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Notes from a Class on Building Good Digital Habits

The class was billed as being about digital addictions, but it turned out to be far more generally useful and less alarmist than the description made me fear. It was taught by Dr. Ryan Anderson, who wrote a book on the topic Navigating the Cyberscape: Evaluating and Improving our Relationship with Smartphones, Social Media, Video Games, and the Internet. It was the second such class, though I’d missed the first session which delved into the neuroscience of how digital media can create the same biological and neurological responses as chemical addictions. The second session focused on recommendations for what to do about the potential for addiction, or how to manage an addiction which exists. It was a topic that fascinated me, because there are folks in the Tayler household who are a bit too attached to their screens. Yet I approached the class with quite a bit of anxiety, very afraid that the teacher would propose solutions that would require me to upend our family’s coping strategies. That was not what he said.

The first thing the lecturer told us was that video games, social media, television shows, etc are not inherently evil. They have great potential to make our lives better, and probably already have. Second he clarified that while a digital detox can be useful to expose which of the digital media in our lives are problematic, detox isn’t an effective means to break an addiction. The core problem with digital addictions is not the existence of digital things in our lives, but that we’ve allowed our lives to get out of balance so that the digital things take up too much space. The fix is to find ways to balance your life, to make sure that you’re being mindful about the choices you make and intentionally choosing digital things only when they enhance your life instead of from habit or dependence.

One of the things he went over at length was how much time we should be spending on screens for optimal enjoyment. The golden zone appears to be 1-3 recreational hours per day. (Note that time on screens for work or school doesn’t count in those hours. It engages the brain differently.) People in my house routinely spend five hours per day (often more) on screens. But the teacher didn’t recommend the sudden imposition of a time limit, because time limits provoke battles. Instead he gave a long list of things which help us to bring balance into our lives, and to combat the patterns of shallow thinking which are the natural result of prolonged social media and sound bite exposure. I’ll list some of these suggestions below.

I wrote notes throughout the class. I do think that the lecturer had a strong bias to view digital media and games as more dangerous/addictive than they are to most people. This bias is the natural result of the lecturer working with and studying autistic populations who are particularly vulnerable to video game addictions. Yet I saw great value in his list of suggestions. When class was over and I transcribed the notes, I picked two things to apply in my life. This too was part of the class, he warned against attempting a major overhaul of our lives. Pick one or two small changes and let them settle before picking one or two more.

The two changes I decided to start with for myself were implementing a one-screen-at-a-time rule. If I am watching a show, I don’t need to be playing a game on my phone at the same time. If the show isn’t sufficient to hold my interest by itself, then I should do something else. I also want to consciously practice giving my full attention to a single thing rather than partial attention to multiple things. The second change is to spend the hour before bed away from screens. I don’t need to be checking on the status of internet things right before bed. Those things will be there in the morning. Looking at them in the morning is less anxiety inducing because I have the time and energy to take action, whereas at bedtime I just end up stewing on things. Then there is the science which says the light from screens can disrupt sleep patterns. The one caveat I’m allowing for me is if I’m watching a show or movie with someone else on the big family TV. That may happen before bed some days.

Interestingly, though I’m only imposing two rules on myself, I’ve discovered that some of the other suggestions have been implemented as well. Just knowing what they are helps me make more conscious choices in my relationship to technology. I haven’t imposed any rules on the other members of my household, but I’ve talked to them about the lecture and about the shifts I’m making for myself. I’ve already seen some of them begin making more conscious choices as well.

I think I may buy Dr. Anderson’s book and read it in detail. The suggestions I took notes on are covered in there. And I’m certain I missed writing notes on some good suggestions.

List of suggestions for improving life balance:

The so-so solution that someone will actually do is better than the ideal solution that someone won’t try. Take any step that inches you closer to a healthy balanced life. You can take further steps later.

Read a physical book. The tactile experience associated with paper focuses the brain differently. Some of us need to re-train our brains to engage with the slow unfolding of story and language.

Learn to wait without needing a distraction, watch your surroundings and pay attention to your thoughts about them. Learn to sit with boredom and see what thoughts come to you.

Make something with your hands (can be a puzzle or playing with magic sand)

Sketch, paint, or color

Pay attention to others needs and do something to help without being asked

Make a practice of thanking others, either out loud or in writing.

Cook from scratch

Meditate

Make amends

Have tech free time every single day

Only use one screen at a time

Go for a walk, or get outside, or watch a sunset. Do something slow which brings you into contact with outdoors or nature.

Do something to make your living space cleaner

Don’t begin a session of video games or social media until you have a plan for when it will end and what you will do afterward.

Plan a head and do full days with no tech.

Have an hour before bed with no screens

Before you google, think, question, hypothesize, experiment, explore, discuss

Limit tech locations, make sure you have tech free spaces in your life.

Have at least one tech free day per month.

Stories and Reading Aloud

The house is quiet and feels calm in this hour before everyone goes to sleep. Bedtime used to be the most energy intensive part of my day as I attempted to convince small children that they should lay still long enough for sleep to arrive. I spent years laying down with kids, sitting in the room with kids, or sitting out in the hallway being door guardian. None of those things are required anymore. I do have to remind my teenagers about bedtime, but mostly they accomplish it on their own. On the whole, I like this stage of life better. Bedtime was so hard, particularly because it required super-human patience when my energy was already used up.

But I miss reading stories out loud.

I have shelves full of children’s books, everything from picture books to middle grade. They are full of stories. I remember holding those books and speaking the words that made those stories come to life. I miss having faces turned toward the story, absorbing it. I still get to read aloud sometimes, mostly to other people’s children. But I’ve been wondering if there is a way to convince my teenagers to sit down and listen while Mom reads them Christmas stories. I might get away with it because Christmas makes everyone a bit nostalgic.

Christmas is like a time capsule. This year as I pull out the decorations and ornaments, I discover thoughts and emotions that I accidentally packed away in prior years. Remembered joy and sadness come out of the boxes along with objects that haven’t seen the light of day in eleven months. Ornaments bring back memories from decades ago and from last year. This is both a lovely thing and a difficult one. Since last year I was not in a good place emotionally, this year I have more emotion to process than usual. It helps that the home construction is forcing us to change many of our Christmas patterns. The tree is in a different room, there is no piano on which to display our Christmas pyramid. The physical changes we’re making in our house will create a before and after. That too will get folded into our holiday memories.

I haven’t yet pulled out my stock of Christmas books. They used to line up on the piano, now they’ll need to go elsewhere. But I want them out. I want to have those stories close to hand. And even if I don’t get to read them aloud to my children, I can read some of them to myself. I’m looking forward to seeing my friend the Grinch and remembering once again that we don’t save Christmas, it saves us.

A Week in Three Photos

ladder-tree
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas? Well, not exactly. But that spot where the ladder is will be where the Christmas tree goes. That’s the plan anyway. I need to get the last of the sheetrock removed. There used to be a closet where the ladder currently stands. This is step one of a long, slow process to remodel our kitchen. I was supposed to make some calls this week to price out other aspects of the remodel. Unfortunately I’ve been feeling unfocused.

Though there were a couple of bright spots. On Tuesday we got the wet proofs for the Defaced Seventy Maxims book.
wetproofs
These are pages of the actual paper printed by the actual machine that will do the printing for the book. It is our opportunity to really see if what we’ve planned will work. And it does. Tomorrow I need to comb through the proofs one more time and then give the okay to print.

On Thursday, today, we got advanced copies of the Pristine Seventy Maxims book.
pristine-advanced-copes
Those few moments of opening the package are always anxiety ridden. I suddenly am convinced that I’ve made a huge error and ruined the entire print run. So my first few moments holding a new book I feel a mix of excitement and dread. What if when I open it, I suddenly find the fatal error? We haven’t found the error yet, which means it is a typo level error rather than a “this book is ruined” error. I can live with that. The book is beautiful. I can’t wait to see it side by side with the companion book.

Letters to Things

Dear Road Sign,
“Road Congestion at Scipio Summit, Expect Delays” Does not adequately convey “You will be parked on the freeway for so long that people will be walking their dogs and men will be heading into the bushes to pee.” I think that word does not mean what you think it means.

Dear fellow drivers caught in a traffic jam,
I understand that you are frustrated at being stopped on the freeway, and that you really want to get home, but please don’t be stupid. Driving on shoulder of road = stupid. Driving wrong way up freeway onramp because you didn’t take the exit 100 feet and twenty minutes ago, also stupid. Fleeing onto frontage roads and then reconnecting with the freeway in reckless ways so that you cause additional accidents, supremely stupid. At least six of you were this last kind of stupid. Less than an inch of snow on the ground, just drive slow and patient then we’ll all get home.
No love.

Dear Brain,
Why did you decide to hand me the title and plot for a picture book where Amy’s Mommy is the central character? Amy’s fans don’t want a book about Amy’s Mommy. Okay, maybe parents of Amy’s fans might want it, but it is still a strange and difficult-to-market niche. Also, we have other projects where our attention should be focused. We don’t need to be drafting sentences, okay fine, I’ll write them down.

Dear fellow travelers after the traffic jam,
Thank you for being far more sane and patient that I was afraid you would be. You didn’t cause any more accidents after we cleared the mess. Thank you.

Dear home,
I love you. Glad I got here.

Sea Glass

sea-glass

Sea glass is what happens when people leave broken glass garbage on beaches or toss it into the ocean. The shards are moved about by waves, scoured by sand, and eaten by salt until all the sharp edges are worn away. The entire surface of the glass gains a frosted appearance as a result of this treatment. The process is slow, taking twenty to fifty years to render dangerous trash into something that is beautiful and sought after. The glass pictured in the above photo is artificial, made in a tumbler for people like me who want the allure without paying the prices associated with true sea glass.

I bought my little bag of glass last week. I’m not certain why the memory of sea glass popped into my mind, but I remember being much younger and finding tiny pieces of it on a beach trip. Those pieces are long lost, but the memory lingered and it was strong enough for me to look up and purchase a bag. For years I’ve been quite happy without sea glass in my life, this week I needed it. Since its arrival, I’ve been trying to figure out why. What piece of my soul responds to the idea of sea glass right now? I hold the pieces in my hand, listen to the way they clink against each other, watch how they refract the light. I don’t know that I’ll ever find a definitive answer to my question, but the following things are part of it:

Glass of all kinds has been more beautiful to me since last June when I helped to clean out my Grandmother’s house. She was a collector of beautiful glass. Some of that glass came home with me.

Beaches and oceans are deeply peaceful for me. Most recently I experienced them in conjunction with the Writing Excuses cruise. That trip was difficult and wonderful. It was the source of insights I don’t want to lose and memories I’d like to keep close.

I’ve felt tumbled about and at the mercy of large forces outside my control. I’ve felt this for years as I wore myself out trying to help my children. I like the idea that being tumbled about can make a damaged thing into a beautiful one.

Ive done this before, collected images and objects without being sure why they interest me. I have a file on my desktop where I collect images that speak to me. Sometimes examining these things helps me to understand myself, particularly the parts of myself that I’ve tucked away because they are painful or vulnerable. So I’ll be getting a little bowl to put my sea glass on display, and I’ll keep looking at it and waiting to find out what it means to me.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is accomplished. We went nowhere, played video games, watched movies, and read books all day. There was food, and for once the kids didn’t snarf it down and leave the table in less than ten minutes. We ate, laughed, shared stories, and cleaned up together. One of the things I am most grateful for at Thanksgiving is the way that the world backs off. Emails taper to a trickle. Social media slows down. None of the organizations to which I belong schedule anything because they all assume people are busy with family. So for a day or two, my world shrinks to just the people in my house. It is peaceful. My house is filled with good people. Tomorrow work begins again, and by Monday we’ll be fully into the swing of Christmas season. But for tonight I have the quiet calm of Thanksgiving.

Things Changing

A couple of weeks ago my country had an election and the results of it are a real shift in how things are done. Many people I know are terrified of how the changes will play out. I’ve spent some time anxious as well. So my usual online places are full of anxiety, outrage, calls for people to calm down, and calls to action.

Much closer to home, my congregation was reorganized last week. My church organizes its congregations (called wards) geographically. Where you live decides where you attend and who you attend with. The neighborhoods around my house have had significant demographic shifts in the past five years. Lots of apartment complexes have gone in, the average homeowner in my area is a grandparent rather than a parent with young children under their roof. These shifts left some of the wards seriously understaffed and other wards overflowing with new residents from apartment complexes. So they re-drew the imaginary lines which defined the ward boundaries.

The new boundaries have some of my friends, with whom I’ve attended for years, now attending different congregations than I do. It adds a lot of new people to my ward. My ward has a different number than it used to (7th instead of 9th). This means a complete shakedown in ward leadership. We have a new bishopric and new presidencies of all the auxiliary organizations (like youth classes, children’s classes, Sunday School, etc.) For myself, all of this is fine. But it means that my children will have new teachers, and I may have to go explain to those teachers about the special needs of my kids. There are conversations incoming, and I have no way of knowing if the conversations will be quick and simple or if I’ll be spending significant time and energy teaching people how to deal with my kids. I’ll begin to know who the new teachers are starting tomorrow morning.

On top of all the above change, we’re also remodeling. Oddly the remodeling has been more grounding than disruptive. The original plan would have been very disruptive. We’d intended to hire a contractor and do our best to stay out of his way. But the significant increase in our health insurance premium, and financial uncertainty surrounding how the new national administration will affect our business, made us decide to do more of the remodeling work ourselves. As a result, we’ve been taking the work in small sections. Move furniture from corner, paint corner, replace furniture, prep next segment. It is an odd, piecemeal approach, but it gives us time to think about each step as we get to it. When we get to the point of replacing cabinets, counters, and flooring, we’ll hire professionals. But the small stuff we can do, and we have been.

Taking control of the physical appearance of our house doesn’t actually help us control any of the other changes, but we feel better about all of it. We are slowly, carefully, piece by piece, creating the place where we want to live. I figure I can take the same approach with the other changes as well. I can pick a spot to focus and try to make that spot work as it should. On a community scale, I might spend a life’s worth of effort in a single spot, and that is okay.

For now, I have a ceiling to paint.

Happiness in the Present

snorkling
This picture is hanging on the wall across from me. I had Howard print it out and we framed it. It catches one brilliant, joyful moment. Not pictured is the fact that I had to strong arm my son into going on the excursion where this picture happened. Also not pictured is the emotional meltdown he had later that evening, nor the multi-child meltdown of the night before the excursion. This wonderful moment was surrounded by hard things. It was inextricably entwined with them. Part of the reason that moment shines so brightly for me, and for my son, was because it came in the middle of so much stress.

Yesterday evening I went and saw the movie Arrival. It was beautiful, brilliantly written, and deeply thoughtful. As the credits rolled, I continued sitting in my seat, not quite ready to leave the experience. When I did begin gathering to stand up, the woman next to me, who had also been quietly sitting, asked “What do you think it means?” I hardly knew what to say, though I fumbled through some words about not letting future or past sadness steal joy from the moment we’re in. At home I asked Howard the same question and he came up with a completely different answer than I had. His answer reflected what he’d been thinking about when he entered the theater. I’d been thinking different things and I found different meanings in the film. There are far more connections between this movie and my current train of thought, but to say more might spoil the experience for others. The film is worth seeing.

The snorkeling photo was a comfort to me this past week when everything felt doomed and hopeless. I would look at that photo and realize that no matter what happens in the future, nothing can take that moment away from me. It is safe, encapsulated in the unchangeable past. Realizing that showed me how to continue forward. Each happy thing in the present is safe from future events. Future darkness can only steal present joy if I allow it to. I will hold tight to this idea in the coming months. I have to find ways to not become complaisant about the rights of vulnerable people while also not spending all my days in fear and anger. If all my days are angry and sad, even if the cause for human rights wins, then something will be irrevocably lost. Grief should contain some laughter. Pain should make space for peace and joy. We have to find ways to be happy, especially when we’re surrounded by hard things.

Over Time Small Efforts Make a Big Difference

A couple of days ago I tweeted:
“Today I’m shipping packages, taking care of household tasks, and considering carefully what I should do to make the world a better place.”
“I need to pick a “make the world better” goal which is sustainable over the long haul, which is why I’m considering carefully.”

A friend tweeted back that she would love to hear what ideas I came up with. I still haven’t formulated a full plan, but last night a piece of it came into focus. It started with reading this series of tweets from a former Congress staffer on
How to effectively talk to your member of congress

A step not mentioned in that link is figuring out what to talk to my representatives about. Specific conversation is much more effective than generalized conversation. If you call and say “Please oppose Bill A because of reason Z” That is concrete and actionable. Whereas “Protect the rights of vulnerable people” can be interpreted in all sorts of ways, both good and bad. It is also more effective to talk about specific bills right before they are voted on.

It turns out there is a website dedicated to informing US Citizens when Congress is in session and what they’ll be voting on.
Calendars and Schedules for the House and Senate

They don’t yet have a schedule for 2017, but I noticed that the House will be in session the week of November 14. Here is a list of bills they will be voting on. Maybe one of those bills matters to you. You might want to check.

I also googled and found a website that makes it easy to find out who your representatives are and how to contact them. whoismyrepresentative.com

Having found those sites, I’ve realized that if I take a small fraction of the time I spend reading news sites and just scan over upcoming legislation, I will be aware when a bill occurs that I feel strongly about. Then I can take the few minutes necessary to call my representative. Or if I feel really strongly, perhaps I can speak up to draw attention to the bill. Or if I feel critically urgent about a particular bill, I might be able to organize a group of people to work together to support or oppose.

I suspect I won’t feel critically urgent very often. The vast majority of bills are routine or have no effect where I live. I’ll leave those to the people who are affected.

For this next week, one bill jumped out at me. H.R.5332 Women, Peace, and Security act. (Full text available at the link) In my quick read, it states that, statistically, peace treaties and agreements last longer when women are involved in making them, so therefore the US should make an effort to include more women in creating peace treaties and in negotiations. I would like to see that pass, so I’ll be calling my representative this week.

I’m also setting a reminder on my calendar to check back on the scheduling website in a month to see if they’ve posted the 2017 schedule yet. Then once they have, I’ll set reminders to check the specific bills the week before they get voted on. This is a small sustainable thing I can do.

Pain in its First Moment

Last winter I fell because of a patch of ice on my front walk. It was dark and cold. I didn’t see the ice before my foot landed on it. The result was giant bruises all over, and a couple of micro fractures in my hand and wrist. All of that is now a memory, healed up. But today I am thinking about the moment after the fall. I don’t remember the fall itself. I do remember a moment of disorientation “why am I here on the ground?” Then the pain hit. I was incoherent with it for at least a minute. All I could do was make a loud, distressed noise. It was pure instinct, crying out. My brain knew that, in my pain, the best way to summon help was to make noise. That first wave of pain passed in a minute or two. I was able to control the noises more. Then I was able to assess the damage, figure out how to stand up, get myself into the house, and begin to treat my injuries.

I wonder if there is a name for that moment when the pain hits. Doctors probably know it. Even if there isn’t a specific name, I know that emergency personnel are trained to handle it. People in that first blast of pain are not rational. They can’t be. The pain short circuits careful thought. What is left are survival strategies: howling into the darkness and lashing out at anything that might cause more harm.

I have been present when someone gets hurt. I’ve seen that moment of irrationality from the outside as well as felt it from the inside. I’ve seen someone pound the wall because they stubbed their toe, only to discover later that the damage to the hand is worse than the toe. I’ve heard people say hurtful things in the first flush of pain, things they would not ordinarily say. I’ve learned that it falls to those who aren’t hurt to help those that are. Part of helping is having compassion for that moment of yelling an flailing. No it doesn’t make sense. Often it isn’t productive. It can lead to further injury both to that person and others. Sometimes the flailing hits the helper so hard that the helper then has to manage their own pain for a time. In that first painful moment rationality and planning may not be possible.

All people experience pain in their own way and on their own schedule. One person may proceed to rationality in seconds while another requires minutes, hours, or even days. The severity of the injury also affects the recovery. In this too, everyone is different, a blow which one person shrugs off, can destroy another. I fell and had bruises. An older friend’s fall left her with three broken ribs and fractured arm. I was functional, if hurting, the next day. She was not back to normal for weeks.

Emotional pain is as real as physical pain. It can trigger the same neurochemicals and the same physiological reactions. An emotional blow can trigger the same irrational reaction as a physical one.

I am seeing a lot of irrational reactions to recent events. I’m seeing lots of lashing out. I hope that those who are not hurting can be kind to those who are. Give them space while the pain overwhelms them. Understand that they have to yell and lash out, they can’t not. Recognize that they may be overwhelmed for a lot longer than you think is reasonable. Depending upon the extent of their injury, they may be permanently different, even when that first irrational pain has passed. Pain changes people, changes perspectives. Have compassion for that too.

We have wounded. There is healing to do. There will be disagreements about how that healing should be accomplished. Those disagreements will cause new pain, new irrationality, new lashing out. So we must come back to compassion. Over and over again. Every time there is anger, fear, damage, we must return to compassion, empathy, kindness. It will be hard.

As we move out of that first pain, the strategies adapt. Then we must learn to live with the cognitive dissonance of having compassion for those who rail, howl, and fight against us, while not relinquishing our resolve to change the world for better. We must learn to hold tight to both resolution and to compassion for those who react in pain and fear to the changes we seek. This sort of compassion is exhausting, but it is necessary. Many people who seem like opponents could be allies with an application of compassion. There are true opponents out there, people who calmly and rationally choose things which hurt us. We’ll have more energy to oppose them if we can tell them apart from people who are reacting out of fear or pain.

I wish there were easy answers. I wish that there were one set of words that could provide healing to everyone. There isn’t. My words here will be healing to some and will make others angry. Both the person healed and the person angry have every right to feel as they do. Emotions are what they are. They should all be allowed. It is actions which must be controlled and managed. I do not control the feelings which show up, I have a responsibility to carefully choose my actions. Today I’m choosing to extend compassion toward people who are in the midst of pain and fear.