Predictability & control

The chaotic world is trying to get in again. I feel it in the way I want to research things – like how to create vaccines, or running for public office, or how much a billion dollars is really worth. I’ve run out of “free reads” for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Wired, and The Economist, which is probably a blessing-in-disguise for my mental health.

I’ve never felt the impact of the outside world so much as now, ironically enough, when I’m home and removed from it.

The outside world feels like crying when I’m making dinner. It feels like the inability to concentrate when reading a novel. It feels like ineffectually cleaning the oven. It feels like terror-Lysoling every scrap of groceries. It makes me feel many things: anger, grief, frustration. Stress to the nth degree, even though the most strenuous things I’ve done are 1. write this blog post and 2. watch Netflix.

I know I’m not alone. Here we all are: figuring out work from home with kids underfoot, who are also figuring out how to learn from home. Trying to budget for God Knows How Long. Listening to politicians. Listening to medical experts. Noticing there’s a discrepancy between what the politicians are saying and what the experts are saying.

I don’t think it’s an understatement to say: It’s really fucking stressful.

Humans do not do well with chronic stress. It literally affects our health. And we’re already facing a health crisis. So, what the hell do we do? I’m no expert, but I ran across a few things that have helped me, and I’m sharing it here so that maybe it helps someone else stay sane in this clusterfuck situation.

I came across a great book called On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger – a reporter who worked at Amazon, Convergys, and McDonalds all in the interest of finding out why low-wage work drives people insane.

(Side note: while I highly recommend this book, I also highly recommend that you read it after the current situation is over. I was in a rage for the first few days of my isolation because my sense of impotence was heightened by 300%.)

In the McDonald’s section, she breaks down an experiment done on rats which discovered that if you remove predictability and control, you create “body- and mind- wrecking” stress:

Put Rat A in a box with an electrified floor and give her unpredictable shocks: she’ll develop the same stress-related symptoms [terrible stomach ulcers] Selye observed in the rats he had to chase around the lab with a broom.

Now put Rat B in the same situation, except play a beep ten seconds before you shock her: she’ll end up with ulcers, too, but far fewer of them. Rat B can’t avoid the shock, but she at least can relax until she hears the dreaded beep. That predictability helps her deal with the stress better.

Now give Rat C the same set up as Rat B – box, shocks, beeps – but add a button she can push after hearing the warning beep that will cancel the shock: she’ll end up with dramatically fewer ulcers than either of the other two. Even that little bit of control Rat C has helps her deal with the stress much, much better than either of the others.” ~Emily Gruendelsberger, On the Clock.

Extrapolating from those scenarios – it feels, to me, like I’ve been placed squarely in Rat A’s box. I don’t know what the presidential updates will upend – are we sheltering in place or having a giant Easter egg hunt? Where are the shocks (Covid-19) coming from? Who knows? There’s no consistent testing. I might be able to go to the grocery store and purchase flour or purchase a disease that’ll throw me in the middle of an already-packed hospital waiting room/ward. And all of this is beyond both my ability to predict or control.

However, while I might not be able to mitigate the stress and pressure coming from outside, there are still predictable, controllable pieces I can manage. I had to think these out for myself, which took some time. Your list of things you can control and predict will be different.

  • I can control and predict my schedule. I work from home. I can get up at the same time every day. I can shower and get dressed and have breakfast and be at my desk at specific times.
  • I can control and predict my limited space. I’ve organized my desk/office space. I’ve integrated a “reading nook.” I suspect the control impulse is why everyone is cleaning everything. **Important note: I can also allow my family to control their spaces and respect that – when we’re all fighting for our own little corner of the world, be sure to give people whatever space you can. Turf wars over a corner of the house only breed more irritation. Knowing that your space will be there, just as you left it, also gives a sense of predictability.
  • I can control and predict what I do. Right now, I have to limit my time online. You know what it looks like: this news article that breaking news this expert says that expert says the death count is this high but look at the survival numbers. I acknowledge there is chaos happening, but I can’t allow myself to wallow in it. I read and watch enough to know the big shifts. But ‘controlling what you do’ is also not about avoiding the negative – it’s trying to accomplish something positive. For example, game night with the family, reading, writing (not necessarily the Great American Novel, though if you’re feeling it….), cleaning, cooking, going for a walk, throwing a ball around. I’m not crafty but I know people making medical masks, puppets, growing plants, and painting.     

You know how kids work better with a schedule (set bed time, play time, craft time, etc.)? You are now that kid. Set up your schedule (and you can freakin’ sleep in if you want – just get up at 1:00pm consistently if that’s your jam).  

Look, I’m pretty sure I’m still gonna get ulcers. But doing these things has helped calm me the fuck down. If you have other things that help you gain predictability and control, please let me know. I’m looking for any tips and tricks for peace of mind – and I’m sure you are too.

“I Hear you” — Film #3 in the 365 Film Project

Hi guys — here’s the third film in the 365 Film Project.

I also want to give a special shout-out to an often unsung, invisible hero: Production Assistant Carley Crowder. She keeps everyone and everything on track and makes sure everyone has a good time while we go through this. So, thank you so much Carley.

It’s Not Real Unless You Put It In Writing

I’m a little behind the curve for this new decade already. A couple days in I caught the nastiest cold I’ve had in a while. (Maybe the flu? We’ll say it’s a cold…but it kicked my ass.) Today is the first day I’ve felt like a human being again.  

So, ten days into the new year and new decade, I’m here to declare my goals for the next year.

2020 Goals*

1. The Year of the 100. (Actually two goals.)

1a. I’m aiming for 100 Rejections. I actually started this back in December and I’m up to four.

1b. Also aiming to read 100 Books. I’m up to five, so I’m doing okay so far.

2. Write and produce one full length play.

3. Write the rough drafts of three novels.

4. Co-produce 20ish short films based on my 365 Project with Fantomvagn Films.

5. Write six short stories.

*A note about my goal-setting style which I’m embracing this year. I have always, always been more successful when I set ridiculous Big Hairy Ass Goals (BHAGs). Whenever I set goals that are “reasonable” I am always, always worse off. For example, the last time I set my reading goal at 100 books, I missed and ‘only’ read 70ish books. The year I set it for 20 books, I read 12.

Why Yes, I NaNo

Happy National Novel Writing Month, writerly people. I wasn’t going to participate this year, having been thwarted the past couple years.

However, I recently participated in a great workshop put on by mystery novelist Becky Clark for Pikes Peak Writers: “How to Write Your Novel in 8 Weeks.” And, while I’m still sorting out a lot of the tools she provided in the workshop (lots of time management advice, which I’m putting into practice), it occurred to me that a great time to put these tools into action would be when every other writer and their brother is trying to accomplish the same goal: write 50K in a month.

Because then not only would I be putting into practice her detailed advice, but I would also have a community to complain — I mean, um — partner with.

If you need a writing buddy, you can “at me” @JennyStolen on the NaNo website.

Rewriting the Bard: Julius Caesar

Cassius: Did Cicero say anything?

Casca: Ay, she spoke Greek.

Cassius: To what effect?

Casca: Nay, an I tell you that, I’ll ne’er look you i’th’face again. But those that understood her smiled at one another, and shook their heads. But for mine own part, it was Greek to me.

William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2

Greek to me.

After three months of working, I’ve finished the draft of the gender-reversed adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that I’ll be directing throughout October and November. (We open in December! If you’re in Colorado Springs, you need to come see this!)

And let me tell you this about adapting the Bard-His-Own-Self…

It’s intimidating. For a couple reasons.

First, the reputation: I mean, here’s a guy who has dominated the world stage, hundreds of thousands of English lessons, and is quoted daily. You probably said something he wrote at some point today — maybe you realized you quoted him, maybe you didn’t, but I would bet any amount of money in your pocket that there was something.

Second, the language itself: Say what you will about Shakespeare. The boy could write. There’s rhythm and vocabulary and plot structure. It’s kinda like fluent Greek and then me: speaking elementary Greek. Reading the Dr. Seuss of Greek, not the — um — Shakespeare of Greek.

So what kind of cocky, arrogant, ignorant ignoramus jumps into one of Shakespeare’s best known, most performed plays, and then just…”adapts it?”

*Raises hand slowly*

The Draft.

That’s me. I did it.

And not only did I swap the genders around (more on that in a later post). The Bard probably wouldn’t recognize Act V much (more on that in a later post). He’d wonder why so many conspirators were alive (and then die later). He would probably be curious about the dancing…but, then, he’s a theatre guy, so he’d probably roll with the dancing. Maybe he’d be irritated at how I reconfigured the Soothsayer.

I admit. I was hesitant at first. Mostly, I said to myself, “Self, we’re just going to swap the genders, keep as much of the meter as we can while we do that, and then make some judicious cuts. That’s all, Self.”

As I dug deeper into the text though, I kept thinking: “Self, it’d be cooler if this happened, then there can be a visual representation of XYZ. And if we move this character here, it solidifies ABC.”

So I made the changes. Then myself was like: “SELF! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”


(Which is kind of dumb question to ask yourself, because we know what Shakespeare would do. He did it. I was in the midst of fucking it up as I asked myself that very question.)

Ironically enough, it was thinking about “What would Shakespeare do?” that gave me the creative freedom to cut and rearrange and reassemble.

Because Shakespeare fucking stole everything, rearranged it, reassembled, and cut and pasted. If Shakespeare were right beside me in the office chair, he would have done the same damn thing. Probably with more blood. He was an “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers.” (“Our” being other playwrights of the time period — meaning he stole their shit.)

Over the next couple weeks, I will explain my actions. In the meantime, I say that we all take a deep breath…and think about what else we can steal.

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