Sandra Tayler

School Decisions

Back to School shopping looks different this year

So many decisions are difficult this year. More than that, we are faced with difficult decisions on topics that didn’t require decisions last year or any of the years before that. One of these difficult decisions is the one parents have to make about sending their kids to school. Everyone has opinions. Many people are very adamant about theirs being correct and would like mandates requiring that their preferences be made the rule for every child and family. I’ve felt the pull of that myself, the fearful fury of “why can’t they see how stupid they’re being?” The problem is that each individual family has dozens (or hundreds) of variables that may not be visible from the outside. The families have to weigh all of those variables and try to chart the best course for their children through a terrain where all the paths are perilous. I’ve heard of parents who are oblivious and unconcerned about the pandemic, but I’ve not actually met any. All the parents I know have been struggling and weighing their choices. Some have landed on homeschooling, others will be sending their kids to classrooms. All of their decisions have been carefully considered. All of them are afraid of the consequences of the choice that they’ve made.

The thing that frustrates me is that it didn’t have to be this hard. In 1983 Salt Lake City Utah had a spring flood so bad that a sandbagged river was created through the streets of down town. It took a massive emergency effort to control the water and limit the damage it did. In 2011 the snow pack and spring flood conditions were nearly identical to 1983, but there was not a river through down town because millions had been spent installing flood pumps and overflow areas. Advance planning meant that people’s homes and businesses were safe from damage. Right now school administrators, teachers, and parents are frantically trying to figure out where to place the sandbags because the flood might be on its way and there aren’t any pumps or overflow areas in place. No amount of local sandbag stacking can do the work of advance planning. Parents, teachers, and kids are left in a situation where none of the available choices are good ones.

I’ve only got one school age kid. This is his senior year. Fortunately he’s completely uninterested in most of the trappings that typical teenagers want. He won’t care about canceled school dances or missed social events. He’s completely indifferent to a graduation ceremony. His indifference will make the coming year emotionally easier, because I expect to see most of those things continue to be canceled. Next spring’s graduations will look like the ones we had this past spring. The thing he does care about is having teachers to interact with, having a place to go where there are things to learn, and having access to a library of books. All of the things he cares about are easier to accomplish if he is in the classroom. I feel strongly that packing 30 kids into a classroom isn’t in the best public interest even in non-pandemic times. If he were at a school which planned full classrooms, our choice would be a clear “no.” With his smaller, alternative school that only has about 6 kids to a class… there are additional variables to weigh. The choices are not easy. Not for us, not for the staff at his school who work with kids who have been tossed into their hands as a last resort. These teachers watched kids slip through giant cracks when everything moved online. My kid was one of the ones who vanished in the cracks despite their best efforts and mine.

It is all experimental. Every district plan, every classroom plan, every family plan. None of us knows what will work and what won’t. Every plan is good for some people and bad for others. This was always true, of course, but now we see it all differently. We’ll muddle through, aborting some experiments, adjusting others. After the flood is over, we then need to spend time, effort, and money putting structures into place so that the next time we have a flood (be it pandemic or some other thing) life can continue undisrupted.

Crown Molding Triumph

Last year when we were putting up cabinets in the front room, I also purchased crown molding. I stained the molding and cabinets to match each other. The cabinets went up in April 2019, then the rest of that year went into emergency repairs and the first half of this year was buried in pandemic. The project intimidated me because the angles on crown mean visualizing things upside down and backward, then holding long strips of wood over head tight to the ceiling while wielding a trim nailer. Baseboards are so much easier. They lay flat against the wall and gravity assists instead of fighting. This week our flooring order arrived. That meant I was ready to launch into the next phase of kitchen remodel. However putting up crown is much easier when cabinets aren’t in the way. So I finally did the anxious thing: I rented the necessary tools and devoted a day to nailing things to the ceiling. Happily the tool rental folks treated me like an intelligent tool-using fellow human, which isn’t always guaranteed when a woman goes to rent power tools. Also, having a miter saw made the work go so much smoother. Five hours later I have crown.

I love it. I’ll love it even more when I’m finally able to remove that wall with a couple of old cabinets and the fridge.

While we were doing crown and picking up flooring, Howard noticed something odd with one of our front windows. Yup, those are cracks. The heat deflector we put up last summer was apparently bad for the glass, (oops) though it made the room much more livable. So next week I get to make phone calls about glass replacement.

Fortunately I don’t have to do the actual work on glass repair (other than making the call.) Instead I can focus on this space which is about to become a pantry wall.

But first, some rest. I’m pretty tired from overcoming anxieties and hefting power tools all day.

Efficiency and Stress

Yesterday and today I was completely booked. Task followed appointment followed task with very little time to reset in between. That used to be normal, but it hasn’t been my experience for months. It did not take long for me to feel a bit frazzled. I wasn’t overwhelmed, but I could feel the stress in my body as extra resources went into keeping track of what came next and making sure I completed each thing before task switching. Yet I remember having far busier days. I remember the adrenaline feeling of having dozens of things to do and getting them all done. The key words here are “stress” and “adrenaline.” They are hugely important ways that the body shifts to manage whatever life throws at us, but they’re designed for short sprints, not long haul marathons. The low level of stress I felt in my body today was constant in my pre-pandemic life. It was the reason I kept talking about needing to slow my life down, find spaces.

I don’t want to keep the pandemic, nor the barrier it places between people and many of the things we want/need to do. Yet I feel like I gained something from having long empty days. Those long days often were full of anxiety, fear, and thinking. I frequently felt overwhelmed with adapting and the state of the world in general. Yet those stresses felt different in my mind and heart than this thing-after-thing stress. I’ve just now realized that efficiency is a high-energy state. In order to run anything efficiently, energy needs to be spent on maintaining optimization. If I always try to organize my life efficiently, I will run myself ragged, and I will miss out on the serendipitous benefits that come from natural flow. Those long pandemic days let me experience life sans efficiency. I moved through my days mostly without task lists or schedules. I learned that motivation can exist without deadline pressure.

Life is shifting here at Chez Tayler. With Howard’s schedule no longer driven by the daily comic, I’m able to step back and let Howard handle more of his own admin tasks. Perhaps some of the house admin tasks will also shift to him. We don’t know yet. We are both trying to be conscious about what patterns we settle into. As we launch on new creative projects, there are going to be times when I need to be in full project manager mode. I’m going to have days like the past two, where I need to task switch and move efficiently. However I also want to make sure that not all of my days are run that way. I like high energy creative work and I need to have unstructured contemplative time. Having that framework in mind is good as we’re establishing life post-Schlock Mercenary, mid-pandemic, and pre-whatever comes next.

Learning to Rest

A thing that I am slowly learning how to do is recognize how fatigue feels in my body and my heart. Physical fatigue after a physical exertion is fairly easy to identify, but most of us are trained to ignore emotional/psychological fatigue. This is the natural result of a society which admires and praises productivity. There are constant rewards for getting things done, so it is easy to just push and push and push without rest. Because the rewards do give us a surge of endorphins, which grants us additional energy to do more things. However no amount of endorphins can do the fully restorative work of actually resting.

This morning I had a day stretching out ahead of me and nothing on the calendar. I could have looked at my long to-do list and filled the day with tasks. Sometimes that is exactly what I like do when I encounter empty time. This morning I was having trouble wanting to tackle any of the things. This is a subtle sign of fatigue, because I like my projects, I want to work on my projects and complete them. If I’m instead avoiding picking them up, then that tells me something is off in my mind and heart. Sometimes fear is throwing me off and preventing me from engaging with a project. This is frequently the case with my fiction writing. Today it was simply fatigue. I’d had a week full of things and I need some time resting from the things so that I can be glad to do them again on Monday. This is the purpose of having weekends, to take time off from working.

So I’m having a Saturday. I’ve done a few tasks because they landed in front of me and I had desire/energy to do them. The rest I’ve set aside. On Monday I’ll be back to focusing and getting things done. Starting with shipping packages. The end of the comic prompted many people to buy things in the store. (Thank you!)

A Snapshot of Day

Rain is falling and preventing me from going out to lay in my hammock. Laying on wet while being dripped on would not be the experience I was looking for. Also, I like taking paper books and notebooks with me. They would suffer from the wet. Interesting the damp barrier to stepping outside makes me feel cooped up. It probably explains my push to get a patio made. A patio could host a comfy chair with an umbrella to keep the rain off my pages. Also a patio can have a gas powered fire pit table to extend the outdoor season past the point where outside becomes chilly.

We need the rain. Utah’s annual allotment of wildfires have been blazing away, turning the daylight amber. Rain is rarely enough to extinguish a fire, but it helps. In my gardens the rain will revive dry patches of lawn that are missed by the sprinklers. It also enlivens the snails who are all out and about on the wet sidewalks. My flower beds and grape vines house a large and thriving colony of these snails. They mostly leave my flowers alone and they make my kid happy, so we co-exist.

Indoors the house feels quiet despite the occasional outburst from the two young adults playing games together. Howard is meandering through his day, finally free from the schedule pressure of the daily comic update. I’m sitting on my couch, looking out the window at the rain, grass, and snails. Writing thoughts about all of the above in a notebook for lack of sufficient focused attention to dive into working on my novel. Later this evening I’ll drive to go pick up a bag of farm share vegetables.

My afternoons and evenings are far slower than they were pre-pandemic. My mornings contrive to be efficient and productive. Sometimes I work to make afternoons productive too, but for today I’m just going to keep the rain company and know that not every day needs to be driven by checklists.

Approaching The End

In 2004 it became clear to both Howard and I that he had to leave his corporate employment and try to make a go of cartooning full time. The span of time between our decision and his final day of work was only a few days because his employer said there was no point in holding him to two week’s notice. I felt so calm during those days, Howard was pretty scared and stressed. Then he came home with boxes of personal belongings from his office space and we switched who was stressed. I remember laying on the couch, staring at the ceiling, and feeling the responsibility for house and kids as if it were a physical weight on my body.

Obviously the switch to cartooning worked out, because we’ve spent the intervening sixteen years fully supporting that house and the four kids. About four years ago, we started knowing that Schlock Mercenary needed an end rather than letting it continue endlessly. By last year we knew that 2020 would be the year it ended. I spent a lot of last year actively afraid for what ending the comic would mean for our finances. We turned the corner into this year and I felt calm. It was time, and I was excited to see what new things we would do. When Howard got sick, I started actively looking forward to the end of the comic because he could barely keep up with the pressure of the daily update. I arrived at this week feeling anticipation that the end is so close.

Today Howard scripted the final comics and began to draw them. He tweeted about it, and his replies were flooded with people for whom reading the comic has been a daily ritual for 5, 10, 20 years of their lives. Today my emotions are all over the place instead of calm. I feel badly that this tiny piece of enjoyment in their lives is coming to an end. I feel glad that Howard will have space to figure out his health. I’m excited to see what new patterns my family gets when we don’t have to bend everything around a daily update. I’m nervous about our finances in the next few years. I’m happy about Howard’s scripts for the final comics. I’m looking forward to the other Schlock Mercenary stories we’ll get to create in a format other than a daily update. I feel sad that fans won’t have the daily laugh anymore. Yet all of it feels more like a beginning than an ending to me. We’ll see if all of those feelings shift when the final comic is done and posted.

It has been such a privilege and a joy to be part of the 20-year-long project Schlock Mercenary. I love the characters. I love the stories. I love the books we got to make. I love that it is a vast universe with so much room in it for more stories. I’ll carry that privilege, joy, and love with me into whatever comes next.

Waiting for Normal

Normality is a moving target. Figuring out what is normal is like trying to catch fog in my hands. I look out across the distance and the fog obviously exists, but up close I can’t see it. I’ve seen lots of talk about “the new normal” but nothing is settled yet, everything is still shifting. We’re still having community arguments about masks and kids in school. The fact that we’re arguing means none of this is normal to us yet. Communities don’t argue about things that are actually normal. Things that are normal are so accepted that they are as unconsidered as air. This can be good or bad depending on where normal lands.

In the Before Times I would be in the church building at 10am on Sunday morning. Instead I’m sitting in my kitchen with scriptures and a study manual trying to have insights without anyone else to bounce ideas with me. Later I’ll have a short meeting with Howard and my one child who still connects with my religion. I treasure those small meetings. They are sacred and special in a way that I could not have had before the pandemic. Yet I miss larger spiritual community connection. I’ve considered starting an online discussion / study group, but part of me resists the idea of creating that commitment. Not sure why I have that resistance. Today is a normal pandemic Sunday, with patterns that have become familiar over the past several months.

In the coming week my family has decisions to make about my son’s senior year of high school. Those decisions have a huge effect on where normal will land for us. What patterns do we want to establish that we think we can sustain over the next nine months. I expect to have several false starts as we discover which aspects of our plan are working and which are not. Deciding about school is only the beginning. Holidays are coming. They carry a heavy weight of tradition and emotional resonance. We’re going to have community arguments about what pandemic Halloween looks like. Are class parties allowed for elementary school? Do the kids get to have their costume parade? Do people go door to door for trick or treating? Then there are Thanksgiving and Christmas where families have to decide whether to gather, whether to distance, whether to wear masks. The internal longing for familiar traditions will be strong. We’ll have to fight ourselves and that will manifest as fighting with others. I’m already tired thinking about each of these community discussions to come. Yet we can’t reach a true New Normal until we’ve cycled through all of them.

For my part I’m trying to settle my mind and heart into gratitude and a lack of expectation. I’m grateful for the things I get to have: Sunday with family in my house, visits with my married kids (the only non-household people allowed in my house,) online visits with others. And I’m trying to let go of expecting anything to look like it did before. All of my events must be re-imagined. It is grieving to let go of traditions that grounded me, but exciting to be able to re-envision so many parts of my life. I have so little control over how the next months will play out beyond the walls of my house. I suppose it isn’t surprising that I’ve been focused on house projects as a concrete thing I can control.

Eventually pandemic normal or post-pandemic normal will arrive. It will do so quietly, we’ll only notice we have it after it has been surrounding us for quite a while. It will not look like what we imagined when we tried to declare “this is what the new normal will look like.” Until then, everything is in flux.

A Tour of House Projects in Progress

After last summer’s detour into flood damage repair, this year I’m back to working on the house projects I want to get done. Because of financial and time constraints, the projects move slowly, however the life shifts around pandemic have me needing hands-busy-not-too-thinky tasks. Home improvement fills that need nicely. Progress has been made.

The largest and most ongoing project is our Long Slow Remodel of our kitchen. The current goal is to get rid of that wall in the middle before November launches the holiday season.

The next step is to waiting on flooring to arrive. I have to tear out flooring in front of this wall, lay new flooring, and then we can install a pantry wall with a secondary sink. (The plumbing for the sink was installed spring of 2019.) We’ll live with a patch of mis-matched flooring while we take a bunch of other steps like new counter tops, wall removal, re-wiring the location of the fridge, etc.

I already have the cabinets which will go on the pantry wall. They’re waiting out in my garage.

We had paused the kitchen remodel because purchasing flooring is a big spend and I was worried about finances. But we think that re-configuring our kitchen to match the way that our brains work will help Howard in his quest to improve his health. So we’re moving forward. During the pause I was in need of projects, and my son was also in need of things to do, so we decided to put a patio in the dirt patch that used to be under our deck that we had to demolish because it had rotted. (Deck demolishing Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) Here is what the patch looked like in 2014 after we removed the deck:

This is how the dirt patch spent most of the intervening years: Covered in leaf piles and various other detritus.

This is the current state of the dirt patch, which is well on its way to becoming a patio. We used the wheelbarrow to haul excavated dirt to a large (and growing larger) pile of dirt in the corner of the yard. I’m thinking we’ll use some of it to fill raised garden beds. Hopefully we’ll do that faster than the six years it took us to move from dirt patch to patio. The pile of sand on the tarp was salvaged from an old sandbox which we disassembled in early spring of 2019. We’re using it in the laying of pavers, but the size of the pile suggests that we’ll have some left over for other projects later. Process is dig, remove tree roots, level dirt, lay landscape cloth, layer gravel, layer sand, place each paver carefully using a level. At the end I’ll use polymeric sand to seal everything into place.

While hauling dirt to our big pile, I noticed that one of our pine trees had been so overtaken by wisteria vines that it was in danger of dying. I cut the vines to give the tree a chance. Unfortunately that created this situation:

Instead of having a wall of green, there is a wall of dead. Dried, crispy dead just waiting for a spark to turn the whole mess into a massive torch. Particularly since the underside of all that dead wisteria looks like this:

So in between digging and laying pavers, I’m taking time to cut back and remove all of the dead from this tree. I’m also raking up a decade of dead pine needles and wisteria leaves from the ground. I’ll probably need a young, nimble person to get on a ladder or climb the tree to help me get some of the dead vines removed. Bit by bit it is getting less hazardous.

Not a hazard, but definitely an eyesore is this weedy patch which flanks the other side of my small deck. It used to be raised garden beds framed by railroad ties. Then we realized that all the terrible chemicals from the railroad ties would leach into the soil, and be taken into the food plants. We pulled the railroad ties, which left a couple of mounds. Then life got busy and the mounds went to weeds. Since there were mounds, we couldn’t just mow them. So in order to get this spot under control we need to clear the weeds and level the ground, or reinstall garden beds. I’m considering making this spot into a patio too or we could return it to being lawn, which is what it was before very-young me decided to make it raised garden beds. This project is on the list, but I doubt we’ll get to it this year.

Last, but not least urgent, are the front flower beds which have reached their usual state of July disarray. Weeds need to be pulled, plants need to be cut back. I need to fertilize to give all of it a chance of being pretty again in the fall and next spring.

Owning a house is a lot of work if you want to keep the house in good condition. I’ve lived in this house and tended to it for over twenty years now. Some of my current projects are me correcting my own past errors (railroad garden beds,) some are me fighting the natural entropy of living things trying to take over (tree rescue, weeds,) and some are me correcting long-standing problems (removing that wall in the kitchen.) It is a good thing I like having projects.

Things I Miss and Gifts I’m Grateful For

Things I miss:

  • My son being able to attend school in person
  • My child being able to volunteer at the aquarium
  • Singing as part of a congregation
  • The random small conversations that happened with my neighbors at church
  • Howard having so much energy that I have to run to keep up with him, both literally and figuratively
  • Meeting with writer’s groups in person
  • Hugging friends
  • Having people over to the house without calculating infection risk
  • Interacting with people without wearing a mask

Gifts I’m glad to have:

  • A new awareness of how many hours each day has because they aren’t chopped into pieces by appointments
  • The intimacy of doing sacrament worship at home with just immediate family
  • An increased awareness of my responsibility to the communities of people who surround me, which includes a better understanding of community power dynamics and racism.
  • The new patio which became my “must have something solid to do” project
  • The time spent in a car with my son while he learns how to drive
  • Seeing how my married kids are growing together and leaning on each other rather than on parents

Getting Priorities the Right Way Round

Things I would like to do with the next few hours of my day:

  • Clean my kitchen
  • Start a batch of sourdough bread
  • write a scene for my novel
  • wander in my garden planning what I’ll do when the weather cools down
  • Read a book
  • watch a show
  • Write my newsletter

Things I feel like I should be doing:

  • Anything directly related to bringing income so that I can continue doing the things on the list up above when I feel like doing them.

Sometimes I forget that focusing my life around maintaining the flow of income is backwards since the point of having the income is so that I can do the things I want to do without feeling anxious about survival.