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Emotional Investment

Functionally I have three teenagers in my house. One is twenty years old and has a common autistic pattern of asynchronous development, which means chronologically he’s twenty, but in many social and emotional ways he’s in his mid teens. He’s the one I’ll be launching into a residential program in January, which has the similar life weight as heading off for college. We’re riding the push-pull emotional roller coaster of a child who wants more independence than he’s quite ready for and who doesn’t want to learn from his mom anymore. The other two are chronologically teens, but they struggle with some mental health issues which have pushed them into self awareness and communication skills that are beyond their years. They are often puzzled or frustrated by the behavior of “typical” teenagers. (I put typical in scare quotes, because it only exists statistically. No individual you examine will ever be completely typical.) I’m very grateful for the growing self awareness of my two youngest and I hope that the twenty year old is able to develop something similar using his neuro-atypical thought processes.

Parenting these three is a significant time commitment right now. Particularly since the various atypicalities have pushed us into a partial homeschooling arrangement. Their best learning paths require both on campus time and some classes done at home. I don’t have to create curriculum, but I do have to be the enforcer of schedule and the organizer of assignments. Lately I’ve been an exercise buddy for my son who is doing a PE class. Thirty minutes of walking every day for two weeks. The walking is good for me because I need more exercise. It is good to spend time with him just talking about all of the things. He’s good company. I can see all the ways these exercise requirements are forcing him to face some personal demons as well as get him up from his computer. The home school stuff is being really good, and is obviously the right educational pathway for us right now. But the mental effort I expend on it can be exhausting.

Parenting is tiring. This isn’t news. And I’ll definitely take the fatigue of assisting my child’s growth over the despairing weariness of watching my child getting smaller and more depressed. I guess I’m just pausing to acknowledge that I’m tired and that parenting is using up much of the creative space that opened up when Planet Mercenary stopped demanding full attention.

Consolidating the Rules

There is an ongoing conversation playing out online. It manifests in tweets, articles, arguments, massive headlines, and reports of charges filed. This conversation is about how our society will restructure the social rules about gender. It leads to some very real dismay from people who are now worried that they don’t understand the social rules in a place where they used to be comfortable.

The problem stems from gender based social rules. These gender based rules were a given for generations. There is one set of social rules for dealing with a woman and another for a man. We treat boy children different than girl children. Male coworkers have a different set of expectations than female coworkers. This is the reason that some people become acutely uncomfortable when they meet a transgender or non-binary person. They are not sure which set of social rules should apply, and often they respond to that discomfort with anger. They want to force the non-conforming person to fit into their binary expectations.

I’ve felt that discomfort myself, and it was only when I recognized the source of the discomfort that I was able to resolve it. I had to consolidate my categories. Instead of male person and female person, I now try to just have person. Instead of male colleague and female colleague, I try to just have colleague. There are a few situations where this doesn’t work, like the social arenas surrounding dating, love, and sex. Those areas will require more categories, not less, because gender and attraction are very relevant to the social outcomes that people hope for. And it can get extremely complicated when dating social interactions are mixed together inside a workplace, college, or other location that isn’t explicitly for romantic purposes. I haven’t had much practice with this multiplication of categories since I’m monogamously married and happy with my romantic situation. Since I’ve taken dating and romantic connection off the table, the gender of the person I’m dealing with should be irrelevant to the social interaction we are having. This is true for the vast majority of my interactions

I’m still sorting my thoughts on all of this. My opinions continue to evolve as I listen to people who are finally being heard more widely than they ever were before, and as I listen to those who are clinging to (and grieving for) a social structure that they understood and felt comfortable inside. It is a complicated conversation with many nuances and special circumstances. And it is a conversation that will never be complete because social norms are always up for discussion as generations change and as technology forces people to interact in ways they haven’t before. The internet is a huge disruptor of social order, but it isn’t the first and it won’t be the last.

For my part, I’m listening, trying to offer respect, getting it wrong, fixing my errors, and working to adapt.

On the Stairs

It was six pm and I was standing on the stairs watching my daughter on the floor of the landing while she had a panic attack. Life was too much. She could never do it all. She was failing at everything.

Every time I’m faced with one of these meltdowns, whether it be a panic attack, depressive episode, or OCD freak out, I have to choose. Do I use this moment as a learning opportunity, carefully nudging the person in front of me toward realizations? Most of the time I can so clearly see the choices they made that directly contributed to the meltdown. However, mentioning those choices often leads to lecture mode and the person shutting me out. Do I recognize the actual suffering in front of me and sit down with them in sympathy? This is more comfortable to me than confrontation, and thus I risk setting a pattern of meltdown and rescue. Except we all need rescue sometimes. Do I ignore both the sympathy and education paths to focus on management skills where they learn to set emotion aside and get stuff done anyway? Sometimes a little coaxing gets them moving, and motion makes things better. Other times, my push makes the meltdown worse, harder to pull out of. No choice is obviously right or wrong. The road is never clear.

Mostly as I stood there, leaning on the wall, I thought about how tired I was. How I’d spent several hours of afternoon helping another kid with his home school, and forcing us both to confront the fact that he is, once again, failing some of his in-school classes. That made me tired, discouraged. Because I’d thought things were going well. I’d thought he was stepping up and handling things. But he wasn’t. And we had to negotiate a carrot-and-stick agreement which hopefully will provide him with the necessary motivation to actually do the work and turn it in. I have an ongoing part in the motivational plan, a reoccurring task set, and I have to be willing to actually apply the agreed upon consequences. Even if the result is an unpleasant experience for everyone.

I also thought about how the other son has been in the depths of depression for days, completely unwilling to talk to me about it. He doesn’t want my answers. He rejects my experiences of depression and the tool set that I offer for dealing with it. He is absolutely sure that my answers won’t work for him. It is the same impasse we’ve had to varying degrees for several years now. A change is coming with the new year. It’ll be a big shift. It might finally offer him a way forward. It might be his path to a brighter and happier life. Or it might make everything much harder and darker. We have a long stretch of weeks before I can find out how the change goes. And that makes me tired too. Waiting is exhausting. Particularly when I have to watch him being miserable while I wait.

This all presses on me as I look at my daughter on the floor. The largest thought in my brain is that I really don’t want to help manage yet another emotional tangle. I was weary. In that moment, and many moments like it, I was irritated to have to deal with the excess of emotion. It was late in the day, I wanted to be unwinding and relaxing, not trading work effort for parenting effort. And I felt bad for these selfish thoughts and emotions. Maybe the right answer would have been for me to walk away. To let her figure it out for herself. I considered doing it, but I have to be completely convinced that leaving the person alone is the right course, and even then I’ll spend the time in a state of anxiety, actively preventing myself from going to them and trying to make it better. Walking away is as exhausting as staying.

So I stayed near and made exploratory statements down each possible path to see which one got a positive response. The solution turned out to be a blend: covering her with a weighted blanket and leaving her alone while I sorted a few jumbles of things in her room. Then she centered herself enough to request a reprieve from some home school assignments, which I granted. We made a plan for her to get math help the next day, and she pulled out her psychology homework. She ended up showering and heading to bed rather than completing the work, but she’ll likely be able to do it tomorrow without difficulty. We hope.

After all is sorted and calmed, I sit by myself with my computer. This wasn’t actually all that difficult a day. Not compared to days from the last several years. The ongoing struggles are real, but all of the kids are far better able to articulate what is going on inside their heads. They’re able to discuss problems and solutions with me in ways that they could not before. They’re able to listen when I explain why a situation is frustrating to me, instead of the faintest hint of my frustration turning them into curled up balls of stress panic. I can clearly see how much better off we all are than we were.
I’ll take that.
Tomorrow.
When I’ve had some time to rest.

Scattered Scenes from Arrival Day at the Writing Retreat

It turns out that packing several thick books next to blocks of chocolate will result in airport security wanting to hand search my bag. Then they will wipe down the chocolate to see if they are as advertised rather than being blocks of something explosive instead. The guy doing the search was pleasant. He took one look at my Planet Mercenary book and asked if there was a gaming convention happening. Apparently cases full of minis have been going through security today.

The pass through security was made extra interesting by the fact that my anxious 16yo started texting me just as I was dismantling my kit to pass through the scanning machines. She was worried about her math test and because of her anxiety, if I don’t answer promptly, she tends to ratchet up in intensity. So while my phone was going through the x-ray, I could hear it chiming. Then I had to decide if texting on my phone while waiting for my bag to be hand searched would make me look suspicious. I texted anyway and the staff didn’t react at all. Being middle-aged, white, blonde, female, and non-threatening almost certainly contributed to their unconcern.

The security check and reassurance of teenager both wrapped at about the same time. I told her she had my permission to completely bomb her math test. She answered:
“THANK YOU. I didn’t know I needed permission to get answers wrong until you said that. I’m still gonna do my best, but now I have permission to fail. Wow, I’m weird.”
I answered that I’m the same kind of weird, so we can hang out together in solidarity. It was a fun exchange.

I checked back an hour later. She didn’t bomb the test.

*****

The location for this retreat is lovely. I’ve not been to Phoenix before, so it was fascinating to see saguaro cacti growing along side the freeways like trees. We even have one here in the garden of the house where we are staying. The whole place feels familiar and welcoming to me. The architecture is south-west spanish influenced, just like my home town in California. The plants are similar to my home town as well (except for the saguaro). But the air is dry the way that Utah air is dry. I like all of it. I’ve even found what I think will be my preferred writing nook.

We’ll see if it is as lovely in the heat of the day as it was at sunset. In my room I discovered that my hosts went above and beyond to make me feel welcome.

They quested to locate and purchase some Rose Lemonade, which can’t have been easy and was a true kindness considering they must have had dozens of other preparatory tasks to do.

*****

Here at the retreat meals are social times. We gather to eat and talk. I’ve begun to learn names. I suppose I should have prepared for the “what are you working on” questions. It is so hard to not frame my answers as apologies. Apologizing for not working on a novel like so many of the others. Instead I practiced my professional skills and spoke positively about the writing work I’ve been doing on Planet Mercenary. After the fact I realized that I can also speak about the writing I do on Kickstarter updates and customer support emails. These are genres of writing that take every bit as much forethought and effort as any other form of writing that I’ve done.

I’m quite tired this evening, so I’ll likely turn in early. Tomorrow I’ll venture forth and write more words.

The Waiting Place… Again

Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow…
…or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another chance
Everyone is just waiting.
–Dr. Seuss, Oh the Places You’ll Go!

I’ve posted this quote before. It always runs through my head when I realize that part of my brain is waiting for an event. Today I’m waiting for multiple things. The most prominent being the fact that I’m waiting for a shuttle to take me to the airport, where I will wait to get on a plane, then wait to get off a plane, then wait for a ride to get to my destination. Of course the shuttle isn’t due to arrive for three hours. Theoretically I could get a lot of work done in those hours, in practice it is difficult to get my brain to engage with the work because I know I’ll have to stop in order to leave. In part, writing this post is helping my creative brain warm up to the idea that we can do something useful with the next three hours instead of just making the time pass quickly by watching Netflix.

I’m waiting on a larger scale as well. It shows clearly in my paper journal where I allow myself to be repetitive with my thoughts and words. Lately there have been a lot of lists like this:
3 weeks to Thanksgiving
6 weeks until college girl is permanently home from college (graduation in Spring)
7.5 weeks until Christmas
8.5 weeks until 20yo starts his residential “Autism school for Adulting” program.

I’m counting down because the change in who lives at home will be a big shift in our household dynamics. I’m curious to see how it will play out. Also I’m very excited for both kids to be moving forward into the next phase of their lives. There is also an element of making myself accustomed to the idea that my second child will be leaving home. I’d resigned myself to a long, slow launch that I figured would take another five years or more. But he’s anxious to get out and build his own life, so this guided program lets him move out far earlier than he could do solo. It has been less than a month since he decided he wanted it, applied, and was accepted. I’m still re-calibrating.

And I’m struggling to not switch over into waiting mode. Waiting mode isn’t very creatively productive. Instead I remind myself that I’ve been waiting for this trip to a writing retreat for almost a year. I need to not spend the retreat focused on waiting for something else. And that starts by not spending the next 2.5 hours waiting for a shuttle.

Semi Related Writing Thoughts From Today (expanded from tweets)

1. Writing RPG text is as much about educating GMs about how to do their job as it is about rules. I think about this a lot as I’m writing instructions for Game Chiefs.

I have to remember that some of them are super expert and can make a good game out of any material, but they appreciate material that makes their job easy. Others of them have never run a game before they picked up Planet Mercenary. For them, we include educational components that might feel like obvious review for more experienced Game Chiefs. I suppose in this I’m heavily influenced by the first RPG book I ever worked on (Xtreme Dungeon Mastery by Tracy Hickman & Curtis Hickman). That entire book was about teaching people to be good game runners. So some of that philosophy spills into all the game text I write. Educating the GM (person who runs the game) is the most effective way to ensure that groups have fun while playing. Of course educating players helps too. I have to balance education with not bogging down text. Lots to consider as I’m writing.

2. In order to do right by the GC Secrets PDF I have to do more writing than I thought I would. It keeps expanding.

I’m adding words to help out those less experienced game runners and the less experienced players. I’m adding words to answer specific questions that people have asked, which helps fill in the gap between what is in the head of the game writers and what we actually put on the page in the printed book. I have to battle with myself over how much to add. Part of me wants to make sure that this is the very best and most comprehensive document that I can make it. Part of me really wants to get this document done. It is the last deliverable for the Planet Mercenary project. The last lingering piece of a giant set of tasks that has taken over my creative life for two years. I’ve loved it. I love the writing I’m doing on it right now, but I also want to have it done so that I can declare the Kickstarter officially complete. Then I can have a break of several months before I need to start thinking about what Planet Mercenary release we want to have prepared for next summer.

3. I really wanted to have GC Secrets completed before I leave for my writing retreat on Thursday. I wanted brain space for something fresh.

For the last eight months I’ve been looking ahead to this writer’s retreat as an oasis. It was a reward that I would get to after all the things were done. It is discouraging to realize that I didn’t get all the things done. So instead of having several weeks of clear brain with which I could decide what to write at the retreat, I have this lingering writing assignment that will have to be packed along with me.

4. Brain space for something fresh isn’t going to happen unless I create that space with a crowbar in between writing GC Secrets.

I’d thought about using the retreat to write the picture books that have been niggling at my brain. Maybe I’d write some essays. Maybe I’d pull out my years-neglected middle grade novel and see if there is still something there I feel excited to write or if the project died while gathering dust. I can still do some of these maybe, but instead of having glorious space, I will have to steal that space from writing that is long overdue.

5. Ack! In 2 days I’m leaving my house and going to a place where I don’t know all the people already. Cue social anxiety.

The anxiety has been percolating slowly all month. Early in the month I ordered some Fentiman’s Rose Lemonade so that I would have an interesting drink to share while others were sharing whiskeys and wines that I don’t drink. It was comforting to think I could contribute something to that social portion of the retreat. But the package got broken in transit, and the shipping company didn’t inform me of this until after it was already too late to re-ship. And now there is a weird portion of my brain that whispers why am I even going when I have nothing to offer. Apparently part of me believes that, unless I’m able to provide some tangible item or emotional service, others won’t want me around. Classic social anxiety. So I went out and bought gourmet chocolate that I can pack along in my suitcase. It isn’t the same, but it is something. (And yes I know that I was invited and my friends have expressed delight that I’m coming. I’ve been nothing but welcomed. Social anxiety makes noise anyway.)

6. Yay! In 2 days I can put down all my house and business responsibilities to just write. Maybe I’ll have brain space after all.

Up above I mentioned oasis. I am so very looking forward to escaping the constraints of my regular life. I want a chance to unwind and re-set so that when I come back a few days later I can be glad to pick up all my regular things. I love this life I’ve built, but even things we love get heavy if we never take a break from carrying them.

7. This week I read an article about how social media is a productivity killer, yet here I am tweeting about writing instead of writing.

I read this one: Why Idle Moments are so Crucial to Creativity
And this one: Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? Which I blogged about here: Teens, Screens, and Mental Health

Those articles, combined with all the evidence that social media and fake news have led to sweeping changes in the political landscape of multiple countries, has me being a lot more conscious about the time I spend online and what else I could be using that time for. Throw in a dose of Felicia Day’s You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost): specifically the chapters where she talks about losing two years of creative life to World of Warcraft. The point is driven home. Less internet = better balance of life and probably more creativity. Something for me to work on.

8. Back to the word mines.

Sort of. I wrote up this blog post, which is writing, but isn’t me working on GC Secrets which was the writing I ought to have been doing. Except maybe this is equally as important…and I’m going to stop the brain spin there. GC Secrets will get done, and this post was worth writing. No need to pile guilt into the thought-mess that already exists in my brain.

New Task Prioritization Strategy

Last Wednesday evening I was feeling cranky and out of sorts. When I sat down to figure it out, I realized that much of it was that I felt conflicted about how to spend Thursday. Thursday was a week day and I had lots of work priorities that are up against deadlines. I should spend the day getting those things done. However Thursday was also my kid’s first day of Fall break. That mean regular rhythms were disrupted and perhaps I should spend the day in weekend mode, doing house and family things. As I thought it through, I realized that I was surrounded by house tasks that have been bugging me for weeks (or months) and which I’d kept shoving aside because of pressing work deadlines. It was time to let house and family shove aside work. So Thursday was a house day.

Next came the question of how to pick which house chores to do. There are far more than could be accomplished in a single day, but none of them had attached deadlines therefore I couldn’t sort-by-deadline the way I often do with work tasks. Also I was tired of chasing deadlines and following long lists of To Do. I decided to just pick whichever task was bugging me most, or whatever I felt like doing next. Then when one task was done, I would take a break while picking the next one.

The first thing I tackled was finishing the paint in the kitchen. I began painting the kitchen almost a year ago, because I was really tired of dingy white with dirt streaks where grime accumulated on the studs.

But when I got to the space over the cupboards, a confluence of circumstances (I needed different tools, reaching over cupboards was more awkward, Planet Mercenary started demanding full attention) meant that I painted some of the edges, but not the entire area. I don’t have a picture of this partially painted state, but it was the worst of both. Painted sections looked sloppy/unfinished, while unpainted sections still sported dingy white and dirt streaks. It sat that way for ten months. Until last Thursday when I hauled out the ladder and paint supplies. Within two hours I had this instead.

The kitchen still needs a lot of work. A full remodel is in the planning stages, but this small piece of it is done.

A related task was started last December and had also been stalled since then. As part of our proposed remodel, we wanted to remove a closet. This one:

It was basically a box near the front door where we shoved all the things we didn’t have places for. It was always cluttered and unusable. We wanted to open up the space. Last December I dismantled the closet, painted the wall, and put up coat hooks.

Then I ran into a problem. One post from the closet ran all the way up to the ceiling. We were pretty sure that it wasn’t a load bearing structure. Other houses in our neighborhood with the exact same floor plan, didn’t have posts. However, I wanted “pretty sure” to be “absolutely sure” before I took it down. So the project stalled. And I stared at bare studs and an ugly post for ten months.

I finally got out the ladder and climbed into the rafters of the attic crawlspace. Using a flashlight and taking care not to step on anything except solid rafters, I measured to where the post was. I discovered this sticking up from the insulation and sheet rock.

Definitely not a load bearing structure. I didn’t tackle the removal on Thursday. I still have research to do on how best to remove it. I’ll probably need to rent tools. But that post is now doomed and the project can proceed.

Other things I accomplished on Thursday:
Taking a pile of unwanted clothes and things to a thrift store
Scouring out a bathroom that had become disgusting
Vacuumed several rooms
Reorganized a linen closet (thus acquiring a new pile of things to donate)
Turned a jumble in the garage into a swept and usable space

At the end of the day I’d done many tasks that had been niggling at my attention for a long time. A new set of household tasks is now jockeying for position, because that is the nature of houses and tasks. But I feel better about my house than I have for ten months. It feels like house projects can move forward instead of being perpetually shoved aside or stalled.

Friday I spent six hours driving to retrieve college girl from campus. She has fall break this weekend.

Saturday I had to decide whether to re-shoulder the burden of my work To Do lists or to continue focusing on house and family. I picked a middle ground. I did work, because those deadlines really do matter and I couldn’t feel good about blowing them off completely, but I didn’t sort tasks by deadlines. Instead I did whichever work task was bugging me the most. They’re all the same tasks, just sorted a bit differently. I got quite a bit done. There is still much more left to do.

Here at the beginning of a new week, I know I have deadlines to meet before Friday. So I’m going to have to do some deadline based prioritization, but it is nice to have another strategy available so I can switch things up when I get worn out. I get worn out a lot lately. I’ve been under deadline pressure since late 2016, which is a really long time to carry that weight.

End of Term

It feels like Friday even though today is Wednesday. This is primarily because Fall break begins tomorrow. It is also because today was the last day of the term, which meant Monday and Tuesday were spent with last minute scrambles to turn in work and not fail classes. But now we’re in the afternoon. All the assignments are turned in. Classes are complete. No one has to get up early tomorrow. So it feels like Friday.

In this drifty free-from-deadlines afternoon, I’m pondering how my kids are beginning to be self steering. College girl has known her life path for six years now, but the other three have been lost and floundering. They’ve been in that space where childhood is over and they desperately need a focus, something to motivate and provide identity, but they don’t know what it should be. As of this month all three younger kids have found a focus and a way forward. They each came to it in their own way and in their own time. Mostly without fanfare, just an “oh by the way mom, I want to be a ________.” For the two in school, the change is subtle, but profound. Their dreams depend on attending college, so all classes matter a bit more than they used to. This doesn’t make getting things done easy. The struggles are real, but it does mean they’re engaged with the struggle instead of trying to dodge it completely. They’re starting to steer, and that is wonderful.

Today is a one of those small triumphs that pass unnoticed. They succeeded at end-of-term push. They’ve kept up with their online classes. There is measurable progress. There is more to do. We have more terms ahead of us, more work to manage. But I can let today be calm and quietly triumphant.

Challenges of a Variable Income

I have lots of creative friends. They are mostly writers, but I also know artists, musicians, editors, jewelers, etc. Many times I hear my creative friends express the dream of being able to do their creative pursuit full time. There is an entire discussion to be had about whether that is the right choice for emotional reasons as well as financial, but that is not the discussion I want to focus on today. Particularly since the “right” answer depends heavily on individual circumstance. What I do want to provide is some information about the realities of living on a variable income, because when most of my friends say they want to do full time creative work, what they mean is that they want to freelance and be their own boss. Freelancing and owning your own small business rarely come with a regular pay check, particularly at first.

The concern that most people have and fret over is that their creative work will not bring in enough to pay the bills. This is the primary problem that people have to face when launching a full time creative career, but what most people don’t wrap their heads around is how a variable income requires different handling and provides challenges even when you are earning enough money. Looking at the particular challenges of a stable, but variable income is something that creative people should consider when deciding whether full time creative work is right for them.

1. You can’t treat a large lump payment as bonus money. Unless you are a freelancer with a long-term, steady assignment, most of your income will come in lumps. They might be small, regular lumps, or giant lumps at irregular intervals. Managing lump payments can be a hard adjustment for a person who is used to budgeting on a steady income. When you have a big chunk of cash sitting in the bank, the temptation to splurge is strong, there is so much money right there. Except that money has to cover bills for six months or a year (or three years, or five years.) If you splurge when the money arrives, then you’re in trouble later. Many creatives temper this by having multiple checking accounts and paying themselves a reasonable “salary” at regular intervals. Or they incorporate as an LLC or S Corp to do the same. This restores the ability to budget on a monthly/ weekly basis. The advent of patronage platforms, such as Patreon, also provide tools to even out the gaps between payments. If you have creative work that earns royalties, then ongoing payments of those royalties can also provide stabilizing payments.

2. Large lumps of money have tax implications. If a large payment comes in December, then at the end of the year it looks like you made a really good living. You will be taxed for all of that money sitting in your account as if it is all profit. The lump of money may even push you into a higher tax bracket. This frequently happens to people who run Kickstarter campaigns where the money arrives in one year but the expenses (printing, manufacturing, shipping) are paid in the next. As far as the IRS is concerned, cash in the bank is profit and should be taxed. This can be offset by changing to a form of accounting called accrual accounting, but once you make that change, you can’t switch back and there is additional paperwork forever. Most creatives just take a tax hit on the years they make a lot, and file a loss on the years when they make less. Unfortunately this often means that the big tax bill lands in the year after the prosperous year and contributes to making that next year into a financially lean one. Boom and bust.

3. Credit and loan application systems are confused by variable income. Most systems use last years tax returns as a predictor for this year’s income, which is not accurate if you’re living the boom and bust cycle seen by many creative folks. Financial institutions also expect to see a bi-weekly or monthly pay stub and use that to calculate monthly income. If your income is variable, it is likely you don’t have any pay stubs. So any time you apply for a loan or credit, you end up having to explain (over and over) where your income comes from, why you don’t have regular pay stubs, and how you are a responsible adult who will be able to pay back the money. You’ll have to dig up additional paperwork and proof of income that folks with a pay stub don’t have to deal with. So make sure you keep documents of your income with invoices and 1099s. You might need proof of income later.

4. United States Healthcare tax credits expect stable income to calculate how much subsidy you get. If you’re going to be a full time creative, you probably won’t have employer-provided health insurance. Right now this means signing up via the independent marketplace. (Who knows what it will mean next year or the year after that, US healthcare is in flux and I’m writing from a US experience base.) Most of the math done to decide if you qualify for a subsidy depends on you having a good estimate of what you’ll make next year and that income being approximately what you made the year before. If you underestimate your income, you may be charged a penalty for taking more credit than you should have. There is no penalty for over-estimating income. Many creatives avoid penalties by never taking a monthly subsidy. Instead they pay out the full premium amount and wait until tax time to get refunded for whatever the subsidy would have been. However this means that in a bust year, when money is tight you have to shell out for those monthly premiums and if your prior year is a boom, you won’t have any medical refund to help pay for those premiums. The refund comes after the year when money was so tight you needed it.

5. Your tax returns affect United States federal grants for higher education. A financial boom year means that you look rich when filling out the FAFSA. It means that during a bust year, when you could really use the financial help, you may not get it because of a prior boom year.

6. Items 2, 4, & 5 serve to exacerbate the boom and bust cycle that often happens in creative work. This means that a big lump payment is cause for trepidation as well as rejoicing. A large payment that isn’t carefully managed can guarantee a complete crashing of finances only a year or two later if the next large payment doesn’t arrive in time to rescue things.

Living on a variable income can be challenging, but if you’re fully aware of all the potential complications and how to buffer them, a variable income can be just as viable for ongoing living as a regular paycheck. For some people the anxieties and uncertainties of irregular pay days are preferable to the anxieties and uncertainties of potential layoffs or having to work with people who are chosen for you rather than whom you choose. Other people do better with that predictable paycheck while pursuing their creative efforts in the hours not claimed by their employers. The challenges listed here are not the only ways that living on a variable income is different than regular income, but they are some important points to consider when deciding if full time creative work is right for you.

Teens, Screens, and Mental Health

I’ve seen this article being linked from social media: Have Smart Phones Destroyed a Generation? I have an immediate negative reaction to the title, because I think it is a harsh judgement to call an entire generation “destroyed” when the oldest of them is a mere 22 years old. We should probably allow them to exit adolescence and become in charge of their lives before we can make sweeping judgements.

Fortunately the content of the article is far more in depth and less inclined to make sweeping judgements. It has data as well as anecdotes and is cautious about drawing conclusions based on that data. However one point it does make very clear: teens who are on their screens more are less happy and teens who are on their screens less are happier. This fact automatically puts me on the defensive because my kids are on their screens a lot and the implication is that if I would just limit their screen time we would have less trouble with mental health issues. (My brain therefore comes to the “obvious” conclusion that it is All My Fault because I was not a good enough parent.)

However, one thing that the article fails to acknowledge is that correlation is not causation. Are the teens less happy because they’re on their screens more or are they on their screens more because they were already less happy and screens are a safe retreat? I don’t think there is a clear causation either way because it depends on the teen and it depends on the day. I know that when my teens emerge from depression they automatically reduce their screen time without any intervention from me. So I’ve come to rely on screen time as an indicator. It is a piece of the puzzle as we’re trying to help everyone find a balanced life that is basically happy.

I talk to my teens about all of this as we’re discussing how to improve their lives. We also discuss Point of Diminishing Returns. Because I believe that short exposures to social media add to my life and make it happier, however prolonged exposure ends with me having wasted time and probably lowered my mood. The goal of these discussions is to teach them how to self regulate. I’ve never found much success with imposing limits on screen time. I fail at it because I can’t stay consistent. I’ve done much better when I focus my energy on luring them out into non-screen activities, reminding them of the things they enjoy doing when screens are not available.

Ultimately the generation defined in the article is going to find its own way forward. They will be different from their Gen X parents, just as the Gen X generation was different from their Boomer parents. Right now they struggle less with addictions and teen pregnancy, but more from mental health issues. All life choices are trade offs and it is up to individuals to find their own balance in life.