The four prompts for the essay contest are: Reentry, Death, Work, and Space. Click the link above to see more of details about the prompts.
Right away, the contest was interesting to me. First, the prizes are pretty big with no entry fee. Second, there are some interesting celebrity judges. Finally, I liked that the judging criteria was based on creativity, originality, and quality. That means that the writer’s with the huge following who make thousands a year on Medium won’t necessarily be the winners. Or so I hope, anyway.
After a long dry spell of no writing and really no creativity at all, I was looking for something to spark the desire in me to write again. For some reason these prompts did it.
I set myself of goal of writing an essay to meet one of the four prompts, I already had a story already knocking around in my brain, and then a stretch goal of writing for two of the prompts.
When I’d written the first story, I still had fire so I knocked out the second one quickly. Whew, that felt good.
A couple days later, I had an idea for a third of the four prompts, and I wrote that one a bit more slowly. It took more effort to write but I am happy with how it turned out.
Satisfied, I set all three essays aside to breathe and give me time to come back and edit before submitting.
Lo and behold, while riding in the car back from a doctor’s appointment, I had a flash idea for the fourth prompt. I could hardly believe it and I wrote it easily. I was dumbfounded but proud that I wrote something for all four prompts.
Writing these four stories felt so good. It feels nice to write again.
All four essays have now been posted to Medium. The rules of the contest say we aren’t supposed to post them anywhere else until the contest is over, but they are public and available to read on Medium.
One of the benefits of my job is that I work from home one day a week, and have been doing so for just over seven years. It’s a wonderful perk. If I ever chose to move to a different job, I’d want to be sure I retained this same benefit as it goes a long way toward my mental health.
As a confirmed introvert, working from home on Friday allows me to get my job done while having a little break from my very extroverted team of peers (all of whom I adore, in measured doses).
So when word came down from my leadership that we are to work from home for the foreseeable future, I though “pfft, no problem, I’m already a pro at this.”
On Day One, I approached my now shelter-in-place working from home days exactly as I approached every work from home Friday, and that was my first mistake.
Since I believe in growing from my mistakes, here are five things I have learned and want to share from the first week of working from home every day:
#1 You must have boundaries
When working from home just one day a week, the boundaries between work life and home life were never an issue. I’d get up a little later than usual, make the short commute down the hall, and do my job. Since the end of Friday is also the end of the work week, at 5:00pm I’d log off and enjoy my weekend time.
Now that work from home is every day, it’s too easy at 9:45pm to think “oh, you know, I could just dash off that email to my boss that I forgot to do earlier” or when I’m obsessing over the current news at 3:30 in the morning, “I could take one more look at that PowerPoint draft.”
To be honest, it’s very likely that I have used “putting in extra work” as a way to deal with my anxiety over the current events. It feels like I am doing something about it, but I’m not. It’s an avoidance and over time will wear me out when right now I need to find ways to stay strong.
In short: Boundaries must exist between work life and home life.
#2 You must have boundaries
Since my husband is now my coworker five days a week, and since my husband is my absolute favorite person in the world, I find myself wanting to spend time with him as we usually do after work or on the weekends.
This means sitting together, drinking coffee, talking over all the things on our minds, including but not limited to: how cute our cat is, our thoughts on movie, television, or literary characters, what to have for dinner, and most importantly whether or not feeding peanuts to the crows and bluejays in the backyard will cause them to protect us, as a fierce corvid army, when the zombies rise…you know, normal couple stuff.
But if we spend too much time in our usual weekend pattern, then I am not getting work done. Then again, if I spend too much time doing work (see #1 above) then I’m not spending needed time with my husband.
Once again: Boundaries must exist between work life and home life.
As part of my job I support a team of technical people who are dispersed across the country, so I am very used to using video conferencing daily, whether at home or not. When this new stay at home edict came down, I was already set up on the app, had a good camera to use, and a speaker for sound.
Not so for my peers. For the most part using videoconferencing is new for them, and I find myself giving mini tutorials on every meeting we have.
Our IT department is now conducting four one-hour long trainings a day on how to use the videoconferencing service, but my peers seem loathe to take a course. “Too busy,” they say. So instead they are relying on me to help them. In every meeting.
This is not sustainable. I love to help people but I can’t get sucked into this vortex. Instead of jumping in there when they have troubles, am now sitting on my hands when someone says, “I can’t figure out how to share this document” or “Why can’t I see everyone?”
If they ask me directly, I will help, but if they are just muttering and fumbling I stay quiet because the best way to learn is to do it for yourself. The user interface isn’t really that hard, it just takes a little time to get comfortable with it.
The one exception: The times when a participant has both their phone and laptop dialed in which produces that horrible ping back and forth that escalates into a high teeth grinding sound. The audio equivalent of standing between two mirrors. I cannot restrain myself from jumping in to sternly say “Phone or Laptop, not both, mute one!”
At any break at work, I find myself looking at the latest headlines. On every call my peers want to talk about the headlines. In the kitchen while making lunch my husband and I talk about the latest headlines, “So, did you hear that…”
All of this fuels my anxiety and managing this is a big factor in my ability to stay safe and sane, and to be an active, productive employee.
Many years ago I took a meditation class and the instructor told us: “You don’t have to watch, read, or seek out the current headline news. If there is something you need to know, it will find you.”
It has been almost 20 years since I first heard this gentle guidance and it is more true today than it ever has been.
#5 You must have boundaries
On Friday work from home days, I tend to dress pretty comfortably. Yoga pants with a not terrible shirt. Fluffy socks and slippers. Loose but comfy (okay, ratty) sweater.
This is fine once a week, as Friday is the most causal day at work by far, but this is not sustainable for me five days a week. It is really true that clothes impact how you speak, how you hold yourself, how you feel. Clothes matter.
Now, I’m not saying put on a three piece suit and hard shoes every day, but at least wear the kind of “business casual” clothes you might wear to the office. Get up, take a shower, comb your hair, put on some work clothes, maybe light makeup if that’s your thing, and present yourself well. You’ll get your mind right to sit down and do some work.
Then when the work day is done, by all means, jettison yourself right back into those comfy home clothes. You’ve earned it.
We have no idea how long this current stay at home edict is going to last. so it is important to build good boundaries now to help stay sane over time.
And just because you work from home, don’t neglect washing your hands!
In all dietary trackers on line, in apps, including the non-caloric and overly complicated ways to track food like points, stars, thumbs up, macros, smiley faces, carbs, fats, sugars, fibers, what have you, donuts will now carry the same nutritional profile as a half cup of shredded carrots.
Henceforth, all human bodies will receive and process the ingestion of a donut as if it were carrots. Bodies are no longer to react to the wheat, sugar, fat and/or salt of donuts, rather donuts have become and will remain health food, for the duration.
Supermodels will now have bowls of donuts at every fashion event and remain flawlessly size zero. The Olympic teams of all nations shall provide donuts on the training table and new world records will be set. The greatest minds shall be provided a never ceasing stream of donuts and scientific progress will reach new heights.
No longer shall the humble and delicious donut be the subject of both lust and scorn as it is now freely edible as a vegetable.
No longer shall we dine of the forbidden pastry and lament the caloric intake. Now it’s as if we had a salad which is guilt free and boastable. “I only ate a salad today, what did you eat?”
No longer shall Nancy from Accounting cut a donut in half and then fourths and then eighths and nibble saying, “Oh I really shouldn’t but I just can’t resist.” She will gobble down the entire pastry and take two more and not lament to her cube-mate how “fat and ugly” she feels. She shall instead feel smug in the fact that she ate carrots like a good girl.
No! We shall all rejoice! Donuts shall flow freely in the streets. All shall partake of the donut and we’ll become a healthier society by eating so damn many vegetables.
New Year’s Resolutions shall not be considered broken by the ingestion of one or eight donuts as they are all delicious frosting and sprinkle covered vegetables.
Yes! Donuts are health food and together with a little work and a little focus we can become the healthiest society on earth.
This weekend I found myself at the UC Botanical Garden and marveled again at how rich it is with subjects to photograph. Gorgeous trees and plants, winding walkways, seasonal flowers in bloom, epic views of Strawberry Canyon.
I have taken many photos here and find endless new things to photograph on each visit.
Plants are easy, but photographing wildlife is a bit more difficult. For me, at least.
I know the old adages, one that patience is required in shooting wildlife, another that one should expect to take a lot of shots to get to one good image.
I’ve been shooting long enough to know better. But I’ve also been me long enough to know that patience isn’t always my virtue.
Under the auspices of “the best camera is the one you have with you” I tend to shoot a lot on my iPhone. There is hot debate on the topic in the various photo clubs I belong to. Some of my fellow photographers see iPhoneography as a perfectly acceptable medium and encourage the ease and accessibility of on-the-fly photos.
Others of my peers scoff and say they will never accept iPhone photos as legitimate (really, seriously, in 2019 they say this). In that particular photo club I strip the exif data off of my photos before posting to our monthly theme review. They won’t look at my photos if they know for sure it’s an iPhone photo.
So while I shoot a lot on my iPhone (the header image, for example), I also feel the limitations of the hardware. The light has to be good to get anything worthwhile. The image quality, even in good light, is not always the best. And zoom? Forget it, the pixelation from the software zoom is more than I want to deal with.
About a year ago I decided I wanted a camera that was a little less than my big boy camera and a little more than my iPhone. After some research, many reviews read, and lots of waffling, I finally settled on a Sony Cybershot. It’s cute, fits into my pocket or purse, and has a real optical zoom versus a software zoom.
It’s a neat little camera and does a whole lot more than point-and-shoot devices used to do. In fact it’s scary how good simple pocket cameras have become.
I’m still learning the Sony and it surprises me every time I give it a try.
Like, for example, this photo:
I was enchanted by this little bird at the botanical garden. I have no idea what type of bird that is, I’m not that good at identifying species. My husband and I watched it flit from branch to branch, often coming quite close to us. The light was good, but the movement was way too fast for an iPhone. (though my husband used Live Photo and that worked pretty well)
I tried pulling out the Cybershot and fiddled with settings. I found one I hadn’t used before called “reduce motion blur” and gave it a go. I tracked the little bird, zoomed in and quick took a snap expecting very little.
No planning the shot. No endless patience waiting for the bird to turn in the right direction. No one hundred shots to get one good one.
One snap, one photo. Got it.
Because I’m naturally superstitious when shooting, I took another photo. I did so thinking I knew more than I did with the first photo, so I must be able to take a better photo, right?
Truth is, I had much less luck on the second shot (note the bird butt in the top left corner):
And with that, I gave up. Yes, I took only two shots and got one worth keeping. How often does that happen? For me, not very often. It was a good reminder lesson in allowing serendipity in my photography.
Maybe knowing a bit more when taking the second shot turned out to be a hindrance? Maybe on the second photo I was trying too hard?
In photography, I can get rigid about the shot I want to make. I have been known to see a shot evolving in real time and then pressing too hard when trying to take the perfect version of it.
I can get obsessive and fire off image after image and come back with nothing worth looking at. In those moments I wanted the photo to be something I was not capable of producing.
Sort of the divine struggle of photography, right? To produce an image that is how you saw it in real time.
What have I learned from this serendipitous nature photography moment?
Right place, right time. Meaning let the image happen the way it wants to evolve.
Don’t press, just let it flow and let it go. If I don’t get the shot I wanted, okay to try again, also okay to move on.
It helps to know your camera. In this case, I tried a new setting, but knew pretty well how to use the features of the camera including zoom, focus and settings.
It is not hyperbole when I say that little bird is among the best wildlife shots I’ve ever taken (the first one, not the bird butt one) in that it comes very close to how I saw that beautiful late afternoon winter sun on the green and yellow and brown botanical garden.
True, wildlife photography isn’t my main focus, and practice would certainly improve my images, but dang if I’m not pleased with that photo of one little bird taken with one little point-and-shoot camera.
Does it have less value since it wasn’t taken with a “real” camera? (scare quotes used on purpose. Isn’t any camera a real camera?) I don’t think so. Others might disagree.
But I like it, and that is what matters the most. Trying to shoot something I think will please someone else is always going to be hard road with no destination.
One of the things I love about photography is that it is both so easy (just get the exposure triangle right!) and so very difficult.
Note: I have done no post processing on any of the photos in this story. I could certainly fiddle with all three of them, but that was less important for me and not quite the point of this story.
“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me” — Stuart Smally
For those of us of a certain age, we remember the Stuart Smally pseudo-self -help skits by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live.
The catchphrase became an oft quoted in regular conversation, both joking and more than a bit serious.
In reality, there are an awful lot of resources out there that tell us about self-talk, about taking a strong stance, about giving ourselves positive affirmation phrases to bolster our courage and bring us to great heights.
Good words are all well and good, but do they actually work?
Here’s the thing, all the pretty words in the world are not a replacement for the discipline needed to actually take that first step.
Mohammad Ali told himself and the world that he was the greatest fighter that ever lived, then he went out there in the ring and proved it.
He did that not because of his hype words, but by putting in the training work well before the fight. The kind of work that’s less pretty words and all the more necessary.
What I’m saying is: The road less traveled doesn’t get traveled until you strap on your boots and walk it.
Self-care and self-discipline matter a whole lot more to your success than the perfect laser cut vinyl words stickered to your wall.
Live, laugh, love is all well and good, but you have to live by taking care of yourself, drinking enough water and for god’s sake eat a salad now and again.
You have to laugh, even when you are in such a dark place that laugher feels hollow. Sometimes it takes work to find anything funny, but once it’s there, the laugher soars.
And love, a lovely romantic notion but real true love takes hard work, which is, unto itself, cotton candy words. We all talk about “how hard” it is to make a marriage work, but you have to commit yourself to actually doing the work, to sticking around when everything in your brain says to run, to firmly holding that trash can while the love of your life barfs their brains out three days before the wedding.
Okay, that last one may be just a bit too personally specific.
How about this one:
Huh, really? Pretty sure that is impossible. There will ALWAYS be someone more than happy believe the bad stuff about you, even if you were the best person that ever lived.
Shouldn’t it be more like “Live in such a way that if someone spoke badly of you, it might make you sad for a little while, and then maybe you get a little drunk or eat french fries about it. Then you either hold on to that pain for a lifetime or you talk to your therapist about it and find a way to move on.”
I know talking about “doing the work” isn’t crazy cool, fun, and sexy. It doesn’t look cute on a shirt with butterflies and shooting stars. But that is how you get where you want to go, and by that I mean real, tangible results take effort.
Which is not to say you shouldn’t have some fighting words in your pocket to inspire when it is go time. I’m trying to say that catchy words are fine, but they don’t get the work done, so don’t get so lost in the memes, wallpaper or the “inspirations” aisle at the craft store that you forget to focus.
I mean, if you want to chant a phrase to get you fired up, get you off the couch and augment your inner motivation, then by all means!
I myself love to watch YouTube videos of tribal Maori doing a Haka dance. The strength and passion gets me fired UP to go out there and kick some butt.
I am not Maori so I try not to appropriate anyone’s culture, but I admit sometimes in the bathroom before a big presentation, I’ll stick my tongue out to my reflection in the mirror and make my best Haka face. AAAAGH!
Then I go out there and do the work. I stand tall and get it done. If I succeed or I fail, it wasn’t because of my affirmation phrases or my faces, but because I put in the time, dug deep, and did the work.