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.