To-Done!

If you read my post last week, you know that I had great hopes for this week. My to-do list needed to get a lot shorter, and guess what? I am happy to report that my first full week of summer break has been a success.

On Sunday, I finally finished Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, the last book of which I’d been waiting for read for four years. I have to say, whatever my complaints about Paolini’s style in his early books, the last one more than made up for it. The only problem, of course, was that I was sad to be finished.

Reading Dilemma

With my recreational reading done, I plunged into work on Monday. And I even involved the kids. They sat at their table and had work time while I cleaned the kitchen. I have to tell you this because a day during which I clean an entire room (actually more than that because I cleaned the laundry room and one bathroom, too) is a day for the record books. (Please tell me I’m not crazy to be proud of this.)

I also spent my younger son’s entire naptime working on my biggest freelance project, a memoir that I’ve been working on for a year now. Thank goodness my client isn’t in a hurry. Although she still has some copy to turn in to me, my hope was to finish arranging and editing the material she’s given me so far and return it to her by the end of the week. I must have spent anywhere from three to six hours on this project every day this week, and although Microsoft Word had me practically pulling my hair out by the end, I did finally get a draft to her. (I would give details, but just know it had to do with pagination – if I try to be any more specific, I’ll most likely be reduced to gibberish and &%*!@ in order to keep this a family friendly blog.)

With one project out of the way (at least until that client gets back with me), I have one last freelance project (a much simpler one) to finish before our family vacation. I understand that I will come home from our vacation with work still to do, but my clients will have that time to decide what changes they would like for me to make, and I will only have to worry about finishing touches.

And then I will be done. As of this week, I am no longer offering my freelance writing services. And it’s not just Word that’s made me fed up enough to quit. Although I won’t go into details now, I am going to join the work force again soon, and if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that I can make myself and my loved ones very miserable if my plate is too full. So while I will be glad to help friends with blogs or editing projects that don’t have critical deadlines, I am no longer pursuing freelance work.

It’s a relief, actually. Anyone who is self-employed understands the pressures of finding enough work to pay the bills. Last summer, I was able to land enough steady projects to earn a paycheck while I wasn’t substitute teaching, but it meant that when I was at home with my kids, we weren’t able to do much fun stuff; I was stuck at my computer working very hard for very little monetary compensation. This summer, I will be able to spend more time with them, and the time that I do spend at the computer will mostly be writing my own fiction.

Speaking of my fiction, now that I have one freelance project behind me, I have time to concentrate on editing last year’s NaNoWriMo book. I am determined to get my two free copies from CreateSpace. Beta readers, I will be reaching out to you sometime in July, so get ready!

Lastly, while I am reducing the stresses in my life, one of them will be this blog. No, I’m not quitting! Believe me, I still have a lot to say, but I won’t be pushing myself to reach my own personal deadline (which is once a week) anymore. Many weeks, I get to Sunday and panic because I don’t know what to write about. Or I have a lot to say but am too brain dead to arrange much of a coherent thought.

I have a friend who used to blog weekly, and she made the announcement earlier this year that she will now only post when she feels inspired to do so. At the time, I was saddened because I loved reading her blogs, but I could certainly understand – and I kept her idea in the back of my mind. To remove another stress that I put on myself sounded like bliss. I told myself that if I ever went back to work, changing from a weekly blog post to a “when I’m inspired to write” blog post would be the way to go.

Don’t worry. Even if you don’t hear from me next week, I still have plenty to say. I’ll likely update my book list sometime soon, and I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say about NaNoWriMo 2015. But when you don’t hear from me, know that I’m enjoying my family or a good book… and, as always, striving make more of my to-do list items to-done.

Playing Catch Up

During spring break, I was excited about the possibility of being able to cross off many much-neglected items on my to-do list. During that week, however, I was disappointed (as I often am) with the amount I was actually able to accomplish. Sure, I was home more than usual, but then so were the kids, and they had expectations, as well.

Since spring break, life has not become any less hectic. I’m not going to summarize all my busy-ness here – you can read any number of my recent blogs to get the idea. Just suffice it to say that, with the end of the school year drawing near, I was excited to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

Last weekend, I planned to partially unplug – which I did! My husband and I spent the night away from home sans kids, TV, and wifi. It was somewhat of a surreal experience, and we couldn’t help but say “The kids would love this” or “We’ll have to bring the boys here” at the beach and the fort and a little fudge shop near our bed and breakfast. But we survived and even managed to enjoy ourselves.

One of the things I’d hoped to do was catch up on my reading. If you follow my yearly list of books that I hope to read, Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle has been on there since 2013 – and I’m finally almost done! I had hoped to finish by the time my son finished school on Thursday, but I knew that was a very ambitious goal. Still, I only have a little over 200 pages to go, so I’ll definitely be through in the next couple days.

The reason I am so eager to finish (other than wanting to know what happens – this is a great series!) is because I have so much work that I need to do. While many other moms are posting selfies from the beach and running around like crazy people trying to keep their kids occupied, I plan to spend a lot of time at home. (Don’t worry – I still have plenty of fun activities planned for my kids!) This is partially because I’m tired of my commute, and our gas bill needs a little bit of a break, but it’s also because my to-do list includes clients’ projects, and these clients have been very patient. They know that I substitute teach during the year and, therefore, have an erratic schedule, but now they’re expecting results. I mean, what excuses do I have anymore?

I held off writing this post for a couple days, hoping that I’d be able to report that I spent the first full day of summer break plowing through my jobs and striking off to-do list items left and right. And I did make some progress, but it’s been slow. The children are still underfoot, although they’ve been great so far. My little one even likes my implementation of “work time” (where I have them sit at their table and color, write, or do quiet projects for a few minutes), thus giving them some structure and me some peace while I do my own work.

My goal (you know how I love goals) is to keep forging ahead, even if I only have two or three hours a day to devote to my projects. Although I’m not going to totally unplug during our upcoming family vacation (a girl still has to blog and write fiction when the mood strikes, right?), I don’t want to leave projects hanging over my head – or clients calling, only to be disappointed that I’ve put their work on hold for two weeks.

Okay, goals set. Deep breath. Next week, my to-do list is going to get a lot shorter.

Unplugging (At Least a Little Bit)

I’ve seen many an article in which the writer talks about how he or she has gotten rid of smart phones permanently, and I’ll have to say that I’m not one of those people. Believe me, I fought even getting an iPhone much longer than is normal for a so-called millennial, but I finally got one three years ago. I don’t play games on it (although I did at first), and I’m not the type of person who has to have the latest version. I like it for the convenience of being able to take snapshots and videos of my kids and check my email on the run and make phone calls and look up obscure trivia all in one device. But that also doesn’t mean that I’m glued to my phone all day. My rule is that I simply don’t use it at all if ever I wake up in the middle of the night (unless, of course, I get an emergency call or text). It’s easy for me to ignore it. In fact, there are some times when I am so busy that I’ll got 12 hours without doing more than checking the time.

But then there are those other people who can’t pull themselves away from whichever device is their vice of choice (and see how “vice” is already there in “device” – it’s like it was planned that way). These people check their email if they happen to wake up at three A.M. They play Farmville at their children’s band concerts or ballet recitals. They talk through the checkout line at the grocery store and text while driving. A lot of this comes down to a lack of common sense as well as courtesy – blog topics for another day.

The iPhone isn’t my problem, anyway. We have a semi-joke in our house about “my” MacBook. We bought this computer almost four years ago when my husband went back to school. At the time, I thought it would be great to have after he graduated, in addition to our desktop model. And for the longest time, I didn’t do much with it. He took it to class, typed term papers on it – was even typing one in the hospital room when our second son was born – but then… well, I kind of took it over after he graduated. (Don’t worry – I did get him an iPad mini to make up for stealing his tech.) By that point, our desktop computer was on it’s last legs, but I wasn’t worried about replacing it – the MacBook was more than adequate. It’s where I do everything from this blog to typing my NaNoWriMo novels to doing my freelance work to editing photos and creating photo books (for me and for clients). I’ve taken it on every vacation since we bought it, including Disney World, and I’ll even carry it in the car to work on projects if it’s a ride of 30 minutes or more (and when I’m not driving, obviously).

But this weekend I’m going to leave it at home.

That’s right – I’m letting go! My in-laws are taking the kids Friday after school through Monday – the longest I’ve gone childless since November 5, 2007. And this time, instead of my husband working half the nights they’re away, we’ve actually booked a room at my friend’s bed and breakfast – a first for us. My elder son was shocked to hear that we’re going to be doing fun stuff, too. And here’s something really different for me, the planner: we don’t have a plan. We’re going to go and just do nothing – or anything. And I’m not taking the laptop. I’m not going to write at all. Now, it’s only going to be for one night, but these are baby steps, folks. While I love writing, my husband can tell you that sitting down to innocently write a scene turns into balancing the budget for an hour and editing for Fiction Fix and any number of other computer-related distractions. We’ll take our phones (and probably the iPad) so we can FaceTime our kids and watch Netflix to our hearts’ content. I’ve been so busy lately that I refuse to go on a vacation only to do more of the same while paying extra for the room. (And see – I’m even posting this blog early just to make sure I’m distraction-free.)

We’ll have our books and a new-to-us area to explore. It’s going to be the perfect pair-of-introverts weekend.

Is May the New December?

I’ve noticed a pattern over the past several years, especially since I started substitute teaching: the school year speeds up exponentially after spring break. It’s like a race to the end of the year, to fit in all the end-of-year projects and parties and field trips. Everyone, especially the children, can feel that summer break is fast approaching, and life takes on a frenetic pace.

Maybe that’s why I’ve heard more than one person complain that May is the new December, as if December is a bad month. I quietly took issue with this notion. My favorite time of year is Advent, preparing for the birth of the Christ child. I love the Christmas music, Christmas shopping, wrapping Christmas presents at night while watching Christmas movies, doing the Advent calendar with my kids, and – yes – my seasonal socks. Yet for many people it’s a nightmare of obligations and deadlines and buying presents for people they don’t really like. I get it – December can be stressful. Not to mention that if you’re in college, you have exams, while all you can think about is the long break that’s so close you can almost touch it. I can certainly commiserate because I was a December college graduate. And that year, while I thought it would be such a relief to finally be done with school forever-and-ever-amen, I found myself immersed in not only editing but also typesetting the second volume of Fiction Fix when our previous typesetter bailed. People were counting on me, and I wasn’t able to enjoy December – or even being done with college – like I’d expected.

Maybe this is how my friends feel this month.

For me this year, May is more than teacher’s gifts and good-byes and summer planning. I took the Florida Teacher Certification Examination this past Monday, which meant cramming for almost two weeks. As soon as I got through with that, I took on the end-of-year books for my first grader’s class. These books hold the kids’ projects from August through the end of the year – over 20 pages of 12×18 construction paper – but what I didn’t realize was that about half of these projects still had to be glued to the paper before the books could be assembled. Another mom and I thought we could knock it out on Tuesday, only to find out we were in way over our heads. I’ve taken pages home every night, still have five or six to go, and need to finish by Tuesday.

First Grade Book-in-Progress

So my May has been busy. I’ve put off the usual things that fill up my to-do list, things that are still waiting for my attention, and I can feel them getting ready to pile back on. Like two freelance projects that I hope to finish in the next month, before our family vacation. Like a friend’s novel that I’ve been slowly beta reading since January. Like my own fiction projects, which I blogged about as recently as last week.

But I’ve been living with a kind of giddy feeling, anticipating the (temporary, at least) cessation of certain obligations. This weekend alone, three culminated: yesterday was my son’s last baseball game of the season; this morning was the last Sunday school class I have to teach until September; and this afternoon was my community chorale’s last concert of our spring season. Not to mention that this week will be the last meeting of my third-year Education for Ministry group (which means I’m almost finished with the 1000+-page history book we’ve been discussing since last fall). After Memorial Day weekend, my son has a partial week of school, and then first grade will be over.

What this means is that, even though we have school for a few more days, when we’re home for the evening, we’re home. I’ll have time to cook and actually enjoy supper. By the end of the month, I won’t have to wake up at 4:30 for a blessed two-and-a-half months. This doesn’t mean that I’m just going to sit around and twiddle my thumbs all summer – the kids and I will be plenty busy – but it does mean that I will be able to stop and breathe for a minute.

I love summers because I get a break. I’m grateful for this because so many parents aren’t able to have the time off with their kids. But if I’m not careful, I can allow myself to dread the end of summer break. I have to remind myself that I always love the beginning of a new school year, and I have ever since I was a kid. This year, my little guy will start preschool, so it’s going to be even more exciting. As my kids grow, everything seems to speed up, and I have to be careful not to stress too much over all the activities and responsibilities that go with being a mom-slash-chauffeur. What I do, I do for them and for us as a family. School and tutoring and daily chores are part of our life, but if we begin to allow the fun stuff – the baseball and the play dates and the trips to the park – become obligations instead of fun, it will be time to reassess. I don’t ever want to let a particular month turn into a time of dread, and I hope everyone else embroiled in the busyness of these times will do the same.

Identity Crisis

As both an editor and an author, I used to assume that if someone claimed to be a author, he had to know how to spell (or at least turn over a manuscript relatively free of typos). But I’ve learned that that is not the case at all. And while it’s handy to be able to easily pick out typos, bad syntax, and gaping plot holes, it is something of a disadvantage when the editor part of me gets in the way of the author part.

When I participated in National Novel Writing Month, both in 2013 and 2014, I had to remind myself that to write 50,000 words in 30 days, I had to set my internal editor aside. A friend of mine posted this on Facebook recently, and I can totally relate:

Month-Long Novel Agreement

As I’ve said many times, I love both the outpouring of raw story as well as the subsequent cutting, adding, tweaking, and rearranging that come with the editing process. It’s hard to say which I enjoy more, although it’s quite satisfying to read something I’ve edited and note its improvement. And it’s also wonderful to have those Aha! moments (usually in the car or shower – totally not convenient times to write) that provide just the right solution to a problem that’s been irritating me.

This last can happen in either stage. When writing this past November, I counted on these moments to get me through long periods of stagnation. This book was the sequel to my 2013 NaNoWriMo novel, and as such, I sometimes wrote something that either solved a problem in the first book or necessitated a change in that earlier storyline. I had to jot down these ideas and come back to them later; I didn’t have time to both write 50,000 words of my new novel as well as edit the old one.

But I finished NaNoWriMo 2014, set it aside to percolate while I made those necessary changes to NaNoWriMo 2013, and I even had a date written in my calendar for when I would switch gears again to start editing the sequel.

February 24th was when I was supposed to get back to the 2014 book. It’s now May 9th. I’m still on the first book. Granted, all the changes I’ve made so far have been necessary – and I even had an Aha! moment as recently as this past week. But the editor in me is tired. She wants to move on to something else. She wants to talk to the frustrated author of NaNoWriMo 2014 and hash some things out. But I can’t give equal space to both right now, and the more they argue, the less work I get done.

I presented this issue to my husband, and he gave me the answer that I knew all along (but that I needed to have reaffirmed): finish editing the first book. After all, I have to make sure I know exactly how it will end in order to have a smooth transition to the sequel.

I often hear jokes about artists and how they’re flighty and unorganized. That’s why it’s so odd for me to be a stickler when it comes to grammar, punctuation, formatting – you name it – but also creative enough to invent new worlds. For me, the two are so interconnected that they will always need to work in tandem. But I wonder if it’s freeing to not worry about spelling properly, to just hand a manuscript over to someone else to correct. Not that I write without any outside input at all – a second pair of eyes to catch typos and plot inconsistencies is always necessary. Especially because…

Writing Quote

I don’t know what numbers one through three are, but number four certainly does have a point – all the more reason for me to find out if the story in my head gets across at all, even if it’s not as eloquent or funny or moving as I originally thought. Because of my Grammar Nazism, I sometimes worry that I’m not the author I should be. Maybe I’m too careful, too precise, too self-censored (God forbid). Maybe one part of my inner writer holds back the other.

Editing my novel is necessary (it really is – auto format deleted about two-thirds of my sections breaks, and I have to put them back in), but it’s almost time to move on. Besides, I have a good incentive: CreateSpace is offering two free copies of NaNoWriMo winners’ novels again, and I don’t want to miss the deadline like I did last year. I want to give my beta readers the chance to tear another novel to shreds, to give me good reason to sink my teeth into another good edit… and to gear up for NaNoWriMo 2015. After all, these books are a part of a trilogy, and unless my muse materializes and does the dirty work for me, the author in me is going to take the driver’s seat on November first.

Customer No Service

It’s the stuff frustration is made of: You have trouble with your internet, and try as you might to troubleshoot the problem, you have to make the inevitable call for service.

So you listen to the all the options because the menu has recently changed. You risk dialing zero in the hopes of talking to a real person, but the phone system kicks you out, and you have to call back and listen to all the menu options again. When someone finally answers, you discover you really need to talk to someone in a different department, and you’re on hold for 20 minutes while you should be cooking supper and washing a load if towels and ten thousand other things. When you finally talk to someone qualified to send a refresh signal to your router, nothing happens. Still no internet. So they schedule a technician to come out between noon and 5:00 P.M. the next day (when you already have a doctor’s appointment, but you also have to have the internet, so what can you do?). You stay home all day. The technician calls at 5:00 to say he’s running late (you could have gone to the doctor after all), and when he finally shows up, he tells you your modem was hooked up in a place that never should have gotten service (even though it worked fine for two years), but he, the almighty technician, can fix it, so he does, and after he leaves, you have spotty service, at best, and – surprise! – you get charged an extra $80 on your next bill.

Granted, it’s not just internet, phone, cable, and satellite providers who suffer from what Clark Howard calls customer no service, although they often seem the biggest culprits. Ever since I’ve been thinking about making this a blog topic, an inordinate number of examples have popped up, from me discovering my cable company misinformed me about the cost of our new service, to a friend missing her flight because the gate was closed 18 minutes early, to another friend visiting a doctor with great hopes of finally figuring out what’s wrong with her body, only for her new doctor to treat her like she’s crazy.

It’s sad that although we dread these customer no service encounters, we’ve come to expect them. It’s almost as if it’s a prerequisite for the big companies – which makes the companies with good service stand out as the exceptions. Companies are so big that there are no individuals anymore. And I would imagine that this can be just as demeaning for the people who work there as the ones who need service.

But since when did this extend to doctors – the people we trust to take care of us? Where will it stop? I could joke and say that one day parents will start ignoring their kids – until they get annoying enough that the parents finally give in and say, “What do you want?” But wait – it’s already like that. Not for everyone, of course, but anywhere you find people, you will see that service and care no longer come first on the list.

Like my friend, I’ve also had a negative experience with a doctor. (Well, I’ve had several, but I’ll just talk about the most recent.) After an annual exam, my physician asked the standard, “Do you have any other concerns?” I have the feeling it’s a question like, “How are you?” – we ask out of politeness, expecting the answer to be, “Just fine” or “Doing great.” If it’s anything that causes concern, we really don’t want to hear it. And this time, I told my doctor that I did have concerns. She couldn’t make sense of any of my symptoms, told me I might be gaining weight while exercising and cutting back on carbs because of my age (I was 31 at the time), and finally dismissed me by ordering bloodwork (make it the lab’s problem). I received a cheerful phone call from a nurse a few weeks later. Wasn’t it great? My bloodwork was totally normal. Then why don’t I feel normal? I wondered. But I knew of a doctor of Oriental medicine from my church, and I had the hope that she would listen, that she wouldn’t just order some bloodwork and send me out of her office.

As soon as I walked in the door for my first appointment, she had my bloodwork in hand and told me that I did, in fact, have a problem. She wanted to hear about all of my symptoms, even the ones that seemed unrelated. When I asked her how my doctor could have missed all the signs, she said that most doctors work within a much larger range. For my particular problem – hypothyroidism – many people who should be treated aren’t because they fall within an artificially wide “normal” range. Most practitioners simply don’t have the time to sit down and discuss symptoms and solutions with their patients. They wait until the symptoms are much more severe, then prescribe whatever pill will solve the problem and get their patients out the door.

This is where I wax nostalgic about the good old days when towns had one doctor who knew everyone by his or her first name and, therefore, actually cared. Now, of course, I know I’m being unfair. Those doctors had hard lives. And so did the merchants and farmers and everyone else, but it seems that they took more pride in what they did. It wasn’t just a paycheck but a calling. They cared about their reputations, yes, but they also cared about the people they served. I think this could be a big reason why the “go local” movement has become popular. We can have one-on-one interactions directly with the people who make the goods or provide the services. They have a stake in their occupations, and they actually care about the end users, not just the profit.

It all comes down, I think, to relationships. There are too many people with problems, whether they be slow internet or a malfunctioning thyroid, and too few people who care about solving them. I think both sides can share some of the blame, but it’s especially sad when we no longer treat each other like humans. It’s called customer service, not customer hassling, right? One of Merriam Webster’s many definitions of “serve” is “to give the service and respect due.” Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all receive just a little respect? Maybe what’s wrong with so many people is that they’ve lived so long without respect that they care more about a paycheck or whatever game they’re playing in their lonely cubicle than the person who just needs help, who maybe also needs a little TLC.

In this digital age, where we keep up with friends via internet or text, and we’ve lost a lot of the human touch, I think that some of these “archaic” values are more important than ever. Instant connectivity is certainly convenient, but it can also isolate us. In my own interactions, it helps to remember that people aren’t just lists of names and phone numbers. They have problems and dreams just like me. It’s a good thing to remember when we interact with complete strangers, especially when we’re tempted to slip and forget what it means to be of service.