isn’t any hard and fast answer to this question and what works for us is unlikely to work for anyone else.

However, I think you could boil some of the key elements down to a few words, such as mutual respect. We do odd things like say, “Please” and “Thank you.” I say these things are odd because I don’t know that many couples exercise the option to show each other courtesy. We also expect that we’ll fail and that the other person will also failthat forgiveness is both necessary and desired. If people simply respected each other and employed courtesy freely, I’m sure the divorce rate would decrease. Worrying more about the other person than yourself has gone out of style, unfortunately, so I’m sure the divorce lawyers have nothing to worry about.

Rebecca has a special talent though that’s the topic of today’s post. She makes the mundane seem quite spectacular. Every year she creates a rock garden for me. It’s the first thing I see from the window when I get up in the morning and the last thing I see each night. I won’t share the window view, howeverthat’s exclusively for me. Here is a ground level view of some of the highlights of the garden. One of my current favorites is the Scottish bluebells:

ScottishBluebells

The purple flowers really show up nicely. They’re getting tall and spiky now. Another colorful member of the rock garden is the blanket flower shown here:

BlanketFlowers

From a color perspective, they remind me of a larger version of the Indian paintbrush that grows natively around here. We need to plant the blanket flower each year (the Scottish bluebells come back on their own each year).

The rock garden has a lot of shade, so Rebecca plants sedums freely in it. The blue spruce sedum is flowering right now. The yellowish flowers are a contrast to the rest of the plant and make it look quite fancy as shown here:

BlueSpruceSeedum

The autumn joy sedums are also quite pretty. The variegated version adds some lovely color to the rock garden as shown here:

AutumnJoySeedum

At the front of this part of the rock garden is a John Creech sedum. All of these sedums will last through the winter. Rebecca normally covers them with leaves. However, if I ever found them in precisely the same spot for more than two years in a row, I’d be amazed. Rebecca loves to move things around.

A final offering is the Japanese painted fern. it looks a bit metallic in some respects as shown here:

JapaneesePaintedFern

These are young ferns. As they mature, the center will take on a more reddish hue. I’m looking forward to seeing what they look like later.

The care that Rebecca takes in maintaining this rock garden (and all of our other gardens) tells me a great deal about her love for me. That, in turn, makes it easier to overlook the rocks in the road we take together. I can’t imagine working anywhere without my wife. Together, the two of us make an amazing team.

If you’re going to enjoy your self-sufficiency, you need to come up with a plan to maintain your relationships. Being courteous helps, but taking time to care is better. Can you imagine working with your significant other for 25 years? I certainly hope that you’ve found the same joy that I have. Write me about your best experiences at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Review of Breath & Other Ventures

I wasn’t quite sure how to categorize Breath & Other Ventures (written by William Bridges, Green Market Press), but for me it was a self-help sort of a book, so I classified it that way. You may very well classify it some other way, which is certainly your right. In reality, this book is both more and less than a self-help book. It won’t help you control your weight or manage your anger, but it does ask an intriguing and thought provoking question, “How do you want to live your life?” It’s a deceptively simple question of the same sort as, “Who are you?” Most people have no idea of who they are, much less how they want to live their life, so this is a helpful book indeed. (Don’t make the mistake of confusing this question with, “What do you want to do with your life?”, which is actually quite easy to answer in comparison.)

The majority of the book is a series of non-fiction short storiesthe author uses the term essays. It’s in three parts. The first part is literally about breathing. Although William includes a number of medical terms and diversions in the book, the focus is on the actual act of breathingsomething I’ll never look at the same again. You’ll find breathing in all its forms, including the breathing that takes place during various sorts of meditation. I’m not a Zen practitioner, but I do meditate daily to manage stress and make some sense of the chaos that’s my life. Such meditation is Biblicalit’s mentioned more than a few times even though I know most Christians sadly leave meditation out of their lives. By the time you’ve finished this first section, I assure you that you’ll no longer take breathing for granted either.

The second part is my favorite. It’s a series of short historical stories. I found them compelling. In fact, I started reading this section and didn’t put the book down again until I had finished it. The historical section isn’t about major events or places that most people would consider all that exciting. You’ll discover something about average people in Indiana. The stories are all about the author’s relatives in some way, but not necessarily exclusively about his family. He digresses into other areas, which makes for an interesting read. (There is even a ghost story included in the set of stories.) You go down the road and aren’t quite sure what to expect nextthe twists and turns keep the eventual goal hidden and elusive.

The essays in the third part of the book are more focused on how the author has lived his life. I probably could have done without the first essay on Obama, but then again, I’m not a political person in the sense that I would go out and protest something, knock on doors, or even make a contribution. On the other hand, I feel quite good about exploring every detail of a politician’s career before voting and will write a letter or two to express my dissatisfaction. For whatever reason, this particular essay didn’t speak to meperhaps it’ll speak to you. I did enjoy the essay entitled, “Ten Weeks with the Circus” quite a lot (it isn’t actually about the circusI’ll leave the details of it for you to discover).

The book also has a very short fourth part (19 scant pages) that contains a fictional detective story about GeeGee Dapple. I found the story quite entertaining and a fitting end to the book.  There is little doubt in my mind that GeeGee is the author’s alter-ego. It appears that there is a number of these stories and I hope the author eventually puts them together into a compilation. For now, this is the first GeeGee story I’ve read. The addition reminds me of the “final page” entries often found in magazines. It was a nice ending to the book that doesn’t necessarily fit in with the rest of the book but is merely meant to entertaina kind of finishing touch not found in many books today.

If you’ve ever read and enjoyed Garrison Keillor, you’ll enjoy William’s style too. It has that same free flowing musing that Keillor employs in his books. This book isn’t meant to be funny though, so there are some distinct differences in the way the two authors approach things. This author also includes more than few pieces of poetry, most of which I found a good read and thought provoking. The poetry isn’t just stuck in place either (like many books out there), it always has a purpose for being placed precisely where the author has placed it in the book. I found the author’s word choices interesting as well. For example, you’ll find “blissninny” on page 44 (I’ll also leave it to you to discover the meaning of this word). If you want to see some examples of the author’s writing, check out his blog.

So, does this book answer the question, “How do you want to live your life?” Of course it doesn’t! That’s for you to decide. The author is relating a story of how he has decided to live his life and I think the hope is that you’ll spend a few moments pondering your life as well. I certainly found myself pondering mine. If nothing else, this is the sort of book you want to read as part of your own personal voyage of discovery.