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No Small Thing

In the winter of 1998, my wife Shonna and I took a trip to Las Vegas.

It was the early days of the internet, so we booked through a travel agent, which is why we ended up at the Treasure Island hotel. A pirate ship battle in the lagoon multiple times every night? What’s not to love?

My friend Bruno took care of our cats, and I asked him if there was anything he wanted from Vegas. He said a friend of his had brought back a glass skull beer mug from the same hotel, and he wanted one of those. I was happy to oblige.

In 2010, I began going back to Vegas on my own each year for the Photoshop World Conference. After hearing my stories about great food, whining that I was always too busy to do anything while I was there, we decided to return to Vegas for a vacation in 2013.

We stayed in a suite at Mandalay Bay, I introduced my foodie wife to some restaurants, and we had a great time. We went to the shooting range, took an open cockpit biplane flight over the Hoover Dam, and went skydiving for the first time, the highlight of our trip.

One day, we took the bus to the other end of the strip and made a day of walking back to our hotel, stopping in at restaurants and attractions along the way. When I saw Treasure Island, I thought about that mug and wondered if they had skull shot glasses.

I’m not a big drinker, but my spirit of choice is amber rum. In keeping with the whole pirate-rum thing, I’d long wanted a skull shot glass, a silly but harmless indulgence.

They didn’t have them, and I was a little disappointed.

Fast forward a year or two, and we were in a gift shop on Main Street here in Canmore, with a visiting friend. While wandering the shelves, I laughed when I came across a set of four skull-shaped shot glasses, right in my hometown. I bought them on the spot.

These days, if I wanted them, I’d probably go to Amazon and yep…set of 4, less than $25.

I like my story better.

Dumpster fire, steaming pile of…er…manure, train wreck, these are just a few of the phrases I’ve heard to describe 2020. The pandemic has changed the planet.

An optimist might suggest looking for the silver lining, appreciate the little things, realize what’s truly important and learn to live with less. But it’s hard to make that shift when you’ve had your salary cut in half, your kids’ education hobbled, all plans cancelled, and the dark cloud of uncertainty steals the colour from every sunrise.

That’s even if you still have a job.

The thought of a trip to Vegas right now makes me shudder. No thanks.

Putting aside the politics and rhetoric, the armchair epidemiology summit that convenes online every day, and the pervasive rage surrounding any discussion about viruses and vaccines, we’re all hurting and miserable.

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear someone’s story of how this has affected their business, usually in a way I hadn’t considered.

The sandwich shop owner in downtown Calgary who relied on the busy lunch hour crowd that no longer exists. The event auditorium manager, one eye on the empty seats and the other on his bank account. The clothing store owner who was already competing hard with online shopping, now wonders why she opens her doors.

And the gift shop in a tourist town.

These people have families to support, mortgages, rent, debts and face the same uncertain futures as everybody else.

When one business fails, and another and another, then communities fail. For want of a nail and all that.

As a self-employed artist, a profession that has traditionally been synonymous with financial failure, this year has been the same kick in the crotch for me like everyone else. I’m fortunate that I’m still able to pay the bills, but it’s a good thing we can’t go anywhere because luxuries are not in the budget.

Every time I send out a newsletter or marketing post this year, it feels a little like panhandling. I know that many other business owners, both home occupation and brick-and-mortar, feel the same way. It’s hard to make the ask when you know money is tight.

I’m fortunate to have what I consider a large following of supporters, many of whom have been cheering me on for years. I appreciate those folks now more than ever, not just the ones who buy my artwork, but all of them. Some days, they simply give me a reason to get out of bed in the morning and keep trying. That’s no small thing.

Most business owners feel the same way about their loyal customers, clients and supporters.

I get that Amazon is cheaper, has free shipping and easy returns. I know that Costco, Walmart and similar behemoths offer a convenience you can’t find anywhere else.

I’m not going to be a hypocrite. I shop at these places, and I will continue to do so. They employ people in the community, too, but they’re not in danger of going under anytime soon. Amazon doesn’t need your money.

Small businesses and the self-employed are struggling. This year will be the last for some of them. Many of those businesses employ others, and when the closed sign goes up on the door for the last time, those people will be looking for work, where there’s no work to be found.

Communities are an intricate web of connection. When you start cutting threads, it falls apart.

Small businesses support local events, community initiatives, school programs, sports teams and a whole lot more. They are continually asked for donations of product, time and money. While Amazon does give generously to charities, they’re not going to supply the coffee or hot dog buns for your kid’s hockey tournament.

So here’s today’s pitch.

Support small business.

It’s trite, cliché; we hear it all the time. I know.

Support small business.

I’m not saying do all of your shopping locally. Paying $50 for something at a local store that you can get online for $20 when you’re already financially strapped, that’s a hard sell.

But how about one or two things, especially for this year’s holiday season? Buy a gift with a story behind it, include a note about the excellent service at the little store where you bought it. Buy a gift card from the locally-owned coffee shop, the one where the owners have greeted you by name for decades, ask about your kids, and how you’re holding up.

And not to be too obvious, but how about buying from an independent creative type? We’re all over the place.

Give a gift as you’d want to receive one, with some thought and effort. Spread some good feelings in a time when we could all use it.

To quote from Bon Jovi’s latest offering, “When you can’t do what you do, you do what you can.”

Living in Alberta, I hear many angry people talking about how Canada has turned its back on Canadian oil, buying from other countries. While I’m sure it’s more complicated than a Facebook meme (it always is), I understand that sentiment.

It’s hard not to be frustrated when Canadians choose not to support Canadians.

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
Sign up for my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

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If It’s Broke, Fix It

Taking the summer off from promoting my business was an uncomfortable decision.

Covid-19 was the catalyst, but this period of reflection was overdue. I’ve been uninspired, bored with my own art and writing, unable to maintain the pace.

In 2005, I had been working as an Office Admin for a small physiotherapy clinic here in Canmore, spending early mornings, evenings and weekends drawing editorial cartoons. Eventually, that part-time side hustle allowed me to quit my job and become a full-time artist.

It seemed like a big risk, but not massive. We decided that if I couldn’t pay my half of the bills, I’d just get a part-time job. There were plenty of them available.

I’ve had a pretty good run as an editorial cartoonist for the past two decades. It afforded me the ability to try other art-related avenues, one of which became the evolution of my career, painting my funny looking animals.

I’ve never lost sight of the fact, however, that the foundation of my profession for the past twenty years has been an industry afflicted by a slow and terminal cancer. To expect that I will be drawing editorial cartoons in ten years is almost fantasy.

Then again, I said the same thing in 2001, so what do I know?

We pretend to be masters of our own fates, but we’re notoriously bad at predicting the future. Who had Global Pandemic on their schedule for 2020?

As one might expect, those first years were a struggle. I often went into overdraft on my business account and couldn’t afford many luxuries. I did get a part-time job working at a local DVD rental place (remember those?) but not because of the money. I needed to get out of the house and one of the perks was free movie rentals. This was in the dark ages, kids, before streaming video.

I enjoyed the experience for a year, but working until 11:30 some nights, then getting up at 5:00 to draw quickly lost its appeal.

There were some in my profession who figured the next evolution in the craft would be animated editorial cartoons.  I invested in Flash software, training courses, royalty free music, learned how to record audio, and spent countless unpaid hours creating those things. During a federal election one year, all of the big Canadian media outlets wanted to run my animations on their websites, but in a sign of things to come, almost none were willing to pay for them.

I even had a weekly series called Big Plans, where a cartoon beaver in a suit and tie, talked about the week’s political events, complete with cutaway scenes. It was an animated version of the Daily Show or Rick Mercer Report, without interviews and not nearly as funny.

It took about twenty hours a week to create each one, and I only got paid a small amount for a handful of them.

I didn’t like the work much and wasn’t a very good animator. I was more relieved than distraught when it came to an end. But I took the risk, and invested the time, on the off chance that it might pay off.

There have been a few ventures like that, but I’ve learned something from each, lessons for the next idea. Eventually, one of those tries became my whimsical wildlife paintings, changing the course of my life and career. As Steve Jobs once said, you can only connect the dots in hindsight.

When COVID-19 landed on us, a lot changed for most people in a short amount of time. All in the same week, several of my newspapers told me they could no longer afford to pay any freelancers. A temporary layoff, but nobody could say for how long. That was at the end of March. Only one of those papers has hired me back.

This year was supposed to be a big one for my painted work, building on the momentum of my newest license with Pacific Music and Art. I was beginning to see (and hear about) my work being sold in stores all over the place. With multiple re-orders, more retailers signing on and word getting out, 2020 should have been a leap forward.

I don’t need to explain why it wasn’t.

Thankfully, Mike at Pacific Music and Art had the foresight to see the coming demand for face masks and that my paintings would work well on them. I put in late nights, even earlier mornings, and long days preparing the images while still drawing the same number of cartoons for about half the clients.

Promoting, packaging and shipping the masks, plus the paperwork and bookkeeping, it was exhausting. Add in the uncertainty of the pandemic, both the health and financial repercussions, and burn-out was inevitable.

Thanks to my newsletter followers, I filled two large mask orders, and a third smaller one, the revenue helping to shore up my other losses. Pacific Music and Art is now selling the masks wholesale to retailers and individual customers can order directly from their site. I’ve received photos from people who’ve bought my masks at The Calgary Zoo. They’re also available at Shopper’s Drug Mart here in Canmore, stores in Banff, plus a bunch of other places in Western Canada and in the Pacific Northwest.

Those sales now will mean revenue later this year.

I did a couple of successful print promotions, launched my 2021 calendar, and have gotten used to this new reality. You thought I was going to say normal, didn’t you? I think we can all agree, that ship has sunk. We need to build a new one.
This frenzy of activity, adapting daily to more potholes than road, I had no gas left in the tank. I was still meeting my cartoon deadlines, but painting was a slog, and it felt like anything I’d write would be crap, even before I put my fingers to the keys. My past work seemed like garbage and I was circling the drain.

When you spend year after year creating art, promoting it, trying to sell it and come up with something better every day, taking time off from promoting it feels irresponsible.

I like to work. I don’t do well with too much time off. I’ve got a friend who has been talking about his retirement for years and finally managed to do it before he was 60. Unless something radical changes in me in the next ten years, the thought of not working does not appeal to me.

At this stage in my life, looking down the road, retirement to me would mean the freedom to only do the work I want to do. But I still want to work.

My biggest fear is that something will happen that will prevent me from being able to create, paint, and write. I dread the thought of an injury, an illness, a cognitive deficiency, something that will rob me of my abilities or mental faculties.

On report cards when I was a kid, common teacher comments were “doesn’t pay attention in class” and “not living up to his potential.”

It’s ironic that I’m now wary of not having enough time to reach that full potential.

Last year, my friend Jim and I were sitting on a deck of a cabin we rent, looking out at the pasture. In front of us, there were two windows in the covered section, but to the immediate left, the deck is wide open. A wasp was repeatedly bouncing off the glass, trying to get through.

I don’t recall if I said it or if Jim did, but we both connected with the message. “Boy, if that’s not a metaphor for life.”

All that wasp had to do was back off, turn left and fly six inches to freedom. Instead, it just kept bouncing off the glass.

Jim credits that moment with his decision to finally retire.

I took it as a message to rethink where I’m putting my energy.

There are many ways to reach your goals but beating your head against an immovable object isn’t one of them.

I’m already getting up early every day, working hard. I rarely take a day off and when I do, I still somehow manage to squeeze in something related to my business. It might be taking photos, doing some writing, reading trade articles, but that’s only because I enjoy my work and the creative pursuit. I don’t know how to separate the two, so I don’t try.

That also means there is no extra time to do more. It’s such a cliché, to work smarter, not harder, but clichés have longevity because they contain simple wisdom.

Maybe it’s because he was younger, with seemingly more time ahead of him than I’ve got. But, there’s a lot of water under the bridge between me and the guy who said, “well, if I don’t make enough money, I’ll just get a part-time job.”

I feel like I have a lot more to lose than he did.

He didn’t know that editorial cartooning would provide him with a good living for the next fifteen years. I know for a fact that it won’t provide me with another fifteen. Failing to course correct for that reality would be short-sighted.

I remember somebody telling me once to cup my hands together as if I were holding some water within them, then to squeeze my hands into fists and asked, “what happened to the water?”

When you hold onto something too tightly for fear of losing it, you lose it anyway.

During the past two months of promotional hiatus, I completed a few paintings, wrote quite a bit in a fiction novel I started this year, drew the usual editorial cartoons, listened to podcasts, read books and articles and I worked. My computer died suddenly one night, which I’ll talk about in another post, and I had to get a new one built. I got away to the cabin for a few days, took some pictures, and hid from the tourists who have flooded this valley all summer.

And I asked myself some hard questions.

“Where do I want to be in a couple of years? Five years? Ten?”

“On what am I wasting a lot of time and effort that doesn’t get me there?”

“What marketing opportunities am I missing out on?”

“If I stopped banging into the glass, backed up, took a breath, and looked around, what might I see?”

For the first couple of weeks, I felt like I’d forgotten something, that nagging feeling like I’d left the stove on. I’d become so used to posting on Instagram, sharing stories, scrolling through other people’s stuff. It ate up a lot of creative time.

When I finished a painting, it felt strange not to immediately size it for the blog, create a closeup, write a post about it, share it on Instagram with all of the hashtags, tell a story, write a newsletter, share that, then wait to see what kind of reaction I might get.

Promotion and marketing, it’s part of working for yourself. It’s necessary if you want to make a living with your art or whatever you create. You must sell it. But taking this break made me think about how I’m doing that.

Do I need to share it as soon as it’s done? Would it matter if I waited a day? Maybe two? Do I have to immediately write about it? Does it have to be immediately shared on Instagram?

The answer to these last questions is No.

One marketing opportunity I’ve decided to explore is to offer an audio version of some of my blog posts, starting with this one.

I’ve had several people tell me they like my writing, but some get the newsletter and realize they haven’t the time to read it, They put it aside for later and never get back to it.

I hear ya. Happens to me all the time. But if there’s an audio version, it can be downloaded and listened to at your leisure.

An audio version allows followers to consume the content the way they want to. From what I’ve read, it increases followers and site interaction, which directly translates to sales.

Will that kind of marketing work for me? I have no idea, but I’ll give it a try.

As for those other questions, they’ll require a longer view, some percolation in the old melon. Not quite as deep as “Why am I here?” but not so shallow as, “Peanut butter? Or jam, too?”

The break was worth it and I will do it again.

Whether you read this, or listened to it in the new format, thanks for making the time. One thing I’ve never forgotten in this roller coaster life of being creative for a living…it wouldn’t happen without you. 

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
Sign up for my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

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Snake Bite

I’d like to begin by saying that I’m feeling better since my last post, so no need for a warning on this one.

I’ve concluded that what I needed was to get that shit out of my head and onto the page. It’s a cliché from old westerns that if a cowboy gets bitten by a rattler, the first thing you do is suck the poison out.

Now, putting aside the fact that it would never actually work and, depending on the level of innuendo that infers, the disturbing imagery, it’s what came to mind when I woke the morning after I wrote that post.

While I had reservations about posting it in the first place, I’m glad I did, because the response from many of you was a little overwhelming. Some of you just wrote to tell me they hoped I’d feel better, others shared their own issues with all of this, and apparently, I put into words how many of you are feeling.

A couple of you even attempted to give me a bit of ass-kicking. I tolerated that because I knew it came from a place of good intentions. At least that’s what I’m choosing to believe.

My friend Crystal from Calgary, a self-employed graphic designer, always a source of encouragement to her fellow artists, sent me a link to Brené Brown’s latest podcast. It was a welcome suggestion because I’ve long enjoyed Brown’s insights, but also because that particular episode gives me (and everyone else) permission to feel bad without the accompanying shame that often goes with such self-pity.

I’d encourage you to give it a listen; there’s a link at the end.

Writing all of that was cathartic. That evening, I avoided the news altogether, stayed away from the internet and slept well in my own bed that night, woke at five feeling better and worked on cartoons while listening to music.

Feeling better the next day was evidence of what I said in that dark post. You have to give yourself room to feel your pain, so it doesn’t overwhelm you. I’m not saying I won’t visit that abyss again, probably more than once in this self-isolation experience, but I know what to do when it happens.

I’m going to write it down. Not to worry, I won’t continue to inflict them on you by posting them, but just the exercise itself, to vomit it all out to make room for moving forward, is therapeutic.

I know that many people feel their writing skills are lacking or that they don’t write well, and that’s fine. You can still go through the exercise without showing it to anybody, just put onto the page what you’re feeling, without judgment. Don’t worry about sentence structure, paragraphs, grammar, spelling or any of that crap. Just get it out onto a piece of paper or a screen as fast as you think it. You can write swear words for a full page or a four hundred character, “AAAAAAAAGH!”

Exhaust yourself with it. Write until you can’t write anymore. Leave it all on the page. Be whiny; feel sorry for yourself, make it all about you; feel your pain. That post I wrote was twice as long before I edited it and went even darker than what you read.

Then take that page, or two pages, or three, crumple it up, tear it into little pieces, throw it in the trash, light it on fire (outside!) or close the file, and when it asks if you want to save it, click NO.

If writing doesn’t work for you, find a way to feel it without guilt or shame. Listen to that podcast episode, if for nothing else than to remind you that we all crack from time to time, and it’s OK.

I don’t regret writing that dark, depressing post. I needed to write that post. I don’t regret sharing it, either. We spend so much time in this life pretending we’re strong when we’re not, denying that we’re vulnerable, feeling ashamed of who we are and trying to be everything to everybody. All it does is make us miserable and no good to the people around us, anyway.

The proof is in the practice. After writing all of that, I wanted to paint again.

Cheers,
Patrick

OTHER NEWS:

Speaking of news, I’d like to make a request. Please don’t send me news articles or links to news articles, especially not opinion pieces. I’ve been following the news more closely than anybody should for more than twenty years. The deluge of information we’re receiving now is ridiculous and moving so fast that what was news this morning is no longer news in the afternoon. I appreciate that it probably comes from good intentions, but thanks in advance for refraining.

Other types of emails, however, are always welcome.

CALGARY EXPO:

The Expo was postponed until July, and they gave vendors the option of a refund, a booth at the July show, or skip this year, with paid funds moved to next year’s booth at the same rate. I chose the last one for a few reasons.

If there is an event in July, I don’t think there will be many guests, people will still be in shock from this and won’t want to assemble with that many people, and they won’t have much money to spend anyway. There’s no doubt I would lose money by doing the show in July.

So for those of you I see each year at Expo, I’ll see you in April 2021…unless we’re still in lock-down.

Here’s the Brené Brown podcast link.

Cheers,
Patrick

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
Sign up for my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

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Intolerable Uncertainty

(WARNING: The following is dark, contains profanity, and you may not want to read it)

Last night I gazed too long into the abyss, and before I knew it, the abyss had taken my hand, and we were going on a tour of all of the bad shit that was going to happen in the next few months.

For about two hours before bed, while watching TV I wasn’t really watching, against my own advice from my last blog post, I surfed news stories on my iPad, going from one to the next, basically asking the same question, “How long will this last?”

My mind has been telling me, “Your business will not survive this. You’re fine right now, but what about tomorrow? You just cancelled a trade show and a business trip, what about the next trip, what if my clients go out of business, what if this art thing I’ve worked on for the past 20 years just vanishes like a fart in the wind, where am I going to work when this is over, ….what if, what if, what if…”

I’ve slept on the couch two or three nights a week the past month, so I didn’t toss and turn and keep Shonna up. No reason for both of us to lay awake wrestling demons. Then I read something that says if you’re not sleeping, it’s even worse for your mental and physical health because it compromises your immune system.

Well, thanks. That makes me nod off with dreams of kittens and rainbows, now doesn’t it?

As mentioned in a recent post, catastrophizing is one of my worst bad habits, and this virus has opened the flood gates of despair, as I’m sure it has for many. This post pretty much contradicts the slightly more optimistic tone of the other, because as we’re all learning, this situation changes by the minute.

Now with what should be more time to do anything I want to do, paint, write, draw cartoons, everything takes a lot longer because I get distracted by a news story, news alert, phone call and then down the rabbit hole I go.

A cartoon I drew yesterday that should have taken a couple of hours to draw took about five, because, in the middle of that, I had several newspapers from one chain tell me they were shutting down for the month of April, possibly May. That’s in addition to the half dozen that did so at the end of last week.

We’re bombarded by stats and articles telling us how bad this is going to get, and projections that tell us we’re in this lock-down until the end of April FOR SURE…no wait, MAY…no wait…JULY…no wait…FOR THE REST OF OUR LIVES.

Logically, I know that the majority of these articles, blog posts, science journals, pseudo-science journals are all just spewing information so that they have something to post, and that 95% of it is conjecture, but I seek out the worst ones. It’s a desperate search for anything I can control. If I can deal with the worst-case scenario, then I can deal with anything better than that. But it means reading a lot of bad shit.

It doesn’t matter that I know I’m being illogical, Spock. I’m human, which means I’m illogical, you green-blooded pointed eared Vulcan!

Anybody else notice that Dr. McCoy was racist?

The worst-case scenario almost never happens, but because I said almost, that means it could happen, so hello darkness, my old friend.

I would love to be spending my time writing, but all of the story ideas, notes, the novel I’m working on, sitting there waiting for me to put in the time, I just can’t focus. And in the time I do make to work on anything creative, it all seems like garbage because I see it through a dark negative lens.

It would be nice to come out the other side of this with a stack of new images to license and yet I’m finding it hard to paint. It doesn’t feel like this will ever end, and when it does, I’ll have lost so much that my focus will be on survival, not success.

That’s the problem with catastrophizing. It’s sticky stuff, and if you do manage to get one leg free from it, you’re in it up to your knee with the other.

At this point in the post, I’m supposed to turn this around and start saying that we’ll get through this, we‘re in it together, there are always people worse off, do your part, it’ll be over soon, take this opportunity to discover new things, when one door closes, another door opens, blah, blah, blah.

There’s a meme I thought was funny when I first saw it, but now I find it infuriating. It reads, “Your grandparents were asked to go to war. We’re being asked to sit on the couch.”

Then it ends with variations of, “Don’t screw this up,” or “We got this” or “Suck it up, Princess.”

It just feels like so much bullshit.

Shaming people into acceptance doesn’t work. All it does is tell us that who we are is unacceptable and makes us bury our feelings of despair, so we don’t make strangers feel uncomfortable. Too long on that course and you’re looking at a nervous breakdown, a heart attack or worse.

The truth is, life has always been hard, and this is hold-my-beer level hard. People need to feel their pain and chastising somebody else to cheer up does more harm than good.

I try to tell myself that many others have gone through horrific stuff and came through it, far worse than this. The people who went through the 1918 pandemic, those who endured concentration camps, devastating financial crises, health crises, 9/11, our history is replete with people surviving long odds.

For 10 million people who died in the concentration camps, I can’t imagine the hopelessness and despair, a horrific end to their lives at the hands of cruel oppressors. And despite the courage and endurance of those who survived it and lived to tell the tale, I can’t imagine there were many, lying in their hard wooden bunks, packed in like sardines, freezing all night, awaiting their fate, telling each other, “Hey, we’re all in this together, and some people have it worse, cheer up, mmmK?”

Sharing online finger-wags about what Anne Frank, John McCain, or the Chilean miners put up with while imprisoned in their own circumstance is just more online shaming. Yes, they endured, but they weren’t having a good time!

This isolation we’re being asked to do is not just sitting on the couch watching Netflix, drinking wine and playing board games, without a care in the world.

It’s watching our savings dwindle away, the panicky market destroy investments, our businesses close, possibly to never open again, our careers implode, relationships suffer, the fruits of our labour shrivel up and die on the vine, and any plans we made up and vanish, while we just sit and wait, unable to do anything about it, for who knows how long?

This is not a vacation for which we should be expected to feel grateful.

Yes, people have gone through worse, but putting a metric on somebody else’s pain does not diminish our own. These are still our lives. Expecting people to shrug and say, “aw shucks, shit happens” is not only unrealistic, it’s cruel, especially when it took two seconds to share a meme or post that wasn’t designed to make somebody feel better, but to make them feel worse. You’re just scolding friends, family and strangers for having real human emotions and a difficult time coping with them. People have different tolerances for pain, and most of us are pretty damn hard on ourselves already without the added weight.

Knocking somebody down does not make you taller. It makes you a bully.

Instead of drawing first thing this morning, I just poured all of the angst into this, hoping for some sort of pressure release valve, because having a global sing-along is not going to do it for me. I almost didn’t post this because of worries over branding, being negative, pissing people off, and not being enough of a Polly Anna.

I’m not dealing well with this, and I imagine that’s the case for most people, each with their own unique grievances.

I don’t know where we go from here. I don’t know if this will go on for a couple of months or many months? I don’t know if, at the end of this self-isolation, there will still be money coming in from anywhere for anybody. I don’t know how many will get sick, how many will die, if these measures are overkill, not enough, necessary, unnecessary, if the media is being irresponsible with the constant fear-mongering and death toll scoreboard, or if the fear is needed to scare people into compliance with the new rules.

I don’t know much of anything.

And that’s what’s keeping me up at night.

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
Sign up for my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

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Broken News

I follow the news for a living, and at the best of times, it wears on me. A constant diet of negative news is awful for your mental health. I have to limit it as much as I can, or my mind goes down that dark rabbit hole of despair.

Now that many of you are home all day, I know you’re spending a lot of time on the internet, surfing through the horror, continual updates on the global death toll, getting into arguments online about which information is right or wrong, and then sharing news stories to your social media that you think sound right as if your friends aren’t surfing the same news you are.

We do this because it makes us feel like we’re in control and informed, when we all know that we aren’t.  In fact, by reading this stuff and sharing it, you’re making yourself even more anxious. When you share it, you’re not making people feel better; you’re making them feel worse. This virus of anxiety we’re all spreading is more damaging than the virus itself.

I’ve been actively avoiding phone calls and conversations with people because the whole discussion just ends up being about the news, this article and that, these facts and those, what Trump said, what Trudeau said, what this doctor said, what this victim said, and the numbers. I end up leaving the phone call feeling worse than before and wished I’d never called or picked up.

I understand it’s the topic on everybody’s lips, we’re all frightened, and we think that by talking it to death, it will make us feel better. Ask any psychologist, and they’ll tell you the opposite.

The media is hurting for revenue right now; they’re fighting each other for your online attention because they’re trying to get advertisers to keep paying them. The only way they can do that is to be upping the tragedy, to find new angles to make you afraid, new headlines to get you to open their link. They will never do that by telling you, “It’s going to be OK.”
I’ve always gotten news alerts from multiple outlets; it’s part of my job as an editorial cartoonist, it’s how I know a breaking story is happening, one that I might have to comment on with a cartoon. But in recent weeks, these outlets have been abusing the privilege. I now get multiple BREAKING NEWS alerts from each outlet throughout the day.

The Prime Minister’s been offering a daily briefing from his house because he’s been in isolation since his wife was exposed to Covid-19. CTV was sending me an alert that this was happening, which was helpful. But in recent days, they’ve been sending the alert about a half-hour early, meaning I tune in and have to watch/listen to doomsday coverage I don’t want to hear before I get to the coverage I need to see.

That’s click-baiting. And while I understand it, I resent it. And so should you.

The constant apocalypse feed breeds more anxiety, contributes to depression, and when those two degenerates get a hold of you, you start thinking irrationally and make poor decisions. Spending hours on social media, surfing the news and talking about all of this is not only detrimental to your mental health, but it’s also unsustainable.

I’ve had OCD for years, ever since I was a kid, though I didn’t know it until I was in my early thirties. While I’ve always been mindful of washing my hands, not touching my face, etc., mine doesn’t manifest as germophobia. OCD is much more than that. It’s about control, worrying, ruminating, fear, and anxiety.
After I went for groceries yesterday, I mentioned to a friend over email that the fear and tension in peoples’ faces were disturbing. But when this is all over, if people ask me what OCD is like, I now have an example. Do you remember how you felt all day long during the pandemic? That’s it, except that you feel it when times are good, too.

Mine has been much better over the past couple of years, mainly because I read some excellent books, was in therapy for a while, found coping tools, meditate almost every morning and I’ve established boundaries. I still worry more than is necessary about things I can’t control, but it doesn’t consume me like it used to.

The most significant contributing factor to my feeling better than I did, however, was limiting my exposure to the news and social media. The easiest way to know if it’s a problem for you is to try and turn it off for a day.

One day.

Don’t even look at it. If you can’t, you have a problem, and the first step to solving any problem is to admit that there is one.

If you can’t go one whole day without social media or the news, you don’t need me to tell you that’s an issue.

I’m not saying to avoid the news or social media forever. While we’re in isolation, we need to be informed, but be smart about it. Pick the news outlets you trust and follow them, especially your local news. Don’t click on anything and everything your friends post just because the headline or graphic triggers your fear. That’s what it was designed to do.

It shouldn’t matter to somebody in Saskatchewan that some people in Australia aren’t following social isolation rules. That’s a problem for them to solve. The borders are closed. They can’t get to you. There are almost 8 BILLION people on the planet. Following every story of tragedy for all of those people will ruin you, especially when most of those tragic stories are embellished, spun and manipulated for maximum fear.
My wife had to tell a friend two days in a row that a “news” story she shared was inaccurate; it took her no time at all to find evidence that it was false. But then she saw the same stories shared by a bunch of other people. Nobody is even bothering to check, primarily if it supports what they already believe. I shouldn’t have to explain how dangerous that is.

But to spend our isolation with a display in our hand all day long, punching that refresh button, madly scrolling for fear of missing out, you’re making yourself miserable, along with everybody with whom you’re sharing it.

If you’re going to share stuff, why not good news stories for a change? There are still plenty of those out there, too. Videos of people on their balconies singing, applauding first responders, live concerts online for charity, and kitten videos. Come on, you can never have enough kitten videos.

Your friends and family are already scared. You can contribute to that fear, or you can help them down off that ledge.

It’s a choice.

__

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
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Trudeau Update – A Cartoon Video

I recorded a high speed video of a cartoon I sent out this morning, some bonus content for my newspaper clients.

The type of cartoon in this video would normally take me about three or four hours since detailed caricatures are a lot more work. Add in camera setup, periodic recording throughout the process, sourcing and buying music, and editing, and I spent about nine hours on this yesterday, which is why I can’t do these as often as I’d like.

Because of the way I’ve set up my office, having a camera on a tripod over my left shoulder while recording is kind of clumsy. I can’t have it on the right, where there is a lot more room, because my hand would obscure the drawing. With a tripod leg right behind me, I have to be careful not to move my chair back and bump it. So there’s really no way to get into the groove of drawing while recording, at least not one that I’ve found.

I’ve tried recording with my phone or iPad on a goose-neck, since that setup is much more user friendly, but the problem is that even if you manually adjust the brightness, the cameras on portable devices just aren’t designed for recording the backlit display of another screen. I’ve even tried a GoPro camera, but none of them have worked as well as the DSLR camera you see here.

In the photo, you can see my second monitor, where I’ll often put the images I’m using for reference.

The display I’m drawing on is a Wacom Cintiq 24HD and the software is Photoshop, which is the most widely used professional illustration and digital drawing/painting software on the planet. There have been plenty of times I’ve wished it were called something else, because for many years, people assumed that if you were using Photoshop, you must simply be manipulating photos.

Thankfully, anybody younger than me has grown up with this technology, so I don’t have to explain it as often as I used to.

If you like the video below, feel free to share it from YouTube.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
Sign up for my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

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Bad for Business

If you’re wondering why you haven’t seen any new paintings in the most recent posts, it’s because I’m having trouble focusing on that. I did get up at my usual 5 am with the intention of painting this morning. I’m in the early stages of a little Corgi right now, but not making any headway. Instead of painting, I ended up surfing apocalypse news stories, brainstorming cartoon ideas for the only topic in town, and fretting over finances.

I’m sure that most people are doing the same thing, minus the cartoon idea part. That’s pretty specific to my profession.

This kind of ruminating and brow-furrowing is unproductive, bad for business and even worse for mental health.

How many of you are sleeping well right now?

Don’t answer that.

One thing that will come out of this, for the businesses that survive it, will be some interesting innovation, born of desperation. Many are trying to come up with new ways of making money to stay afloat, some I’ve seen are rather clever. And I think when this is over, a lot more people will continue to work from home, for companies that find it benefits their bottom line.

While they haven’t announced it yet, much to the growing impatience of vendors and attendees, the Calgary Expo is undoubtedly a wash this year. There’s no way this will be over in a month, at least not to the point where 90,000 people are going to want to get together in extremely close quarters. If you’ve ever been to a convention that size, social distancing is impossible. All the hand sanitizer in the world won’t help you in that Petri dish.

Since I’ve got plenty of stock right now, I’m going to assess my options and hope to have some specials and deals to announce in the next few days. I know extra funds are in short supply right now, but there might be something enticing for you.

As a recent customer said in the memo section of his order, “I’ve got to have something to look at while in quarantine.”

In the meantime, I wrote another post for Wacom this week, 9 Tips for Working at Home for Artists.  Even if you’re not an artist, give it a look, especially if your work and home are suddenly the same things.
Hopefully, I’ll find my painting mojo soon, but it ain’t happening today. I’m probably going to tidy my office and do inventory.

Hope you’re all well and making what you can out of this overabundance of uncertainty.

I’d make a horrible life coach. 🙂

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
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9 Tips for Working at Home for Artists

Our current global situation is unprecedented, and we’re each trying to figure out how to adapt to the new normal. We all face similar challenges; how to stay healthy while still getting groceries, staying connected with our family and friends, and planning our day to day with limited resources for however long our self-isolation lasts.

Each profession, industry or walk of life, however, will have specific hurdles to overcome, so this is directed at creative types.

Most of us find ourselves confined to quarters right now. You might be a professional artist who already works from home or one who works for a company and suddenly finds yourself working from your residence. You might be an art student home from school or a hobbyist who now has some extra time to devote to creating art.

Whatever your situation, I hope some of these tips give you ideas and inspiration to make the most of this challenging time.

I’m a professional artist, a nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist for newspapers across Canada and a painter of whimsical wildlife. My painted work is licensed internationally on many products through different companies and sold as prints in several zoos and via my online store. I’ve been working from home full-time for the past fifteen years and part-time for five before that. I’d like to share with you some productive practices I employ to make the most efficient use of my time. I’ve learned most of these from correcting my own mistakes over the years. Here goes…

1) Set Up a Work Space

I work from a dedicated office in my home. When I’m in this space, it’s work time, so it’s easy to make that mental shift when I walk through the door. Occasionally, I’ll work at the kitchen island if I want a change of pace, but the majority of my work is done in front of my Wacom display, sitting at my desk.

I get that not everybody has the space for their own office. Twenty-five years ago, we lived in a tiny apartment, and my workspace was a small desk in the living room, jammed in beside the TV. When I sat at that desk, however, it was creative time. Facing the wall was a big part of that because there were no distractions in front of me.

2) Get Dressed

It is tempting when confined to your house or working from home to let yourself go a little, and that’s fine, but staying in your pajamas all day or throwing on a robe without showering will not put you in the right mindset to work. Get up, shower, and put on clean clothes. You don’t have to wear a power suit or anything silly like that, but being clean and presentable counts. It will make you feel like a professional. Walk your talk.

I wear pretty much the same thing every day unless I’m going out. My lounge pants could very well be used as PJ bottoms by some, but I wear them for comfort and a t-shirt. If it’s chilly in my office, I wear a hoodie. But it’s all clean clothing every day. If somebody comes to my door, I am presentable and don’t need to apologize for my appearance. How you look impacts how you feel.

3) Establish a Routine

If you’re new to working from home, a routine is vital. You’ll be forming new habits in your new work environment and what you prioritize will determine your success. I have no boss other than my clients, but I get up at 5 am every day, even on weekends. I do some moderate exercise, meditate for 15 minutes, shower and grab my coffee and am at my desk by 6.

This is my routine, and by sticking to it, I get a lot done.

Obviously, you don’t have to get up as early as I do. I’m a morning person and established that time when I needed to get cartoons drawn and sent before going to my regular job. When I went full-time at home, I stuck to that because it works for me. Find what works for you and stick to a schedule.

I am at my creative best first thing in the morning, so I make sure I’m ready to work during that time. I save the afternoons for admin work and other parts of my job that don’t require my best creative skills.

It is too easy to sleep in, laze around, watch some TV, and figure you’ll do some work when you feel like it. Before long, hours have passed; you haven’t done anything, and then you beat yourself up for your failure.

Talent will only get you part of the way. Success comes from self-discipline, in all things.

4) Avoid the Kitchen

You’re at home; all of your favorite foods are available. It is effortless to make multiple trips to the kitchen and have little frequent snacks. A few crackers here, a cookie there, some chips, a handful of nuts. Before you know it, you’re gaining weight and can’t figure out why.

Stick to regular meals, and if you’re not getting your usual level of activity, make meals smaller than what you’d typically eat. You won’t starve and can adjust as needed. This goes back to having a routine.

5) No Excuses

If you have a primary focus in the art you’d like to create, then get to it. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. That’s an excuse used by artists who don’t want to work. In my experience, the work comes first, and the inspiration follows.

Nobody is saying you have to work a four-hour stretch, chained to your desk. Start with a half-hour. Work for 30 minutes, without checking your phone, going on social media, watching Netflix, chatting with a friend. This is creation time! Start with less and build upon it.

6) Stop Scrolling

The biggest distraction we have, especially in stressful times like these, is our handheld devices. Silence your phone, turn off notifications, avoid social media and the news. You will survive a half-hour, hour, two hours without knowing every little thing going on in the world. Right now, it’s all pretty bleak, anyway, so what are you missing? There is no way to immerse yourself in your art with one eye on your phone.

7) Take Some Training

Every creative needs to keep learning. Even knowing that, it’s tough to make it a priority. I primarily need to use my creative time to produce art to pay my bills. With some extra time at home lately, I’ve been catching up on some online training and enjoying it.

Despite our present challenges, we live in a great time right now. Anything and everything is taught online. And best of all, with money tight for many, a lot of it is free. Not just click-bait teasers with the meat of the instruction behind a paywall, but real valuable art training, more than you could ever take in a lifetime, is available for free from world-class instructors.

You just have to go looking for it, and then make the time to watch, learn, and practice.

I’m an expert in painting and drawing in Photoshop, which comes from twenty years of doing it. And yet, I watched a recent tips and tricks video and rolled my eyes at some skills I could have been using, but didn’t know existed.

8) Try Something New

I’ve known many creatives in my life, and one thing I’ve noticed about most of them; they’re good at more than one kind of artistic expression. I know many painters who are also musicians. A tattoo artist I know is a skilled 3D modeller. An animator I know is a killer character designer. All are creative pursuits requiring different skills.

There was a time when I devoted a lot of my energy to learning Flash animation when many thought that was the direction editorial cartooning was heading. I got pretty good at it, but nobody wanted to pay what it was worth to create. And I didn’t like it much.

I was a bad graphic designer for a short time. Didn’t have the eye for it, nor the interest. I painted caricatures of people. I was good at that, but there wasn’t much call for it, and I grew tired of it.

But all of that work was worth my investigation. All of it taught me something, and I can trace a direct line through each of those pursuits to the painted whimsical wildlife work that is now half of my business. It pays, I’m good at it, and I enjoy it a great deal. I don’t think I would be doing it had I not tried those others first.

Part of trying new things is also realizing what you don’t want to do. By process of elimination, you might find your true calling. But you won’t know until you try.

9) Reach Out

We’re told to self-isolate, but we have the means to connect with anyone in the world.

Everybody is living this situation; we’re all nervous, a little afraid, and misery loves company. Just talking with people like you, who are going through the same thing, will ease tensions. Best of all, you never know what insights or opportunities might come up in an email exchange, Facetime chat or Skype call.

Just this morning, a graphic designer friend in a nearby city recommended a podcast to me that turned out to be one I liked. She was correct; it was right up my alley.

The other reason to reach out to your network is to get work. There might be skills you have that you don’t actively pursue that deserve a second look now. Survival under challenging times requires adaptation and approaching problems in a new way.

Be respectful, open-minded and receptive. The person you contact might not have any work for you, but they could suggest somebody else and offer an introduction or recommendation.

Nobody will give you these opportunities. You have to ask for them. And be honest in your inquiries, because it’s no secret that we’re all navigating strange waters. There’s no shame in saying that work has suddenly become difficult to find, and you’re exploring your options. Right now, that won’t surprise anybody.

They might say no, because a lot of companies are suddenly finding themselves in the same situation. But they might also say Yes.

How do you think I got this writing assignment?

____
(this article was commissioned by Wacom, you can see it on their site here.)

© Patrick LaMontagne
@LaMontagneArt
If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

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Freaking Out


Are you freaking out? So am I.

Over the past few days, I’ve been worrying about how this situation will turn out badly for me in the long run, both for my syndicated editorial cartoons and my licensed paintings.

Yes, that’s selfish.

We’re all in the same boat, dealing with this. We can still be empathetic while focusing on our own needs. Just like they say in that pre-flight briefing nobody listens to, “Secure your own oxygen mask first.”

The what-ifs have been flying fast and furious in my noggin’.

What if more newspapers close? What if retailers don’t order anything for months? What if the zoos don’t order prints for the rest of the year? What if I have to dip into my savings? What if I start going into debt? What if we get sick? What if my parents get sick? What if these restrictions get worse? What if we really do run out of toilet paper?

Yes, some of these could happen, but it’s unlikely for it to be the worst-case scenario, and even less likely I’d be unable to deal with it.

I already spend most of every day working at an accelerated pace, drawing new editorial cartoons as fast as I think of them, painting new images for licensing, fretting the details, trying to make this fiscal quarter exceed the last one.

The available information with this crisis is changing so fast that I’m ping-ponging back and forth between “I can handle this” and “I’m going to lose everything!”

I’m sure most of you can relate. And if not, I’ll have what she’s having!

This isolation home work environment isn’t as unusual for me as it is for so many. But one thing that does come with this job is too much time in my head, leap-frogging from one cognitive distortion to the next.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the behaviour. From the list of the 15 most common distortions, I engage in many of these on any given day, and that’s when times are good.

Right now, they’re lined up in a queue, waiting for their chance to occupy my present thoughts, and they’ve got no concern for social distancing.

The two ringleaders of this gang of hooligans in my own head are Catastrophizing and Polarized Thinking.

Catastrophizing means that I will always jump to the worst possible outcome in any situation I find threatening.

A weird sound in my car means the transmission is going or something equally expensive I can’t afford right now. A month where one newspaper doesn’t run my work as often as they have in previous months means all of my clients are suddenly going to decide they don’t need me anymore. The absence of thousands of followers in my newsletter or social media means nobody likes my art, and I’m going to lose my career. Gaining two pounds this week means I’m going to be 30 pounds overweight in a month.

There is no evidence to support any of this. I’ve got more evidence to support the opposite of every one of these false beliefs, but they feel true, and that’s where the struggle lies.

I had a 1994 Eagle Summit for 12 years, bought it when it was already seven years old. I loved that little car, looked after it, and it was fun to drive. I took it to the mechanic many times for regular maintenance, or when things went wrong, most of which were minor. At the end of its life, my mechanic said it was time to send it to the wrecker because this time, the transmission really was the problem, and it wasn’t worth fixing or selling it. So I donated it, got some money for the local SPCA, paid for half of my wife’s new car, and I took hers. And I love this car, too.

The worst thing in my mind actually did happen, and it worked out fine. But it only arrived at the end, not all of the other times I worried that it might.

In 2009, I lost nine newspapers in one day, when a national chain decided to get rid of all freelance cartoon submissions for weekly papers. I thought that was the end of my career. It wasn’t. The next year was better than the previous one.

I had a decent following on social media before I left the big three. A couple of months ago, I rejoined Instagram, and while my audience is growing, it seems slow. Neither decision had any impact on my income.

As for weight, I’m physically fit. As I approach 50, I’m in better shape now and weigh less than I have for most of my adult life. Even when I was at my heaviest, it was only 12 or 15 pounds more than I weigh now, that middle-age belly weight that sneaks up on everybody in their late 30s until you make healthier choices.

I catastrophized about all of it and still struggle with those and many other false beliefs to this day.

Polarized Thinking, also called Black-and-White Thinking, is the mindset that things are either all bad or all good. Logically I know that’s ridiculous. The world is one big grey area and most situations, problems and experiences fall within it.

Accepting that is hard when it seems like we’re taking one big hit after another, especially when all of the information is a BREAKING NEWS ALERT on how many people are sick or dying in the world from our latest foe.

My email alert sound should be a gunshot for how jarring it has become.

There are plenty of cognitive distortions, and I suspect anyone immune to them is a sociopath. Because cognitive distortions are all about feelings and people are feeling creatures.

This heightened level of anxiety is unsustainable, and today I find it waning a little. I’m taking a lot of deep sighs, stretching, and letting my tense shoulders relax a bit. I’m still anxious, of course, but it’s the baseline anxiety I’m already used to. Still not healthy, but I can handle it for now.

All of this makes me uncomfortable, not knowing what comes next. But I realized yesterday that I’ve been here before. When I quit my job 15 years ago, I had no idea if I could make a full-time go of this art for a living. The difference was that it was my choice, and if I failed, I could just get a job to shore up the losses.  Neither of those is true right now, but the uncertainty is the same.

How long will this last? That’s the big question.

But another question worth asking, what if this is an opportunity?

It’s tempting to fire off more editorial cartoons to try to get as many of the open freelance daily spots as possible, but all that will do is dilute my idea pool, lower how much I’m making per hour, and ultimately mean that a lot of cartoons, and effort, will be wasted. So what to do with the time? I can always paint more animals. I’m always complaining about not having enough time to paint. Part of that, however, is that I want to get as many images available for licensing as possible. But I’ve already got a sizeable portfolio; nobody’s buying right now, so why rush to get more out there during this challenging time?

I can work on painting experiments, images that might not be right for licensing now, but could open up avenues later. I now have the time for some exploration, to throw some things at the wall and see what sticks.

I can write. Not just blogs, but fiction, stories I’ve wanted to tell. I’ve already been doing that this year but it’s a struggle to make the time. I have that now.

Or perhaps I could just be bored for a while. Creativity LOVES boredom. When you slow down, turn off the TV, put down the devices, stop panic-scrolling and just sit and simmer, your mind has the freedom to wander.

I’m uncomfortable right now. I’m afraid. I’m stressed.

What if those aren’t bad things? What if there are ideas hidden behind doors in my mind that I’ve been afraid to open? What if I’ve been so focused on keeping the revenue I’ve got, chasing the next dollar, that I’m missing opportunities that might now show up? What if they’ve always been there and I’ve been too busy to notice?

It’s kind of like driving a familiar route every day, and it isn’t until you’re a passenger one trip that you get to really take a look around. Has that barn always been there? I didn’t know there was a llama in with those horses.

Unlike a localized event or disaster somewhere else, we’re all going through this. When this is over, we will all have our individual stories. Nobody’s life is the same right now as it was a few months ago before most of us had ever heard of Covid-19.

How we cope with it will be an individual choice. What changes will we each embrace when we come out the other side, things we’re forced to do without now that later we’ll decide we never needed?

I’m still going to go back and forth between moments of panic and acceptance. I know that. But I also know this storm shall pass, and it is only when things get bad that we grow. Nobody changes when things are comfortable.

A lot is going on in the world besides the coronavirus, even though its shadow falls upon everything. People are dying of things they were already dying from—heart attacks, car accidents, strokes; you name it. Diseases are being diagnosed, houses are burning down or flooding, businesses are folding, relationships are ending, and families are grieving.

And yet, babies are being born. In all this isolation, babies are definitely being conceived. Artists are creating art; musicians are playing music, writers are writing, teachers are still teaching, professionally and otherwise. Discoveries are being made, buildings are going up, and adventures are being planned.

In many parts of the world, people are still pausing to watch a sunrise with a profound sense of gratitude.

Are you still freaking out? So am I.

Take a breath. Take another.

Keep doing that.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
@LaMontagneArt
If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

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Habit-Forming

The timing of this post might seem like a New Year’s resolution update, but that’s a coincidence. Shonna recently recommended this book she’d found interesting, but had she done so in August, I would have tried these changes then.

Atomic Habits is a New York Times bestseller by James Clear. While I’ve read my share of self-help and pseudoscience over the years, often with more than a grain of salt, I was willing to give this a shot. It didn’t seem like the usual positive-thinking-will-solve-all-of-your-problems tripe.

I wasn’t a fan of the title, but it wasn’t long before Clear explained the reason for it by calling out the definition. Atomic, meaning powerful but also tiny. The premise of the book is that small changes yield big results, building good habits and breaking bad ones.

Full of practical perspectives within, two strategies caught my attention.

The first is something Clear calls habit-stacking. We all have habits we do every day, from our morning rituals to how we accomplish routine procedures at work. These are behaviours we do to be more efficient with everyday tasks. Habits, when appropriately used, add some automation to our day, freeing up our brainpower for more interesting things.

Habit stacking involves adding onto an existing habit or series of habits, making the new behaviour easier to adopt. In my case, I’ve been trying to make time for meditation every morning. I’ve been unsuccessful at keeping a regular practice over the years because I could never find the time.

In the fall, I took an eight-week course on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy combined with Mindfulness Meditation, which I found well worth my time. I’ve been meditating ever since but found it easy to skip a day here, two days there and hadn’t yet found my groove, despite my best intentions.

After reading Atomic Habits, I realized I just had to add it to my existing routine. In the mornings, I get up at 5, turn on my computer, go downstairs, start the coffee, have a shower, get dressed, go back downstairs, do a series of push-ups and sit-ups, grab my coffee and back up to my office to start work.

Over the past month, I now meditate for 15 minutes, after the sit-ups, before grabbing my coffee. I’ve inserted it into my usual routine, and it’s ridiculous how easy it was to do because it’s not something for which I need to find the time. It’s now just part of how I start my day.

As an aside, if you’re unfamiliar with mindfulness meditation, suspend your preconceived notions about lotus positions, chanting like a monk and becoming one with the universe. The practice is about being present in the moment. Most of us are victims of endless mind chatter where we ruminate on our past mistakes or shortcomings and worry about the future, while rarely being right here, right now.

I’m not very good at it, but that’s not the point. My mind still goes off on its own on dark tangents, and I have to gently bring my attention back to my breath or a chosen focus. Some days are harder than others, but I still sit there in silence for 15 minutes, and the benefits are evident. There’s plenty of information online if you’re curious.

The second habit-changing practice I’ve adopted from the book involves my office calendar. The jury is still out on whether or not this has become a good habit or bad.

At present, my revenue streams are my nationally syndicated editorial cartoons, which I work on most days but send out Monday to Friday. Then there’s my painted work, which involves commissions, prints, and licensing on many different products through several different companies.

On top of those pursuits, I enjoy writing, but for many years, that’s been confined to my regular blog posts and newsletters. But in recent months, I’ve wanted to get back into writing fiction. I wrote about this in a previous post, so I won’t elaborate here.

In Atomic Habits, the author suggests that one method of adding a desirable habit is to employ a calendar.

I’ll use eating healthier as an example. Each day you have a serving of fruit, you put an X on the calendar. Successive calendar marks will make you want to add more, an absence of them will motivate you to prevent further blank spaces. It’s a visual representation of what you’re actually doing, rather than what you think you’re doing. Eventually, you just become somebody who has a habit of eating fruit.

You can use this for reading, playing an instrument, going for a walk, stretching or adding any good habit to your life. Consequently, you can use the same strategy for eliminating bad habits, marking an X each day you don’t perform a habit you dislike.

I’ve got three creative outlets I want to accomplish each day; Editorial cartooning, Painting and Writing.  All three every day is possible, but not realistic. However, that’s still my goal.

Adding writing into an already busy schedule, I knew that was going to be tough, but I also knew that if I didn’t, I’d suddenly be 20 years older, lamenting the road not taken.

Blog posts and newsletters count as writing, so if I wrote something like this post, I got to add a W to that day. But if I only wrote a sentence or two, I wouldn’t, since I’d only be fooling myself.

Having done this all month, I looked at all of the red letters on the calendar for this month and had mixed feelings.

Clearly the editorial cartoons are where the bulk of my creative time is spent, followed by painting, which makes sense since that’s how I earn my living.

As intended, I’m writing fiction again, something I haven’t done in twenty years. I’m quite a few thousand words into a story that I’m enjoying, even though I have no idea where it’s headed. Without this calendar practice, I believe I’d still be wishing I’d started, just as I have for years.

As I recently heard in a book or podcast, “Writing isn’t hard. Putting your ass in the chair to start writing is hard.”

There were days this month when I wanted to write, but life got in the way. Shonna’s car battery died during a brutal cold snap, -30C and below for more than a week, which took two days of problem-solving, trips to Canadian Tire, and serving as her taxi. Now, I work at home, have the most flexible schedule and I was happy to take care of that stuff. OK, happy isn’t the right word, but I certainly didn’t blame her for the inconvenience, especially since my car was warm and comfortable in the garage.

Add to that all of the other daily stuff that comes with life, year-end bookkeeping, tax prep, month-end invoicing, communicating with clients, all of the usual and unavoidable tasks.

The most startling revelation in this whole experiment, however, was that there isn’t a day off on this calendar. Even on Saturdays, my day with the most freedom in the week, I still get up at 5 a.m. and put in 3 or 4 hours before Shonna gets up.

This might seem like humble bragging, as in look how busy the martyr is, but I’m well aware that just being busy isn’t a badge of honour. If it were, we’d all get a participation medal. Everybody is busy.

No, this is indicative of a bigger problem. Anybody who has ever been self-employed knows how much work it takes, especially in the beginning. Then if you make a good go of it, it becomes less about enjoying the successes and more about hanging on to what you’ve got for fear of losing it.

When the inevitable losses do come, in the usual ebb and flow of life, you end up working even harder (not smarter!) to keep as tight a grip as possible. Pretty soon, you’re taking little time off, are perpetually tired, grumpy, depressed, running on empty and operating from a position of fear. You spend less time with friends, and the concept of spending an entire day doing nothing feels, well…irresponsible.

Like any bad habit, it’s easy to come up with excuses that sound reasonable.

Some of the greatest hits we’ve all said or have heard include…I’ll quit smoking next month when work is less stressful. I’ll start saving money next year because it’s Christmas and it’s too hard right now. I’ll make time to exercise later when I’m not so tired. Any bad habit comes with a dump truck full of enthusiastic excuses that sound good at the time, but ultimately don’t hold water.

I’m too busy to take time off. In reality, I’ve just forgotten how.

So while this calendar habit was supposed to be a motivating carrot on a stick, I ended up beating myself with it, and I’m disappointed. Awareness, however, is the most significant part of solving any problem, so I intend to continue using it to motivate me to write. But it will also serve double duty as a cautionary device, reminding me that having a blank day here and there is ultimately healthier than killing myself for another editorial cartoon.

The next time somebody suggests I write a children’s book, get into animation, draw something for their fundraiser, or do a commission for them ‘in my spare time,’ however, I’ve got an excellent visual aid for when I respectfully decline.

I remain a work in progress, just like everybody else.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
@LaMontagneArt
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