Bees are good company. This counts as surprising news to all of my children who tend to run screaming at the first sound of buzzing or glimpse of black and yellow in flight. But I have been sitting for most of the afternoon in the shade of a blooming wisteria and the bees have never once bothered me. They’re too busy digging into the flowers to find the sweetness hidden within. I particularly like the giant black bumblebees the size of my thumb because it seems like they shouldn’t be able to fly at all, but they do. I once followed one in it’s search along half the fence line. She sought nectar. I sought to capture a picture of her in flight. I think she was more successful than I.
Frogs are good company too, sort of. They’re the kind of company that I don’t know I have because they sit quiet right until the moment that I’ve come too close, then the cry out and leap into the water. At first that was all I saw as I walked along the edge of the pond; A motion, a noise, a plunk, and then ripples on the water. It made me laugh. I laughed because I was startled to not be alone with the trees and water. I decided to walk along the circumference of the pond, to see if I could spot a frog before he jumped. I never did. Twenty times I was startled by sound and motion. Half the time I laughed. The frogs were more wily than I. Though I did learn how to turn quickly and watch the frog stroke through the water to hide in the leaves on the bottom. I wish I could tell them not to be alarmed, that they need not fear me. But I’m not the only visitor here and not everyone just wants to look.
This place that we stay is only a pocket in the red rock desert. It is tucked between rock ridge and highway. At night headlights on the highway light the windows of our condo. While the kids swim I can hear trucks as they drive by. There are also other people here, which is sometimes nice and sometimes I wish they would go away. We have to share the space. Share the pool. Share the pond, the frogs, the fish, and the lizards.
We have to share the national parks too. This morning we drove into Arches behind a long line of cars full of people who’d chosen the same hour that we did to enter the park. Many of them turned off at the first big attractions. We drove toward the far end where our planned hike began. This time we carefully selected an easy hike. In fact that was a major feature of our selection process. Each kid wanted to know how this hike compared to that one long hard hike we did two years ago, the one we’re all glad we took, but none of us is quite ready to repeat. We passed people on the trail and listened to the music of their languages. Arches is filled with people who have traveled half a world to be there. It is three hours from my house, tucked into a desert that is mostly boring. A pocket paradise.
I overheard one older gentleman saying he hadn’t seen any arches yet and he’d been there all morning. He was pondering a walk to Sand Dune Arch and wondered if the walk was worth it despite his arthritic hips. I spoke with him for a moment, suggesting the double arch and windows arches as the most spectacular sites with the least amount of necessary walking. We saw him again at Sand Dune Arch. I congratulated him on making the walk. He smiled and gave me a thumbs up, then looked up at the arch. It is tucked in between massive fins of rock, a hidden arch, not often photographed. The man said “I thought it would be redder. I haven’t seen any that look like the pictures.”
Pictures, stories, and social media posts are all curated for point of view. We only see what someone else chose to put into the frame. That gentleman had traveled a long way, and he might never get a chance to see what he expected when he started that trip. I hope that he found ways to be happy with the experience he was having instead of always wanting it to be different. If someone came to our preferred vacation spot based on my descriptions, they might be disappointed at the smallness of the pond, pool, park. These things are not large. There is just a small green place created first by a natural spring and then later by people who wanted to turn this into a place to stay. It is only a pocket paradise, but it is sufficient for us. I notice that there is plenty of wisteria for everyone and no one asks me to share the company of the bees.
“This may sound strange, but it feels like we’re almost home.” Howard said at the end of more than four hours of driving. We’d traveled south from our house, made a stop in Goblin Valley State Park and were only minutes away from arriving at the rented condo in Moab.
This is our fourth year spending spring break at a condo in Moab. We don’t always get exactly the same condo, but it is the same complex with the same swimming pool, pond, stream, and park. I remember our first arrival. I was so tense because we’d never rented a condo before and I was terrified that it would be a huge mistake. The kids pinged all over the place and we were constantly telling them “don’t touch that, don’t jump there, be careful, we’re only renting this place.” It got dark and stormy that first night and Kiki was in tears because she just wanted to go home and be in her own bed with her kitty. We ended up calling the neighbor who had the cat meow into the phone for us. I hardly slept that first night, my head full of stress trying to make sure our vacation would work and stress because work email had followed me and I knew we had looming deadlines.
The next day we visited Arches and started to have all the things we hoped for when we booked the trip. Two days later we were happy to go home, but all of us wanted to come back. So we did.
We’d only driven a mile or so further when Gleek piped up from the very back of the car. “It feels like we’re almost home!” Howard and I laughed.
We pulled into the familiar gravel drive with the rocks popping under our tires. I directed Howard to unit 2, which will be our home for the next three days. We waved at the park and pool, knowing we’d go there soon. The kids all jumped out and quickly unloaded their packs. There were no arguments about who would sleep where, the kids just claimed their preferred beds. Then Howard and I sent them outside to catch fish in the stream while we did our survey to figure out what cooking implements this kitchen had and lacked. There was no need to follow the kids to make sure they were safe. We all knew the safety rules and boundaries.
Link wandered through on is way out to the back patio. “I like this place.” He said. I smiled. Link is not a person who is relaxed or happy if he is uncertain about how things will go. Coming to the condo removes so much of the stress from vacation because we have familiar patterns to fall into. There is real value in going new places and seeing new things, but there is joy in the familiar too. I watched Link, Gleek, and Patch swimming in the pool. The three of them were playing a cooperative game in a way that they rarely do at home, but they always seem to do when we’re here. It is as if the game waits for them along with the pool and the stream. I watched them as bees buzzed in the wisteria behind me and I breathed the scent of the blossoms. It is so lovely to go on vacation and feel at home.
Several years ago Howard and I were in the midst of last-minute planning for running a booth at a local convention. I don’t remember what the moment of stress was about, but I remember vividly that the words “I hate this” slipped from my mouth. I was shocked to realize that I meant them. It made me scared, because I was feeling such an emotion about the life we’ve so carefully built together. After consideration, I was able to come to the conclusion that it is okay for me to dislike some of the aspects of my job while still loving the work as a whole. No one expects parents to love changing diapers even if they enjoy parenting. There was something about running a booth that I did not like, and that was okay. The knowledge let us rearrange so that the booth running was done by other people more often than by me.
Today I enlisted help and used some of our warehouse space to set up a test booth for what we will set up at FanX. This is a luxury that we’ve never had before, having space to set up the booth and plan how it will look ahead of time. In the process I discovered something astonishing, it is possible that I don’t hate setting up and running a booth. It is possible that what I hate is the stress of showing up at a location and having to make all of the set up decisions on the fly. I particularly hate the part where Howard visualizes things one way and I visualize them differently and then we snap at each other because we don’t have time to think it over. Everything has to be decided right at that moment. FanX is going to be different. We’ll be agreed ahead of time how everything needs to look and all I have to do on the set up day is cart things in and set them up.
I’ve found another way that Howard and I were working at cross purposes around convention booths. For years Howard has requested to know how much we need to make in order for the show to break even. For years I tried to detach Howard from that information, believing that if a convention was not doing well, it would add to Howard’s stress. I thought it was better to just let conventions be what they were and to not measure success with dollars. I still think that the success of a show should not be measured only in dollars, but that was never what Howard wanted to do. He wanted to be able to evaluate the monetary component of a show quickly and easily. He wanted data so that we could decide later whether the convention was worth attending again.
So I sat down with myself and tried to figure out exactly why I was so resistant to making sure that Howard had numbers. The core of it is that some deep part of me believes that my job is to prevent Howard from feeling stress. This is a thing I identified in myself years ago, but apparently I’ve still not rooted out all the tendrils of habit. The belief structure goes like this: I’m the booth captain, therefore if the convention booth does not succeed, it is my fault. Booth failure to make money = my failure at my job. I don’t want to fail Howard. I want him to always be glad that he trusts me with his business. So if the booth is doing well, Yay, but I must still de-emphasize money as a measurement tool because some other time the booth not doing well will cause stress. If the booth is not doing well, I must de-emphasize money as a measurement tool, because then we can be less stressed about the show.
When I pull this thought pattern out into the light I notice some ridiculous things. Hidden in there is a belief that Howard’s good opinion of me is dependent on what I do in my job as business manager and is therefore in jeopardy if I make a mistake. If that is true then, instead of us being able to just suffer together if things go badly or rejoice together if things go well, I have to try to spin all of the information in as positive a light as I possibly can. Fortunately I have iron clad rules about honesty and full disclosure, so this twisty thought path has not led us to a place where I started deceiving to make sure things look good. Instead, Howard had to work far too hard to get some simple monetary metrics that would make his life easier, and I felt extremely anxious about setting up for and attending big conventions with Howard.
This is the year when I will stop doing that. “That” being trying to not stress Howard with the business aspect of the work that we do together. Sometimes the numbers are going to be unhappy and Howard needs to know about it. I need to stop interposing myself to prevent Howard from feeling stress. Howard needs reports, convention reports, book profitability reports, monthly profitability reports. He needs to be able to look at these things so that he can make strategic and tactical decisions about our business. Funny thing is the lack information was constantly stressing him. I was causing stress by trying to prevent stress.
I’m looking forward to FanX, which is not something I would have expected last September when Salt Lake Comic Con was such an emotional drain on us. However we’ve implemented a very different booth plan, we’ve partnered up with some friends, and we’ve got some very different sales strategies. I still expect the show to be exhausting. I really want it to be profitable because we could use the influx of money this month. It could still be a financial failure despite all our efforts. Sometimes experiments to not yield the hoped for results, a good experiment is still worthwhile. Perhaps big comic conventions are not the place we want to spend our effort, but until we give this another try, we can’t know. The experiment begins in two weeks.
When we remodeled my office a couple of years ago, it was my intention to create a space that was both lovely and functional. It worked, mostly. But then we acquired a warehouse and the room which used to be my storage and shipping room became Kiki’s home-visiting-from-college bedroom. In the shift, a whole category of items became homeless, namely art to be sold and the small stash of inventory which we keep at the house. These things drifted for months, stacked on various flat surfaces in my office. Today I finally gave up and installed a utility shelf in my office. It is not at all lovely, but it returns all of the flat surfaces to being functional. In exchange for one ugly corner, the rest of the space can be lovely again. Perhaps I’ll hang a curtain to hide it.
The truth is that, after seven or eight stable years, the living spaces in our house are going to be fluctuating quite a bit in the years that are to come. Kiki will be home for the summer, but after that none of us is certain. This year there is no money to finish the storage room, but next year may be a different story. Two and a half years from now Link will likely depart the house for college. I’m going to be reconfiguring spaces every six months or so for the next several years. I’m okay with that, particularly if it means I only have to stare at these utility shelves for six months.
It may even be a shorter time than that. It is possible that when I finally spend twenty hours doing organization over at the warehouse, I’ll figure out that it makes more sense for the art and matting supplies to take up residence over there. In which case, the shelves and most of their contents will get moved.
Our family and business continue to evolve. It only makes sense that our spaces should too.
A week from tomorrow our family goes on vacation. Business and school needs dictate our schedule for fifty weeks out of the year. The week between Christmas and New Years is a lull for all business things and during that lull we curl up at home and do nothing in particular. For a very long time that lull was all we had. Then about five years ago I realized that if we wanted family time, we had to declare it and defend it from encroaching business and school. I claimed Spring break as our annual vacation. It was a fixed point on our calendar.
At first we thought we would go on various different adventures. I planned to scout out new locations each year. What happened instead was that we fell in love with a place and we keep going back. This means I barely have to plan in advance. We just pick up and go when the time comes. That is probably the biggest vacation of all. Our lives are heavily pre-planned. I know what we’re going to do next year in broad sketches, next month in defined sketches, and next week in detail. Some of this forward planning is necessity. Much of it is anxiety. Our particular bundles of anxieties mean that multiple members of the family go a little crazy if they don’t know what to expect. For vacation, we know. We know where we’re going. We know what options are generally available as activities. We know we’ll decide day to day how things actually go.
I’m very much looking forward to the vacation. I’ll leave 90% of the work behind (email follows me everywhere) and bring my writing. I’m hoping to treat the trip much like a writing retreat. Hours of typing while the kids swim and then later we’ll play games or watch movies together. I’m more prepared to take advantage of a writing retreat than I ever have been before. I’m nearing the halfway point in a novel which hopes to end at 60,000 words. I’m unlikely to have any other retreat this year. On the other hand, if writing starts to feel stressy, I’ll just embrace the vacation-ness of it.
In between now and vacation there are many things to do. I’m going to need every minute of the next week to make sure all the things get done.
I was talking with my friend Mary the other day and she was telling me a tale of behind-the-scenes frustration in publishing. They happen frequently to many of my nationally published author friends. An example of the sort of snafu that occurs is Mary’s story about how one of her books was released without its first sentence. Mistakes happen and they can be terribly frustrating to the people they happen to.
I’ve never had someone else mess up one of my books. This does not mean that Cobble Stones, Hold on to Your Horses, Strength of Wild Horses, XDM X-Treme Dungeon Mastery, or the Schlock books are error free. Far from it. They all have errors. Every single book that I’ve helped to make has something about it that I would like to fix. Even the books that we’ve re-printed. You’d think that on a reprint we could fix all the errors. We try to, but we still miss some or accidentally introduce others. All books have flaws.
So as I listened and commiserated with Mary’s story, I wondered whether it was better to be frustrated and helpless, or to be frustrated and responsible. I don’t have an answer to that. Neither situation is enviable.
This week the Writing Excuses team has been together to record episodes and to plan ahead for some mutual events. I spent considerable amounts of time looking ahead in the calendar for when things could be scheduled and then doing the parental math necessary to see if I can also absent myself to be at some of the events. The answer for this Fall is no. Writing Excuses is having a retreat (sold out) in September, but the logistics necessary to hand off all of the child care so that both Howard and I can attend are too complex. I will be staying home. I’m a little sad, because I love the house in Chattanooga, but I’m glad that someone else gets an opportunity to go and take the hostessing slot that I would have occupied.
In all my scanning of calendars I noticed something. In the Fall of 2015, the parenting equations change. Suddenly I won’t have a kid in grade school anymore. I won’t have a kid in an intensive gifted program. My oldest at home kid will be eighteen and technically an adult. I can’t say yet what becomes possible because of those changes, but they will definitely have an effect. The equations will change again in 2016 when it is likely that I’ll only have two kids at home. I’m not going to rush ahead and plan anything. For now I’m glad to have a good year where things will remain about the same. We had so much transition last year that status quo is good for awhile. But change will come to us again. I can see it on the horizon.
The meeting was sandwiched in between the end of the junior high school day and me needing to leave to pick up Patch from Elementary school. We had thirty minutes to determine whether Gleek qualified for a 504 plan and what the paperwork should say. It was a formality really. The school administrator and the counselor had both spent several hours with Gleek during an incident several weeks ago. They saw the need. The other three in the room were teachers, there to provide insights into how Gleek behaves in various classrooms. Everyone listened and agreed that some extra care is merited. For the most part the only challenge Gleek represents is that she is difficult to re-direct and often distracts herself with drawing or with a book. Ninety five percent of the time, she is absolutely fine, normal, charming. The other five percent she is really intense and requires special handling. We signed the papers with instructions for that five percent.
It was a pleasant meeting. I had a good rapport with everyone there and felt that they’re on my team to help my girl. So it puzzled me that I felt sad as I drove away. I pulled on the feeling to see if I could figure out where it comes from. It was attached to two things. First I remember the last time I had a meeting like this for Gleek. It was about this time last year when everything was so chaotic and she was in crisis. We had far more questions than answers. It made me sad to be reminded of that time even though this year is far different. The second thing was that this meeting crossed a threshold. I’ve made Gleek’s diagnoses official with the school. It is a positive step and necessary, but there is a little stab of sadness because I’ve acknowledged that my daughter needs something outside of what schools habitually supply. When I write it in a sentence like that, I’m puzzled why I feel sad. Almost every kid needs something that the school doesn’t usually supply. Why should having Gleek’s needs quantified on paper make it different. If anything I wish that all kids could have their needs so carefully considered. The sadness lies in the fact that situations which are not hard for most other kids are very difficult for Gleek. She works very hard to be the charming and kind person that her teachers see in their classrooms. Because all during the ninety five percent of the time when everything is fine, she needs to be prepared to handle the five percent when emotions rev out of control.
The trickiest part about having a child who is fine ninety five percent of the time, is that I begin to forget why we have all the structures in place. I begin to second guess. I am tempted to do away with the parts of the structure that are time or money consuming to maintain, things like therapy. Everything feels good, but then I have a 504 meeting where I have to list out the official diagnoses. Then I remember that these people in the room and the psychiatrist who signed the diagnosis paper, would have no hesitation in bumping me if they felt that Gleek did not need the resources they are providing. The fact that they recognized Gleek’s need helps me to know I’m not just making this up. I would like it to all be my imagination, because then I could just stop imagining it, problem solved. Instead I get to walk alongside my girl while she treks her way through a long and difficult growing process.
The good news is that Gleek is already amazing. She already manages things far better than one would expect from someone with her particular bag of challenges. The even better news, I can tell we’re aimed toward a good future where she is empowered to choose her own life and succeed at it. The path is likely to be winding and dark in places, but the 504 meeting means that Gleek has guides at school who have instructions for how to help her. This is good. I’m glad of it, even if the meeting itself tugged out some sadness.
The invitation to the Granite Flats season 2 premiere was something of a surprise. Our best guess is that Howard’s habit of posting movie reviews to his blog caught the eye of one of BYUtv’s marketing folks. (This was later confirmed) We walked up to the broadcasting building, not sure what to expect. I certainly did not expect to be greeted by a row of eager faces asking if we were press. Which we were, but it felt very strange to says so. Blogger, cartoonist, writer, podcaster, these are all titles we wave around quite comfortably. For this occasion we were press.
We didn’t know anyone. We didn’t even know much about the show, just that it was shot locally and possibly had a scifi tinge to it somewhere. (We were wrong about that. It is a cold war drama full of spying and conspiracy, lots of historical accuracy and intrigue.) The reception area was lined with banners, each with a cast member featured on it. I looked at all the faces, trying to figure out what we were in for with this show. I could tell it was set in the sixties, there were scientists and nurses, a sheriff, and some military men. There were also at least four featured pre-teens. Howard and I spoke for a bit with the man who’d sent us the invitation to come. As we spoke the actors came parading in. I say parading, but this was not because they intended a parade or because they sought to make an attention-grabbing entrance. It just seemed parade-like because they all arrived together on a bus from the shoot location.
Even if they had not arrived en masse, I would have guessed who they were, partly because the faces matched the posters, but also because the actors were the ones with professionally tailored make up and clothing. This doesn’t mean they were dressed to the nines, but even their hoodies fit perfectly. Actors are people for whom image matters tremendously. Their appearance is an integral part of their jobs and it was fascinating to get to witness that up close. It was even more fascinating to see that underneath the make up and clothes, they were just as happy to be part of this evening as Howard and I were. More so, probably, since they’d already emotionally invested in the show. It amused me to see the actors react to themselves on the banners. They photographed them and themselves with them. Somehow I thought they’d be blase about being on banners. They were actors in a show on TV, surely this was normal to them. But it wasn’t, and I realized that I was witnessing in the actors the same emotions I see in my writer friends when they have a book launch party or hold their book for the first time. You work hard to create something and then one day it is real in a way that it was not before. That is a marvelous day and I got to witness it.
People mingled and hugged each other, while Howard and I stood on the edges and watched. Then the doors opened and we all filed into Studio C, where we sat in the nicest bleachers I’ve ever seen. They were folding theater seats, but could obviously be pushed back against the wall just as most school bleachers can be. There were a few press people, like us (Press, yup still feels strange), but when the director, Scott Swofford, spoke, he was mostly speaking to everyone as family, part of the production. This is because most of those in attendance at this showing were related to cast members in some way. We were visitors at their party, but they made us welcome.
Then the showing began. I was impressed. Then I was impressed again. Then I laughed out loud, which I do not do for shows unless they’ve earned my trust in some way. Granite Flats is heavily serialized. We only had a two minute recap, which should have meant that I felt lost. But I didn’t. Instead I was engaged with the various plights of the characters. I connected to them emotionally and found them believable. I found myself fascinated by the editorial choices, the sets, and the casting. I truly enjoyed it.
Then the showing ended and everyone filed out into the reception area. Where before Howard and I hovered on the edges, this time we dived in. We complimented the excellent performances and then one of the actors, Maia Guest, pulled us through the crowd to introduce us to her husband, John Plummer, who wrote many of the episodes.
“How do you solve the Truth is Stranger than Fiction problem?” Howard asked. Which made both John and Scott (the director) laugh and say that they haven’t, because all their research keeps turning up factual accounts of the period and the MK Ultra experiments that would be unbelievable on the screen. I listened to them talk, praise their set designers, praise the actors, gush about this show that they helped to create, and it was beautiful to see. I love being around people who do creative work and are passionate about it. I love hearing them talk about the things they create. Howard and I would have happily monopolized the director and writer for hours, but we excused ourselves because they had other people who needed to speak to them.
We circulated some more and found ourselves talking to Taryn O’Neill who plays the part of June Sanders in the show. She was not featured in the episode we saw, but talking to her made me realize how many amazing people that the show has acquired. In addition to her acting, Taryn is a writer, contributing to Msinthebiz.com and writing fiction. Of all the people we met during the evening, she was the only one who had even vaguely heard of Howard, and only then because she follows our friend Myke Cole on twitter. The world of creative people is far more vast than it sometimes seems when Howard and I are circulating among our regular crowd of con-going genre fiction writers. I hope I get more chances to meet people like I met last night. It is a wonderful experience to go where we’re completely unknown and yet feel welcomed and included.
Granite Flats is a show with really high production quality, excellent writing, solid acting, all of which is put together mostly with Salt Lake City local talent. It is funded by BYUtv, even though a scripted drama is usually far outside the scope of a college-based broadcasting station.I’m frankly amazed that it exists and feel very privileged that Howard and I got to attend their party. It is definitely worth your time. You can view season 1 on their website graniteflats.com. Season 2 will begin airing April 6 on BYUtv. I got the impression that Season 1 may be a bit rougher than Season 2, but I look forward to seeing all of it.
I’ve been increasingly aware over the last year that there is something lacking in the covers of my Cobble Stones books. I was pleased with the covers when I made them, but even then I thought they could probably be better. I didn’t know how to make them better using the skills I already possessed. I couldn’t even see why they were wrong, I just had a vague sense that they could be better somehow. I called it good enough and put the covers on the books. Then they didn’t sell. Not only that, but I watched during conventions when all the other covers on the table got perused or picked up and examined. The Cobble Stones covers did not. Ever. The only time those books sold was when someone who reads this blog came to the table specifically looking for them, or when people listened to me read out loud from one of them.
I’ve spent some time trying to figure out what to do differently, particularly as I’m contemplating releasing a new book in the series this year. I’m going to need another cover and I didn’t want to replicate the mistakes I made with the first two. So I did what I should have done before designing covers. I went out and found several books that are very like mine in tone and content. Then I stared hard at the covers. I found they all were mostly plain with a single image and then text. In comparison the cover of Cobble Stones 2011 is busy and confusing.
In contrast, Kennison’s book grabbed me from across the room. The blue drew me in and the title captured me. In fact, that is how I found Kennison’s book. A teacher had it on her desk during a parent teacher conference. I kept sneaking glances at the cover and scribbled down the title at a moment when the teacher thought I was taking notes on my student.
The cover for My Grandfather’s Blessings demonstrates to me the importance of a good subtitle. In creative non-fiction, memoir, and essay books the title catches the reader, the subtitle elaborates and sells the book. I need better titles than: Cobble Stones with a year appended. I need to make clear that these are books in the Cobble Stones series, but each book should have its own title and subtitle. I suspect the first two will always retain the titles they currently have. I intended them as samplers, and they’ve served that purpose. Incidentally this will also solve a problem I’ve had when packing and shipping orders. The titles of the books are so similar that I have to pay special attention to which book was ordered. In fact I put the words “snow” and “sand” into the item description just to help me differentiate. This is manageable with two books, but could get very problematic with more.
For the print editions of the first two books, I’m stuck with these covers for awhile. I have over a hundred copies of each book and it doesn’t make sense to spend money re-printing them when they still haven’t broken even. I’ll continue to sell them at conventions and use them for promotional purposes. The next Cobble Stones book will be different. I may try to do a more thematic arrangement of essays. I’ll definitely see if I can work with a cover designer who has the necessary skills to produce the right cover.
Of course the other reason the Cobble Stones books haven’t sold is because I’ve put so very little energy into marketing them. People can’t buy books if they don’t know the books exist. With both books, I kicked them out into the world with very little support because there were so many other things going on at the time. I hope I can do better for future books.
By the way, I highly recommend The Gift of an Ordinary Day by Katrina Kennison and My Grandfather’s Blessings by Naomi Remen. They are both excellent.