Under Fire

Me: What on earth–
Phil: DON’T ASK.
Willard: *grooooooan*
Me: Does this have anything to do with the little plastic crossbow–
Phil: I SAID DON’T ASK.
Me: But–
Phil: I’M JUST GONNA SAY, THERE’S SOMEONE GONNA GET HURT.
Me: *picks Willard up, gingerly* Oh dear. Are you hurt, sweetheart?
Willard: *mumbles incoherently*
Phil: *pops pebble in Willard’s mouth* YOU NEVER CALL ME SWEETHEART.
Me: You’re not helpless.
Phil: DAMN STRAIGHT. STAY INSIDE FOR A WHILE, OKAY?
Me: You know I can’t.
*whooshing sound*
Phil: WOMAN, GET INSIDE.
Me: *eyeing the tiny plastic crossbow bolt buried in beauty bark at Willard’s feet* This is…exotic. And you’re sexist.
Phil: *vanishes*
*a long yodel floats from the roof*
Willard: *moans around pebble*
Me: *trying to look everywhere at once* Oh, hell.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Doubt Merely Looms

Barn Owl
© Donfink | Dreamstime Stock Photos
I’m not sure who I’d be if I stopped writing (other than a corpse), but I wonder sometimes if it would stop the periodic bouts of crippling self-doubt.

I’m not talking the lo-fi “maybe I should be a plumber instead,” or even the grinding envy when you read something achingly brilliant someone else has written. No, those are all normal, and well within tolerances. I’m not talking ennui, or procrastination, or even garden variety low self-worth.

I’m talking about a bleak black hole that rivals clinical depression in its will-sapping, crushing, even-just-breathing-is-an-effort numbness. I differentiate between the two because meds beat back the depression and hold the anxiety at bay, but do shit-all for the doubt.

No, I’m not there yet, but it’s close. Some days I feel it hovering. I’m sure the current on-fire state of the world isn’t helping. Empathy is critical to writing, but it can turn into a handicap really quickly.

The bigger thing is, of course, I finished a book that was huge, complex, better than anything I’d ever done before…and it’s having a difficult, tortuous slog through the publication process. It’s the kind of experience that, if I were a newbie writer, might put me off publishing altogether. It’s like being stabbed repeatedly, pulling the knife out only to have another go in, slow or fast, doesn’t matter. A perfect storm of “whatever can go wrong, will” has crashed into my life, and upended a lot of plans.

I had meant to get some more of the Angelov Wolves written, especially Misha’s book, which I really like. Unfortunately, limited bandwidth means I’m on still on the zero of Roadtrip Z’s third season, eking out only a few words each day, pushing against an elastic, resisting barrier. It’s all I can do to keep going with the serial, and I keep glancing up at the master to-do list and feeling like crying. I have taken to closing the office door, just so I can sit and stare, the engines of story working right below conscious thought, grinding slow but exceeding fine.

The only way out is through, I guess. Punching and jabbing and fending off the hovering black hole, telling myself that even two hundred words a day is two hundred more than I had before, and that with significant portions of my emotional energy taken up with healing after the latest round of oh-my-dear-gods-you-have-got-to-be-fucking-kidding-me-they-want-WHAT it’s good enough. The dogs help, of course, since as long as their bellies are full and walkies and snuggles are handy, it’s all good. And the kids are older now, so I don’t have to put on much of a brave facade. They understand when I’ve had a shit day it’s not them, and I can bitch about work at the dinner table a little and get some commiseration.

There’s coffee, and the weather changing, too. Rain is due this Sunday, and that means productivity. At least the worst is behind me, when it comes to this particular publication process. I don’t ever have to go through that particular experience again. It’s a good thing I’ve got years of accumulated experience in this career, so something like this doesn’t put me off that aspect of it completely.

But oh, my dear sweet fluffy bonnet, I need time to recover. The more I try to push, the more damage I’ll do and the longer healing will take. And thank goodness for the meds, since my brain chemistry, already having tried to kill me several times, does not need the provocation of the Gigantic Black Hole of Doubt.

After lunch–spicy, spicy noodles, plenty of curry paste and some Bangkok Blend–I’m going to take down my master to-do list, and make a new one with only three things on it, one of which I’ve already done. Narrowing one’s scope and focusing on details can push away the looming monster.

As long as it merely looms, and doesn’t settle on the roof entirely, I can get through. All this stubbornness has to be good for something. Also, Odd trundles has just settled to lick at my ankles, which means it’s time to get up and make that lunch.

Over and (damply) out.

Labour Day Run

A 12km run while uncaffeinated is not quite my favorite thing. Still, I wanted to get my long run for the week out of the way, and what better time than Labour Day? Yeah, sure, the smoke from the wildfires has turned the sun orange, but that means I’ll run better in the shade. I’m not a Spartan, but the principle holds. I turned in a respectable 7:45min per km, too. It may not sound much, but my long-run pace has hovered near 8min for a while, and it’s nice to see it coming down with no change in perceived effort. I guess the tempo runs have been paying off.

Tempo runs are still awful and hateful, though.

I did get out the door early enough that the heat wasn’t awful yet. The problem is, if I caffeinate before a run, I have to wait for the life-giving elixir to settle before I go and shake myself like a champagne bottle in a music video. I dislike throwing up, I hate it when my stomach evicts breakfast while I’m running, and I absolutely cannot stand wasting coffee. There were a lot of people out getting their daily exercise before it gets truly unlivable, and plenty of dogs. Miss B would have enjoyed that, if I would ever let her do more than 5km with me. Six is the absolute limit. She’s still bouncy, but getting older means her endurance is dropping, poor thing. I am in constant fear of pushing her poor little doggie heart too hard.

But now I’m home, a cold shower has been had, and that first glorious sip of coffee has slid down my throat. Now I’m waiting for the real jolt to hit, but that first small taste is the most pleasant part of most mornings. The rest of the day is for working on the zero of Roadtrip Z‘s Season 3. I had to write an awful scene involving a bigot last week, and it was dreadfully hard. Now I have the skeleton and can trim and pack it, but the main challenge will be not looking away from how horrid people can be. It doesn’t even take a zombie apocalypse for most people; as long as they don’t perceive a social cost to being an asshole. That’s part of why calling out bigotry is so important.

Anyway, there’s a big zombie attack coming up, and Lee’s going to have to make some decisions. Plus, I might have to give the librarian a cricket bat for up-close zombie fighting. She’s not too keen on a Louisville Slugger, for some reason. I mean, you can fight off a zombie with a golf club if you have to, you use whatever tool is to hand in an apocalypse, but she really, really wants a cricket bat.

I don’t know about these people in my head. They seem a little strange.

Enjoy your Labour Day, everyone.

*wanders away to make more coffee*

Chewable Air

This morning’s 7km run was a beauty, except for one thing: the air quality. Apparently the haze that makes the light so deliciously golden is a way of getting all one’s minerals in one’s breath, so I ran most of the last half with deep drilling pain in both lungs. I’m sure I’ll be coughing up chunks of interesting colors later in the day. At least at home, with the windows closed and the ionizers going, it’s a little less thick.

And, strangely enough, the haze made each band of smell on my route more intense. Fabric softener, a few small nasty threads of bloating roadkill, honeysuckle, asphalt, jasmine, roses, passers-by and their cologne, dogs with their dry-oily notes, cut grass, warm earth. My sensory map of the neighborhood is undergoing constant revision, probably because the utility work is bringing up a bunch of weird smells from underground and every time I pass a work site I get a blast of diesel and sweat. You could probably plonk me down anywhere in a mile radius with a blindfold on and I’d know where I was by scent alone. You’d think all the crap in the air would deaden my nose, but it just makes my chest tighten up.

At least I have some post-lunch coffee to get me through the afternoon. I intend on getting the last half of Roadtrip Z’s Season 2 revised today, after I get the Patreon episodes scheduled. *cracks knuckles* After that my focus shifts to the zero of Season 3, where the dominos start falling and people–well, more people, at least–start dying. I have all the dominos arranged and I know what happens, with only a few gaps in my understanding for the series to surprise me.

Once the Season 3 zero is in the can, I’ll think about if I want to finish it as a serial. It would be nice to bring it full-circle, but we’ll see if people are still interested at that point.

So today is all about grinding, slow, picky, detail-oriented work. It’s for the best, what with the Little Prince starting school this week, I’m already in a take-care-of-details mode. Once he’s settled nicely in the school rhythm, I can have whole chunks of the day back for the fierce, one-pointed concentration necessary to keep all the moving parts in this story working together instead of zooming off in different directions.

Well, onward, I guess. Excelsior, and all that.

Protecting Your Work, Part I

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “protecting the work.”

I ran across the concept years ago, in this essay by Jennifer Crusie. Much like my beloved writing partner’s “it makes me tired,” it’s a phrase I absorbed and had to spend a long time learning to apply.

I’m slow, yes, but I can be taught. Just ask said writing partner.

I ran up against a wall last week. A high creative spike collided with some…unfortunate news. The energy I’d been using to create a new world from scratch evaporated into Dealing With Bullshit, and I ended up drained to transparency, my nerves raw exposed sparking wires and my fists aching for the heavy bag I still haven’t had the time to hang up. (Even though we’ve been in this house for *mumblemumble* years now.) I knew the signs–I’d hit burnout, and in a big way. Self-care was called for, so I took the weekend off, read a few books, hung out with the kids, brushed the dogs, did housework, and only wrote 200 words each day. *sigh*

What do you do when burnout is a real and looming problem? Here’s a few strategies.

* Admit there’s a problem. It sounds stupid-simple, right? I always think of my therapist introducing me to the transtheoretical model of change–specifically, the precontemplation part, where you begin to think about thinking about changing. A possibility one does not admit is a possibility lying fallow. Admitting to yourself that your work has value, your energy is finite, and you are worth conserving some of said energy to spend on what you want and like doesn’t sound like a big deal, but without it there’s a snowball’s chance in a forest fire you’ll be able to protect yourself. Protecting yourself is part of protecting your work.

* Small wins. I can tell when I have enough energy, because I can look at the master to-do list taped above my desktop and feel excited instead of crushed under a heavy load of pointlessness. When the latter happens, I flip the list so I can’t see it and say out loud, “I need a win.” Which is my verbal signal to start looking for something easy and quick that I can feel good about. Like setting a kitchen timer for five minutes and writing. When the timer rings, I feel good because I did at least that. Or I do three pushups–just three. That’s a small win. There are a couple games I keep on easy mode for when I need the dopamine jolt of a quick victory. Cooking an egg. Pulling a few weeds. The whole point is to take five minutes and do something that gives you a tangible “win,” no matter how small. Stack a few of those little wins together, and somehow the rest of the day’s work doesn’t feel as daunting.

* Retract. I call this one “going into my cave.” There is absolutely no shame in curling up under a blanket for a little while. There’s nothing wrong with knowing your own creative process requires you to put an edit letter in a drawer for a week before getting to work on it. You are not required to be on social media when you don’t want to deal with harassment, or when you’re tired, or when you just plain don’t want to be there. Give yourself concrete and definite withdrawal time; build it into your schedule just as you build in commute time for work or appointments. Note: if you’re worried about becoming isolated, that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax, which is why I say “definite time.” You can always add a few minutes/hours to a scheduled retraction, or decide to re-engage with the world early if you’re feeling super good.

* Clean. Or don’t clean. Housework (or yard work, or any other small chores involved with living) can be therapy. It can also be procrastination, or a “not-good-enough” stick to beat yourself with. Sundays are generally full-family “cleaning days” here at Chez Saintcrow, with the kids and I doing several 20/10s to make our living space reasonable for the next week. I love the 20/10s so much–it’s a version of giving myself a small win. When I’ve finished a zero draft and the flywheel inside my head is trying to slow down, cleaning gives me enough moving around and tangible progress to provide a little relief. Sometimes, when stuck in a scene, I’ll wash dishes or fold laundry until it resolves itself. Chores can be a help to creativity. On the other hand, they can be total procrastination, or you can get overwhelmed and slide down a long slope of “I should be tidier” straight into “fucking depressed because my living space isn’t surgically neat.” In that case, you can use a 20/10 to break out of that despondency and show yourself tangible progress, or you can repeat after me: “Can I get to the exit if there’s a fire? Yes? Good, I’m not going to worry about that right now.” Give yourself permission not to feel like crap over housework.

* Bitch. I’m serious. If you have a trusted friend you can bitch to, great. Set aside some time for a rant session. (Make sure you’re not simply unloading on your poor friend. Have definite time limits for the session, and negotiate beforehand so your friend knows they don’t have to fix it, just listen.) If you don’t have that trusted friend, or don’t want to “bother” them, set a pillow in a chair and rant out loud to it for a specific amount of time. DON’T rant on the internet, anonymously or not–on that route lies shit-stirring, don’t give jerkwads a chance to bite you. DON’T yell at your pets, kids, or houseplants. I like the pillow-in-the-chair because it’s difficult for me to anthropomorphize a pillow. (I tried ranting at a sockmonkey once, and ended up apologizing to it for hurting his feelings.) Don’t ever underestimate the power of a good bitch session for letting off internal pressure and freeing up a ton of energy that can go into your work once you’ve finished complaining. Sometimes, trembling on the edge of burnout, I’ve spent as much as twenty minutes ranting, getting as petty and vicious as I want to be…and, at the end of the session, I feel so much better it’s not even funny, and I go back to work with a tranquil smile.

Dealing effectively with burnout is only part of protecting your work. Tomorrow, I’m going to write about another part–being your own bodyguard.

Canary Shed Finale

So, when last we spoke, dear Readers, I was crouched inside my shed while a squirrel danced on the roof.

Our shed has its idiosyncrasies, just like the house. I think part of the reason I fell in love with this place was that it seemed just as weird as our little family. (That, and the air-conditioning.) One of those little fiddles, as I mentioned, is the fact that the shed door will not close when the damn thing is unoccupied, but it will slam shut in a hurry if someone’s fool enough to pause inside. (Don’t tell me “it’s the floor.” That fucker is on a concrete slab.)

So the door, which had hit a hummock and shaken the entire structure, began to rebound, and I realized that soon I was going to be in the dark with a squirrel on the roof and dear God, how do I get myself into these sorts of situations?

Sheer genius, I guess. Anyway. True to form, the shed door began swinging closed. But what was this?

Oh, my dear Reader, I’ll tell you what it was.

Silence. Deathly silence, except for Emphysema Joe getting warmed up on a string of obscenities breathtaking in scope, style, and sheer vitriol. (I gather some of the roof detritus had slid off the roof and onto his poor wee head.)

Now, things happen very quickly after this. Bear with me.

Picture Your Humble Narrator crouching in close quarters, mildly surprised that she fits next to the lawnmower and far too close for comfort to the rake-and-catcher duo used to scoop up the dogs’ daily peristaltic offerings. Overhead are the rafters, full of implements which might be of use–cultivator, two business-sized shovels, pitchfork, you get the idea. There’s also the compost turner and the rake on the back wall, but getting there requires balletic contortions and for reasons that will soon become obvious, time was of the essence.

Now, as the silence deepens and the door begins to swing shut, imagine the gloom of the shed growing deeper, and imagine my face changing as I hear a skitter-stomp overhead. It may be dark inside there, but there’s nothing wrong with my ears, and said ears are busily triangulating the location of an arboreal rodent on the other side of far-too-thin sheet metal.

Skitter-stomp. Skitter-stomp. Skitterskitterskitter.

STOMP.

The door, suddenly weighted on its top edge with however-many-ounces of flying rodent, swung wide again.

Because you see, my dear Reader, Canary!Squirl had only vaguely remarked my presence, but she sure as shit noticed the door, and its top must have borne a striking resemblance to a moving branch she could use to catapult herself to some precarious safety elsewhere. Now, I’m sure a squirrel knows a lot about branches, and even more about leaves, and all there is to know about pinecones. I remain, and will definitely continue to my dying day, firmly convinced that no squirrel, no matter how intelligent, grasps the concept of hinges.

I can only surmise the door, momentarily confused by Schrodinger’s Tree-Rat being neither inside nor outside the shed, couldn’t decide what the fuck. Canary!Squirl’s application of force sent it careening outward at high speed, while she clung to the top. But then, well…remember that hummock? The one that charitably stops the door each time it’s flung wide?

Yeah.

Well, the door hit that collection of dirt, castoff cedar fingernails, pebbles, and what-have-you. And, confused even more by my presence inside the shed, the urge to close, the urge to continue on its outward way as kinetic energy demanded but the hummock halted, and Canary!Squirl’s sudden, hellish, and extremely loud scream, it opted for closing.

With a vengeance.

While I may not be blessed with much in the way of youth anymore, dear Reader, I do still retain some excellent reflexes. One of them is the quick darting motion of the hand for anything nearby that can serve as a weapon when my hindbrain decides enough is enough and there’s self-defense to be done.

I’ve told you about the rafters, and about the back wall of the shed. But on the left side as you come in is a small occasional table, one I used for my laptop many ages ago when I was in a small-desk phase. It holds smaller things one uses in gardening, right near the shed door for easy access. Things like, oh, you know. Gloves. Small clippers. A bulb-dropper. Plastic plant identification tags. The prospect of being locked in the shed with a crazed, screeching, anarchist tree-rat was not pleasant, to say the least. The door was closing quickly, the darkness was rising, and I had to ride into battle, so to speak.

I gained my full hominid upright stature with a lunge that would have made my old ballet teacher proud, pivoting on the ball of my left foot, and my right hand flickered out, closing around a rubbery handle. Veteran Lili, the part of me that has endured many a bar fight, was not quite finished, though. I was armed, after a fashion, but the old battlemonger in the back of my head made a number of calculations, looked at the results, tossed them out, did a few sums she liked better, and sprang into action without pausing to ask the rest of me (especially my executive functions) for an opinion or even a quorum.

In short, my dear Reader, I saw the ass end of a scrabbling squirrel clinging to the shed door and approaching at high speed, right about head level. My right knee came up, my foot pistoned out, and I heard one of my ex-boyfriends saying, softly, don’t kick it, kick THROUGH it. (Now he was a LOT of fun. Only time I ever dated a Marine, though. Once was enough.)

For once, friends and neighbors, when faced with a squirrel, the gods were on my side. It was a beautiful fucking kick, even if I did almost fall over onto the lawnmower and the dogshit-gathering tools at its end.

BAM.

Me: JESUS CHRIST!
Emphysema Joe: –AND I’M GONNA DENUDE YOUR TAIL LIKE BRIGITTE BARDOT WITH A POPSICLE, YOU PUNK!
Canary!Squirl: SKREEEEEEEEEE!

The door, now thoroughly confused but still subject to physics, made a hollow cracking sound and retreated from my sudden application of foot. Like I said, I almost fell over, saved myself just in time, and regained my balance with a lurch. My shoe flew off for the second damn time that day.

And the squirrel? Well, she clung to the top of the door, and for the umpteenth time, the hummock served its ordained purpose of stopping said door.

The Canary Anarchist, bold and brave, flew.

Over the fence.

Between two cedars.

Through small branches.

Across the neighbor’s yard.

And landed on the neighbor’s nice new deck.

Still screaming.

And that, dear Readers, is how I ended up hobbling out of my shed at high speed, searching for my shoe for the second time that morning. It wasn’t until I finally found said shoe that I realized I was holding a weapon.

Canary!Squirl: FIGHT! FIGHT YOU ALL!
Emphysema Joe: COME BACK HERE! COME BACK AND TRY IT!
Miss B and Odd Trundles: *inside the house, hearing strange sounds through my open bedroom window* MUM? MUM WHERE ARE YOU? WE ARE ASCAIRT!
Me: …sonofabitch.

I decided discretion was by far the better proportion of valor and hightailed it across the yard, stopping only to grab a poor coffee mug, thankfully unbroken, I luckily encountered along the way. I made it into the house, shut the patio door, and the dogs scrabbled out of my bedroom and down the hall to greet me, since I had clearly been gone for YEARS and they had waited PATIENTLY and now I was BACK and they had to tell me how SCARED they were without me and how GLAD they were I was back.

And, my dearest, most faithful and constant readers, I realized I was still armed. Want me to tell you with what?

Are you sure?

Okay.

With a tiny, handheld gardening shovel.

With all the adrenaline going on I barely needed a second dose of coffee, Miss B had forgotten all about the squirrel atop the shed, and Emphysema Joe is still upset about the lavender. The shed door will probably never be the same. Odd Trundles, of course, just wanted to know if the little shovel was food, and if it was, if it was intended for his gaping maw. I did see Canary!Squirl later that day, when I went out to close the damn shed and put the shovel away…

But that’s (say it with me) another blog post. I’m gonna count this particular interaction as a win, even if I did lose my shoe. (Twice.)

Thus ends the Ballad of Canary Shed.