Sign up for my newsletter to receive news and updates!

Posts Tagged ‘personal’


I’ve lost my ability to concentrate.

I think a lot of us have. We live with countless electronic devices that are constantly demanding our attention, beeping alerts and notifications and even without that there’s a little niggling part of our minds that wonders if we have any new email or anybody has posted something to that forum or surely we ought to take a look at Twitter, don’t pay attention to that thing, pay attention to me. But only in bite-size doses, because there are a hundred other things you could be checking and probably should.

Even without that, we’ve got a society that encourages multi-tasking — despite the mounting pile of evidence that it isn’t good. Multi-tasking does not, contrary to what we’ve been told, make us more productive. It makes us less so, because we’re devoting less of our attention to each thing, and we pay a cognitive cost every time we switch our focus. And part of that cognitive cost is that not switching gets harder, even as it drains us.

(True fact: just now, my phone rang a soft little alert. It’s taking effort not to look and see what that was for.)

I can tell this is taking a toll on me because I can feel it in my work. Writing is not, in its ideal conditions, something you do for five minutes here and ten minutes there. It benefits from sustained attention, from getting myself into the state psychologists refer to as “flow,” where I stop thinking about the world around me and instead sink into the zone for an extended period of time. I can’t get there if I’m tabbing over to look at my email every time I pause to consider my next sentence, if I’m keeping a portion of my mind attached to the discussion I’m having on a forum or whatever and breaking away to update that. It’s an exaggeration to say I’ve lost my ability to concentrate . . . but I know it has declined, and substantially so.

That’s why I’m taking steps to fix it.

My steps are twofold, at least so far. The first is to get back to meditating: I got into the habit of doing that for a while in 2015 (true fact again: I made myself just drop some square brackets there and check the year after I finished typing this post, because I needed to check my email to find out which year it was, and that threatened to distract me from this), but I fell out of it after a while, and now I’m working to make it regular practice again. Meditation, mindfulness, learning to let go of all the little dancing monkey thoughts that want my attention NOW NOW NOW — that helps.

The other, weirdly, is to watch TV.

TV as a tool of concentration? Yes — when you put it in the context of what I was doing before. See, I’ve gotten into the bad habit of only really listening to TV, while I play solitaire or sudoku or something on my tablet. The result is that I only give the show maybe half my attention.

But when I started watching the Chinese drama Nirvana in Fire, the combination of subtitles + intricate politics meant I couldn’t get away with that. If I tried to focus on something else at the same time, glancing up to catch the subtitles as they skittered past, I wound up not even knowing who half the people were and what was going on. The only way to understand that show, let alone appreciate it, was to put things down and devote my full attention to the screen.

Subtitled shows are great for this, but I’m managing to extend that habit to English-language TV, as well. And you know what?

I’m enjoying it more.

And it’s getting easier to leave the tablet closed.

What other tricks do you all have for encouraging yourself to pay attention to one thing at a time? What helps you keep your ability to concentrate? I know some people shut down their internet connection entirely while writing, and there are lots of programs out there which exist to block other programs so you can work, but I’m also interested in the non-technological tricks — the things that are just about structuring your life in ways that help you focus.

Eyvind Earle (and Jumanji)

This weekend I went to an exhibit of art at the Walt Disney Family Museum up in the Presidio, on the art of Evyind Earle — a man most of you have probably never heard of (I hadn’t), but who did the backgrounds for the 1959 Sleeping Beauty. I had no idea what I would think of the rest of his art, but I figured, hey: if nothing else, I’ll get to see some of his work from that movie, which I knew was lovely.

The rest of his art is gorgeous.

He worked in a number of different media, ranging from black-and-white scratchboards to oils. As with so much physical art, reproductions don’t do it justice; the tiny images on that website don’t even do it a tiny fraction of a shred of a shadow of justice. His oils and serigraphs often use very intense color, coupled with a strong chiaroscuro effect, and he had a fascinating knack for combining clean, geometric shapes with fine detailing that makes some of the images almost seem to glitter in person. One of the signboards had a quote from when he was working on Sleeping Beauty that really summed up both his approach and why it appeals to me so immensely:

“I wanted stylized, simplified Gothic. Straight, tall, perpendicular lines like Gothic cathedrals . . . I used one-point perspective. I rearranged the bushes and trees in geometrical patterns. I made a medieval tapestry out of the surface wherever possible. All my foregrounds were tapestry designs of decorative weeds and flowers and grasses. And since it is obvious that the Gothic style and detail evolved from the Arabic influence acquired during the Crusades, I found it perfectly permissible to use all the wonderful patterns and details found in Persian miniatures. And since Persian miniatures had a lot in common with Chinese and Japanese art, I felt it was OK for me to inject quite a bit of Japanese art, especially in the close-up of leaves and overhanging branches.”

Mashing all those influences together explains the balance of simplicity and detail that runs through so much of his work, not just the material for Sleeping Beauty (which I liked, but wound up being eclipsed by his independent work, at least for me). We liked it so much that when we’d gone through the whole gallery, we went back to a few of the rooms just to look at our favorite paintings again — and then I went straight to the shop and dropped fifty dollars on an art book of his ouevre, because I wanted to be able to look at it again. I would have bought prints if they’d been selling any, apart from a couple of framed images priced at a thousand bucks apiece. I wish his estate was selling anything in the price range of normal mortals, but they don’t appear to be. (The guy at the museum shop admitted it was their mistake not to sell the concept art of Prince Philip facing off against Maleficent in sizes larger than schoolchild: how did they not realize that was a thing adults would throw money at???)

And then we had lunch followed by an exhibit at the De Young on Teotihuacan followed by Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle followed by dinner. It was a busy day. Jumanji was even better than I hoped it would be, and I have to give massive kudos to the big-name actors for channeling the mannerisms of their young counterparts; Jack Black in particular committed 110% to playing a self-absorbed teenage girl in the body of, well, Jack Black. Karen Gillan did an American accent well enough that I didn’t even think until after the movie about the fact that she’s not American, and I cannot imagine anyone other than the Rock in the lead role, because the number of actors who can pull off both the over-the-top machismo of a video game character named Dr. Smolder Bravestone and the neurotic twitchiness of a weedy teenaged nerd is fairly small. I recommend it to anybody who could use a few hours of laughing their ass off right now.

Radio semi-silence for a while

I’ll be having surgery on my wrist tomorrow, which means I won’t be typing large quantities for a little while — not sure how long. I’ve got a couple of posts scheduled already, but apart from that, I may be scarce around here until I’m able to use that hand again.

The Tale of Tiana, the Neurotic Stalker Cat

In the time since we’ve moved into our new house, I’ve seen a little black-and-white cat around a few times. Being a very cat-friendly person, of course I immediately set out to make friends with her — which wasn’t too hard; she’s skittish in the “can’t sit still” sense, but didn’t seem to be very afraid of people. According to her collar, her name is Tiana.

So yesterday evening I go into the backyard and see her at the far end. She makes an immediate beeline for me, which I take as a gratifying sign that Operation Befriend Tiana has been a rousing success. I pet her for a while, go fetch the thing I intended to fetch, pet her some more, and go inside. This last is a bit of an enterprise, because Tiana seems exceedingly curious about what’s in my house, and I have to time my escape so she won’t follow me in (my husband is allergic). But okay, that’s fine.

That was at 6 o’clock.

A little bit later, I notice she’s still hanging out at my back door, peering in through the blinds. This is a little odd, so I shut the blinds . . . which doesn’t shut out the sound of her meowing plaintively to be let in.

When I leave for the dojo at 7:15, she’s still out there.

I come home, have dinner, go downstairs — and at 10:30 she’s still out there, now up on the roof, behaving as if she’s not sure how to get down. My sister and I go out with a stepladder and try to lift her down, in case she’s stuck; she’s having none of it, roving back and forth with the same nonstop restlessness she’s been showing this whole time. We finally get her to jump down to the fence and then, with much encouragement, to the ground; her body language strongly implied she was nervous about making that last jump. But okay, cat off roof, mission accomplished. I go inside (she tries to follow me again), blinds shut, and do my best to ignore the cat yowling outside my door and literally scratching at it to be let in.

At 1:30 in the morning, SHE’S STILL THERE.

I read once that cats meow at the same frequency as a crying baby, which is probably an adaptation to make us want to take care of them. After three hours of Tiana outside my door, I believe it, because each tragic sound makes me feel like a terrible person. She’s got a collar and is well-fed and well-groomed enough that I don’t think she’s a stray, but this isn’t like her previous behavior, which makes me wonder if she’s gotten lost or been abandoned or something. So finally — after much debate with myself — I let her in, scoop her up and close her into the bathroom, with everything she might trash safely removed and food, water, a towel to sleep on, and some makeshift kitty litter.

Now, in the light of day it turned out that there were phone numbers on her collar, engraved so small that I when I looked the previous night I didn’t even realize they were numbers. So I called them and discovered she belongs to our neighbors a few doors down, and to make a long story short (too late), she isn’t lost or abandoned; she’s just Tiana, the Neurotic Stalker Cat. Her owner told me she was a feral adoptee, and has on one previous occasion decided that a person is her NEW BEST FRIEND and tried to move in — so her behavior, while odd, is not unprecedented. By bringing her inside, I’ve probably just encouraged her. But I couldn’t listen to that for hours on end, wondering if something was wrong, and not at least try to make her more comfortable. In the future . . . well, the last person she latched onto apparently resorted to squirting her with a water bottle to make her stop begging. It remains to be seen whether I’ll do the same. I love cats and am delighted to make friends with them, but having a crying-baby imitator outside my door gets really hard on the nerves.

The Urban Tarot

A while back the artist Robin Scott, a friend of mine, released a project called The Urban Tarot.

Box cover for The Urban Tarot by Robin Scott

I want to talk about how awesome this deck is — and I especially want to address those of you for whom the “tarot” part isn’t much of an attraction, but the “urban” part might be. Let’s start by quoting from Robin’s introduction in the guidebook:

Too often we are told that magic and wisdom belong only to the forgotten forests, the places untouched by human hands, and to ages long lost to memory.

I reject this idea. I look around my world, and I see the beauty, the wonder, the magic in the metropolis, the power under the pavement.

“The metropolis” there isn’t generic. It’s New York City, where Robin lives — and that’s exactly what draws me to the Urban Tarot. I’ve been meaning to make a post about the way urban fantasy has the potential to inscribe the landscape around you with an additional layer of meaning: it’s something I tried to do in the Changeling game I ran, and it showed up in the Onyx Court books, too, which were inspired by that game. The urban fantasy novels I like often do this kind of thing, not just taking place in Generica City or the Hollywood version of San Francisco or wherever, but making use of place on a more detailed, meaningful level. It isn’t just an urban fantasy thing — it isn’t even a new thing; Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places talks about the link between Western Apache folklore and the landscape around their communities — but it works especially well there because the world the story describes is ours, or at least closely adjacent enough to ours that we can feel the resonance.

The Urban Tarot does this beautifully. It ties the cards in with the landscape and the people and events of New York City — the public library, Coney Island, the Brooklyn Bridge during Hurricane Sandy — and it pushes back against the idea that cities aren’t magic, that the kind of meaning we read into the world around us back when that world was rural can’t be retained in the modern day. It rethinks the old archetypes of the tarot into a context you and I can recognize: the Empress is feeding a baby in a high chair, the Eight of Wands shows a cyclist delivering a pizza, the Prince of Swords is a hacker. Even if you don’t have any interest in the tarot as such, you could do worse than to feed your urban fantasy brain with these cards and their associated writeups.

Card image of The Princess of Swords, by Robin Scott

And the artwork is, in my opinion, gorgeous. Each card is built out of a kind of textural collage, abstracting the image without losing its recognizable form. I have the Princess of Swords (aka The Activist) on my wall. I liked the art enough that when I backed the Kickstarter, I chose to go for the level where I could model for one of the cards — no, I’m not telling you which; you’ll have to find out for yourself. 😉 Robin and I struck a deal wherein I wrote a piece of flash fiction for the guidebook, riffing off a location in the city she wasn’t able to work into the deck; that’s how much I wanted to support this project.

You can buy the Urban Tarot itself, or prints of any of the cards. I strongly encourage you all to at least go take a look, and appreciate what Robin has put together.

Why is this funny?

Mary Robinette Kowal recently had nasal surgery to correct a medical problem. Being who she is (a writer, and therefore professionally interested in just about everything under the sun), she’s been posting pictures of her recovery.

She also posted this.

Here’s the thing. Remember when I fell down the stairs? (It was just three days ago; surely you haven’t forgotten.) Afterward, several friends of ours made similar jokes, about my husband pushing me down the stairs.

Why is it that, any time we hear about or see a woman injured, our minds go immediately to domestic abuse?

And why is it funny?

As Mary says, part (maybe all) of the humor comes from the absurdity of the idea: my husband would never push me down the stairs; her husband would never hit her. Anybody who knows us knows this. But at the same time . . . is it really that absurd? How many instances are there of women being abused by their husbands, when all the friends and neighbors would never dream of him doing such a thing?

It isn’t funny, because it isn’t absurd. Not nearly as much as it should be. It’s reality for far too many women. And making jokes about it — that normalizes the idea. Used to be that you got cartoons about drunk driving, the bartender pouring his customer into his car when he’s had a few too many and waving him off homeward with a cheery grin. Because that was normal. You don’t see those cartoons anymore, do you? We don’t think it’s normal to drive when you’re sauced, and we don’t think it’s funny.

We need the same to be true of domestic abuse.

By all means, joke about me falling down the stairs. Remind me that I can’t fly. Say that however much I don’t want to carry boxes, I should stop at hurling them to the bottom, and not hurl myself with them. That’s fine by me; humor is a good way to deal with a really annoying and painful situation.

But don’t joke about my husband pushing me, or Mary’s husband hitting her.

Who knew you could buy sanity on Amazon?

So as many of you know, my husband had ankle surgery recently. He’s on crutches, putting no weight on the affected foot . . . for 8-10 weeks.

That’s a long time.

And while I can’t rightly compare my own difficulties to his, it’s going to be a long time for both of us. All of a sudden, I’m carrying most of the household on my own shoulders, because he can’t. Many tasks that I’m used to sharing with him (laundry, taking out the trash, etc) are now mine alone. Things that didn’t use to be tasks suddenly are: I have to be available when he goes to bed, because while it’s possible for him to drag his crutches and the pillow we’re using for his leg up the stairs as he slides up them — they’re too narrow for him to crutch up — it’s a pain in the neck, and much easier if I carry those for him. Some tasks that I would normally let slide for a little while now have to be kept 100% up-to-date; the ant infestation plaguing this entire city isn’t related to his surgery, but that doesn’t change the fact that I have to wash the dishes right away or risk finding a conga line of ants making their way across our kitchen to whatever I left out, and I have to keep the living room constantly tidy or he won’t be able to cross it safely on crutches.

But. My friends, I had a stroke of genius, and it already promises to do wonders for my sanity.

We’ve been making extensive use of stools and folding chairs in various places so he can kneel on them(1) while he showers or washes his hands or whatever. I found myself wondering whether it would help to put one of those in the kitchen, too — and then I thought, no. What we want in the kitchen is one of these.

It arrived this afternoon. Today, for the first time since his surgery, my husband scrubbed some dishes. He loaded the dishwasher and emptied it, too; he put dinner into the oven and took it out again. He can’t do everything; kneeling for too long is uncomfortable, and he has to be careful that it doesn’t roll out from under him and drop him into an unexpected split. But he can function. He can probably manage to bake some brownies if he wants to — and if you know my husband, you know how much that means to him.

And me? I was giddy with delight. The sheer fact of knowing that I don’t have to do everything kitchen-related is a relief all out of proportion to its actual size. Sure, I’m still facing another two months of having to carry his plate to him and then carry it back when he’s done, because you can’t really do that on crutches and the stool doesn’t transition well to carpet. But he can make his own sandwich for lunch without having to balance on one foot while he does it, even if I’m the one who carries it to the couch. He can wash dishes, which is a task that normally falls about 70-80% in his bailiwick instead of mine. He can prepare simple dinners. All of these are things I expected to have to do myself for weeks to come and now . . . now I know that he can help.

I’m well aware that the situation I have with him is business as usual for a lot of people. If you’re a single mother with a toddler, you’ve got to carry every bit as much weight, without the compensation of a charge who continually thanks you and can at least accomplish tasks that don’t require standing. And they don’t sell products on Amazon that will magically turn your toddler into more of a functioning adult. But if you ever find yourself dealing with a similar situation, remember the merits of a simple, flat-topped, caster-mounted stool. It can work wonders.

(1) Some of you will now be thinking of those kneeling scooters you’ve been seeing around lately. We rented one, but they don’t corner well at all, and our place is too small for him to easily navigate indoors on that thing. It’s useful only for when he leaves the house; the rest of the time, it’s crutches, which are far more maneuverable.

I would make a good seeing-eye dog

(Except for the part where my vision is terrible. And I’m not a dog.)

Some years ago, a friend of ours with a degenerative eye condition told us about the methods used to sort German Shepherd puppies for possible training. I don’t know whether this is how all facilities do it, but at that particular place, they would put a puppy in a room with various blanket and toys and so forth, and then leave them alone there for a while. Some dogs basically curl up in a corner and cry, and those will have a lovely future as someone’s pet. Some tear everything apart and pee all over it, and those are candidates to become police dogs. The potential seeing-eye dogs are the ones who investigate everything in the room, then sit down in a place where they can watch the door and wait.

My husband had ankle surgery today — I swear this is not a non sequitur — and it occurred to me that I am very much a much Dog Type Number Three. In the pre-op room, I wandered about reading every label on every box and drawer, peering at monitors, and generally investigating everything I could get at without touching stuff. When it came time for them to administer the nerve block, one of the nurses said that would be a good time for me to head out to the waiting room; I asked whether it would be a problem for me to stay and watch. The anesthesiologist said that would fine, so I sat in a chair and peered around him at the ultrasound screen while he stuck a needle in my husband’s leg. He even narrated what he was doing at one point, for my benefit!

. . . yeah, I’m a writer. If I can watch a thing, I probably will. Because who knows what I’ll need to know someday?

(In other news, my husband is home and doing fine, though that will probably change a bit when the nerve block wears off and he starts actually needing the happy pills they have prescribed for him.)

The Adventures of the Amazing Stick-Figure Woman

As those of you who have met me know, I am a small-boned woman, especially in my hands and wrists.

Well, I just spent a month with my left arm in a cast — not a broken bone, just tendonitis in my wrist, which the doctor hoped would go away with an injection and immobilization. (Fingers crossed that it works.) Today the cast came off, and . . . oof. My god, atrophy sets in fast.

I’m right-handed, so my left forearm was always going to be a bit smaller. But now? It’s nearly a full inch smaller. The pad at the base of my thumb is shriveled. My wrist proper hasn’t shrunk much, but that’s only because there really isn’t a lot of muscle in the wrist, just tendons and ligaments. The head of the ulna is pointy like a pointy thing, though.

At least my skin is in good shape. The cast was a special new kind, a framework of heat-molded plastic over a type of fabric that breathes well and wicks moisture away from the skin. Unlike a normal cast, you’re allowed to get this one wet. So at least I’m not shedding like a snake, and the cast doesn’t smell manky like they usually do.

Anyway, now begins the PT. Because I’d like to have something resembling grip strength again.

Credit where credit is due

Bad customer service is so common, I think it’s worth talking about the good stuff when it happens.

I lost the safety key for my Lifepsan treadmill, without which it will not function. Went to the website; had difficulty figuring out which version I needed, but eventually ordered one. It came. It was not the right version. So I looked on their site and found out that in order to return anything, you’ve got to email then and ask for a label to be sent — which makes sense when what you’re returning is an entire 100+ lb treadmill, but not so much for a little plastic key. I email, and in the meanwhile make plans to call them later that day and talk to a customer service rep to figure out which key I need, because it is seriously not clear from their website.

Before I can do that, however, I get a reply to my email. After a few messages back and forth, I learn that I do not need to send back the old key; they are shipping me a new (correct) one right away, at no charge.

So yay. That made an annoying situation much less annoying. They could still use to improve the process of figuring out which one you need . . . but in the meanwhile, my life has gotten much easier. Good on them.