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Packing Along Ways to Cope

In the near future I am taking my family on a cruise. It is a big trip that I’ve spent quite a lot of time planning and saving for. It is the sort of trip where people are supposed to leave behind all the trappings of regular life and go have adventures. We’re not going to do that. Adventures, yes. Leave everything behind, no. There isn’t a member of my family who doesn’t have some sort of mental health issue. Some of the management techniques for these issues involved coping strategies and controlling our environments. If you remove us from our regular environments and coping mechanisms, we melt down in fairly spectacular fashion. Howard and I discovered this last year when we went on a cruise. It turns out that both he and I function much better as human beings when we have an internet connection. When we wander through our usual internet rounds, we show our brain that everything is okay, predictable, normal. If internet makes the cruise enjoyable, then buying the internet package seems like a no brainer.

For the past week I’ve been watching my kids and evaluating which coping things we need to bring with us. I’m bringing DVDs of familiar shows, because several of us use shows as a form of emotional regulation. We’ll be bringing hand held video games for the same reason. I’m contemplating packing along one of our weighted blankets despite what that will do to the weight of our luggage. We’ve got travel speakers so that people can have their night time music. All of us will bring phones with an international texting plan so that we can find each other in anxious moments. Even with all of that, I expect there to be moments where one or another of us gets melty and just wants to be back at home. It is possible that someone will flip out and I’ll have to spend a portion of my trip actively helping that person make it through. But I don’t think so. I think that of the big family trips we could take, this cruise is going to fit into a relatively comfortable place for most of us. The travel days with multiple plane flights will be the hardest part.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to not have to do this level of planning for emotional management. I also wonder if we actually need this level of planning, or if it is all just a manifestation of my anxiety. Whatever it is, the planning is mostly done, which is good.

Household Tasks are Complicated

Sometime in the last month I had a conversation with a friend where we were commiserating about how often we feel like failures. She said something along the lines of “Yeah, I got grocery shopping done today. That’s it.” I don’t really remember the rest of the conversation, but that sentiment (and the self-critical tone she used to say it) have stuck with me.

As a society we seriously underestimate the value of household tasks such as grocery shopping and laundry. I’m not just talking about how we don’t pay money for this work, we also speak of these things as if maintaining a functioning household is so simple that every adult should be able to do it without stress. That is simply not true. Many household tasks are very complex, we just lose sight of that complexity because they are so familiar that some of them have become routine for us. Anything we practice becomes easier for us to accomplish, but that does not make the task itself easy.

Take grocery shopping for example. It requires the ability to inventory food currently stored at your house. Then you have to plan for future eating based on your past eating experiences. You have to evaluate rate-of-use on foods to decide when is the right time to replenish a particular item. You also have to calculate how much money you have available to spend, which might require a review of your budget. You have to look at your schedule to figure out when you have time to make the trip, which requires a knowledge of how long grocery shopping usually takes. You have to arrange for transportation of yourself to the store and back with the groceries. Even if you have a car readily available to you, that adds an entire set of tasks to keep the car functioning so that it may be used at a moment’s notice. Once you are at the store, you have hundreds of micro decisions to make. If you didn’t bring a list, you have to remember what you have at home and select based on that memory. Whether or not you brought a list, you have to navigate the store to find the items that you need. This requires a knowledge of what items are usually grouped together and where this particular store puts that particular grouping of items. While in the store you are confronted with hundreds of items which tempt you to purchase them. You have to decide, on the fly, whether or not you should. This involves thinking about budget, space in cupboards/fridge/freezer, and also an evaluation for whether this tempting item matches the diet or lifestyle that you want to have. Each micro decision makes your brain a little bit tired, rendering each subsequent decision fractionally more difficult than the one before it. When your cart is full or your list complete, you face further micro decisions: which line to check out, how to stack things on the conveyor, and paper or plastic. Or if you use a self-check option, then you need to navigate the system of ringing up and bagging your own groceries. When you arrive at home, all the things you have purchased need to be relocated to their appropriate storage locations.

Grocery shopping is far from simple. It is a hugely complex task and it is only one of many household tasks that require regular attention to keep things running. Yet we tend to discount the time, effort, brain necessary to make sure these tasks happen. If you add in tending to the needs of pets or other people, the level of complexity multiplies. It is all valuable work. Yet so often we (I definitely include myself in this) arrive at the end of a day full of household tasks feeling like we accomplished nothing important. Which is funny, because for people who lack basic necessities, these “simple” household and life maintenance tasks are of primary importance.

Adulting is hard. Most people struggle with some aspect of it. I’m watching my adult children as they learn to navigate all the household management stuff, and it reminds me how complicated it really is.

Thinking about Culture and Fluency

This past week, in between all the business and parenting to do lists, I was thinking about cultural fluency. I first thought about it weeks ago when a pair of presidential nominees both decided to write Op-Ed columns aimed at Utah and Mormons in particular. As a Utah-based Mormon person, they were both attempting to speak to me. One definitely came across as an outsider, not quite comprehending what is important to this demographic and why it matters to us. The other had a piece that sounded as if it had been written by someone who was raised as a Mormon. It not only hit the exact emotional notes that would appeal, it also used all the jargon words correctly. After reading the piece I had to stop and think about whether I was impressed that the candidate took the time to hire someone who was completely culturally fluent, or if I felt it was a little disingenuous for the candidate to pretend to a fluency they do not actually have. I still haven’t decided.

Reading the pieces brought to my attention, in a way I hadn’t seen before, that culture is subtle and extremely nuanced. My sister once commented that sometimes she is instantly comfortable with a person she just met. Usually she discovers that this person spent childhood or early adult years in California, Utah, Idaho, or Arizona. As a person who has lived abroad, she found that fascinating. She eventually decided that the difference is in the small things, the turn of phrase, how close the person stands, the way they accept or decline an offer, all the tiny social contracts that vary from region to region even when all the regions speak the same language. It is strange for me to realize that as I move through the world I am automatically behaving in ways that will make some people more comfortable with me and others less so.

I thought about this again when I watched the first episode of a show called Quantico. It was about new recruits in the FBI training program. I was surprised to see one of the recruits being a Mormon, returned missionary from Salt Lake City, Utah. It makes sense I guess. The FBI does heavy recruiting in Utah because the clean living which Mormons impose on themselves make them less susceptible to certain methods of corruption. This was even mentioned in the show. Once I got over my surprise, I was quite curious to see how the show would handle this Mormon character. Would they do enough research? Would this character be written with cultural fluency or would I be left thinking “No Mormon would do that.” I didn’t get a chance to see. The Mormon character died before the end of the first episode in a very abrupt way. It was like the show writers wanted to acknowledge the Mormon/FBI thing, but they didn’t want to actually have to deal with getting a Mormon character right.

We learn so much about how the world works from social context. It is the kids around us in school that teach us what is acceptable and what is not. Often these lessons are unpleasant because humans can be cruel to those who make them uncomfortable by being different. Social context is in our entertainment as well, which is why it is unfortunate that so much of it is generic culture. So much entertainment assumes that most audiences will identify with characters who are white, medium to college educated, not particularly religious, and middle class. The thing is, that person isn’t actually neutral. The culture we see on TV is a fiction that is lacking specific cultural fluency. In some ways this is the creators of shows playing it safe. If they have their characters inhabit a generic American culture, then they won’t get angry emails from people telling them what cultural mistakes they made. I know that any time I see a Mormon character on the screen, I pay close attention to see if that character is mis-representing my people. I don’t get to pay that attention very often.

I was also thinking about how social culture is created. I used an example of the things school kids teach to each other. There are so many cultural things which schools and educators assume their students will learn at home or pick up automatically. Social skills and life skills aren’t explicitly taught. We’re expected to learn them by observing and living around other people. Except this leaves every single one of us with gaps in our knowledge. I see this with my kids all the time. School teaches them how to take turns on the playground and expects them to extrapolate that into adults who know how to take turns in a conversation. Except being socially fluent is so much more nuanced than taking turns for a slide. I wonder how a focus on social education would change the incidences of bullying inside a school.

I don’t really have any conclusion for all these loose thoughts other than to say that how people interact with their cultures is fascinating. There is so much nuance and I’m really glad that I live in a world where nuances and differences exist.

Days that Seem Hard, but Aren’t Really

Wednesday wasn’t really hard, not in comparison to some of the hard days we’ve had in the past few years. At least this time my kid was able to recognize the impending meltdown, call me, and articulate what went wrong. I still had to bring him home and let him curl up under a weighted blanket with a soft thing to hug tight until the shakes went away. Yet both he and I spent some time with the thought “how are we going to do this year if things are already going off the rails?” Except things weren’t off the rails, not really. This year he has several classes that he actively enjoys and looks forward to attending. This year he’s able to call me between classes and tell me “I think it might be good for me to have a notebook so I could write notes on when I’m anxious. Then we could figure out what is triggering it.” This year he is looking for solutions instead of flopping into a heap.

Thursday was a little hard, but only in my head. The events of Wednesday churned up emotional sediment that clouded my thinking all day long. I woke to the day certain that anything I touched was doomed to failure. So I pitched my plan to do creative work and instead asked Howard to give me the files for Random Access Memorabilia. Doing layout on a Schlock book is familiar. I know exactly how it needs to go. The work was comforting because I know it isn’t overdue or complicated.

This morning was better. All my kids attended all of their classes. I was able to see that I’m not failing at everything. I can also see that despite shifting around kids’ school schedules multiple times, and despite having to bring my son home mid-day 3 times (so far) We’re still aimed at having a good school year. Of course there is a great big disruption coming up in two weeks when I take all of my kids on the Writing Excuses cruise. That will mean missed classes, make up work, and having to re-orient ourselves when we get back. Yet that too will be a learning experience.

Letter to the School

Dear school,

I’m glad that you have remediation programs which are designed to help students make up work when they don’t get it done. I like the focus on making sure that no assignment and no kid falls through the cracks. However I do wonder who thought that names like ZAP and CLAW were a good fit for these programs. Surely you could have thought up some non-punitive sounding name? Something where the kid doesn’t feel imminent doom the minute he’s notified that he’s been ZAPped or CLAWed? Something that sounds less like you’re going to tear a kid to shreds or electrocute him? Did no one stop to think, sure that’s a nice short acronym, but it doesn’t sound friendly?

The mother of a kid who already has an anxiety disorder which your names are not helping.

First Week of School in Review

So how did that first week of school go? Well…

Gleek spent most of the weekend asleep. I think she was short on sleep and needed to catch up. I also think that the brain work necessary to adapt to her new social environment was also exhausting. The week passed without incident, which lowers my level of alert.

We rearranged Patch’s schedule twice during that first week, but the current configuration looks to be a winner. It allows him some classes that I think he has a shot at really enjoying. It would be nice if he had something at school which he really wants to do.

Kiki likes her new roommates, has settled into her schedule, and gives me updates every so often. We have scheduled appointments for plot discussions about a story she is working on.

We hit the first argument with Link about drifting vs motivated progression. It was a lightweight argument, over quickly. Probably won’t be the last, but I can see him beginning to move forward a bit. His classes begin in October.

I spent most of my work time head down in the 70 Maxims book. Most of it has been handed off to the designer, though there are still some bits missing. My job during the first part of this week is to collect those missing bits. Then I need to dive into work on Planet Mercenary. That project needs to be rolling forward at a faster pace than we had in August.

After the first two days of school where I was astonished at the increase of quiet and order in my house, my brain has now decided that the long stream of early school mornings represents a slog. I’m working to convince my brain this is not true. I suspect that some of the dread is residual emotion left over from the fact that I’ve had four school years running when one or more of my children melted down in fairly spectacular fashion. I’ve forgotten that school year does not necessarily mean incoming emotional meltdown. Unfortunately I don’t think my brain will truly be able to let go of the emotions until we’ve passed through most (or all) of the anniversaries of meltdown.

Howard is scrambling to replenish the depleted buffer. This effort is not assisted by the fact that he’s currently in the climax of a story line, which means big fancy art with fighting elephants, armored polar bears, and many explosions. It also doesn’t help that I keep having to go to him and ask for bits of writing for Planet Mercenary or the 70 Maxims book. This has been such a long haul in getting these things done. I will be glad when I can have the 70 Maxims book off to print, bringing our ongoing book prep projects down to one. It won’t stay there long. I’ve got to start work on the next Schlock book. Also we need to come up with some new merchandise for the holiday shopping season.

On Saturday night at 9pm, Howard wandered into my office and discovered me working. His wander was just because he was taking a short break from his own work. “We really are always working.” he said. I had to agree. This is normal for us, working into the evening and on weekends. In theory we’ll be able to have more free time once Planet Mercenary is off to print. In reality, we’ll probably come up with another project, but I certainly won’t be ready to undertake something as massive as Planet Mercenary any time soon.

We’re poised to have a good school year, but what I really need to do is stop trying to consider the entire year ahead. I just need to do today. If I can make today a good place, and do the same thing for each today as it arrives, then the year will take care of itself.

Underwater Portrait

I acquired a waterproof camera because I expect the Writing Excuses cruise with my kids to include water-based events that I want to record. I took it to a local pool to test out how it works, the answer is: pretty well. Seeing the screen underwater was a bit of a challenge, as was aiming for moving targets. But out of 170 photos, a few turned out really well.
Underwater portrait web

On the Third Day of School

Yesterday I cleaned my desk, both the physical one covered in papers and the electronic one that was littered with files. Last week I had a vague awareness that things were messy, but I couldn’t even see the mess for what it was. Yesterday I didn’t even think about it. It was just obvious that this paper needs to go there and that file can now be thrown out. As easy as breathing I restored order, where over the summer the task would have been overwhelming. Obviously the difference has a root in the beginning of the school schedule, but it took me some thinking to figure out why. Just like putting an organizer into a junk drawer makes it easier for me to sort junk into useful categories, putting a school schedule into my week creates compartments of time and allows me to better separate out the different roles I need to manage. I always forget what it is like to have my days organized. It gets jumbled so gradually as my intended summer schedule melts under the pressure of late nights and the knowledge that since the structure is mine, I can alter it at will.

This is day three of the new schedule. My two live-at-home school kids have now been to all their classes. (Kiki has too, but I don’t expect daily reports from a college-going adult.) We’ve had first assessments of teachers and the result is 3/4 positive, 1/8 wait and see, 1/8 probably needs to be altered. That is a good mix for starting the year. Of course, day three is when getting out of bed begins being harder. My first thought this morning was “Ugh, I’m going to have to do this all year. It is going to be a long year.” Except that getting up early becomes less difficult when it becomes routine. And I do love getting to 10am with lots of work already done.

The 70 Maxims book project has developed momentum. I’ve been working hard to get it all done. The designer has done some amazing work for the cover. I’m excited to get to show it off in a few weeks. I’m also hugely relieved to have this project so close to going to the printer. Unfinished projects loom in my brain.

Drop Off and First Day

Pulling out of the driveway didn’t feel like an event, not really, not even with my daughter Kiki’s life packed into the back of the car so she could re-establish herself in her college apartment. We’ve done this before, enough times that I have to pause and think to count them. There was a subtle difference this time, I can feel that we’re nearing the end. She only has 3 semesters left to finish her degree. We’re nearing the time when her life will shift into its next phase, but not quite yet. For now, she gets to have another year with roommates and college classes.

We went out to dinner the night before departure, Kiki, Patch, and I. Patch is firmly of the opinion that there should be a trip out for sushi anytime that Kiki is at home. I sat at the table with my oldest and my youngest (the other two are less fond of sushi and Howard was out of town.) Somehow the conversation turned to school things, and Kiki began telling tales of her junior high experiences. Kiki freely confessed some of the ways in which she made life more difficult for me and for her teachers during those years. I watched Patch as he listened and absorbed the information that this adult sister of his was not-too-long-ago much less adult. I could see him recognizing that if she could be that bad and end up where she’s at now, maybe he could have good paths ahead too. Patch shared some of his stories as well. Kiki listened and laughed along with the various predicaments and adventures. I was so glad we made time for the dinner. I think it gave Patch a chance to re-frame his experiences and contextualize him. It gave him a better shot at having a good year.

The morning of the departure, Link was sad. He would have liked to ride with Kiki and I to drop her off. Link likes long car rides. Unfortunately Kiki’s belongings fill the entire back of my car. In an effort to help him feel better, we went out to breakfast. I’m not sure it worked, but the food was good. Link will be home with us this year because there are ways in which he needs to grow and learn before taking on higher education.

The drive to college was filled with conversation. You’d think that after a summer of living in the same house, we’d have used up all the ready made topics. Somehow the act of packing up the car and driving opened up new sections of thoughts in our brains. We talked about things that we haven’t really paid attention to for most of the summer. Life feels like it has a forward momentum again now that we’ve moved out of the eddy of summer. I didn’t stay long at her apartment. Other years I’ve lingered for hours because we didn’t quite want to let go. Neither she nor I needed that this time. Some of it is influenced by the fact that we’ll see each other again in only three weeks when we’re taking a big family trip together. More of it is because she’s in a good place, ready to face forward and learn new things.

That drop off was two days ago. This morning I dropped Gleek at the high school and waved to Link as he left for his bus stop. The house is quiet. I’ve been awake since 6:30 and working since 8am. I love the structure that school schedule provides to our days. Over time it begins to wear on me, but for today it is a breath of relief. I have more space in my day to really focus on the work I have to do. I don’t know why it feels that way, since my kids are old enough that they don’t really interfere with work anymore. But somehow having them in the house puts part of my brain on parenting duty, and that part can rest when they’re at school. By afternoon I’ll be checking in on the school kids and evaluating what else needs to be done today. I’ll find out how the first days went and whether we have any issues to manage. I don’t really expect any. The hard stuff doesn’t pop up until later.

Walking Into High School

I just watched my 15 year old Gleek walk into the high school building for her orientation day. There was this moment when she walked past the pep squad sent to greet all the incoming sophomores, where the bottom dropped out of my stomach because I could see all the way my daughter was visibly different from what is standard dress and behavior in our community. We live in a place with a predominant religion. In our town 80% of the students she meets will be LDS (Mormon). Since we are too, this is a little bit comforting. We have at least a baseline expectation for what priorities and values the people around us hold, even though there is a lot of individual variation in how committed people are and how they interpret doctrine. My daughter is a walking, visual variation.

The norm in our community is short hair for boys, long hair for girls, conservative dress, natural hair colors. Even the teens who aren’t Mormon tend to follow this norm. Utah is very clean cut, Orem especially so. This morning my daughter walked into the school building with bright blue hair cut into an anime style pixie cut, short in the back, long near her face. She wore flowered cargo shorts and a black hat. Her arms were adorned with sharpie marker flowers and swirls reminiscent of tattoos. Her surface defies the norms of our community. Her heart embraces our religion. She loves church, and she consciously examines its doctrines. She studies scriptures on her own. She has developed her own relationship with God which is part of how she navigates her personal challenges.

Mostly she’s gotten positive reactions from people at church. I get lots of women telling me that they love her blue hair, that she’s adorable. Thus far I haven’t heard from people who think her blue hair is a sign that she is drifting, lost, or not committed. I assume those people are out there, and I’m grateful that thus far they are keeping their judgements to themselves. What I don’t know is how her surface appearance will affect her relations with peers at school. High school always sorts itself into groups. I worry that she’ll be pushed into groups where her appearance matches rather than being able to find places where her heart matches, no matter what she looks like. She enters the school with a group of established friends who have long accepted her for who she is. I hope that continues. I hope she finds people who celebrate both her internal strength and her enthusiastic creativity. I hope she finds friends who will be there and support her on the hard days, because high school always has hard days.

There are so many things I hope and fear. Mostly I try to not let those hopes and fears leak to where she can see them. My emotions are mine, she shouldn’t have to feel the weight of them. In a few hours I’ll go pick her up and I’ll get to hear how everything went. I would love for this year to be more aligned with hopes than with fears.