Doing things you’ll never do well

In a recent issue of “The New Yorker,” writer Margaret Talbot reviewed three related books* that argue for “the value of learning to do things you’ll never do well.” Not only is trying something new an “antidote to perfectionism,” but it is good for our brains.

The only negative effect associated with trying something new is that you might make a fool of yourself and the results crush your ego. But the writers of these books say that doesn’t matter. Hah! Of course it matters.

Last weekend, with nearly a foot of snow outside and not having much to keep busy, I decided to tackle a small decluttering project. I cleaned out part of an IKEA chest of drawers that held materials for craft projects: colored papers; rubber stamps; cancelled stamps from around the world; envelopes; inks and other supplies. It was the other supplies I wanted to investigate. I’d jammed these into three drawers, making them hard to open and their contents unknown.

The inspiration for cleaning out was an article about a PBS program called “Legacy List with Matt Paxton.” What interested me about Paxton’s approach was that he included decluttering for older folks, He says, “We hang onto many possessions because of the memories attached to them. But, he warns, “If you don’t get the stories out, you won’t get the stuff out and your life doesn’t move forward.”

What I found, instead, was three drawers filled with memories, memories of all the things I had studied that had made me happy at the time.

Part of one drawer contained a dozen handmade greeting cards made by artist friends. One set came from a couple–a painter and an architect–who house sat/cat sat for us one summer. Not only did the painter recreate one of my photos as a lovely acrylic painting, but the couple sent us Christmas Cards for the next six years alternating photos of paintings and architectural designs.

by Dean Eliason

The other set of cards came from an artist friend who cut out pieces of his watercolors and sent them as Christmas cards. All three of these artists have passed away. While Paxton would urge us to talk about our memories of these artists and then dispose of the cards, I’m not ready to part with them.

We’re also keeping several hilarious pieces sent by a junior high social studies teacher friend who shared his feelings about the George W. Bush era through collage and story.

Years back, my best friend, Marilyn, (also no longer with us) and I wanted to live as true dilettantes, defined in my on-line dictionary as “dabblers, putterers, tinkerers,” and more flatteringly as simply “amateurs.” “The New Yorker” piece was kinder, reminding us that in Italian, “dilettante” means delight. Marilyn and I took class after class, workshop after workshop to try our hands at every craft invented in the past forty years. Except macrame.

We didn’t give up our idea of wanting perfection in any of our projects, but lived with what we’d created despite the flaws.

Here’s list that covers the projects I can remember:

crab from carved rubber
  • making greeting cards using paper from our recycling bins and printers’ offcuts, a class taught by the county’s “solid waste artist in residence,”
  • book making,
  • how to use every rubber stamp product available at the time,
  • Polaroid transfer prints,
  • carving rubber into figures we could ink and stamp,
  • black and white photo developing and printing,
  • finger painting,
  • origami,
  • Japanese paper marbling,
  • gyotaku fish prints (inking one side of a fish–we used rockfish–and printing the image on rice paper),
  • weaving,
  • basket weaving,
  • making a mosaic plate,
  • and beer. (This was our most successful project).
Japanese paper marbling
handmade books,

I laughed when I finished the list. How did we have time for work and home life? Also, each of these classes required purchasing materials, equipment and sometimes tools, at no small expense. For gyotakyu, we frequented the farmers’ market to buy rockfish, one reason why cleaning out this chest of drawers was a high priority.

Now that I’ve found these treasures and enjoyed the memories associated with making them, what happens next? I filled a wastebasket with the worst samples and tucked the projects I liked back in the drawers. I think I can use pieces of many of them to send as cards to friends. It will be easier for them to recycle them.

Polaroid transfer print

*Book titles: Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over; The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning; and Late Bloomers: The Hidden Strengths of Learning and Succeeding at Your Own Pace.

About stillalife

I retired June 30, 2010 after working for 40 years in the field of education and most recently doing school public relations/community outreach in a mid-size urban school district. I wrote for superintendents and school board members. Now I'm writing for me and I hope for you. In this blog, I offer my own views coupled with the latest research on how to preserve our physical and mental health as we age, delve into issues most of us over 50 can relate to like noticing wrinkles and forgetting where we left our keys, discuss the pros and cons of different ways to engage our minds and bodies after we leave the workplace, and throw in an occasional book review, all peppered with a touch of humor, irony, and just plain silliness.
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3 Responses to Doing things you’ll never do well

  1. Eleanor Owen says:

    Oh, the unspoken joy of Hoarders at Heart. As one with great expertise from years of perfecting the trait, I wanted more, much more. Surely you’ve got closets full of memories that you can’t possibly discard. So, describe. I’ll check for era.

  2. Darlene Bishop says:

    I loved this blog on hidden treasures—a drawer collection—so many wonderful memories. I only wish we had been closer during your days of crafts. I, too, enjoyed a few years with a group of ladies exploring all kinds of textiles from enameling to batik, etc. Perhaps you could share with us more of your artist cards?

  3. stillalife says:

    We just brushed the edges of textile art. I remember trying to knit alpaca wool, always liked batik. I have a feeling there is more to remember about other art projects, but without samples like those I’ve saved, I can’t remember. You are such a talented painter, did you keep samples of past experiments?

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