Sometimes Things Go Right

I am happy to say that my conference went extremely well. I went in so anxious and afraid and dreading it all, but it ended up being a great experience. I remembered why I enjoyed this conference in previous years, and why I keep coming back to it. The conference (and I suppose it won’t hurt my anonymity to say which conference it is) was the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, which specializes in the academic study of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. It is simply one of the most inviting, collegial, friendly, and supportive conferences I have ever been to. Everyone is so smart and so friendly. The panels are great, and the social events are even better.

I was very nervous about my role as student representative to the Executive Board. It ended up being a LOT of work, but it was rewarding work, and all the things I feared could go wrong, didn’t happen. The Executive Board meeting was interesting and educational. The panels I was in charge of went smoothly. My paper presentation went ok – I was very afraid I was going to sound like an idiot as it was NOT the best paper I had ever written, but it went fine and the audience had some interesting comments and suggestions for my work.

I particularly enjoyed the two formal luncheons on Thursday and Friday, and the Awards Banquet on Saturday night. On Thursday I sat with the Executive Board and the Division Heads and they were very kind about talking to me and making me feel included in the conversation even though I was the new person and everyone else had known each other for years.

On Friday I was able to sit with my friend and a person I had met earlier in the week. And the three of us were lucky enough to find seats with two published authors: Peter Straub, who is a well-known horror writer, and Joe Haldeman, a well-known Science Fiction writer who is most famous for his novel The Forever War. They told stories about their experiences and they were absolutely fascinating! Also seated at our table was one of the Executive Board members who knows absolutely EVERYBODY. And the most amazing thing happened. During the luncheon I saw one of my favorite authors of all time, Stephen R. Donaldson, walk by, and I pointed him out to my friend excitedly. The Executive Board member, Gary Wolfe, laughed and asked if I wanted to be introduced. I said yes, and he went and fetched Stephen R. Donaldson and introduced me to him! And Donaldson stayed and talked to me for about 10 minutes. I couldn’t stop grinning and I had to work very hard not to completely fall apart in front of him. But it was the most amazing thing ever!

During the Saturday Awards Banquet I could not sit with my friend, but I once again was extremely lucky with who I ended up sitting with. I sat with a group of Children/YA Literature scholars who were absolutely hilarious and friendly. They joked and told stories and we got into a debate about the live-action adaptations of Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella, and we laughed so hard that the other tables kept staring at us. I had an amazing evening sitting with them. I just feel so lucky and grateful for their company.

I flew home Sunday afternoon and I dreaded returning to work on Monday. But I am so happy I went to the conference and had a marvelous time.

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The Long Shot Clause: Or, learning to be brave

I’m trying something a bit different lately. Something I’m (somewhat goofily) calling my “Long Shot Clause.” Each month I’m going to try something that is a long shot, that I acknowledge and accept is a long shot, something that would be really nice if it worked, but which I understand is not likely to work and for which I will not punish myself if it doesn’t. I’m not sure I’m explaining this very well, but you get the gist, I’m sure. Failing at these things cannot hurt me. But succeeding at them can help me immensely. And they help me learn to be brave.

Here’s an example: my first “long shot” was in November 2015. I picked a paper I’d written for a class, added to it, cleaned it up, edited it, etc. And then I submitted it to an academic journal to be considered for publication. I knew it was a long shot. I had no expectation of being accepted. I saw it more as an opportunity to possibly receive some feedback so I would know how to improve submissions in the future. And I figured at some point I just had to TRY or I was never going to get anywhere in my academic career.

Shockingly, in early January, I discovered that the journal had in fact accepted my submission, with very few required revisions. And now I have an article published in an online academic journal! Admittedly, online academic journals (particularly new ones like this one) are not QUITE as prestigious as more long-running, or print academic journals, but it is still a big deal to me, and it is still a great step in the right direction for an academic career. (You’ll have to forgive me for not posting the journal or article here, as it would negate the semi-anonymity I have here).

My “long shot” for January was to apply for a teaching position with the Duke Talent Identification Program – a position, as I mentioned before, I got with enormous speed and ease mere hours after my interview process. So, two long shots, two successes so far.

This month, my “long shot” is to submit a short story for publication. Specifically, I added to and edited the short story “Gone” I posted here (I’ve now changed the title to “The Haunting of Alex Dietrich” which is more catchy I think), and yesterday I mailed it to the submissions at the literary magazine Conjunctions. Now, Conjunctions publishes both known and unknown writers, including some pretty big names in the business, so I have absolutely NO illusions about being accepted. But again, at some point you just have to TRY and see what happens. Perhaps I will at least receive some constructive criticism from the editors. Maybe all I’ll get is a “no thanks.” Either way, it could be months before I hear back from them. But at the very least, I am trying to do things. To be brave. To push myself. To put myself on the line in ways that are fruitful but will not utterly destroy me if I fail.

I haven’t yet decided what my “long shot” will be for the month of March. I might not be able to think of anything else so soon after my last few attempts. I’d like to try to do something every month, but I won’t kill myself over it, because I think that would destroy the low-stakes feeling of it all. If anyone has any suggestions on other things I could try, or if you have “long shots” you want to try for yourself, please feel free to share. I’d love to hear about them.

Learning to be Okay

 

Three weeks into 2016, and already it’s been a very up and down kind of year.

I have taken the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman surprisingly hard. Alan Rickman in particular genuinely made me cry, which surprised me because I don’t generally react so strongly to celebrity deaths. Perhaps it was just because it’s only been a month since my grandfather died of cancer, and perhaps the cumulative effect of all these deaths intensified the feelings. I don’t know. But the last week has been very difficult because of it.

And just like last Spring semester, I’m not teaching because there were just not enough courses for all the adjuncts. Last Spring semester I had the same problem. I didn’t get any courses and thus didn’t have  job from the months of Jan through Aug. It was extremely difficult, and money was very tight, particularly after my mother was laid off back in May.  I applied for positions at several community colleges as well as the university I generally teach it, and didn’t get any courses at any of them. But I have no doubt that is at least partly my own fault: because I don’t drive, the locations I can reasonably get to is limited, and when I stipulate that, it lowers my chances of getting any courses to teach. I know there were some openings at two other community college campuses, but I just can’t GET there. The places I can get to aren’t hiring, and the places that are hiring, I just can’t get to. So, as usual, I have shot myself in the foot because of my driving issues.

But there was good news. I applied for a position at Duke University’s Talent Identification Program Summer Studies Program. I had an interview last Wednesday and was immediately offered two courses to teach during the summer. This is good for a number of reasons: first of all, the Duke TIP Summer program is very prestigious – an advanced studies program for high school students around the country that is run by Duke University but takes place locally; second of all, it’ll be a good experience and a good thing to put on my resume; and third, it means I’ll have a paycheck over the summer for once and won’t be quite so worried about my finances.

However, the Duke TIP Summer Studies program is going to be a SHIT TON work, and is going to monopolize most of the summer. I probably won’t be able to do much of anything else – dissertation work, or fun things, or whatever – during the months of June and July.

So, since I don’t have anything to do this semester, and I’ll have a LOT to do over the summer, the plan is this: I’m doing my summer and spring in reverse. And not teaching this semester will give me the opportunity to really focus on my dissertation work.

Of course, I said that last spring as well, when I was trying to finish my prospectus, and due to severe depression, I failed MISERABLY. Last Spring and Summer were just BAD. Okay, more than bad, I was (as I’ve said here before) suicidal for three months and genuinely did not believe I would see Christmas.

But now I’m on new medication, and a strict vitamin regimen, and I’m trying really hard to find a good balance between expectation and reality. I’ve been making extensive to-do lists, and I’m trying to figure out a workable daily schedule. I’ve been on a major self-help book binge the last two months as well. I’ve read Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking, Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and her next book Spark Joy. And next up is Eat That Frog: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done by Brian Tracy. I’m trying to do small bouts of exercise or yoga throughout the day, to keep myself moving even though I’m stuck at home most of the time. I’m meditating on a semi-regular basis. In other words: I’m doing everything I can think of to do and be better this year.

My biggest problem right now is forcing myself to stick to a schedule. I know I feel better and work better when I have a set routine. But when I have no set things to do or places to be – ie, teaching, grading, taking a course – I have a very hard time motivating myself to stick to a routine. My own knowledge that I should never seems to be enough. In high school and even parts of my undergrad I could motivate myself just fine. I didn’t need external motivation to keep myself moving. Apparently, I do need external motivation now though. And without a class to teach, or a graduate seminar to attend, finding that external motivation is proving difficult. Here’s hoping I can work something out.

But in the mean time, the take away is this: my spring is my summer. My focus will be on my dissertation work. And I’m learning how to be okay with that.

 

Growing Up is Overrated

growing up is overrated
Poster from SweetestNerdyDreams Etsy Shop

My dad has never understood the difference between being childish and immature, and simply enjoying fun things whether people “get it” or not. He often tells my brother to “grow up” simply because he can be hyper and goofy – despite the fact that he also has a steady decent-paying job and a lovely girlfriend. He tells my sister to “act her age” without seeming to realize that at the age of 15, she is in fact acting her age. And he simply cannot understand why, at the age of 30, I would still watch cartoons. (Ironically, my dad is excessively childish about the serious things, but he takes himself way too seriously about the little fun things.)

But I will never understand why there should be anything wrong with still loving the little things we loved as children. Cartoons. Silly pop songs. Coloring books. Dumb jokes. Park swings and slides. Etc etc etc. So let me say it here, for anyone who might care (though probably no one will): THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH ENJOYING THESE THINGS, and “growing up,” in that sense at least, is totally stupidly overrated.

If something is harmless, and it makes you happy, then by god you enjoy that thing and everyone else’s opinions be damned. There is so little joy in the world, sometimes, especially if, like me, you have issues with anxiety and depression. This is made even more difficult by things like the stress of living paycheck to paycheck, or family illness, etc. In those cases especially, if something is small, or cheap, or free, and it makes you happy, then own it, and apologize to no one.

For me, these things include:

Swinging on swing sets in children’s parks: I love swings, and always have. I wait for moments when the parks and playgrounds I live near are empty, or nearly empty – generally at dusk or early in the morning – because I don’t want to get in the way of actual children who deserve to enjoy their playgrounds without me taking up space. But I’m not embarrassed about it, and I don’t apologize for enjoying swings as much as a do.

puzzle pieces
“Puzzle Pieces” by Velkr0 CC2.0

Doing puzzles: Puzzles are a little like meditation for me, though they take me a long time to do because I can only spare a few minutes here and there between other things. I have down half a dozen puzzles in the last few years. Once, a puzzle took me two whole years to complete because a) I was really busy, and b) it was really difficult. My mother enjoys buying me puzzles, so I have a stack of about 10 waiting for me. I’m currently working on an Alice in Wonderland puzzle that is ridiculously difficult. This puzzle went above and beyond the call of duty in making irregularly-shaped pieces and the difficulty level is through the roof.

Playing video games: my brother is really gamer in the family, and I don’t play a ton of games. But I have a Nintendo DS and I enjoy taking some time now and again to play Mario Bros, or Kingdom Hearts. They’re fun and relaxing (in a weird way, as they do occasionally frustrate me at the same time). And I also love a game on Dance Dance Revolution on my brother’s old Playstation 2 over once in a while too.

Phineas&Ferb-logoWatching cartoons: Now, I’m not talking about anime here. Some people consider anime to be the same thing as children’s cartoons, but they are wrong. It’s a totally different, generally far more adult, category. And I watch TONS of anime, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about legit honest-to-god children’s cartoons such as: Phineas and Ferb, My Little Pony, Gravity Falls, Adventure Time, etc. I adore them. I was introduced to Phineas and Ferb by an old friends 4-year-old son, and I am totally okay with that. And my friend N– is to blame for my addiction to My Little Pony. (Also, Gravity Falls and Adventure Time are, despite their wackiness, completely brilliant and surprisingly grown-up at times.)

Coloring in coloring books: Now, I am happy about the recent popularity of “adult coloring books” and I have several very complex, detailed, difficult such coloring books, along with an enormous array of high quality colored pencils. But, though I am loathe to sound like a snooty hipster, I was coloring in coloring books LONG before it was suddenly trendy. All throughout high school and college, when everyone else had “grown up” and “grown out of” coloring, I was still happily buying coloring books and crayons, and I still have a vast collection of children’s coloring books like My Little Pony, Disney, Marvel Comics, and even Precious Moments coloring books.

So how about you? What traditionally “childish” things do you still love? What do you unapologetically enjoy? Please share! I’d love to here about it.

How Neil Gaiman Saved My Life

On friday night, Neil Gaiman gave a reading and talk at the Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin, TX. “A Night with Neil Gaiman” included short story readings (including one or two he had never read in public before), a couple poems, and a long series of question-and-answers — the questions were provided via notecards provided to the audience before the show; the answers were thoughtful, or funny, or adorable, or wise, or charming, or all of these at once. In fact, Neil Gaiman himself was thoughtful, or funny, or adorable, or wise, or charming, or all of these at once.

He read “Down to a Sunless Sea,” one of my favorite stories from his short story collection Trigger Warning. He read a couple of the stories he wrote for the Calendar of Tales he did in 2013 in collaboration with his Twitter followers. He talked about his marriage to Amanda Palmer. He talked his adult children, and his new-born son. He talked about his writing process, and gave advice to would-be writers and creators. He talked about books he loved. He talked about working with Terry Pratchett. He talked about falling in love, about nightmares, about ambitions, about death, about the attacks in Paris – which had happened just hours before the event. Despite, or perhaps even because of the somber tone added by the Paris attacks, it was a magical night. Like a magician’s performance — the stage was clear except for the podium and a table set aside for a couple bottles of water, but the feeling was of theatrical smoke and moody lighting and glitter from the ceiling.

I was sad to discover he would not be doing a signing afterward (I had brought a bag full of books just in case), but it was understandable: there were SO MANY people, it would have taken him hours, maybe days, if he had dared to try. Other than that small disappointment, the reading was everything I had hoped for back in July when I got the tickets.

In July, when I first heard about the reading on Neil Gaiman’s twitter page, I had been almost blasé about it. I was depressed, tired, past the point of caring. But I knew that if I dug myself out of the hole I was currently in, that I would be insanely, painfully excited. So I emailed a couple friends who were fellow Gaiman-fans, and we bought the tickets together. On Friday, we drive three hours to Austin for the performance, listening to the Neverwhere audiobook (read by Neil Gaiman himself) in the car on the way. As it is near the end of a very busy semester, I was understandable gleeful to have an excuse to be out and about and not working for a couple days, so we made a trip of it: a very nice dinner at a place called Zax Restaurant and Bar, then the event, then a midnight meal at the Kerbey Lane Cafe (open 24 hrs), and the next day we had brunch at Magnolia Cafe and spent a couple hours window-shopping on South Congress (the hipster/bohemia part of town) before heading home. The whole trip was a delight.

Unlike my two friends, who discovered Neil Gaiman through Sandman when they were children (8 and 10 respectively), I didn’t discover Neil Gaiman until my Junior year of high school. My best friend had read his short story collection Smoke and Mirrors, and lent it to me to read. The second I finished the book, I was hooked. I may have come late to the club, but I was going to enjoy every second now that I was there. I devoured everything Neil Gaiman had written to that point. All of Sandman, Good Omens, Neverwhere, American Gods, Stardust, even his children’s books. As each new book was released I read them, absorbing the darkness and the glee and hilarity and wonder in equal measure. I follow Neil Gaiman on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr. I read his blog. I listen to his advice. It was only because of him, that I discovered who Amanda Palmer was, and now I am enamored of her work and her social media presence as well. All in all, I am just about as a big of fan as you can be. There are, of course, many of us, and I am not unique, but I am part of that collective.

And yet, back in July I didn’t know for sure how I was going to feel about the trip. I knew once I was there I would enjoy it.  But traveling always makes me anxious (and it did this time, I just had enough fun as well to counteract it), and it was difficult to feel enthusiastic about anything just then. And, frankly, I had been suicidal since June.

I don’t just mean: depressed and vaguely wishing to disappear. I mean: I was making plans. I was writing good-bye letters. I was strategizing when my mother would be away so that I could have a few hours to go through with it before anyone could find me and stop me. I was ready to go.

But I loved Neil Gaiman. And I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see him live. And I had emailed my friends about it, and one friend had fronted the money to buy the tickets collectively. I was, in a way, committed to being around in November. So, I made a deal with myself and the universe. I would put off my plans, and I would try my damnedest to stick around for the Neil Gaiman reading. It wasn’t going to be easy. I might fail. And I was making no promises about what happened after the reading. But for four months, I was going to try my hardest not to disappear.

And here I am.

By September I finally gave in and saw a doctor (again), and revisited my depression medications (again), and went through a series of trial-and-error with types and dosages of meds. But I’m doing better now, as I have been proving on this blog over the last month or so. I’m far from perfect. I have bad days. But I’m definitely doing better, and I’m not desperately wildly suicidal right now.

This is not to say that Neil Gaiman is the only reason I didn’t kill myself. I did it for myself. I tried my hardest, and I gave in and asked for help before it was definitely too late, and the meds have done wonders to steady me. But I am saying that the desire to stick around until November, back in July when I was at my absolute lowest point, was a huge motivation. And I cannot say for certain that if I hadn’t had that extra push, I wouldn’t have killed myself before the month was out.

So this is my shout-out to Neil Gaiman. For doing what you do, without knowing how it might affect individual people, without any expectations of larger impacts beyond telling good, human, touching, strange, hilarious, creepy stories; just for existing: THANK YOU.

Happy Things: Art Museums

“Day at the Museum” by Allan Henderson, from Flickr (CC 2.0)

I went to the local art museum today. Last Fall semester I had long breaks between classes I was teaching, and I would take lunch breaks at the art museum at least twice a month. But for a variety of reasons, I hadn’t had a chance to go to the art museum since May. I had let my membership expire, for lack of funds or time. And it made me sad.

There are few things I love as dearly as museums. Museums make me happy to an almost ridiculous degree. Every time I travel somewhere, I go in search of the nearest museum. Big, small, it doesn’t matter. Every city I live has at least a couple museums, and I visit them multiple times a year if I can. Science museums, historical museums, nature museums, random museums like: The Museum of the Funereal Arts. Museum of the Gulf Coast. The Museum of Contemporary Crafts. But I think my favorites are art museums.

Art museums are special to me. They are kind of like walking meditation. Joyful, contemplative, invigorating but also restful. While I love going to science and nature museums with friends and family, I generally go to art museums alone. These moments are some of the only times when I can be alone, and feel alone, without also feeling lonely. I spend most of my time, even around people (my students, my less-than-restful family, etc) feeling surrounded but lonely. At art museums, I’m alone: surrounded the whispered hush just barely above silence that is typical of museums, no one bothering me or trying to talk to me, no one looking at me or expecting anything from me. But I don’t feel LONELY. I feel comfortable. There is a sense of belonging in art museums I get in very few places (concert venues, is the other place like that I can currently think of).

So, I went to the art museum today. I made today a “work day” for my students, which they all appreciated, and I came in to the downtown area early, and I took the metro-rail into the Museum district. I also renewed my membership. While it’s a bit pricey, and I have to be careful about money, the art museum is simply too important to my mental health, my self-care, to let it slide any longer.

“Untitled” – Mark Rothko, Licensed Under Fair Use via Wikipedia

There’s a Mark Rothko Retrospective exhibit going on right now, so I started there. Mark Rothko is not my favorite artist ever. I like some abstractionists, but there are limits to my… faith, I guess, for lack of a better word – my suspension of disbelief, so to speak. I do not argue that his work isn’t art – if someone created it, and it moves someone (and possibly, if someone buys it) then fine; it’s art. But it’s not always art I can appreciate it. Some of Rothko’s work is quite striking and beautiful. Colorful, full of spirit and interest. There is something quite meditative as well about some of his work. I found myself breathing a little more slowly, pausing a little longer on some pieces.

“Untitled” – Mark Rothko (1970) Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

And yet… canvases simply painted black, or brown, or gray – no matter how much philosophical rumination one writes about in one’s artist’s statements – just doesn’t feel legitimate to me. I do not begrudge those who do like Rothko’s Black Works and other such pieces, but… I just cannot join them. Some have accused me of being a philistine, of being not as supportive of postmodernism as I claim to be, of missing the point, or being blind, or being stupid… but. No. Sorry. I just can’t buy into this version of art.

In any case, I still enjoyed the retrospective overall. However, the real highlight for me was the exhibit on Joachim Wtewael – a 16th century painter who could do a little of everything with equal skill and grace and color and attention to detail. The immense amount of detail, the tiny tiny intricate details, these are what really drew me to him. As well as his striking color schemes. Brilliant reds, deep blues, warm golds. Popular colors of the 16th (and 17th) century, to be sure, but he used them beautifully. Masterfully.

“The Raising of Lazarus”, c. 1605-10 by Joachim Wtewael – National Gallery. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

I spent a little over three hours at the art museum today. My knees hurt, and I’m getting a bit of a headache, but I adored every second of it. And I’ve come back to my little shared office on campus feeling a little better than I did yesterday. More peaceful. Gentled by a few brief moments of joy in an otherwise dreary and exhausting week.

The Wildmind Buddhist Meditation website explains walking meditation in this way: “In walking meditation we use the experience of walking as our focus. We become mindful of our experience while walking, and try to keep our awareness involved with the experience of walking.” Going to an art museum is not QUITE the same thing as walking meditation, of course. The focus is less inward and more outward, at the objects around you. But sometimes this outward focus helps to facilitate an inward focus. And I believe that visiting an art museum is very close to the same ideas of awareness and mindfulness that are advocated in walking meditation.

At the very least, I highly recommend it.