Prepare yourself for SCIENCE

Last month at a party I was sitting in a pile of people I love and decided to have an impromptu “Ask a scientist” session. I answered a few questions (including “Why beards?” WHY?”), and proceeded to go off on tangents about DNA and cancer and evolution and development.

I’ve always had a brain like a sponge. That coupled with a very early innate desire to understand how everything around me works has filled my head with all kinds of random shit.*

I frequently make the mistake of assuming everyone around me already knows everything I know. It oftentimes makes me assume that everyone I meet is as equally in awe of everything around them as I am. I forget that’s not usually the case.

I forget that not everyone knows what a genome is or why it’s so fucking awesome that we’re super close to affordable sequencing for everyone.

I forget that not everyone is having the same argument about GMOs. My preferred discussions revolve around responsible business practices, the benefits and dangers of monoculture, and plant pathology. The main discourse, though, seems to revolve around a fundamental misunderstanding of how DNA and evolution works.

I forget that not everyone understands how their body works – how we go from a single cell to become the giant, thinking ecosystems we are today. And I forget that not everyone knows what cancer even is.

I could write a lot of essays about these sorts of things, and I think I’m going to because this shit makes me so fucking excited when I think about it in regards to the world, myself, other people, history, and the future.

My plan for a long time has been to fold all of the science in my head into the stories I write, but folks who’ve known me for a while know how not-prolific I am. And I’ve been wanting to find something to blog regularly about that’s not lists of life-updates or my feelings. This’ll work.

I’ll write my first post later this weekend. I’m gonna start small – fucking atomic small – and go from there.**

I’m hoping this’ll be most useful to all my writer friends out there because I know how hard it is right now to play catch up with science if you haven’t been steeping yourself in it for the past decade. We’re no longer in an era of massive discovery – we’re now in more of a refinement period (at least in biology) where we’re trying to build the tools and fill in the blanks in order to make sense of the gestalt of an organism, rather than the particulars of a single isolated cell. Computer science, engineering, and honestly FUCKING FUNDING DOLLARS, are the biggest choke points right now.

I hope we can get out there and show folks just how awesome all of this shit is, and, especially today, how fucking necessary it is to be science literate. It’s the only way we’re gonna be able to keep the discussions to relevant topics and make informed decisions. Because honestly, as a scientist, there’s a lot of fucking terrifying shit that’s looming if we don’t get it together to do something about the stuff we at least have some control over: antibiotic resistance, widespread famine, mass extinctions, climate change, etc.

But don’t take my word for it:

“We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.” – Carl Sagan

You in?***

*I don’t pretend to know everything. In fact, there’s a whole bunch of shit I don’t know anything about, but I’m always happy to learn.

**If anyone’s got a topic of particular interest (say for a story you’re working on), I’d be happy to cover it if I can.

***I’m mostly going to be sticking to topics I know pretty well to start: which is biology, chemistry, and some really basic physics at it relates to biology. Thankfully, this’ll cover a MASSIVE amount of territory.

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And now for you, I have nothing left

I said a thing today that I’ve been thinking about ever since it fell out of my mouth:

“I’m only afraid when things can be taken from me.”

The first thing that struck me when this pile of steaming self-help fell out of my mouth was that it felt like a true thing. The second thing that struck me was that it was so very much a lie.

jaws1

This is meant to symbolize the feeling of FUCK THAT SHIT

I’m afraid of lots of stuff: failure, the ocean, space, (to name a few). They’re valid things to fear and they can all take things from you. A fear of failure robs you of hope. The ocean* is full of blind and bloodthirsty terrors that would happily rob you of chunks of yourself. Space is full of so much nothing, it’ll make you pull yourself apart until you’re nothing too.

A decade ago I was pretty much afraid of everything, but I was particularly afraid of what was going to happen to me/what I was going to do to myself. Then I had an epiphany one afternoon while I was sitting in the loading dock behind the lab building smoking a cigarette:

Everything in my life that was bothering me had two aspects to it: things I had control over and things I didn’t.

The stuff I had control over I was already working on, and there was nothing I could do about the stuff I couldn’t control. So I let all the worry and anxiety about the latter shit go. I began to feel better for the first time in years.

What’s most fucked up, looking back on it now, is that I used to be afraid of everything I wanted to become. Every step I took towards becoming who I am today was fucking terrifying to take.

I don’t have to go to space, or into the ocean. I am getting better at being less afraid of people as well as failure. My emotional reaction to these things IS something I have control over – I can look at what I’m feeling, understand why I’m feeling that way, separate the stuff I can control from the stuff I can’t, then go on my happy way, giggling arm-in-arm with my defense mechanisms and coping strategies.

So yeah. When I said that thing, I thought, “That’s about right.” Space and the ocean and failure weren’t taking anything I wasn’t already giving them because their threats were (mostly) imaginary.

But I’m also getting to the point in my life where I can see how thin the connective tissue is. How easily everything can fall completely apart. How control is just a bedtime story I’m telling myself so I can sleep at night.**

This is what makes that thing I said is a lie. I’m not only afraid when things can be taken from me.

I’m afraid all the fucking time.***

* Ask me sometime why I’ll never go surfing ever again, and it’s not just because I have a distaste for sand and direct sunlight.
** I’m okay, really. Just thinking about a lot of stuff lately. I could maybe use one of those blue canaries. Maybe for that outlet by the light switch.
*** I promise my next post will be about something not me-related. You’ll get either an essay on cognitive neuroscience or Interstellar. Maybe both.
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That Band Post

A fine-lookin' shoegrass band

A fine-lookin’ shoegrass band (photo by Natalie Kardos)

I fucking love my band.†

We just released our first EP back in September and played our CD release show at the Whistlestop a few weeks ago now.

I never thought I’d be in a band. I’d actually given up on ever playing music in front of people again when one of my best friends from grad school, Natalie, asked me if I’d be in a band with her and the former drummer from Swim Party.

Writing, science and music are the three things that make me who I am. And music was the first thing I ever feel deeply and madly in love with.

I remember seeing the cover of U2′s Under a Blood Red Sky and thinking, “Holy shit. That’s exactly what I want to do.” I was eleven at the time and I asked my parents if I could get a guitar for Christmas.

Much to my surprise and delight, they did. It was smaller than a standard guitar and was mostly held together by lacquer, but I played that thing until the neck came off it (and got to smash it on the roof of my apartment building when my parents got me a “real” guitar for my birthday a few years later).

I so wanted to be a rock star – more than anything else I’d ever wanted to be. As a depressed kid and teenager, I felt like music was all I had. All through high school, it was my sole catharsis and my most trusted friend. It, like fiction, told me I wasn’t alone, that pain could be as beautiful as it is terrible. So I played and played and played until I could play along to my favorite bands (Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, Smashing Pumpkins, etc.) flawlessly. After a while I could pick up most things by ear and translate them to the guitar neck.

But I didn’t know how to solo. My fingers were too slow. And I didn’t know how to write songs. I tried, but they came out boring and repetitive. I was too shy to sing my horrible lyrics. Too embarrassed to even play in front of others.

When it came time to think about colleges, my first instinct was to go to school for music. But when I tried to put together an audition tape I knew I wasn’t good enough. Not even close.

So I gave up. I found something else that grabbed my attention and went to school for that. I still played my guitar, just not as much as I used to. I eventually found science and threw myself full bore at that, and I forgot about music for a while.

It wasn’t until grad school when everything started falling apart that I turned back to music. I tried to write songs again, to use music as as I had in high school – as a carrot to get me through the really hard days. Part of me still wanted to be a rock star, but I couldn’t bring myself to do the work – to learn the theory behind the stuff that was mostly intuitive. I tried to join bands to varying disastrous effect. I beat myself up for having played guitar now for over a decade and not being better than I was.

I turned back to writing, which I’d always done but never considered doing seriously because music had overshadowed everything else for so long. I made writing my carrot to pull me day by day out of grad school and depression, and set about figuring out how the fuck to do that.

A wondrous thing happened: for the first time ever, I was playing music without any kind of end goal. I started playing in front of other people more. I sang in the car constantly, and would occasionally surprise myself at being able to sing along to somewhat complex songs. I started singing in karaoke bars in LA for shits and giggles. I bought a ukulele after being handed one in Australia – it had been so long since I’d had an instrument in my hands that I didn’t know how to play, I became addicted all over again. I learned how to play it. I brought it to parties and sang songs with friends and for friends. I bought a banjo on a whim after overly romanticizing a scene in a movie. I learned to play that by kidnapping a friend/coworker to write a bunch of ridiculous songs* for folks who donated to a Clarion fundraiser.

Ooooooh, tip-me...

Ooooooh, tip-me…

I coerced two near-strangers into learning all of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea so we could street perform it outside of comic con. And at the Adam’s Avenue Fair. And at Porter’s Pub. We did. The pub owner asked me to play again. I did a solo set of early 90′s ukulele covers.

I was having fun with it for the first time in my life.

Swim Party broke up. Petro wanted to make a new band with Natalie. Natalie asked me to come to brunch with Petro (whom I’d seen at Swim Party shows before, but had never spoken to since he always had his hood over his face staring down at his beer before going on stage). Petro and I talked about science and soccer and comics. He was friends with one of the guys I coerced into the street performing band. I mentioned that. Petro asked me what I played. I told him banjo, ukulele and guitar. He said, “You’re in the band.”

That was three years ago.

Between then and now, we’ve played dozens of shows all over San Diego. All of them small – mostly packed with friends and family.

We practice once a week in Petro’s garage (which he’s converted into a really sweet recording studio). He’s the songwriter and plays guitar and sings. Adam plays keyboard (who took over for Natalie after she moved to Seattle). I play banjo and ukulele.

We’re a weird little band where none of us have any idea what we’re doing. Petro’s a drummer. Adam and I are guitar players. But it works. Partly because we have so much fucking fun just hanging out and teasing each other when we practice (ask us sometime about all of our post-modern art contingency plans). Partly because none of us have any expectations about where we want this to go.

Tuning isn't an end state - it's a forever thing.

Tuning isn’t an end state – it’s a forever thing. (photo by David Crane)

In a way it’s the kind of band I always wanted. We’re not in it to make it big, or even scrape a living off of it. We just want to play stuff we like listening to for people we like hanging out with.

We’ve got a couple more gigs before the end of the year. After that we’re gonna start recording our next EP.

I still kind of want to be a rock star and jump around on stage and break instruments and work myself to exhaustion so all I can hear is the sound of screaming voices and sweaty bodies crashing together.

But that’s what SF conventions and my friends are for.

†I know I said I was gonna post updates about NaNo on here, which would have involved me writing a bit long blog post about the Cognitive Neuroscience textbook I read over the weekend, so you’re getting a post about music instead.

*I know I’m gonna regret linking to that, but it exists on the internet and I’m responsible for it, so there.

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Thank God I’m Alive

I’ve fallen in love with a song.

Bat For Lashes – Lilies

It’s been a while since I’ve fallen for something. In a time in my life when I’m working on changing so many things about me, this warms me.

I’ve always been one to fall deeply and madly in love. Guitar. Writing. Smashing Pumpkins. Criminal profiling. Science. It was a huge part of who I was growing up. Whatever I fell for was who I became. And as I fell for the next thing, I kept the bits of who I used to be that I liked. I am and always have been an amalgam of everything I have ever loved.

And I’ve been so god damn scared lately that I’ve been losing that.
Afraid that I’m losing my sense of wonder, the passion that has made me who I am, by ability to fall in love with a song or a field of study or a story or a person or a moment.

But here I am.

And I’ve fallen for a song, among other things.

I thought passion was a thing that degenerated over time, like vertebrae or tooth enamel, eroded by cynicism and blunt force failure. But now I’m starting to think of it as a personality trait instead – something that can be nurtured and grown.

There’s so much ugliness in the world, it’s easy for small moments of beauty to be overwhelmed. And there’s so much fucking beauty out there if can get your head out of your own ass long enough to look for it. There’s biology and pyhysics and chemistry and stop motion animation and psychology and electric giraffes named Russell. Sometimes people even write songs, make videos and put them on the internet.

I guess the point of this post is that I’m glad I’m alive to post weird videos I find on the internet here for you in the hopes that none of us give up.

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NaNoWriMore

I’ve done NaNo pretty much every year for the past five or six years. Some years I’ve won, others I’ve spectacularly lost, but every time I’ve done it, I’ve managed to write more than I have in previous months, and it leaves me with a rosy afterglow that at least carries me over into the next calendar year.

I have complicated feelings about my writing habits. I vacillate between feast and famine pretty regularly. Always have. I try to see if I can change things about my life to give my writing more room, but it inevitably boils down to, “Good job! Now that you’ve fixed that thing, here’s anxiety about something entirely different!”

It’s one of the reasons I finally started seeing a therapist. And moved into a bigger place last year. And got a new job.

How much more do I need to change?

But I do love NaNo. It’s a world-wide write-in where the source of motivation is externalized and reimposed. I’m not just letting myself down by not writing, I’m failing in the eyes of a tracking widget on a website.

So I’m going to be doing NaNo again, even though it’s mostly not going to be novel-related. I’ve got a bunch of short stories I’d like to revise and send out since I haven’t really done that much at all this year. And my metric for success is going to be small -

Every story I work on in November I have to send out by the end of the month. It could just be one story. It could be many.

This may work. It may not. But now that I’ve told all you about it, maybe that’ll make it better.

And in an attempt to start posting more on here next year (which will be one of my goals for 2015), I’m gonna be logging my progress here.

The first story up will be my Hitchcock/Dick mashup that I’ve been working on the past few months. I’ve almost got the first draft done after having to rewrite the thing twice so I could get everything set up for the ending that just doesn’t seem to want to come out of my fingers.

Are you NaNoing? What’re you gonna be working on?

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All I ever wanted was to be your spine

I’ve been thinking a lot tonight about thinking, since it’s something I do more of than I probably should. When I’m not thinking, I’m reading or watching things to think about later. Or maybe listening to music that makes me feel stuff so that I can think about the stuff it’s making me feel. Or sometimes I wind up thinking about thinking too much and wind up on here writing a blog post about just that.

* * *

I don’t consider myself to be a very lucky person.

Luck’s for people who like to impart probability with meaning.

I’ve got a lot of statistics attached to me. Ones associated with my age. Or my gender. My income and/or education levels. My least favorite are the ones associated with my health.

On that last count, at last, it sometimes makes me believe in luck.

But I don’t want the feeling associated with it anymore. I’m sick of them.

I am the 20% with depression.
I am the 8% with asthma.
I am the 0.02% with ulcerative colitis.

Aren’t I lucky.

* * *

To combat my bad luck, I read a lot. I like to think that if I can understand how everything works, it’ll make things easier.

Did you know that Rumination is actually an well-fleshed out concept in psychology? It’s got competing theoretical frameworks and everything!

I’ve always liked reading about Psychology – dipping in and out of the different sub-fields of study and the theories within theories within theories, the dissents and assents, anecdotal evidence and scientific studies. Thinking about it reminds me of a lot of the same things I think about when I think about writing or music or art art. It’s like trying to develop a rigorous framework of something infinitely complex and constantly evolving that you understand instinctively, but not intellectually.

The problem with thinking too much is you eventually wind up with a bunch of probability distributions within probability distributions. Ad infinitum.

Genetics is the same. It’s rare when there’s a direct cause and effect between a gene being turned on or not. Or a gene being mutated or not. There’s too much complexity. Everything affects and is affected by everything else. It’s an ecosystem, not a pixel. An ecosystem of fucking probability distributions.

Everything’s got a p value: the probability of seeing the thing that actually happened, given the likelihood of everything else that could have happened where the variables are the millions upon millions of tendencies and fears and desires that determined just how hard it was for you to get out of bed this morning. I could have done so many millions of different things in the forty five minutes between when my alarm went off and when I finally sat up.

It’s one of the things I love about free will – infinite choice with limited tendency.

* * *

I probably shouldn’t read so much about psychological concepts when I’m currently in therapy. Part of me feels like it’s cheating, trying to find words to explain to myself what’s going on inside my head. Another part of me worries that I find explanations to latch on to because that means it can be understood and therefore conquered. I know the reality is somewhere in between.

I know I’ve been making a lot of good choices this past year, despite a lot of objectively shitty things happenening.

But that shitty year didn’t stop me from being able to walk away from the CD release party for my band’s first EP last week with a giant shit eating grin on my face. Or stop me from having an absolutely amazing time at Youtopia with my family of friends going on epic quests for french fries (down there in the open space), being a part of the most perfect and indecent wedding I will ever see. It didn’t stop me from writing a whole new fucking story this fall that I almost believe might actually become something pretty cool. And organizing that entire damn book into an outline I can actually follow and writing a third of a draft that I don’t immediately cringe at when I go back and read it. When I eventually go back and read it.

Everybody wants to be someone else. More loved. Freer. Happier. Taller. An ex-smoker. A rock star. Kinder to their grandparents. A better writer. A mom.

I have always wanted to be someone else. Maybe someone I admire so maybe I can give myself a god damn break for a little while. Some days I’m close. Some days I’m so far away I don’t even know why I bother trying.

I wish I believed in luck. For as many bad feelings I have with losing at statistics right now, sometimes you also win.

And winning feels nice.

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Being good, being great, and a slight overdose on writing process geekery

I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking and talking with folks about writing and process. Earlier this week I had a write-in with a friend of mine who’s working on a non-fiction book. We talked about the differences between our markets, where we’re at in our writing careers, rules for our different genres and subgenres. Then this weekend I got together with some friends of mine to do the 48 Hour Film Project and wound up spending all of Friday night on a hotel room floor with friends fleshing out a borderline ridiculous idea into a 4-7 minute thriller/suspense movie script.

Since I got home today after helping with the shoot, my brain’s been still picking at those conversations. The primary of which is the advice I kept seeing over and over again when I was starting out writing again: Writer’s write. 

I remembered how much I used to hate that fucking phrase.

It seemed like just about the dumbest piece of advice to give someone who’s trying to figure out how to do it. Why give someone a frustrating tautology? So you’re saying that to become a writer, you must write. But if you can’t figure out how to start, how can you ever become one? It’s like advertising an entry level job that requires five years of work experience.

(warning: POV switch into second person ahead)*

You get advice like that, you either give up right there, or say, “Fuck it. I can figure this out on my own.” You keep doing it just because you’re pigheaded. So you try writing. But then you look at what you wrote and you look at the kind of stuff you like to read (that whole Ira Glass “having good taste” thing applies here), and you see that it’s not the same. It’s not even fucking close. You want to give up because there is SUCH A VAST OCEAN OF SUCK between you and where you want to be. But you do it again anyway. Could be the pigheaded thing again. Or maybe when you were reading through your stuff, you saw a glimmer of something you might like. It was ill-developed and badly executed, but it’s still there. So you write something else, trying to make that glimmer a little brighter better next time – closer to the thing in your head. It could have been a moment with one of your characters, or a nice turn of phrase. Maybe there was a cool plot thing that tickled you in a funny way when you were writing it and tickled you in the same funny way when you reread it. And the next time you write, that thing gets a little clearer and more deliberate. You wash rinse and repeat, polishing those little bits of good stuff that get into the giant messes that are your stories.

Then you start reading advice from other folks on how to fix the stuff that’s not getting better. Maybe it’s problems with your characters. Or plots. Prose. Setting. Pacing. When you start watching movies and TV shows, or reading books or graphic novels, you start paying closer attention to what other people are doing with those same elements so you can learn how stuff works, particularly stuff you like. Then you start seeing what kind of stuff gets done a lot. You start seeing patterns. You consume so much media that you get bored seeing the same pattern, but delighted when someone breaks it. You start getting excited about ways YOU could break those same rules or even other rules. Because we’re always delighted when someone shows us something new and unexpected. 

And now you start seeing the wisdom under that stupid, frustrating advice you got when you started out: about how writers write. You can see all of the things “write” encompasses: writers write characters; writers write plots; writers write prose. You can go down even further: writers write tragic characters; writers write space opera plots; writers write floridly worded Victorian Eldrich Horrors. There are so many god damn elements that go into writing anything, you can run down into these finer points forever. You can get into arguments with people about word choices and syntax and the different emotional effects those can have on the reader. You can write sociological or anthropological theses about why the Hero’s Journey appears in so many narratives from all over the world. And you buy those books. And you read them. And you can’t stop telling your friends about them. You can even go as far as to write a really long essay about how you felt after reading a blog post another writer wrote about the influence another writer had on him.

Then you stall out and can’t figure out why you’re not selling anything. Because now you’re a writer (because you write), but you want to be a Writer (somehow there is a difference in your mind, and for some reason that difference involves money [yes, this was the rule I gave myself before I could capitalize that damn W {and I'll tell you what, I STILL feel weird when I do it}]). You want to do to others what books and movies and TV shows and comics did to you.

So you look again at the second-most abstract and silly piece of writing advice that’s out there: write what you know.

You say, “Fuck you, Writer-Type-Person! I learned your damn words!” because you’re frustrated and exhausted because you’ve put so much damn time into it.

You hear people say that to publish, you can’t just be a good writer, but a great one.

You start looking at the stuff you think is just good, and the stuff you think is great. You try to tease apart the differences, and you start seeing that those differences lie largely in you. The good stuff might follow all the rules and satisfy you intellectually, but the great stuff shakes you. Maybe even changes the way you see things about yourself or about the world around you. 

You see it’s because those great writers are writing about YOU. That tiny moment of anxiety between the glass falling off the counter and it hitting the floor – the regret in it, the moment of solace that the glass is still whole for a few more milliseconds, the flash of the memory of the day you bought those glasses at Bed Bath and Beyond because you’d broken one too many during arguments with your boyfriend and then you had to wash (by hand) the same three glasses over and over again and you’re just fucking tired of it because you’ve been doing it for eight months now and now, and look, you’ve just broken one of the ones you just bought to try and take that anxiety away because it means you’re one dustpan full of glass closer to that being that person again who waits eight months to buy more glasses at Bed Bath and Beyond. And that writer managed to capture all of that moment in the way the character’s eyes traced the patterns the broken glass made on the floor.

So you write about you. Who you are. Why you are the way you are, because chances are it’s the same reason why other people are the way they are too. That’s the whole reason those story patterns work.

Everyone wants to know who they are – to see themselves how others see them. Because inside we’re all chaotic whirlpools of seemingly disconnected and random stuff. There’s good stuff and evil stuff. Beautiful stuff and ugly stuff. The hate and the apathy and the misery that we struggle constantly against, so we might keep feeling love and passion and joy. We want to be not plagued with these tiny, constant internal battles because we’re never sure what side is winning, and we’re so god damn exhausted sometimes.

It makes us scared to open up to other people because we worry that the more someone knows us, the more of that struggle they start seeing. Who isn’t afraid of someone seeing them at their meanest? Or their pettiest? Occasionally, though, you find someone else that is cracking in the same ways that you are. You see that same struggle in them. So maybe you let them see that in you. 

Great writers, artists, musicians, performers: all of them explore their own fractures and show other folks what they found.

When you start exploring other people’s fracture lines, you find out you can live a thousand lives in them, maybe even try to prepare yourself for damage you can see coming up in your own life, because if you push deep down into one, you can see which ways the fractures run and trace those back to the points of impact. Maybe you even eventually hope to see how all the break patterns fit together.

*Yes, I see what I did there. 

I’ve spent the last few months in introspection overdrive trying to get my brain back to the point where I can spend a Saturday night writing a blog post about this kind of stuff rather than clutching the remote close to my chest for fear of the stuff that’s been going on inside of my head. 

So please excuse the typos. I think I’m gonna risk a little bit of scotch.

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Thoughts like lead balloons

So I’ve been working on a book this year. By this point I was hoping to be mostly done with the revision draft, with the goal of getting to the end of it by July. 

That’s not even close to happening.

Depression sucks. My thoughts are simultaneously heavy and light – leaden enough to keep me from a more nimble mindset in which I can free-associate in order to put the right words down; and substanceless enough that what focus I can manage is easily lost to distraction. 

I’m trying. And I am getting better. I’ve managed to crawl out of the gravity well of despair and am now sitting listlessly at the edge, unable to pull my feet out of the tepid water. I’ve been in this place before. Lots of times. I hate it even more than the days spent crying in bed because I feel like I SHOULD be able to do normal things again – laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, writing, reading – but as soon as I sit down to do them, I have to wrestle with the lethargy. It’s exhausting. So I close my laptop, or my book, or let the dishes pile up, or run out of underwear and just sit and rewatch three seasons of Buffy in less than a week. I tell myself tomorrow will be better, but it’s always the same.

Even so, I remain optimistic simply because I HAVE gone through this so many times before. I know I’ll get there eventually, but for now I’m still stuck while everything continues to shift and recalibrate and I continue to drain the poison from my thoughts with the help of my friends and therapist.

I can go out with friends and laugh and joke. I can go to work and be productive and make chit chat with my coworkers. I can come home and go running or to yoga. But as soon as the quiet comes, I am, once again, destroyed. 

I can’t fucking wait until I’m myself again. It’ll just take more time and patience. So I’m gonna go bang my head against the keyboard for a bit and pretend like I don’t have four more seasons of Buffy burning a hole in my motivation. I will finish this book this year. I promised myself that much.

Call someone you love and tell them that much. They might need it.

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More than you ever needed to know about my smoking habits

I love smoking. 

I used to hate it. My dad would chain smoke More Menthols in our small, two-bedroom apartment when I was growing up. He’d have a cigarette hanging out of his mouth when he was cooking, or folding laundry or keeping box scores during Cubs games. The smoke would get in everything (to the point where my high school teachers assumed that I smoked). I also had asthma, which wasn’t helped by it. My brother started smoking when he was a teenager, but I stood resolute, vowing to never start.

But I’m anxious and kind of fidgety. Large groups of people and prolonged periods of socializing make me want to flee into a dark corner (or hide under a pile of coats, which I have done before at parties). And I’m a naturally obsessive personality who also happens to hate routine as much as I love it.

When I started smoking in college, it felt like I had found a lost piece. It gave me something to do with my hands while sitting outside drinking or waiting for a bus or walking somewhere. It gave me the opportunity to be alone for a few minutes at a time when I’d get overwhelmed socially: a ready excuse to stand by myself and not be bothered. It allowed me to create and destroy smoking routines on a whim, to help create a feeling of variety when I would be feeling trapped. It facilitated my meeting a lot of excellent people because we were the “smokers.”

Most of all, when I would start feeling anxious about pretty much anything, I could grab my cigarettes and go and stand outside, stare at nothing, think of nothing. They were miniature meditations that would always drain away the worst of my anxiety so I could keep on with whatever I was trying to do before, be it having a conversation with someone, being in a difficult social situation, writer’s block, failed experiments, work frustrations, depression, etc.. It works to abate pretty much anything.

Cigarettes have been my steadfast crutch through the worst years of my life.

Despite my love of my glowing, smelly little friends, I’ve quit before. I’ve quit a lot, actually. I quit at least a few times a year. The only year I didn’t try quitting at least once (I started smoking when I was 20), was when I was 29 and I decided that I was going to give myself permission to smoke for the entire year with reckless abandon and, for once, not entertain any feelings of guilt. It was a magical year. It also served to reinforce why I kept trying to quit.

When I’m smoking, I’m always a little bit wheezy. I can’t spontaneously go running since I need to give my lungs at least a day to clear out (SIDE NOTE: I started running again while I was still smoking – I had a whole system worked out about when and how much I could smoke during the week to make sure I was able to get my miles in). It makes me sleep like shit since it makes me all wheezy, so I wake up a lot during the night. It’s a giant cash suck (I probably spend $80-100/month on cigarettes right now). When I’m flying, by the end of the trip I’m just about ready to hulk smash everything and everyone around me. I hate the way it makes my hands and my clothes smell.

And I get so fucking sick of the constant background radiation in my life that I like to call “cigarette math”: I have this many cigarettes left in this pack, which will have me running out right in the middle of my commute home, so that means I need to find a time at lunch to go to the gas station to pick some up or else I’ll have to stop at that shitty gas station by the highway that has a crappy parking lot and charges an arm and a leg for a pack, or there’s a 7-11 that’s a little out of the way has the 75 cents off deal, so I should get three packs to get through the weekend, unless I’m sharing in which case…

I’ve never had a problem quitting. I always quit cold turkey – three days of hell is so much better for me than dragging out the discomfort and cravings for an entire week or more. In fact, I’ve quit so many times in the past twelve years that I make miniature games out of the withdrawal symptoms (for me: a headache that feels like someone shot your inflamed sinuses full of helium, slight tunnel vision, sore throat, raspy voice, MORE wheezing, ravenous appetite and insatiable cravings for random foods). I like to see how long I can go before taking any Aleve for the headache, or seeing how long I can hold out to a food craving. 

I do have a problem staying quit. You wouldn’t think it would be so hard to just not do something. But in my case, quitting smoking means giving up something that helps me cope EXTREMELY EFFECTIVELY with my anxiety. And the determining factor for when I’ll start again is how well I can cope with anxiety as it flares up.

But I’ve been doing better with my anxiety lately, to the point where I think I might be able to manage not smoking for another good stretch before my resolve cracks (I’m hoping for six months, but we’ll see). And it’ll help me stop actively hating and avoiding going for a run (which is an awesome alternate coping mechanism, but requires more planning than a five minute smoke break does and can only be accomplished once a day). Someday I hope to just not smoke at all anymore, but telling myself that this time I’m quitting for good always makes it worse. It feels like inviting all of the future anxiety – all of the terrible things that could possibly happen to me and the people I love – down on my head at once, and taking away the only thing that helps me cope, moment to moment. So I always tell myself I’m just quitting for now so that I can get my running mileage back up and clear out at least some of the effluvia of stress that’s accumulated in my alveoli over the past few months. And if I need to start again to help cope with something overwhelming, that’s fine too.

I had my last cigarette about 14 hours ago and I’m well into the headache, sore throat, raspy voice, tunnel vision, ravenous hunger bit. But I’m feeling pretty good about it this time. We’ll see how long this time sticks.

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A Long Exhale

I started seeing a therapist recently. For lots of different reasons.

I’d been putting off doing this for years, telling myself that I was fine, or I would be. I’ve always considered myself a pretty self-aware person. I had ideas about the person I wanted to be – self-disciplined, productive, passionate, loyal, empathetic, kind, funny, intelligent, open, fearless, etc. – and I would work towards becoming those things, in spite of myself. And in my more compassionate moments with myself, I can see that I’ve done good work on myself. I am closer to being the person I want to be than I have ever been.

But a while back, I reached a point where I stopped improving on my own, where I chased myself in circles around a giant knot that was too big and too tangled to hold in my mind at once, or to tease out smaller bits from to work on.

And I reached a breaking point in January.

It’s hard for me to ask for help. I became acutely aware of this tendency in grad school, both in terms of my professional life and my personal one. I managed to mostly overcome it in regards to my professional life (I now happily embrace the words, “I don’t know,” because that’s how best to learn). Not so much in my personal life.

So I dug out a piece of paper with a name on it that had been sitting on my dresser for months, written down by someone I love. I made an appointment. And now I have a therapist.

It ranks up there with one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. At the same time, I’m surprised at how much I’ve been waiting to say.

One of the things we’ve talked about is writing. As you might imagine, I have a lot of feelings about this: Fear of failure, fear of success, problems with motivation, fear of plateauing, being too hard on myself when I fail to live up to unrealistic expectations – all fairly typical artist neuroses. And talking, so far, seems to be helping in ways not even directly related to the content of our conversations, like just having an outlet now for all of this stuff I’ve kept bottled up for decades is letting a bit of steam out of the emergency release valves.

And one of the results of this is helping me to feel less crushed by the unrealistic expectations I take to the keyboard with me whenever I sit down to write (which I’ll admit I stopped doing completely the last three months of 2013).

When my therapist asked me how much I would need to be writing to consider it enough, I responded, “All the time. Every waking moment.”

She gently suggested that might be an unrealistic goal. I knew it was when I said it, but it doesn’t change the fact that’s how I felt. How I still feel. It’s an unattainable goal, and no matter how much I write, it’ll never be enough. That’s a road with pretty scenery that leads straight to a chronic sense of failure.

As such, I was so grateful to see this post by Bear the other day about her writing habits and average daily word counts. Bear’s self-discipline (when it comes to a lot of different aspects of life) is something I deeply admire and aspire to, and I told myself that she must be writing every waking moment to be as outstanding and prolific as she is. But in reality she writes at a rate of four pages a day, which is about the daily word count I’m working with right now.

It helps to know this because it helps me to be less afraid. That this is something to be chipped away at, like running, or yoga, or therapy. Superhuman effort only serves to burn you out and leave you disappointed with yourself.

I have been working on being more patient with myself. It’s helping that I’m working on novel revisions for the first half of this year. I was able to finish a reverse outline of the previous exploratory draft and write a detailed synopsis where I fixed a lot of the plot issues and mapped out character arcs before the start of the Rainforest Writer’s Retreat (which was amazing, as always, and I already can’t wait to see everyone again next year to sit quietly next to, sharing nibbles and giggles and ukulele songs). At the retreat I rewrote the first 15,000 words of it, and in the week since I’ve been back, I’ve managed nearly every day to sit down and get at least an hour or more of writing in. The word count continues to tick slowly upwards.

I’ve done this before. Mostly for NaNos. But this feels different. It feels softer.

And most importantly, it feels like the me I’m trying to be.

Be patient and kind with yourself. You deserve it, even if you have a hard time believing it.

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