My own top five stories of the year

This time last year, I dispensed with specific goals for the coming year, instead vowing to set up daily habits of writing, editing and sketching for 30 minutes a day, with the intention that great things would come of such small routines. So how did that work out?

Well, where I stuck at it, it worked. While I can’t say I sketched every day for 30 minutes, I did probably close to five sketches a week and two oil paintings a month and the result was… pretty phenomenal actually. At the beginning of the year I had a fuzzy goal of getting better at portraits by sketching every day with a stick of charcoal. By the end of the year, I actually sold an oil painting. That was beyond all expectations. But where I didn’t stick to the habits, the big picture failed too. I didn’t edit or write much at all beyond finishing a long-delayed EFL textbook for Japanese junior high school kids, and so the goal of publishing my third Hana Walker novel is still in the sock drawer.

Today, my wife asked one of her adult students of English what her top five life stories for the year would be. And that seems as good a way as any of assessing my 2019. so here goes, my personal top five:

No. 5. I bought a new (old) car. Cars are a liability, everyone knows that, but I finally acted on this knowledge and persuaded my wife that we didn’t need the giant gas-guzzler we had. Sure, it’s nice to be able to throw mountains of rubbish in the back and give a lift to up to seven passengers in the Toyota Noah, but even nicer is paying half as much a month in petrol, insurance and tax, and zero for a parking space because our “new” nine-year-old Honda Fit is small enough to squeeze into our tiny garage. Sure, we got zero yen for the old Noah, but the savings we’ll make on the new car mean it will have paid for itself within 18 months. And then the savings are like a pay raise that we earn ourselves that no one can take away from us.

No. 4. I read 53 books. Sure, I was aiming for 100, but just over one a week for a year wasn’t bad. I read some great ones too this year. Notably The Leopard and Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother. Links to my reviews of every book I read are here. Where do I find the time? Here’s a hint: I don’t watch TV. At all. Why didn’t I read 100? Here’s a hint: my smartphone has YouTube. I can feel a new resolution coming on.

No. 3. I started saving for retirement properly. This time last year I would wake up worried that I wasn’t saving enough for the future and that I and my wife would be destitute and/or working until we dropped. This still could happen, but I don’t worry about it at all now because I have a plan that’s as good as I can get. My wife and I have been squirreling away as much as we can every month since May and investing it in an IDECO index fund account. If you are a non-US-citizen and resident of Japan you can too. You can pay up to ¥68,000 a month, which is tax deductible, and invest that in stock or bond mutual funds. Any profits you make are tax free, with the proviso that you can’t retrieve any funds until you are 60. Since we are only interested in building up our income for our old age, this is just fine. Reduce your taxes and increase your retirement income? It’s a no-brainer. I have RetireJapan to thank for my restful mornings.

No. 2. I started Saku’s Random Book Club. Saku is our adopted stray cat and I thought he would make the perfect mascot for a quirky sideline I started up in November. The idea is you sign up for a year, and every month Saku sends you a random, real paper and ink book. I can’t say that it’s made me rich, but I’m having a lot of fun running the club. Check it out here. Love surprises? Join the club, as we say.

No. 1 I’m getting a lot better at art. Of course, I still feel like I still suck, and a lot of what I do still does in many respects. But I am getting better. Frequent practice, reading about art and taking lessons twice a month are all making their mark. I look at what I can do now and simultaneously think: that’s OK, but not great; and my god, this time last year I would not have believed I could do that. I hope it’s like compound interest, the more I do now, the more returns I’ll get in the future.

A charcoal sketch on January 1st.
An oil portrait of Hemingway in November that I sold.

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Patrick Sherriff, an Englishman who survived 13 years working for newspapers in the US, UK and Japan. Between teaching English lessons at his conversation school in Abiko, Japan, with his wife, he writes and illustrates textbooks for non-native speakers of English, releases Hana Walker mystery novels, short stories, essays and a monthly newsletter  highlighting good fiction published in English about Japan. Saku’s Random Book Club is his latest project to spend more time with books.