This evening I read a social media post from a friend whose family has had a really rough year. They’ve got the trifecta of health issues, emotional issues, and financial issues. They are a family seriously stretched to their very limits. And today a teacher scolded them for their “bad parenting” because an elementary school kid wasn’t getting homework done.
I was so angry on their behalf. What they’re dealing with is bigger than what I deal with, but I know how awful it feels when a teacher implies that “bad parenting” is why my kid struggles in their class. It pokes me in all my anxious places because I’m always convinced I could/should do something more. Yet it also makes me think of a larger principle that I think is worth examining.
What if we as teachers, neighbors, community members began recognizing the “bad parenting” that we witness as a symptom of an ailment instead of as something to be judged. Because I truly believe that most parents want to be good at parenting. When they fail it is because they are stressed, or overwhelmed, or don’t have resources, or have never been taught. When we identify “bad parenting” that is a moment to step in and help, not stand back and judge.
Shipping season will begin soon. I thought it would begin in a couple of weeks, but yesterday I got word that the bulk shipment of RAM will be arriving sometime this week. Fortunately I’ve been working to prepare the warehouse, because we never fully cleaned up after Planet Mercenary shipping and then holiday shipping. In fact, my warehouse space looked like this just a month ago.
This state of affairs was a problem since “shipment of books” means 4-6 pallets and there was zero floor space for pallets of books to be dropped off. We hauled off fifteen big black bags of garbage, two carloads of cardboard, a dozen wooden pallets, and two more carloads of assorted other waste items. As much as possible I recycle and re-use, but it still ends up being a lot of work to remove things that are in the way so that we can make space. The good news is that as of this morning my warehouse looks like this:
Four pallets of books will fit easily into that space. As will the shipment of shirts which I’m expecting not too long afterward. Also the shipments of boxes that I will use to mail the shirts and the books. The physical spaces are ready for work. Now I’m preparing shipping lists, combining orders, and generally organizing so that when the books (and shirts) do arrive we can send them on their merry way to homes where they’ll be loved.
This morning I was alone in my house for thirty minutes. I thought it was going to be quite a bit longer since Howard and Kiki had gone out to see Infinity War. But before I really had a chance to stretch out into the aloneness, I got a text from 17 asking to be picked up early from school. I suppose there are some people for home “alone at home” is a common experience. It is certainly the source of significant emotional adjustment for those who become empty nesters at about my age. Between a spouse who works at home, a daughter who works at home, and two partially homeschooled teenagers, I don’t get to be alone very often.
It is strange to note the ways that I expand internally when I know there isn’t anyone else in the house. I know that I won’t be interrupted. I don’t have to track anyone else or predict when they’ll need my attention. I don’t have to reserve a portion of my brain so I’m prepared to respond. The thing is, I’m not even aware that I’ve got attention on reserve. It is something my mind does automatically and I only notice it was a thing when my brain stops.
Going to a retreat has an added layer of expansion in that I’m outside my usual context. At a retreat my first question is always “what do I need?” While at home the prevailing question is “what needs to be done next?” Retreats give me a chance to live inside my mind in different ways. Unfortunately stepping outside my context can also trigger anxiety precisely because I’ve stepped away from my usual tasks. Some retreats I’ve spent far more energy on battling panic than I have on thinking writing thoughts.
As I drove to pick up my daughter from school, I tried to figure out how I felt about having alone time taken away from me. The feelings were subtle, a faint sadness perhaps. A slight shouldering of responsibility, because with her in the house I am reminded of the work she needs to do in order to not fail some of her classes. It is her work, not mine. I shouldn’t have to track it, but the overdue work exists because she’s been off kilter for months. She’s overwhelmed even though I’ve already adjusted her workload downward as many times as I can. She’s not functioning at capacity, so when she is home, I track where she’s at and whether she’s been able to work. With those tracking circuits re-engaged, I proceeded onward with my day. I have things that need to be done. Those things don’t change much whether my house is co-occupied or empty.
However it is important to note that arranging for time alone is probably something that would be beneficial to me.
It was one of our morning business meetings where Howard and I discuss the day and decisions we need to make. I explained to him an opportunity that was related to an event. He stared at me blankly. I re-explained twice before what I was trying to express became clear to him. No idea whether I was being unclear, or whether his brain was not parsing what I’d said. No way to determine which without a third party or a recording of the conversation.
I looked away from that frustration to glance at my email, where I saw that the business opportunity I’d just explained had sold out and was no longer available to us. It reminded me vividly about a much more important task associated to this event that I’d also been late in taking and for which I was still awaiting a satisfactory resolution. Cue feelings of failure.
I stepped away from the computer and into the kitchen, trying to recalibrate my day. I stood looking out the window and thought about the other things which currently feel like failures: the laundry (while clean) has been heaped in baskets for weeks, forcing both Howard and I to play “mining for socks” every morning. I was supposed to have a conversation with my son this morning about a thing he’s been doing that frustrates his sister. The conversation may or may not trigger an anxiety meltdown. And then there are the tasks that have lingered on my To Do list weeks past the original date when I assigned myself to have them done.
I decided to squelch all of that and go take a shower. Perhaps I’d be better able to do things once I didn’t feel gross.
This was the moment when Howard walked up the stairs, and I heard the shower turn on.
I stood by the sink, listening to the water of the shower. Howard had no way of knowing I’d been about to go shower. I hadn’t said an of my thoughts out loud. Recalibrate again. Maybe I could go fold the laundry while he was showering. That would be a nice surprise for him when he got out and I would have reversed at least one failure.
I walked up the stairs just as Howard stepped out of the bedroom door and placed the empty laundry basket outside.
Here we need some back-and-fill info. Howard and I have had previous conversations about the laundry. Processing and folding laundry is one of the household tasks that stresses Howard and breaks his brain. As near as we can tell it has to do with sorting a jumble of like items. We haven’t been able to train his brain to react differently, so laundry is my job and he takes on different household tasks that don’t break his brain. Having to mine for socks is exactly the sort of brain breaking activity that we try to avoid for him. Thus the laundry piles are very guilt inducing for me because my failure to fold laundry puts Howard in a brain-breaking position every single morning until the problem is resolved. Howard does not get angry about the laundry pile, but sometimes the only way for him to find socks is to dump the contents of the laundry basket on the bed so he can spread out the mass and better find socks. Howard has apologized for this basket dumping behavior, worried that it seems like a passive aggressive attempt to tell me that I should really fold the laundry now. I told him that I understood why he did it and it was okay.
But there he was deliberately placing the empty basket outside the door with an air of frustration. Dumping to find socks was one thing. This was something else. In that moment it felt like being slapped in the face with my laundry failures just when I’d planned to come and fix them.
Howard turned and went to shower. I began folding the laundry angrily. It turns out that laundry is not an activity that lends itself to angry venting, not like hammering or clattering dishes. There are not satisfying noises or solid motions. It is all softness and precision. I stewed the whole time Howard showered. Angry. Feeling like a failure.
This is the part that young Howard and young Sandra got wrong so very often. Young me would have not recognized how much of my anger was at my own perceived failures and she would have chosen more accusatory language. I did better this time. When Howard exited the shower I said
“So it turns out that dumping the basket on the bed is fine, but when you place the basket outside the door it feels like you’re scolding me.”
Howard said, “Yeah. Sorry about that. When I went to dump the basket, one of the speakers (from our music system) fell into the basket and I tripped over the basket, so I was mad at the basket and put it outside the door. I didn’t realize the action had a subtext until I’d already done it.”
I then cried a bit about all the things that were really upsetting me and Howard listened. He apologized that he couldn’t fix any of it. I told him I didn’t need anything fixed, I just needed to be told I wasn’t terrible.
Then I showered, and as expected, it helped me feel better about all the things.
Yesterday anxiety and depression were eating me alive. It is strange how they seep in and take over all my reactions without me noticing what is happening. It’s like being busy with a project and suddenly noticing I’m hip deep in flood water. That has alligators in it. I haven’t been an effective worker most of the week. I’ve been wading through sadness and foggy thinking. Then last night I got hit with a series of micro panic attacks triggered by the tiniest of things.
Laundry needs to be switched = jolt of adrenaline and huge spike of crushing guilt because obviously I am failing at adulting in that spells doom for my entire future.
Daughter shows me piece of art = jolt of adrenaline and surge of worry because what if the client (who is my friend) doesn’t like it, and what if they get so angry that it destroys the friendship, and then that leads to a huge rift in the social circle which spells doom for my entire future.
You get the idea. Small event = my entire future is doomed. After half dozen or more of these, I finally paused long enough to think “hey, maybe this isn’t normal.” And then I remember that this is exactly what one of my medicines is for. It is a short-acting “rescue” medicine whose job is to cut through anxiety and help my brain re-set so it can remember that we don’t have to react to everything as if it is a life threatening emergency which potentially leads to permanent doom. So I took my medicine, and I slept it off. Then today was, by far, the most effective day I’ve had all week.
I know exactly why the anxiety and depression showed up this week. Kids have stuff going on that is legitimate cause for grief and emotional processing on my part. My job in both cases has been to let go and get out of the way so that the kids can handle their own things. I have to let go of things I pictured for their future because their futures need to be what they imagine.
Sadly, knowing the causes of the anxiety doesn’t actually prevent it. But I can re-set, recalibrate, and not let the anxiety win.
A Comedy of Errors Which Has Me Contemplating Security, Safety Nets, and Preparedness While Sitting in a Train Station Parking Lot With a Dead Car Battery.
(If you take comedy in the Shakespearean sense that events become amusing because everything turns out okay in the end, but the whole thing could have been a tragedy if the end were different.)
Fact 1: I lost my coat two weeks ago. Through process of elimination, I’ve determined that it is not anywhere in the house and I probably left it behind at a doctor’s appointment. I currently only have the one coat. However it’s spring and I’ve been able to make do with some sweaters, so I haven’t gone to the doctor’s office to ask.
Fact 2: I needed to drop my oldest off to catch a shuttle bus in the early hours of the morning. I looked at the weather and it was only a little bit chilly, but I was going to be in my car the whole time, and the car interior can be heated up, so I didn’t bother to find a sweater or to do anything other than shove my feet into some sandals.
Fact 3: We’ve been trying to teach our kitten to not be afraid of the car. This process involves kids sitting in the car with the kitten while she explores and gets comfortable. During one of these sessions, a child became chilly. He put on the spare jacket I usually keep in the car. Then wore it into the house. So the jacket was no longer in my car.
Fact 4: Last Monday I was driving the family home from an event. Part way home we discovered that my headlights weren’t on. I flipped the headlight switch back to “auto” so the lights would turn themselves on as needed. We wondered how they got moved off of that setting and made a joke about how I will always forget to have the lights on unless the switch is set to auto.
Fact that made things turn out much better than they could have been: We got Howard’s car fixed yesterday after it had spent almost two weeks undrivable because it had a “check engine” light on. We didn’t want to drive it until we had the mechanic check the engine (per the indicator light’s instructions.) Mechanic gave the car a green light yesterday. This meant Howard had a car available this morning.
Fact that makes all the difference in this story: We live in a world where most people have cell phones. Including me.
My daughter and I arrived at the parking lot twenty minutes early for the shuttle. I parked so we could see where the shuttle would arrive. I turned the engine off. Only then I couldn’t see the dashboard clock to track the time. So I turned the key so that the clock lit up again. This also turned on the headlights. I considered turning the headlights off so that they wouldn’t annoy others, but I worried that I’d forget to switch them back to auto. I reasoned that the sky was bright enough that the headlights wouldn’t be too annoying. It didn’t occur to me that having headlights run off of battery for twenty minutes might have an effect on the battery.
Flashback which outlines why I really should have known better: In January of this year I accidentally drained my car battery dead by using the battery to run a tablet watching videos while I and this same daughter were waiting for access to her college apartment. We ended up getting a jump start from an employee of the restaurant we were parked outside. One would think this experience would teach me to recognize the limitations of vehicular batteries rather than treating a car as a magic box that can dispense electricity at will. Apparently I didn’t learn.
Just before the shuttle arrived, I noticed a change in the dashboard lights. I suddenly remembered that car batteries run dry. With a sinking lurch, I turned the key…nothing. So I calmly waited three minutes until my daughter got onto her shuttle, then called Howard to alert him that he’d need to handle the remaining school drop offs and that he’d need to bring some jumper cables to me.
Then I sat for another forty minutes while Howard went through tasks as quickly as he possibly could in order to rescue me. During those forty minutes, the chill seeped into the car. I contemplated how I would have to rescue myself if I hadn’t had a cell phone. There were houses within a five minute walk, including my sister’s house. The walk would have been unpleasantly cold, especially with the windchill, but it was completely survivable. In fact, I could have walked home in an hour had I really needed to. Though I would have gotten very cold. I thought that the day would warm up as the sun rose. Instead a storm began to blow in and the temperature dropped further. There were other people in the lot, but since it was a commuter lot, most of the people I saw were rushing to catch a train.
I thought about how comfortable my life is on a daily basis. So comfortable, that I have the luxury of forgetting that the charge on a car battery is an expendable resource. I can go from warm house to warm car and back again without needing to dress for the weather outdoors. I can have things go wrong and know that I have multiple people I can call who will gladly rescue me from my troubles. I can ask strangers for help and they will be kind and non-suspicious of me because I don’t look like a threat to them.
Not everyone has these comforts. For some people a dead car battery becomes a tragedy rather than a comedy.
I thought about all of that as I wrapped my arms around myself and jiggled my legs to stay warm. I wasn’t too terribly cold, but over time a slight chill seeps in.
Howard arrived with a warm car, heated seats, a jacket, and a hot fast food breakfast. I got to sit in his car with all of these things while he braved the windy chill to link our cars together. Inside five minutes, my car was running again. But Howard had me stay with him in the warm to finish eating. He ate too. “This way it’s like a date.” He smiled.
“We need to plan better dates.” I answered.
Then he responded with words I can’t remember specifically, but the words meant that while maybe this wasn’t a flashy date, it didn’t matter because being together was date enough. Dates are about shared experiences and togetherness rather than about the itinerary.
I’m back home. Surrounded by warmth and light, both of which are generated by electricity that I’m actively grateful to have right now. My car is parked in the garage and is restored to full functionality. In a few minutes I’ll go take a hot shower to chase away the last of the chill. All’s well that ends well.
But I’m going to put that spare jacket back in the car. And go see if my coat is still at the doctor’s office. And be better about dressing for the weather even if I’m only expecting a short trip. And remember that I should never use the car as a source of electricity unless I’m also running the engine to generate that electricity.
Lessons learned. (I hope.)
Our shirt Kickstarter closed yesterday. It did better than I’d expected, which helps plug a financial gap between the last book release and the next one. The vast majority of the money will go straight into printing shirts and shipping them. However the sliver that is left will pay our bills for a month or two, so that’s significant.
My 20yo has settled into his school and last night he figured out how to order pizza using his own money and have it delivered to him. It seems like a small thing, but it is hugely empowering to him to have an income and to be able to summon food that he likes instead of being at the complete whim of the cafeteria.
I spent a few minutes talking to one of my nephews who is the same age as my 15yo and who will be attending the same high school next year. My nephew energetically described his class schedule for next year, which he picked so he could be with his friends. It is full of honors classes, AP classes, and probable after school activities. Planning my son’s schedule was all about managing stresses and trying to tune things so he could function without being overwhelmed. The contrast was stark and I’ve cried a bit about the life limitations my son has to deal with.
My 17yo is far more stable than she was last year at this time, but there have still been absences for mental health days. I looked at her grades and realized that the absences have spawned missed assignments and tests. There are a couple of grades to rescue, and the thought makes me tired. We are always rescuing grades either for this kid or for the 15yo. It makes me weary.
Weather has warmed up and we’re starting to have spring flowers. I love spring flowers, they make me happy.
On Monday I had an enormous and multi-faceted To Do list. I plowed through almost everything on it. Yesterday was less effective, but already this morning I’ve gone through several tasks. The difference is in part because I’ve semi-abandoned the task app on my phone because it simply wasn’t helping me organize and plan in ways that work for my brain. I’ve reverted to hand-written task lists in my notebook. Amazing how much productivity goes up when I stop trying to use a broken tool.
Last night Howard and I had a deadline readjustment conversation. As self employed people we are somewhat in charge of setting our own deadlines. There is always the external deadline of “let’s not run out of money” but meeting that requirement can be done in numerous different ways. Sometimes we make a plan, but then need to shift the plan based on progress and realistic assessments of work yet to be done. The next two Schlock books will now be released after GenCon instead of before. Also Howard loosened his own deadline for wrapping up the current Schlock book because he realized that he needs to give the story the space it needs instead of trying to finish it on a specific (and unnecessary) schedule. The result of this conversation is shifting some priorities on the task list, also feeling less stress in the immediate future.
I’ve been making small adjustments in my days in keeping with my January resolution to build a life that is less driven by anxiety. If I want my life to be different, then my days need to be different. So I’ve been including more reading, more handicrafts, more shared experiences like games or movies on our big screen, less Netflix on a small screen with ear buds. I do better some days than others, but small changes make a significant course correction over time.
And now it is time to get to work doing all the things.
Back in February I was on a panel at a convention titled How to Run a Killer Game Kickstarter. It is not the first Kickstarter related panel I’ve been on, nor will it be the last. I frequently get asked by friends and strangers for Kickstarter advice. None of which is to say that I’m an expert. There are so many people who are far more knowledgable than me. In fact it was comforting on that panel to hear some of my highly-successful co-panelists talk about the mistakes they’ve made and continue to make. It seems like each Kickstarter project has its own set of pitfalls and errors. We’re running a Kickstarter right now, and I haven’t found all the errors yet. This is the sixth time I’ve participated in running a Kickstarter project. It is the Fourth time where I’ve done the majority of (or all of) Kickstarter set up and management. That is such a small number, not nearly enough to claim expert status.
One of the things which I hadn’t recognized until this Kickstarter is that running one always impacts how much I blog. It shouldn’t surprise me that the focused, storytelling effort that goes into crafting Kickstarter updates would have an impact on how much mental energy I have for blog storytelling. Yet somehow I hadn’t quite connected that thought. Or if I did, I’d forgotten the previous connection. Our current Kickstarter runs for two more weeks. The blog may be a little sparse until it is done.
Planning the class schedule for my kids’ next year is always an exercise in anxiety. First there is the simple logistical difficulty of figuring out which classes my kid wants to take, when the school offers them, and how those two things fit together in a way which puts a class in every hour of the school day. The logistics are further made complicated by needing to figure out if the teacher of a class will be a good fit for my kid.
Once I’ve figured out a schedule I think will work, there comes the hunger-games of trying to sign up for classes. The system is turned on at a specific time on a specific day, and the popular classes can fill up in minutes. It is a high-stress afternoon.
Once everything is selected and registered, I will stare at the schedule and second guess the choices. I try not to, but I can’t tell from here what state my kid will be in when school starts in the fall. If they are happy and balanced, the schedule will likely be great. However some classes may trigger their issues. Or they may be struggling on a larger scale. So I stare at the list of classes and I wonder which of them my kid will fail. Which class will be the one we have to drop because it just isn’t working. What adjustment will be necessary to help my kid cope.
Along with that mental circle, I have the counter current of thinking about how maybe my kids only struggle so much because I’m enabling them. Maybe if I were just tougher, they would learn how to step up to classes instead of dropping out of them.
Then just for extra fun, one of my kids wants to take a class that requires an audition. I’ve known about this for months and have been watching school newsletters for any announcements about when/where auditions will be. Finally I called to ask and was told “Oh, they happened two days ago.” Which was news that made my child very upset. But then I got a note from the teacher saying that there is a make up session on Monday. So my kid does get to audition after all. But I have no idea what the chances are of her making the class because all her skills are self-taught and she’ll be up against others who have had lessons for years. So we get to watch her practice all weekend, and try out on Monday. Then we wait to see which flavor of emotional ride she goes on.
All of this for the kid who is already in high school. Then in two weeks I get to repeat the process for my other kid who will be starting in high school next year and whose particular issues manifest at school far more regularly.
Tomorrow I need to sit down with my anxieties and carefully disconnect them and let them go.
Haiku is a poetic form with very strict rules about the structure of the poem. It is not the only poetic form with rules, but the very specific restraints on number of syllables per line and the ways that the lines must interact with each other produce a particular sort of beauty which can’t be achieved without those constraints. The defined limits of the form create the beauty of it. Because of these structural demands, some things can’t be said in haiku and some things can only be said in haiku.
My chosen religious tradition is one with strict rules and constraints. It asks me to not do some things and to go out of my way to do others. I’ve had friends baffled by some of the constraints that I live with. I’ve had periods of my life where some of it felt confining and others where the constraints provided safety for me in an otherwise hazardous experience, like the harness of a climber which can be simultaneously uncomfortable and life saving. I’m aware that the harness that cradles and supports me might cut off circulation and do harm to someone who is built differently.
I said “my chosen religious tradition” because even though I was born into this tradition and raised inside it, I have since chosen it for myself. I continue to make that choice regularly. I choose the structures and requirements of this form for my life, while being aware that my choice blocks me off from many things I see bringing joy to others. I am also aware of the joys that are only available to me because of the structures I dwell inside. And I know that some people born to these same structures must exit them in order to expand into the people they are. Other people must find their way into these structures to become who they might be.
The world would be a poorer place if the only poetry available were haiku. The world would be made poorer if all people were required to live the same life structures and traditions. God knows all of his children and will help us find the forms we need in order to become what we must be.