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Structuring Life to Support Creativity take 2

A week ago I got to reprise my presentation on Structuring Life to Support Creativity. Unfortunately I heard from people who had to miss it because of conflicts or space issues. So I’m putting up the notes from the presentation here. They are rough notes rather than a fully flowing blog post. If I were to write this out fully, it would need to be 10,000 words or more. I first gave this presentation in 2013. There are some differences in information that I covered, so reading the original version might also be worth your time, you can find it here.

I always begin this presentation by saying that creative pursuits are patient. They will wait for us until we have time to get back to them. It is important to remember this when we are in a period of time where we need to do other things. I’ve had long spaces of time where I had to set aside fiction writing because I needed to focus my creative energy on business, or family, or health management, or grieving, or emotional processing. I lost nothing by taking care of these things first and then coming back to writing. Usually my creative efforts are better for taking time out to manage life events.

Know your goals and priorities
The first task to do when trying to fit a creative pursuit into your life is to step back and examine which things are the most important to you. For me family and loved ones are more important than creating books, even though I love both. This is the major reason that I sometimes spend long stretches without writing fiction: I am spending energy on the hugely creative task of raising children. And any creative task you undertake will interfere with any other creative task you want to do. A lot more occupations are creative than are generally considered creative. We create friendships, orderly homes, art projects, parties, etc. Service that we do for churches, schools, or communities can be hugely creative. Sometimes the work we do for a day job is also very creative. Grieving and emotional processing of life are when we re-create ourselves. Stepping back and analyzing what is most important so you can spend your creativity on that will help you be happier in your life, even if it means you’re spending a bit less time on the thing you thought was your one creative pursuit.

Recognize the pillars of your life.
Many creative people have a day job that literally keeps a roof over their head. Often this day job is viewed as a frustration or a distraction. However the ability to pay bills actually supports creativity. Maslow described this in his hierarchy of needs. We are less able to put energy into creation if we don’t know where our food will come from next week. Household tasks are another pillar that many people resent as a distraction from creativity. However if your surroundings are chaotic, the clutter in your physical space and clutter of undone To Do items in your head may make it difficult to accomplish the creative work you want to do. Social relationships are a third pillar. There is significant variance in the human need for company, but most of us do best, and are most creative, when we have emotional connections with others.

I mentioned before that things like grieving can interfere with creativity. The same is true of frustration or resentment. Any energy we spend on resenting a necessary life task subtracts from the energy available to create new things. Time spent maintaining your pillars creates a space where your writing or art can happen. I become much happier about doing maintenance tasks when I can see how they make the creative tasks possible.

Know your supports and emotional drags
Figuring this out starts with looking at the people in your life. Think about them.
Who supports you in ways that energize you?
Who claims to support you, but somehow you always end up discouraged after being with them?
Who doesn’t support you or actively interferes with your creativity?
You may want to adjust the quantity of time you spend with people who sap your creativity. Or you may want to re-frame that time so that it is further away from your creative spaces. Go to a movie and then talk about that movie instead of going to lunch and end up explaining why you want to be a writer.

Also look at your pillar maintenance tasks. The things that keep your life structure stable. This is when your family/housemates/friends become very important. Because some of those maintenance tasks do drag on your creativity while others are neutral or feed into creativity. If laundry sucks your soul, perhaps make a deal with others in your house so that they manage the laundry while you manage something else. Communication with the people in your support network is crucial. As you are building space in your life for creativity, they also have to give space for that creative effort. Make sure that these discussions include the sacrifices you will make to meet their emotional needs right along side the sacrifices you need them to make for your creative pursuits. (IE, you get one hour of uninterrupted writing time each day, but on Saturdays they get to go out to do their hobby thing.)

Consider what blocks of time and what physical space you can devote to your creative pursuit. Having a physical space can be helpful, even if the space is only contained inside a laptop or notebook. Entering your creative space can teach your brain to open up your creative thoughts, helping you to get in the zone faster. In order to create that space I’ve known people who depend on the smell and flavor of a favorite beverage, others light a candle, or have turned a closet into an office, or have an actual office. Some go to a coffee shop or a library. Some just put on headphones and particular music. The key is that at the schedule time you enter your creative space and train your brain to open up your creative thoughts. Then when you exit you can carry the thoughts with you or close them up as necessary to face the next task of your day. If you haven’t organized a space or made a schedule for time, then that is likely a significant drag on your creative efforts.

Plan your creative effort around your pillars
There are scientific studies done about willpower and how it is a limited resource. Anecdotally, I know this is true for me. Every decision I make is an exercise of willpower and makes following decisions more difficult. This is one of the reasons that decision heavy tasks, such as parenting, can be a huge drain on creative energy. Knowing this can help you as you structure time in your day to make room for creativity. It takes a large amount of willpower to stop playing a video game and go write. It takes less willpower to start writing right after you have finished lunch. In fact if you build a habit of lunch-then-writing the transition to writing takes no willpower at all. And the transition to lunch is helped by the biological imperative of hunger. I call this process setting a trigger.

I rely heavily on triggers. The routine of getting kids off to school in the morning triggers me to get out of bed early. Then once they are out of the house, the quiet reminds me that I need to get to work. Using an externally impose structure like a school schedule is very helpful in scheduling creative time. Our schedules go very mushy in the summer when we don’t have that external structure. In the absence of kids or school structure, I know creatives who sign up for classes, make writing date appointments, use a day job, or use scheduled volunteer work to provide external structure in their day. Using an external structure reduces your willpower load.

It is possible that some of your pillars will absorb creative energy for a time. If you’re struggling to pay bills, then the best use of your creative energy might be to go back to school and get training, so you can get a better job, so that you can be less stressed by bills, so that you have more room in your brain for creative things.

Analyze your blocks
Some things will interrupt your creative time. Other things will prevent you from starting. A challenge I regularly face is that if I know an interrupt is coming, say I have an appointment in an hour, there is part of my brain that doesn’t want to get started on a creative task because I know I’ll be interrupted. To combat this, I had to teach my self that five minutes is enough time to get something done. This is where visualizing my creative thoughts as existing in a cupboard in my brain has been very helpful to me. I open the cupboard and use those thoughts for five minutes then close up the cupboard again and move on with other tasks.

Alternately, you can rearrange the other parts of your life to defend large chunks of creative time. I know many writers who do this. It works best if your support network understands the need for those large blocks of uninterrupted time and participates in helping you defend them. If your support network doesn’t do high-focus creative work, it might be good to spend some time helping them understand creative flow. Because a two minute interrupting half way through an hour of writing time means that you don’t have an hour of writing time, you have two half hour writing times. Minus the time spent putting away whatever thoughts were opened up by the interruption. It often helps to have a visual signal to tell people not to interrupt you. We set up a string of flower lights at the entrance to my office. When the lights are on, my family knows to only interrupt if absolutely necessary.

The list of mental/emotional things that can block creating is a presentation to itself. I called that presentation Breaking through the Blockages and gave it at LTUE in 2015. Clicking this link will lead you to notes from that presentation. In addition to the points covered in that presentation, I add the thought that if you are doing emotional processing of grief or a life change, that emotional process is a creative one. It will absolutely interfere with your other creative efforts. We don’t usually think of grief as creative, but the process of grief is frequently one of letting go an old way of being while creating a new self that no longer centers the object of the grief. Self re-creation and grief are messy processes that slop over into unexpected spaces and pop up at inconvenient times. If at all possible don’t layer guilt for not creating on top of these processes. Remember the very first thing in this post, creativity will wait for you. This can be tricky to remember if one of the things you are grieving is lost creative time.

In my first iteration of this presentation I spent an entire segment on biological rhythms. This time I passed over it lightly, mostly because an audience question reminded me. We all have times of day where we’re energetic and times when we feel sluggish. Pay attention to your patterns, and if at all possible, schedule your creativity for the time of day when you feel energetic.

Transformations vs. incremental changes
When people come to a conference or creative retreat, they sometimes leave filled with energy and plans for renovating their entire life. Take a moment to consider how you want to manage that renovation. A massive effort to change everything often fails for several reasons. Habit is strong, and if you want to create a new pattern, you need to create structure that makes falling back into the old habits difficult.

The example I used was deciding that I spend too much time on facebook. If I declare that I’m going to spend no more than an hour per day on facebook, but don’t put any structure around that declaration, I’m likely to fail inside of two days. If I decide that any time I get on facebook I will set a one hour timer, that is better. I have a trigger to remind me to exit facebook. However I have to use willpower to set the timer and then I have to use willpower to turn off facebook when the timer beeps. It is very easy to forget the timer or distract past the alarm. If I install nanny software that automatically limits my facebook time to one hour per day, that has a better chance at working. I only have to decide to install the software once instead of once per day timer setting. And if I want to extend my facebook time it requires a decision and effort to do so. If I wanted to be even more certain that I’ll stay off facebook, I could delete my account entirely. This puts a significant logistical barrier to returning to facebook. An even more thorough method would be to completely cancel my internet. This last option would forcibly change many patterns in my life, and would have a signifcant impact on other members of my household, which brings me to the next reason that huge transformational life renovations often fail: transformation is hard on your support network.

Making sweeping changes all at once will make other people in your life uncomfortable. Because they are uncomfortable they may (consciously or unconsciously) pressure you to “return to normal.” For this reason massive life transformations can seriously disrupt relationships, which is why communication is critical during transformations. Also critical is disrupting old habit paths and putting road blocks to getting back to them. Certain life events make some level of transformation inevitable: Moving, getting married, getting divorced, birth, death, new day job, diagnosis, adoption, etc. These events inherently make some old habits impossible and provide an opportunity to build new habits. Building new habits is a creative process that will interfere with your other creative process until the new habit is established.

In order for a transformation to work, you have to be willing to let go of your old way of doing things. This may mean letting go of things you like in order to fix something you want to change. An example: I’ve long wanted to switch my online store software to a new system because the one I’ve been using is out of date. I began the process and then discovered that the new store system connects smoothly to my accounting software, but only if I switch to the online version of the accounting software. In order to fix my broken store system, I have to let go of an accounting system that was working just fine and re learn how to do my accounting. I have to be willing to change the thing I like to fix the broken thing.

The alternative to massive life transformation is incremental life change. This is transformation in pieces and at a small scale. It allows you to change a portion of your life and to let that change settle in before changing something else. Small changes can have significant ripple effects. For example: setting up a physical space for your creative efforts is not hugely disrupting to your regular life patterns or to your support network, but having it suddenly enables you to signal when you’re busy, allows you to set up creative triggers, and helps you open up your creative thoughts. Small changes can be significant. And accumulation of small significant changes will, over time, result in life transformation.

Health and Spoon Theory
If you have not heard about Spoon Theory, I recommend reading the linked article. It is a handy metaphor for understanding that we are not all granted the same quantity of energy each day. Some people can make 1000 decisions (or exercises of willpower) per day, others can only handle ten. Sometimes just managing ill health uses up 3/4 of your available energy, pillar maintenance uses up almost everything else, leaving only a sliver of energy for creativity. Being a caretaker for someone else can have the same toll. This is hard and not fair.

Unfortunately grieving (or raging) of your limited supply of energy also uses up the supply. Grief is often a necessary process in relation to ill health or caretaking, but pay some attention to moving through those emotions mindfully. Process them with your support network, with a therapist, with the help of books dealing with your issue. It can be easy to just sit with grief instead of moving through it. Resist the urge to shove it aside so you can focus on other things. “Shove aside” can be a necessary short term strategy, but unless you process that emotion, you’re stuck with it. And it accumulates. And it leaks into every aspect of your life.

Be aware that diagnoses almost always trigger grief (and a host of other emotions.) If you or someone you love gets a diagnosis, you’ll need to process it. The amount of processing depends on you, your past experiences, the pervasiveness of life change, how others around you are handling it, and a host of other factors.

If you are a healthy person, be aware that you know someone who isn’t. Take time to be part of a support network for someone who struggles. Solid support makes all the difference in being able to carve out creative time.

Break your patterns / get out of your box
As you are renovating to make room for creativity, be careful not to remove from your life all of the “distractions” that filled up your creative aquifer. Creative minds need rest. They need time to switch off from all the thinking. This is why you often see creative people diving into binge watching TV or playing video games. They need a comfortable retreat. That is important. However be on the alert for dysfunction in your habits. Eight hours of sleep is necessary for health. Fifteen hours of sleep is a sign that something is wrong. Two hours of video game may be refreshing. Ten hours of video game has almost certainly passed the point of diminishing return.

When you discover that your habits keep you contained in the same round of things, take time to do something new. Try a new activity. Go to a new place. Talk to new people. Get outside your comfort zone. Even if the new experience is uncomfortable and/or unpleasant while you’re going through it, you’ve still filled your brain with new material that you can draw on when you’re creating. Also, many times new experiences end up being enjoyable.

As a suggestion: donating time to helping others is a brilliant way to have new experiences and to fill up your creative/emotional energy.


Expect iterations

As you’re making changes whether they be incremental or transformational, you should expect a try/fail cycle in figuring out your life structure. Even if you do figure out the absolute perfect system where all the parts are working smoothly together, something in your life will change and that system will fall apart. If you know in advance that this is inevitable, you make be able to skip the part where system failure feels like a personal failure.

The example I often use for this is laundry. When Howard and I first got married we had one laundry basket. It was simple and effective. Then we had a baby, and another, and another. I discovered that adding a baby managed to triple the amount of laundry. The basket was always mounded and there were mounds on the floor. I always felt buried under laundry and overwhelmed by it. Then one day someone (probably Howard) said “Sandra, you can have more than one basket.” And he was right. Purchasing one basket per person suddenly changed a massive mound into neat baskets where clothes were sorted by person. All it took was recognizing that the system which worked great for two people was a complete failure at trying to handle five people.

When creativity is getting squeezed out of existence, stop and take time to figure out why the system that used to work isn’t working any more. Salvage pieces that are still working and rebuild.

I close the presentation with questions from the audience. Often the answers to specific questions generate some of the best insights of the presentation. Frequently this happens when one audience member has an answer for another audience member’s struggle. So I close with the reminder that if you’re struggling, you’re not the only one. If you ask your support network, online friends, family, odds are good that someone has exactly the words you need to help you move forward.

Best of luck in your creative efforts.

Slower Post Convention Recovery than Expected

It always takes me a few days to recover from a convention. LTUE ended on Saturday and by the end of it I was so tired I was not entirely coherent. Fortunately I had a good friend to help me make sure all of the things went into boxes and all of the boxes went into my car.

Sunday and Monday involved extra sleeping, staring at walls, and losing track of thoughts. Today is the first day where I feel back on track, but still not up to speed. I have a long list of post convention tasks and tasks that piled up because I couldn’t pay attention to them during the convention. One of which is a write up of the notes from my Structuring Life to Support Creativity presentation. I promised them to people who couldn’t attend because the room was too full. I’ve got the notes partially done, but the process is slow because that sort of post is very thinky and my supply of thinky is still limited.

How was the show? It was good. I never had a moment that felt big or personally pivotal, but I got to watch several friends have that sort of moment. I love seeing people I love make agreements and be excited about the things that are coming up for them. And I got to have dozens of conversations to catch up with people I care about deeply, but only get to see very occasionally. I got to teach a class and got feedback that it was useful to others. I got to participate in some amazingly fun panels with fellow panelists who taught me new things about their areas of expertise.

…and I know I have additional thoughts about the show, but I’ve just run out of brain for wording them. I’m going to post this as is for fear that if I don’t I’ll never get back to finish it up. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll be able to catch those additional thoughts and get them down.

I’ll be at LTUE this week

LTUE begins tomorrow. For me it begins at 9am with my solo presentation: Structuring Life to Support Creativity. I’ve given this presentation at LTUE before, but it has been several years and I’ve re-structured the presentation to incorporate new thoughts and experiences that I’ve had in those years. So even if you’ve seen the presentation before, it will have new material in it.

In between scheduled panels and presentations, you’re most likely to find me in the dealers room at the Schlock Mercenary table. Though I won’t be there all the time since I have some meetings to attend and friends to catch up with that aren’t on my public schedule.

My schedule is as follows:

Thursday
11:00 am, Cascade A (UVCC): Structuring Life to Support Creativity
5:00 pm, Canyon: Collaboration and Coauthors

Friday
1:00pm, Elm: Fashion and Clothing Through the Ages
4:00pm, Maple: Normal Child Development

Saturday
9:00am, Arches: Balancing Platform and Artistry
10:00am, Ampitheater: How to Run a Killer Game KickstarterĀ²
12:00pm, Canyon: Working With a Freelance Editor

Introducing a Kitten

This is Kikaa. We named her Kikaa when we rescued her. Later we learned that her first home called her Calliope, Callie for short.

She’s been ours for eight years now. She’s fourteen years old, and beginning to show her age. As we’ve watched her slow down, we’ve been forced to face the fact that some day we won’t have her any more. Howard and I separately came to the conclusion that we wanted to add a young cat to our household before our beloved cat leaves. Kikaa was less likely to feel territorially threatened by a kitten or young cat. The question became one of timing and finding the right young cat. These were questions that my kids were eager to answer once they knew that a kitten was under consideration. I knew December was not a good month for adding a cat. Too much chaos happens in December, people are distracted and busy. Our house had an extra share of transition that needed to be managed. So I told the kids “we’ll talk about it in January when things have settled down.”

Of course my kids reminded me of this statement as soon as January hit. Fortunately they are all old enough to believe me and be patient when I pointed out there was still settling to do. January passed, no new kitty. I just didn’t have the brain to seek one out. Though I did put some thought into what sort of cat we would want. One thing was that I hoped for a cat who would be easier to photograph. Kikaa is more black than any other color. All of her detail vanishes unless she is well lit. But that was less important than having a cat young enough to be leash and harness trained. Kikaa is very distressed by trips in a vehicle, I’d want a younger cat to be taught that going places is fun and interesting, not scary. Also it would be nice if we could teach the cat to be friends with our back yard neighbor’s dog. The dog was raised with cats and is desperate to be friends with Kikaa, who is hostile to the notion. It would be nice if the dog could have a cat friend.

Then last Wednesday I saw the Facebook post on our church group. Someone was looking to re-home a nine month old kitten. The kitten had already received some service animal training, so she was flexible and friendly. I stared at the picture that came with the post. She was a tortoiseshell kitty named Callie. It seems the universe is determined to deliver torties named Callie to us. From the moment I mentioned the listing to Howard, things were set into motion. The kids fell in love with her picture. Callie arrived Saturday morning and charmed everyone.

Callie is about half the size of Kikaa. She is sweet, very friendly, and has been quite nervous ever since her prior people left her behind. We sequestered her into my basement office for the first 24 hours. It is a space where Kikaa doesn’t often go. The above photo was taken when we put her harness on for her first adventure into the rest of the house. I wanted to be able to have some control if she was frightened. She explored for a bit and then retreated into the darkest, safest corner of the room where she’s been staying. Which is good news, because it means she’s identified her safe territory.

Watching Callie, I can see how much of a baby she still is. She reacts on instinct constantly because she has very little experience to guide her. She hisses under the door at Kikaa, not because she is hostile, but because that is what instinct tells her to do. Kikaa watched the door for a while and then wandered off to do other things. We still need to let them meet without a door in between, but for now we’re just swapping brushes and belongings between the two so that they get used to each other’s scent. Integration has begun.

Eventful Week

Saturday: Twist ankle to the point where I can’t walk on it. Spend remainder of day on a couch with an ice pack.

Sunday: Miss church because ankle still not good for walking, but hobbling becomes possible by evening. Home teachers visit.

Monday: First thing in the morning call to set up some critical appointments later in the week. Register 17 year old for classes for her senior year. Take 23 year old to get a patch test, which means taping allergens to her back for two days. Discover that allergens-taped-to-back is misery. I’m able to limp places I need to go.

Tuesday: Work on bonus story. Help 14yo with homeschool and also organize so he can make up work from last week when he was out sick with the flu. Take 20yo to dentist where we discover that he has beautiful teeth, including the four wisdom teeth that are beautifully trying to grow in sideways and are thus the source of the pain he’s been feeling when chewing. Inform 20yo that he has an appointment on Friday to get them removed. Purchase flowers so that 14yo can dissect one as part of a make-up biology assignment. Have a notary come to our house so that Howard can sign a document in front of a notary and two non-related witnesses. (Florida laws are really picky about estate-related documents.) See on Facebook that someone is looking to re-home a nine-month-old tortie kitten. Remember we promised the kids we would discuss adding a kitten to our household in January, it is now February. Inquire about the kitten, thus setting in motion a chain of events where a kitten is coming to meet our family over the weekend and our kids have already half fallen in love with this kitten before even meeting her. Our fourteen year old cat is not going to be pleased at the incursion at first. But we’re likely to have a second cat shortly.

Wednesday: I was going to say this was the only day all week with no appointments scheduled, but then I remembered the appointment for patch test removal. The large red welt suggested a significant allergy to nickel. Everything else was negligible. My ankle functioned normally, but the entire ankle and foot were shades of purple. 20yo reported that chewing hurts again.

Thursday: This is today. I had a tax appointment this morning where I turned over two folders full of relevant tax documents. I’ve still got three more documents to chase down and acquire. I also got to talk to my accountant about how the changes in tax code might affect me. Verdict: we’re not sure yet. Might be to my benefit, might not. It really depends on the inflows and outflows in 2018. Then I ran errands to pick up prescriptions and groceries. There was a special emphasis on picking up soft and drinkable foods since wisdom teeth removal happens tomorrow. Homeschool is running right now, and that seems to have finally hit a rhythm where I can just hand the kid an assignment list and walk away.

Friday: In the morning my son has surgery. The entire rest of the day will be shaped around taking care of him for his recovery.

Saturday: Continuing care for wisdom teeth recovery. Also we get to meet a kitten who might become ours.

That is quite enough things for a single week.

Ice Castles

In Midway Utah there is an ice castle. They build it every winter and it melts away in the spring. On years like this one, when it is warm and dry, they have a harder time maintaining it and keeping it open. But this was the year when I decided to buy tickets for our entire family to go see it. This was also the year when 50% of my family foiled my plan by catching the flu during the week we were scheduled to go. So I left the sick bookend kids (oldest and youngest) home with Howard while I took the middles with me to see a castle.

It wasn’t quite what my kids were expecting. I think they expected carved blocks of ice built into a classic castle shape instead of the icicles and mounded shapes. I know they weren’t expecting the lights inside the ice which lit the structures.

They rode the slides and explored the nooks and crannies. They delighted in finding narrow passages and following them.

Also hidden in the walls were speakers playing music. It turns out that when one is wearing a cape-like poncho, and the music is from How to Train Your Dragon, that dancing is a must.

It was a lovely outing.

Pieces of a Day


This was one of my birthday gifts. It is an Aerogarden, which is a hydroponic system for growing plants indoors. They’ve simplified everything from planting to feeding to timing the lights. In theory I could grow plants just as effectively using dirt and grow lights, but I haven’t actually done that. Ever. And when I have attempted to grow seedlings, the results were unimpressive. This little garden makes me happy, even though it has only been planted for two days and there is not a sprout to be seen. Soon there will be sprouts. I’m looking forward to that. Green things are a joy during the midwinter months.

Flu has arrived at Chez Tayler. It is not a particularly welcome visitor, but there is no denying that it is here when I’ve got two kids running fevers. Howard just hit fever territory this evening, so he’s on the way down. I’m taking lots of vitamin C and hoping that at least some of us will be able to use the tickets we have for tomorrow to go see the ice castle in Midway Utah. Twenty four hours will tell.

I spent most of the morning doing accounting. I have now finished Stage 1 taxes. That is the part of taxes where I behave like a responsible employer and issue both 1099s and W2s. I also file all the accompanying reports with both the federal government and the state of Utah. Stage 2 taxes have already begun. They are where I accumulate incoming 1099s and K1s to make sure I have all the info in hand for actually filing tax returns for both our business and our personal taxes. Stage 3 is when I hand everything over to my tax accountant and she works her magic to turn everything into returns. Stage three begins in early February, but will have to sit around twiddling its thumbs while Stage two dawdles along to completion. It always seems to take until the end of February to track down all the loose papers.

Another portion of my day went into figuring out how to set up the new storefront for our online store. Because we assembled our sales mechanisms back in 2007 when small-scale e-commerce was barely getting started, our solutions have been a bit…clunky. Particularly since in order to accomplish all the functions we had to add services. For a while we had separate software for our online store and point of sale. We had two different merchant accounts to go with both of those services. Then my postage program was also a separate account. None of my programs communicated well with each other. And each thing was billing separately. Its been messy for years, but at least it was messy that I understood how to make work. But there comes a time to completely scrap the old messy system for something complex but fully integrated. I’ll be spending much of this week hiking the learning curve that is necessary to setting things up. Then there will be oh-so-much data entry as I’ve already figured out that my old system will not export in a way that lets me import into the new system. Data entry is tedious, but the clean start is good.

This day also contained quite a lot of email, some grocery shopping, and too much browsing of social media.

Defensiveness


I met this fellow yesterday. He’s the lone cuttlefish who lives at our local aquarium. Note his bumpy red coloration and lifted tentacles. That is his threat display. It means he is either angry or scared. I visited him several times during my multi-hour aquarium stay. He always looked like this. I began to feel very sad for him, worried that the crowds were causing him stress. But even when no one was nearby, he would turn and display to various corners of his tank. It turns out that this particular cuttlefish is very old and has a form of dementia. His entire existence has become one long defense against a threat that doesn’t exist.

I feel great sympathy for this little guy. I’ve been in an emotional place where I was spending huge amounts of energy reacting to threats that were only imagined. It is an exhausting way to live. I wished there were some way to soothe him, tell him it is safe to relax. The aquarium staff have done everything they know how.


This is a shot of the exact same tank from a year or two ago. It might even be the exact same cuttlefish, though that seems unlikely. This cuttlefish is relaxed and content. Several other cuttlefish share the tank and while sometimes they were agressive toward each other, for the most part, they were just doing their thing. I remember watching this cuttlefish and thinking how beautiful it was as colors pulsed under the surface of its skin.

I would like at this point to have a larger connection to make. Perhaps something about how I sometimes feel like everyone on the internet is reacting like that poor demented cuttlefish, displaying aggressively against threats that aren’t there. Or perhaps I could draw an analogy in which I explain how I’m trying to be like the relaxed cuttlefish after spending years like the upset one. I think the connection that resonates most comes because today my heart is tired. Someone I love is miserable and the only way for that person to become less miserable is for them to be willing to accept proffered help that they’re currently rejecting. My loved one is keeping everyone at a distance, not with a threat display, but with a plastered-in-place cheerful countenance. But cheerful or angry, the result is the same. Others are held at a remove and the displaying person is all alone.

So I am left, wishing there were more I could do to help the little fish (or loved one, or person on the internet) find a happy place.

Two Twitter Conversations

I participated in a couple of twitter conversations this morning and I wanted to elaborate my thoughts in a slightly longer form.

Conversation 1:
My friend Jim Zub posted the following thread:

I woke up this morning to a half dozen angry anon messages on my Tumblr. Nasty insulting stuff about me, my appearance, my work. It happens a few times a week and usually flares up around new project announcements. With a new D&D mini and Champions announced, it happened again.
If I go after every single one, I’ve given those people what they want – my attention. They learned what it takes to get a response from me and look forward to ringing the bell and doing it again.
If there’s valid criticism, I’ll take it on the chin. Absolutely. If it’s just insults and flailing, I’m happy to move on and get back to doing the work.

His thread hit a whole series of thoughts that I’ve been trying to articulate about attention, rewards, and how to extinguish unwanted behavior. Attention is a reward, high energy attention even more so. Outrage and anger are extremely high energy. If I post outrage at a thing, I have rewarded that thing with high energy attention. Sufficient quantities of outrage from enough sources have the power to blast a thing out of existence, but usually what happens is that the attention just rallies support to the thing which outraged me. So when I see a thing that makes me angry or upsets me, I go through an evaluative process.

Am I angry because I feel defensive about the thing? If yes, that is a moment for introspection about why I’m defensive instead of confident/secure.

Does the thing directly affect me?

If it is an attack aimed at me, does it have power to actually harm me or something I care about? (Note that my reaction to an attack may feed energy into it, thus helping it gain enough power to harm me; power it didn’t have until my reaction granted that power.)

If it does have power to harm me, what actions can I take to undermine that power? How can I secure my reputation or defend others in the splash zone?

What cause can I support which comes at the issue from a constructive and healing way instead of an angry/hurt/criticizing one?

The usual result of this evaluation is to ignore/block the person or thing which made me angry, perhaps take a step to secure my safety, then take a deliberate action to make the world a better place.

I don’t always manage to follow this process. I’m human and therefore prone to irritation and over-reaction. But when I do follow the process I have a lot less drama to deal with and a sense that I am participating in making the world a better place.

Conversation #2:
My brother-in-law Randy asked this question:

Curious: at what point did you guys realize that your cartooning had given Sandra a full-time job?

I answered:

It was part time by 2004, and full time by 2008. It took me until at least 2010 before I realized I was working full time. Work-from-home is sneaky that way.
Recognizing I was a work from home mom, not a stay at home mom was a revelation because it shifted all my expectations of myself. It was suddenly okay to not dive into PTA or school volunteering.

A guy named Kevin chimed in:

Congratulations on figuring that out. How long did it take you to convince the other moms?

I answered:

I’ve no idea when or if they became convinced. I was too busy to pay attention to their opinions and none of them attempted to impede my path.

The conversation continued a bit with Kevin saying something about the other moms gossiping behind my back, which made me stop and recognize that I’ve never really felt judged by people in my neighborhood about my parenting choices. It could be that I am fortunate enough to live in a place with exceptionally nice people. It certainly feels that way to me. I’m surrounded by neighbors who all desire to be good and helpful to others. Yet sometimes it goes wrong. I know people in this same neighborhood who have felt terribly judged and are wounded because of it. So I’m left wondering where the difference comes from. It could be that others get different treatment than I do. This seems probable, a college-educated, married, white woman receives far more benefit-of-doubt than someone without those advantages. It is entirely possible that the judgements bounce off of me simply because I’m so tangled up in my own thoughts that I am not paying attention.

The difference between the times when I’ve felt judged and the times when I haven’t felt judged have far more to do with my internal landscape than the other person. Usually when I do feel judged it is because something the person said connects with a pocket of self doubt that already exists in my head. It hurts when someone implies that my toddler’s misbehavior is a result of poor parenting, because I secretly wonder and agonize if I’m failing as a parent. Because the accusation strikes deep into my self doubt, the defensive shield of anger slams into place, leading me to want to rant about how that person really doesn’t understand what I deal with.

I see this exact dynamic play out on the internet constantly. People get angry and defensive, even when there wasn’t actually an attack, because the words said triggered the person’s self-doubt and the person projects that self-judgement onto the words of another.

I don’t have a conclusion to wrap these two conversations together. I just have ongoing thoughts as I pay attention to the way people interact with each other, particularly on the internet.

Interrupts, Books, and Star Gazing

Yesterday was not a day that went according to plan. The first turn was when my 14 year old texted from school because he was having a panic attack. I dropped what I was doing and went to help him. I’ve done it before, but this is the first time I’ve had to this school year. We went through more than half the year with no panic attacks at all. A huge improvement over last year when they averaged about one per week. My son’s current life is not his best life, his choices are still dictated by anxiety management. Yet we’re on the path that leads to a better life. Being able to see progress helps us to use this panic attack as an opportunity to examine triggers and coping strategies. We learn from it, we move on.

The second turn was when my 20 year old called me from the phone in the commons area of his school. He couldn’t call me from his cell phone because it wouldn’t stay on for more than two minutes without crashing. The phone is an essential life tool for him as he’s learning to track his own schedule and set his own alarms. The tech at the store confirmed that once a phone starts a crash loop like that, it is pretty much dead. Fortunately we don’t have any data to grieve, just a new phone to learn how to use.

Two turns doesn’t sound like a lot, but each one took several hours and in between them were a myriad of little tasks and errands. It meant the book was not finished yesterday.

But it was finished today. Random Access Memorabilia is done. I’m letting it rest over night. In the morning I’ll go through it one more time, then I upload it to the printer. It seems like a thing worthy of celebration. I rejoiced by immediately getting to work on the next two Schlock books. We’re ganging these two together in an attempt to optimize the process. We’ll see how that goes.

The day wrapped with a trip up the canyon. My 16 year old needed to count stars for an astronomy assignment. It’s an assignment that has been pending for more than a month because on the nights we remembered, there were clouds, and on the nights that were clear, we forgot.

Stars are counted. Book is done. Phone is replaced. Panic is managed and learned from. That’s a good score for two days.