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My amaryllis is blooming. It sits on the edge of my tub right by the bathroom door. I can’t see it until I enter the bathroom, then it is right there, a giant beautiful flower. I keep being surprised by it, “Oh that’s right. I have a flower.” Life needs more big beautiful surprises in it, particularly in mid winter.

Getting a Handle on January

Outside the weather is cold, gray, wet. That is not helping the moods indoors. I range from determination to anxiety as I contemplate all the tasks I must do this month in order to keep all the necessary business things moving forward at the pace required to meet deadlines. There are external factors in all of those deadlines. I already know which deadlines to let slide if I have to in order to meet more critical deadlines, but I don’t want any of them to slide. They’re there because I want things to be complete.

This week I get to ship packages containing the Pristine Seventy Maxims book. It is the first taste of completion. For some people their Kickstarter will finally be complete. Others will have to wait until next month when the Defaced Seventy Maxims books arrive. Still others will be waiting a bit longer for the full Planet Mercenary book. Fulfilling our promises to all of these people is the primary business task of the year. There are lots of moving parts to making sure that happens.

Sometimes I look at the calendar and despair because a week of the year is already gone. Other times I have to remind myself that I am only just past the first week of the year. I’m not out of time.

Along side the business priorities I have priorities related to family and community. I must set boundaries around these things. I can’t let business swamp family or community, but I can’t allow other things to disrupt business too much. This calls for a hundred judgement calls per day where I have to decide what is most important for the next fifteen minutes.

A new semester begins for two kids on Wednesday. Their schedules are being shuffled around. They can shake off the stresses of last semester and start a bit fresh. For Patch it means three homeschooled classes instead of just one. We don’t know how that is going to work quite yet. The last bits of the old semester caused quite a lot of stress last week. Unpleasantness and disruptions all around. Hopefully we can soon develop a better rhythm.

I’ve also begun my new church calling. I’ve been asked to serve as part of the compassionate service committee. This is the core of service in our congregation. It is our job to identify who needs help, whether it be meals, rides, company, resources, or anything else. Then we try to connect people with the help that they need. Sometimes it means asking others to be the helpers. Occasionally it means being a helper myself. It is important work and it fits right in with my goal to grow my heart. I would argue that helping people directly around us is essential work, particularly when the country’s political landscape is poised for upheaval. Whether the results of that upheaval will be good or bad, it is impossible to say from this vantage point, but I can guarantee that the process will create personal hardship for individuals. Change always does. So I need to be watching and helping.

And the helping will help me. With my heart not feeling quite so tight, I will be less afraid.

I could do with less cold and with longer days. January always gets to me. So I just need to hunch up and plow on through. Each day brings tasks closer to complete. Each day is an opportunity to serve. Each day the sunlight lasts a little longer. I have 22 days left in this month. I need to use them well.

Normal Teenagers

I was reading a book about parenting autistic teens into a self sufficient adulthood, and in the book there was an entire section which laid out the differences between Neurotypical (normal) teenagers and autistic ones. I read the description of the motivations, drives, and behaviors of normal teenagers. They are the things I’ve seen in movies and society told me to expect. And the descriptions matched none of my four children in their teen years.

A group blog that I read had a post from a woman lamenting that her child had been taken away by a UFO and replaced with an alien teenager. She described the troubles she was having and asked “Am I the only one who feels this way?” She was answered by a dozen comments saying “me too. I’m right there with you.” Not a single thing she wrote sounded familiar to me. My teens don’t ignore me to run off with friends. They don’t assume I’m an idiot. They don’t date. In fact I have pretty much the opposite of every problem the woman listed. I have to work hard and negotiate to get them to leave the house or invite friends over.

In some things I am glad that my teenagers are not typical. They’re amazing people. They think big thoughts, say clever things, and are empathetic. It is just strange to realize that the vast majority of people around me are living an entirely different parenting experience. Or maybe they’re not the majority, because I know a lot of parents with kids more like mine than like thy mythological “typical teen.” All I can do is seek out the parents who understand my challenges and keep space from those who would judge me because they don’t understand the circumstances that drive my choices.

New Year Ahead

new-year-aheadI watched Jaws a couple of days ago. I haven’t seen it in years. There were moments when it really had me tense and other moments where I could see exactly how fake the mechanical shark looked. The scene that sticks in my mind is the one with all the people splashing and playing in the water while the music plays its ominous theme. The new year feels a bit like that to me. From this moment I have no way to know if I’m going to get a pair of kids with a shark fin that scared me for no reason, or if there will be blood and guts in the water. I don’t like feeling this way about the coming year.

Instead of focusing on the ominous feeling, I’m instead going to focus on other things. Another story that I read over the holidays was How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I’ve written about this story before, but this year the thing which struck me was the moment when the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes. Before the growth the Grinch could not empathize. He could not love Christmas or the people who loved it. Then his heart grew and suddenly he did love all of the things which had been irritating before.

In order to make the world better, I have to start by expanding my own capacity to love and to enjoy. That starts with paying attention to the people immediately around me. In my neighborhood, my congregation, my kids’ schools. I need to notice who is vulnerable in the places where I spend my days. I must think about what I can do to befriend them, help them feel safe and welcomed. This will be difficult for me because in my day to day life I tend to avoid talking to people unless it is necessary. It takes extra effort for me to chat with a grocery store checker. I need to be willing to be uncomfortable. I need to be willing to speak up and to make phone calls. I need to ignore my financial stresses and make donations to good causes anyway. I need to sacrifice pieces of my day to reach out to others. I need to put people before my schedule. I have to be willing to turn my day upside down to defend others if the system turns against them or they have a bad break. This is the boots-on-the-ground work of changing society.

The fastest way to get a song out of my head is to consciously replace it with a different song, one I won’t mind listening to on repeat. So when I contemplate the new year and I begin to hear the ominous Jaws theme, I will instead sing the tune sung by the Whos down in Whoville, and I will grow my heart however many sizes is necessary to take on 2017.

Updates on Projects

The warehouse is cleared, pallets removed, boxes shifted. I’m almost ready for a shipment of books to arrive next week. I just need to shift a few more things and sweep the newly available space.

I’ve been working hard on Planet Mercenary. Much of what I’ve been doing is organizational. I took on half of the art director job, deciding what art we need done, contacting artists, and assigning work. It seems strange that spending so much time sending and responding to email counts as being productive, but it is necessary.

Work on the house remodel is on hold through the end of January. Both Howard and I need to keep our project energy firmly focused on Planet Mercenary.

Many of the parenting tasks are on hold this week. There are things we need to do in order to help all the people in our house have healthier lives, but we’re not pushing any of it forward during the space between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The new year is coming fast. I drive Kiki back to school on Monday, where she’ll hopefully have a calmer semester than the last one was. The other kids start back to school on Wednesday. It would feel like a fresh start, except that our school district doesn’t end the semester with Christmas break. Instead the end of the semester is a week and a half into the next year. So we always arrive back at school feeling muddled and rushed to get all the end of semester things done.

I don’t actually know how I feel about having a new year. This one was a muddled mess of things getting better on a personal level and feeling more perilous on the public stage. I don’t want to live in dread and fear, but I’m cautious about talking myself into hope and optimism. If things end up being hard, I don’t want to have to deal with cleaning up shards of shattered hope while I’m dealing with the hard. So mostly I’m putting my head down, trying to ignore the change over of the year, and put one foot ahead of the other on all my projects. Bit by bit they’ll all get done. Since all of them are specifically designed to make the world better (even if only in small personal ways) that step by step approach is a “Make the World Better” effort.

Merry Christmas

Wrapping paper
That one weird present everyone boggles over
The present which is exactly what a person was hoping for
The present that was handmade and tailored to the recipient
The gift that doesn’t work out of the box and will need to be exchanged
The note card which says the present is still en route
Games to play later
Movies to watch
Dinner yet to come
These are some of the pieces from which a Christmas morning is made. Hope yours has some of these and many more.

Love and light to all.

The Evolution of Imaginative Play

My first exposure to Role Playing Games was laying on the floor underneath the table while my three older siblings hunched over Advanced D&D books, rolling dice to kill masses of Gnolls. I was six. When they started up a new campaign, I begged to play. They reluctantly allowed me to. So for me Role playing meant books, dice, hand drawn maps on graph paper, and many loose sheets of paper. Around age fourteen I gave up on Role Play. It was too socially complicated since the only people who would play with me were boys and the vast majority of my peers didn’t understand it at all.

When my children were young and I watched them play, I realized that their free form play was essentially a Role Play without dice, paper, and rules to give boundaries to the mutual story. I remembered my own imaginative games as a child. I was able to imagine so strongly that I could almost see the things I was pretending. I also remember the day that pretending stopped working for me. Two friends had come for a sleepover. We were in the opening negotiations of dressing up and beginning the story when one of my friends paused and said “This is silly.” In that moment I couldn’t see it as anything but silly. Self consciousness banished pretend play forever. I was twelve.

Interestingly, twelve was also when I began to focus more on writing stories. Pretending on paper was much more socially acceptable than putting on dress ups and waving pretend swords in the backyard. When I reached adulthood I recognized that one of the biggest values of D&D and the paper RPGs that followed was that they gave adults permission to play pretend again. I assumed I would see the same pattern with my own children, that around twelve they would swap over to structured play bounded by rules and paper.

I was wrong. Twelve faded into thirteen and then fourteen while my kids still ran about in the backyard with friends. They also took it online, not into the structured mmorpgs that adults gravitated to. Instead places like Minecraft or Roblocks became platforms for role play in the same free form mode that I saw in my backyard. Gradually, with no fanfare, the online role playing took the place of running around in the yard. My kids have participated in role play (which could also be called cooperative storytelling) on Mincraft, Roblocks, DeviantArt, Google Docs, Terraria, Skype, and probably two or three other places that I don’t know about. It seems as long as the program has a way to connect with friends and a chat function, it can be used for role play.

I’m happy to live in a world where imaginative play is not the sole province of children. Play is good for all of us, no matter what our age may be.

Working in the Warehouse

The shipment is expected the first week of January. Two pallets, one thousand pounds. It is a small shipment by our usual standards, but the warehouse space wasn’t organized to receive it. I still had four pallets of Force Multiplication sitting in the middle of the floor. They needed to be combined into two pallets against a wall. Then there were the slipcases, four pallets across, three pallets high. All of those slipcases needed to be relocated into the upstairs section of the warehouse. They’re the only thing we have which is light enough to go up there. Even with light boxes, the work piles up when there are 400 boxes and a set of stairs involved.

I drafted my children. These days they are all adult sized. I’ve arrived at a point where I house my own work crew. I could have just said “this business pays our bills, you will help.” But I sweetened the deal by offering to pay them all by the hour. Saturday around noon, we piled into the car and set to work.

The first twenty minutes are always full of squabbling. They don’t squabble with quite the vigor that they used to, but in the opening minutes of a job like this, no one quite knows their job. People get into each others way and they grouch a bit. During those twenty minutes, I sometimes wonder if I would have been better to get outside help. Then they found their rhythm. They began to daisy chain boxes to the bottom of the stairs. Then daisy chain again to get them up and stashed. They learned how to toss boxes and catch them. They challenged each other, trying to work faster than a sibling could keep up. They laughed. When physical limitations made the work end before all the boxes were moved, all the kids said they wanted to come back and finish the job.

We went again today. Again it took twenty minutes to find our rhythm. And for the warehouse to warm up enough that they stopped complaining about the cold. Kiki had showered right before, so we had to take an old Schlock shirt and tie it onto her head as a makeshift hat to keep her head from freezing. Gleek decided that merely stacking boxes wasn’t quite good enough. So I now have a lovely box fort upstairs. Patch even made a cannon from an old piece of metal duct that was laying around.

At the end of the work, we could all see how much space we’d made. I’ll have plenty of room to receive my pallets of books, and the second (much larger) shipment that is due in February. The next big task is to get rid of thirty wooden pallets that we have stacked on the floor. That’s a job for a truck or a trailer.

Moving all the boxes inspired the kids. All four of them jumped on their computers to play a shared game of Minecraft. They’ve been at it for four hours now. I can hear them calling out to each other and laughing. Playing together comes easily and naturally for people who have worked together. I keep forgetting that. My kids are likely to be conscripted as work crew more often. I think they’ll be good with that.

On the Writing I Haven’t Been Doing

“And how is your writing coming?” my friend asked after we’d spent half an hour talking about various business things having to do with the publishing industry and Schlock Mercenary. I had to answer “not doing much lately.”

My neighbor came to my door with chocolates. “My mother said that I should give these to that lady who wrote the blog.” I thanked my neighbor, honored to be included in their tradition again.

The message came in on Facebook. “I’ve read your picture books and one short story, have you written any other science fiction?” I answered that I used to, and it used to be available via places A,B,C, but all those places have vanished off the internet. These days my stories mostly live on my hard drive, except for the few I’ve posted to Patreon.

I was reading The Starlit Wood, an anthology of fairy tale retellings. It is one of the few books where I’ve felt like the authors really captured the feel of folklore rather than using the plot of folklore and adding twists or set dressing. There is a place for (and a power in) both types of retelling, but I love it when a story understands that the core of a fairy tale is in what it says to and about the people who tell the story. Fairy tales and folklore are how we tell each other what we’re afraid of, what things are acceptable, what things are punished, and who we are as people. When I closed the book, my brain said “I want to write some stories like that.” and it began thinking through what folklore and traditions I might pull from.

The title of a picture book showed up in my brain while I was on a road trip. Lines and plot sketches soon followed. A second picture book resurfaced in my memory, reminding me it is waiting to be written. A third idea from long ago came back to me and said “maybe I’m a picture book.” That makes three.

Essays sit, partially written on the desktop of my computer. Some are only notes for things I might want to write. Some are barely concepts. I would like to collect a book of essays grouped by thematic topic rather than year of writing. But the project feels daunting and hard to justify.

And then there is the middle grade novel, drafted and awaiting editing. It feels dusty. I can’t see the bright things about it that drew me to write it in the first place. It is possible that if I picked it up, I could blow the dust away and turn it into something compelling. Right now I’m letting it sit because I don’t need another thing pinging around in my brain.

My mind turns over the possibilities for running another picture book Kickstarter. If I got the three books written, I could contract with a couple of artists. Maybe I could get them funded. Hold on to Your Horses was not a huge success out of the gate, but it is a little engine that could. It continues to creep out into the world, finding new children and parents who need it. Strength of Wild Horses goes hand in hand with it. They’ve done well enough that I can consider sinking additional effort and funds into more picture books. Maybe. My desire needs to be strong enough that I’m willing to dig another financial and energy hole which will only be filled gradually. My accountant brain runs numbers, factoring in the fact that if the accountant doesn’t allow the creative some leeway, then we all plunge into depression.

First we have to finish Planet Mercenary. That is the show stopper in most of my imagined possibilities. I have obligations there. Until I ship packages to five thousand backers, I can’t do the final accounting to see whether we even have the funds for me to do more projects. I am both excited about and exhausted by the Planet Mercenary project. Sometimes those feelings come in rotation, other times they co-exist.

Then there is the guilt that I’ve been running a Patreon for a couple of years, and I’m not at all certain I’ve honored that gift of patronage. They are supporting my writing, and I’ve done so little of it. I ponder closing it down.

I end each day with a long list of things I meant to do. I can think back through the hours and know that few of them were wasted. There just weren’t enough of them. Or there wasn’t enough energy to make use of them all. Sometimes my lists are so discouraging to me that I ignore the master list on my phone and instead make a secondary list on paper. Forget my grand plan of productivity, what do I really need to get done on that day. I end the day with items not crossed off on the paper list. Some of this is just the fact of December. This is the month of extra shipping, extra customer support, extra promotional efforts. It is also a month of extra trips to stores and extra financial calculations to figure out if we can afford the gifts which would be most useful or joyful. We eschew most concerts and parties, yet we still find our days filled up.

All of the considerations swirl about in my head, but I have to come back to the realization that three times in the past week I’ve had people spontaneously come to me to inquire after some aspect of my writing. That’s three witnesses telling me writing should get a larger share of my attention. I believe in the power of witness, particularly when there are two, or three, or more of them. The stories themselves are lifting their heads and asking “Is it time for me?” I’d like to clear out, make space, and say yes.

A List of Medical Specialties My Family has Needed over the Years

This list could also be called, Reasons I am Glad to Live in a World of Modern Medicine.
Family practice doctor
Many nurses and PAs
ENT surgeon
Radiation Oncologist
Cardiac care nurse
Pediatric urologist
Ultrasound technician
X-ray technician
MRI technician
CAT scan technician
Pediatric surgeon
Pediatric neurologist
EEG technician
EKG technician
Pediatric Psychiatrists
Licensed therapists

All of those for a family of six that is basically healthy. It is possible that some of the things we consulted these professionals for would have resolved on their own without intervention, but some of these interventions were life saving. Without medical intervention I would likely be dead by now, slowly choked to death by a throat tumor. Howard might not have survived his myocarditis in 1999, or his C Diff infection in 2013.

The only point I have here is that I am extremely grateful for modern medicine and I would really like to be able to continue to afford preventative care which allows us to stay well and lets us be contributing members of society. I don’t know what 2018 will bring on the healthcare front. I don’t know how much of my income will have to go toward premiums (in 2017, it’ll be about 25%) I don’t even know if I’ll have the option to purchase a healthcare plan at all. I will be pleased with any political party which delivers affordable healthcare that allows me to see the listed specialists as I need to. I will be angry at any party which makes seeing doctors more difficult and more expensive.

For now I guess I should be glad that the current round of testing and appointments will likely be concluded before the end of the year so that they can go on this year’s deductible instead of the much higher one for next year.