the first half of twenty-fourteen: can a person really change?

Monday, June 30: At the beginning of every year, I’m always hopeful and enthusiastic about the chance to change myself, to become a better person, a more caring person, a more successful person.  I make goals for myself. I want to succeed, I really do.  But I wonder if I can ever really change.  Can I change my true nature or am I doomed to continue to fall back into my old habits, into the person I really am deep inside?

I resolved to be FOCUSED this year.  Granted, the year isn’t over yet, but as of the halfway point, I’ll recap where I am.  Not very focused, I admit.

One of the things I didn’t make a resolution about was my photography.  However, I had some nice things happen with my photography this year.  First, I joined the Vienna Photographic Society.  This is a group of hobbyists, most of whom are excellent photographers. I was inspired to push myself to excel, but ultimately, I realize I don’t have the technical expertise to be in their league.  I’m not even sure I want to have that much technical expertise. Neither do I have Photoshop, nor do I do much in the way of post-processing.  I understand now that many professional photographers do extensive post-processing. Maybe one day I’ll get into this, but at this point I don’t have the drive to attain such a level of accomplishment.

Each month the club has novice and advanced intra-club competitions in general photography and in themed contests using trained and experienced local photographers as judges.  I’m always in the novice category.

In my first competition, I won third place in the novice category for this picture.

Blue boats in Pokhara
Blue boats in Pokhara

In another competition, I won first place in the novice category for this picture “Our Soul is a Spray Can,” taken in Cascais, Portugal.  At the end of the year, when the club gave awards to everyone who entered competitions during the year, I also won Honorable Mention for this picture.

My Soul is a Spray Can
Our Soul is a Spray Can

In a PSA (Photographic Society of America) National competition for Nature, Round 2, I got 10 points for this picture of Acacia Trees in Lake Langano, Ethiopia. This meant it went on to the next round of judging, but I ultimately didn’t win anything.

Acacia trees at Lake Langano
Acacia trees at Lake Langano

One of the things I enjoyed doing was a 20-minute presentation to the club on Oman.  I put together a slide show about Oman and told stories about my life there.  I got a lot of compliments on this presentation and I loved doing it. 🙂

One of over 80 photos I showed in a 20 minute presentation on Oman
One of over 80 photos I showed in a 20 minute presentation on Oman

I also joined Instagram and have been posting a lot of my pictures on there.  At one point I started tagging my photos #natgeotravelpics.  This hashtag put my photos into National Geographic Travel magazine’s Instagram feed.  One week, they featured this photo and it got well over 20,000 likes and I got a lot of new followers on Instagram. It was a lot of fun for a couple of days.

Hot air balloons in Cappadocia
Hot air balloons in Cappadocia

Finally, I entered a photo competition at the Vienna Community Center, which was open to the public.  I won third prize in Architecture for this photo of the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Mosque
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Grand Mosque

It’s clear where I focused most of my energies!  Below are the goals I set on January 1, 2014.  As you can see, I seemed to FOCUS more on my photography than on the goals I actually set for myself. 🙂

1.  Pitch a travel article to at least one publication every week, beginning after January 13.

This is one goal I haven’t taken any steps toward achieving.  I started with an idea for the Washington Post Travel Section about a crazy trip I took from the chaotic spiritual city of Varanasi to the chill yoga capital of India, Rishikesh.  The story, already written in my blog, was about 12,000 words.  The Washington Post Travel Section seemed the perfect place for this story because they often publish personal experience stories. However, they do not take unsolicited pitches.  You can send a full story and they’ll decide if they like it and are interested in buying it.  But the word count on their stories must be from 1,500 to 2,500 words.  Mine required a LOT of cutting.  Besides, they generally don’t want to look at a story over a year old, and my story was from 2011.  I thought they might consider a story if it was  timeless, as mine was, so I worked on it for a while, cutting and cutting, until I got down to 5,000 words.  Still way too long.  Then I just abandoned it, slowly at first, as I continued to mull it over, and then all at once, as I dropped it altogether.  That was the only article I even attempted to write.

Why am I so easily waylaid?

Probably because I’m not sure I really want to be a travel writer.  I’m not interested in having to work on my holidays!  I want to enjoy, soak up the culture and the sights.  I want to enjoy the food and wine and the experience.  Travel writing is a job.  I’m not sure I want to make a job out of something I love doing for its own sake.

2.  Finish revising my novel by the end of February.  Spend March figuring out what steps to take to get it published and take those steps.  Begin a new book after I get that process underway.

I didn’t quite make my February deadline.  I did however finish my novel in May. Finally!  A dear friend of mine read it and gave me some great feedback.  I even came up with a title, The Scattering Dreams of Stars.  So most of the work is done.

The next step is to send out query letters to agents.  I wrote numerous drafts of a query letter and I posted a draft on a forum where fellow writers critique query letters.  Mine got ripped to shreds.  After many efforts to capture the essence of my story in a short two paragraphs, and to write a captivating hook, I let it sit.  And sit.  And sit some more. I have two friends who have offered to edit the letter, and I’ve made another attempt, but I’m still not happy with it.

I’ve decided it’s harder to write two paragraphs than to write a 350 page novel.  Some people say they write the hook and the summarizing paragraph before they write their novel.  Maybe I should have done that; it would have helped me to be more focused.

My goal is to finish that query letter and send it to agents in the next two months.  Oh dear.  Again, why am I so easily thrown off track, and sometimes by the simplest of setbacks?

As far as being a full-time writer, I now remember what I don’t enjoy about it.  During the last 6 months, while I took off the semester to write, I felt isolated and antsy.  It hit me that I function better with a schedule.  I need to get up in the morning and go to a job.  I need to interact with people.  I do better getting out and about, being around people, being accountable to someone.  I’m the kind of person who needs to squeeze in writing during the down times of a busy life.

3. Apply for at least 3 jobs a week in international development until I get one (Painful).

Yes, it was as painful as I thought it would be.  I applied for 40 jobs in the U.S. and after getting no response from any of them, I started putting feelers out abroad.  Even though I matched job descriptions exactly, I didn’t even get an acknowledgement on most of my applications.

As it’s very time-consuming to apply for jobs these days, I got disheartened very quickly.  It used to be you could send a resume and a cover letter, but these days, applicants must often fill out online applications, completing every detail of your job history on each company’s website.  It’s so ridiculous.  What’s LinkedIn for, anyway? I think there should be one central place where you post your resume and you can download from that central place to a company’s website.  You go through this cumbersome process and then you never hear ANYTHING back!  It’s so frustrating.

Finally, I got sick of never getting any acknowledgement and spending so much time spinning my wheels for nothing.  I don’t know the reason I don’t get short-listed.  Some people have told me I’m overqualified.  Others have told me I’m not qualified enough.  Or I don’t match every single qualification.  I have transferable skills, but employers seem to want you to have worked in that particular job, and they seem to want you to have no ambition to move from that job.  Also, there are so many young people with Master’s degrees in International Relations coming from the big schools in the area: George Washington University, Georgetown University, American University, Johns Hopkins.  Why would they hire an older person when they can hire a young person fresh out of college?

While I was in Oman, a woman contacted me through my Nizwa blog because she was considering working for the University of Nizwa. She ended up taking a job in China.  I wrote to ask about possible jobs at her university and she told me they had just instituted a mandatory retirement age of 60.  As I started looking at jobs in China, I saw many jobs with an age limit of 60. I figured since I only have one more year to work in China, I would focus my job search there.  I’ve always wanted to teach in China for a couple of reasons: 1) Asian students in general are hard-working and 2) there are a lot of amazing things to see in China.  I focused my job search there and in one week I had four interviews and I got three offers.  I accepted an offer to teach at SCIC (Sino-Canadian International Colleges), Guangxi University in Nanning, the capital city of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.  It’s not far from Vietnam and about a 3 1/2 hour bus ride from Guilin, where the movie The Painted Veil was filmed.

In all, I applied for 70 jobs, beginning my job search when I returned from California at the end of January and ending on June 13, when I got the offer from GXU.  That was 21 weeks at over 3 jobs a week. I believe my days of trying to find a job in the U.S. are over.  It just doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

Since I can’t get a job in my country, I’m thankful that someone will hire me from foreign lands.  Looks like I’m going to China!  Nǐ hǎo!!

4. Post no more than two posts a week to my blog. (This will be one of the hardest to keep!)

I actually did this.  I’ve posted 52 posts in 26 weeks, about two a week. I have neglected my fellow bloggers though, and for this I feel bad. 😦

5. Continue my explorations of the East Coast over the next year, after my trip to California in early January.  Venture to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, West Virginia, Delaware, Tennessee (Ann Patchett territory!).  Take a road trip.  And if I can get a job, or make some money freelancing, go to Costa Rica or one of the Caribbean islands. Pitch local travel articles to publications further afield.

I haven’t been to any of these places.  However, I am planning a trip to New Hampshire this week. 🙂

6. Read a lot: short stories, novels, the craft of writing, travel writing.

I love to read, so this has been easy.  I’ve read 22 books, mostly books on writing and novels.

7. Walk at least 5 times a week and eat healthier and smaller quantities of food.

I’ve been really good about the walking, but not so good about the eating smaller quantities of food.  I managed to lose 6 pounds, but then I gained back 4, so I’m only two pounds down from where I started.  Here’s a chart of my weight, which seems a kind of metaphor for my life.  I always end up right back where I started from!

My weight as a metaphor for my life
My weight as a metaphor for my life

In a way, I feel relieved to be going abroad again.  Taking a job here in the U.S. probably wouldn’t have allowed me to travel.  Besides, starting a new job in a corporation or a non-profit at this point would mean starting with only 2-3 weeks of vacation per year.  Teaching abroad allows me to have both the cultural immersion I crave and to have extensive time off to travel in the region where I’m based.  Overall, it’s a great solution to all my problems.  As I only have about 9 more years to work before I retire, and I still have my health, I may as well take advantage of teaching abroad.  Besides, my kids are nowhere close to settling down, getting married or having kids; by the time they are, I should be back in the U.S., ready to settle down and enjoy the extended family.  And best of all, they’re supportive of me having my adventures while I’m still young enough to have them!

The other thing I miss about being abroad are the expats and foreigners one meets when thrown into a foreign country.  Everyone is an adventurer of some sort.  Being in the U.S., I’m tired of having people’s eyes glaze over when I share my experiences living abroad.  I love the fellow nomads that tend to gravitate to each other in foreign lands. In addition, you meet wonderful natives of the country where you are a guest.  Two of my closest friends in Korea, Julie and Kim, were Koreans.  And I miss dearly friends I’ve made abroad, friends the likes of which I don’t have here in America.  I miss Mario, Sandy, Tahira, Kathy, Anna, Mona Lisa, Seth & Anna, Myrna… and the list goes on.  We share a common experience no one else will ever understand.

27 thoughts on “the first half of twenty-fourteen: can a person really change?

  1. Well I admire you for at least having goals and working some way towards meeting some of them! And for reviewing how well you have done! You obviously enjoy your photography and getting such good feedback must make you feel good, whereas the writing seems to be a bit of a strain. I love the ‘Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Grand Mosque’ even though it breaks all the rules of not centring an image 🙂 I’m too lazy to go to all the trouble of entering competitions, though I have considered joining a photography club.

    Good luck with China, I hope it brings you the happiness you are seeking. What are you going to be doing there?

    And what comes next? It doesn’t seem to me that you are ever going to be satisfied in the USA with no money and no travel prospects. Maybe you should seek out a longer term project that you can sink your teeth in to whilst you are out there.

    Exciting times ahead…

    1. I’ll be teaching ESL, as always, Jude. It seems that’s the only thing I can get a job in these days; as I only have 9 more years until I retire, I may as well go with it. At least it gives me the opportunity to live abroad, which, though challenging, is a great experience. I kind of have a long term dream which involves me working in a different county every year till then, but it all depends on who will hire me at my age.

      The photography is fun, and I am pleased when people like my photos. However, I’m not patient or technical enough to be really good at it. I’m not even sure I’m willing to invest in gaining all that technical knowledge one needs to be a really great photographer.

      The writing IS a strain; to write well takes hard work, and the isolation of long hours sitting alone, writing and editing, takes its toll on me. I get so antsy! But I do love it when I write something that surprises me. I don’t take time with writing on my blog, I just write any old thing that comes to mind, but when I write fiction, I’m shaping every word with great thought. It feels good to me when I can write something well. It’s very satisfying, but then again, I am my own worst critic.

      At this point I’m still waiting on my China papers to arrive so I can go to the embassy and get my work visa. I don’t consider it a done deal until everything falls into place. 🙂 I’m secretly excited though.

  2. All of your photos are fabulous – I can’t imagine why you still come into the ‘novice’ category. I was trying to choose a favourite, but gave up!
    Congratulations on the job. but what a lot of hard work to get that far. I have heard, here in the UK, that it is not uncommon to receive no acknowledgement whatsoever about a job application, not even a notification that it has been received. Also, candidates who have interviews are not often notified of the outcome unless they actually get the job – shocking.

    1. Thanks so much for the compliment about my pictures! In this club, you have to earn a certain number of points from placing in competitions before you move to advanced. I’m happy to be in novice and think it’s right where I belong, especially compared to some of the amazing photographers who are members. I don’t want to compete against them!

      What you hear about job-searching in the UK holds true in the US as well. Often, I don’t get any acknowledgement that an application has been received. Rarely do I get any acknowledgement of the outcome. I think it’s ridiculous. How hard is it to send a form email to let a candidate know that someone else was hired? Anyway, this culture worships youth; forget the wisdom and experience that age brings. I’m simply not meant to work in America. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

      1. Now that you have explained it, I can see why you are happy being a novice. 🙂
        With the ease of emails (and the fact that they are free) I just cannot understand the lack of acknowledgements – it seems as though we have all lost sight of courtesy and good manners.

  3. We are similar as far as photography goes, we both have a good eye and I also have limited interest in improving my techy skills. I also lost weight this year, 22 pounds off from January to April, 8 pounds back on since then!

    1. I agree, Gilly, we are the same in our photography. Good eye, but not that interested in the technical side of things. Good for you, losing 22 pounds. And only 8 pounds back, so a net of 14 lost! That’s great. I’d love to be at that point. I’m back on a fitness plan, once again!

  4. I remember when you posted your goals at the beginning of the year thinking they were a tad ambitious and that I wouldn’t even be able to think of that many, let alone stick to them! You seemed to me quite ‘driven’, Cathy 🙂 So, I don’t think anyone could ever accuse you of lack of effort.
    Can we change? I think you’d have to really, really want that change, and if you did change, you wouldn’t be ‘our’ Cathy 🙂 I don’t think you’ve done so badly, love. You’ve got off your butt and done something about your situation, which is a lot more than some of us! And you’ve made some discoveries along the way about what you do and don’t want. That’s progress, isn’t it?
    You’ll always have a questing mind, Cathy, and you know you’re my ‘hero’, don’t you?
    Finally, I wish this ‘novice’ could produce photos like yours! 🙂

    1. I don’t know if we can ever really change, Jo. We have a certain make-up and we seem to keep gravitating back to that. I do try, though! You’re right, that at least I do discover along the way what I do and don’t want. It’s so nice to know I’m your “hero,” Jo! I’m flattered and I actually feel the same way about you! I love your humor and your love of wandering and your general outlook on life!

      I guess you’re right; if I did change, I wouldn’t be me! I would sure like to be a skinnier me though. 🙂

      1. Haha, in some ways, Jo. I love to eat, you know me, but I also like to feel comfortable in my clothes, and I don’t like to keep buying bigger and bigger clothes!! So it’s a trade-off. I”m miserable either way. If only I could eat all I want and stay skinny, like I did when I was in my 20s! 🙂

        Problems are in check this week. Still watching my mother-in-law deteriorate. It’s sad…. Have to run off to work now. 🙂

  5. Seems to me that you have accomplished quite a bit. Landing a job that will allow you to satisfy your need for travel and cultural adventures would be Number 1. Too bad you had to wade thru so many time-wasting applications to get there. Enjoy your time here as much as you can before you are headed out again!

    1. Thanks Annette for your encouraging words. I’m really sorry I wasted all that time sending out those applications. It’s so ridiculous how time-consuming it is, and all for nothing. I’m looking forward to living abroad again. Always a challenge, it pushes me to learn patience and tolerance and understanding. And how to be alone and independent. I’m looking forward to the new adventure. 🙂

  6. I too think that you’ve accomplished TONS!! Congrats on all those photo contests. And as if that wasn’t enough, you finished your novel!! WOO HOO!!! I have writing goals too, not as concrete or spelled out as yours, and I am stuck, stuck, stuck on how to write a query letter 😦 Tons of ideas to pitch but I can’t seem to get to writing that letter. Would you mind sharing the forum you mentioned? (sorry that your letter got ripped to shreds tho, ouch) I found one but I’d have to pay something each month to join and my budget is tight until kidlet’s braces are paid off (come on January!!!). And of course congrats on your new job! that sounds exciting!! I think you’re right about the age thing. I finally got my “dream” job and one of my co-workers, who is also new this year there, said it took her two years to find a job! she mentioned the age thing too and she is about 6 years older than me. I think a trip abroad is just what you need 🙂 When do you leave for China?

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Toby. That’s great that you have so many ideas for things to write. Do you intend to write non-fiction? I know that with non-fiction you start with a query letter BEFORE the book is written, but if you’re writing fiction, the novel must be written before you send out any query letters. With a novel, once you send the query, apparently you’re supposed to have the entire manuscript ready in case an agent or publisher likes your query and wants to see it. The forum is

      Congratulations on getting your dream job! Good for you. I know you were struggling, although only for a short bit, it seems.

      I’m excited about going to China. I definitely need to go abroad again!

      1. Yes, non-fiction but not a book. I’m exploring all kinds of avenues and haven’t decided which way I’ll actually go. guest blog posts are very appealing to me as is freelance writing….and I’m going to enter a few essay contests to see what happens. thanks for the forum link, will check it out! I’m excited about your trip to China too!

  7. For me, trying to gain income doing something I love as a hobby, makes it feel like work and takes away some of the pleasure. I like to take pictures and I do some minimal post-processing with Photoshop Elements, but have no desire to get into shutter speeds, aperture settings, etc. I’m not sure changing oneself is something we should do – getting to know oneself, accepting that and moving forward with that knowledge is more important, I believe. It sounds like you’ve done that.

    1. I agree, Carol, about making a hobby into work. I used to love a certain Barnes and Noble bookstore we had in Reston. I loved wandering around there for hours on end. Then I got a job there for a short while, and the whole experience was ruined for me. If I became a travel writer, I’d have to spend my whole vacation writing notes, researching details, etc. It would no longer be fun!

      I really should get Photoshop and play around with it. Maybe I will do that while I’m in China. I won’t be able to get on Facebook, which I don’t do much anyway, and I’m not even sure I’ll be able to blog. But I could play around with my photos!

      I don’t know if we can or should change ourselves, Carol, but I do believe we should be able to improve ourselves, be more disciplined, and accomplish some of our dreams. I am always fighting against my tendency to procrastinate and be lazy. I still hope against all odds that I’ll be able to do that eventually. 🙂

  8. Cathy, first off, Congratulations on the job in China! Woohoo – that’s fabulous! 🙂 It’s such a different culture from your previous experience, and you’re right about the dedication of the students. And what a wonderful country to explore. Second, I’m so impressed with the goals you tackled – awesome. And third, your photo of the canoes knocked my sock off! So when do you head to China? ~Terri

    1. Thanks so much, Terri. I can’t wait to go to China. It’s been a long-time dream. I’m glad you like my boats in Nepal photo. It’s a favorite of mine, although I wish I hadn’t cut off some of the boats in the picture. It’s fun to have goals, but I am sure am not good at staying on track! 🙂

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