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The Beginning of April

TulipIn April the fact of spring becomes obvious. This makes my heart happy. Yet I have a habit of being tangled up inside my own head and failing to notice the world around me. This is particularly true since I don’t have to leave my house to go to work. There was one year where I looked up at the beginning of May and realized that I had completely missed daffodil and tulip season. This year I plan to pay attention. The world is full of small beautiful things that exist whether or not I take time to see them, but my life is enriched when I take time to notice. And some of them do get more beautiful for my attention. The flowers in my gardens grow stronger, bigger, more beautiful when I take time to pull weeds and scatter fertilizer.

02 Forget-me-not
I took some time to do that yesterday. I also planted some summer bulbs that are a gift to myself in June when they bloom. I also uncovered small gifts that I planted for myself some months prior, like this little forget-me-not. I love forget-me-nots. They remind me of playing with a childhood friend. We weren’t allowed to touch his mother’s roses, but we could pick as many of the tiny blue flowers as we wanted. Each plant only lives for about two years. Once the plant expends all its energy into flowers, the plant itself dies, but from among the hundreds of seeds, new plants will sprout, spreading tiny blue loveliness for next year.

03 Apricot blossom
The arrival of April reminds me that I was supposed to prune trees and grape vines in early March. Hopefully I’ll get out there during this next week while my kids are on Spring Break. I may even declare a yard work day and get the kids to help me. The abundance of blossoms on my apricot tree are a testament to the value of pruning. Two years ago the tree was weak and straggly. It had over-produced fruit for two years in a row. I pruned it back vigorously last spring, cutting off all the branches which might have borne fruit. This forced the tree to focus on leaves, which feed the tree, rather than on fruit, which takes energy from the tree and gives it to the possibility of future trees rather than feeding the tree it came from. The tree grew strong again, and this spring it is covered in blossoms, which are beautiful to see. As soon as the blooms fade, I’ll trim the tree again. I’ll not trim off all the fruit, but I’ll thin it out so that the tree can supply some fruit, but still have energy for more leaves. There is probably a lesson for me in self management as I consider managing this tree.

This April, in an effort to nourish myself and to share beauty, I plan to be posting a photo a day over on my twitter feed. They may all be plants and flowers from my garden. Or they may be something else that catches my eye. The only rules I’m attempting to abide by, are post at least one per day, and only post pictures that bring me happiness. You’re welcome to follow along.

April Fools Day is not my Favorite

If seen some wonderful online pranks, things that made me happy at their existence. The annual roll-out of ridiculous merchandise on Think Geek is a good example. I go there to see and laugh, but I am not tricked. I have dear friends who love the online pranking. In general I don’t. It raises my ambient level of anxiety because every single thing I look at, I have to think “Is this real?” And then there are the pranks that punch me right in the anxiety triggers.

For example, this morning Gmail added a button called “mic drop” where if you sent an email using it, an animated gif was added to your message and all responses to that email chain would be automatically archived. The trouble is that the button was right next to the send button, and I could picture myself accidentally clicking it and losing track of important business communications. Other Gmail customers reacted as I did, and the button was deactivated shortly after I saw it.

I spent some time yesterday thinking about how some people don’t ride chemically induced waves of mood on a daily basis. At least I think they don’t. I’ve heard rumors. That is not my lived experience. My daily existence involves management of stresses, and close attention paid to when people are over stimulated. And then there are days like yesterday where everything is fine when I wake up, but things go emotionally sideways, not because of events, but because of weirdness inside my head. I wonder if I would enjoy April Fools Day more if I didn’t have to manage the psychology in my household quite so much.

For now, I’m just going to look at this photo of a flower I took this morning. I may do photo a day again this April. I enjoyed that last year.
Tulip

Ordinary day

It always takes a few days for me to sort myself out post-convention. I would dearly love to just spring back to work, but energy and sleep debts must be paid. The good news is that as of today, I appear to be paid in full. I plowed through some work on Force Multiplication, bringing it closer to print ready. I wanted to work more on Planet Mercenary, perhaps I’ll find a spurt of energy later this evening.

…and apparently I did because it is now later in the evening and I got some more work done. We only have 14 more margin art spaces to fill in Force Multiplication. That and creating textures for the cover. Then we’ll be ready to test print. So close.

I had to take some time to play homework warden this afternoon. Gleek had an overdue essay to complete. Patch had to face the dire assignment of drawing a still life. This actually is pretty dire to him. It punches his anxiety buttons, because his brain screams at him that he’ll get it wrong and that will be his ultimate doom. But we can’t excuse him from all of life’s hard things on account of anxiety, so I’m giving him space to wrestle with this a bit. Hopefully he’ll be able to make himself get started tomorrow.

Some days are just ordinary. Perhaps I’ll have thoughtful things to post on a different day.

Watched Daredevil

A person as amazing and wonderful as Karen deserves to be someone’s first choice and first priority. I mean, sure go save the world and save lives, but she should come before the other stuff. Just saying.

Also, secrets and lies are never good for relationships.

Powerful show to evoke such strong reactions and discussion. Beautifully filmed. Far more blood and death than I was comfortable with, yet the show was all about the consequences of choices, what makes a hero, and where the line is between hero and villain.

Convention Thoughts and Decisions

The Bright Moments:

Getting to visit with our friends Jim Zub and Stacy King, whom we don’t see nearly often enough. Our table was right next to theirs, which gave us lots of hours to talk and laugh.

The ten year old girl who came to our table and looked through Howard’s sketch book. I was able to talk to her about drawing every day and about the scribbled page where Howard was just experimenting with new pens. It was such a brief interaction, but I could tell that this young artist was absorbing information to take home and use.

Another little girl about the same age who listened to Howard talk about art. Her eyes alight with possibility and dreams. Her dad was taking her from table to table to talk to all the artists.

Reconnecting with friends who come find our table and take time to visit with us.

The moments when fans seek us out to tells us that they love Schlock. Whether or not they buy things at the booth, they give us energy and remind us of why we do the things that we do. Those moments are treasures.

Getting to sit on a panel with six other creative people and talk about how to make space in our lives for creativity. It is always amazing to hear the different approaches that people take and the ways in which creative processes are similar. Then after the panel, having an audience member come up and thank us. I could see in her eyes that something said in the panel had given her hope and a new drive to create.

Talking with the convention center sound guy in one of the panel rooms. He’s spent fifteen years working at the Salt Palace convention center. He’s seen all sorts of shows. He told me that the comic cons are in his top three favorite shows because of the positive energy that the crowds bring. He loves seeing the creative energy and the inclusiveness. He loves seeing people realize that they are not alone. Listening to him talk reminded me that these shows are amazing and joyous gifts for many people. It was a reminder that I very much needed on a morning when I was feeling convention burned out.

Seeing creative energy and passion on display in all the costumes that walk past. It is always fascinating to watch costuming trends. Two years ago Loki was everywhere. This year he’s not. This year I can’t turn around without seeing Rey or Kylo Ren. Star Wars in general is much more popular. You can pretty much predict what costumes you’ll see based on which movies have been popular in the past year. But then there are some costumes that are evergreen. I always see Dorothy with Toto. There are always Tardis dresses. Browncoats are out in force. I saw a Merida that looked like she had just stepped out of the movie Brave, and it was the girl’s real hair. In front of my booth I watch people thrilled to see each other’s costumes and pause to take pictures.

The things that require decisions:

In between these bright moments are long hours of sitting at the table while people walk by, barely glancing at our books. It gives me lots of time to think about how each convention has it’s own created culture and feel. At GenCon people come for the games. They play games, they buy games, they talk games. At LTUE people are there to learn. They learn writing, art, and other creativity. This show, Salt Lake Comic Con, people come for the spectacle. They want to see the costumes, see the stars, get pictures, get autographs. This means that in the vendor hall, people are looking, not buying.

There is nothing wrong with any of these show focuses, but we have to guard our time and energy. This means we should attend the shows that feed our creativity and avoid the ones that drain us. It wears me out to sit at a vendor table for long hours during a show where most people are looking, but not buying. And most of the people are looking for something that is not us, so they walk by our table as if we’re invisible. Being stuck at the table means I can’t wander and go see things myself. I can’t sit in the green room to visit with other panelists and creators. I can’t hide and re-charge.

We’ve given it several years and experimented with several formats for our table, but this year I’ve come to the conclusion that the emotional costs of running a table outweigh the benefits. If we do Salt Lake Comic Con again, we’ll just do panels.

This is an important key to being a successful creative professional: recognize what marketing strategies work for you and which ones don’t. I have friends who avoid conventions altogether. I know people who shine at school visits or book signings. I have friends who swear by blog tours and others who say they’re useless. There are people who are running booths at this show and selling piles of things. There are people who love standing at a table and talking up their wares. There are people who love vending at this show. I’m not one of them, and that is fine.


*Note: This entire blog post was written while sitting at my booth with people walking past. This is a measure of how slow things are for us at this show. I’m very grateful that our costs are so low that I don’t have any financial regrets about this experience.


*Addendum note, added 3/30/16: I did the math. We earned $6 per hour for our time running the booth. That is not nearly enough money to pay for the inevitable energy drain where I have to fight off the fear that the disinterest of the comic con crowd is a harbinger that everyone everywhere has begun to loose interest, thus we are doomed.

SLCC Fan X

This is the second day of me sitting inside a giant concrete box running a little store while hundreds of costumed people walk by. It is an experience that is both fun and exhausting. Every time we attend we’re performing an experiment on how to swing the balance more toward the fun side of the equation. This time we’ve gone smaller than in prior years. We only have one table and we’re placed in Artist’s Alley next to other creators who will help cross promote and who help us keep our energy from flagging. So far we are greatly enjoying the reduced pressure.

Last night we went out to dinner with several writers who have worked for DC, Marvel, My Little Pony, and other well-known comic properties. It was fascinating to hear behind the scenes stories and learn about how things work with licensed properties. But one of the most interesting things was that as we walked back to the hotel, at 9pm, all of them were listing off the work they still had to do before bed. Like us they’ll spend ten hours today standing behind tables, selling things, and talking to people. Howard will be working at the booth when he’s not talking. This is the part that is not always obvious to young people who long to work in comics. All of these creative folks work hard, without stopping or resting very much.

I am among those who are not resting this weekend. In addition to the show hours, I’ve also been commuting home to provide at least a little bit of structure to my kids. They’re teenagers and mostly can manage themselves without intervention, but the will forget to go to bed unless I remind them. And they’re not particularly good about getting themselves up for school in the morning. So I went home to make sure those two things happened. Also to re-stock some grocery items. And to pick up additional books that we hope to sell at the table today. Fortunately Howard has a hotel room, so only one of us had to commute. I didn’t have to worry about Howard being anxious over commute traffic and parking.

This show has already given me some gifts that I could not have had otherwise. I was able to re-connect with a dear friend whom I haven’t seen in years. I’ve also had my annual catch-up conversation with several friends I only see at SLCC events. Thursday was pretty quiet. Today the hall will fill up more. Saturday the true crowds will descend. Time to get to work.

What are we teaching the children?

A large part of a parent’s job is to teach the children. Humans don’t arrive on this planet socialized, they have to learn it from others. Many studies and articles reiterate the idea that parents are the largest influences on how their children turn out. The pressure of that is huge. I feel it every time I have to make a decision involving my kids. The trouble is that any action I take could teach multiple different lessons. If I buy them a treat after they’ve been pleasant at a store, am I teaching them good behavior is rewarded, or am I teaching them Mom can be manipulated? When we choose to stay home from a church event because going is too stressful, am I teaching them to opt out when things are difficult or am I teaching them valuable mental health coping skills? Even when I am very clear in my own head about what I want them to learn, they don’t always receive the message the way that I intended. In more than one high-emotion interaction I’ve looked at my child’s face and worried about what story they are telling themselves about the events we experienced.

There is a space between intention and reception. What happens in that space is influenced not just by the words and actions of this moment, it is also colored by my past relationship and history of interactions with my child. It is affected by the thing their friend said yesterday and the amount of sleep they got and that video they saw on the internet two weeks ago. That space can be terrifying to a parent who wants to do well, but isn’t a hundred percent sure of the path they should take. To increase the worry, there is also an awareness that as children grow, they will re-evaluate their childhood experiences and come to new conclusions about them. So even if the intended lesson is received in the moment, further along in time the child may decide that the lesson is wrong because they now see us differently or have a different framework for life than they had before.

One thing I’ve learned with writing is that I have very little control over the reception of my words. I try to be clear, but people respond in ways that I do not expect. Any attempt on my part to control their reaction only leads to hard words and hard feelings. I think this is also true of parenting. Ultimately I have so little control over the adults my children will become. I have influence, not control. It is not that the studies about parental influence are a lie. Parental influence is critical to child development. The lie is the one the parents tell themselves based on the studies. We tell ourselves that because we’re the biggest influencers in our children’s lives, it is crucially important to do parenting right. Then we run around frantically trying to figure out what “doing parenting right” means. This is where we end up judgemental of other parenting choices. Each of us spends so much time and energy developing our methods of parenting that when we encounter someone doing the opposite of what we chose, the fear creeps in. “What if I am wrong?” One way to squelch that fear is to double down and loudly proclaim how wrong the other parent is. Any time I’ve found myself judgmentally angry at another parent, some introspection shows me that my emotion is rooted in fear.

Parenting is actually a mutual language created between the caretakers and the child. The parents are changed by it as much as the children are. The relationship is influenced by their surroundings, their community, their support structures, or the lack thereof. I felt this as I raised my children through their youngest years. My responses to my children had to change as the children did. What worked to help one child was ineffective with another. Any time I figured things out, a kid would turn some developmental corner and I’d feel lost again. I was making it all up as I went. We are all making it up as we go. The process only gets harder if we believe that we have to make up elaborate lesson plans and instructional moments. If we try to control what gets learned. Instead of making sure we teach the right lessons, we should be the sort of people we hope our children will grow up to be. Who parents are matters far more than what parents do.

I’m not certain if that makes the parental pressure any easier, but it does shift it. It does mean that instead of being a dispenser of lessons and discipline, I can bring my children inside my indecision. I can say “I’m not certain how to answer that, here are all the thoughts rolling around in my head about it. Perhaps we can sort it out together.” Sometimes I do have to give a firm no, and sometimes I regret that response later. Other times I give in and regret that. It makes me feel like a wishy-washy failure, until I remember that having a perfect parent who does everything correctly all the time, means a child will never get to witness failure and recovery. They will never see how to be humble and apologize unless adults make mistakes where they can see, and then apologize for those mistakes.

We’re all muddling through together, parents, children, teachers, friends, young, and old. None of us has all the answers. We don’t need to. Instead we need to share the knowledge we have and be willing to admit when others know more that we do. I’ve learned some amazing things from my children, probably just as often as I’ve taught things to them.

Taking the Train to the Writing for Charity conference

I got up before dawn to catch a train. This was not a thing I have ever done before, despite the fact that the commuter train has been here for years. Somehow I’d always defaulted to driving as more convenient. But today we only had one car, the other is still being repaired, and I had a conference 90 minutes away. When I realized that it was convenient to the commuter line, I decided to experiment with taking Front Runner.

It was quiet and chilly on the platform waiting for the train to arrive. I’d come twenty minutes early, so I had a while to sit and watch the sky lighten behind the mountains. A pair of ducks flew quacking through the sky. I breathed and felt peaceful. Driving was not peaceful like this. Driving is full of paying attention and making judgement calls. For this trip my only job was to wait. The train arrived and I boarded. I found a seat with a table and an outlet. My first thought as the train pulled away was how easy it had all been. Then I pulled out my laptop and began to work as landscape passed beside me.

Writing is a process of alternating typing and staring off into space to figure out what to type next. On the train there was something new to see every time I looked up. I got peeks into backyards and industrial compounds. The train follows a different route than the freeway, which meant seeing landmarks from a different perspective. We even traveled through a small canyon that I’d had no idea existed at the base of Point of the Mountain. The freeway is up on the benches while passing through there. The scenery outside my window alternated between beauty and junkyards, each interesting in its own way.

A person from the conference was shuttling people from the train stop, so in-town transport was simple. Then I was at the conference. Writing for Charity is a smaller event than many I attend, but I like it for that. All of the proceeds go to charity, which is also a lovely thing. Utah has an abundant supply of authors, so my schedule was not too busy. This left me with many pleasant hours to visit with people I knew and to become better acquainted with people who were only somewhat familiar. I even spent some time working.

It was nice to be at a conference where I was neither promoting nor selling anything. I had no table to run, no money to manage. I didn’t even bring copies of my books with me, which I probably should have done. There was a moment on my self publishing panel where being able to hold up one of my book covers would have been a useful example of how to get covers wrong and then hire a designer to get it right. But it was okay that I didn’t have it. Instead I had a dozen conversations, some short, some long. My mind pulls them out and considers them as I write this. They are each like a little treasure to be appreciated, a moment when I connected with someone else and they helped me or I helped them. Or sometimes we just laughed together, and that was good too.

The sun had begun to set when I sat on the platform to catch a train home. I wasn’t alone this time. A fellow conference attendee was also riding southward, though her exit was before mine. We talked together as we waited. I learned of her projects and, since she was an experienced commuter-by-train, I was able to ask her questions. I sat on the opposite side of the train for the trip home. There were more people out and about, and my mind began to wonder about the stories of the people I saw. What brought that disheveled man walking under and overpass? Why was there young man standing in the courtyard of an obviously abandoned building? Why were the buildings abandoned anyway? When had they been built? How long had they been slowly falling apart? The world is full of stories I’ll never be able to know. I didn’t need to know them, but it was pleasant to let my thoughts wander across them as the train carried me home.

My train friend and I had both lived in Utah for a very long time, so we talked about the quirks of what we saw. We speculated on the history of things and how they are shaped by local culture. She had written several historical non-fiction books and it was fascinating to hear about them. One thing did make me sad. Along the tracks where many lots which had obviously become dumping grounds for things that were no longer of use. It forced me to think how wasteful humans are, and how we need to do a better job of cleaning up after ourselves even when it takes extra effort and expense. Surely we can thing of something more useful to do with old cars than leave them parked in a field to rust.

It was dark when I exited the train. Howard was waiting for me, which might have been the best part of the day. On the short drive to our house, he told me about his day and I told him about mine. It was so good for me to get out of my house and see new things, think new thoughts, meet new people. I spend so much time contained by my usual locations and habits. Next week is Salt Lake Comic Con, where Howard and I will both participate. I may take the train to get there for at least some of the days.

The Pattern and Flow of Habits

Things slip into being normal without us quite realizing it. This is neutral, because both good and bad things can slip into place.

The other day I was discussing homework with Patch because he needs to hustle to bring some grades up before the end of the term on Friday. We talked about how he likes to take a break and relax right after school, but that this often leads to us getting distracted. Then we get to bedtime without the homework done. “We used to connect homework to dinner time, but we don’t really do dinner anymore.” He was so matter of fact as he said it. And I felt an echo of guilt for the family dinners we haven’t had in years. Instead we tend to congregate in the kitchen, each fixing our own single serving of food from the available groceries. We don’t often have all of us together, but it is frequent for two or three of us to be there chatting while we fix and then eat our food. If the point of family dinner is connection, well we’ve found some different formats for that. Yet I’m all too aware that there are social graces and cooking skills that would be better practiced with scheduled family dinners. And we could have homework time after dinner the way we used to do.

This morning Howard and I watched a movie as soon as the two youngest were out the door to school. It was a movie with more swearing in it than I’m comfortable showing to my kids. It also wasn’t likely to interest them since so much of the film had to do with banking rather than explosions. It used to be that we’d watch this sort of movie after the kids were in bed for the night. These days the kids go to bed at pretty much the same times that we do, though I’m currently working to change the habit for the youngest two into an earlier bedtime. In theory, now that the kids are older, I don’t need the off-duty down time as much as I used to do. After all, I’m not doing hands on care for them anymore. They manage their own things, their own dinners. Sort of. Except when they don’t and they flop next to me and want me to do things for them because the things are haaaard. Yes. Adulting is hard and I get why my teenagers want to flop and let me do it for them. Particularly the ones who aren’t actually adults yet. So I still end my days longing for some off duty time, and usually not getting it. Which is why Howard and I have moved some of our dates into the middle of work hours. I feel a little guilty about that, but Howard and I need some child-free time somewhere.

Howard sat with our cat in his lap, gently stroking her fur. “We need to make her a vet appointment for a check up.” I agreed. She seems perfectly healthy, but she is getting up there in years and we want to make sure that we’re doing what we can to keep her in good health. Somewhere in the years we slid from no pets, to having an outdoor cat, to having an indoor cat. We moved from not being willing to spend much on upkeep to being willing to pay significant sums to keep her in good health.

The patterns of our lives drift, carried by the currents of our choices. They changed when Link went to partially homeschooled. They changed again when he dropped out completely and studied for the GED instead. They changed when Gleek developed a passionate interest in rollerblading multiple times per week. They changed when Patch picked up cello and again when he put it down. They change every time Kiki comes home from college and every time she goes back. Sometimes I want to make a deliberate pattern change and it is like walking upstream against a strong current. I end up bedraggled and exhausted, not very far from where I started. Other times a change just falls into the flow of other things effortlessly. I’m working to recognize when changes aren’t worth fighting the current, when they are, and how to design a change so that it goes with the flow instead of against it.

For now, I need to put aside these thoughts and dive into the creative flow necessary for Planet Mercenary writing and editing.

Smashed

photo(1)
All the passengers are fine, my car is not.

My car will be fine again in about two weeks.

I am grateful for auto insurance and the relatively low deductible we have on collisions.

I’m really glad that the other car was barely scratched, so the young woman driving it doesn’t have to deal with repairs the way I do.

I’m also glad that the smash was the result of a ten second miscalculation rather than a stupid driving decision. It falls firmly into the category “these things happen” rather than being a regret.

I’m pleased that when I called to tell Howard I would be late I remembered to lead with “I’m fine, Patch is fine. I had a car accident.” That was putting the most critical information first.

I wish I’d done a better job of collecting and handing out information in the moment. We got the critical pieces, contact info, insurance, etc. But when my insurance company asked for make and model of the other car, the best I could say was “Something jeep-ish? It was blue.” Not a moment that made me feel intelligent. I was aware that I wasn’t thinking entirely clearly, and I tried to counteract it by going slow and talking through the steps. I’ve had a lot of hindsight thoughts since. Though interestingly they’re all about the aftermath and not about the accident itself.

Smash occurred Thursday night. I spent a significant portion of today arranging for repairs and settling my own emotions. I really didn’t want my car smashed. I’m sad every time I look at it. At first I was afraid that I’d totaled the car. I pictured myself having to shop for a new one, but having to buy one used because the insurance only covers replacement of current state, not new value. And my mind raced on to think about the fact that we’re still paying off the car and I didn’t know what sort of financial impact that would have on our year. And I spent quite a lot of emotion on not wanting a different car. I like this one.

But Howard looked at the car and pointed out that it looks awful, but really it is only the hood that is terrible. The engine is fine. The car still drives. The impact wasn’t even hard enough to deploy airbags, which feels strange considering the mess it made of my car’s hood. And looking at the picture I feel a bit sheepish about my anxiety. While the damage definitely has to be fixed, it is no where near as bad as my emotions claim it is.

I’m very tired today. Some of that is because I didn’t sleep well last night. Most of the not sleeping well was because my brain was rehearsing how things need to go from here and how I could do better next time. Emotional processing takes time.

I used Howard’s car for errands today. I was cautious in driving, but more aware of how normal driving feels than I was nervous. Though my brain keeps making up stories about me wrecking his car too. Which would be far worse, because his car has been with us for over a decade and has a name.
Maybe mine should get a name out of this. It certainly took good care of me, absorbing the damage so Patch and I were fine.

As you can probably tell, my thoughts are still a bit scattered. I’m hoping that a better night’s sleep tonight will help me reset.