National Donut Day (Observed)

I have been celebrating National Donut Day since 2014 (it’s been around since 1938, and was apparently founded by the Salvation Army), mostly because I took a National Donut Day selfie in 2014 and then took another one in 2015 and realized I had coincidentally worn a black tank top and a silver necklace in both photos.

So, okay, this was a tradition now. In 2016 I continued the black tank top/silver necklace trend, and in 2017 I switched it out for a dress with donuts (and other sweets) on it—which got me my donut for free, though I hadn’t expected that to happen.

By 2017 I had started using National Donut Day as a way to reflect on… um… whatever I needed to reflect on at the moment (look, sometimes it takes traditions a little while to get themselves settled). By 2018 I’d moved from Seattle to Cedar Rapids, and took the first National Donut Day photo where I wasn’t actually holding a donut; there were no local donut shops, and I was not about to celebrate with a gas station donut, so I ate a pecan roll instead.

This year, I missed National Donut Day because I was at a family reunion, but when I flew back to Cedar Rapids I learned that the coffee shop below my apartment had started serving handmade, baked-not-fried donuts (launching on National Donut Day, natch) soooo… I looked at my schedule, decided to observe National Donut Day on the last Friday of the month instead of the first one, and took the annual selfie.

That’s me from ages 32–37, if you’re curious. The first two photos feel like they’re of a person I barely remember being; by photo three I’ve got this confidence that comes with feeling comfortable in my own skin.

In photo four, I’m literally asking myself if the life I’ve built for myself is in fact the life I want; by photo five, I’ve relocated to Cedar Rapids and look much happier (though my eyes clearly reflect that I know a pecan roll doesn’t count).

This morning, I knew I’d look a little tired, since I stayed up two hours later than usual to watch the end of the debates (and then wind down after the end of the debates). I have a lot of thoughts on ALL OF THAT, but I should probably save them for a separate post.

But I also look comfortable in my own skin again, to borrow the cliche. It’s been another year. I’ve eaten another donut. I’m happy to be who I am, and happy to have found a place that feels like home.

The thread is open, y’all. Happy Friday. ❤️

What Happens When You Take Two Weeks for Vacation

I’ve been back from vacation for nearly as long as I was on vacation, and here’s what I’ve learned:

For the first two days or so, I was overwhelmed by how much I had missed. This had less to do with my freelance clients, who knew I was going to be gone and had prepared for it, than with the general field of “things I want to support.”

The Oh My Dollar! Kickstarter, for example, was almost over. (Yes, I was still able to contribute.)

The second season of An Arm and a Leg had started, and it was too late for me to get out any promo news in time for the release. (I can still promote it now, of course. Like I just did. SNEAKY.)

It felt like there were so many things—though I can only remember a handful of them right now, funny enough—that I could have promoted or written about or shared, but the moment for help had passed.

And then that moment also passed, and a whole bunch of new stuff popped up for me to share and tweet and write about, and I stopped feeling… well, I don’t want to call it FOMO, exactly, but more like Fear Of Not Supporting My Network.

Fear of Not Being There When People Needed Me.

It’s interesting how that fear doesn’t go away, even when you make plans with your various clients and workplaces in advance. (I would probably also have worried that my family might need me while I was gone, except I spent one of the two weeks at a family reunion.)

And then you come back, and things keep moving forward, and you realize that there will always be more chances to help.* ❤️

*Obviously there are some instances in which you only get one chance to help, like that viral story about the woman who asked Reddit if she did the right thing by prioritizing a family vacation over her boyfriend’s mom’s funeral. But you’ll know when those are, and when it’s worth canceling your plans to be present.

When Prioritizing Means Giving Up Something You Like

We all know the deal. Your choices limit your choices (and that’s a good thing). Figure out what needs to get cut so you can spend more time on the stuff you want to do.

But what if the thing that gets cut is also something you want to do?

It’s easy to give up the stuff you don’t really like. (The TV show that you’re only watching because it was good two seasons ago, for example.)

It’s harder to give up something you enjoy, either because you’ve found something else you enjoy more, because you want to put that time towards a long-term priority or goal, or because the thing is preventing you from achieving something you think is more important, such as “a good night’s sleep.”

In some cases, of course, certain life priorities become so important that you don’t have the time, energy, or space to make other choices—and at that point, even though you may regret having to let other aspects of your life go (and/or feel angry that your choices are currently limited), the prioritization is obvious.

But that’s not quite what I’m referring to here.

I’m specifically thinking about a social activity that I really enjoyed last summer but am electing not to do this summer because I’ve made both social and creative commitments that are more important to me long-term.

Yes, I know, what an enviable situation in which to find oneself.

And sure, I could just DO ALL THE THINGS—like, none of the events conflict—but that would limit my free time to the point where I’d probably feel a little overwhelmed.

I think it’s really that, after a year-and-a-half of living in Cedar Rapids, I’ve had the opportunity to try a bunch of stuff and figure out what I like and where I fit in.

Now I have to transition from the “try everything on” stage to the “decide what I want to keep in my life” stage, and that means letting some things go.

Which, again, means things are going well.

But that doesn’t make the choices any easier.

Well, that’s not quite true. The choice of which activity to say yes to and which activity to say no to was very easy.

Feeling bad about not sticking with something I enjoyed, simply because I wanted to spend my time in different ways—that was the hard part.

Curious if it’s the same for you. ❤️

Back From Vacation (and Thoughts on Disney World)

Hi, everyone! I am glad to be back, and even gladder that I scheduled a few “recuperation days” after my travel; I was supposed to get back to Cedar Rapids on Monday evening, but thanks to flight delays didn’t end up getting back until Tuesday afternoon, which meant I had two days in a row of not-enough-sleep and too-much-airport (plus jet lag).

It took me until Thursday to feel well-rested again, at which point I spent half the day cleaning out my inboxes and processing all of the work-related stuff that had arrived or accumulated during my absence.

That meant I was ready to start officially working again on Friday — which is to say, today.

But enough about all of that. HOW WAS THE TRIP, NICOLE?

Here are a few photographs to sum it up:

The requisite Disney PhotoPass “glamour shot.” I actually got a bunch of PhotoPass pictures at various locations but only paid for this one; the other photographers didn’t pose me first and the photos didn’t look as polished.
I tried a character breakfast this time around, after being way too nervous to approach characters on previous Disney adventures. The characters play to type, which means that Mary Poppins gave me a lecture and Pooh gave me a hug.
The food was… not as great as all those Instagrammers made it out to be. It was fine, but nothing I’d call “outstanding.” (Think Applebees, or a college cafeteria.) It photographs extremely well, though.

Since I am all about transparency — though I understand that making this kind of statement is a total “your privilege is showing” move — I’ll tell you that I like Disneyland a lot more than Walt Disney World.

That is, I came back from this vacation thinking “well, I don’t ever need to go back here again.”

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy myself. I did! There were a handful of truly magical moments, nearly all of which took place around 7 a.m. before the parks got both incredibly crowded and incredibly hot.

But it was a completely different experience than my previous Disneyland trips, and I wasn’t expecting that.

I thought it would be, like, visiting this place I loved, only now it’s larger and has more stuff to do.

It was more like this place is so big that we can’t do everything and we’ve spent so much money that we won’t be able to come back for a while and it’s so hot and the lines are so long and everything is a disappointing compromise and I didn’t want our vacation to be this way.

And this, by the way, wasn’t even what I was thinking. It’s what half the people around me were saying out loud, as we moved slowly through the crowded streets or inched forward in the standby lines.

I was thinking this place is fascinating and people are fascinating and I probably shouldn’t be listening to their conversations so closely but I don’t care and it is so hot I am sweating in places that I didn’t know had sweat glands.

I love the whole Disney immersive crafted experience thing, which is one of the reasons I’ve been to Disneyland multiple times as an adult and am still planning on visiting every Disney park in the world.

But when you enter Disneyland, the courtyards are open, spacious, inviting you to explore. There’s just enough to do that you can do everything in two days, with enough time for an afternoon nap.

When you enter the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, you get shunted down a path, with fewer open spaces. There’s so much to do that you’ll never do it all; thanks to the crowds and the FastPass system, you have to make choices about what you’ll give up before you even arrive.

And, honestly, I loved that part of Disney World — the big exciting spreadsheetable project, making plans about what to do and where to eat and how much to spend, but that’s because I assumed it would stop feeling like a project after I got there.

It doesn’t.

Now I’ll tell you about some of the magical moments.

The resort was outstanding. Port Orleans Riverside was beautiful, the nature trails were beautifully relaxing, and I saw magnolia trees for the first time.

Like many other people, I was completely blown away by Animal Kingdom’s Pandora section and the entire Flight of Passage experience, which included a 90-minute queue. There was so much to look at, with so much detail, that I never felt bored or impatient. Nor was I tempted to play with my phone (that was one of the best parts of the trip, by the way; staying off my phone).

My favorite part, however, was Extra Magic Hour at Hollywood Studios. I went in ready to rope drop Tower of Terror, since I wanted to get over my fear of falling 13 stories as quickly as possible, but the ride was shut down for the entire day. Slinky Dog Dash was also shut down that morning, which meant the lines for Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith and Toy Story Midway Mania were well over an hour long. (Only the big headliner rides are open during Extra Magic Hour, and the Disney sites claim that if you’re quick enough, you can do all of them. This was never the case in reality.)

So while everyone else was waiting in line, I went in the other direction and began exploring the park. Like, “get up close, read the fine print on the MuppetVision 3D signage” exploring. I looked up, to see the jokes and references Disney placed at the tops of the buildings; I spent time examining structures that I might otherwise rush by. There was something magical or unexpected or humorous everywhere I looked, until Extra Magic Hour was over and the park got too crowded to stand still and look carefully at anything anymore.

That’s one of the reasons why I like going to Disney alone. If I’d gone with a group of people, we’d probably have queued for Midway Mania instead.

That said, the next time I go to Disneyland — and I will go back to Disneyland, though I’m somewhat ambivalent about returning to Disney World — I’d like to go with family or friends.

I’ve experienced the magic for myself. Now it’s time to share it. ❤️

NEXT WEEK: how much I spent, plus some of those spreadsheets y’all asked for.

On Community Service and What Makes a Community

I spent most of Memorial Day at our local cemetery, accompanying a choir at a Memorial Day service and then attending a post-service luncheon.

This was the kind of thing I used to do in high school—which was one of the reasons why I volunteered to do it—but I found the experience much more rewarding as an adult.

I think it’s because this time I actually feel like I’m part of the community.

I was trying to put it together, afterwards—like, I did all kinds of volunteering and community service stuff as a teenager, but it was easy to feel disconnected from those experiences first because I was doing them for external reasons (college applications, my parents said I had to) and second because I was not viewed by the community as a peer.

I was a part of the community—I literally grew up there—but I was also just a kid, and was treated as such.

When I did volunteer work in Seattle, well… first of all it was hard enough finding volunteer work to do in Seattle, because every organization had more applicants than open spaces. I ended up finding a volunteer gig at a tutoring center, and while that experience itself was fulfilling, it didn’t really integrate me into the community. The kids came from all over Seattle and its suburbs; the tutoring center wasn’t in the same neighborhood as my apartment. It wasn’t the type of activity that helped connect any of us to the rest of the city; it was a room we all met in, a few times a week.

Yesterday I felt like I was an important part of something important—an event that helped people share stories, remember loved ones, and connect with each other. An event that made the community stronger not just because we were gathered in that room, but because we’d see each other again, in other rooms (and grocery stores, and at other events, and so on).

I don’t know if it took me until adulthood to figure out that this is how community works, or if the way childhood vs. adulthood is structured means that young people are always going to feel slightly isolated from their communities. (How exciting was it, as a teenager, to finally find your people online or at summer camp or wherever you ended up finding them?)

Or if it’s just a matter of Cedar Rapids being a better fit for me, as a person, than the rural town I grew up in.

But I really like being part of this community—and I really like being able to serve it. ❤️

On Following Your Dreams

You know that song I shared in Friday’s Open Thread? One of the handful of songs I wrote all those years ago that I still like?

It came to me in a dream.

Melody, almost in full, and several of the lyrics.

I sang everything I could remember into my phone’s voice recorder as soon as I woke up, and spent the next few days putting the piece together.

The mysterious house at the core of NEXT BOOK was part of a dream, too.

A recurring dream, spent visiting the places in the house that I had grown to love in previous dreams. Attics and basements and secret rooms and staircases that went up and up and up forever.

I hope I end up loving the book as much as I love that song. ❤️

On Storytelling and Tension

We’re in the final week of rehearsal for the Brahms Requiem, and I was going to use this blog post to share the lyrics to the piece and make an observation about how Brahms crafts a narrative arc that takes us from “I am mourning a loved one who has died” to “This mourning reminds me that I am anxious about my own death” to “I have accepted death by accepting God’s love.”

Of course, this particular narrative arc requires a little bit of interpretation on the listener’s part—I mean, Brahms doesn’t come out and say any of this in his lyrics, he just drops in quotes like this:

Lord, teach me
That I must have an end,
And my life has a purpose,
and I must accept this.

Translation © 2010 Ahmed E. Ismail

And then he lets us put the piece together (literally).

So I was all ready to write about what I thought Brahms meant to do with this piece and how it fit in with the Hero’s Journey, and then I had a conversation with our conductor.

Basically I babbled out a bunch of thoughts about whether Brahms was a character in his own piece, and whether Brahms-the-character was discovering that death had no sting or communicating something he had already discovered, and whether we, as a choir, should treat it as a revelation we’re just now learning or a statement meant to comfort others.

“Treat it like a release of tension,” the conductor said.

And my immediate thought was of course, that’s exactly what it is, I should have realized it myself.

Not just because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to do something like “sing the Requiem as if you were Brahms discovering its message in real time” in a way that effectively communicates that to an audience. (You could always write a note at the beginning of the program telling everyone how to interpret your interpretation, or put up some projections of an actor playing Brahms as he walks back and forth and worries—but if you have to explain it in a matter extraneous to the text, you’re failing at your job of performing the text.)

Nor because everyone in the audience is going to come up with their own interpretation of the piece, the same way I created my interpretation of Brahms’ narrative arc. (In other words: if you’re listening to the music, you’ll understand that it is about coming to terms with death. Any additional thoughts or emotions you experience while listening are your own.)

It’s because of this: when I attended Maggie Stiefvater’s Portraits and Dreams writing seminar, she explained that storytelling, at its core, was about tension and release. A good story has the right amount of both, and puts them in the right places.

Tension and release are what provide the emotional journey—and after you’ve experienced that journey, you can sit back and ask yourself whether Brahms meant to write himself as a character in his own Requiem, or what Sean wished for in The Scorpio Races, or whether The Wizard of Oz is really just a giant allegory about the gold standard or whatever.

I feel like a bit of a goober for not having figured that out on my own.

But I’m glad I’m thinking about it now. ❤️

One More Thought on Characters and Conflict

If you follow me on Twitter—and you should—you might have seen me tweet the following:

As I explain in the subsequent tweet thread (and here, in the promised blog post): if you want character conflict to work, the two characters have to be in conflict.

Maybe they both want the same scarce resource (first place in the karate championship, the Iron Throne).

Maybe one character wants something and another character is either deliberately or inadvertently preventing them from getting it (a parent telling their daughter she cannot participate in the big soccer game because it’s on the same day as her sister’s wedding, a boyfriend telling a girlfriend that her new job at the fashion magazine can’t be more important than his birthday).

Maybe two characters want the same thing but in ways that conflict with each other (two childhood friends trying to maintain their friendship after one proposes marriage and the other says no).

What doesn’t work—and I can’t believe it took me this long to figure it out, but it also looks like some storytellers never figure this out, so okay—is the type of conflict where two characters both want the same thing but they’re caught in some kind of contrived misunderstanding that could be solved by literally two seconds of communication.

The character with the ring box in hand, watching as their beloved embraces another person (who is actually a cousin or a good friend or whatever, but our protagonist won’t even bother to ask, they’ll just stuff the ring box in their pocket and walk away).

The two siblings who both want to keep their childhood home safe but almost end up sororiciding each other after the younger sister misunderstands a letter that the older one wrote five years ago (I told you this whole thing was originally prompted by Game of Thrones).

The reason writers come up with this kind of conflict, as far as I can guess, is because they can’t figure out how to generate an authentic conflict between two sympathetic characters without making one of them look “bad.”

But conflict isn’t always about who’s right and who’s wrong. It doesn’t have to be about good and evil. It can be about two people who want different things, or who want the same thing but in different ways, or who are working towards the same goal but want to take different paths to get there.

To solve that kind of conflict, one or both characters will have to learn, grow, or change. The relationship will evolve in a way that is emotionally satisfying. We’ll learn something about ourselves by watching these characters process their conflict, vs. the kind of no-change-required conflict where all we learn is that we really should ask our significant other whether their cousin happened to be in town last week.

So that’s my final thought on characters and conflict.

For now. ❤️

More Thoughts on Character Conflict in Storytelling

I finished my Game of Thrones rewatch on Monday and caught up with the newest episode on Tuesday—and without spoiling anything (well, nearly anything) about the series, I’m struck by how well my recent “discovery” that conflict between characters is an essential part of storytelling holds up.

Here’s the part that might be a teeny-weeny spoiler: this last season of Game of Thrones comes down to:

  1. Fighting the Big Bad.
  2. Deciding who wins the Iron Throne (assuming it is not destroyed in the big fight).

Okay. At this point, I doubt many fans are hugely invested in the boss fight. I mean, sure, people want to see explosions and whatever, I understand that part, but… there are basically two outcomes here.

HUMANS DEFEAT EVIL

or

EVIL DEFEATS HUMANS.

Of the two, I am pretty sure I know which one is going to happen.

So why keep watching—or, for that matter, why watch any of the series, since we knew from the very first scene that EVIL HAD RETURNED TO THE LAND and SOMEONE WOULD NEED TO DEFEAT IT AT SOME POINT, probably WITH EXPLOSIONS?

Because, eight seasons in, we want to know how the character conflicts will be resolved.

It’s super easy to thwap fireballs at a bad guy until he goes down.

It’s much harder to tell someone, particularly someone you love, that SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. There were plenty of reviewers and bloggers and Redditors arguing that the penultimate season of Game of Thrones felt “contrived” or “boring.”

Not because much of that season was about people preparing to fight a giant evil supermonster, which is literally the most contrived thing ever.

But because the interpersonal conflict didn’t make sense.

Again, teeny-weeny spoiler: the show did the thing where one character finds a letter written by another character, misunderstands the contents of the letter completely, and launches the type of conflict that could have been solved in two seconds if the two people involved had just talked to each other.

The conflict, between two characters who had previously been allies and whom we correctly predicted would be allies again once the misunderstanding got cleared up, felt forced. Unearned. Boring.

This, by the way, was coming from a show that had previously been so nuanced that it made multiple child murderers sympathetic.* No human was fully good or fully evil (with perhaps one exception), and no family was fully on the right side of the argument. People did the best they could with the information and resources they had.

And then the storyline outpaced the books that were its original source material and the characters started acting more like one-note action heroes (and coincidentally uninformed romantic comedy heroes) than people.

Which meant the conflicts became less interesting, since—just like the fight against the Big Bad—we already knew how they were going to end.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about, as we enter our final season of Game of Thrones and I continue drafting NEXT BOOK.❤️

*Yes, that means both “multiple characters that murdered children” and “characters that murdered multiple children.”