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Nature Walk Photos, December 13th, 2018

Merry Christmas and happy birthday to me.  I invested in a new camera yesterday, an E-M1 Mark II Olympus.  It’s my first time shooting without a mirror, and I have to say, so far I’m pretty impressed, although I really would have liked better light to practice with this morning.

I went out to the Baker Wetlands today because I thought for sure I’d find some good wildlife to chase, and there was a decent amount of activity out there, not that I could see any of it. It was basically working in pre-dawn conditions due to the cloud cover.  Still, I managed to snap a couple of shots that I liked, and I’m really in love with this new camera.

A big reason I’ve decided to take pictures again is for my health. I hiked about a mile and a half this morning in pursuit, and it didn’t feel like exercise. I was engaged and in the moment the entire time, only stopping to check my phone for the time once and a while (because no matter what, I have to get into the office and build websites for part of the day). 

We’re in the depths of winter here now, as you can see. I’m looking forward to spring already.

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Nature Walk Photos, December 12, 2018

I’m trying to ease back into photography.  Apparently the way I do that is take a two hour hike into the woods near our house to chase birds. 

I feel good for having done it.  I’m very much out of practice, and it’s going to take me some time to rediscover my eye for these things, as well as technique.  I was fascinated by how much of my operation of the camera itself was muscle memory, though. I hadn’t picked this up seriously in about five years, since moving to Kansas, and surprisingly, my hands still knew how to adjust all the settings as I went without much thinking. 

Here are some photos that weren’t too terrible.

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My First Gutenberg Post, and general thoughts about WordPress 5.0

This is going to be a very geeky post, not really about writing, but more about web design and WordPress more specifically. Feel free to skip it entirely.

So here we are: WordPress 5.0. I’ve made many testing Gutenberg posts, but this will be my first post in the new WordPress Editor out in live code. The experience is pleasant enough, I suppose. I wish I could say the same about the run up to the release.

The Gutenberg release has been incredibly frustrating to watch, especially because of my reliance on custom fields in the work I develop for clients.  Over the past few years, I’ve come to rely on Advanced Custom Fields for that work as a framework underlying my code, and the Gutenberg team appears to have gone ahead and shipped 5.0 with a bug that causes the name of every single registered ACF panel to appear on the Gutenberg screen, despite this being a known issue. They may fix it in a couple of weeks.  WordPress 5.0 never should have launched with such a glaring error.

There’s a lot to like about this new editor, but the editor is the heart and soul of WordPress, the piece that nearly every WordPress user touches when they interact with the software. What’s the sense in launching something that breaks in such a fundamental way on possibly millions of websites?  And let’s not forget the massive usability concerns for those with accessibility needs. From my standpoint, Gutenberg wasn’t ready. It was rushed, to meet some secret timeline that the rest of us were never given the logic behind.  The damage it has done could have been avoided.

It’s shaken my faith in a platform that I have come to rely upon for my very livelihood. Moving forward, I think I will be asking myself more often: “can this be done without WordPress?” Instead of asking: “can it be done with WordPress?”  And that’s a shame.  Because what the 5.0 release debacle has demonstrated to me is that if my needs and the needs of my clients don’t align with what Automattic and Matt Mullenweg have decided is good for them, then our needs will lose in the contest every single time. WordPress doesn’t seem to be the open source project that I thought it was.

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Some Thoughts on Solitude

I recently sat down to watch the first episode of Maniac on Netflix.  and I was struck by a line in the opening narration that went:

It’s quite terrible to be alone.

In truth, I was only half-paying attention up until that line to the rambling, philosophical notions espoused by the unnamed and unseen narrator in those early moments, but that line made me sit up and take notice because of simply how wrong I found it.

“There is the thought,” I said aloud to nobody because I was alone in the house in a rare moment, “of a person who doesn’t have small children.”  The kind of profundity issued by someone who has been able to use a toilet in silence more than once in the past four years. Parenting is a wonderful thing that has enriched my life in many ways, but one thing it takes away from you rather quickly is the option to be alone very often.

In solitude, I think we find ourselves best. You truly get to know yourself with only yourself for company; alone, we wear no masks for the show of others. We do not find ourselves moving along with the crowd while entertaining silent, private doubts.  Solitude is a form of nakedness, and I think for some, it’s absolutely essential from time to time.

I find my ability to truly be alone has weakened in this era of social media, however. Thanks to the internet, we can always distract ourselves with socializing in some way.  My early mental picture of the internet was a vast library, but anymore, it looks like an enormous coffee shop full of chattering patrons.  To be truly alone anymore, I have to discard all my devices and rough it out.  It’s uncomfortable at first, but it usually leads to some deep reflection that I need.

Consider me a champion for solitude, at least in moderation (like all things). And hell, I try to give it as a gift to those I love.  For Mother’s Day, I give my wife a day of solitude.  A day with me and the boy she can have any time!  We go on an adventure and let her rest with her thoughts in peace.  My wish for you is to find that time for yourself now and then.

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The Jeremiah Tolbert Method of Being Present

I am a scatter-brained type person – I have a tendency to live up in my own head more than some, and more than I should. Being “present” is something that I’ve struggled with for a long time. My wife constantly asks me “where are you?” At least, I assume she constantly asks me that, because I only notice the question about one time in five.

I have been refining a mental technique for getting myself to remain more present in my life. A “life hack” if you will, that reminds me that I need to stay focused and attentive to those around me, because this moment will soon be gone, never to be lived again. With my young child, it’s especially important to me.  My son is only four, and I already feel like I’m losing my grasp on some of the wonderful moments of the early days.  I look at this little person and sometimes, I miss the baby he was.

So this mental hack probably mostly works for science fiction fans more than ordinary people, but the way it works is, I try and pretend that I’m not living the moment for the first time. Instead, I’m revisiting it from the future.

The explanation varies – sometimes I pretend I’m dead, and in my version of the afterlife, I get to relive and witness my life again.  Other times, it’s a bit of a Quantum Leap form of time travel – I’m elderly and hooked up to a machine that lets me re-live the past as a passenger in my own self.  Doesn’t really matter.  It’s all pretend.

The key is pretending that, no matter how mundane or ordinary the moment is to me now, one day, I may look back on it so fondly that I would wish with all my heart to go back to it. Because even at forty years, I know that the things we remember most and the things we think are important at the time rarely align – or at least personally, I’m more wrong than I am right.

Weirdly, this works for me. It grounds me in the moment by causing me to perceive things more sharply.  I fix the moment in my memory better because of this too. It’s all nonsense, but it works.  I see the world more sharply when I pretend this, and my busy brain quiets and lets me be there, with my family.

Something that has grown out of this as a coping strategy for stress and anxiety is a realization that, looking back on particularly anxious or troubled times, I somehow managed to muddle through. One of the worst things about anxiety for me is that it tends to make small problems seem enormous.  Even when I’m in a moment now where a problem or worry seems insurmountable, the future-traveler me says “you’ve been through this before, you’ve been through similar, and you always made it out okay.” And a lot of times, that thought makes me feel some relief. Some problems seem big close up, but we rarely think about them once they’re receding into the distance in the rear view mirror of time.

That’s not to say that I don’t still need to do the work of addressing the problems I’m tackling now – certainly not. They don’t resolve themselves. But what I can do is spare myself the anguish of it all. I can take my problems seriously and not freak out about them.  Sometimes, anyway.

My coping strategies are my own, and they may or may not be useful to others. But I thought that I’d share a couple of them just in case someone else can get some use from what it’s taken me so long to start figuring out.

 

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Thoughts from an Ongoing Midlife Crisis

My name is Jeremiah Tolbert and I’m in the depths of a midlife crisis.  Nothing could be more boring and cliched than a privileged white guy feeling out of sorts and uncertain about who he is and who he wants to be, but here we are. At this point, I assume you’re only reading this blog if you have an interest in me as a person, so I feel comfortable being more honest about the state of my life. I turned 40 in 2017, and since then, I have been struggling quite a lot.  Especially creatively.  I have not successfully written a story in almost two years now, and I’m having to own up to some other project-based creative failures lately that has me taking a deep look at who I am.

The trouble for me really began in my day job as a freelance web developer.  After the Trump election, business took a steep decline – number of prospective clients shrunk, and budgets for those projects I did have tended to shrink also. I had been on track to potentially hire my first full time employee, but that was quickly discarded in favor of just surviving. I began to have to put in 10-12 hour days to keep things on track, and that left little time for writing.  Where once I had plenty of time for writing and dealing with other creative pursuits, paying the bills soon consumed almost all my waking time.

After about 10 months of this, I began to fall apart mentally and physically. I began to suffer back problems, I gained weight, and I slipped into one of the worst depressions I’ve ever experienced. I sought help pretty quickly and was able to mostly right the ship with a good therapist, but I’ve been left disarmed and stripped of defenses.  Business is still a lot more difficult than it was before, and it’s ticking up a bit. I’m trying not to get my hopes up.  I’m still very much in a recovery/survival mode there.

These days, I’m still working hard, but I have better boundaries between life and work.  I’m not always creatively fulfilled by the work I do (hence why I used to write). However, I’ve lost the bridge to my personal creative work. I’ve spent more hours staring at a blank screen in the past year than all my other years put together.  Motivation is an issue, but I’m also, well… blocked (another ridiculous cliche). I’ve tried taking on other creative pursuits, but I’ve failed at them too, disappointing people who were counting on me in the process.

I’ve spent a lot of time daydreaming about other work, feeling that my life would be on a better track if I just gave up on my freelance life and landed work doing some kind of dream gig. I’ve spent time playing around with game design, thinking that maybe that was what I really wanted.  To say that I’ve gotten “nowhere” would be an insult to “nowhere.” I don’t feel like I’ve even gotten that far.

The main thing I’ve learned in 2018 is that there is a big difference between the things I think would be really cool to do and the things that I am actually capable of accomplishing. So many things I think I’d love to do, I fail at ever doing for so many reasons (not the least of which being talent and time). It is probably time to learn that I can appreciate a thing without trying to learn how to make/do the thing too.  I’ve spent years chasing phantoms when I should have been establishing core competencies.

The hard realization that has set in lately is that I’m not the creative wunderkind I wanted to grow up to be. I really wanted to learn how to do it all, but life is too short and it takes too much time to become competent at more than a handful of items. I’m just a guy who builds websites and sometimes writes decent short stories when life doesn’t get in the way. It’s not even close to the full extent of who I wanted to be, but it’s going to have to do. Maybe that’s what a midlife crisis really is? Coming to terms with the limits your remaining life has. It’s when your dreams and the reality of your life start to overlap in a way that means they can’t really coexist anymore. It’s time to grow up and learn to accept some disappointment in yourself, and to become realistic about who you are and what your creative limits really are. My hope is that going through this crucible of realizations and disappointment will leave me with a stronger bedrock as a person.  Probably even more boring and mediocre than before, but hopefully a little happier and more grounded in reality.

I’m just hoping that when this period of crisis is over, I’ll let myself dream again. I miss it already.

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Recent Arts & Entertainment I Have Enjoyed

I don’t call what follows here reviews exactly – because I make a point of not talking about things unless I have good things to say about them. Consider them loose recommendations at best, but things I mention on this blog are things I think are worth checking out.

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

I don’t read a lot of second world fantasy novels lately–I mostly get my fix for this sort of thing by playing video games and tabletop RPGs. That said, the reviews of Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy caught my attention and I’ll be damned if I didn’t fall in love with his characters and his prose. It’s not often that a nerdy diplomat spy gets to be the hero of a book!  Also, I love that the series plays out over many years, and the changes that occur to the society are gradual.  So many books seems to remake the world in a matter of hours.  There’s a nice kinda Russian vibe to the culture, too, with names that reminded me of my time in the Crime and Punishment gulag in high school, but in a much more interesting way.

Foundryside launches a new series, and it has a very interesting magical system that in many ways resembles computer programming (but isn’t nearly as dry as the real thing). What’s more, and again, it has a cast of colorful, interesting characters that I am eager to follow through the next few books.  I really recommend Bennett’s fantasy work.

Get Shorty – Season One

I’m a low-key casual fan of Chris O’Dowd, and when I listened to his recent interview on Marc Maron’s WTF, I learned that he’s been starring in a television remake of the Elmore Leonard novel/film.  I got my hands on it (you can buy all the episodes on Amazon, as the show itself airs on something called Epix which I’m not sure I’ve ever even heard of before) and I was pleasantly surprised at how different the story was from the original film (I must confess my knowledge of Elmore Leonard books is very limited).

O’Dowd making the leap from It Crowd and Moonboy to this seems like a stretch, but he manages to deliver a cold menace at times that really impressed me.  There’s more depth to him than I necessarily expected, which is always a pleasure to discover. He’s still funny, too, however, and I think his fans would not be disappointed with this show, which is current airing its second season.

Also equally surprising is Ray Romano playing a down-on-his-luck, slightly sleazy film producer with hair that reminds me a lot of James Gunn. I do not consider myself a fan of Ray Romano’s previous work, so I was shocked by how great of an actor he is in this. His facial expressions often carry a scene. Don’t let previous impressions of him scare you away from this. He’s great.

The story revolves around Nevada-based gansters with ties to drug cartels getting involved in making films, and as a long time lover of all things Hollywood, it was the inside look at the production of a film that initially drew my interest. That said, the story delights in turning the screws on O’Dowd’s character, Miles Daly, as he tries to make a better life for himself, one worthy of his estranged wife and daughter.  This is very much modern episodic television that reads more as a 13-hour long movie than old school television. It’s perfect for your next binge, and I can’t wait to get my hands on season two (but I’m not getting Epix, sorry!).

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New story “We Mete Justice With Beak and Talon” is available now in F&SF!

Happy Labor Day to all you hard-working stiffs out there.  This will be a quick blog post to let you know that I have a new story available in the latest issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

“We Mete Justice with Beak and Talon” arose out a challenge to myself to find a way to write a successful story in the second person plural perspective. I find that stories that experiment with point of view tend to sell well to traditional print magazines–the last attempt of an experiment, that time in single second person, was “Wet Fur” and that appeared in Asimov’s and later Escape Pod.  Both deal with animal perspectives, come to think.  How non-human intelligence works is something I apparently like to return to from time to time.

The story went through significant edits working with editor Charlie Finlay.  He was crucial in getting it into shape, and I really appreciate the time he took with it.  Special thanks to my good pal Gord Sellar for taking the time to read not only the original draft, but the revised one.

If you follow the link above, you can order copies of it in paper or find a means of purchasing it electronically. I hope if you like it, you’ll consider subscribing to F&SF.  For the last eighteen years, I have been sporadically submitting stories to F&SF.  It was the first place to start sending me personalized rejections, and for the longest time, their encouragement kept me writing at a time when I had little else to go off other than an over-inflated sense of self-importance.   John Joseph Adams was the assistant editor at the time, and any of you that are fans of my work know that he went on to publish the bulk of my work in his assorted anthologies and magazines.  Making this sale was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my entire life, and it came with no small sense of satisfaction.

What’s next? Well… probably a novel loosely related to this world.  I need to finish up a couple more Dungeonspace stories too. I’m about 5,000 words into the next attempt.  Writing has been especially hard for me these last couple of years, but I’m find myself feeling the desire to build something with my mind and words again.  A novel about teens who shoot down Amazon drones for their material needs, to survive in a kind of post-collapse rural Kansas, has begun to take shape.  We’ll see if it’s something I can actually harvest or another dead-end, but there’s something there that I can’t stop thinking about lately.

Anyway, if you read this latest story and enjoy it, please drop me a note in the comments or online!

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Thoughts on Nature

I went for a walk at the Baker Wetlands this morning. I’ve driven out there a couple of times before, and it usually makes me feel conflicted.

The Wetlands I spent countless hours working at in high school are gone. The place isn’t really recognizable to me at all, thanks to the SLT. I remember most the paths among the line of trees at the northern edge, and that’s mostly gone now, bulldozed for progress, or cut off from the proper wetlands by the highway.

Initially, coming back out here made me feel sad. So many of the nature landmarks from my early life are now strip malls or highways. But the new wetland does actually seem quite a bit bigger, and it teems with wildlife. (more…)

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Meditations/Some Crap On Writer’s Block From France

I’m still on vacation, but I’ve chosen to live mostly in the moment and have not been keeping to any kind of blog update schedule. Much of what I’ve been doing is lounging, reading, and doing a little work on Clockpunk business stuff.  We’ve had a few interesting day trips to places like Avignon, but the experiences, while deeply fascinating to me, don’t seem like the kind of thing anybody else would want to read.  I’ll probably do more photo dumps in the future, but the only place anybody engages with any of this stuff is Facebook.  God, how I hate Facebook for that.

I’m actually nearing the point where I don’t really care if anyone reads this blog, and in fact, I suspect that the fewer people read this post in particular, the better, because this is going to be me digging  into the reason I haven’t been able to finish a short story since something like February of 2017.  If you don’t care to read a bunch of random thoughts as to why, then jog on, dear reader. No worries.

So, yeah. Just when my fiction career seemed to be getting back on track, it all came crashing down on me. After finishing and selling my first real novella, I expected I’d take a short break before diving into more short fiction or maybe a novel. And then Trump took office, and Congress began a dedicated assault on our healthcare, which I purchase through the ACA exchange.  My entire way of life felt under assault for the first half of 2017. I lived in a constant state of high anxiety and depression.  I started seeing a therapist for the first time in almost ten years, because the kinds of thoughts I began to wrestle with scared me.  I started to wonder, on a regular basis, if it would just be better to die than to live with all the stress that I was putting up with. I began to obsess over money, and worked harder than I have ever worked before, having a record year, but certain, in an oddly delusional way, that I was going broke.  It got really, really bad, and while I didn’t attempt suicide, I found myself thinking about it. A lot.  And I was just self-aware enough to know that I had to do something about it. So, I went on some meds again and started up therapy.

I don’t think I really started to level out until early this year. I expected that once I had my mental health issues under control better, the writing would come back. It hasn’t, and while the anxiety is more manageable these days, it’s still present and still higher than it was in, say, 2015.  I still feel a higher state of vigilance. I still find myself, at times, seeking out bad news to validate my inherently negative world view. I still spend too much of my free time examining the increasingly plausible doomsday scenarios about how the United States will either destroy the world in nuclear fire, launch a global economic depression, or merely turn into a fascist dictatorship and start rounding up and gassing people of color.   How can I write science fiction when every day I feel like I’m living in a ever-worsening dystopia?

There’s some of that at play. Some of it is that work has kept me increasingly busy, combined with parenting and such, so I don’t find myself with as much free time as I once had.  But I still find time to try, and what seems to be completely lacking is any sense of excitement or driving will power to finish.

I’ve started a dozen or so stories since the block began, but I don’t think I’ve gotten more than 1200 words into any of them.  I write for a single session, and then all the excitement is gone. I don’t feel any motivating force to take it up again and begin to do the real work of structuring a story, figuring out a plot, or sketching out characters.  When I think about all the things even a basic short story must accomplish to be satisfactory, I feel overwhelmed, and the task seems impossible.  Yet it’s something that I’ve done a few dozen times at least partially successfully.

Some writers, upon being told about my problems, suggest that I’m simply growing as a writer and when I am able to write again, I’ll have “leveled up” to write new, deeper stuff.  Others seem to shy away from discussing it like I’m some kind of linguistic leper.  A lot of people have meat-and-potatoes suggestions for ways to try to tackle it, and many of them, I’ve tried, but to little effect.

Around the same time that I started feeling blocked, I was also making a conscious decision to give up on my dream of ever growing into a full time writing career.  My family relies on me exclusively to generate income to provide for us, and writing is a notoriously income-poor profession.  The simple math dictates that writing is at best a slightly lucrative hobby for me, and the chances of me replacing my web design income with writing income, even over time, is about the same chances of me winning a moderately sized lottery.

I resigned myself to finding other reasons to write, but truthfully, all the other reasons pale, at least motivationally, to writing for coin. Money is the great motivator for me.  Realizing that no matter how good I get as a writer, no matter how much I do of it, I’ll probably never earn anything close to enough to replace my substantial web freelancer work required to pay our bills, that seems to have broken something inside me.  I always knew it was really risky to ever think that, but somehow I kept at it with the dream that I could defy the odds.  But as I turned 40, I realized I am not the kind of person who ever really defies the odds. I don’t have any breathtaking talent at what I do.  I’m the author you find in the middle of an anthology who mostly delivers a competent and interesting tale that you don’t remember a few months later. And I’m okay with that, I guess. At least, I thought I was, but maybe accepting who I am and the realities of my situation sucked all the motivation out of things for me.

It’s probably some kind of perfect storm of awfulness, these past couple of years.  I should be patient with myself, or learn to live with my new state as a non-writer.  But some part of me desperately wants to keep doing it. I’ve invested twenty years of my adult life into trying to be a writer, and it seems like a waste to actually go and give up now.  Especially when I’m starting to see some measure of success in selling my work, and heck, one of my stories is a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award for best novella, so it’s not like I’m not seeing any acclaim.

So what gives? Am I a psychological casualty?  An economic one? Does it really matter? Fuck yes, it matters. I want to know what makes me tick.  That’s a big part of the reason I write, when you take money out of the equation.  Writing helps me understand myself better.

Once upon a time, I didn’t even believe writer’s block like this existed.  What a fool I was.  Here I am, fifteen months since a completed story, frustrated and wondering: if I’m not going to keep writing, then what the hell am I even going to do with myself?  What now?  I’ll keep trying for a while still, but it’s hard to be optimistic about it.  Twenty years, and I’m not sure I’ve ever had this much difficulty putting down words — any words.   Blog posts roll off the finger tips, but those don’t matter in the scheme of things.  So maybe that’s the problem?  Maybe I’ve put too much importance in my “serious” fiction work.  Maybe I just need to write some deliberately awful garbage, or fan fiction I couldn’t possibly sell?  That seems even more pointless though, especially because it’d be trying to make pointlessness the whole purpose of the work.

I don’t know. I just don’t have any idea what the problem is.  If you think you do, let me know.  I’ll try just about anything now to get through this patch.

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