Month: September 2010


I have spent far too many hours this afternoon being a psychologist. I have diagnosed. I have researched. I have planned a behavioral modification structures. I have listened to many meandering thoughts as my children unloaded their woes, joys, and random thoughts. When I took psychology in high school it was because the class sounded like fun. I use the knowledge I gained in that class almost every day.

A Working Anniversary

Some days are not so much about the effectiveness. Instead they are about having half a dozen conversations via email which would have gone much faster on the phone, but did not actually involve the phone because I was trying to stay focused on work. The work which never actually got done because I kept being distracted by other work. It was a day about taking care of lots of random tasks which needed doing, but which somehow never quite made it onto the To Do list.

Among the things I did not get done was being contemplative about the fact that today is the sixth anniversary of the day that Howard cleaned out his office at Novell and became a cartoonist full-time. But I suppose my distraction is actually in keeping with our tradition of working through anniversaries rather than celebrating by the spending of money on gifts or food. Our first wedding anniversary was spent painting a house. Our last few wedding anniversaries have been spent on the road working conventions. Although if I were really trying to honor this particular anniversary by working really hard it would be nice if I had something concrete to point to rather than a pile of random stuff, most of which is more finished than yesterday, but is not yet complete.

Sorting my notes

As a result of all the cleaning and organizing I’ve been doing, I finally located all my writing notebooks. In theory I only have one notebook at any given time and I carry it with me. The truth is that sometimes I’m hit with an idea I need to write down and my notebook is not where I expect it to be. Then I grab a new notebook or an older notebook that still has blank pages. Right now I have one completely-full notebook which I need to refer to, and two mostly-full notebooks. And for once I know where they all are.

Last Friday I sat down with my writing notebooks and began sorting through them. I culled out the pages of ideas that I’ve already used as well as the random non-writing notes which are no longer relevant. It is critical for me to have the notebooks to capture ideas. It is just as critical for me to clear out the notebooks so that I can find the ideas that still need attention. I know that there is value in retaining notes, sometimes raw notes trigger memories for me that finished writing does not include, but I feel that storing huge boxes of old notes is a waste of space that I need for other things. I can not fill my life or my mind with clutter. I must let things go if I am to retain spaces for new thoughts and ideas to form.

The tossing of notes does not just create physical space, it also gives me mental room. When I look through the old notes, it is obvious to me that some of the ideas are still alive. I can see that they are good and that I should save them for later use. Other notes feel dead. The zeitgeist that prompted me to write them is gone or my life has shifted and they’re simply no longer relevant. In such cases tossing the notes can be symbolic. I let those thoughts go in the physical act of tossing the paper. In an odd way, this frees the concepts. Most of them are just gone, but more than once I’ve had an old concept come back to me transformed by a new event. This transformation is harder if I have the concept pinned to an old shape in note form.

As I go through the notebooks I often discover that I’ve written notes on the same topic on several places. In such cases I consolidate and copy these notes so that they are in one place rather than several. This means that when I go to find that topic it is easier for me to recall all the thoughts. It also means that once things are copied I can throw away the superfluous pages. I kind of enjoy tearing pages out of my notebook and throwing them out. I particularly enjoy it when I’m throwing notes away because I’ve already written something using them. It is the same sort of satisfaction one gets from checking off a task, only tearing out a sheet of paper is more tangibly satisfying. I like seeing my notebooks get thinner because I’ve used the thoughts that were in them.

Part of my brain pictures one of my heirs or a future historian lamenting the fact that I threw away notes. But honestly most of the notes are so fragmentary they would me little to anyone besides me. Also I would rather have my children lament a shortage of notes than to saddle them with boxes of irrelevant papers to sort through. They’ll get enough of that anyway what with all of the journals and blog entries that I create. The world will have plenty of words from me without keeping old, dead notes.

And now, having written this entry, you must pardon me as I go tear out the note that I should write about sorting notes. I’m done with it now.

The Process for Generating Ideas

“Where do you get your ideas?” my neighbor asked.

It is a question familiar to writers everywhere. Usually we cringe when we hear it, because the answer is not simple. There is not a single source for ideas, but a multiplicity of sources that are synthesized by the writer. So when a writer answers the question with “everywhere” it is the bare truth, but often unsatisfying to the person making the query.

This iteration of the question was a little different. My neighbor was asking about parenting, not writing. I muttered something about “all over the place” but I was unhappy with my answer. I feel like I ought to have something more useful to say than “I don’t know. They just come to me.” So I sat down and identified some specific things I do which feed my font of parenting ideas.

Read: The first thing I did when I got pregnant was buy a book. When Kiki had trouble sleeping as a baby I bought a book. Once there was internet I googled things. I have studied human development, childhood diseases, behavioral modification, psychology, the science of sleep, nutrition, atypical neurology, physical therapy, and motivational research. I haven’t studied any of these things enough to get a degree or pass a class, but I delved deep in my areas of interest. I even subscribed to parenting magazines for a time until I realized that they’d begun re-hashing material I had already absorbed. The studying filled my brain with bits of knowledge which could be combined in new ways.

Watch: I watch my kids. I watch other people’s kids at similar ages. This allowed me to see what behaviors are age typical and which are noteworthy. I also watch adults. I pay attention to what motivates people, why they lie, how they try to maneuver each other. I try to understand my kids as human beings driven by personality traits and needs. I watch to see how they strive to meet those needs. I watch family dynamics and interactions. All the watching is greatly informed by all of the reading.

Think: I take all the information I’ve gathered through reading and watching, then I ponder it. I ask myself if I agree with what a particular article said. Then I ask myself why I agree or disagree. I force myself to examine my assumptions and make space for things to shift around. If I see a poorly handled parental interaction in the grocery store, I think through how I would handle it differently with my child. I repeat that process with even more fervor when it was my poorly handled parental interaction.

Communicate: Other parents come from different backgrounds and knowledge bases than I do. I can not count the number of times when one of my neighbors simply handed me the answer to a parenting problem that I have been stewing over for weeks. In fact I’ve learned not to stew for weeks. Instead I talk to a fellow parent who will listen, commiserate, and offer ideas. I also go to my non-parent friends because they’ve been children and because their perspective from outside the trenches is often invaluable. I am extremely fortunate in my neighbors and relatives. We talk to each other and conspire to identify and meet the needs of all our kids. I also talk to teachers and school administrators. I value their professional experience and unique viewpoint on my children.

Pray: This one ought to be first, but I’m afraid too often it comes last. I get so busy doing the other things that I forget to seek direct inspiration. Prayer has often brought me answers that I simply was not getting through the other processes. In addition, prayer brings me peace and energy to accomplish whatever needs to be done.

All of those things are in process all the time, so much so that I hardly am aware of what I am doing. The good news is that I think similar processes will net similar results for anyone who wants to be able to generate creative ideas whether they are parenting ideas, writing ideas, or something else entirely.

If this process sounds exhausting, that is because it is. But I don’t know of any other way to get the ideas I need to muddle through on this parenting gig.

A list of cheerful things

It is the fourth Thursday of the school year and it is the first Thursday which has ended without a massive meltdown from some member of our family. I regard this as hopeful progress. It does leave me with the dilemma of figuring out what to write when I have no drama to report. I’ve pretty much covered all the possible landmines I fear for the school year and I’m pretty tired of trying to predict them. Also I wrote that nice post yesterday in which I tried to convince myself not to stress about things so much and it would be good if I could follow through on that.

So I shall make a list of cheerful things:

After spending months dreading the work of fixing the kidputer, Howard had it wiped and Windows 7 installed in a mere 20 minutes. It was shockingly painless. Since then we’ve spent a couple of hours installing other software and doing configuration, but it has all gone very smoothly thus far.

Our wireless router has been quirky. This morning I downloaded new firmware on to the device and it also is working smoothly.

My front room is filled with stacks of books which I checked out from the library for my kids. Each stack is tailored to the needs of a particular child. For some reason the existence of the stacks makes me happy.

I got to sit out front and visit with my neighbor for awhile. As a result of our conversation both of us has new ideas about how to handle our schedules.

The weather has been beautiful.

I had lunch with a friend and she did not mind when I was late. I wish I hadn’t been, there was more talking to do.

It is Grandparents day at the kids’ school next week and for the first time my parents will be in town for it. Gleek and Patch are both quite excited.

Without financial considerations

What would I do with the next year if money were not a concern?

There are things I would buy (like new glasses or a replacement for the embarrassing front room couch) that have been waiting for a long time. There are home repairs I would pay someone else to do. But the most important expenditure of money would be to hire some one else to be the business manager/shipping clerk. I would turn over all that product design, email management, convention preparation, and book shipping to someone else. I would keep all the parenting stuff. It is mine no matter how much money I have. Then I would use the free time to garden, read, bird watch, and write.

What would I write?
I would finish that essay book. I would create family photo books. I would still do book lay out for the Schlock books. I would write the short stories which have been kicking around forever. I would write half a dozen picture books and put them into print. Perhaps after all that, I would discover space in my mind for a novel to grow.

So my life would look pretty much exactly as it does now, just in better repair with more discretionary time.

This points out to me that some of my current emotional wrangling is not about whether or not I should be writing. It is about how to spend my limited resources of time and emotional energy. I question the value of my writing only because it does not currently provide any money. The ironic bit is that if I could stop spending emotional energy fretting about money stuff then my life would be all around happier.

I should point out that we don’t actually have money worries, I’m just fretting because I don’t have six months worth of bills sitting in my bank account right this minute. Some parts of my brain argue this is a reasonable goal for a business owner whose primary income stream fluctuates dramatically. Other parts of my brain point out that most people don’t have that much money stashed away and I can see where the money will be coming from in the next six months. Then the first part of my brain starts spouting about counting chickens before they’re hatched. This causes the second part of my brain to express disdain that we’re resorting to folk tales as the basis of arguments. At this point I realize that I’ve spent 30 minutes thinking the same set of thoughts that I’ve spun around before and it didn’t take me anywhere this time either.

So I need to figure out how to silence the voices and use those 30 minutes for writing, or gardening, or anything else instead. It isn’t as easy to do as it is for me to type. I need to perform the same mental trick on all the business management stuff that I do. Because while I would hand it off if we could afford to pay someone, there are parts of the job that are really satisfying. And the truth is that these tasks have a much larger emotional footprint than they need to have. I stress over them too much. If I could get that piece under control, then the actual time to do the job is fairly negligible.
Why do I stress over little things?
because if I get them wrong it might interrupt the flow of income.
Why is the income so important?
Because I love the life we have and I want to keep it.

Strange how money stress can trickle through and change the colors of everything if I don’t pay attention to what is happening. If I am not careful, money stress can destroy the very happiness that I want the money to preserve. Fortunately since this problem is in my head, I can fix it there. Then suddenly my life will be brighter and more hopeful even though my actions and situation have not changed a bit.

Or so the theory goes. I’m working on it.

Fragments from today

It seems that picking up my daughter from high school transforms our van into a shuttle service. Thus far we’ve given rides to 6 different teens on at least 8 different occasions. Since there have only been 14 days of school we’re giving rides more often than we aren’t. It impacts my afternoon a little, extending the drive home by as much as 15 minutes, but I figure I’m using fuel to haul my van around anyway it might as well be full. Kiki likes it. Particularly when she gets to do the driving. The other kids are amenable as well, though they do get grouchy if the trip is too extended.

Howard and I had a business meeting in the kitchen after the kids were all at school. It was the first normal-state business meeting we’ve had since before GenCon. We’ve spent so much of the last few months in scramble mode. It was really nice to just stand in the kitchen and talk over calmly the things which need to get done this week and this month.

Gleek is an avid collector of erasers. She has them in the shape of tools, ipods, cell phones, keyboards, and computer mice in addition to more traditional shapes. She buys these exciting erasers from the book machine at school, and it is where most of her money goes. I’m glad that such small things can bring her joy. I love the lively interest I see on her face when she jumps out of the car with a hard-earned dollar in her hand and dashes to buy a new eraser before school starts. These treasures never get used for actual erasing. They are used as parts of myriad pretend games.

Gleek has begun taking a bath every morning before school. I think she does it because she would rather wash her hair than brush it. Since the result is a clean child with smooth hair, I’m happy. It also pleases me to see her developing her own morning routine which does not depend upon me as a motivational force. In fact all the kids have been settling in to the before-school schedule. I have to work hard to get them out of bed, but after that one thing rolls into another until they’re out the door for school. It is nice and I’m hoping it can last, but not betting on it.

Link is discovering the fatigue of daily practice. His homework load is exceedingly light this year and so I declared homework for him. He must practice clarinet, typing, and German. After dinner he has to read. He has discovered that keyboarding makes his back tired and that clarinet takes a lot of lung work. I keep telling him that these troubles will get better with more practice. I think he believes me, but he still complains. I also need to log on to the school grade system and determine if his homework free state is as care free as he is depicting or if some unpleasant assignments are sliding by. Since the school has decreed that homework in seventh grade be easy, I will make sure we use the time to learn study skills, class management, and good practice habits.

Patch loves school. He loves routine. He is happy with his class, wishes he had more homework, and tells me about his recess times. All seems smooth sailing for him, which means that he slides down below crisis-level on the importance scale. Since I’ve been bouncing between crisis and urgent, he has not been getting much focused attention from me. I need to not neglect him just because he is having a good year.

Today was pretty much a wash on getting stuff done. I need to find some high energy tomorrow and crash through a bunch of business tasks. There are still threads to tie off from Howard’s Australia trip. I need to start tasks for Howard’s November trip to New England Webcomics Weekend. Then there are business maintenance tasks which have been laying idle. Also I need to get started on book lay out for EPD and FAM. On my list of personal projects I need to make the family photo books for 2009 and 2010. I also miss gardening, but I doubt I’ll get back to it before the weather freezes. And then there is writing. I need to find enough space so that I’m not afraid to expend emotional energy on it. I need to remember why it matters. Or I need to deliberately set it down and focus on other things. Limbo is not great. So, Many things to do. This is normal. I hope this week is calm and full of settling with no new crises to avert.

My house has a achieved a sort of steady-state cleanliness. This is due to the small empty spaces in the mornings while the kids are preparing for school. The spaces are too short for me to allow myself to get distracted by the internet or business things, but perfect for unloading the dishwasher, or sweeping the front room. The result is more cleanliness and I like it. Another reason to hope that the calm morning schedule continues.

Opportunity cost and the digital recorder

I am pondering the usefulness of a digital voice recorder. I’ve actually pondered it for a long time. I do a lot of reading out loud to my kids and have thought that it would be nice to record some of that. I’ve also thought of the usefulness of letting kids record their spelling lists as practice. Kiki could use it to record her Japanese vocabulary words. And the biggest motivator of all is that Link needs practice reading aloud. I could have him read to the recorder so that his brother and sister could listen to it as they fall asleep.

So, brim full of plans, I surf my way out to and look at what is out there. I find this one from Olympus which seems to do everything I want. Then I hit the brick wall of the price. $60 is not too much for this little device, but I have to ponder the opportunity cost. If I spend the money on a digital recorder, then I will have to skip buy something else. Do I want to skip ice cream, or socks for Kiki, or the doctor’s check up for me, or pizza for Link’s birthday party? Fiscal responsibility means making careful choices. It is funny how some things I will drop money for almost without thinking, but other things I have to pause and consider.

So I put the recorder on my Amazon wish list to keep track of it, and I wait. It joins a long list of things that are waiting for awhile. Sometimes I get carried away with the shininess of my ideas. If buying it is really a good idea, it will still be a good idea next week. Also I can look at Best Buy and other places to comparison shop. This is being responsible. The little kid inside me wants things now and the grown up in me is such a killjoy.

The thing I am meant to do

Today’s church meeting was full of things for me to mull over. Mostly it is still percolating, but one piece has bubbled to the surface. One of the speakers talked about not wasting time, but instead getting out and finding the thing we are meant to do. I pondered the question of what I am meant to do and the answer is multitudinous. I do not have one big thing that will define my life. I have many things which need me to accomplish them.

This is actually a relief. If I mess something up it does not disrupt the whole purpose of my existence. So instead of stressing over the grand purpose of my life, I merely have to ask “what is the most important thing for me to do today.” If I do that every day, and remember that urgent is not the same as important, then my life will be exactly what it should be.

Helping an Introvert Survive Public High School

Kiki has been miserable since the first day of high school. The second day of school ended with her in overwhelmed tears. This was not particularly alarming or unexpected. So I began actively helping her manage her homework load. We got it all done. She finished every assignment on time. She got As. But by the end of the next week she was in tears again. She still felt overwhelmed. More than that, she was depressed. Everything seemed leached of joy and she cried at the thought of having to get up and go to school in the morning. I believed that this was merely an adapting stage, that she just needed to become accustomed to the new routine. Kiki, brave soul that she is, nodded and did not fight me when I told her to keep going. But by the end of the third week things were not noticeably better. And Kiki still felt hopeless. And I was beginning to feel hopeless about helping her. My “muscle through it” plan was not working.

So we both took a step back. She and I sat down and made a list of all the positive things in her life and all of the negative ones. We looked at each of her classes individually and picked apart the things she liked and did not like. We also looked at the school as a whole. We talked about lunch time and school administration. We talked about locker location and friends. We decided that our family situation is a stable point for her and did not need to be considered or changed. (Yay!) All of this was considered without judgment and only referencing how she felt, not how she ought to feel, or what could be changed. Once the list was complete, we took a close look at the negatives to see what could be fixed.

I was not thinking about introversion during our process, but in hindsight I can see it so clearly. Kiki is an introvert. She requires time to shut down and recharge. She simply was not getting any. Her classrooms were full. Lunch time was a mass of crowds, chaos, and noise. Then she came home to a house full of siblings and a mother who required her to focus on work. Even bedtime required her to vacate her room so I could put a younger sibling to bed. Kiki was trying to be good about all of this, but ended up wanting to hide in a closet to be away from people. No wonder she was feeling so bleak about everything.

We had Kiki pick one class to drop. The administrator was puzzled why we wanted to, since Kiki could obviously handle the coursework. She warned us that Kiki would have to make up the credit somehow or she will not graduate with her class. The administrator did shake my confidence some, but we did it anyway. Now Kiki will have an extra hour at home every other day. It will be a quiet hour with no siblings in the house. Kiki already has plans for how to handle the make up credit. More importantly, she has power over her schedule and knows that things can be shifted when life becomes unbearable.

We also decided to start fixing a lunch instead of having her buy school lunch. Previous to this she had been forced to stand in a chaotic and confusing line to obtain food. With a home lunch she can avoid the crowded commons area and she doesn’t have to make choices between foods she dislikes.

When I look at it, all the changes we arrived at were ones which created pockets of peace, quiet, and solitude into Kiki’s schedule. Today she came home from school happy for the first time since school began. Her friends commented on her happiness at lunch time. The notice of her friends had a doubling effect on her happiness, because one of the negatives she was worried about was the stability of her friendships. She was feeling little closeness with them due to her emotional shut down.

These two little fixes will not solve all the troubles. But I think that when we do another listing of positive and negative in two weeks (as we’ve agreed to do) we will discover that the balance has shifted. If it has not shifted enough, we will change something else.

Seeing Kiki’s depression as “introvert starved of solitude” has made me look differently at some things in my own past. My sophomore year was measurably the most emotionally turbulent of my teenage years. My journals are full of bleakness, sadness, and feelings of worthlessness. It was also a period in my life when I had a strong and active social group. I did stuff with friends constantly. My emotional roller coaster calmed dramatically when I hit summer and I had long stretches of time alone. The friends were an amazingly good thing in my life, but I had too much of a good thing and it drained me.

I still see the same effect now. My life is full of good people and things to do. When I fill all the spaces, I start feeling bleak about my life. As soon as I have time to be alone, I can feel happy again. Alone all the time is not good, but neither is social all the time. As Kiki and I continue to adapt and build a schedule she can manage by herself, we need to be making sure she has the quiet spaces she needs to recharge.

In fact I remember that during my Junior and Senior years in high school, I started eating lunch out doors. I dropped out of the cross country and track teams due to an injury and thus had more free time. These were all little things which helped me have the quiet I needed in a public high school. So now I am on the look out for other ways to create quiet spaces, not just in high school, but in all the public schools where my kids attend. We are a family of introverts and we need our spaces.

Kiki has approved the above post, but only on the condition that I also post the following note: This is Kiki. I love my mom very much and feel bad about being high maintenance again. But I’m glad that she’s there to help me muddle through. I love my mom and I’m lucky to have her around.