Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Month of Letters Challenge

Readers of this blog will know that I have participated in the NaNoWriMo challenge, which involved writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.

I have decided to participate in a new challenge, the Month of Letters challenge, which requires participants to write 24 letters and send them by mail during February.

I have a long history of writing letters. I started corresponding with penpals as a teenager, and during my teens and twenties I was in touch with 20 or more penpals at any given time, in many different countries.

Before the Internet, communicating by mail was normal. Airmail letters took about 5-10 days to reach their destination. I remember the daily thrill of seeing what had arrived in my letter box. Letters also sometimes contained photos, postcards, and "friendship books", little stapled booklets in which penpals wrote their addresses and interests and passed them on, hoping to receive letters from similar people. This primitive form of social networking was quite effective, for the time.

Of course, writing letters was a good excuse to buy pretty writing paper, stickers, rubber stamps, and coloured pens. At that time, my handwriting was much better than it is now. Later, when I started using a computer, I learned how to insert images into the text, and printed letters on coloured paper.

As time wore on, I lost contact with most of my penpals, and stayed in touch only with the few who were my closest friends. In recent years, I have renewed contact with a few of them through Facebook. I have been fortunate to meet a few of my penpals when they came to Israel or when I visited their country.

I have been thinking about this recently, with a growing awareness of the differences between my way of life when I was younger and today's online lifestyle. So when I found out about this challenge, it appealed to me.

I will spend February writing (well, typing) letters to my current penpals, and also to a few friends and relatives. There is an art to writing a good letter, and while it is possible to do this in an email, the tendency is to keep emails short. In some cases, my main contact with my penpals in recent years has been reading each other's Facebook status updates and blogs. I want to rediscover the experience of writing and sending "real" letters, and hope to receive some replies from my friends as well.

Good luck to all participants!

Monday, January 9, 2012

How to never get bored

It always surprises me when someone claims to be bored. This just doesn't happen to me. I learned early on to avoid boredom. Being bored is a state of feeling frustrated with whatever is happening around you, and wishing you were doing something else. It is a great waste of time and energy, and worst of all, it is self-inflicted. My father always says: "There are no boring things, only bored people".

Boredom is often expressed by children, but I think it exists in all age groups. It is never too late to acquire the ability to prevent boredom. This can enrich anyone's life, and requires no external equipment.

Being bored is a state of mind you can learn to prevent, using combinations of three basic mental skills: imagination, observation, and curiosity. In the following examples, I will show how you can harness these innate abilities to avoid boredom.

First, imagine a situation where you are supposed to be concentrating on something: a class, a lecture, a presentation, a conversation. If you find yourself becoming bored, this means you are not engaging with the speaker or with the subject. Since you are supposed to be concentrating, the solution here is to find ways to spark your curiosity. Think about the subject matter, and try to find questions about it that interest you. If circumstances allow, ask these questions and turn the situation towards your own areas of interest. If you can't ask questions, keep them in mind, and try to find the answers in what the speaker is saying, or make a mental note to investigate further later on. If the speaker is not appealing, try imagining a more interesting personality saying the same words. Imagine the speaker as a charismatic orator enthusiastically addressing an excited audience. Or pretend you have to be the speaker, and visualize yourself giving the lecture or teaching the class.

Conversations are always a good opportunity for learning to see the world from someone else's point of view. If they are interested in something you find boring, ask yourself what it is about their lives that makes this interesting or important to them. Perhaps that will help you become interested in the subject, or at least see other people in a different light. It may even help develop empathy.

Another situation that often brings about boredom and frustration is having a long wait for something. This situation is ideal for developing your observation skills. Where you are waiting, there are usually other people, often complete strangers. Each one of these people has a complete life story. Try to guess what their lives could be like, based on clues they give you, such as their appearance, clothing, body language, and perhaps overheard conversations. The combination of observation and imagination allows endless speculation about strangers we see.

Sometimes the situation can set the scene for specific imaginative games. When I was stuck at a European airport for several hours due to a delayed flight, I tried to guess the nationality and destination of individuals and groups without hearing the language they were speaking. It was quite difficult!

Public transport always allows you to speculate about the purpose of people's journeys. Are they on their way to work, to school, to visit friends, or perhaps they are going on vacation? Maybe they have to visit someone in hospital or are in need of medical treatment themselves?

If you find it difficult or uncomfortable to look at people, or don't want to appear to be staring, close your eyes and listen to the sounds around you. Try to imagine what the people you can hear look like, and work out things about them just from the sound of their voices and from whatever conversation fragments you can catch.

People often get bored when they are alone. If you find yourself alone, perhaps without the external stimulation that observation can provide, you can always turn to pure imagination. Your mind contains endless entertainment possibilities. First of all, if you like music, you can play back in your mind any piece of music you listen to regularly. You can probably remember every word and every quirk of the vocalist's tone of voice. In the same way, you can recall the plot of every book you have read and every film or series you have watched. Using these memories, if you like, you can mash up and remix music and stories, creating new versions of your own in your mind. Try combining different musical styles, or different plot elements.

Even without using these memories, you can create new imaginary scenes to occupy your mind while you wait. Picture yourself or any other person you know, real or fictional, in a particular place or situation. What would it be like to walk along the beach, or go on safari, or run a marathon? Try creating an imaginary setting - your dream home perhaps, or a beautiful garden, or an ideal holiday location.

Sometimes people feel bored because they enjoy excitement and need new thrills all the time. In cases such as these, the solution can be to develop an exciting internal imaginary life. Pretend you are a spy, seeking secret information, trying to avoid getting caught. Or maybe you are a time traveller from the past or future, investigating our current way of life. These methods combine curiosity with imagination and observation by granting our mundane experiences another, more interesting, secret meaning.

I would be interested to hear other people's suggestions for overcoming boredom using only mental skills.