I watched Jaws a couple of days ago. I haven’t seen it in years. There were moments when it really had me tense and other moments where I could see exactly how fake the mechanical shark looked. The scene that sticks in my mind is the one with all the people splashing and playing in the water while the music plays its ominous theme. The new year feels a bit like that to me. From this moment I have no way to know if I’m going to get a pair of kids with a shark fin that scared me for no reason, or if there will be blood and guts in the water. I don’t like feeling this way about the coming year.
Instead of focusing on the ominous feeling, I’m instead going to focus on other things. Another story that I read over the holidays was How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I’ve written about this story before, but this year the thing which struck me was the moment when the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes. Before the growth the Grinch could not empathize. He could not love Christmas or the people who loved it. Then his heart grew and suddenly he did love all of the things which had been irritating before.
In order to make the world better, I have to start by expanding my own capacity to love and to enjoy. That starts with paying attention to the people immediately around me. In my neighborhood, my congregation, my kids’ schools. I need to notice who is vulnerable in the places where I spend my days. I must think about what I can do to befriend them, help them feel safe and welcomed. This will be difficult for me because in my day to day life I tend to avoid talking to people unless it is necessary. It takes extra effort for me to chat with a grocery store checker. I need to be willing to be uncomfortable. I need to be willing to speak up and to make phone calls. I need to ignore my financial stresses and make donations to good causes anyway. I need to sacrifice pieces of my day to reach out to others. I need to put people before my schedule. I have to be willing to turn my day upside down to defend others if the system turns against them or they have a bad break. This is the boots-on-the-ground work of changing society.
The fastest way to get a song out of my head is to consciously replace it with a different song, one I won’t mind listening to on repeat. So when I contemplate the new year and I begin to hear the ominous Jaws theme, I will instead sing the tune sung by the Whos down in Whoville, and I will grow my heart however many sizes is necessary to take on 2017.
The warehouse is cleared, pallets removed, boxes shifted. I’m almost ready for a shipment of books to arrive next week. I just need to shift a few more things and sweep the newly available space.
I’ve been working hard on Planet Mercenary. Much of what I’ve been doing is organizational. I took on half of the art director job, deciding what art we need done, contacting artists, and assigning work. It seems strange that spending so much time sending and responding to email counts as being productive, but it is necessary.
Work on the house remodel is on hold through the end of January. Both Howard and I need to keep our project energy firmly focused on Planet Mercenary.
Many of the parenting tasks are on hold this week. There are things we need to do in order to help all the people in our house have healthier lives, but we’re not pushing any of it forward during the space between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The new year is coming fast. I drive Kiki back to school on Monday, where she’ll hopefully have a calmer semester than the last one was. The other kids start back to school on Wednesday. It would feel like a fresh start, except that our school district doesn’t end the semester with Christmas break. Instead the end of the semester is a week and a half into the next year. So we always arrive back at school feeling muddled and rushed to get all the end of semester things done.
I don’t actually know how I feel about having a new year. This one was a muddled mess of things getting better on a personal level and feeling more perilous on the public stage. I don’t want to live in dread and fear, but I’m cautious about talking myself into hope and optimism. If things end up being hard, I don’t want to have to deal with cleaning up shards of shattered hope while I’m dealing with the hard. So mostly I’m putting my head down, trying to ignore the change over of the year, and put one foot ahead of the other on all my projects. Bit by bit they’ll all get done. Since all of them are specifically designed to make the world better (even if only in small personal ways) that step by step approach is a “Make the World Better” effort.
Love and light to all.
My first exposure to Role Playing Games was laying on the floor underneath the table while my three older siblings hunched over Advanced D&D books, rolling dice to kill masses of Gnolls. I was six. When they started up a new campaign, I begged to play. They reluctantly allowed me to. So for me Role playing meant books, dice, hand drawn maps on graph paper, and many loose sheets of paper. Around age fourteen I gave up on Role Play. It was too socially complicated since the only people who would play with me were boys and the vast majority of my peers didn’t understand it at all.
When my children were young and I watched them play, I realized that their free form play was essentially a Role Play without dice, paper, and rules to give boundaries to the mutual story. I remembered my own imaginative games as a child. I was able to imagine so strongly that I could almost see the things I was pretending. I also remember the day that pretending stopped working for me. Two friends had come for a sleepover. We were in the opening negotiations of dressing up and beginning the story when one of my friends paused and said “This is silly.” In that moment I couldn’t see it as anything but silly. Self consciousness banished pretend play forever. I was twelve.
Interestingly, twelve was also when I began to focus more on writing stories. Pretending on paper was much more socially acceptable than putting on dress ups and waving pretend swords in the backyard. When I reached adulthood I recognized that one of the biggest values of D&D and the paper RPGs that followed was that they gave adults permission to play pretend again. I assumed I would see the same pattern with my own children, that around twelve they would swap over to structured play bounded by rules and paper.
I was wrong. Twelve faded into thirteen and then fourteen while my kids still ran about in the backyard with friends. They also took it online, not into the structured mmorpgs that adults gravitated to. Instead places like Minecraft or Roblocks became platforms for role play in the same free form mode that I saw in my backyard. Gradually, with no fanfare, the online role playing took the place of running around in the yard. My kids have participated in role play (which could also be called cooperative storytelling) on Mincraft, Roblocks, DeviantArt, Google Docs, Terraria, Skype, and probably two or three other places that I don’t know about. It seems as long as the program has a way to connect with friends and a chat function, it can be used for role play.
I’m happy to live in a world where imaginative play is not the sole province of children. Play is good for all of us, no matter what our age may be.
The shipment is expected the first week of January. Two pallets, one thousand pounds. It is a small shipment by our usual standards, but the warehouse space wasn’t organized to receive it. I still had four pallets of Force Multiplication sitting in the middle of the floor. They needed to be combined into two pallets against a wall. Then there were the slipcases, four pallets across, three pallets high. All of those slipcases needed to be relocated into the upstairs section of the warehouse. They’re the only thing we have which is light enough to go up there. Even with light boxes, the work piles up when there are 400 boxes and a set of stairs involved.
I drafted my children. These days they are all adult sized. I’ve arrived at a point where I house my own work crew. I could have just said “this business pays our bills, you will help.” But I sweetened the deal by offering to pay them all by the hour. Saturday around noon, we piled into the car and set to work.
The first twenty minutes are always full of squabbling. They don’t squabble with quite the vigor that they used to, but in the opening minutes of a job like this, no one quite knows their job. People get into each others way and they grouch a bit. During those twenty minutes, I sometimes wonder if I would have been better to get outside help. Then they found their rhythm. They began to daisy chain boxes to the bottom of the stairs. Then daisy chain again to get them up and stashed. They learned how to toss boxes and catch them. They challenged each other, trying to work faster than a sibling could keep up. They laughed. When physical limitations made the work end before all the boxes were moved, all the kids said they wanted to come back and finish the job.
We went again today. Again it took twenty minutes to find our rhythm. And for the warehouse to warm up enough that they stopped complaining about the cold. Kiki had showered right before, so we had to take an old Schlock shirt and tie it onto her head as a makeshift hat to keep her head from freezing. Gleek decided that merely stacking boxes wasn’t quite good enough. So I now have a lovely box fort upstairs. Patch even made a cannon from an old piece of metal duct that was laying around.
At the end of the work, we could all see how much space we’d made. I’ll have plenty of room to receive my pallets of books, and the second (much larger) shipment that is due in February. The next big task is to get rid of thirty wooden pallets that we have stacked on the floor. That’s a job for a truck or a trailer.
Moving all the boxes inspired the kids. All four of them jumped on their computers to play a shared game of Minecraft. They’ve been at it for four hours now. I can hear them calling out to each other and laughing. Playing together comes easily and naturally for people who have worked together. I keep forgetting that. My kids are likely to be conscripted as work crew more often. I think they’ll be good with that.
“And how is your writing coming?” my friend asked after we’d spent half an hour talking about various business things having to do with the publishing industry and Schlock Mercenary. I had to answer “not doing much lately.”
My neighbor came to my door with chocolates. “My mother said that I should give these to that lady who wrote the blog.” I thanked my neighbor, honored to be included in their tradition again.
The message came in on Facebook. “I’ve read your picture books and one short story, have you written any other science fiction?” I answered that I used to, and it used to be available via places A,B,C, but all those places have vanished off the internet. These days my stories mostly live on my hard drive, except for the few I’ve posted to Patreon.
I was reading The Starlit Wood, an anthology of fairy tale retellings. It is one of the few books where I’ve felt like the authors really captured the feel of folklore rather than using the plot of folklore and adding twists or set dressing. There is a place for (and a power in) both types of retelling, but I love it when a story understands that the core of a fairy tale is in what it says to and about the people who tell the story. Fairy tales and folklore are how we tell each other what we’re afraid of, what things are acceptable, what things are punished, and who we are as people. When I closed the book, my brain said “I want to write some stories like that.” and it began thinking through what folklore and traditions I might pull from.
The title of a picture book showed up in my brain while I was on a road trip. Lines and plot sketches soon followed. A second picture book resurfaced in my memory, reminding me it is waiting to be written. A third idea from long ago came back to me and said “maybe I’m a picture book.” That makes three.
Essays sit, partially written on the desktop of my computer. Some are only notes for things I might want to write. Some are barely concepts. I would like to collect a book of essays grouped by thematic topic rather than year of writing. But the project feels daunting and hard to justify.
And then there is the middle grade novel, drafted and awaiting editing. It feels dusty. I can’t see the bright things about it that drew me to write it in the first place. It is possible that if I picked it up, I could blow the dust away and turn it into something compelling. Right now I’m letting it sit because I don’t need another thing pinging around in my brain.
My mind turns over the possibilities for running another picture book Kickstarter. If I got the three books written, I could contract with a couple of artists. Maybe I could get them funded. Hold on to Your Horses was not a huge success out of the gate, but it is a little engine that could. It continues to creep out into the world, finding new children and parents who need it. Strength of Wild Horses goes hand in hand with it. They’ve done well enough that I can consider sinking additional effort and funds into more picture books. Maybe. My desire needs to be strong enough that I’m willing to dig another financial and energy hole which will only be filled gradually. My accountant brain runs numbers, factoring in the fact that if the accountant doesn’t allow the creative some leeway, then we all plunge into depression.
First we have to finish Planet Mercenary. That is the show stopper in most of my imagined possibilities. I have obligations there. Until I ship packages to five thousand backers, I can’t do the final accounting to see whether we even have the funds for me to do more projects. I am both excited about and exhausted by the Planet Mercenary project. Sometimes those feelings come in rotation, other times they co-exist.
Then there is the guilt that I’ve been running a Patreon for a couple of years, and I’m not at all certain I’ve honored that gift of patronage. They are supporting my writing, and I’ve done so little of it. I ponder closing it down.
I end each day with a long list of things I meant to do. I can think back through the hours and know that few of them were wasted. There just weren’t enough of them. Or there wasn’t enough energy to make use of them all. Sometimes my lists are so discouraging to me that I ignore the master list on my phone and instead make a secondary list on paper. Forget my grand plan of productivity, what do I really need to get done on that day. I end the day with items not crossed off on the paper list. Some of this is just the fact of December. This is the month of extra shipping, extra customer support, extra promotional efforts. It is also a month of extra trips to stores and extra financial calculations to figure out if we can afford the gifts which would be most useful or joyful. We eschew most concerts and parties, yet we still find our days filled up.
All of the considerations swirl about in my head, but I have to come back to the realization that three times in the past week I’ve had people spontaneously come to me to inquire after some aspect of my writing. That’s three witnesses telling me writing should get a larger share of my attention. I believe in the power of witness, particularly when there are two, or three, or more of them. The stories themselves are lifting their heads and asking “Is it time for me?” I’d like to clear out, make space, and say yes.
This list could also be called, Reasons I am Glad to Live in a World of Modern Medicine.
All of those for a family of six that is basically healthy. It is possible that some of the things we consulted these professionals for would have resolved on their own without intervention, but some of these interventions were life saving. Without medical intervention I would likely be dead by now, slowly choked to death by a throat tumor. Howard might not have survived his myocarditis in 1999, or his C Diff infection in 2013.
The only point I have here is that I am extremely grateful for modern medicine and I would really like to be able to continue to afford preventative care which allows us to stay well and lets us be contributing members of society. I don’t know what 2018 will bring on the healthcare front. I don’t know how much of my income will have to go toward premiums (in 2017, it’ll be about 25%) I don’t even know if I’ll have the option to purchase a healthcare plan at all. I will be pleased with any political party which delivers affordable healthcare that allows me to see the listed specialists as I need to. I will be angry at any party which makes seeing doctors more difficult and more expensive.
For now I guess I should be glad that the current round of testing and appointments will likely be concluded before the end of the year so that they can go on this year’s deductible instead of the much higher one for next year.
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
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.
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.
Though there were a couple of bright spots. On Tuesday we got the wet proofs for the Defaced Seventy Maxims book.
On Thursday, today, we got advanced copies of the Pristine Seventy Maxims book.