Reading Relief

It’s no coincidence that the last blog entry I posted here was just before the inauguration. I came into 2017 with the best of intentions for creative output, and then the political shit hit the fan and ever since then I’ve had trouble producing anything. My journal entries have gone from three pages a day to perhaps a page every other day, give or take. I spend way too much time scrolling through Twitter, trying to keep up with the daily outrages coming from the new US administration. Intellectually, I know this isn’t healthy, nor is it ultimately helpful to simply consume outrage on a daily basis, but it has quickly become a habit I’m hard-pressed to kick. I am naturally a nervous, worst-case scenario person, so to be in the middle of such a tumultuous time, with such easy access to up-to-the-minute information and misinformation, is a perfect recipe for obsessive anxiety for me.

Needless to say, “obsessive anxiety” is not a mindset that is terribly conducive to creativity, or to productive focus of any kind. I find myself constantly wanting to do something, while having absolutely no idea what to do. With a pen in hand, it seems all I can do these days is fidget and sweat.

I’ve been able to compromise somewhat by focusing on reading. If I can’t produce, at the very least I can turn my attention to the creative work other people have produced, quite separate from the world of soundbites and Twitter feeds. In January I read seven books, which was a personal record for me, and I’ve already finished one more for February. I am turning to books as a kind of salve, a way for me to escape from present day events and to engage my mind even though I am having trouble producing words or ideas of my own. I am hoping that if I steep myself in other people’s prose, rather than the internet’s sputtering daily outrage, I will eventually reach some level of stillness and clarity once again. I’ll be able to order my thoughts. I’ll be able to write something more substantial than, “THE WORLD IS DOOOOOOOOOMED!!!!!!” over and over again.

For those who are curious, the books I’ve read so far this year are:

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  • Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham
  • The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
  • The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
  • The Sculptor by Scott McCloud
  • Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

I have enjoyed them all, despite their stylistic and thematic differences, and I want to continue my reading momentum, reaching out into different genres and subject matter as much as I can. I want to cope with the difficulties of the present day by learning as much as I can about as much as I can, and by engaging with as many diverse stories as I can. In a time when I have such a strong urge to do something but don’t know what, reading feels like a good start. It opens up worlds and possibilities that might not otherwise occur to me, and perhaps in doing so it will also suggest solutions to the problems that have been so rattling my nerves.

It’s certainly worth a shot. Now I just need a few more bookshelves…

Ode to a Desk

I have a desk here at home that gets far less use than it should, not just because I’m an avid procrastinator, but because I’ve always had something of an aversion to the traditional workspace of the desk. As a kid, even though I had a particle board IKEA desk in my bedroom, I’d usually do my homework at the kitchen table or in front of the TV. And I follow the same pattern today, though, let’s be honest, I gravitate towards the couch the majority of the time. It’s a comfortable, lazy way to work, and I don’t think it serves me very well, but I still do it.

Who could blame me? I spend eight hours a day, five days a week at work, sitting at a desk with nowhere to go but the bathroom, or the kitchen, or the copy machine that jams spectacularly half the time I use it, causing me to get on my knees and fiddle with the vaguely labeled, preposterous green levers and knobs in its belly for several minutes just to get back to work, my hands covered in scratches and smears of toner.

There is something romantic about the notion of sitting down at the desk with impeccable posture and a furrowed brow to do Big And Important Work, but in practice it can feel like being stuck on a boat in the middle of nowhere, bringing back those fidgety memories of endless school lectures from which you couldn’t get up to escape. Writing at a desk is, for me, like the idea of writing on a typewriter: charming, yes, but it would get old after a while. (Not to mention the likelihood of yet more ink stains on my hands!)

Still, I’m making an effort to look and feel more professional by sitting down at this desk today, doing my taxes, of all things. (I like getting my taxes done early, and since I am in charge of getting our W-2s processed at work, I am in full control of my tax timeline. I realize this is not a normal or sane position to take, but so long as I don’t actually owe the government anything, the whole process makes me feel mature and virtuous. Which is rare in the current political climate…)

This desk is in front of a large window that looks out on our balcony, and beyond that, the tall, bare trees with their gnarled hands stretched out towards me in either supplication or some kind of threat. Through the woods I can see the traffic out on the highway, which provides a near-constant white noise like ocean waves that I rarely notice anymore unless I’m listening for it. From here I can see the paved walking trail through the woods where I am frequently dragged along by our big, eager hound dog, and, as is usually the case when I’m out with him, there is no one on it. I can’t blame them; it’s damn cold, and the air is slightly thickened by a very fine curtain of snow, so light as to be almost invisible.

With the exception perhaps of the traffic, it’s a calming scene: a typical gray afternoon in mid-winter, the kind I can only stand when observing it from the comfort of the centrally heated indoors. But even the cars out on the highway sometimes capture my imagination. It’s a lazy, cold Saturday, but traffic is constant, everyone’s headlights switched on under the impenetrable cloud cover that threatens heavier snow at any moment. I find myself idly wondering where all these people are going in such a hurry, and I’m glad I’m not one of them.

On days like this, when I really let myself sink into my office chair and observe the world from behind the keyboard, I can actually start to appreciate the ritual of sitting down to work at the writing desk. I can appreciate the significance of carving out both a time and a place for creative work, separating it physically from the drone and hum of everyday life, from the screeching of the television and the crumbs of a midday sandwich. It feels different to sit here, even if I spend just as much time zoning out and staring into space as I do from the comfort of the couch. Even when I’m idle, here at the desk it feels somehow intentional, like the gears are still whirring somewhere in the back of my head. It is a different feeling from the quiet suffocation of the desk where I spend forty unimaginative hours a week earning a paycheck.

I’m not sure what kind of spell this faux wood, prefab Swedish piece is casting over me, but I appreciate it. I think, despite my reservations, I may just keep coming back to this desk, if only to see what dedication to a dedicated workspace can inspire over time. Writing advice consistently touches on the theme of “showing up,” and perhaps that showing up is a little bit easier when you know exactly where you’re supposed to be.

Things That Have Gone On

In my true, undisciplined fashion, I have once again let this blog languish for a couple months without updates. I’d like to say I didn’t have the time, but though there has been plenty going on in my life, the truth is I have also had plenty of time to plop down a few words, and I just haven’t done it. I mean to rectify this now!

I won’t be so bold as to say I’ve made a New Year’s resolution to write regularly, as making that kind of statement seems an almost surefire road to failure. But I have, after a couple months of creative stagnation, committed myself to filling up three pages of my fancy-pants Moleskine journal every day. It’s a very modest goal, and I could do more if I chose, but I just need to get myself back into the rhythms of daily writing, even if that writing only comes in brief bursts. I’ve made no such commitment to updating this blog, but I would hope that a desire to blog more is a natural consequence of my setting pen to paper regularly.

Though I don’t use them as an excuse for letting my output dwindle, the last few months have been a little odd, for lack of a better term. Since my last posting:

  • My boyfriend and I adopted a dog, Duke. No one can agree on exactly what he is, though we suspect he is mostly Redbone Coonhound, and when we take him on walks around the apartment complex, we are frequently met with comments on how attractive he is. We feel very much like proud parents now, and are quick to forgive the animal, even after he ate an entire loaf of bread off the kitchen counter while we were away.
  • Shortly after rescuing the dog, I reached a level of frustration and anxiety that convinced me I needed to go back on antidepressants after a four-year hiatus from them. It was something I had been mulling over for a while, but I was determined to be better all on my own, determined that I had gotten past that stage in my life when I needed better living through chemistry. It got to the point, though, where I started to recognize the signs of depression that had snuck up on me all through my adolescence and into my twenties, which five years ago transformed into a perfect storm in which I had a total breakdown at work for no reason at all and finally decided to go to therapy the next day. My mental state had not gotten quite that bad this time around, but I could see the worst coming, and decided to head it off at the pass by reluctantly going back on medication. And regardless of what the skeptics say, it very much helps me. The feelings of panic and despair that so often ate away at me during normal daily activities has subsided, and I feel much more clearheaded and ready to take on whatever challenges lie ahead. I am far from perfect, but I am much better.
  • Meanwhile, my dad officially started to come out to people as a transgender woman. This has been common knowledge in my family for several years now, since my parents’ divorce (which was precipitated by my dad’s newfound commitment to his true identity). There are a lot of things I could say about this, but at present I’m not confident enough to put any of my thoughts together in a coherent fashion. All I can say is that I’m glad my dad finally feels comfortable enough to be who he truly feels he is, and at the very least I am grateful that my parents, though separated, can still get along quite well, spending holidays together and quietly commiserating over their delightful children.
  • Four months after moving in together, the week before Christmas, my boyfriend and I moved yet again, to a different unit in the same apartment complex. If possible, it was a more harrowing experience than the first time we moved, from two separate apartments miles apart on the hottest day of the year. The distance moved was smaller, but it seemed greater, as we moved from a second floor walkup to a third floor walkup in a different building, this time with a 72-pound dog in tow. Despite the aggravation of the experience, though, it was a worthwhile change, as our upstairs neighbor in our previous apartment had the infuriating habit of stomping back and forth across his apartment for hours at a time like some kind of power-walking Frankenstein monster. To this day we’re not sure what the guy was doing, but to give some context, when we were almost done moving out, our downstairs neighbor appeared shocked, having no idea that we had been moving over several days. At the same time, our upstairs neighbor made enough noise that we thought for sure he was moving out, though that was hardly the case. We are now on the top floor and much happier, more relaxed people because of it.

Other things happened in this period, obviously. I went to NerdCon: Stories (perhaps the last one ever?). I got a significant raise at work that makes escaping my office job any time soon seem much less reasonable. I have deleted all the games off my phone and committed myself, along with writing more, to reading more this year instead of idly poking at Candy Crush. I am currently almost finished with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which despite its intimidating size is an engaging, fantastical read.

Looking back, there has been no real lack of activity in my life lately, though I do keep waiting for something else to happen. I’m not sure what I’m waiting for, but I’m frequently keeping an eye out for the next thing, the next step in my life, whatever that may be.

I’m looking back on this blog post and thinking to myself that it’s sloppy and not particularly engaging or well-written, but part of my commitment to writing more requires not overthinking what I do write. The practice is worth a lot, even if the execution isn’t the best. (At least until the execution really does matter and there’s a six-figure advance in the balance. But that’s not going to be on the table for quite a while, if ever.)

So I will remain sloppy for the time being. Sloppy and searching, and hopefully learning a few things as 2017 progresses. Here’s to the process, whatever form it takes!

Pictures of Imperfection

Words have been causing me some problems lately. I want to say things, to spew language as I always have, but when I try, I get stuck almost immediately. After a thousand words of a story I grind to a halt, and trying to move forward feels like trying to rock a car out of thick mud.

I’m sure it’s purely psychological. My perfectionism has become a barrier to productivity. My aching desire to have my writing matter and be successful (whatever that means) has caused me to freeze up creatively.

This is why I am drawing more. I’ve always enjoyed drawing, but I’ve rarely attached any “THIS IS THE MEANING OF MY LIFE” pressure to it. It hasn’t been blown up in my head into THE THING I WAS ALWAYS MEANT TO DO the way writing has, so I’m able to participate in it as a pleasing, almost meditative activity without a lot of extra baggage attached to it. And thus, it’s a way to satisfy my need for creative exploration and expression without antagonizing my internal perfectionist demons too much.

If anything, I’m almost proud of the lack of perfection in my drawings. As much as I appreciate the awesome power of a beautifully-rendered realistic drawing, I find myself more drawn to slightly lopsided, offbeat forms of illustration. These days I’m particularly tickled by the creations of Allie Brosh (Hyperbole and a Half), Rubyetc, and Matthew Inman (The Oatmeal), who all manage to capture complex absurdity with deceptively simple-looking drawings. That is the kind of work that really excites and inspires me, more so than the still lifes I’ve been painstakingly working on in my night drawing class (though that has value, certainly… Multiple values, if done right, right??).

This morning’s offering is a gloriously imperfect rendering of a three-year-old basset hound/lab mix named Duke, who my boyfriend and I are seriously considering adopting:

I admit my version of him doesn’t do him justice, but I found the process of trying to bring him to life in my notebook satisfying all the same. There’s no agenda in the drawing, no expectation of greatness. It’s just an exercise and a way to keep my mind busy.

(We’ve already decided, by the way, that if we get this dog we’re going to make his full name Duke Silver, after Ron Swanson’s sax-playing jazz god alter ego from Parks and Recreation. So there’s that.)

I realize this is an awful lot of words for someone claiming words have escaped her, but I am nothing if not a walking (typing?) contradiction. Still, I’m likely to be spamming the internet with more and more doodles of varying quality and subject matter, so all I ask is that you be prepared. There’s a lot of weird stuff in my head waiting to come out. Just like this sketch I did from a stock photo of a panda climbing out a window:

 
Just like that.

Incidental Lessons

Even though it’s only been about a week, and I’ve only taken a couple of my new classes so far, I’ve already learned a few things, mostly unrelated to the actual course material:

  1. I have a terrible habit of comparing myself to people.

    I’ve never been an outwardly competitive person, never one to do extra credit or work extra hard to get a leg up on everyone else. Even so, I admit I have this innate desire to be better than EVERYONE at EVERYTHING. In school I was frequently singled out for my work or seated comfortably at the top of the class, and I had attention lobbed at me even though I didn’t go out of my way to attract it. Needless to say, though I hate to admit it and would never declare it outright, I got a bit of a swelled head from this constant recognition, and even came to expect it despite my not working particularly hard for it. So it’s humbling and somewhat frustrating, for instance, to take a drawing class and realize I’m not actually great at nuanced, realistic drawing, and even worse, other people are better than me at it! GASP! HEAVEN FORBID! I’d like to think of myself as a more gracious, less petty person, but the truth is when I am not the star pupil I get a bit of a knot in my stomach, courtesy of a little green-eyed monster with, I imagine, a bad haircut and bad breath. Not good, lady. Stop it. Jealousy and self-importance do not become you!
    Not my best work…
  2. Everyone reminds me of someone (and this probably means I watch too much TV).
    In both of these classes, I’ve had such a sense of deja vu with some of my fellow students, I have to stop and consider that I may be in a weird time warp, or the Matrix: Ah, I know who this woman looks like! She’s Ron Swanson’s girlfriend, how bizarre! Or I’m sure I’ve seen her somewhere else. Did we go to school together? Maybe she works in town somewhere? Or THIS LADY LOOKS LIKE A PIXAR CHARACTER AND OH MY GOD I CAN’T STOP STARING AT HER WHY IS SHE A LIVING CARTOON I NEED TO DRAW HER IMMEDIATELY. It’s freaking me out.
    This does not accurately capture her cartoonishness, and it’s driving me nuts!
  3. Classroom shyness doesn’t go away with age.
    In school, I always used to get embarrassed on behalf of teachers when they asked a question and were met with blank-faced silence from the students. Sometimes those silences would go on for so long, the discomfort in the room became almost a separate entity: a nervous, throat-clearing little creature scuttling around the room with its eyes darting, waiting to be put out of its misery. Of course, even when I knew the answer to the question I wouldn’t come to anyone’s rescue; I was too shy, and not a hand-raiser. Fast-forward a decade later, and guess what? I’m still not a hand-raiser. Despite being a generally more confident human being, that old habit of staying quiet hasn’t died, and apparently that’s not just true for me. Sure, there are always the few people who will talk and talk at any given opportunity, but the majority of students–dare I say, a silent majority–are like me, and let those awkward silences build and stretch out until they are nearly intolerable. Somehow, this is both slightly unnerving and slightly comforting to me.
  4. No matter how worthwhile an experience is, if the drive to get there and back is even remotely challenging, I will kind of, sort of hate it.
    This is pretty self-explanatory. I hate driving, particularly at night, or in heavy traffic, or on complicated routes my spatially-challenged brain can’t remember. Even if I’ve had a great time in a class or at an event, if I spend the whole drive home white-knuckled with my teeth gritted, forget it. Bad mood and crippling anxiety for the rest of the night! (This is legitimately one of the reasons I don’t do a lot of things that are more than a few miles away from home. I can’t express strongly enough how much I hate driving. Blech. Uck. Nope! Please to be stopping now.)

These are all incidental lessons, obviously, and I am indeed learning some actual new skills at the same time. While I hate the commuting, and fighting the inertia to get up and go out after a full day of work, I’m still glad to be taking the initiative and giving my brain some new experiences to chew on. When the brain is stretched and dragged out of its comfort zone, that can only be a good thing. So here’s to continuing the stretch! Except not tonight. Tonight I’m going home and lying down on the couch like a slug because it’s Friday and I can. So there. Yes.

September Stepping Out

One of the nice features of the new apartment is the deck, which by some stroke of luck doesn’t look out onto a parking lot, or the dumpsters, or someone else’s apartment, but onto trees. Trees that, for the moment, are still mercifully green (to match the fake ferns the boyfriend picked up with great pride at a friend’s yard sale).

Soon enough, though, the green will fade and all those real leaves will fall and we will be left looking at bare gray branches and the apartments beyond them. So I have to drink in the opportunity to be outside, in the sunlight, with the greenery and relative warmth, while I still can. The apartment has giant windows that cheerfully let in the outside world, which is a delightful feature, but I anticipate they will let the chill air in just as cheerfully when the weather starts to turn.

I wouldn’t say I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, just that I am a warm weather junkie and the end of summer is always a downer, which I make worse for myself by dwelling on it (like this!) when it’s still ninety degrees outside. It’s something I have to work on, the constant lamenting of the change of seasons, as if it were something unexpected and not something that happened every damn year. If I’m not careful I’ll become one of those tedious people who only ever talks about the weather. (A neighbor greeted us this weekend with, “Hot enough for ya??” and I felt a twinge of embarrassment for hearing the phrase uttered so unironically. To be fair, though, it was hot enough for me.)

Tomorrow I begin a drawing class. I’m doing it both to distract myself from this inevitable descent into darkness, and because I’m in a social and creative rut. There is a distinct lack of activity in my life, and prolonged idleness, I have found, is not the best creative fuel. So I am going to put myself in a room with strangers for a couple hours a week and relearn how to draw, in hopes the experience sparks something new. Strangely, though I have always been an avid doodler, and in the past entertained the idea of being a graphic designer or illustrator, I’ve only taken one actual drawing class. It was in high school, and while there was a kind of peace in dutifully filling my sketchbook, I didn’t enjoy the class much. Now, perhaps, is an opportunity to try again, with fresh eyes and without the pressure of being graded.

Next week I also start an ASL class, though my reasons for taking it are less clear, beyond sheer curiosity and a more-than-passing interest in language. It’s been nine years since I sat down in a classroom setting, and I’ve never taken a class that wasn’t for credit of some kind, so I don’t know what to expect. Do I still know how to be a student? Will I be the youngest person in the room? The oldest? Do I still have the patience and the drive to learn new things in a structured setting? Should I eat dinner at home first? (Food considerations are always the most important.)

I’m entering into a lot of unknowns, but there are much scarier, riskier things I could be doing to add interest to my life. For now I’m just splashing around in the kiddie pool, getting out of my stagnant routine for a bit. With any luck, these classes will help drive me to create and learn further, and this will only be the beginning of a series of new experiences. And if I’m really lucky, I’ll be able to forget that we are slowly but surely being consumed by the cold, gray void of winter.

For a few hours a week, anyway. I just want to forget…for a few hours a week…please…

Wake-up Call

Yesterday morning, head still foggy with sleep, I went to wash my hands in the company bathroom, and as soon as the water started running, a giant spider, big as the width of my (admittedly tiny) palm, skittered out at me, causing a mild cardiac event.

After staring at it for a moment, perched defiantly on the side of the sink, I determined it had claimed that space as its own. Not one for violent confrontations, especially before nine a.m., I nodded to it and slid over to the other sink. ‘If you don’t bother me, I won’t bother you,’ I thought, as that has been my lifelong philosophy towards insects and arachnids of all kinds. ‘There is plenty of space here for the both of us,’ I thought, and put my hands under the faucet.

Immediately upon turning on the water, a moth flew out of the second sink into my face.

I was not pleased.

It’s times like these I am humbly reminded that, given the chance, nature will DESTROY and CONSUME us, until IT is ALL. Forget the robot apocalypse! The victors at the end of the world will be the little critters we blithely swat at. When the time is right and we are at our most vulnerable, they will creep up on us like a person with a rolled-up newspaper and take us DOWN.

Serves us right, I guess.

Until that happens, though…good one, guys. Way to prank me into alertness. I bow to your superior strategic thinking and many, many limbs.

(Jerks.)

Blank Walls

It’s been a couple weeks now since I moved out of my charming one-bedroom apartment—the one with the eroding stone wall and the upstairs neighbor who vacuumed at least four times a week, usually at ten o’clock at night—into a two-bedroom that I now share with my boyfriend. Moving weekend was brutal, as we chose the hottest weekend in twenty years to haul all of our belongings up and down stairs all day, but the pain of that experience is now a distant memory, and the bruises I incurred are at least 70% faded. Of course, they have since been replaced by other mysterious bruises, but that’s just how my anemic, olive-skinned self rolls. It is not uncommon for me to look like I’ve recently been in a fight with something about as tall as my shins, like an angry goose, or a fire hydrant.

It’s been a few years since I lived with anyone else, so there is an extra level of adjustment in this relocation, a constant checking of the more self-centered habits I’d gotten used to indulging in when I lived alone. Despite that, and despite the fact that I’ve never lived with a significant other before, so far things have been…comfortable. As anticipated, the change of setting has been simple enough for me to adapt to, and I’ve fallen easily into my new routine, which includes a seven-minute commute to work and, so far, no need to adjust my sleep schedule to accommodate my neighbors’ obsessive housekeeping. So far, so good.

Buffy posterIf there has been any source of angst in this move, it has been in the fact that I am aggressively no-frills in my home decor aesthetic. For a long time I’ve had a strong aversion to the collection of crap. If something isn’t immediately useful, I don’t want to waste my time or money on it. As a result, for the entire first year I lived in my previous apartment, I hung up perhaps one picture, leaving the rest of the walls bleak and bare. For a long time I didn’t even have a bookshelf, leaving my books stacked up in piles on the floor.

My significant other belongs to the “more is more” camp, and gets more satisfaction out of the art of interior design than I ever will. Thus, I now find myself in a position where, to be equally represented on the walls and shelves of this new apartment, I need to grit my teeth and invest in more art and *dramatic music* tchotchkes.

It seems like such a silly thing to be angsty about. There are certainly worse things to spend your money on. Like drugs. Pyramid schemes. Crocs. That burger where the buns are replaced with fried chicken. As someone who presumably appreciates art and has a reasonably developed aesthetic sensibility, you would think I’d be thrilled at the opportunity to decorate my space with objects and images that inspire and delight me. Somehow, though, my frugality and laziness merge with a latent sense of utilitarianism, and the end result is bare apartment walls and an office at work completely devoid of personal items. If I had a nickel for every time someone walked into my office and said, “You should put up some pictures in here!” I’d have…well, at least enough to feed the parking meter.

So to fight against this tendency towards sparseness, I’m keeping my eyes open and thinking about the things that, while not useful in the strictest sense, still serve a purpose in the memories they evoke or the feelings they inspire. I find it all too easy to get caught up in asking what the point of things are, asking why I do the things I do, and sucking any potential joy out of experiences in the process. I still think it’s wise not to spend time and money recklessly on things that have no positive value, but at the same time I have to remind myself that it’s possible to simply enjoy and appreciate things and experiences for what they are, whether or not they have an immediately apparent utility.

The new apartment is a lovely, comfortable, quiet place, and I think we will get along just fine here. In the meantime, though, I need me some more art! STAT! (Or, you know, whenever I get around to it.)