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To Post or Not to Post

My wife Shonna is an excellent cook. She finds recipes online, experiments with them, and usually produces something delicious, although she always feels she could do better the next time.

We’ve had a running joke in our home for as long as I can remember. When Shonna gets ready to go shopping for ingredients, or starts gathering things in the kitchen, I’ll sometimes ask, “what are we having?”

Her answer is occasionally, “(Some recipe) or pizza.”

Which means, “I’m trying something new, and if I screw it up, you are going to get pizza.”

I think I’ve had to get last minute pizza maybe three times in the 26 years we’ve lived together.

Shonna has a job she likes at a law firm, and works at Safeway part-time, because while she’s minimalist when it comes to stuff, she still has expensive tastes. Not for clothing, jewelry, or a luxury vehicle, but with most things, she consistently buys the best quality she can afford.

We budgeted more for our recent renovations, so she could get the kitchen she wanted, rather than settle for something less. She hated our old kitchen.

I can keep myself alive, and have simple skills in the kitchen, but I am not a good cook, primarily because I don’t enjoy it. I’ve had to convince Shonna that cooking is creative, that if she and I both followed the same recipe, it would be the difference between fine dining and a TV dinner. She doesn’t realize how much tinkering to taste she does, based on interest and experience.

Shonna has never had interest in cooking professionally, she just enjoys the challenge, the process, and of course, the result.

Recently, she bought a Staub Cocotte, which to me is just a heavy and expensive pot. She told me she’s had this recipe for no-knead bread for about ten years, and finally wanted to try it. I had no idea why she needed this French cooking pot, considering she has so many other cooking pots. But she lit up when telling me about it, kind of like me with a new Wacom display.

The bread was delicious.

All I needed to know was, how do I clean it, without damaging it?

When Shonna’s spent hours in the kitchen making a delicious meal, which will usually involve plenty of leftovers, it’s a foregone conclusion that the cleanup is on me.

Sure, she cleans as she goes, puts some stuff in the dishwasher, isn’t throwing food at the walls but I’m the cleanup guy, without complaint.

Since I work at home, I do most of the housework. As for most of us, it’s a boring chore, but a necessary evil. The only thing I like about it is the result.

We each do our own laundry, but I wash the bedsheets. Shonna will sometimes pick a deep-clean project, but the day-to-day tidying and cleaning is on me.

Even though I have a full plate of work right now, I found myself fuming earlier this week for no apparent reason. I got a cartoon done and sent, but I couldn’t shake the dark cloud over my head. I had already planned on sweeping and tidying, but once I got moving, I kept going.

We live in a townhouse condo. Not a big place, but three levels with two flights of stairs, and luxury vinyl plank flooring throughout. That was the second round of renovations a few years ago. It’s a great floor, but it’s dark, so it gathers and shows dust. Sweeping always takes longer than anticipated and the stairs need to be done twice. But it’s always a good feeling when it’s done.

In my grumpy mood, I needed to burn off some steam. So after sweeping, I decided to wash the floors. Not with a mop or wet Swiffer, but hands and knees washing, multiple water changes, moving furniture, shaking out area rugs. It took about 2.5 hours.

After her own difficult day, Shonna appreciated coming home to a clean house, I was able to spare her my foul mood, and I enjoyed the sense of accomplishment.

I had another opportunity to reinforce this lesson later in the week.

At the end of my work day on Thursday, something somebody said to me prompted me to write a post about how following the news and social media all day is bad for mental health. In our current global situation, increased time spent at home has more people glued to their devices and cable news.

We’ve become more afraid, anxious, and angry which keeps us going back to those poisoned wells looking for certainty, where there is none to be found. The simple answer is to turn it off, and if you can’t, then that’s likely an addiction issue.

That’s the whole post in two short paragraphs. But what I first wrote was 2000 words of ranting. It was cynical, bitter, preachy, and self-righteous.

Isn’t that what the world needs more of right now?

Rather than power through on the editing, I left it for the next day and went downstairs to make my dinner. While heating up the leftovers, I realized that I was in a pretty decent mood, and felt a little lighter.

Because the products I sell are the results of my time spent creating, anytime I draw, paint, or write something, I get stuck in the mindset that it must be quantifiable. When I make time for fun work, like painting portraits of people, it feels like skipping school or taking a sick day to go golfing.

To write 2000 words, likely 1500 after editing, and not post it, felt like wasted time, which is why it was difficult to admit there was nothing to gain from sharing it.

The Artist’s Way is a book by Julia Cameron. I read it in the late 90s, but it’s still popular today, for good reason. It’s about boosting your creativity. One of the practices in that book is called The Morning Pages; writing three long-hand pages first thing each morning, stream of consciousness stuff, no editing.

It’s not quite journaling but it accomplishes the same thing. It’s about getting all of the stuff that’s in your head out onto the page, like weeding a garden, so all that’s left is the pretty flowers or delicious veggies.

I wrote those morning pages for about a year and still have those notebooks. In the beginning, it was rambling incoherent drivel, but the later stuff had some interesting thoughts and ideas that I enjoyed reading twenty years later. That’s also the point of the morning pages. When your subconscious mind understands that this is going to be a daily thing, it seems to realize that perhaps it should come up with something worth writing about.

I eventually gave up the practice because first thing in the morning is when I do my best painting and editorial cartoon work. I’ve only got a window of about four hours from 6 – 10 when I’m at peak performance. After that, I slow down a little, run errands, do admin work, and then I’ll sketch more cartoons in the afternoon and do some writing.

Just like the housework, I didn’t enjoy that angry rant while I was writing it, but I felt better when it was done. I got all of that negative garbage out my head, making room for more positive creative ideas, stuff that might actually benefit somebody else when they read it, rather than give them shit for being human.

I no longer consider that hour of writing to be wasted time, because experience isn’t just about learning what to do, it’s also about learning what not to do. By taking out all my frustration on the keyboard, much like a punching bag, I exhausted that angry little demon in my head, giving him time for his tantrum so he could finally go down for a nap and allow me some peace.

And I learned that just because I write it, doesn’t mean I need to share it, adding even more negative energy to an already wounded world.

I’d still like people to consider turning the dial down on their news consumption. There’s an excellent 2013 article from The Guardian by Rolf Dobelli, entitled “News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier.”

It’s important to pay attention to our community news and keep informed about the world around us, but Dobelli’s article makes some excellent points for pulling the plug on most of it, and does it much better than I would have with my venting tirade.

When the world is beating us up with challenges and bad news as it has all year long, it falls to each of us to consider our role in it. Before sharing news links, divisive opinions, and angry memes, take some time to pause and reflect. Be honest and ask yourself how it will help somebody cope in this difficult time. Will it make them feel better or worse?

Sometimes not sharing something will be the kindest thing you can do.

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
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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
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