9.06.2023

have we met?

About two and a half years ago, our two normally indoor-only cats, Penelope and Wolfi, slipped out the back slider screen door that wouldn't always latch properly (getting a new screen door was one of the first things we did after the ensuing dust settled). Long story short, we were able to woo them both back in within about 15-20 minutes, but Wolfi (our now 5 year old male graybie) stayed out a bit longer than Penelope (~10 year old female white/tabby) and by the time we got them both back in, for reasons still a bit mysterious to me, even after lots of research into this, Penelope started attacking Wolfi. She was displaying signs of what I now know is referred to as feline nonrecognition aggression. If you live in a multi-cat household, you might have experienced a little bit of this when you bring one cat home from the vet, especially after an extended stay for something like surgery or a dental cleaning. Typically, one cat becomes the aggressor and will react aggressively to the unusual scent the other cat brought in from outside, home from the vet, etc. We got through that episode in about five days, give or take, and I always meant to write about it but I never did (I don't write about my cats super often here, but I have from time to time over the past nearly 18 years of blogging and two pairs of cats, plus some volunteer favorites and foster kittens). Well, it happened again last week and, fresh on my mind as it is, I thought I'd finally write a little recap here.

First evening pre-separation, Penelope ready to pounce if Wolfi comes out of hiding.

There are tons of resources on the internet about this phenomenon and the reintroduction process (the same process you follow if you're introducing a new cat to your resident cat for the first time) that you might have to follow to reestablish peace in the house. So this is more a journal entry of what we've experienced, both episodes following a pretty similar correction course. Step 1: I hate to say it, especially if you live in a small home, but you're going to have to separate the cats and keep them separate until you can safely reintegrate them with less and less supervision. Given we're renting a very small house at the moment while our house is renovated (almost 4 months down with about 2 months to go, fingers crossed) I tried to avoid this for several hours the first evening until, by about 1 am the next morning, it was clear none of us was going to get any sleep unless I did so. But I should back up here to describe how we think this episode began...

On Friday morning, in the middle of a bit of a heat wave, I woke up early as I do most days, fed them, opened a few windows and the kitchen door (keeping the security/screen door closed, of course) and then proceeded out front to the detached garage to do my morning workout. At some point while I was out there the neighbor's cat two doors down, who visits our back yard quite often (I should add that we're renting the house next door to our house during this transition), came right up to the kitchen screen door. He always gets a reaction from Penelope but never to the point that she transfers her aggression to Wolfi. That said, I think she's become a bit resensitized to him over the past four months given he doesn't venture over to this temporary rental yard nearly as often. Even though this initial episode on Friday morning was brief and both cats calmed down after we closed the door and kept an eye on them for a couple of hours, something triggered them again on Sunday evening (we still don't know what) while nerves were clearly still rattled. So separate them I finally did, with Penelope in our bedroom, along with a spare litterbox and extra food and water, and Wolfi free to roam the rest of the house. I slept on the couch so he wouldn't meow at the door/in the hallway and wake everyone up. Penelope was pretty content in the room, although it did get harder and harder to slip in and out of that room without her escaping into the rest of the house as the reintroduction process progressed. (This separation, with Penelope in a bedroom and Wolfi in the rest of the house, works well for them given their very different energy levels and it generally seems like the recommendation is to keep the aggressor cat, Penelope in our case, in a separate room rather than the other way around.)

Step 2: After the initial separation, you want to basically give them time to decompress and just generally chill out.  So don't do much initially until they've both calmed down. The part I always forget at this stage after they've calmed down a bit is what Jackson Galaxy (aka The Cat Daddy) refers to as "no peeking!" They will pick up on each others' scent but they should not be allowed to see each other at this stage. At mealtime you can feed each cat on either side of the door, getting their bowls as close to the door as they'll allow without showing any signs of aggression. For Penelope and Wolfi, we were able to put their bowls right next to either side of the door pretty much right away but you might have to start a few feet from either side of the door. What you're looking for is getting them as close to each other as possible (again, with the door closed initially) without any signs of aggression. If you move the bowls too close and one cat starts hissing, just move the bowl a bit further away from the door. At each mealtime try nudging them a bit closer to the door (moving what Galaxy refers to as each cat's "challenge line").

Step 4 (see below for Step 3): From there, after a day or so in our case, we introduced the visuals, with barrier, basically opening the door just an inch or two with a human on either side to be sure they can't access one another or push the door all the way open. If you move too quickly or accidentally let them have access to one another prematurely, you may have to start the process all over again. Give them lots of praise during this phase. Gradual baby steps are key here. You can also repeat this process throughout the day with treats. My cats like dental treats, meat tubes, and, of course, cat crack: tuna juice.

Looks like she's hissing but she's just mid-meow. She actually did pretty well, all things considered.

A minor wrench in the process this time around is that Penelope just happened to have her annual vet visit scheduled for day 3 of this process. Not ideal given this is a pretty common feline non-recognition aggression trigger in and of itself! I worried it would be like pouring lighter fluid on an active fire. Initially I considered canceling but it would have been hard to do so, the vet being closed on days 1 and 2. I also thought a medical once-over was probably not a bad idea since the trigger event(s) was a bit less obvious this time around. I was pretty sure it wasn't any medical reason leading to her sudden aggression toward Wolfi but I wanted to be sure. And the vet visit turned out to be pretty successful and helpful. Penelope did well, all things considered, and the vet recommended Feliway, which we now have in the kitchen, some gabapentin for both cats, temporarily, and a possible switch to Royal Canin's Calm food for the long-haul, considering how reactive Penelope is to outdoor/neighborhood cats, which is, of course, not something we can control.

I didn't love the gabapentin. I'm glad we had it and suspect it probably did help keep both cats calmer during the reintroduction process, but it felt like sedating the cats just so they'll get along. Penelope was weirdly affectionate (not a bad thing, of course, but also not typical for her) and Wolfi was just really sleepy (also atypical for the 5 year old cat who thinks he's still a kitten). I want them to get along, of course, but I don't want to alter their personalities. That said, I'll save the remaining gabapentin for future vet visits and if we have another episode like this one. By now I'm giving her 50/50 calm food with her existing food because I'd just opened a new bag. I'll probably transition her fully because it's definitely not going to hurt and it may very well be helping.

Step 3 (scent swapping can be done pretty much shortly after step 1/the initial separation and throughout the reintroduction process)Aside from swapping bedding back and forth a few times and a room swap on day 3 or 4 (the idea here being you're helping them get reacquainted via scent), we basically lingered at the visual access with barrier stage, along with extra treats, until Friday morning (one week after the initial trigger event), when we both had the day off for the long, Labor Day weekend, and could allow some access sans barrier with constant supervision

Reunited and it feels...tolerable!

Step 5: And they did pretty well! I was a little worried (and exhausted) because while visuals with barrier were going pretty well, there was randomly one time when Penelope hissed and growled as did Wolfi (kind of unusual for him...he typically just backs off). I wasn't feeling terribly encouraged and I was tired of sleeping on the couch. Literally. And while things felt a bit precarious on Friday and into the weekend, by Sunday/Monday I felt comfortable leaving them unsupervised for short periods and they seem mostly back to normal, which is to say they're tolerating one another, now, a week and a half later.

Step 6: At this point, once you've successfully reintegrated them without barriers but with supervision you want to be sure you're doing what Galaxy refers to as EPL: eat, play, love (tons of videos about the [re]introduction process on YouTube and I recommend Galaxy's book Total Cat Mojo as he goes over this process in detail about halfway through the book). We should all be doing this with our cats every day, of course, but it's good to be extra intentional at this precarious stage to ensure longer term success. Distract them with food—a positive experience for most cats—then be sure to redirect some of their energy with play, and of course give them lots of love and praise for their congenial attitude toward one another. 

Thoroughly pooped and ready for the long weekend.

Fingers crossed we either never go through this again or, at the very least, have a couple extra tools in our toolbox to utilize to ensure this process goes equally smoothly in the future. And once we're back in our house we'll at least have a little more territory for each cat to claim as their own. Which is obviously the main reason we've added a second floor. Naturally. As any cat guardian will understand!

7.22.2023

here and there

I mentioned in my last post that I recently read—finally—Michael Pollan's A Place of My Own, and, as I wrote then, "thought a lot about my MFA thesis while reading it. I've been thinking about the book again now as we have recently embarked on a pretty ambitious home renovation project (redoing some stuff on the first floor and adding a second floor)."

The book made me think about my MFA thesis because Pollan directly references the Parthenon, which was the subject of my installation (as part of the research phase I was awarded a travel grant to visit the Parthenon in Athens, the Elgin marbles in London—fragments of the Parthenon removed by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, in the early 1800s—and the full-scale replica in Nashville, Tennessee): "The drawings that followed demonstrated how the same 1:1.618 ratio pops up all over the place in architecture and nature: in the elevation of the Parthenon and the wings of a butterfly; in the fa├žade of Notre-Dame and the spiral of a seashell." But also because Pollan more broadly discusses the concepts of here and there. My thesis was originally titled Neither Here Nor There; I eventually changed it to What Lies Between Here and There (as explained here; you can read all of my thesis-related blog posts here).

"About a memorable building we will often say 'you had to be there,' which is just another way of saying that the experience of the place, its presence, simply couldn’t be translated into words and signs and information; the Here of it can’t be communicated There."

I find it hard to believe now, this book originally published in 1997 (my thesis show opened 10 years later), that nobody on my review board ever made the connection or recommended I check it out. I wonder how it might have influenced my thesis...

Fast forward another 15 years and our home addition/renovation project is fast approaching the midway point, knock on wood (forgetting now if the contractor told us the halfway point is generally when they do the sheet rock or the stucco but both are scheduled to happen in the next few weeks; that said, we still have 3-4 months to go, and that's assuming all continues to go relatively smoothly). Pollan again:

"All the life and soul of a place … depend not simply on the physical environment, but on the pattern of events which we experience there—everything from the transit of sunlight through a room to the kinds of things we habitually do in it."

This also makes me think about my latest body of work, so much of it about this very phenomenon in a house that became our everything—home, work, school—during the pandemic, a house that we've partly destroyed in order to expand, our "pattern of events" temporarily displaced and none of us in the house to observe the "transit of sunlight" throughout the changing space each day. 

In terms of the process, for anyone who's just generally curious or a glutton for punishment and considering doing something like this themselves, in Oakland, this all started over two years ago with the feasibility study. That's essentially the city saying yes or no to your project. Oakland Planning & Building departments get a bad rap, but I've heard other Bay Area cities, like Piedmont, for example, can be even more difficult to work with (think about it like an HOA...much easier to add a second story to your home or remove a tree in front of your house if you don't have an HOA and that is one difference between Oakland and Piedmont). From there we worked with an architect via a design firm to create the drawings needed to submit the permit application to the city. That process was shockingly expensive and took about 6-7 months, from feasibility study to the public notice phase to submitting our application to the city.

Things slowed down even more at this point, part of the delay on the city's end (for months they had the incorrect address attached to our permit application...?!?), part of the delay on our end (busy start to the school year and holidays, plus pausing to decide if we really wanted to commit to staying in Oakland, figuring out how were we going to pay for it, and selecting a contractor). Long story short, our application was submitted in January 2022 and approved in May 2023. The contractor got started shortly after. 

Our neighbor's indoor/outdoor cat. He has lots of cameos on my critter insta.

To our 1100 square foot house we purchased nearly 13 years ago, we're adding a roughly 650 square foot second story and, since we had to fully move out, also renovating some stuff on the first floor (main and half bathrooms, removing all wall-to-wall carpet and refinishing the hardware floors underneath, replacing the kitchen backsplash, repainting, etc.). It's been an interesting juggling act of taking advantage of this opportunity to update things while we're temporarily moved out versus, as our contractor keeps saying, "death by a thousand cuts."

I could write more—and perhaps I will one day—about how surprisingly difficult it's been to observe the initial demolition, in particular (we were lucky enough to snag the rental next door just as our neighbors were moving out, about a month before we had permits in hand), or how this house I've now called home over 3x longer than anywhere else I've ever lived. And as..."extra" as Oakland's been the past few months, it will be not only financially foolish but also really emotionally difficult to ever leave this house, something I never understood before and never really thought I'd experience.

P.S. It only took me three months but I finally put up some prints and such in our longterm temporary rental. Above is is a quote of Pollan's from another of his books in my to-read stack—The Omnivore's Dilemma—illustrated by Narwhal Design Ink.

P.P.S. The newsletter is back! I'm maintaining the blog here for longer posts, like this one, and the newsletter for weekly updates, news, lists, links, etc. I'm also taking a break from social media (pretty much down to just Instagram anyway but shocking how much time I was spending on that one app) that may very well be permanent. I miss seeing what folks are up to but the cons have greatly outweighed the pros lately. Continuing to update my blog and reviving the newsletter feels very one-sided but social media has become a pretty poor substitute good for actual human interaction and while it feels like going backwards to go forward, I don't think my IRL social life benefits much from the Instagram version (there was, I'm pretty sure I'm remembering correctly, a No Stupid Questions podcast episode that touched on this idea of substitute goods applied to social media but I can't for the life of me remember which one. Great podcast, though!).

6.11.2023

pandemic diaries: Twitter as public record

This is it, y'all. This is, at the risk of jinxing it, my final pandemic diaries blog post. As the frequency of posts has dwindled, I've relied on my tweets to recall what happened over the past weeks or months. But I'm not posting on Twitter much these days and I'd like to spend more time here writing about specific topics, not just making lists of things I did or articles that caught my attention. Before I do, here are some random things I found interesting since my last pandemic diaries update (not including the 3-year recap here) in November 2022:

I will likely delete my personal Twitter account (I typically only use it to complain lately, later deleting those tweets), but I'm torn about my podcast account. I'm also really itchin' to get back in the studio to record interviews for season 2! I should just do it, right?!? In related news, The Blanton Museum has a show up right now all about artists and day jobs, including work by Lenka Clayton (because caregiving is most definitely work). I was hoping I could finagle a work trip to Austin in time to see it but, alas, I'm feeling less and less confident about that happening before the show closes in late July. It's refreshing to see the reality of life as an artist getting more attention (see also Kelly Reichardt's latest film Showing Up).

This is me after recent trips to Brighton and Copenhagen for work, Seattle for fun, and every trip to visit family in southern California and central Oregon. On the other hand, however, as Austin Kleon recently reminded me, as the saying goes, wherever you go, there you are.

In anticipation of the publication of Jenny Odell's ‘Saving Time,’ I reviewed my notes from ‘How To Do Nothing.’ I love this quote about David Hockney’s view of painting with respect to time & perception.

I'm reminded that I bought this book months ago, but haven't read it yet. Adding it to the summer reading list now. Speaking of, I recently finished Susan Orlean's The Library Book, which was amazing, started Jenny Odell's Saving Time (so far even better than How To Do Nothing), and picked up a used copy of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (referenced in The Library Book and found in the banned books section of a used bookstore in Bend, Oregon). Earlier this spring I read Michael Pollan's A Place of My Own and thought a lot about my MFA thesis while reading it. I've been thinking about the book again now as we have recently embarked on a pretty ambitious home renovation project (redoing some stuff on the first floor and adding a second floor).

What was my 14yo's room for nearly 13 years will provide an extended living area and stairs to a future second floor.

Anne Helen Peterson wrote about a thing she calls "layoff brain" shortly after a January RIF at my day job. There's since been another, the third in less than a year and the largest so far. My job still seemingly safe. For now.

I wrote about books about creativity here. Perhaps, instead of more books about cultivating creativity, what we need is more writing about what I think of as creativity-adjacent topics, such as paying attention and handling criticism, as Maria Popova writes here about "Walt Whitman and the Discipline of Creative Confidence."

I've also since written a thing about visual artists who use Unity software (where I work) as a creative medium, collaborating with developers/programmers to make work that doesn't quite fit into any of our existing categories (the role of the artist, after all, is to imagine what doesn't yet exist; see here and here). Not surprisingly, while I've received positive feedback and general enthusiasm about what I've written, the folks in charge of things like the blog are having a hard time figuring out where it should live. If nothing else, I'll plop it here. It's also very much about the intersection of art and technology and touches on the history of corporate support for creative work since the 1960s and 70s. If you're into that sort of thing, you might enjoy the writing of Lucy Hunter (see here). More to follow (hopefully). 

I write a bit about past day jobs I've had in this ongoing series (nearly 20 if you count gigs like TAships and paid summer internships) but here I recently compiled a list of 25 jobs I applied to but didn't get. Fun! In the event I delete my Twitter account, here's the list:

  • Graphic Artist for Alameda County
  • Museum Program Coordinator at Art.com
  • Undergrad Design Program Manager at CCA (I eventually did get a job at CCA but not that one)
  • Special Projects Coordinator at OMCA (I think I at least got an interview for this one)
  • Program Manager at PRO ARTS
  • Grad Center Manager at SFAI
  • Exec Assistant to the Director of YBCA
  • Entertainment Designer at Chronicle Books
  • PT Print & Craft Maker at Dandelion Chocolate (dream job??)
  • Associate Curator at Depict Inc. (yeah, OK, so some of these were a stretch)
  • Education Program Manager at Kala (I was super stoked about this one)
  • Learning and Development Specialist at Playworks
  • UCB Extension Open Call for Faculty (I think I proposed my mail art course)
  • Education Community Program Manager at Adobe
  • Podcast Operations Manager at KQED (hey, man, I created my own podcast from scratch...)
  • Education & Public Engagement Officer at SFMOMA (yeah, OK, another stretch)
  • Climate Change Arts Contractor for Culture Strike
  • Adjunct Faculty in Visual Communication at USF (I actually got this one but had to turn it down because the commute and childcare costs were more than I'd make from one class)
  • I applied to a TON of other teaching gigs, too, incl places like Art Center in Pasadena and PNCA in OR
  • Exec Assistant to the CEO at Minted
  • two more OMCA roles (Design Assistant + Membership Manager)
  • Community Engagement Manager at AXIS
  • Regional Coordinator for calmuseums.org
  • Print Production Coordinator at Williams Sonoma
  • Program Manager at Create CA

Anywho...can't wait to see the Barbie movie (big Greta Gerwig fan here). And in other Indigo Girls news, we have tickets to see them and Neko Case at Stern Grove Festival! So excited.

3.12.2023

pandemic diaries: 3 years later

A few months ago I started rereading over 17 years of blogging, organizing posts into thematic google docs: grad school in Boston, life and work since, burning bridges, and of course, the pandemic diaries. The latter collection became a 50-page google document and over the past few weeks I’ve been rereading those posts and making notes for a 3-year anniversary update. Initially I was weirdly looking forward to doing this, but as we get closer to the 3-year mark (which I’ve always thought of as the last day my kids attended school in person before lockdown, as I wrote during week 42: “the last day the kids attended in-person school…is how I'm keeping track of time during this pandemic”), I felt less and less motivated to continue, which I think is indicative of how my memory works. I was remembering the things I’m oddly nostalgic for, and had pushed aside memories of far less pleasant things like a full year of distance learning. I’m grateful I blogged as much as I did, especially in the first year, but reliving that time through these posts, sporadic though they’ve become, has predictably reignited a lot of mixed feelings. 

Faking It

1970s rock band America’s song ‘Sister Golden Hair’ randomly came on in my Spotify playlist the other day and I was struck by the lyrics, these posts all swimming around in my head these past few weeks:

I've been one poor correspondent
And I've been too, too hard to find
But it doesn't mean you ain't been on my mind
Will you meet me in the middle?
Will you meet me in the air?
Will you love me just a little?
Just enough to show you care?
Well, I tried to fake it
I don't mind sayin', I just can't make it

It’s a little dark, I know, but I think a lot of us, especially working parents, are faking it in more ways than perhaps we were pre-pandemic. As I reread the pandemic diary posts I traveled back through the weirdest three years of my life thus far, oddly nostalgic for the slowed pace of life in the early days (and things like weekday family morning walks, something that’s simply not feasible now), traumatized by distance learning…

It's a weird time, wrapping up week 10 of the school year, as we simultaneously settle into a somewhat sustainable routine (we could do this forever!) that is also somehow mildly torturous. And the very people who keep reminding parents that this is an unprecedented crisis situation turn around and dismiss, whether intentionally or not, how incredibly challenging this has been and continues to be for kids, parents, families, relationships, etc. I can feel deep gratitude for jobs we can do from home, space and technology for school work to happen, and our continued health while also refusing to sugar-coat how far from ideal distance learning has been and continues to be.

…and the social anxiety caused by things like "pandemic pods," feeling a sense of loss for where my life was finally going before the pandemic…

Still trying to recover from the pandemic in this way, my life pre-pandemic finally starting to settle into a nice mix of work, studio, family, and all the other stuff - all of which was skewed during the pandemic.

…and literally grieving the loss of someone very dear to me, not directly due to COVID (a very COVID-era quote about this loss: “I take some comfort in knowing she died in her home, surrounded by her adult children, not alone in a hospital”), but a relationship that COVID complicated, like so many. I wrote in week 23 that “I'm envious of people who find themselves surrounded by extended family and close friends” and this is still very true.

In a nutshell, what I wrote after the one summer camp of 2020 that did not get canceled ended predicted pretty accurately how I continue to feel now: 

The return to #momcamp last week was interesting. On the one hand, I didn't miss driving the kids to and from Fairyland twice each day. It was nice to return to having nothing really time-specific any given day, other than our various work meetings. But even then, if I have a meeting at 8 or 8:30 I only need to get myself ready, not myself plus two kids in order to leave the house and make it to point B by a specific time. I didn't miss making lunches, although obviously they needed lunch made at some point and it only took three weeks for me to forget how often they seem to need a snack of some sort. I enjoyed getting out with them each day for some sort of walk or hike, not something I'm as likely to do when I have an uninterrupted work block.

Beanbag Frog in 'The World Champion of Staying Awake'

Pandemic Time

The pandemic diaries began on March 16, 2020, the Monday after the kids’ final day of in-person school before lockdown. What characterizes my memories of those first few weeks is trying to establish some semblance of routine amidst general pushback to the idea of homeschooling or really providing any kind of structure, because we all thought this was going to be temporary (schools initially closed for two weeks plus spring break, then the rest of the 2019-20 school year, and then, here in Oakland, much or all, depending on grade, of the 2020-21 school year), a vibe that returned a year or so later when we were all so thoroughly burned out. Many parents of school-aged kids approached those initial weeks like a cross-country flight with a toddler, providing unlimited snacks and screen time. I wrote several times about how in Oakland this wasn’t exactly our first rodeo, having experienced school closures due to wildfire smoke, power outages, heavy rain (yes, we once had a “rain day”), and the teachers’ strike the previous year. But obviously nothing could have prepared us for the duration of this closure (about a month into the pandemic I wrote, “any anxiety around school being closed through the rest of the school year has morphed into anxiety around summer camp and beyond”).

The Plandemic

“Guess how I manage my anxiety?” I wrote that first Monday after lockdown. “I plan stuff, I put things on my calendar, I use my calendar to visualize how I'm going to get through the next three (plus?) weeks. I realize I can’t control everything (anything?) but this gives me back some sense of agency.” First time I talked to my Grandma on the phone after lockdown even she proclaimed, “you’re a planner!” While I did find things like the manifesto of the idle parent comforting in those early days (a copy of it still hangs on my fridge as a daily reminder), I looked to planning and sought structure as a way to manage anxiety and have some sense of control over the experience. Initially, and something I’d return to from time to time those first few months, I created a schedule of activities based loosely on the National Day Calendar of random (mostly food-related) holidays. Here’s a sample of things we did those first couple of months (and somewhat into the first summer break):

  • We watched a panda documentary and made fork print panda art.
  • We learned about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
  • We made hot spinach artichoke dip.
  • We watched a documentary about 3D printing.
  • We learned about Rudolf Diesel and development of the diesel engine, biodiesel, etc.
  • We watched Biggest Little Farm. Finally.
  • Celebrated World of Flour Day by watching a documentary, checking out a relevant museum's website, having ravioli for lunch, and making salt dough.
  • Learned about asteroids and stuff.
  • Made chia pudding.
  • Conducted a dancing raisins science experiment and made homemade chocolate covered raisins for National Chocolate Covered Raisin Day.
  • Traumatized the 7yo by watching the first episode of the Netflix series 'Medal of Honor.'
  • Dissected candy bars and designed wrappers for our own candy bar inventions for National Nougat Day.
  • Ate a lot of guacamole.
  • Made a couple of art ASMR videos (and pondered whether or not art ASMR a thing)

As I wrote toward the end of that first school year, I’m still good at “keeping myself too busy to give in to existential dread.”

A Day In The Life

Other than manage distance learning and other activities and playdates via Zoom, the kids started doing chores with us on the weekends, and weekly family movie night on Saturdays was born, a tradition that continues today. We stayed active and ventured outside every day, going on lots of neighborhood walks, plus I continued to run around Lake Merritt a couple of early mornings a week. “The downside right now, of course, is that there's nowhere to go, but that's also kind of the upside. In other words, I don't have to dream up some exciting plan or outing for each day.”

Eventually the 2019-20 school year ended. Here’s a compilation of Instagram stories I recorded throughout a day in the life of working from home with kids distance learning on the penultimate day of that first school year. Approaching that first summer break, I reflected on how “I could really use a respite from the day job after nearly three months of working from home while juggling distance learning, but where would we go?” Fairyland was the only summer camp that wasn't canceled. This is what I wrote about those three weeks of summer break: “Even after just a day, I can't accurately articulate how amazing it was, after 14 weeks of distance learning and mom camp, to have 5-6 uninterrupted hours to work. And for them, to be able to get a break from us, from our house, and interact, even from a distance, with other children...amazing.”

It wasn't all bad

I’m so Zoomed out now but some virtual stuff I genuinely enjoyed, like Oakland Zoo’s behind the scenes series every weekday at 2:30. It was a nice way to cap off the “school day”. As shown in the day in the life compilation, I enjoyed practicing piano via Yousician although I eventually plateaued, took a break, and have yet to get back to it. I did a paper folding workshop with designer Kelli Anderson (bought a kit that came by mail in advance of the Zoom workshop) and at one point during the 2020-21 school year, the then 2nd grader went on a virtual field trip to Luvin Farms in Colorado, not something they could have done as easily in real life, of course.

The day the skies turned orange

The most challenging stretch of lockdown was when the California wildfires were so bad that the air quality in the Bay Area was dangerously unhealthy and we were forced to stay indoors as much as possible.

September 9, 2020

“This picture does not do justice to the ORANGE skies we experienced last week," I wrote that day, "my iPhone trying awfully hard to auto-balance the apocalypse...It's a sobering realization that even if we weren't in the middle of a global pandemic, the kids would most likely still be out of school due to the smoke and lingering air quality issues.”

Silver Linings

Because we spent so much less time going places and schlepping kids to activities for over a year (I was also still working part-time at this point...I've since transitioned to full-time), I spent little chunks of time in the studio more consistently then than I do now, eventually wrapping up a project that started before the pandemic but took on new meaning with everyone at home all the time. I’ve yet to show this work, having submitted exhibition proposals to two venues so far, one of which rejected it, one of which I’ve yet to hear back from. 

Toward the end of the 2020-21 school year, after the then 2nd grader had moved to a hybrid schedule, spending a couple of afternoons each week at school, in person, the garden teacher handed out seeds for students to plant at home. We planted sunflower seeds in a little patch of dirt in our front yard and they grew to be about 7 feet tall. “It's not sourdough bread," I wrote, "but the results have a very early pandemic project vibe.” A few months later, we saw the Joan Mitchell show at SFMOMA for my birthday. About sunflowers, Mitchell wrote: “They look so wonderful when young and they are so very moving when they are dying.”

Keeping the lights on

No, I'm not referring to the Motel 6 slogan. Remember when Alanis Morisette performed her song Ablaze holding her young daughter on her hip? What parent wasn't desperately trying to do this every day, juggling work and their own health and sanity? "My mission is to keep the light in your eyes ablaze."

And while keeping the light in my kids' eyes ablaze will never not be my daily mission in life regardless of anything else going on around us, the pandemic diaries ended when this sort of thing no longer felt like an accurate description of our daily lives, from the New Yorker essay about Angela Garbes' book Essential Labor: "At one point, Garbes compares the pandemic to early parenthood, a period of time 'when whole lifetimes are held in a single day when 'the smallest details matter, they become the universe'—when we 'restructure and rearrange the way we live, how we define our lives, and what we value.'" And I guess there's a part of me that is, 3 years later, with so much having gone back to an imperfect "normal," feeling a little conflicted about this.

P.S. In March 2022, I finally ran the race I had trained to run right before the pandemic began. “There's something really powerful about—finally—checking a goal off one's pre-pandemic to do list.” And I am indeed the girl of 100 lists, so I'll end with a list of things added to my ongoing to do list during the pandemic that I still haven't done:

  • Use Kelli Anderson’s This Book is a Camera
  • Buy a record player and start a record collection
  • Do something with this website/idea: Forces of Easel
  • Use my 30+ year old sewing machine more, after I discovered during lockdown that it still works!
  • Get to work on the podcast season 2 (although, as I wrote at some point during the pandemic, “I worry if I do, it'll take up all the little bits of time I need in the studio. Which is fitting since that's kind of what season two is all about”)

P.P.S. I still can’t believe my gingerbread dumpster, complete with candy “fire”, didn’t go viral. “Alas, it was fun to make and pleasant to consume, unlike most things in 2020.”

1.30.2023

we don't need another book about creativity

Or do we?

Studio shelfie...the rest are in the living room.

I’ve compiled quite the collection of books about art and creativity over the past couple of decades. And I’ll just get right to the point of this post: 15 years post MFA, I’m increasingly left wondering, after all these years and all these books…why?

And yet, I keep reading them. I recently finished two very different books about creativity, beginning with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention,’ a gift from my husband. When I shared some misgivings about Csikszentmihalyi’s definitions of creativity (this, for example: "Children can show tremendous talent, but they cannot be creative because creativity involves changing a way of doing things, or a way of thinking, and that in turn requires having mastered the old ways of doing or thinking") he added Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson’s ‘Creative Quest’ to my collection, describing it as a book about "creative people working through the anxieties that creatives have."

So why do I read all these books about creativity? To work through related anxieties, certainly. And maybe to restore a little hope when I’m on the verge of nihilism. "When all goes well," Csikszentmihalyi writes early on in 'Creativity,' "the drudgery is redeemed by success." This is a common sentiment in books about art and creativity (because this path is hard, y’all!), echoed in Questlove's 'Creative Quest'—"you need to be aware of the nutritional benefits of failure and the empty calories of certain kinds of success"—and in Felicia Day’s memoir, a book I wrote about nearly 5 years ago, here. At one point in her book, after funding dried up for Geek & Sundry, Day immediately wrote out everything she learned from working on that show. "The more mistakes," she writes, "the better the story afterwards, especially if there's a happy ending." It’s the classic motivational quote about how failure is a routine and necessary experience on the road to success.

But what if there is no happy ending? What if the "drudgery" is never redeemed by "success?" Or, at the very least, what to do about the often long and painful arc, not at all linear or logical, between drudgery and "success," however one eventually comes to define it? While Csikszentmihalyi writes in 'Creativity' about the importance of attention, or audience, and feedback ("just as the sound of a tree crashing in the forest is unheard if nobody is there to hear it, so creative ideas vanish unless there is a receptive audience to record and implement them"), he eventually encourages creative types to let go of the idea of the finished product and audience and instead pursue "the love of the creative process for its own sake." This, I guess, is critical to finding "flow." Maybe it's like finding love when you least expect it. Anyway, he explains, "if one does these things a certain way, then they become intrinsically rewarding, worth doing for their own sake." I too wonder, "what is the secret of transforming activities so that they are rewarding in and of themselves?" (And also, more practically speaking, where will I store all this finished—but unshown and unsold—work??)

I find myself torn between the pursuit of this "autotelic" experience—"the feeling of freedom from the threats and stresses of everyday life one experiences when completely immersed in the domain"—and the desire/need for feedback. After art or grad school, with so few exhibition opportunities for so many artists, many now seek this sort of feedback on social media. I personally haven’t shown my work in real life for nearly 15 years and it’s not for lack of making stuff (or trying). As Jenny Odell writes in her recent New York Times op-ed about Twitter and time, I too have looked to social media for "a sense of recognition among peers, connection to people with shared interests and whose work I admire, and the ability to encounter new, unexpected ideas." And, sure, followers and likes are seductive (again, from Csikszentmihalyi: "a pat on the back does wonders for creative productivity"). But even our digital attention span seems increasingly short and devoid of any sort of constructive feedback. Furthermore, as Questlove suggests in 'Creative Quest,' "technology has given people too many easy ways to deliver feedback without similarly equipping artists to resist it." In short, social media is not a great substitute for the kind of audience or feedback you might have grown accustomed to in art/grad school and/or if you’re lucky enough to show your work in a physical setting.

'Creative Quest' is at times, by contrast, written with the assumption that as an artist you are going to put what you create out in the world in some way, ideally in exchange for some sort of compensation. "This book is, in that sense, different from other books about creativity. I am assuming that what you do will end up somewhere, in front of the eyes or ears of others." It’s about the process, but it’s also very much about the product (and you’ll learn a lot about music!). Questlove’s book is also a bit more prescriptive in that he has actual suggestions for creative production, like revisiting older work and collaborating with others (so weird to me that so many books about creativity specifically try not to be prescriptive in any way...and I get it but, y'know, give me something I can use!).

As a self-described creative generalist (I pursued art in college precisely because I didn't want to choose just one thing to do, figuring I could explore all my interests through my art), I also appreciate Questlove’s more contemporary take on creativity, and how we go about making things. Csikszentmihalyi encourages a more focused approach: "Before you have discovered an overriding interest in a particular domain, it makes sense to be open to as much of the world as possible. After you have developed an abiding interest, however, it may make more sense to save as much energy as you can to invest in that one domain." I don’t disagree with this, especially if you’re limited on time, as most artists with day jobs are. But I also really love Questlove’s take on this, encouraging creative folks to strive to be what he calls "'pancake people'—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button." On a sidenote, this also ties in again nicely with Day’s memoir mentioned above, in which she goes on to describe a creative support group that meets over pancakes, something I’ve wanted to establish here in Oakland ever since reading her book (this pandemic effort across the Bay came pretty close to the idea).

As an artist with a full-time day job and two kids (I don't have much time to make work, I haven't shown my work in years, I question if I qualify for grants and residencies should I even find the time to apply, all of which leads me to still put air quotes around the word artist when I describe myself), I really appreciate what Questlove advocates for here: "I want to reverse this whole movement of separating artists from each other, of saying that one man or woman is more or less of an artist than another one. For that matter, I want to broaden the definition to include anyone who is making something out of nothing by virtue of their own ideas…there is a difference, it may not be as great as some people believe." Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges these practical tensions inherent in pursuing creativity as well: "Training, expectations, resources, and recognition are to no avail...if the young person has no hope of using his or her skills in a productive career. In our culture, a huge number of talented and motivated artists, musicians, dancers, athletes, and singers give up pursuing those domains because it is so difficult to make a living in them." And yet, we keep reading these books about creativity as if they're magically going to give us what we really need, which is time (and money).

The bottom line is opportunities for artists are highly competitive. It's a basic supply and demand problem. I don’t have data handy to back this up, but it seems like the number of people pursuing creative paths has exploded while the opportunities have remained stagnant (and have quite possibly, post-pandemic, dwindled still). Even smaller, alternative venues attract hundreds of applicants for one project space opportunity that comes around once a year. Furthermore, galleries and alternative spaces alike plan their calendars sometimes years in advance and connections are critical (Csikszentmihalyi again: "without access to the domain, potential is fruitless"). When I’m feeling optimistic I counter my desire for a piece of the art world pie with the cheery idea that the pie simply needs to be bigger! Unfortunately, however, "to achieve creativity in an existing domain," Csikszentmihalyi writes, "there must be surplus attention available." Later he adds, "Because of the scarcity of attention, we must be selective." Perhaps, in lieu of more books about how to be more creative, we need to help creatives and non-creatives alike learn how to pay attention, thereby creating the surplus needed and greater opportunities for artists. More demand for the supply. A bigger pie!