Gold star and a hippo stamp

©careerusinterruptus

Yesterday, I received the greatest, most precious gift of all: Time alone, at home.

Alone time is rare enough; our situation is such that I used to only get two hours a week when I went to the library to write. COVID stopped that and although it’s now pretty safe here, I haven’t got back into the habit.

Especially after a week like the one just gone, where I’ve been OUT OUT OUT SOCIAL SOCIAL SOCIAL from first thing to late afternoon, every day: driving all around town for homeschool classes, looking after mum, piano lessons, shopping, appointments, spending a day with a friend. Come Sunday, I find myself thoroughly begrudging the idea of getting dressed and going out in the hot and the public, AGAIN.

Yep. Even if it means forfeiting the only two hours off duty I’m likely to get.

But as it happened, the off-duty time came to me. And four hours, not two.

All I had to do, was decide how best to use it.

I mean, a treat like that, you really want to make the most of it. Maxiumum benefit.

SO MUCH PRESSURE.

SUCH A CONUNDRUM.

What to do? How best to use all this glorious FREE TIME??

I’d written lots during the week, sitting in the corner of the homeschool class and during TV o’clock, so although writing is always my first three favourite things to do, it wasn’t exactly burning with urgency.

On the other hand, lots of other stuff, was.

There’s Christmas, charging at us like a wounded rhino. The kids are super excited and surprisingly this year, I am, too. We’re having three days away mid-December so I’ve set the goal of having it all done and wrapped before we go. (Voice in head: BWAHAHAHAAAA! AS. IF. Other voice in head: Shut up, you.)

I could go shopping, unencumbered, and enjoy some lovely air-conditioning. (Both voices: Although…shopping. UGH.)

I could rootle around online without distraction or fear of anyone asking what I’m looking at and why and here’s another six pages of their wish-list.

I could – ooh, I know what’d be smart – I could unpack the stash and see what, if anything, I’ve already bought, and for whom. Maybe even start wrapping. How great would that be for executive function and forestalling some pressure next month, eh?

Ooh! Or, OR, I could do tidying! I could tackle one of the Epic Messes that are driving me and the Skeptic out of our tiny little minds, and which I haven’t touched all week. I could – be still, my heart – I could THROW STUFF OUT without anyone wailing, reprimanding me for not recognising its intrinsic dearness, and carrying said stuff off to repose peacefully with its mates, on the floor in a different room.

Hell, I could do tidying with loud music. That’s fun! Therapeutic loud singing, sans criticism! And at the end of it there’d be Clear Space! HOW EXCELLENT WOULD THAT BE?!?

Although… One of the kids cleaned their entire room and – wait for it – threw a heap of their own crap out last month, all by themselves, without even crying. (Why is this not a milestone in the development books, eh? It bloody should be.)

In fact, they’re both levelling up. One of them is complaining regularly of boredom while resisting all change. (Hello, anxiety, you miserable bastard.) The other is hell-bent on solving it all by themselves now yesterday faster, but guess what? Also anxious, so SCREAMING.

I have a lot of fucking research to do, getting my head around all that – and if either of them catch me doing it, the consequences will be shitty. So this time would be ideal. Hell, if it reduced my stress at all, I might even be able to sleep. (Voice in head: suuuure. You’ll just magically start sleeping. That’s riiiiight. Other ViH: stink-eyes first ViH)

Orrrr, given that this time is a gift to me, perhaps I could use it to do some more reading about self-publishing. Chat to that lovely writer from the facebook group, who offered any help I could think of. So many questions!

But, god, I felt meh.

I was tired and it’s hot which makes me stupid. I couldn’t find any skerrick of mojo, anywhere. And I suppose there’s just the teensiest, weensiest chance I was over-thinking.

I dithered over the decision for a solid hour before they went, in between collecting and putting away groceries, hanging out laundry, and 999 questions from CraftyFish about Christmas. Once they left, I dithered some more. Two cups of tea didn’t help and the music, on when I started, was too loud. It got turned down, then turned down again, and when it disconnected itself, I didn’t restart it.

Instead I heard a third voice in my head, the quietest one, the one way down deep underneath all the shoulds and coulds, saying, “girl, you need a nap.” I heard it and I heard the ghostly whispers of all the good, smart, women I know, those amazing advocates of self-care, and fuck me, I did it. I pulled the plug on productivity. Took my hearing aids out, put the fan on, and lay down for a nap.

I’m not sure I slept. The shoulds, coulds, what-ifs and what-abouts are so bloody insistent. There are so many of them. And, I’m really not very good at this ‘rest’ business. But I tried. I lay down and shut my eyes and used my precious alone-time to Do Nothing.

And I am very, very proud of myself.

New writing, old tricks

To say I found academic writing difficult is a bit of an understatement.

The trouble is, I’m all heart. I fling myself into things without any much consideration: an idea either lights my rockets – in which case, liftoff is pretty much instantaneous – or it doesn’t, in which case, liftoff will never happen.

A lot of academic work I found pretty combustive. The vast array of ideas is fertile ground for a brain that likes bolting in eight different directions at once. I suspect this is why I ended up in media studies: at 24 frames a second, you can pack in a lot of ideas, even in short, throwaway texts like ads and pop videos. And the more academic work you read, the deeper you see into any given text and the more connections you can make to other texts. This is your classic gifted ‘deep dive’, and my brain threw itself at that stuff like a pig into wallow, gleefully.

But conveying what I saw, in writing, was a whole different story. Academic writing is WHOA, NELLY. Before you even start you must locate your text, choose your theoretical planks, craft them into a sea-worthy vessel, pack supplies, toss extraneous stuff overboard, and then navigate from island to island keeping the passengers from mutiny until you get to the New Land. (Where, yes, some set about slaughtering the inhabitants, though I’m more of a ‘settle peacefully’ kinda gal.) That’s a lot more orderly and restrained than gleeful wallowing, you know?

I struggled to get it. Could not shove my brain onto those rails. When my poor supervisor finally made me begin writing, I sat on the floor of my office surrounded by notes and literally moved scraps of paper around until a structure blossomed. Then I gave a presentation titled, ‘My Thesis Is A Flower’ (with diagrams), which caused her to laugh nervously and left everyone else in the room wondering what had happened to Introduction, Question, Methodology, Results, Conclusion. But it made perfect, theoretical sense to me.

In fact each petal (and in the end there were fourteen of the bastards) was a mini-thesis. Every single one had to cover where we were, how we were travelling, where we were going, what we’d find when we got there. Even once I had that plan, it took months of meticulous outlining to ensure I made each step in order, filled all the holes, and forged links between neighbouring petals. And then I could get to writing.

The whole thing took nine plodding years, and it thoroughly ground my gears. It felt like I’d travelled the whole way in first.

So I was thrilled to finally be freed from academic constraints. Now I could write whatever I wanted, full speed ahead. No references! No argument! No thinking – just writing! EASY! Flinging off the straitjacket, I galloped headlong into my novel about ten minutes after my last full-time contract ended. My glee at being back in the mud can be measured: the first draft was over 270,000 words, and getting it to float has taken 14 years.

(How many metaphors have I brought into play so far? That in itself is probably an apt metaphor for how my brain works!)

Quite a lot of that is down to loss of brain function over that time, but some of it was down to the fact that when I started, I knew only that I was headed west-ish. Turned out I was on little more than a raft. It shipped water, ran into countless reefs, someone had smuggled a llama onboard, and I stopped to observe every fish and seagull we passed along the way. I’ve spent easily half those years chucking stuff, reshaping planks, plugging holes, re-rigging, and shifting ballast, so that now I’ve got an actual, working vessel. This last draft cruised into port with the bunting out.

It was a terrific learning process, but for goodness sake, I cannot spend 14 years on each project. They’re light romances, not War and Peace, and I would actually like to sell one or two before I die.

So here I am, six chapters into Number Two and I’ve stopped again. Because I’ve remembered an important fact, dammit: novels have structure, too. (I’ve taught narrative often enough; you’d think I would have remembered and thought to apply it, but no. That’s not how gifted works. Gifted is either all on or all off, and wailing on the floor if you have to work at it.)

And while I am, clearly, 100% a pantser by nature, that really only works if you have sustained or at least regular writing time and a functional brain, one that remembers where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going. (That is not my life, and it sure as hell ain’t my brain.)

So even though this book on writing annoyed the hell out of me triggered a giant attack of SAF, I do realise that the author is absolutely correct. If I don’t want to be at sea for another fourteen years, I need to set off knowing which islands we’ll be visiting, who’s on board, and a route that avoids the doldrums.

Alas, it turns out, I still have to do all the prior planning and preparation that prevents piss-poor performance, as my husband puts it so charmingly. I have to do – SIGH – plotting.

Luckily, I have the skills. And a generous supply of coloured pens and paper, tape, and scissors.

Lament for my lost EF

Ahh, Executive Function: the ability to plan, break tasks down into steps, prioritise, execute, and … what’s the last one? Oh yes: finish.

I remember that.

It used to be one of my superpowers. Once upon a time, my life looked like this:

I was enrolled full-time on a Masters degree, coursework plus researching and writing a 30,000-word thesis. I was also working 18hrs/week as a research assistant, collecting and analysing a range of print and video publications for someone else’s project. And I was also working 9hrs/week as a grad teaching assistant. The effortless tidiness of my office attracted colleagues’ admiration.

A few years previously, I’d helped found an animation lobby group, serving as treasurer and producing the newsletter. We were also managing a film project. I had helped obtain and distribute development funding, I’d drawn and submitted my own storyboard, I was helping assess the other proposals.

And that’s not all. In those days, my fella and I lived in a tidy two-story house; we did jiu-jitsu; we saved money; we cooked from scratch and packed our own lunches; we gardened. I had my own room with art and needlepoint supplies in frequent use. We went regularly to the movies and spontaneously invited people to dinner.

That life ticked all my boxes for intellectual stimulation and variety, physical activity, social time and quiet time. I thrived.

Aaaaaand then there’s now.

Now I have one job – homeschooling my kids, which I manage haphazardly – and one hobby that gets any meaningful attention. Even so, I’ve missed the GHF Writers’ EF-themed month, finally starting when by rights I should be excavating a giant pile of Lego, doll clothes, and dust, to find the source of the cat-pee smell.

Meanwhile this week I got to the bakery where I buy the kids’ lunch, only to discover I hadn’t brought my purse, and made an appointment with the hairdresser that I forgot within the hour. I wanted The Skeptic to come to the orthodontist with me because I didn’t feel capable of grasping it all; this was so important that I reminded him repeatedly … of the wrong time. We visited Mum on a day when it wasn’t my turn. And – shh, the kids don’t know this – but I started a small fire by putting a tray lined with baking paper down too close to a gas flame. Twice.

It has been like this for years. Check out this fun facebook memory that cropped up this week:

The playroom rug has never recovered, and my wallet was gone for 32 days, only turning up (in my son’s Lego box, where, fucking hell, I had put it) after I’d driven off without paying for petrol.

Often when I complain about this stuff with other mothers, they laugh it off. Oh sure, they say, giving an example of a goof that didn’t cost anything, waste anyone’s time, put anyone in danger, or ruin anything valuable. That’s parenthood, they say.

But I wonder. I mean, their kids go to school. They hold down jobs and keep fit and their cars don’t smell like they’ve been driving a giant plastic bag of lawn clippings around for a hot summer month. (Must remember to get that out of there today.)

Do they really live in a thick fog of Chronically Lost Things, Missed Appointments, and Forgotten Tasks? Because their nonchalance, their equanimity, suggests to me that perhaps it isn’t quite the same over there in Regular Shower Land.

You see, it isn’t just parenthood that did for my EF: it’s parenting these particular kids, with their screaming and their not-sleeping, their throwing things and their screaming, their mind-blowing questions and their endless bloody screaming, their separation anxiety and their violent school refusal and did I mention the screaming? Additionally, the past 13 years have brought heavy physical and emotional burdens that punched their own enormous holes in my neural networks, quite apart from the children, who will at any rate outgrow most of that stuff. (I hope.)

And I didn’t just lose my ability to get things done. I lost my whole sense of self, which had, rather unfortunately, been built on high – or at least, lots of – achievement. And on being ‘smart’. I don’t feel smart, any more. Where I used to be all about ideas – all the ideas! Big ideas! More ideas! – now I can find myself standing in the kitchen holding a piece of bread, wondering where the toaster is. (Answer: on the bench in front of me, where I put it just before opening the bread-bag.)

Yet Old Rebecca lingers like a snarky ghost, tutting and rolling her eyes when I’m searching for my keys/sunglasses/hearing aid/that thing I was just carrying that I meant to do something with. Whatever it was. She still counts ‘success’ by the number of things I can cross off the list, whereas New Rebecca is lucky to recall that the list even exists. Also, have you seen my shoes? ‘Useless’, she whispers. ‘FFS.’

It wasn’t until I encountered Jen Merrill’s “Adult-Onset, Child-Induced ADHD” (coined in her book) that I finally felt someone really got it. Then I found some other 2e mums IRL and online, those whose IQs have similarly shot from one end of the bell curve to the other, whose laughter is equally frequent, wry, and a little bit wild. Who celebrate the days we manage to have showers. Yes, that counts as an accomplishment these days. High-fives all round.

They’re awesome, the 2e mums, and I am so grateful to know them. They’re helping me be a better person. Whereas Old Rebecca could be a bit of a bitch, testy with those who couldn’t keep up, New Rebecca has a lot more compassion for those who’ve been trampled by wiring, life, accident or illness. She’ll chuck whatever goals she had for the day to share some cake and listen to your story, so I don’t for a moment regret her appearance.

I just… sometimes, I miss my brain.

The SAF is a PITA post

A few months ago, Mr Pixel very sweetly volunteered to wash up on nights when the Skeptic works late, to save my eczema-cursed fingers. I dry and put away, we chat. Nice, huh?

Except, this is how he stacks dishes.

Early on I said, dude, if you put them upside-down, they drain better. Quicker process. Less waterlogged tea-towels.

He looked at the inverted bowl, then at me, and he shrugged. And I know, from 13 years wrangling this pesky kid, that his thinking was, “that’s your crazy way”.

I’ve mentioned it once, since, and he argued, claiming it takes too long to flip his wrist as he moves a steaming plate from the rinse water to the drainboard. So, he carries on putting things right-side-up, and I carry on turning them over. ANNOYING, MUCH?

Tonight it occurred to me that this illustrates our SAF issues rather perfectly, so I got my phone to photograph it.

Then of course I had to explain what I was doing. While listening, Mr Pixel placed three glasses and two bowls upside down. (!)

But then he processed what I was saying, and he did this. And this, and this. Yeah. He filled the bowls.

That’s not anxiety-based rigidity, people. Trust me, I see PLENTY of that. It’s not Pathological Demand Avoidance, either. He’s just playing with me.

Similarly last year, when my 83yo mum had to go to hospital after hurting her back. Once she was strapped in, I said, regretfully, “No more soccer for a while, eh Mum,” just to see the ambos’ faces when she whipped back, “I can if I want!”

She was grinning. Like my son, Mum enjoys being contrary. (Ask her. She’ll say, “No I don’t!” And then she’ll laugh, gleefully. The trait is so fundamental, it’s surviving the dementia.)

This, my friends, is congenital Stubborn As Fuck.

SAF is so prevalent in my family – affecting every single one of us, to a greater or lesser extent – that my sister and I have long joked about a Nose-Cutting gene. No matter how sensible any of us appear, sooner or later, we crack, and dig in. And my god, can we dig.

Collectively, family members have dug themselves into chronic unemployment, abusive relationships, bad jobs, a breathtaking array of self-harms, addictions, assaults, more broken and damaged relationships, and more near-death experiences than I can count. Mum was being funny, true, but she’d also spent three agonising days clinging to the walls at home before she let me call that ambulance.

Trouble is, we’re all exactly the same. So when, as parents, our kids refuse to cooperate, our strongest instinct is to reach for our shovels.

Mainstream parenting advice reinforces this tendency, right? Be Firm. Boundaries. Consequences. Tough Love. Find Their Currency. You’re The Parent!

So, in we dig. Whatever it takes to alter our progeny’s pigheaded behaviour.

Some of us, sadly, have resorted to cruelty to gain compliance. That works. Kinda.

Others use talking – So. Much. Talking. – and kindness. My generation are especially big on this. Reasoning, patience, validation, empathy, all the good stuff. That works better, obviously.

To a point.

The kids, though. It’s like they can smell our agenda. Soon as they catch a whiff of Their Best Interests, they’re off. With their excavators.

Because no matter how shiny the carrot, how gently and lovingly wielded the stick, no matter how RIGHT we, as parents, are (and we bloody well are), it’s still about getting them to do something that, for whatever reason, they’re not ready for. The gifted know it, and they resent the hell out of it.

And that’s when anxiety really bites, when they think we’re not hearing them, or only listening in order to ‘help’ them do what we want; when they know they’re disappointing us and yet cannot do any different; when they feel abandoned and alone, in their holes.

Once that happens, of course, the show’s over. Everything we do and say is heard as $@#*!! and all they can do is burrow ever deeper.

I really don’t want to teach my kids to fight like that.

It seems to me, to produce adults who are so habituated to not being heard, that we struggle to let go, admit errors, hear advice, accept help, change tack, or hold our damn tongues.

I especially struggle with that last. Keeping schtum when Mr Pixel was filling bowls nearly cost me another molar. I know he just wants to play. But I just want him to do things the easy, sensible way for once in his life, without fucking arguing, OKAY?

Multiply this by a thousand times a day over every imaginable issue (and quite a few unimaginable ones): When he says “don’ wanna” or “not gonna” to things he does wanna, enjoys, is already, for the love of god, doing.

When he says ‘no’, for no reason, to simple chores, especially ones he’s done hundreds of times before. When I know that a little thing like obstreperous dish-stacking is just the cute baby toe of an issue Godzilla-like in its size and destructiveness.

But when we dig in, we teach our kids to dig in. I have three generations’ proof of that coming to Christmas lunch.

I know that it doesn’t really matter how my kid stacks the fricking dishes. And I know that willfully playfully stacking them the WRONG his way, needn’t necessarily lead to a lifetime’s non-compliance and all the terrible consequences that can follow.

I just have to teach him that, strong as the impulse is, we don’t have to dig.

So whatever my kids’re doing, or not doing, however unreasonable it appears, I take a huuuuuge breath and remind myself: They’re doing the best they can in this moment.

They will do better when they can.

If they’ve done better before, and they’re not now, that’s okay. Learning is uneven.

Then I work my arse off modelling the stuff that I know is hardest for us: Listening. Negotiation. Accepting ‘no’. Letting go. Giving it time. Self-compassion. Self-regulation. Shutting my big fat yap.

Because it’s not about what I think they can do, or should do, or when I think they can or should do it. It’s about showing that I trust they’ll get there, however long it takes. (Kinda the point of asynchronous development, yes?) It’s about giving them space to learn how to identify the help they need and learn how to ask for it. It’s about ensuring that they know I’ll be there when they’re ready.

It’s about showing them how to use tools other than their shovels.

SAF may be congenital, but it doesn’t have to be terminal.

Worth doing badly

When I was five, my dad went to Japan on a longish work trip. He didn’t usually call home – in the early 70s he travelled constantly – but this time he did. And, he promised presents for us three girls. (I can peg my age because my brother wasn’t yet born.) He wouldn’t say what they were, only that the presents were all the same but in our favourite colours: yellow for me, green and pink for my sisters.

Naturally, from this I deduced that I would finally get my heart’s greatest desire, the thing I’d not received for either Christmas or my birthday: A SEWING MACHINE. OUR OWN, FAVOURITE-COLOUR SEWING MACHINES.

Never mind that we were five, four, and two years old at the time. Dad was in JAPAN. What else could he POSSIBLY get there?!

Needless to say, it wasn’t sewing machines. It was (and 46 years later it’s still hard to spit this out) matching jacquard towel-and-facecloth sets. Like that even counts as a present, let alone for kids.

It wasn’t until my 40th birthday that I finally got the long-coveted Brother. However, as I had a 17-week-old no-sleep baby at the time as well as a two-year-old, it stayed in the box. For a year.

At some point in my 42nd year, though, I opened it and started learning to sew. That is to say, I bought a 1988 Readers’ Digest Complete Guide to Sewing (ex-library stock), read one or two free online instructions for making pillowcase dresses, and launched my brilliant sewing career.

Child’s pink top

Over the next few years, I made many, many twee, floaty, toddler-sized peasant blouses like this.

CraftyFish won’t wear them – wouldn’t even model them, being neither twee nor floaty. Toddler-sized didn’t last long either. I persisted because I needed the practice.

Truth is, I sew about as well as the chooks.

I’m too distracted, too brain-foggy, and in far too much of a hurry to do it well. I have 37 years’ worth of not-sewing to catch up!

Straight lines and I have never got along, so a craft that involves both cutting and sewing straight lines, was always going to be challenging. (See also, tracing, pinning, seam allowances.) Also, I can’t much be arsed with measuring, even if I could find one of the seventeen measuring tapes we own, which I can’t be bothered looking for. Wasting valuable sewing time! Eyeball it! In fact, who even needs patterns except as a starting point?

Orange-and-yellow striped toddler top

Plus I’m fairly clumsy. I regularly snip through two layers of fabric instead of one, or nick the fabric whilst cutting ends; threads jam, snap and snarl; seams wobble; edges diverge; I’ll iron a seam flat only to stitch it folded a minute later. I broke my first needle sewing through my index finger.

For a while I plotted an online shop where the shittiness of my productions would be the USP. I couldn’t possibly compete with people who can actually sew, so I’d highlight alllll the flaws (this, I’m exceptionally good at) and let buyers call the price. So what if the top only lasts two washes? It would be handmade and cute! I would call the shop, ‘Teach Me To Sew’. Brilliant, eh?

The Skeptic regarded this ‘plan’ … skeptically.

I did, at one point, sell a pair of skirts to a pair of sisters – well, to their Mum, really – that were not only rather gorgeous, but held together and worn for years, since they started long and both girls grew tall rather than out. Another friend commissioned an owl softie for her daughter after she saw the one I made for CraftyFish.

Pair of tiered skirts, blue and purple flowered fabric, ruffles, and rosettes

But I could imagine the blowback if, despite my meticulous descriptions, someone discovered they could fit three of their kids into one of my tops except that the left sleeve was sewn closed, and that brought me to my senses. I no longer dream of selling my creations.

Nevertheless, I continue sewing, and I’m slowly getting better, though that’s not really the point. I just want to make pretty things. Peasant tops, simple frocks, bags, and baggy trousers will do just fine. I’m proudest of the dress I made for my 50th, extrapolating the whole thing from a single bodice pattern piece with made-up neckline, tucks, sleeves, and ruffles. Made from a $5 piece of op-shop fabric, it looked exactly how I wanted it to and it didn’t fall off during the party.

Apparently I’m not very good with selfies, either. And that mirror needs a wash.

The fact is, making stuff – and making stuff up – makes me happy. Joyful. I love learning a new skill, especially one that waited 37 years for attention, but it’s really just about the prettiness of the prints, the colours, the making. As a result, I own cubic meterage of vintage pillowcases and fabric from op-shops. And buttons. And trim.

Oh, my god, how much do I love vintage fabrics and buttons and trim?

SO MUCH.

So much promise in that magical place: my ‘stash’. Like I can open a drawer and conjure an afternoon’s happiness, any time I want. A new skill or three. A pretty thing. Every piece of fabric I’ve bought whispered to me in the shop what it wanted to be, and I’ve never forgotten. I look forward one day to granting their wishes. They will be beautiful.

Just don’t look too closely.

Back in my lane

©careerusinterruptus. Description: A stack of light

Shortly after COVID kicked off – or maybe when George Floyd was murdered – or was it the Ruby Princess debacle? Who knows? Who can even keep track of all this year’s shitbombs? – I had a fit of needing to Know More.

Specifically, more political economics. I’ve never really paid attention; I’m a small-p politics, big ideas gal through and through. What you can learn from the news has never really stuck in my head. But given the speed with which our handbasket is heading hellwards, it seemed immoral to be indulging in Bridgertons. I had to help!

So I borrowed a giant stack of clever library books. These here times are gonna take some knowledgeable navigating! I’m smart! I can get knowledgeable!

First off, an edited collection about Australian politics. How did we get here? Alas, besides Ruth Barcan’s stupendously useful essay on Hansonism and what she called the ‘lament for modernity’, it turns out I still don’t care about Party Politics, not even three chapters’ worth.

Perhaps John Quiggin’s Economics in Two Easy Lessons would be better. He’s a sensible media commentator and the reviews promised an accessible, entry-level text. So, perfect for someone keen to understand capitalism and what we should do differently.

Or not. Towards the halfway point, I was maybe possibly starting to slightly understand …some of it? Until then, I had to keep going back two, five, twelve pages, retrieving definitions and trying to follow the argument. None of which I retained long enough to finish.

Also in the stack were Thomas Piketty’s Capital, having encountered his idea of Modern Monetary Theory on social media, Yascha Mounk’s The People Vs. Democracy, because that title, from Harvard UP, nails it, and Richard Fortey’s Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms because evolution is happening right now, right? All big, important ideas, that a knowledgeable person should know.

Friends, I couldn’t even open them.

I did open Martin Moore’s Democracy Hacked. The first half terrified me. Proper, chilling, can’t-sleep fear, based on horribly compelling evidence. Fuck that shit. I feel awful about abandoning it – on oh, so many levels – but if understanding means less sleep, then ignorance it is. I function as the frontal lobe for four, sometimes five, people, and I need every damn neuron I can scrape together.

Deciding to forget the past and work towards the future, I tried Clare Press’s Rise and Resist. Wow, she can write – and wow, this book is full of good stuff. Connection. Strength. Power. Women! Just what we need!

But I couldn’t stick that, either. Sux weeks in I’m only part-way through chapter four and it’s about as uplifting as dusting.

I am absolutely no wiser about politics, economics, or what we can do to avoid the iceberg, than I was six months ago.

This stuff used to be my bread and butter, my happy place. Big ideas are my bag and suddenly, I just can’t? Wtf is WRONG WITH ME?!

And then, peeling carrots, I remember: I’ve been here before. 25 years ago, when my dad died. I was young, child-free, energetic, and I didn’t read a book for weeks. Fran Drescher’s Enter Whining took a month, for goodness sake. I simply couldn’t concentrate. Just like now.

Which is how I realised, I’m grieving.

Yes, sure, I’m up to my eyeballs, caring for others, and that uses a huge fucking lot of RAM. But that hasn’t slowed me down much in the past decade: I’ve plowed through all sorts, including cosmology, quantum, histories of science and the Yes campaign, alongside Georgian romances, contemporary women’s fiction, and many autobiographies. Some of which stuck, even.

So it’s not just the daily roller-coaster. Fast ups and downs with lots of screaming is normal; reading through that has kept me sane. (Ish.)

It’s about loss – the great losses we’re witnessing now and the worse ones to come – and terrible sadness. It’s about the tremendous energy it takes to shut that all down so I can keep functioning. I can’t concentrate because my head is working full time, holding my heart in check.

So full that I’ve seen approximately 4,352 memes about this stuff and never twigged they were talking about me.

To me.

Whoops.

This is the bastard thing about being raised on “you’re so smart, you could probably cure cancer”. 51 years old and I am still learning where my lane is. But the fact is, there are already plenty of people out there both specifically and generally far more knowledgeable; millions better at facts, reason, problem-solving. They’re the ones who’ve got to solve this mess, not me, and that’s okay.

My job is to hoist the flag for values – compassion, empathy, respect, love – to care for those around me who need support, to put beauty into the world wherever and however I can, to ally my freaking pants off, to connect, and to raise kids who do those things. That is all.

So I’ve gone back to the library, and I have a new stack of books. Ones that will help me do what I’m good at, not what I wish I was good at, or what I think I should be good at.

I’m glad I remembered.

How we do it

@careerusinterruptus

Last month, SpaceX’s Falcon-9 rocket carried an Argentine satellite and two, smaller, ride-sharing satellites into space to drop into orbit. It was F9’s fourth launch, but its first time landing on shore. (Normally it comes down on one of two drone boats – a beautiful sight.) And they caught one of the rocket’s farings in a huge net on their manned boat.

Do you want to know more? I know more! I know the names of all the boats and satellites, what a faring is and does, how far into space each stage goes and what its function is, when SpaceX’s next crewed mission is, who the crew will be… You know how I know all this, right?

NOT because I have any interest in rockets, but because Mr Pixel does. He monitors the launch schedule, watches the videos, absorbs the facts, and loves to share. He can either explain, or instantly check on a pinned tab, any detail a silly old mum has failed to engrave on her grey matter. How much he loves this stuff can be gauged by the fact that all week he’s been checking a live-stream of SpaceX’s Boca Chica site, even though nothing’s happening there. (Exept a digger arriving on Tuesday.)

Meanwhile, CraftyFish decided I needed to learn about Harry Potter. (AFAIK I’m the sole member of the International I Don’t GAF About Harry Club.) Clearly, none of the eleven meta-HP books in the house own were sufficiently informative; CraftyFish had to make her own. So she downloaded a ton of images and pasted them into a document which we had to go get printed, our machine being on the fritz. But – DISASTER! – incompatible file types! Skew-whiff formatting! (ENORMOUS self-restraint mobilised here, tremendous, to avert public tears.)

Home again, where, under great emotional tension, I dredged up 35yo skillz to format 11pp of images in a suitable program. Then back to the print shop. CraftyFish, who had, in the interim, decided to learn Für Elise from sheet music she found online, asked to print that, too.

Then back home. She spent the next three hours happily cutting, gluing, and practising, while I lay down with a cold compress and a g&t.

PLEASE NOTE: ALL OF THIS HAPPENED SIMULTANEOUSLY, UNPLANNED, ON A MONDAY MORNING.

(Okay, not the gin. Even though I DESERVED IT.)

Educating my kids is like herding a dozen Jack Russell-mountain goat crosses while a rogue wildcat stalks the pen. There’s a LOT of yapping and head-butting, with the constant looming threat of unbridled panic. (SO MUCH YAPPING. SO MUCH HEAD-BUTTING. SO MUCH PANIC.)

Today is Wednesday.

As I write – because there’s hell to pay if Mama’s horses don’t get exercised, too – Mr Pixel is following video instructions to build a massive digger in Minecraft; judging from the huffing coming from his corner, it’s rather challenging. CraftyFish is trying a new recipe for coffee-cream sandwich cookies. While batches are in the oven she’s reading Twilight, which was recently the subject of a homeschool class on How Not To Write A Book. She keeps coming to gleefully read excruciating passages aloud to me. We are talking about adjectives, plot, and healthy relationships.

This is how we ‘homeschool’.

Pretty much all I do is hang on, negotiate, figuring out on the fly how much I can say ‘yes’ to, damn the plan, because Pick Your Battles is my first three rules of parenting and sticking to the plan when the interest bug has bitten is not a battle I’d ever win.

For us, interest is a wild thing. It isn’t especially narrow or deep – Mr Pixel, for instance, can get just as excited about Nerf, Lego, snakes, Minecraft, Tesla, or a recipe from Babish, as he does about Space-X – it’s about the intensity of the curiosity that may bite anywhere, at any time, and does not let go. When CraftyFish spotted a book about rocks, one of her current interests, she haggled for three days until I bought it for her – and then she read it, reveling in the strange new words. Learning that there was a name for this, intellectual over-excitability, from Heidi Klass Gable’s Ted Talk, was the first crack in my refusal to hear that my kids were gifted.

I recognised it, you see. I remember being the kid who spent an entire afternoon reading the new dictionary my dad brought home, when I was 12. I remember how bad I wanted a spare brain that could be set to read, while I did all the other things like school and eat and sleep. (That scene in Dr Strange; you know the one? THAT WAS MY FANTASY.) I also remember how utterly, profoundly uninterested I could be, and the resentment that followed being pushed to do irrelevant things when my interest lay elsewhere.

I don’t want to do that to my kids. Discipline comes not from forcing yourself (or being forced) to study things you have no interest in, but from learning to overcome the obstacles to the things you are interested in. Left to their own devices, they do all the heavy lifting of finding motivation, goal-setting, problem-solving, and persistence.

(Heh. Mr Pixel has just groaned, “WHY did I think this was a good idea?!” But he keeps going, and that is all the good things right there.)

It isn’t always like this, of course. At some point – usually when I say, “Get off your screen/clean up the kitchen/bedtime” – the Jack Russell-mountain goats will morph into wailing floor jellies, because everyday reality is visually overwhelming, organisationally incomprehensible, and paralytically boring, all at once.

So my role is really just admin and coach. Keep the consumables flowing. Remind them they have bodies that need care, too. Get them through the emotional stuff. Help them learn that washing dishes and sweeping the floor are, though boring, necessary corollaries to the fun stuff.

Now if you’ll excuse me, someone has hatched a plan to make sugar from cane they spotted at the grocer’s, and I feel another headache coming on.

A true story from the trenches

Description: close up of a chicken, in profile, in a cage. @careerusinterruptus

(Some hyperbole may apply to the description of nocturnal temperatures in a sub-tropical spring; sadly everything else is fucking true.)

Lying with one of the Kids Who ‘Should’ Be Over This, I fall asleep. Around midnight I wake. Take my chilly ass to my own cold bed. Just generating enough BTUs to melt the ice on the sheets when the other KWSBOT appears, needing a cuddle and a little chat – and wanting me to lie with them, too. That’s cool. Lying with this kid means ‘on the red sofa’, which I loooove. It’s the comfiest thing in the entire house. I conk out immediately.

Well, it turns out that the hip brutally unfucked by the physio 36 hours ago no longer likes the red bloody sofa, so some time later I’m awake with nerve pain down that leg. Bugger.

Move back to my freezing bed. My tummy declares, loudly, its need for filling. Equally forcefully my bladder declares its need for emptying. My sciatic nerve continues swearing. Well, one of those I can ignore, but not the whole damn chorus. I try, of course, but after a while I accept reality, think some unwholesome words of my own, and get up. Go to the loo.

Surprise! Apparently I am still getting periods, despite only having had two this year. Oh, peri-menopause, you unpredictable funster! Now where are my supplies?

Having sorted that, I take two ibuprofen from the bathroom cupboard. Go to the kitchen, at the other end of our long house, for a snack.

By now the over-thinking has kicked in: Toast? Cereal is faster, but milk is cold. Microwave! Oh yeah: WARM MILK. With that amino acid that helps you sleep … … Tryptophan. Yay! I remember!

Boo! I also remember that my children have bat hearing: the microwave buttons’ pips will sound to them like an air raid siren.

I think some more unwholesome words, which is appropriate as this precisely is when I step in the biggest puddle of cold cat sick I’ve ever encountered.

It’s 04:16. I’ve shed my soggy sock and cleaned the cat sick – ish, I mean, just enough that no one else walking through the doorway will encounter similar joy; I’m not completely insane – and by golly now I deserve calories. So I treat myself to peanut-butter-and-banana toast. Swallow the ibuprofen. With (cold) milk.

Then I sit down to read. Not any of the current books – the scholarly work on democracy, power, and digital media (too terrifying), the other scholarly book on contemporary activism (too inspiring), nor the Georgian romance (too scintillating). Instead I settle for the Australian Women’s Weekly, which has recently been donated to feed Mum and CraftyFish’s scrapbooking, and which I never normally read on account of … well, the title. Ugh.

Sky’s lightening when I finally head back to bed. Which is still frigid. And as the entire week’s clean laundry is piled up in baskets in the bedroom, I don’t even bother looking for a replacement sock. What kind of sissy can’t sleep in only one sock? Me, apparently. So I lie awake for a long time, wondering: Do I take the other off and have two cold feet? Try to arrange myself so that sock foot warms up cold foot? And more importantly, if I found that feature about the Country Women’s Association identity struggle interesting, am I now the Australian Women’s Weekly target audience?!

I bet you think that’s enough, right?

NOPE.

This is my once-a-week-designated-writing time, so naturally as soon as I’ve mustered the brain cells to get through breakfast, the kids discover that one of the chooks isn’t opening one eye. I get on the forums to learn what this means. (Answer: a minor irritation caused by dirt/potentially fatal highly contagious respiratory condition, that should/should not be treated by bathing with saltwater/betadine and/or chlorsig/antibiotic cream/oral antibiotics. Useful!)

Having calmed the kids’ hysteria, we’ve isolated the bloody bird. I’ve rung The Skeptic, who’s out, asking him to go spend a fortune on avian antibiotics and texted him the name. When I finish my goddamned writing time, I will bathe the eye with warm salty water, hang the naysayers. Meanwhile, she’s in a crate in here (because a lonely chicken is a screaming chicken) watching me. With both eyes. And the others are out there hollering for her; I can hear them over Bono.

There’s not gonna be any happy braining today. Writing morning has slid through lunch and into gardening, clothes-folding, baking afternoon. It’s the last week of term; CraftyFish has a follow-up appointment at the Children’s Hospital across town; I’m looking after Mum three times; we have overdue library books and more physio on Friday. I will charge at this, all uncharged because what other options are there? This is why #Imissmybrain.

It’s noisy in here and I like it

@careerusinterruptus

Over-thinking is a PITA, no two ways about that.

Analysis paralysis ain’t much fun, either.

As for anxiety – well that’s just Seventh Circle stuff.

And yes, I know that these are all artefactst of a busy, busy brain, and that theoretically I could – with a great deal of patience, practise, and persistence – learn to hush it all down. Breathe. Be still. Achieve calm.

BUT DAMMIT, I LIKE THE RUCKUS!

My brain runs an eight-track mixer. There’s always an earworm (tonight, Zombie.). Alongside writing this I’m chatting online with my cousin and jotting a to-do list for tomorrow. I’m listening to the Skeptic banging around the kitchen, knowing he’ll soon call me in. I’m telling myself to go get my glasses or I’ll have a headache. But, I’m writing fast. Words effervesce; I want to catch and pin them before I have to go; I’m watching the clock and noting that I really need to clean this computer screen.

I call them ‘tracks’ because while they slither up and down in the mix, they’re always, always on. If I wake in the night, there they are: the earworm, softly; the Things-To-Do light blinking; snippets, like whispered conversations, from whatever I’m writing; RL conversations I’ve already had; things I should say. Sometimes other input (temperature, back pain, a wakeful kid) raises the volume to attention-demanding levels, but usually I just drift off again. The buzz is comforting.

Sure, when I’m really tired or stressed, the balance craps out. One track overrides everything else without taking a breath, and that can lead to anxiety.

And, yes, it can be distracting. I’ve learned that when I’m writing I need to occupy a couple slots with music. (Right now they’re cheering to a U2 concert. Zombie’s still there, just quieter.) Without that mental fidget toy, the tracks turn troublesome: like bored kids, getting louder and more quarrelsome til I can’t hear the words I’m trying to capture, sometimes kicking me right off-task.*

Then again, when the words… order … not quite there, yet, briefly attending to another track – channel-hopping, if you like – allows thoughts to emerge and coalesce.

*Sometimes the distraction itself is productive: I’ve just had to open a new document and eject 250 words of a completely different piece. Who knows what that’ll be? Grabbing its beginning creates space for more. And more is fun!

This is my happy place. When I’m well in myself, the chatter in my head isn’t a problem. When I’m really well and have time to indulge it, I can brain like nobody’s business: update the to-do list, sing along, keep an eye on my environment, and work on multiple creative projects, all more or less simultaneously, in an interconnecting, elating flow that I’ve previously described as ‘zinging webs’. Words, questions, and ideas loop around like a gibbon party. It’s entertaining. Exhilarating.

But where Csikszentmihalyi describes flow arising through skilful, practised activity, for me, it comes from letting my brain go, exactly like a horse running just for the sheer joy of it. More funktionslust than flow, perhaps. Freeing my brain to do its thing is energising. All that voluptuous speed and strength: damn what a rush! An hour of that and I’m powered up, ready to face the daily grind.

Most of the time, I have to brain slow. Solve (other people’s) problems, stick to the topic, logic, finish, remember, follow through, and above all, avoid scaring or annoying others with the distant conclusion I’ve already reached. Be present. Dial it down. Prioritise. That’s thinking, man, and it’s exhausting.

It sounds arrogant, I know. It isn’t, though. It’s just biology. While I was privileged to learn a lot from my parents and academia, in truth I’m still a pretty crap thinker. It takes skill and effort to think less fuzzily, more logically, more productively, than I do, and besides not being very good at it, I’ve always been a bit <roll-eye> at the idea. Why think in one direction when eight comes naturally? Bore-ing!

By contrast the track thing has been effortless, forever. It used to bewilder my dad, that I would read in front of the TV, following both stories, while also listening to every word he said to Mum in the next room – but I didn’t do it deliberately. Well, I sort of did; it was relaxing. Mum always tried to make me study in silence, a thing I couldn’t bear. In class I took notes and filled pages with sketches and tapped my foot to the earworm du jour.

At 51 I am just getting to understand and accept that this is how I’m built and not a thing I need to fight. I’m understanding how training for and attaining academic achievement did me no favours, and why cognitivist therapies made the stress worse, akin to asking my kid to only grow freckles on her nose, not everywhere. Because having a racing, flying, trapeze-artist brain is not, in fact, necessarily a bad thing. It is just gifted.

The overthinking is a PITA post

©careerusinterruptus.com

Of course, over-thinking does happen.

Like, what’s for breakfast?

We have some leftover sausages, but I’ve planned pork for dinner.

Okay, so no bacon, either.

Or baked beans, cheese, and bread, because dinner is meat-and-beans in tortillas, with cheese, and nobody needs four serves of pork, beans, or cheese, in one day. (Portion math for teens, y’all.)

Okay. Given that dinner veg includes pulses and capsicum, ideally breakfast should include other veggies to get our five-a-day. Maybe fried rice, with broccoli, carrot, and green beans? And egg, for protein?

Wait. What options does that leave me for lunch?

I can go on like this for half an hour or more, making useless, dithery movements around the kitchen, before I finally figure out peanut-butter-and-banana toast, ticking boxes for filling, protein, and potassium, while squashing down the anxiety about giving them gluten at breakfast and dinner and lunch.

This is overthinking.

I can tell it’s overthinking, rather than analysis paralysis, because it doesn’t matter.

(Hush, you and your ‘does anything really matter?’ Trying to function, here!)

Getting the right fridge, mattered. Choosing badly would have annoyed us all (mostly me, it must be said), countless times a day, for many years, and could well have cost us hundreds in higher power bills and/or premature replacement.

Getting the right breakfast, doesn’t. Yes, I’m obliged to balance our diet, but that doesn’t mean getting every meal right, or even every day. My kids eat pretty widely, thankfully, and even more thankfully, we can buy a wide range of healthy foods. Over the course of the week, it evens out.

That’s why today’s breakfast doesn’t matter. Like it doesn’t matter whether I stop at the shop near me (nightmare carpark, busy store, preferred bread) or the one near Mum (better carpark, smaller store, ‘wrong’ bread), whether that idiot on news.com thought he’d won the argument when I went to cook dinner (AARGH), whether hubby buys the expensive carrots, or whether a teabag went into the bin rather than the compost.

Fretting about the insignificant stuff is really just anxiety that I’m not performing at a sufficiently high level, a hangover from an achievement-oriented upbringing. I know mindfulness and meditation can hush that mental noise. I’ve always sucked at them, though, and these days I’ve abandoned that fight. It’s just a losing battle against an old, unhelpful habit, that is far, far louder, when I’m already carrying a load.

That is, overthinking breakfast happens when I’ve lain awake in the night and have nine thousand things to do while feeling like something scraped off the chook-house floor. Or when I forget to take some meds. Maybe I have a big, real problem to solve, and some of the necessary neural revs are spilling over into the unnecessary stuff. Maybe I’ve eaten too much gluten lately. (I seem to be the only one who feels it.) Let any one of those go on for more than a day or so, and I’m heading for an anxiety spike that will have me overthinking everyfuckingthing.

So I don’t see the overthinking as the problem. It’s just a big red flag telling me I’ve goofed. I let it be there, try not to let it stop me functioning, and put my energy into fixing the goof, stat, because it’s almost always a small, physical fix: sleep, regular meds, diet, exercise. Fix that and I can go back to enjoying the racket in my head. After all, that’s the source of my power.

Biology before psychology. Always.