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September 2018
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Thinking About Work and Being In Between

Being self employed gets inside your head. It pervades your thoughts and decisions. There is this constant awareness of time, that time not spent on business tasks equals income that won’t arrive. The correlation is not one to one, hours are not created equal. Some hours and tasks are more profitable than others. Unfortunately which hours and tasks are the profitable ones can often only be seen in retrospect. Work is survival, and that gets repeatedly pressed upon the mind of a self employed person.

I’m thinking about this as Howard and I are currently living an in-between space. We’ve left home for a two week trip, which puts us outside our regular business and leisure activities, and we’ve not yet fully entered the conference or recording sessions, both of which are another set of familiar business and leisure activities. We found ourselves with five hours to fill and nothing routine to put into them. It is in such spaces that we unfold our thoughts and have conversations we otherwise would not have. Those conversations are part of why taking trips together is so valuable. We have to remember who we are when we aren’t working, and sometimes the only way for us to not be working is to enter a space where work isn’t possible. Even though being unable to work is inherently anxious for us.

The other reason I’m thinking about the pervasiveness of work, is that the our websites are down this morning. (I’m actually typing this offline and will only be able to post it once the sites are back up.) It is no doubt a small problem, easily fixed once our web guy (who lives in New Zealand) wakes up and checks his email. Outage used to send us into panic. Lack of update felt like imminent doom, the inevitable death of our business. Back then we weren’t able to interrogate our anxieties as well as we do now. Also, we now have years of evidence that an outage blip isn’t going to do long term damage. We aren’t panicked and yet there is still anxiety, this ambient sense that if we don’t properly serve our audience, that audience will vanish and all our resources along with it. Our most common antidote to anxiety is to get back to work…which is difficult when we reside in the between space where we’ve deliberately made work hard to do.

In the between spaces, I ask myself questions about why I’m doing the work that I do and whether I like doing it. I ponder what work I would choose to do if money were not an issue. Where would I spend my efforts if I knew that the bills would always be paid. These are useful questions, not to make me dissatisfied with the life I have now, but to remember what small adjustment I should make in my daily efforts so that at future times when I enter an in between space, I can be glad about the changes I see.

Travel Begins

Today was the beginning of two weeks of travel which will include a tour of NASA and the fourth Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat which takes place on a cruise ship. The trip began early this morning with transit via shuttle, plane, and car. Now we’ve settled into the Houston hotel where we’ll stay until we board the ship on Sunday. I will have significant hosting and conference work to do, but the spaces in between, I’ll get to write. I’ll get to unfold my creative brain and let it consider long slow thoughts instead of using it up on the logistics tasks required to run house, family, and business.

I’ve never been to Houston before. It feels like a cross between Florida, California, and the deep south. I haven’t been here long enough to think of it except in reference to pieces of other places that I have been. However one thing I do notice is the flatness of the horizon. I’ve lived for the last 25 years in a place where the landscape goes vertical only a few miles from my house. I’ve been to other states with flat horizons, but either I was surrounded by tall buildings, or other obstructions. Here I can see the tall buildings of downtown from fifty miles away. My brain keeps trying to parse the flat horizon as ocean. I guess that is the only flat horizon referent that my brain has stored.

Tonight is for unwinding and travel recovery. Tomorrow we have work to do.

Unexpected Pain in Parenting

He stood tall and straight when he said it, eyes clear and meeting mine. So different from the past five years or more of hunched shoulders, eyes averted, mumbled words. I’ve been waiting so long to see him take control of his life, step out and take flight. So why did it feel like a stabbing wound when he told me that my house wasn’t home for him anymore, that our family fit uncomfortably, chafing when he spent too long with us. He needed to step out, build his own space, make his own family.

This has always been the endgame of parenting. I knew even when they were babes in arms that someday they would step away from the family I created and create a new one of their own. Children are supposed to want to do things differently than their parents did.
And yet. It is a rejection. I spent two decades building a house and a family. I put myself into it body and soul. I sacrificed so much for it. And one by one my children will tell me that they don’t want it anymore.

He was not mean when he said these things to me. He was trying to be the opposite. He chose his words carefully. It was a conversation about him and his bright plans for the future, a future he can finally see and that he wants to reach for. He was choosing to share this piece of his mind and heart with me. He didn’t have to. He could have just stepped out and away. But he wanted me to know that he loves his family, he always will. He wanted me to know that stepping away was about grabbing his own life. He wanted me to be a part of this shift in his focus. I am invited to participate in this transition, but only as an observer.

So strange to be crying with grief over exactly the thing that I spent months and years crying over because it wasn’t happening.

I finally understand the urge to corner young parents and tell them to enjoy their children while they’re young. But there isn’t any point in pressing this thought on unsuspecting parents who would likely only be frustrated that I don’t understand why they aren’t savoring the particular moment they are in. The hard truth is that even if you savor every moment of your child’s growing up years, you still end up grieving at some point, even if nothing goes wrong. The person a child is at 10 is different then who they were at 3. I watched every bit of the transition, but sometimes there comes a day when I suddenly realize that the three-year-old is gone and I miss that little person, even if they are sitting right next to me transformed into an older person. Sad if they’re failing to launch. Sad when they do launch. And feeling a bit ridiculous for falling into this cliche.

I did my best not to cry in front of my son. I had to go home and unpack why I was crying since it was not a simple case of hurt feelings. He hadn’t said or done anything wrong, the opposite in fact. Yet it caused me grief, which is mine to manage without imposing it on him or making him feel like he should choose differently. He needs room to fly without me in the way.

Adapting to High School

I have to remember that the second day of a new schedule is the hardest. Since my kids are on an A/B schedule, that means we get two second days during the first week. It means the first week of school feels really long and exhausting. By the beginning of the second week, things have begun to settle. We’ve identified which classes won’t work and have shaken scheduled changes out of the appropriate school personnel. We also had just enough anxiety incidents to remind the school admin that my kids are on the far edge of the “normal teen anxiety” bell curve. And I’ve just about managed to calm the self-doubting thoughts in my head which inform me of all the thoughts that I’m sure other people must be thinking about my parenting choices.

This week will feature two 504 meetings where I sit in a room with my teenager, some of their teachers, and a couple of school administrators. We’ll talk about my kids’ diagnoses and what they need in order to be able to succeed in school. For my daughter the meeting is pro forma. She’s been in the school two years and doesn’t really need anything different than she’s already got. My son is a different story. He carries some coping strategies from junior high that may not fly in high school classrooms. It is important for him to sit in a room with his teachers and negotiate what coping strategies will work for everyone.

I don’t know if this is universally true, but high school is harder to navigate and adapt for a special needs kid that junior high. It isn’t that the staff don’t want to help. They do. They are every bit as kind and willing (or the opposite) as the staff in junior high. There seems to be something systemic, a structural expectation that these teenagers need to be managing themselves. Also I think the high school staff gets a bit jaded from dealing with almost-adults who know enough to game the system. This means one of the staff jobs is to not let the teenagers get away with stuff. There is also a structural expectation that parents should back off. If I maintain a static level of intervention across junior high and high school, I will be seen as helpful by junior high staff and as helicopter parenting by the high school staff.

Until they’ve had one of my kids melt down in their class and they realize that what looked like hovering was me doing the bare minimum I could do while still preventing meltdown.

An argument can be made for not preventing the meltdowns. That it is by going through stress that kids learn to manage stress. I think about this every time I step in to resolve an issue instead of stepping back to let them figure it out. I’m trying to be better about stepping back. It is a learning process for us all. And I suppose it is an argument in favor of the structural expectations of high school. Merely by being more difficult to navigate, they force us to change how we handle the anxieties. We have to grow. And growth is the point of school.

Hopes for a Good School Year as Expressed in School Supplies

We’ve had three days of school so far and three afternoon shopping trips. The first one doesn’t quite count as a “trip” because it was opening the box of a new school bag ordered off of the internet. My son carefully moved his pencils and folders from the ratty old bag that served him through three years of junior high. The new bag is a leather messenger bag, spacious and grown-up. Perhaps being able to see and quickly grab things will improve his ability to organize his work and plan his days. It has to be better than shoving things into and out of the string bag that was mandated by the (odd) rules of the junior high.

Day two came with a batch of fury for my daughter. She’d asked a school admin for an accommodation and been refused. I came to the school and asked then she got it. It was frustrating for both of us. Probably for the admin as well, because we’re requesting a non-standard usage of a class. But the fury wound down and then my daughter needed to go shopping for supplies for a particular class that she has already fallen in love with. The teacher was inspiring, and gave her a binder with pre-labeled dividers. A binder seems like such a small thing, but by giving the kids a tangible gift on the first day, this teacher has engaged them. For once I have hope that my kid will have a transformative experience in a class at school. I would love that. I would love to see her expanding, admiring adults outside her home, stretching to impress them, and growing.

The third day required socks. It was the need for a sketch book that sent us to the store, but it was socks that stole the show. Tossing the all of the old, welcoming the shiny and new. This school year is a chance for both of my children to re-define themselves. They can dress different. Be different. And wear socks with pumpkins on them because Halloween isn’t all that far away.

We’re poised at the beginning, hoping that this year will be the one where they fly under their own power and rescue themselves from their inevitable crashes only to take off and fly again.

Ready for Routine

Social media shows pictures of my friends at Worldcon. Howard is there too, along with my oldest daughter. They are being creative professionals, visiting with friends, making connections. It has been years since I’ve been to Worldcon, the last one I attended was Reno in 2011. That is seven years and ages ago. Some of those years I’ve been very sad about missing it, but Worldcon almost always lands right when my kids are beginning school. In the past seven years I’ve been anxious enough about the onset of school that I decide to stay home. The same was true this year. I am at home while people I’d love to see are at Worldcon.

This year I am not sad. I’ve been enjoying seeing the snippets shown to me by social media, but I’ve been quite happy to be here in my house finishing projects and providing stability for a pair of teenagers who begin high school tomorrow morning. One will be a senior, with all the extra importance that lends to everything. For the other, this is his first year in the big building.

I think the reason I am not sad is that I am ready for some quiet. I’ve been functioning with endless thinky tasks for months now. I have similar lists of tasks ahead of me. Yet by staying home I’m able to complete things. A task that is complete no longer takes space in my brain. I’m taking this week at home to clear away the clutter. I’m cleaning house both physically and mentally. So that this week as we settle into the school schedule, I will also have a new rhythm for work. I’m ready to shift into school mode.

An Accounting of My Past Week

A week ago Monday: Travel day for the first half, followed by unpacking, house assessing, business task triage, and hugging children. Had to do all the triaging, assessing, and unpacking while I still had a bit of momentum. Experience tells me that if I don’t get them done before I burn through the last of the convention energy, I will not get them done for a week.

A week ago Today (Tuesday): Crash day. Only not completely crash, because I had to go over to the school and talk to the counselor about my two teens’ schedules. On one hand it is really nice that she instantly knew me an was super ready to set things up for my senior girl. On the other hand, it might be nice to not have the school counselor know my kids because they didn’t need any extra attention. I also got to sit down and say “Now let me tell you about my kid whom you haven’t met yet.” I happened to be there at the time when the new school principal was also in her office. The same principal who used to be over the Junior High and who sat through meetings about my son. So when I asked for accommodations requiring administrative approval, he granted them instantly. Nice to be known and listened to. Maybe someday we won’t need that anymore and that would also be nice.

So super important meeting followed by brain sludge. I did manage to mail store orders that had been waiting a week for me to return from GenCon. I also began transcribing some of my GenCon notes. Or maybe I did that on Wednesday.

Wednesday: Had a business meeting with a friend I don’t see often enough. Then I printed out packing lists for shirt orders and sorted them. I think there might have been grocery shopping, but that might have been Tuesday. These days blur together a bit.

Thursday: Had a social event for much of the day. Spent the afternoon/evening printing postage for shirt orders.

Friday: Shipping day. Me and my helper went through about 100 packages. Currently the average temperature in the warehouse is around 80 degrees, so I always end up hot, sweaty, and tired by the time I’m done.

Saturday: 80 more packages into the mail. Then I came home to administrative tasks. I was still working through my post-GenCon to do assignments. I feel like I did some other admin tasks.

Sunday: Church, family gathering.

Monday: The morning was all about getting Howard and daughter out the door to attend Worldcon. They traveled over early because Howard has recording sessions for Writing Excuses. In the afternoon I prepared packing lists and postage for yet more shipping.

Tuesday: 90 packages into the mail. There are a few more lingering at the warehouse, but the remaining shirt packages are all ones that have problems of some sort. Mostly these problems are because the shirt company shorted me on shirts of several types. But some of them are error on my part. Others are a miss communication between me and the shirt company about which size/color combinations actually exist and which don’t. Sorting this all out is requiring a lot of organization and thinking on my part. I’ve reached the point where I have to physically set aside each order so that I can see what shirts I have left. That way I can work in batches and figure out which substitutions I can offer. For some of the shirts I’m waiting for the shirt company to give me their Fill Order which supposedly will give me all the shirts I’m missing. I still expect to have to do print on demand for some shirts in order to fulfill my promises to customers.

Thinking about shirts has filled my head up for more than a week. I’m hoping that by the end of this week I will not have to think about them as much, though I’m certain I’ll still have odds and ends that I’ll have to ship. I think it will be September before I’m done dealing with shirts.

What I want to be spending my brain on is new projects. I have things I’m supposed to be writing and things I want to be writing. I have Schlock books that I need to get complete and sent off to the printer. I’m not sorry to have done the shirts, but I will be glad when I can reclaim the brain space that they’ve been occupying. And I’ll be even more glad when we can set up Print on Demand shirts so that Schlock fans can have their shirts and I don’t have to touch them.

I guess an alternate title for the past week could be Post Convention Brain Mush Combined with Back-To-School, Convention Packing, and Shirts, Shirts, Shirts. An unwieldy title, but accurate.

The Valuation of GenCon

The value of GenCon is hard to measure, because so much of both the benefits and costs are made up of intangibles. The costs are measured in time, stress, and money. That last one makes it tempting to let money be the deciding factor, because it is easy to quantify while the other things are not. But a profit and loss sheet does not accurately represent the value of GenCon. We’ve never yet had a financial loss, but many years we don’t hit a hoped for dollar mark. That can be hard mid-show when we can see that we’ll miss. At that moment anxiety gets loud, fed by fatigue. It wants to spin tales of doom. When that happens we have to stop and recalibrate. We have to pull our heads out of the spreadsheets and focus on the intangible benefits.

What are the intangibles? Here is a list from this year:
Connecting with friends, catching up, hugging them, hearing about their lives.
Meeting new people who may become part of our expanding network of friends and business contacts.
Getting a line on a potential new printing partner.
Two contacts that might help me get Planet Mercenary distributed into game stores.
Seeing amazing cosplay, all the creativity and cleverness that is on display. All the mashups that delight.
Getting to play games for charity.
Reconnecting with a friend who has changed jobs and now works in a field where he may be able to greatly assist with a behind-the-scenes admin burden for the Writing Excuses cruise in 2019.
Figured out how to reconfigure our booth and business model to optimize next year.
Had ideas for at least three new creative projects.
Got information about applying for creative writing grants.
Got to teach and pay it forward.
Got to talk to people for whom our creative work made their lives better in some way.
Got to witness the ambient joy that is 80,0000 adults who understand that play should not end with childhood.
Got to see how the administrative work I do is critical to make this event happen for my team.
Got to have conversations with people who understand our business model and could sympathize with all the joys and frustrations.
Got to compare notes with others who ship products to customers and point each other at resources to make that job easier.
Participating in conversations where I learned interesting trivia that may someday inform a story or conversation.
Receiving creative respect from people who are supremely professional in their fields. That respect helps me recognize that I have become good at the jobs that I do even though I don’t have formal training for many of them.
Being told by my booth crew that we are worth investing in. That they willingly and enthusiastically build, haul, and sweat because we matter and what we create matters. This is from people I know are highly intelligent and who I know do not suffer fools lightly.
Listening to a comparison of how the RPG/game industry functions in ways that are fundamentally different from the literary publishing industry.
Got to be amused at Science Fiction and Fantasy publishing being called “literary publishing” but that is how it looks from the outside, all novels and stories are literary. Whereas from the inside “literary” is a specific sub genre of fiction writing.
Going out to dinner with groups of writers where we talk plot, travel, food, life, and then laugh uproarously at each others jokes.

I’m certain there are things which should be on that list, but which have slipped out of my brain.

Howard and I have this concept of the ten thousand dollar conversation. It is a conversation that opens a new possibility or improves a creative concept so that business revenue is improved by ten thousand dollars or more. We can never schedule these conversations. They always arise unexpectedly from the pool of intangibles. We figure out which things were critical only in retrospect. But I’ve gotten better at spotting which ones might be the ten thousand dollar conversations. This year at GenCon, I had at least three. They may not pan out, but the potential is there if I do the post-convention work that is necessary to make them happen.

I have six pages of closely written notes on the post-convention work I need to do in the next months. I said in a prior entry that GenCon prep begins in February. I’ve realized that is inaccurate. I’ve already completed the first preparatory task for GenCon 2019, I reserved our booth space. In the coming weeks I’ll have series of follow up tasks. Then there will be a lull. This coming year the lull will still have tasks in it. I’ll know more once I’ve had time to decipher my notes and assign deadlines for the associated tasks.

For today, I traveled home. I’m now trying to remember what my home tasks are. I’ve created a small to do list for tomorrow and a slightly larger one for Wednesday. These are only things that must be done, nothing that can be pushed off until I’ve recovered from the convention. By Thursday I hope to be back up to speed. I have shirts to ship, kids to launch into their school year, and notes to turn into tasks.

Onward I go, continuing this creative career that feels exhausting and frightening as often as it does exhilarating.

GenCon The Day Before the Show Begins

It is only when I arrive at GenCon that I remember why the stress is worth it. I arrive and my people are here. First and foremost my booth crew, who have done nearly as much preparation and advance work as I have. This year they had the booth completely set up before I even arrived.

This year our hotel is farther away than we prefer. This is a direct result of a brief mistake on my part on the day hotel booking opened. Thanks to the kind folks at the GenCon housing company, I was able to correct most of that error, but we’re further away. Because my crew did most of their work yesterday, Howard and I had time to teach me the route from the hotel to the convention center. The learning is necessary because something about downtown Indianapolis messes with my internal compass/map. I have to carefully learn my routes rather than trusting my instincts. One advantage of our hotel is that it is located on “The Circle” which is a beautiful historical section of downtown Indy. My learned path takes me past dozens of restaurants and interesting shops. Despite being further away, I’m glad I get to stay here at least once.

Another thing I did with my mostly free day was get extra sleep. I needed it after our 2am arrival at the hotel. Our plane got delayed four different times. The afternoon was spent on administrivia. I had to assemble and deliver the materials for our Game Chiefs who run the Planet Mercenary games during the show. I also had to double check the stock at the booth against my cash register to make sure everything matches up. There are always updates to make and things to do in order to optimize for each particular show. Then I had an hour or two to go over my presentation materials for the presentations I have ahead of me on Friday and Saturday.

Each thing completed is the culmination of tasks that have been hovering in my attention for months. I’ve fulfilled my obligation to my game chiefs and to the players who purchased tickets to our games. I’ve succeeded at providing housing for my crew, and merchandise for the booth. In the morning when we begin making sales I’ll have succeeded in preparing for the booth. Each thing done is a stress lifted. By Sunday evening I will feel lightweight. By then I will have traded those stresses for fascinating conversations, friends greeted, new people met, things learned, sights seen, and moments of joy. The net balance will be distinctly in the positive. It is every year. Sometimes when I’m paying out the stresses in advance I lose track of that.

The doors open tomorrow.

My GenCon Indianapolis Schedule

I will be spending the next week in Indianapolis to attend GenCon. If you’re also at GenCon or at the GenCon Writer’s Symposium, I hope you’ll make time to find me and say hello.

I have a lot of scheduled events, but in between them the best places to look for me are either in the Writer’s Symposium common areas or in the Dealer’s Hall at booth 1649.

Thursday
5pm Freelancing Life
A panel discussion about freelancing that takes place in the Ballroom of the Marriott Downtown.

Friday
9am Breaking Through the Blockages
A solo presentation on overcoming writer’s block. Austin room in Marriott Downtown.

3pm Cover Design Principles
A solo presentation about the basics of cover design intended both for people who want to create their own covers and those who are working with design professionals on covers. Austin room in Marriott Downtown.

4pm Public Face, Private Life
A solo presentation about balancing the need to be public online as a creative professional vs maintaining privacy and emotional balance. Austin room in Marriott Downtown.

6pm Worldbuilder’s Party
Howard and I will be hosting a game of Munchkin Starfinder as part of the Worldbuilder’s party. We hope you’ll stop by and play with us.

Saturday
9am Structuring Life to Support Creativity
A solo presentation about ways to arrange your life to allow time and support for your creative pursuits. Austin Room in Marriott Downtown.

12pm AMA (Ask Me Anything) with Howard Tayler
Howard and I will be sitting in a room ready to answer questions. Hopefully some people will be there to ask questions. Atlanta Room in Marriott Downtown.

3pm Schmoozing 101
A co-presentation with Elizabeth Vaughn. We’ll be talking about social skills, introductions, starting conversations with strangers, tools for keeping conversation going, and how to gracefully exit conversations. Among other things. Austin room in Downtown Marriott.