Month: April 2016

Considering a Kitchen Re-model

We’ve been living in this house for eighteen years. It existed for seven years before we moved in. This means that the kitchen is twenty-five years old, and it is showing its age. A lot. The age shows in little things like the silverware drawer that was held together with duct tape for several years before we finally used wood staples and glue, or the three other drawers which have lost their fronts. Then there is that one cabinet which doesn’t close right because young children used to swing on it and bent the hinges out of shape. Also there are some layout things which cause minor annoyance on a regular basis. So we’re contemplating giving the whole thing an overhaul.

But we have a problem, several actually. Our house is also our office. Both Howard and I work here. We work in careers that require focus without interruption. Re-modelling is made up of loud noises, frequent questions, small decisions, and power outages. Another problem is that having our kitchen disrupted is going to seriously impact schedules and poke various anxiety and mental health buttons. We have an abundance of mental health buttons. Some of us shut down if regular patterns are disrupted. Others melt down a bit if the kitchen is messy, I can only imagine the meltdowns when the kitchen is dismantled. I still remember how disorganized and stressed I was when we took apart my office for a re-model, and that one only lasted about a week. Kitchen re-modelling is notorious for lasting a long time.

The good news is that I have a seven month lead time. I have no intention of letting construction begin until November or December at the earliest. We have too many events and deadlines between now and then. We have promises to keep. November – January is the slow time for work. That means it is the best time to have work potentially disrupted. I have time to plan. I intend to use it to front load some of the decision making and purchasing. I would much rather live with tile sitting in my garage for a month than have my kitchen messed up for an extra week because we’re waiting for tile to arrive. I’m certain there are many things I can do to smooth and prepare the way, but I need to know what they are. This is where all of you come in, or at least those of you who have been party to a kitchen re-model. I have some questions so I can learn how this process works.

1. How significant was your re-model? Are we talking new counters and appliances or knocking out walls?
2. What was the most stressful part?
3. What caused the most delays?
4. If you had it to do over again what about the process would you change?

I’d also like to understand kitchen re-models from the contractors side, so if you are one or know one…

1. What causes the most delays for contractors?
2. How can I make my contractor’s job easier?
3. What are common ways that clients make problems for contractors?

This is the information gathering stage of the project. We’re turning over options, learning how this works, deciding on the scope of what we intend to do. On the far side of this is our house being much nicer than it is now. I just want to get from here to there as smoothly as possible.

(And yes, I’m aware that this whole exercise in information gathering is a manifestation of anxiety over spending money and having the kitchen torn apart. The buttons are already getting pressed.)

Upcoming Writing Events

This coming October I’ll be traveling to Canada to teach at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference. I am very excited about this. I’ve never had a chance to attend SIWC before, but I’ve heard that it is one of the best writer’s conferences around. it focuses on classes taught by individual instructors, and lots on interpersonal time with both instructors and other attendees. This is definitely one to consider if you’re looking to improve your writing craft and connect with other writers.

In September the Writing Excuses team will be holding its fourth retreat, and second cruise workshop. I loved being a part of this event last year. We formed a small group of about 150 inside the larger cruise trip. This meant fun conversations every evening at dinner, classes to attend, and excursions on port days. The price is no more expensive than a workshop plus a hotel bill. Only you get to travel to other countries and all the food is included in the price. The Out of Excuses Workshop and Retreat is worth your time and money.

August has GenCon and I’ll be attending this year. GenCon hosts a fantastic writer’s symposium featuring many panel discussions on topics of interest to writers who want to improve craft or learn business. If you don’t want to pay conference-level fees, then the GenCon Writer’s workshop is an excellent choice. It comes with a bonus four-day gaming convention with all the tabletop games you could ever want to play. I’ll be on panels and attending panels in between helping out with the Hypernode Media booth where Howard and Zub will be drawing and talking with people.

Garden Walk

My neighbor invited me to run away from responsibility for a few hours and join her for a wander through lovely gardens. I know better than to say no to that.

So we wandered paths and found hidden nooks where we could sit and visit.
The Bench

The garden is having a tulip festival, so there were many other people at the gardens with us, but that didn’t change the beauty of the flowers. And I managed to keep them out of most of my photographs, thus giving the illusion of a solo walk through beauty.
Stream side

Following the stream led us to the Monet pond. The waterlilies aren’t blooming yet, but the koi were abundant and beautiful.

Many of the flowers were familiar to me, even if I didn’t know the particular variety. There were tulips everywhere, of course.
Tulips skyward

Other flowers I’d never seen before, like this plant which was as large as my head, and seems to be related to a cabbage.
Cabbage flower

I think that the tulips I loved best were these ones, which were like sunlight in flower form, particularly when planted en masse.
Tulips bright cropped

As we were wending our way to the exit we were delighted to discover a flight of umbrellas hanging from the trees.
Umbrellas 1

If you’d told me before I saw them that a grouping of umbrellas could make me think thoughts of taking joyful flight, I would have had a hard time picturing it.
Umbrellas 2

I came home with a heart filled with happiness, a camera filled with pictures, and my head filled with hours of visiting with my friend. Sometimes running away is a beautiful thing.
Tulip 1

Supporting Creativity

I picked up Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert months ago. I read it a bit when I first acquired it, but, while I enjoyed it, the book was not grabbing me. This is in part because it is a book that wants to be read in snatches. I want to read a few sections and think about them. Unfortunately this leaves me time to get distracted and forget to come back to the book. Also there is the fact that I don’t completely agree with the ways that Gilbert views creativity. I’ll be reading along and feeling in rapport with the text, but then hit a sentence or a paragraph where I want to argue “No, it’s not quite like that.” Her viewpoint isn’t invalid, it just makes me want to discuss with her, except that she isn’t here to speak to, just the book, and books aren’t good at listening. So I wandered away from the book for several months.

I guess I just hadn’t hit the right section of the book yet. I picked the book up again yesterday and found passage after passage that I underlined and bookmarked. One section in particular I’ve been turning over in my head ever since I read it.

“I never wanted to burden my writing with the responsibility of paying for my life. I knew better than to ask this of my writing, because over the years I have watched so many other people murder their creativity by demanding that their art pay their bills.” Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

I had never before considered creation from this perspective, as if it were a shining and joyful thing that I get to support. I’d somehow assumed that my writing paying my bills was the goal. And it is, in a way, but not at all in another. I want my art to be able to support itself. I want it to be able to pay for the time it takes away from bill paying activities. I also want it to be valued and people do not value things that they do not pay for. I am fortunate. The job that pays my bills sometimes gives me creative joy, which is more than some people ever get. But my personal creative works, this blog, my short stories, the picture books, they all cost more in time and money than they have returned in money. They’ve given me many things and allowed me to give many more, but they aren’t lucrative. Gilbert’s quote reminded me that this is in no way a failure. Just as the point of raising children is not for them to support me later, the things I write do not have to support me to prove their worth. What I write has value both to me and to others who get to consume it. Creation adds to the world. That is worth pouring time, energy, and money into without expectation of financial return.

Of course there is nothing wrong with wanting to be a full-time creator. Howard is one, and in a way, so am I, though many of my hours are spent on administrivia. We have lots of friends who are full-time in their creative careers. But I think that many of those who long to go full time, don’t realize that being a full time creative person doesn’t mean more time spent creating. No one gets to write day after day without interruption. The more that your creation earns, the more it comes with obligations to publishers, fans, events, etc. Every single creator I know—both full time and part time—laments that they don’t have enough time to be creative. Gilbert’s words helped me see it. She says it outright in another section of her book.

“For most of human history, the vast majority of people have made their art in stolen moments, using scraps of borrowed time—and often using pilfered or discarded materials to boot.” Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

If everyone struggles to make space in their lives to create, then why is being full-time creator always assumed to be the dream? For those who have the skills and enjoy the business aspects of a creative career, then yes it is a dream job. There are those who are invigorated by the challenges of freelance work. But there are also people who have much to give to the world and who are happier when they have a steady paycheck. There is nothing wrong with having a day job you love and a part-time creative career that you also love. There is much to be admired in art that is squeezed into the nooks and crannies of daily responsibility. Not just that, but daily responsibilities are often dismissed as mere chores without recognizing the myriad ways that chores create order out of chaos, beauty where there wasn’t any before. Many daily responsibilities are hugely creative and worth the center space they take in our lives.

As an example, I give you our postman. He has been delivering mail to our house for fifteen years now. He’s retiring this week, and messages have been posted in neighborhood Facebook groups about this fact. It was amazing to me how many people responded and had stories about this him, about his kindness in bringing mail to the door of those for whom walking to the curb was difficult. About how he knew when a family had suffered a death and helped to sort out the junk mail to ease the pain of that passing. I know that when we had big shipping events which piled up hundreds of packages for him to carry away, he always smiled and was cheerful about doing so. Such small things, just a tiny bit of extra kindness and service, what a beautiful gift he made out of his ordinary daily work. He will be missed, but hopefully he’ll have a lovely retirement where he’ll get to do some new beautiful thing.

I need to own all of my work and creativity, rather than feeling like the parts of my life are doing battle. Yes I prefer writing to shipping packages, but shipping packages feeds my family. With the family fed, my mind and heart are free to go play with words. And I can recognize that the packages I ship are received with happiness when they arrive. I get paid to send couriered joy to others. That is an amazing job to get to have. I will not complain if at some point in the future my writing does begin to help pay for my life, but it is fine if it never does. To quote another wise woman, my sister:

“Either the money will come, or it won’t. Until then I’m just going to keep doing this thing that I love.” Nancy Fulda

Late Night Thoughts on Parenting

It is late and instead of being asleep I am noodling around on the internet. I’m looking at articles talking about how helicopter parents need to back off, and lists of ways in which incoming freshman are not ready for college because their parents hovered too much. Then I think about parents who get prosecuted for letting their kids walk to the park, and about how my kid’s schools contact me every time one of my kids has an F. Or if my kids are marked absent for any of their classes. Or if my kid misses a flex session where they are supposed to make up work. The messages urge me to talk to my child about their choices. The unspoken message is clear: It is the parent’s job to make sure that their kids succeed. So parents get caught in this system that pushes them to hover, and then complains later because they hovered.

I’m thinking about all of this because, with one of my kids, we’re out in the weeds. There may be a path here, but it is hard to see and maybe it will only exist after we’ve trampled our way through to create it. I’m doing my best to step back, let him struggle, let him fail, let him learn. On the other hand I’m also doing what I can to make sure the path isn’t impossible, to help him keep moving, to make sure that the obstacles are surmountable with his current allotment of resources. At times it feels like the worst of both worlds. I have to explain to others why I’m letting him take a potentially failure laden path, and I’m having to explain why I step in and intervene in ways that look like I’m the one keeping him mired in childish dependence. I’m wending the best parenting path I can figure out, and I’m usually convinced that I’m getting it all wrong.

That “convinced I’m getting it all wrong” is a normal parenting experience. This is one of the reasons that society gets so focused on touchstones and check points. Semester grade reports and end-of-year testing are used as a way to know if the kid’s education is on track. High School graduation is a huge measure of success. Other touchstones are getting a job, getting a driver’s license, earning an award, college admission, picking a major, getting married, getting a job. Any success that the child has can qualify. When kids hit the checkpoints it is a small reassurance that maybe the parents aren’t completely failing. I read this behind many facebook statuses “Johnny won the spelling bee! (maybe I’m not completely failing at this parenting gig.)” Parents aren’t the only ones watching, grandparents, aunts, uncles, family friends, neighbors, they all take note and help to celebrate. Milestones let everyone relax because the kid appears to be on track.

“Appears,” note that word carefully, because sometimes the internal experience of the child does not match the external success. Sometimes a checkpoint reached is more a measure of parental management than child growth. This is why helicopter parenting is scolded, because child growth should be the goal, not the checkpoints. Eventually the missing growth is exposed when the child is not prepared. Conversely, sometimes a checkpoint missed can also indicate growth rather than failure. Sometimes the strongest thing an almost-adult can do is to head out into the weeds because the standard path isn’t working. But a missed checkpoint looks like a failure. It makes everyone anxious and uncomfortable, because there is no reassurance that all will be well. then there is enormous pressure to get the kid “back on track.” People like the comfortable answers, the solid and stable answers. They like to know which college and what major. They want the major to be one that they can picture leading to steady employment. They try to steer artists away from art majors. They try to push college as the sure path.

There is no sure path. All of the paths are made of struggle, failure, getting up again, and moving on. Parents may manage their kids into college, but then the new adults have to do the growing they missed out on before. Sometimes people are exactly on track for a very long time, until life takes an unexpected left turn. Then they have to figure out how to find a new path for themselves. All of us will, eventually, have to venture out when the way ahead is not clear.

So perhaps I should use this as reassurance, that in “allowing” my kid’s education to veer away from standard, I’m letting him grow in a way that most people don’t until much later, even while he is not growing in some of the ways that his peers are growing right now. Maybe I’m succeeding and failing all at once. And maybe that is just fine.

Doing Things on a Saturday

I’ve spent all day making my spaces be different. Now, at 10:30 I can say that they’re more organized, but for most of the day it was moving things around into different piles. Howard came into my office at one point and I asked if he could tell I’d been working on it. He said that yes he could tell that the piles were far more organized than they had been before. The goal in my office is to remove clutter, hang art on the walls, and remove the ugly utility shelving. That last will be the hardest part because I’ll have to find new homes for everything that is currently being stored on the there.

My gardening efforts were more immediately rewarding. Ninety minutes with clippers trimmed back the grape vines and re-shaped our bonsai-ish tree by our front window. Gleek helped me with the gardening work because she has a plan and needs funds to make it happen. The plan is a chicken plan, where she gets to have a little flock of chickens. Howard and I don’t really have an interest in tending chickens, but if Gleek is devoted enough to the idea to fund it herself, then we’ll gladly give over some yard space to a chicken coop. I suspect she’ll actually follow through with this plan, because any time she has a chance to play with neighbor’s chickens, she loves them. And they like her back. She is a chicken whisperer who manages to coax unruly chickens into sitting in her lap and letting her pet them. It is going to take Gleek a while to save up enough money, so no chickens this summer. Which is fine. I have many things to do that aren’t managing a flock of chickens.

I’m not certain why today turned into a day of doing all the things. Hopefully I can continue to re-arrange things over the next week. For today I’m tired and sore.

Ambient Anxiety

I have anxiety. It is something I have to adapt for on a daily basis. Sometimes my anxiety (sort of) makes sense. If my kids are melting down, it is reasonable that I feel stressed or anxious, even if the specific manifestations of that anxiety are ridiculous. (Hello brain, what is the point of fixating on laundry as evidence of my ultimate failure as a human being?) What I find fascinating and annoying are the manifestations of anxiety in my body. My heart will race. I’ll get heart palpitations, which feel a bit like my heart misjudged and missed the last step in its 1-2-3-4 beat. My dreams will be restless and filled with anxiety themes. Sometimes I’ll snap awake because I’ve just had a stomach-plunging surge of adrenaline that may or may not be related to the content of the dream. That stomach plunge happens pretty much any time I’m confronted with an anxiety trigger. Even if I walk away from the trigger, even if I’m not thinking about it, even if logically it has no bearing on my day, there is a part of my brain that is tracking that trigger as if it is a mountain lion about to pounce. My brain is convinced that danger is out there and I have to be ready for it. The alertness only disengages when there is a specific end to the trigger. IE, a financial trigger over a late payment can be defused when the payment arrives.

Of late many of my stresses have unraveled themselves. After several years where my kids were melting down or falling apart, we’ve reached a space where they are all doing well. We just sent the latest Schlock book off to print and the schedule says we’ll have printed books before GenCon. This relieves some significant financial worries. The Planet Mercenary project shows daily progress even though we’re in the muddle which always accompanies the middle of a book. My garden has lots of flowers growing and blooming. So in theory I should be feeling more relaxed and happy. Instead I’ve been snapping awake, working out knots in my back, and reminding myself to unclench my teeth. I have to look around and ask “where is this anxiety coming from?” The answer is a bit discouraging, because the answer is that every day I carry an ambient level of anxiety that I do not entirely control. Some of it is purely chemical. I will wake up anxious even though I went to bed relaxed and nothing has changed over night. Or vice versa (waking up relaxed after anxiety is much nicer, and fortunately more common.) Some of it is environmental, like witnessing or participating in an emotional conflict. The proximity of the conflict to people I care for has a direct correlation on how much my anxiety goes up. Unfortunately to be around people is to be around conflict. So figuring out my anxiety levels is much like dealing with the weather. I can dress for it, plan for it, manage it, but if I don’t like the current conditions, I just have to wait for them to change while still doing the things I need to get done.

I do not like that I find myself in what should be a peaceful window of quiet work, and instead I’m having to manage anxiety. I love my brain’s ability to task-track, I dislike that it also trigger-tracks no matter how much I tell it that not all internet conflict will result in my ultimate doom. And truthfully, not all conflict makes me anxious, just any conflict that my brain can imagine turning on me and dragging me into it. My anxiety is quite imaginative. Instead of relaxing into work, I’m at yellow alert. Constantly. Because my brain keeps rehearsing difficult conversations that I may have to have, where I might be accused of being a terrible person and I’ll have to provide evidence that I am not, and defend my position. Only maybe that other person is right, and I am a terrible person. Maybe I need to change and become better and this should all be a learning experience for me. I don’t even know who the other person in this conversation will be, just that it will be the worry topic du-jour that is likely about politics, diversity issues, religion, economic fairness, disability, or any number of other hot topics. I just know that my brain thinks I need to have high-stakes-debate level planning on tap at all times. For all possible topics.

Or maybe that is just today. I don’t think yesterday I was running quite this hot, which suggests that today is just a bad anxiety day and hopefully a good night’s sleep will help me reset. And that is another hard thing about anxiety, it affects my judgement. When I’m anxious, things that aren’t emergencies feel like they are. Things that are minor upsets feel like complete disasters and harbingers of doom. I use my logic as a lever to try to stabilize my decision making, but the emotions throw me all over the place and make me tired. Today I am anxious. Because everything else in the day is going well, I can sit here writing a post about anxiety, spectating the experience. Other anxious days are less kind and I just have to build a blanket fort and hide for awhile.

Flowers and Change

Tulip pink and yellow I’ve had tulips for as long as I’ve owned this house (18 years and counting). There was an abundance of them in the front flowerbed the first spring after I moved in. The thing with tulips is that most varieties of them will only come back for a few years before dying out. There are a few exceptions, mostly in bright yellow and solid red. Over the years I’ve dug up beds, redistributed tulip bulbs, bought new bulbs, and generally been a disturber of the earth. Some years I tend my flowers. Other years only the fittest will survive the incursion of weeds and neglect. Yet I’ve always had yellow tulips because they persistently grow and spread. One patch will die out, but another will thrive. In my backyard, yellow tulips are the only ones I have because I’ve not taken time to re-plant other colors. Except this spring I looked out my back window and saw a surprise. Pink tulips in my backyard flower beds. There are three of them in three different places and I don’t know how they got there. I’ve never seen pink in the back garden before. I know I didn’t do any planting last fall.

My mind spins on the puzzle as I stand at the window. I ruminate on spontaneous hybridization (happening identically in three locations) or an accidental scattering of seeds. I assume that tulips can grow from seeds though bulbs work much better. Then I stop myself. This is not a problem that needs a solution. I don’t need to know how they got there, I can just enjoy the fact that they are. tulip apricot and sky This is one of the things I love about seeing my garden year after year. It always changes. There is always some surprise or a new manifestation. This trio of apricot-colored tulips used to be giant and in classic tulip shape. Yet this year they are small and airy. It probably means that in another year or so they’ll vanish as tulip varieties so often do. Then I’ll plant some other tulip in that spot, or perhaps the lilies will take over. Each spring my flowerbeds change. They are different than the year before.

In fact the beds change not just year to year, but day to day. I’ve been noticing this as I spend five or ten minutes wandering outside with my camera in hand. I’m looking for things to photograph for my April photo a day that I’m posting on twitter. Some of the flowers I photographed only a week ago have lost their petals and are done for the year. Others have shown up where I didn’t expect a flower at all. And then there is the slow watching of plants and flowers developing. This peony won’t bloom until late May or June, but the buds are beginning to grow now. They’ve grow in just the past week.
Peony comparison 1 web

I’m always a little sad when I see the flowers begin to lose their petals. The tulips drop theirs fairly dramatically. One day flower, next day just a stem. For today the palm-sized petals are still lovely even on the ground. I know the tulips will be back again next year and they need to make way for the summer flowers which are just beginning to shoot up. Fallen petal 1 I wish that the serendipity of unexpected beauty were as easy to see as in my garden. I wish that emotional growth and development in my children were as simple to spot and photograph as the buds of my flowers. I wish that life made it easier to see that sad things sometimes have to happen because without them future happiness can’t be. I wish these things, but for now I’ll walk my flower beds and feel that the sorts of things I see there are happening in other parts of my life as well. Life is full of beautiful growth, but I won’t see it unless I stop and pay attention.

We have a strange job

“I just need you to verify information on some people you made payments to.” The guy asking was from the Utah Department of Workforce Services. His job was to make sure that I was paying Utah unemployment taxes for any Utah residents who might be considered employees.
“Who is X, and what does she do for you?”
“Ah that’s one of our artists, we contract work from her. She lives in Canada.”
“Okay.” He checks her off the list. Not a Utah resident, not his concern. “Tell me about W.”
“He’s an editor we hired to help with a book. He lives in California.”
“What about G?”
“He helps us with website design and management. He lives in New Zealand.”
“Oh.” This time there is some surprise in the man’s tone. “And K?”
“Artist, lives in China.”
“Artist, lives in Brazil.”
The man paused. “Wow, you really work with people all over.” This surprise came from from a man who spends all of his work hours interviewing business owners about their employees and contractors.

I was standing in a copy shop waiting for color prints of the latest Schlock book when another woman came to stand in line next to me. The first pages were delivered and I began to turn them over and look for errors.
“That’s really cool looking.” The woman said “What is it?”
I’m always a little stumped to answer this question, because I don’t know where to start or how to summarize. I can talk for hours about what I do and what Howard does, but casual conversation isn’t supposed to turn into a lecture. Yet any answer I give that is short of a lecture tends to provoke more questions, not fewer.
“It is a comic that I edit and publish. My husband is the artist and author.”
“That’s really cool. He drew all these pictures?”
“But he must draw on a computer. people don’t draw on paper anymore, do they?”
At this point I recognized I was talking to a person for whom a creative career is so far outside her worldview that she literally did not have the necessary knowledge to comprehend the work we do. She asked three times, in three different ways, what our real jobs were, what did we do for money when we weren’t working on the comic. The idea that a comic book was our full time job simply did not compute.

I so often forget what a strange thing it is that Howard and I do. We live in this strange little niche that only exists because of the internet. Sometimes we’re not sure ourselves how all the things combine to bring enough income to pay all our bills. I try to forget about that, because when I contemplate it, anxiety rises up to remind me that it could all go away. I forget that most people don’t have plot conversations over breakfast, and copy-edits over lunch. For us it is routine to answer fan mail and to sign a contract to print 5000 books. It is routine to communicate with people on far flung portions of the planet about things that we are creating together. Then there are these moments where someone reacts to our job description and I remember. What we do is weird and we’re really lucky that we get to do it.

Lack of Focused Work this Week

This is not being a great week for focused attention. We can start with the fact that it is Spring Break, so Gleek and Patch are out of school. This means that the sound of games begin around 10am instead of around 3pm. The sound of games isn’t really a problem all by itself. The real trouble is that the kids come find me to ask questions or tell me things. often to answer I have to stop what I’m doing and go do something else for a bit. Then I have to try to remember what I was doing. About the time I’ve gotten rolling, another kid needs a thing.

On top of kids in the house, this week we’re finalizing the cover for Force Multiplication. We’ve gotten to the stage where I tweak something and send to Howard, then he tweaks and sends back to me. The turn around time is pretty fast. Yesterday I went through file versions A-G. Today I’m already on version C. When it is all done, I’ll probably put together a gif slideshow of all the cover tweaks. It is fascinating to see how the design morphs over time. But I can’t post it until we have a final version.