Thursday, March 22, 2012

Woe Is Writer

If writing were this easy and painless, I'd have completed whole libraries by now...

I recently read an article about boosting self-confidence with the power of positive thinking.  

How original -- snide remark compliments of my inner critic.

When it's on break from beating me to a non-productive, quivering pulp, my inner critic often amuses itself with wonderfully cruel asides.  It should blog...  Funny thing, the article knew my inner critic well and said the reason it's swelled to the limits of my skull is because I'm a girl.

"Another perk of womanhood!  Yay!"
--said my inner-critic.  I'm calling her Unis.  (The rest of me had a bit of an f.u. reaction...)

The article claimed that's because little boys tend to be criticized way more than little girls.  What?  I have no idea why that would be the case, but let's say it is.  The article claims boys criticize and tease each other more openly than girls, and anecdotally-speaking that does seem to be the case.  And it feels true that girls grow and nurture a substantially stronger inner critic than boys.  Just look at public restroom behavior.  En masse, women don't tolerate gross bathrooms or slovenly bathroom habits.  Men do.  Within 10 minutes any male public restroom becomes a post-apocalyptic mire pit.  Which I don't get at all.  Anyway, the article said because they're more used to criticism being heaped upon them, boys learn early to shake it off, confront it, or ignore it.  Which is why some can miss a toilet or sign their names in pee and go right back to their day.  Men who don't behave that way--often just hold it until they get home, if they are so able.  On the other hand, girls perceive criticism often when it isn't even really there.  We experience it more acutely, and internalize it, making it part of our identities.  A slovenly bathroom reflects on us, and we will not have that. We'll demand intervention, call in a manager, complain, the most fringe of our sex may even attack the mess themselves!

I don't know if the article was accurate, but it felt and feels true.  At least as a description of me and Unis.  And the inner-critic theory also fits with the "practice makes perfect" model.  Most boys and men I've known do seem better at ignoring, compartmentalizing or confronting than I am, all skills I'd like to master, though not at the expense of decent public bathrooms.  And I do dread a regular regimen of high-fiber frustration and cardio-criticism just to build my confidence muscles.

"Embrace your anxieties."

Shut up, Unis.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Screw The Devil You Know

For the longest time, I feared a creative career would make me hate being creative.  I'd heard authors and artists complain bitterly about compromising their vision or bowing to market pressure or client whims, or having to spend all their time making only one kind of thing which limited their time to explore other kinds of things.  Selling creative product corrupted their joy.  

I was terrified of that.  Of losing art.  Losing the joy of creating.  It's very personal and satisfying and self-indulgent to tap the imagination.  A person can do lifetimes of living deep within. 

What would I do if art and language ceased to delight?  The very notion is unbearable.  I don't mean to be melodramatic about that, but it is.  Unbearable to lose that passion, that escape, that huge component of my identity.  And because I worried so much that a creative career would corrupt my enjoyment of it, I kept it to myself and working was only a means of supporting my creative habit.  Art was my fantastical plan C or E or Q.  It wasn't something you do for a living, it's what you do after you get home from doing what you do for a living.  Art is for evenings and weekends and to be set aside before the rigors of a real work day.  

I worked and I created and I didn't sleep much, and all the while I secretly hated myself for giving it up like that.  And I resented any intrusions into my creative "free time."  I harbored anger, I nurtured dread, and I fed my inner-critic to bursting.  But the Devil you know, right?  At least going without art most of the time spared me the possibility of going without forever.

I worked a wide variety of jobs, putting in sometimes twelve hour days just to race home clinging to whatever kernel of an idea I was attempting in the hope I could execute it before exhaustion set in.  Road Crew was among the more vivid as it involved scraping up road-kill, repairing guard rails, digging ditches, washing trucks, laying asphalt, applying hundreds upon hundreds of those little yellow reflectors...  It may sound strange, but clearing culverts and rotting street-meat remains one of my most favorite support-my-writing-habit jobs.  It was physical and demanding and my brain was my own most of my time.  I could re-direct traffic and still write in my head all day long.  I could be there, and not be there at the same time.  It was great.  On the other hand, that's also a recipe for getting run over.  Happily, I didn't.   

Now that I have children, I look back on "my youth" in awe of the vast quantities of "free time" I had at my disposal and wonder, "why didn't I do more [enter any fun or productive pass-time]?"  I didn't vacation, I didn't party, I didn't entertain friends much or tackle my increasingly long list of hobbies and activities I'd like to get to one of these days.  Instead, I hoarded and funneled what time I could into my real work, my life's work, my raison d'etre.  I learned, I wrote, I drew.  Effort and inspiration poured out of me in sporadic, undisciplined bursts, often stalling out or switching projects as energy came and went.  Then back to work to earn scratch enough to keep buying supplies, to keep dreaming.

I don't know exactly when I started to really care about including others in my dreams.  I know I did care, right from the start, but at some point it became an actual goal, sharing with others.  It wasn't enough to make something, I wanted that something to be seen and felt, I wanted to engage with others, to be heard and to listen.  Maybe I grew up a little.  I realized I'd sabotaged years of creative productivity by wasting years' worth of available productive hours on irrelevant labors and being afraid of losing something I couldn't actually separate from myself if I tried.  I'm an artist.  I'm a writer.  I can't not be, I don't know how.  Thanks to a collection of odd jobs, I do know how to do a ton of other things.  I console myself saying these experiences all feed the writing, they all inspire the art, but I'd rather have that time back.  If I had it, I'd probably write a better post.  

On the other hand, I don't know if I'd have thought of the cartoon...

Friday, March 9, 2012

Blue, Pink, Sith, Oh My!

The best thing about getting a new dishwasher (or any other large kitchen appliance) is it comes in a gigantic box.  As all fans of the Toy Hall of Fame know, there is not much better in life than a great big, unassigned box.  It is object, space, room, canvas, frame, vehicle -- a big box can be anything, and if your home is kid-infested, too, that opportunity should not be lost.

In our house, the box met several needs.  All kids love a hidey-hole to make their own, and you can't do better for that safety and convenience-wise than with a big cardboard box.  The world of tike-mites is rife with stickers (almost every event and activity ends with 'em!), and we needed a convenient sticker-repository to spare the rest of our things from sticker-mania.  And we needed a kid-friendly project to interest-up a couple afternoons.  Then the dishwasher broke and --  Hooray!  -- we got a great big box!

For us, it was a multi-day event.  After much discussion of what it should be, my daughters decided they wanted a house of their own, so one day was spent transforming the box with a little  peaked roof, windows and a door.  Looking back, the windows could have had working shutters and I should have better re-enforced the door, but all in all the construction went well.  Another day was in preparation of its decoration, and we shopped for supplies and colors.  My daughters are identical twins, so of course one picked blue paint and the other picked pink.  We set up outside for an afternoon of painting any way they wanted.  I didn't care how it looked (it's not my house, after all, it's theirs), I just wanted them to make it their own.  

Boy, did they, with a miss-mash of color and design, speckled with stickers outside, a whole nebula of stickers inside, spiraling out and layers deep.  It has been a space ship, a cave, a submarine, a castle, a "kitty cave," a workplace, a school, the store, the library...  I'd wager it's one of the the hardest working boxes in America.

But something happened in the painting process.  When you're little (and when you're big), there are never enough chances to do things any way you want, and sure enough a couple of our young neighbors upon spotting our free-for-all wanted to join in.  We made do with the brushes and paints so everyone got thoroughly coated.  My girls were excited to share and to show their neighbors what they'd done to make the house ready, including the paints they picked themselves.  Then the oldest girl commented:

"Blue?  That's a boy color."

I couldn't believe the statement.  I mean, yes, I could believe it.  I'm in preparation for a friend's baby shower, she's having a boy, and I'm shopping around for "boy-colored" things.  And now that my girls are in preschool, I understand better how hyper-aware little kids are to classification and distinction.  They take great pride (and seem to feel great relief) when they can correctly group or identify a dominant characteristic.  Currently, my daughters are very focused on finding socially acceptable occasions to express the phrase "p.u., stinky!"  For example, if you smell a strong smell, like garbage, it is perfectly reasonable to mark the observation with a "p.u., stinky!" as long as you make the remark about the thing and not, say, the person carting it to the dumpster.  And you can see their confidence soar when they correctly identify a smell and occasion that justifies saying without reprisal, "that's so stinky!"

My blue-loving daughter looked like the older girl had struck her in the face, and for a moment I resisted the impulse to return the favor (I am frequently alarmed by these semi-violent mommy impulses I get from time to time.  They're totally irrational, I've never acted on them, but if fantasy prepares you for real-world situations, I can say with confidence I'm so prepared to war for these tots of mine, it scares me.).  But seeing my daughters' startled shock, and even more out of a sense of duty to little girls everywhere, I could not let that comment stand.  It's one thing to theme a baby shower, it's quite another to restrict half the human race from a major chunk of the color spectrum.  

And maybe I'm particularly sensitive to this issue.  Okay, yes, I am.  I grew up with a wide range of interests that included everything my older brother did, often to his annoyance, and while my many interests were encouraged, they couldn't all be financed.  My brother got the toolbox, but I borrowed it until he relented years later and gave it to me.  I still have it.  I made dolls, I climbed trees, I built forts, I sewed dresses, and none of that made me more or less girl.  My boy-pals didn't invite me to their all-boy birthday parties, my girl-pals made fun of me if I wore bows or ribbons, and I got real familiar with the term tom-boy, which to this day I believe reveals a significantly retarded imagination in the speaker.  And I hate that "girlie" and "like a girl" remain commonly-used if mild insults, while "oh, boy!" connotes excitement and "man-up" courage.  Boys have plenty of junk heaped on them, too, but I wasn't gonna let some first-grader crush my toddlers first forays into self and independence.  Besides that, both my daughters' eyes are blue.  And they know it.  Something drastic had to be done.

"There's no such thing as boy colors or girl colors," I said.  "There are only colors." 

I know there are tons of examples, I guess beginning with baby showers on up, when specific colors are not only easy identifiers but appropriate go-to shorthands for sex distinction.  But in a wider context, color is just color.  In another, it's the absent frequency of reflected light, so the color we see is really the color we're not seeing, and after our brain does some simple math, we say, "well hello, yellow."  

That's as un-sexed as I can describe it.

I think I succeeded in sounding  firm yet encouraging.  At least no-one cried.  And the painting fun continued.  Irrational protective-mommy impulses aside, I don't ever want to tear any kid down to prop mine up.  It's destructive, doesn't really work, and this world needs as many whip-smart kids to grow up with psyches and feelings intact as possible.  Funny enough, to help make my point, I steered their conversation to "girl things" they knew that are blue (certain items, characters, princesses, etc.), applying one kind of gross stereotype to try to combat another--sounds stupid, and it was, but feelings--and my daughter's self-confidence--were preserved.

Whether they decide to be Sith or Jedi, so far my girls' light-sabers are pink and blue.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Power of Power

I grew up in a magical land called the foothills where snow came each year and knocked out the power.  (More accurately, snow came each year and invariably sent some yahoo-nin-cow-poop too dumb to stay home careening into a transformer-bearing power-pole, knocking out the power, but I digress...)  We lived with a well and well-pump, so no electricity also meant no running water, which meant no doing dishes, taking showers, or flushing toilets (more than once, because of course the tanks hold one flush).  It was like going back in time, except we initiated each low-tech term with board games by lantern light and polishing off any ice-cream in the freezer before it turned to soup.  In the hours or days that followed, we'd play in the snow and warm up by the wood-stove, read and talk, and let the sun set our bedtime.  I remember feeling particularly frontier-ish once, building a helicopter with nails and block wood, drawing details and a pilot with a ball point pen, making a low-tech toy "just like the early settlers did," I told my mom not at all ironically.  Yearly and from an early age, I experienced and learned to embrace this trans-formative event.

Lean years later, while still a grad student and living so close to the cuff our "nights" in the LA dim were accompanied by police helicopters and we actually took comfort when gunshots we heard were only single-shot, and not even a full clip, we learned the power's-out-fuse-box dance.  Strike up the microwave and the electric skillet simultaneously?  Shee-yeah!  What Bacchanalian madness is that?  But those bouts of darkness were typically short and fixed with a flip (albeit with some electrocution anxiety) of the fuse.  Neighborhood outages were surreal because suddenly everyone's loud music, basketball and video games went silent, and we'd all sit in hushed anticipation wondering which would pop up first, power, gunshots or sirens.  I never got in on the action, but I'm sure someone somewhere was taking a ton of bets.

So you'd think I'd have some perspective.  But, no.  Last week, whilst yon household was enjoying the throes of flu, fever, and vomit, our power went out.  And I felt actual panic!  Suddenly, nothing could charge, no cable could be viewed, because we've bundled everything, our hardline didn't work, and since we're so i-phonic around here, I don't even have a watch that keeps time!  I felt like a hiker whose compass suddenly starts spinning willy-nilly.  Aaaaaa!

With this most recent outage, the first thing I did was try to calm my preschoolers (who couldn't have cared less having already moved on to other toys).  Then I went outside to confirm the outage was more than our building and even crossed the street to address neighbors I'd never seen before to confirm -- YES! horror of horrors, theirs was out, too!  No one could turn on their lights!  And in a scant six hours when the sun went down, that might matter!  In pajamas and slippers, sniffling and snuffling, about to fall over from influenzic paralysis, I scuffled back inside to announce, with a distinct note of tragedy, the outage had crossed the street, and we were...

What, doomed?  I have no idea what I was afraid of because the TV was already on again (kiddos still unconcerned, having abandoned cartoons to be superhero princess pirate doctors in their room), and the clocks, laptops, kindles, cell phones, home phone...all was charging, functioning, whirring away.  And I have no idea why I felt so panicked, or why my first thoughts were of electronics and not on how best to maximize the perishables in the fridge.  Where have my survival skills gone?  Or is it that I've been so caught up swimming intellectual property waters I've forgotten that the rest of me is firmly anchored in the material here-and-now?
I'm not a wuss.  I come from serious stock with deep, dark roots.  I'm foothill-hardened and ghetto-tough.  I don't just know how to put them on, I've made snow-chains!  

I plead the flu.

Monday, March 5, 2012