In these days of coronavirus isolation, I already miss my Thursday morning writing routine.
I stop at the Dunkin Donuts closest to work, and every week it’s the same order: large iced cold brew, three creams, less ice, and a power breakfast sandwich with added bacon. I’m not much for routines in general, but I’ve grown superstitious about this one: I haven’t changed my order in over a year, and I even have specific sections of my drive where I’m allowed to listen to writing podcasts, and others that are book mix CD only.
It’s the same table every week, and if those public works guys with the truck are there, it’s the adjacent table, and I give them the sidelong shifty-eye until they leave, and I swoop over in three trips with my computer and my numerous index cards.
I say “hi” to the some people and eavesdrop on others, and they’re the same people every week. I watch the same young cashier flirt with the same old women and thank them for running on Dunkin.
And then I stop noticing the other people so much as I finish my sandwich and get into a good flow. I always aim to finish a scene, and succeed often enough. On the way to work, I play “Outsiders” by Franz Ferdinand. It wasn’t on purpose, at first, but it comes after the most repeated song on the book mix, and it turned into a victory lap, if driving in a Corolla through four lighted intersections and then backing into a parking spot counts as a victory lap.
It meant more last year than it does now. With the kind of work schedules my partner had, some weeks it was my only time to work on Stars Fall Out. Still, it was one of my favorite parts of my week, and it felt like the bastion of my writing discipline.
These days, we all have things we’re going to miss or already miss. This is one of mine. A little, mundane piece of my week that I miss a great deal.
The other day I reread some of my recent scenes in Stars Fall Out, for reasons of both continuity and procrastination. Given the current, pandemic-type situation we’re in now and all the emphasis on hygiene, I saw the scenes in a new, corona-tinged light. A theory popped into my head, the type of theory one tends to develop after watching something like The Lord of the Rings dozens of times. In my case, it’s not a movie I’ve watched dozens of times, but a book that I’ve been working on diligently for about a year-and-a-half now. Either way, it’s a story I’ve had a great deal of exposure to. Unlike the coronavirus, at least as far as I know. The theory, of course, is that I gave my secondary-world character coronavirus. As it happens, I have plenty of shifty, circumstantial evidence to support this theory.
Exhibit A: Face-touching
“Can you confiscate things?” I turned back to Piroszehlt, and the question burst from me so suddenly that he startled, and his arm dropped off my shoulders. “You might have been right,” I said, though I didn’t have the time for this, “about being the same person. I know you.” I scrambled to my feet, and offered him a hand. “But you don’t know me, not as well as you probably think. Can you confiscate things?”
“What?” He too stood. “Tyatavar, what is this about? What things?”
“Magic things. Ghordaa’s things. Zanhrori got him kicked out of his lab, and he’s investigating. You’re involved, right?”
“Yes,” he said slowly, “I am.”
“Then,” I said, pointing down the hill at the university, to where Ghordaa and my sister navigated the walkways and crowds of students searching for something, someone, and most likely me, “can you confiscate his things, if you need to?”
“Yes,” Piroszehlt said with more confidence, if not understanding, “I can confiscate things.”
“Good,” I said, reaching up to touch his cheek with three fingers. “Because I do like this face of yours, and I’d rather not see it get hit again.”
On rereading, it does also come across kind of clunky. Too many saids. But I’m not editing it for the sake of this blog post because a) I don’t fiddle around with stuff like that before revision and b) it involves the love triangle, which might mean it’s too cheesy to exist anyway.
Exhibit B: Further face-touching
Leaning back in his chair, he touched three fingers to his cheek, stared up at the ceiling, and let that sting.
They were as painfully well-matched as a gritty patch of ice and the raw palm you caught yourself on.
Exhibit C: Reference to being out-of-breath
“Do you want to keep it?” he’d asked as we blinked in the sunlight, waiting for our eyes to adjust. He held out the glass anchor wrapped in ratty old fabric.
“The dress? You should probably burn it.”
“You’d be better suited to the task,” he’d said, and shook his head. “Oneiromantic fire. Can you stop doing amazing things for a couple days and let me catch my breath?”
When I wrote it, I assumed that last line was figurative. But I don’t know, maybe he has a virus-related respiratory problem?
Although I’m definitely not taking my story this direction, it’s interesting to think what the consequences would be if this character did actually have coronavirus. Less than a week after the last snippet, he has to give a statement at a hearing with at least two dozen people in attendance.
That might not go so great.
Running up all the stairs in an enormous tower would probably also not go well. Nor would the day-long walk to reach the airship.
On the other hand, I’ve written in the draft that the city of Nirsuathu is a pain to enter and leave. Perhaps the virus wouldn’t spread throughout the Northern Provinces.
Yeah. The other Northern Provinces are sounding pretty good right now. Or any secondary world, for that matter.
You come to a cliff. Here is the edge, where the wind whips at your body, and everything beneath you is impossibly tiny. A single movement of your foot, a slight lean of your body weight, and you could throw yourself right over. One simple movement.
But you wouldn’t actually jump, right?
That’s how I feel about making phone calls. Self-preservation determines that I wouldn’t take the last step, and I won’t hit the call button either, whether or not both of those things are logical.
In truth, the small corner of that flowchart isn’t even what it says it is; I hadn’t yet created the full flowchart at the time I posted about it. I added fake boxes to the edge and faded them out to give the illusion of more flowchart beyond.
If you look at the full, uncropped version of that chart in my graphics program, one of the fake boxes reads:
Thng thing thing thing but an axe thing thing thing but the only sad ounoahuenohunoetuhn cheap onuhoanteuhnotuwith rayon.
But it’s positioned so that the only full words you see are “axe” and “sad.”
The other reads:
Screw that, this is America, and I’m not just going to do something so ridiculous as to
But it’s positioned so that the only visible part is: “Screw that, this is America.”
My phone call anxiety hasn’t improved in the five years since the original post. I have an office job now, one with Microsoft Everything and Calibri Everything and spreadsheets for which I can choose unnecessary color schemes. There is also a small black phone with no caller ID and my own extension and sometimes, on a bad day, a phone call that I can’t divert into an email exchange instead.
Exposure therapy is a thing, so my theory went that, in being exposed to phone calls, their effects would blunt over time, and they would no longer be the cliff I can’t jump off.
That… kind of happened. I am exactly as terrified of most phone calls as I’ve ever been, but I deal with my work calls without too much drama or figurative nail-biting.
And as for my non-work phone calls…
(imagine the haggard, stumbling man from the beginning of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, coming close to announce…)
The Social Anxiety Flowchart for Dealing with Phone Calls Badly
About two months ago, I took a 5×8 index card, wrote “Onerous Health To-do” at the top, and divided up sections for my primary care, ob-gyn, and therapy appointments, the ones I’ve been putting off scheduling for eight, one, and two years, respectively. On this, I wrote every phone call I needed to make, and every task that preceded those phone calls. Then I made the mistake of doing the same for my partner so we could both tackle everything in a single day and move on with our lives.
Although his phone call anxiety is less severe than mine, this still resulted in both of us procrastinating for another six weeks. We broke out of the cycle only when my partner told his friend to call him on a Friday morning to remind him to remind me to do the thing.
What no productivity system in the world will tell you is that it can’t help you with anxiety over a task.
You can break up a task into next actions. You can rephrase it to use an action verb. You can put it on an @Home or @Phone list. You can choose it as one of your three must-do, priority tasks of the day. You can migrate it to another page in your bullet journal. And if you have anxiety over that task, you’re going to keep migrating it, keep rewriting it, and keep finessing it.
Those are the steps you take by the edge of the cliff because you don’t want to take the one step that matters: hitting the call button. Eventually, the task before every undone task is “deal with the anxiety I have over this task,” because of course it’s best to deal with the root problem of something.
Only now you have months of therapy before you can switch your primary care doctor, and you can’t make the phone call to get into the therapy because you wouldn’t jump off a cliff, would you? WOULD YOU?
That day we finally made the phone calls, I assumed that kicking myself off the cliff would result in a rush of anxiety, but that my bravery would ultimately be rewarded with medical appointments that I don’t especially want to attend.
Instead, I learned that my health insurance’s website is the real-life equivalent of a Liars and Knights puzzle. One always lies, and the other always tells the truth. The one that always lies is the website. Between that, busy signals, and voicemails, I tackled everything on my Onerous Health To-Do list, and still got nowhere.
I’m sure there’s a life lesson in there somewhere. Maybe it’s about perseverance. Maybe it’s about bravery. Or nihilism. Or next actions. I’m not sure. All I know is that I’ve climbed back to the top of the cliff, the fat green circle at the start of the flowchart, and it feels exactly the same here.
*Figuratively, because I kicked my life-long nail-biting habit during the swine flu outbreak of 2009. Now, nail-biting, mine or others, would probably destroy me. Thanks, OCD.
More than a decade and a half has passed since I graduated high school, and I still find myself rehashing all the areas that my formal education failed me. Sometimes these realizations come in the form of gentle curiosity after I’ve learned something interesting or useful: “Huh. Why didn’t I learn that in school?” Sometimes they occur with the angry energy of a rant, the kind that happens when I’m out walking and my strides give power to my ideas.
A certain amount of my ire is directed at college, where I didn’t study what I should have, didn’t understand that you’re supposed to be networking and interning, and then made the rookie mistake of graduating in 2008, when the recession hit. But I can say, at least, that when I signed up for a college course about a given subject, I went to class and learned about that subject. This is not so for my K-12 education, which was marked by excessive repetition, lack of choice, and a deficiency of skills that I would later find I needed.
Here are the skills I wish school had taught me, in approximate order of how bitter I am about them, going from “why didn’t school bother to tell me this?” to “wow, not knowing this kind of fucked up my life.”
How to learn new skills
Schools can’t teach every single thing you’re going to need to know in your life. Even better curricula than we have now can’t anticipate every possible way your life could go. But they could at least assume you’ll have to learn new skills at some point.
I learned about flashcards and mnemonic devices in school, but not every skill or subject benefits from rote memorization. As an adult, I’ve almost never used those techniques.
Schools should help students find answers to the following questions:
If you have a brand new subject, how do you approach it?
What are different learning tactics you could try?
What are different learning styles that people gravitate to?
How do you identify your weak areas and improve them?
When I was a kid, I thought that organization meant using a five-subject notebook and occasionally rearranging the contents of my desk and backpack. I thought it meant shoving the infinitely-tentacled monster that is Your Mess into rows of 12x12x12 color-coded storage cubes with neat labels. Like the author of this article, this is what I learned from the Berenstain Bears.
In reality, organization means having the things you need and use in the places where you’ll actually use them, without having to spend forever searching. It means knowing what tasks you have before you, and why you have to do them.
Organizational skills are survival skills. I only learned them because I needed to organize writing notes, but when I finally ended up in an office job situation, they started helping me immediately.
A good friend recently emailed the HR department of his company to inform them that a supervisor had told workers they would be fired if they discussed their wages with one another. He told HR that he hoped it was a misunderstanding because of course, it’s illegal to forbid workers from discussing wages. That kind of environment encourages wage gaps and inequality.*
The friend who called out this supervisor was someone with a college degree working at a blue-collar job, and suspected that this was an intentional move to exploit less-educated people.
But every person in that room should’ve been in a position to call out the supervisor. Better yet, these rights should be so well-known that the supervisor would have never said anything in the first place. This is something that should be on the same level as “don’t run red lights” and “the earth is round.” Everyone knows these things, and we take it for granted that others know these things too. (Flat earthers, exit left.)
Ostensibly, the purpose of school is to prepare students for the workforce. To put them through school without any kind of grounding in what their rights will be as workers is to set them up to be exploited.
So-called smart kids** took algebra, geometry, and pre-calculus in high school. “Dumb kids” took remedial math classes and learned functional budgeting skills.
Is the logic there that the smart kids would end up with middle-class jobs and have enough money to burn that they wouldn’t need to budget?
Learning to budget is more about prioritizing, organizing, and making decisions than it is about actual math. And honestly? Knowing yourself well enough to prioritize what’s important is way fucking harder than math.
Here’s another benefit of learning to budget in school: if everyone knows the basics, no one can write any more budgeting articles that open with supposedly eye-opening math that shows us all how much our daily lattes cost.
Because we all, apparently, buy daily lattes. Whose life is this?
The art of aggressively asking why, critical thinking involves poking ideas with a stick until assumptions fly out like bees.
It isn’t only for academia; it’s for everything. It’s a skill I learned in tandem from college and from my partner, who was ahead of me on thinking skills when we were teenagers.
As with sex, we should all be asking if we want our daughters to pick it up on the street from their boyfriends, or if we should teach it in schools and make sure they have the correct information. Right? Uh…
Best to teach it as early as possible because it unlocks the ability to learn other skills better and to come to a deeper understanding of everything we read.
You can have no science without it. You can’t analyze a piece of literature. You can’t learn history in any meaningful way, or apply what you learn to what’s going on in the world today with questions like “Do conditions in the United States today resemble Germany in the 1930s?”
Without critical thinking, you end up with flat earthers. (Hey guys! You still here? Awkward…)
You can apply critical thinking skills to everything else on this list. You can apply it to products being advertised to you and people with suspicious motives. Critical thinking allows you to improve all different areas of your life and helps you to make better choices.
Another thing you can’t do without critical thinking?
You can’t write. Writing is thinking, and thinking is writing. If you’re writing without thinking, all you’re doing is regurgitating.
No wonder writing those first school essays and book reports is so agonizing. Children are instructed to use roman numerals to outline thoughts they’ve been taught not to have.
I earned a C for one quarter of high school English because the entire grade was based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and I didn’t yet know how to turn my thoughts about The Scarlet Letter–“I fucking hated this book, and although I’m anti-book-burning, I’ll turn the other way if you light that match”–into the form of writing.
Only one teacher ever taught me the nuts and bolts of working through several drafts, improving first the story structure, then drilling down to the line level, and then editing. Even in college, this isn’t something that was taught.
And I have a degree in writing.
We didn’t learn about drafting fast and messy to find the heart of what you’re saying. How to change focus if you need to. How to choose a thesis sentence. How to adjust your topic to a particular length, which is something I’m working on right now–I wrote 300 words under this writing heading in first draft, only to delete them and add another 300 words that support my point better.
Writing is thinking and thinking is writing.
By movement, I mean some combination of formal anatomy instruction and a pragmatic understanding of how your body works. I don’t need to remember the name of the gastrocnemius (one of the calf muscles) to understand how it interacts with my foot muscles.
While critical thinking necessitates that I despise the saying “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” I went through exactly the kind of experience that compels people to say that. At age 28, I had two severe back spasms. My mom had to pick me up from work, and the drive home on smooth, well-paved roads sent branches of excruciating pain into my lower back. After being dropped off, I spent 45 minutes kneeling over a chair because I couldn’t handle movement.
I spent much of the next few years in a state of desperation and confusion, binge-reading online about any stretches that might help fix my back. Eventually, doing all those stretches, observing their effects, and learning more about my anatomy led to a muscle-level understanding of how my body works.
My last back spasm was two-and-a-half years ago.
As much as I hated gym class volleyball with all the fiery apathy of a true geek, I can look back and see it as an under-utilized opportunity to teach something important.
Just as the smart kids are filtered out and sent to trigonometry, so too are the artistically-inclined picked out. Only in this case, instead of being sent to a different math class, the non-artists are pulled from art classes altogether.
Art and writing suffer from the same fallacy: that you can do them if you’re naturally talented, but there’s no sense bothering otherwise. The idea that drawing or any other skill comes from talent rather than focused learning and practice serves only to disempower people who would otherwise love to do those things and would probably benefit from them.
Writing is thinking and thinking is writing.
Drawing is seeing.
I taught myself to draw, which means I taught myself to observe.
In the capitalist paradigm, perception of value comes solely from a skillfully executed, salable product rather than from the process itself. But when the process of writing is thinking, and the process of drawing is seeing, how can anyone say that’s worthless?
One of the arguments that I always hear in favor of sending children to school (as opposed to homeschooling or unschooling them) is that children need proper socialization, a term which is both unquestioned and ill-defined. Nothing about my experiences in school taught useful social skills, unless keeping your head down and praying you’re in a class with your friends count as social skills.
The way we teach social skills to children is like throwing them into a pit of venomous snakes to help them learn how to suck the poison out of wounds. You have victims and bullies, all of them traumatized on some level. None of them know how to act.
When you grow up and get a job, you’re going to be interacting with other adults, ones who are hopefully long past the ruthless little psychopath stage. A professional environment has certain behaviors that are expected, and there’s no reason why kids can’t be told what they are upfront. Plus, none of the skills I wrote about above affect your ability to land a job—it’s down to networking.
Learning social skills by osmosis is easier for some people than others. If we’re even going to use the term “social skills,” why not treat them as though they can be learned? When you don’t teach them, you end up with thirty-four-year-olds who still don’t understand how making eye contact works. And thanks to smartphones, the need to explicitly teach these skills has only become more acute.
Mental health awareness
Years ago, I was in a Job Lot with my partner, and a commercial for antidepressants came on. I said something like, “Maybe if you’re depressed, the problem is that you’re a loser.”
What the fuck, right? Who says that?
If I heard someone say that now, I’d want to smack them with a sack of discount aquarium pebbles. I winced writing it both because of how harsh it is and how much it reveals about my mental state at the time. It’s like travelling to the past and staring directly into my own brain.
I said that in 2008 or 2009, when I was unemployed after college, and the most depressed I’ve been in my life. And I had no idea because I wouldn’t be diagnosed until 2012, and I didn’t start reading about mental health until after my diagnosis.
What would my life have been if I had gone through a routine screening? What would my life have been if I’d known about my mental health issues when I was seventeen instead of twenty-seven? What if my parents had known that I wasn’t just a quiet kid, but that I had severe social anxiety and needed extra help approaching people or making phone calls?
I’ve lost a lot of time.
Ideally, children would be screened for mental health problems from a young age. But let’s say that’s not happening in a medical setting, for any number of reasons. After all, if the education system in the United States is a mixed-up Rubik’s cube, the medical establishment is one that has been smashed with a hammer. And let’s say schools don’t have the budget to offer screenings to every kid.
At the least, wouldn’t it be nice if a middle or high school health class dedicated a little time to mental health issues? Even a month, a week, or a day would be better than nothing. At the least, wouldn’t it be better to give kids the information to recognize when they need to get more help?
Part of the problem is that I’m not totally sure what the purpose of school is, and I don’t think school knows either. Is it to help students grow up and find better jobs? If so, where are the practical on-the-job skills? Is it to brainwash mindless cogs-in-the-machine? If so, why bother with literature and art? Is it to create better citizens or to bestow the kind of liberal arts education that was once the province of only the rich?
In lieu of struggling with these questions purposefully, I see reactive additions and subtractions to school curricula. They come without question of what the ultimate goal should be.
We need more technology! Buy computers.
We can’t afford things on our anemic budget! Cut art.
My negative experiences in school are a huge reason why I aim to homeschool my own child, and to consider even that option with a critical eye. Half the skills I write about in this post combine into a single way of looking at the world, one which involves seeking new input, processing, and thinking. The other half falls into self-protective skills for navigating the world. Together, they give me a starting point for finding the skills I need to pass on, whether or not I am ultimately the one in the position of teaching them. Rather than use my own deficient experiences to form a reactive plan for my child, I’ll ask better questions myself, and make my plan from their answers.
That goes for me and all my future learning as well.
*Side note: we’re in America where everyone is touchy about money and we’re all supposed to pretend that class doesn’t exist. Not that many people discuss their wages anyway.
**Smart doesn’t mean smart. Smart means college-bound, due to a variety of factors that don’t always have anything to do with intelligence.
Is it appropriate to congratulate the bride if you know she doesn’t want to be there? For my current draft, I needed to come up with something for a character to say in this situation. To jog my brain, I ended up googling both “things to say to a bride” and “things not to say to a bride.”
You are supposed to tell the bride how beautiful she looks because “all brides want to hear that” and because of all the work that went into starvation diets. However, this is not supposed be phrased as “You did such a beautiful job starving yourself!”
You’re not supposed to tell the bride that you hate weddings, but that you’re enjoying hers. Even though, as far as I’m concerned, this is the highest compliment one can pay a wedding. Because weddings can be the worst.
Our wedding was a Halloween wedding, but we had a strong subtheme of “excising wedding traditions that we hate, particularly gendered ones.” I would’ve been perfectly happy if someone told me that my wedding was the exception to their wedding hatred.
You’re not supposed to compare the wedding to another wedding, such as by saying, “Julia and Mark used the same typeface on their place cards!” because the bride worked ever so hard to make the wedding unique (especially while operating on such a low number of calories).
This is the case even though there’s a whole industry of wedding shit that most brides are getting their unique centerpieces from.
There are a finite number of cupcake flavors and only so many ways to turn a mason jar into a centerpiece.
It’s been five weeks since I posted an excerpt from Stars Fall Out. A single-scene wedding I’d planned instead turned out to take up six scenes, making me feel as though I’ve been stalled in one spot. But in fact, I finished 13 scenes since I posted that last excerpt.
For this wedding snippet, I ended up doing the aforementioned perplexing wedding research to figure out what one might say to a bride at her wedding without congratulating her.
The research didn’t help; I figured out my own answer.
In seconds, people were all around us with compliments on our attire, on the ceremony, and on our perfection as a couple. I turned from one to the next, reflexively taking hands and accepting compliments, Tirsan by my side, and then gone, pulled away by some of his many cousins.
A hand fell onto my shoulder, no different than any other, aside that it came with a single word whispered in my ear, pronounced perfectly in a more imperial voice than the one I knew.
He came around to face me, his hand drifting off my shoulder. “The ceremony was fascinating,” Pinuar said in what I knew as his regular, Tavhathan voice. “And educational.”
Then he disappeared into the crowd.
And if you happen to be someone who’s been living under an assumed name for eight months and coming to see the bride in her father’s bakery, you might finally tell her your real name. And that you realize you were invited by a verbal accident, but you came anyway so that she has a single person to relax and be unhappy with.
And then you can go get yourself smacked in the face because a guy thinks you got him kicked out of his magic lab.
Sometimes I look at posts on my town’s Facebook group, and I don’t think that the events of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” are so far-fetched. There’s an incredible amount of aggression and tribalism; people are willing to figuratively stone each other for benign opinions about local restaurants. Once, my partner witnessed an argument turn into a demand to “Come fight me at the Santa Parade.”
Thinking about this was what inspired me to reread this story just now for the first time since eighth grade. Knowing where it’s going doesn’t diminish the impact, but rather makes it ever more horrifying and tense. It kills me that the woman who dies is late to the lottery because she didn’t want to leave dishes in the sink.
But what makes The Lottery such a memorable, chilling story isn’t any aggression displayed by the characters. It’s the matter-of-factness with which they band together and commit murder, then go home and go about their days. An enormous portion of the story is dedicated simply to the clerical and organizational problems of conducting the whole affair.
“…the whole lottery took only about two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.”
Shirley Jackson, The Lottery
No one is saying, “This is cruel.”
No one is saying, “This is insane.”
No is is saying, “Summon up a teaspoon of empathy for another human being, and don’t act like this.”
That goes for the characters in The Lottery, and for a lot of people on a lot of towns’ Facebook groups.
When I looked up “The Lottery,” I also came across a Mental Floss article of facts about this story. My favorite part was Jackson’s parents’ reaction to the story:
“Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker … [I]t does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?”“Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker … [I]t does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?”