Friday, May 29, 2015

#mightyugly2015 Meeting 5: Memento Mori

We had our latest meeting a couple of days ago. Five of us were in attendance; A.S. was in the middle of testing with her students and needed a rest, so she stayed home.

First we discussed our experiences of date night. Kim's instructions were to go to dinner and a movie by yourself; none of us quite did that. J.C.H. has done that ever and relied on past experiences to discuss it. Sonja went for a frozen yogurt by herself. C.R. went to a wine-and-design class by herself, complete with her own half bottle of wine. I went to dinner and an improv show by myself. M.E. chose not to do this activity.

We all talked about our own experiences, why we might avoid this kind of thing, and how none of us felt the feelings Kim suggested came up in these types of situations might apply to us. Those of us who are typically uncomfortable or disinclined to go out on our own were almost never afraid of being perceived as weird or losers. I posited that, as a crowd of nerds, we had all stopped worrying about that sort of thing long ago.

Our reservations were more idiosyncratic. I won't tell you whose was which, but they included:

  • fear of engaging in rumination due to anxiety and not finding our solo activities distracting enough to keep the rumination at bay
  • fear of being approached by strangers, of looking available and interested in others because we were alone
  • difficulties with loved ones who perceive our need for alone time as an indication that we don't want to spend time with them
  • and mine, which was basically that I'm fine going shopping or to an improv show or to eat by myself, but the great joy for me in seeing movies is discussing them with friends and loved ones afterward, and if I go by myself I'm denied that pleasure.
We moved on to addressing Lauren Bacon's The One Question You Must Ask:

When you’re on your deathbed, what do you need to have experienced in order to feel you’ve lived a good and fulfilling life?

A few of us had a lot of trouble with this question. All I could really settle on was that I wanted my family to know they were loved. J.C.H. indicated that she wanted to have made people's lives better, somehow. Several of us agreed with that. M.E. got really specific, down to travel and opening a red panda preserve. C.R. and I, who have near identical career trajectories (she's a few years further along than I am), both felt that the thing we're devoting our time to (Ph.D.s in Information and Library Science) aligned with the idea that we want to make the world a better place, but that neither of us would lie on our deathbed thinking, "Boy I'm sure glad I published all those articles," or, "Yay, I wrote a book. I have lived a good and fulfilling life." Sonja admitted that she does want to have a book published through traditional methods and physically in print, referencing it as a form of immortality or a legacy. 

We also talked about how, for some of us, the idea that we should direct our priorities based on the speculation of what an assumed future us might want is a bit sticky; we've each changed and grown so much already, and none of us is over 40. Who knows what our priorities might be 30, 40, or 50 years from now? Who can say what we will wish we had done?

We then came up with a couple of ways to frame the question we felt were more useful.

First, a question that Lauren Bacon frames: What do you want to be remembered for? Many of us found this more useful, though I still settled on "For loving my family" and had a hard time getting beyond that.

Then, If you were to die very soon, what would you not have done yet that you would have wished you had? This was a useful, but tough question, because one of us had experienced the sudden and unexpected loss of a dear friend very recently. But it did frame things more immediately for us. Ever the slacker, I was still thinking, "I think everybody knows I love them, I feel like I'm in good shape." There are lots of things it would be a bummer not to have done, but nothing that would be a deep regret for me.

In the end, I'm not sure any of us got more comfortable with being alone than we already were or found clarity to help us prioritize better, but we definitely had a great conversation. I'm looking forward to next time!

Friday, May 1, 2015

#mightyugly2015 Meeting 4: Collage time!

We had the fourth meeting of our Make 2015 Mighty Ugly book club this week. C.R. had to stay home with an adorable but fussy baby, so we had 5 members in attendance. We shared the backstories for some of our ugly creatures, which ranged from optimistic tales of becoming a can can dancer after the zombie apocalypse to stories that clearly were drawn from some of our fears about ourselves. Some of us (myself included) felt very freed by making an ugly thing, because there was just no worrying about how it turned out. Others felt rather uncomfortable with it, because they like pretty things.

My collage. The theme seems to be inspiring ladies. Includes: Tina Fey, Alyson Hannigan, Katniss Everdeen, Dana Scully, Buffy Summers, Rainbow Brite, Kim Possible, Ariel, and some more abstract elements. The text at the top says "Unicorns are totally real."
We dug into collage-making pretty much right away, and tried to address some of Kim's suggested discussion questions as we did so. We had all made SOMETHING as a kid, and discussed limits imposed on us by adults (like when an elementary school art teacher made me paint on paper that had been taped on the underside of a table, so I could know what it felt like to be Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel), and times things went wrong. As I've been thinking about this the past few days I've recalled more and more of my childhood experiences with making where I was just so happy to be making a thing that I didn't care how it turned out. It often turned out badly, and regardless of how other adults responded, I'm lucky that usually my parents were very supportive.

None of us struggled with any discomfort trying to make something pretty with other people around. I really think the fact that the collages were individualized made me much less self-conscious about it. In the end, my collage was more pop-arty than art-arty, and that was fine, even in the face of art-arty collages like J.C.H.'s:

This is in contrast to a painting that sits on a shelf in my home office which was done at one of those Wine & Design sessions. The painting turned out just fine, but because I was in a room full of people making exactly the same thing as me, I kept comparing mine to theirs and finding it wanting.

Compared to the other painters in the room, I had the distinct feeling that I was painting with the fine motor skills of a toddler.

A couple of us confessed that we wouldn't make collages if not assigned to do so (myself included), because it wasn't that joyful an experience. It wasn't unfun, exactly, but we could think of ways to make that were more our kind of thing.
Sonja's collage is sassy.

Overall, this was a fun evening that didn't get too heavy, which I think was a needed break after the first few rather intense sessions.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

#mightyugly2015 meeting 3: Make it Mighty Ugly!

We held our third meeting last night. This time, M.E. ran out of spoons before the meeting could start, so she didn't make it, and C.R. left early.

At the beginning of the meeting, we spent about half an hour chatting with Kim Werker. She was giant on a projector screen!

Three shots of Kim on the big screen!
We didn't really have a plan for this conversation. There was a lot of giggling. We talked about what to do if your ugly thing turns out cute, the ways people make up ugly backstories for their cute creatures to make them seem more ugly, and the fact that at this year's Craftcation, nobody cried in Kim's workshop. She suggested that, if we needed inspiration, we should run to the recycling bin. Unfortunately, the recycling had been picked up just yesterday morning, so there was only one empty cat food tin in there. Not much to inspire.

After the chat with Kim, we had a bit of off-topic chatter that resulted in a suggestion that maybe some of us should sit down together sometime and work on grant proposals for work/school. Eventually, C.R. had to head home to get some work done, so the four remaining of us - myself, Sonja, J.C.H., and A.S., set about making ugly creatures. And make them ugly we did.

From Left to Right, creatures made by JCH, AS, Kimberly, Sonja

We managed to construct these within the 90-minute time limit Kim suggests, but that left no time for creating their backstories, so we'll all get together and share those, along with our members who were missing this week, next time. There was a lot of fretting over having the right (or wrong) colors, making do with the supplies we had on hand, how much effort to put into it, and whether to sew or not. (Both A.S. and myself constructed ours with duct tape and no sewing; as we both tend to pick up needle & thread for our primary crafting experiences, that alone was a challenge.)

I'm rather proud of mine. Her name is Nelly. She's a can-can dancer. It's hard to see in this picture, but a bit of her stuffing is coming out through a hole in the top of her head. I think she's probably a zombie can-can dancer. She is pretty effing ugly, but I love her all the same.

Thanks so much for joining us, Kim!

Monday, February 23, 2015

#mightyugly2015 meeting 2: that ugly little voice

We had our second meeting of the year last week. The same six members who attended the first meeting attended this one, as well.

People braved this icy driveway to come to the meeting.
The assignment from Kim's book group plan was:
Discuss your experiences of doing the Hero Qualities and Speech Bubbles exercises – no pressure to bare your souls, you can simply discuss what it was like to explore these things. Optional activity: Get crafty and personify your ugly voice. Make that stupid monster. Then tell it what you really think of it. (Ask every participant to bring some scrap supplies or stuff from the recycling bin; have some scissors and glue on hand.)

After some initial chatter, we commenced to sharing both our feelings about the Hero Qualities exercise and what our hero qualities actually were. 
These are my hero qualities and their categories.
We had a wide variety of hero qualities shared, and it was interesting to see what kinds of things we'd each put on our list. Some of us had included professional or academic achievements; others included personal qualities, like empathy. I especially liked the more abstract things like recreating expensive ideas on the cheap, reflecting on your own professional practice, and being able to tell how a person's feeling based on the smell of their flatulence. Some of us had an easy time sorting these into categories; others had a lot of trouble identifying commonalities.

More than one of us expressed the sense that as we were making this very list, our ugly voice was offering a running commentary about how we were wrong to think we were good at these things. Sometimes something on one person's list would lead another person to say, "Oh, that should be on my list, too!" And best of all, of course, was every time someone said, "You are SO good at that!" I fell into the trap of not maintaining the spirit of the event and when my dear sister M.E. offered up one thing that she's good at, as only a judgey older sister could I said, "Are you REALLY, though?" And I felt horribly guilty immediately afterwards, but it actually led to a good discussion of how we know we're good at things, and I conceded that, whatever it was (and I can't even remember now), she is indeed very good at it.

Then, it was onto the hard part: talking about the Speech Bubbles exercise and how the ugly voice makes us feel.

We didn't discuss our specific responses to this, partly because nobody really wanted to rehash these, and partly because JCH said that she'd done a lot of work in the past to quiet this voice and didn't want other people's voices stirring hers up. 

This opened the opportunity to talk about depression, cognitive behavioral therapy, and how we learn to handle this voice. Some people found it was valuable to take this voice as a challenge, to prove it wrong. M.E. recommended Kimya Dawson's song, "The Competition," which you can listen to below:

This song is all about dealing with those voices.

I shared my own experience with depression. My ugly voice looks like the Thesulac demon from the TV show Angel. When the episode featuring this demon aired, I was just barely in remission; I had been on meds for not quite a year. It is so easy to see the ugly voice as a version of ourselves (as, indeed, A.S. said she did), that it was so valuable to me to have something external to ascribe it to. Many of us felt it was valuable to be able to externalize this voice, but A.S. pointed out that, if you have actually had someone not-you saying the same things your ugly voice does, then it's not hard at all to imagine it as something external. We agreed that exploring this kind of trauma isn't really within the scope of Make It Mighty Ugly, but we also talked about how, if you aren't spending time with the people who say these things to you anymore, but you're still hearing them inside your head, then you must have internalized the ideas and there might be value in externalizing them again.

Then it was crafting time! Everyone had brought so many supplies. We started making physical embodiments of those ugly voices.

So many craft supplies, and this is a tiny fraction of what we had available. Also, CHOCOLATE. Because chocolate shuts up the ugly voice, y'all.
I realized quickly that to give my Thesulac demon tentacles from felt was going to involve a lot of sewing and fiddly stuffing, and rapidly changed directions. I cut off all of his felt tentacles and sewed his head closed around a bunch of pipe cleaners, instead. I used the least beautiful version of whipstitch possible, constructed him hastily, and was finished much faster than everyone else. Which gave me time to wonder if I was doing this activity wrong. You see how insidious these voices are?

In the end, we all had a ton of fun creating these little creatures, and we all have somebody we can say "SHUT UP YOU'RE WRONG!" to the next time this voice pops up.

Ugly Voice Group Photo!
From left to right:
My Thesulac.
J.C.H'.s Fear of Success, because if she gets really good at something then she might have to only do that one thing anymore.
A.S.'s prettier, more perfect version of herself, but with mean cat eyes and devil horns
Sonja's little french liar-pants-on-fire man riding C.R.'s mean slug
M.E.'s Guy the Possum-T-Rex-Green-Eyed-Monster, so named so that she can say, "Shut up, Guy!"

This was great fun after a couple days of us all being relatively snowed-in and probably on the verge of cabin fever. I'm very much looking forward to the next one!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

#mightyugly2015 first meeting: rock bottom, fear of failure

Last night, the Make 2015 Mighty Ugly book club had our first meeting. Six of eight members were able to attend.

I supplied snacks: veggies, fruit, cheese, crackers, and cupcakes. We had three of us with paper books and three on e-readers.

The assignment from Kim's book group plan was:
Get to know each other a little. Discuss the J.K. Rowling quote on page xii, and your reaction to the idea of using rock bottom as a solid foundation to build up from.

I'll be using first names to refer to myself and Sonja, because Sonja's a fairly public figure, but everyone else just gets initials unless/until they decide to reveal themselves here.


I confessed to the group that half of me had really wanted to work up some adorable icebreakers; I know everyone in the group fairly well, but some of them met each other for the first time last night. The other half of me, however, was very tired and wanted to spend the night before this book group meeting playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, and that half of me won.

So, after some initial chatter, I asked if everybody felt introduced enough to move on. Sonja said that she wanted to know what everybody's creative thing was that they would be targeting through this process, to which my sister M.E. and I promptly both responded, "Everything." 

We went clockwise around the table, starting with the very brave J.C.H., identifying our current creative pursuits and ones that we want to pursue but maybe haven't yet. We had an eclectic mix, including painting, knitting, embroidery, crochet, writing, drawing, podcasting, webseries creation, and more. I think this was a great way for everyone to introduce themselves, and I'm super grateful to Sonja for thinking of it. Much better than some game where you answer questions based on what color M&M you pull out of a cup.

Rock Bottom

The J.K. Rowling quote to which Kim refers is
I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
This is a quote from her Harvard Commencement speech. You can view the whole thing here:

We discussed this idea of rock bottom, and we all agreed that living through the realization of a fear is a great way to learn that you can move forward. But we also all agreed that we'd really not like to hit rock bottom if we don't have to, and that maybe you can have a solid foundation to build from even if you've got some stuff on top of your rock bottom. I opened up about what rock bottom would mean for me: being laid low by my Hashimoto's thyroiditis to the point of not having the energy/ability to get out of bed. This is a very real fear of mine; I watched my mom, an accomplished maker in her own right, deal with this for years. The number of unfinished projects that I attribute to her illness is pretty high. And hitting that kind of rock bottom, as I imagine it, wouldn't really give me a solid foundation to build from, because if I can't really get out of bed, I can't do much else, either.

That said, my Hashimoto's is fairly well-managed and I'm not very likely to hit rock bottom. But its specter (I want to say spectre; apparently, I'm British) looms large in all of my making endeavors. There's a reason I prefer quick projects or projects that can lie fallow for a long time without disrupting my or anyone else's life.

So, we all agreed that actually being forced to move through the fear is a good way to realize you can keep going. But also that we'd like to be able to move through fears without actually hitting rock bottom.

This conversation naturally led to a discussion of success, failure, and fear.

Fear, Success, and Failure

Sonja posited that fear of success doesn't make sense, and we pretty much all agreed. But fear of failure was a thing that a lot of us have.

We talked about how failing a lot, failing on purpose, and failing at low-risk activities can reduce fear of failure. I also mentioned how failing privately can help, too.

From 2009-2011, I was fairly obsessed with making my own cupcakes, and like anything you do a lot, especially anything that requires following directions if you're a person who is good at following directions, I got pretty good at it. At a party once, someone asked me what the secret to my magical cupcakes was.

My answer: "The secret to making amazing cupcakes is that when you make a batch of bad cupcakes, you throw it away and don't let anyone eat it." Private failure. You learn from it, you don't tell anybody it happened, and you move on. I acknowledged that with making, there's a certain privilege involved in being able to just scrap the project. Not everybody can afford to just toss foodstuffs or craft supplies. But if you can, failure becomes much less toothy.

Sonja fails regularly, deliberately, and publicly, which I feel like must make failure seem just like a normal part of life for her, but she'll have to weigh in on that more herself. C.R. mentioned that when she's making, it's really more about the process for her than the product, and that she's her only audience, so she doesn't really care if she fails. I discussed the value of not knowing you're failing, which is how I eventually got better at crochet after many hats made in the wrong weight yarn and trapezoidal afghans. I also suggested that with failure, there is a fun threshold that if the process itself is rewarding enough, you don't even care that much whether you fail or succeed.

Low-risk public failure. This is supposed to be a spooky ghost. Instead, it just looks like a wig head with cheesecloth glued onto it, which is exactly what it is. Halloween 2013, my house. Literally nothing bad happened to me because of this failure, except that I was out the money spent on the supplies.

We didn't really get into this, but I think I have a fear of not finishing as much as I have a fear of failure. I notoriously drop projects. I also notoriously have a million plans/good ideas at a time, of which maybe 1% ever come to fruition. I think one thing that might take the power of this fear away is to ask myself what the real consequences will be if I drop any given project. The answer: probably minimal. 

We pretty much wound up once C.R. got a text that her baby was crying and required her presence. All-in-all, I think it was a good night and a great first meeting, and I'm really looking forward to the next one.