There continue to be a lot of curve balls this year. A couple weeks ago we learned that my guinea pig Ivy had an abdominal mass, and we ended up needing to do an emergency spay. This is normally pretty routine with dogs and cats, but for small pets it's extremely risky and depending on what they find for emergency spays, they may not recover. As we saw with Archie last year.
Thankfully, she came out of surgery and bounced back quickly! It felt like the best news we've had all year (although I would've taken her not having a tumor in the first place too). She's a small creature, but she's tough. She even had babies when she was only 6 months old, before she was abandoned with them in a box outside. She's a trooper!
Meanwhile, since starting my new medications, I've been having trouble with my eyes. My right eye gets bloodshot almost every day and I regularly have tension headaches and light sensitivity, so much that I can't even look at a TV from across the room without wearing sunglasses. I've never really gotten headaches in my life, so the sudden onset seems to indicate that it's a side effect. There was one day where it was so bloodshot at night that I couldn’t fall asleep for hours. Eye drops didn’t help, and eye mask didn’t help, and I just kept thinking about how I could feel my swollen eyeball under my eyelids whenever I closed my eyes. I ended up taking a sick day because I got so little sleep and the idea of staring at a screen seemed awful. Later in the afternoon I tried drawing with an eye patch, but that really takes the wind out of my sails. Depth perception is way trickier with one eye, as you might imagine.
I spoke with my rheumatologist who recommended I make an urgent appointment with a rheumatology specializing ophthalmologist, but the appointment isn't until a month from now. He said that if that happens, I should just go to the Mass Eye & Ear ER and have an ophthalmologist look at my eyes day-of. There are many causes of a bloodshot eye and it's not worth taking any risks just because of scheduling. So yesterday my eye was again acting up and we made the trek downtown in the car. I was there for four hours and had a complete eye exam, which I've never had in my life. They asked when my last eye exam was and I said, "Uhm... never? I have 20/20 vision..." Really I had a few eye exams as a kid while on the same meds (which can cause longterm vision damage so they regularly monitor to stay ahead of it), but I think they were just basic look-in-the-machine exams. I was only 5 at the time though so I really don't remember.
During intake, they asked if I have had any falls, which reminded me to address that I have vasovagal syncope and it can show up for random reasons. Typical causes like blood tests and low blood sugar, but also more curious causes, like crowds, cold temperatures, smoke, hot temperatures, reading something grotesque, and not being able to sit down. They asked if it's triggered by people touching my eye and I said that I guess I wouldn't know until I tried it.
You can guess what happened next. The doctor gave me eye numbing drops to do a pressure test, and the instant I felt my eyes go numb and heard her say, "Now I'm just going to gently press on your eye", I started getting tunnel vision. After the 30 seconds that the test lasted, I told her I was starting to feel vasovagal and she reclined my chair, and a nurse and attending came in with cold wet towels to put on my forehead and neck. My blood pressure dropped down to 80/50 and they had to get me to actively breathe in and out because my heart rate was so low. I think I lost consciousness for a few seconds and came to while the attending shined a light in my eyes and asked if I knew where I was and if I could state my birthday. It took me about 10 minutes to feel better and they gave me some cold cranberry juice in the meantime. Certainly nothing that I haven’t experienced before, but always a little traumatizing.
Of course it wasn't over though. After that, I still had the majority of the full eye exam to go, so next had dilating drops. Again, this is all stuff I've never experienced before and without any eye problems in the past, getting drops feels really foreign, not to mention the added sensation of the specific drops in question. I started getting tunnel vision again, but luckily, after a brief machine exam, they needed to let me sit for a half hour while the drops went into effect, so I just sat in the dark room, reclined again, and tried to rest.
The rest of the exam went fine, and it was really interesting to see the different tools used to look into the back of the eye and examine the nerves and fundus. It was so peculiar seeing a bizarre but crystal clear refracted image of the fundus; I thought I was seeing things when I realized I was seeing my own eye blood vessels! This is all very novel to me but I'm sure everyone else has experienced this multiple times. Not being able to see from my face to 5 feet in front of me was troubling though; I figured out how to do talk-to-text to let Chris know when I was done.
The results were encouraging; my eyes are structurally perfect, vision still 20/20 so headaches aren't a sign of needing glasses. Though the next step may be neurological diagnostics, perhaps including an MRI. I've had a couple at age 5 and age 12, because the disease originally changed the shape of my skull. The attending explained that when headaches and eye problems are not caused by the eye itself, the eye is attached to the brain so that's the next place to look. And while that might be a big jump in general (ie could it just be dry eye or side effects?), given my type of scleroderma, it's better to make that jump early and rule anything serious out. Which I appreciate.
On the brighter side, Chris is slowly feeling better. He still gets bouts of chest tightness and shortness of breath, but since it's now been going on for 3 months, he feels he has identified a trend that it comes every couple weeks or so, but the severity decreases each time. He's working on building his strength with chest exercises and hopes to start going back to work once a week in August.
As for art-related topics, which I haven't posted about in ages, I've officially completed 12 pages of the chapter. I had hoped to complete the first 18 pages by August (since the first 18 in this chapter are the most tedious, at 16 panels/page), but I hadn't accounted for all of the recent crises so I'd say I'm doing alright considering. I was going at a pace of a page a week, but now it's a page every 2 or 3.
Above are two panels that I like a lot; the first taking place at night so a lot more shading. You'll see that the first shot is violet instead of blue-violet. This is because caran d'ache doesn't make the exact shade of blue violet that I was looking for, so each time I have one of these darker panels, I draw in violet first, and then go over with Prussian blue (one of my favorite pigments in oils!) I really like the split complementary color palette of goldenrod, green, and blue-violet, and violet just looked too juicy for the subdued tone I'm looking for.
I made a time lapse of a few recent panels on Saturday. I think I was subconsciously remembering techniques from my ninth grade drawing class. I don't remember doing tracing in that class, but do recall using graphite paper (kind of like carbon paper) at some point in that class so we must have. I think we may have used similar techniques in my sophomore printmaking class in college too, when doing etchings? For this, I traced a setting I needed to draw two more times by using a tracing paper, and then made my own graphite paper by shading the back with a 2B graphite pencil. It worked really well! Hard to see on camera but just enough to go right over it with colored pencil and not need to go back with an eraser that much. Before this, whenever I had a repeat background I was using a ridiculous system of measuring and transferring and it simply wasn't going to be scalable. Maybe I'll invest in some actual graphite sheets next.
I wrote recently about how my childhood illness, scleroderma, has come out of remission and I just started treatment. Something I've been existentially grappling with is that one arm of the disease is systemic and can affect the joints, leading to mobility issues. I don't have any of the tell-tail signs of that part of the disease (Raynaud's phenomenon, joint tightness and pain, calcium deposits, widened blood vessels, or esophageal dysfunction), though my fingers have occasionally been sensitive to cold in the last couple weeks and I did notice this weekend that both of my thumbs and index fingertips have suddenly developed rough and peeling callouses. I can't pinpoint where they would have come from since I haven't even been drawing much in the last week (and obviously not with my non-dominant hand) and haven't come in contact with any irritative cleaning products. I'm not washing my hands anymore than I normally do in these times and the rest of my hands are unaffected. Peeling and irritation of the fingers and hands is one symptom of the wider spread disease, which I've seen crop up frequently in an online scleroderma support group. Many who suffer it eventually lose the ability to write clearly, or completely lose any skill involving fine motor skills. The prospect of losing mobility in my hands has sent me into an (unhelpful) panic and the last three nights I've had nightmares about the disease progressing both neurologically and digitally. In one, my parietal bone cracked open as if it was a set of tectonic plates with one crashing over the other, and I could feel blood coming out of the resulting fissure. In another, I watched the color drain from my fingers when I held something cold and felt all of my fears confirmed.
I'm trying to not fall into the trap of believing every little ache and pain is a symptom. But I'm also grappling with the reality that time is a limited resource. I spoke with a friend yesterday about how much I am holding myself to the expectation that I should be drawing all of the time, otherwise I will never make significant progress when I go back to working full-time and commuting into work every day. She reminded me that we are living in troubled times, made up of violence, a social justice movement spurring necessary pain and self-reflection and learning, the ongoing pandemic, and a personal illness whose treatment puts me at higher risk of the coronavirus; it's not healthy to put additional pressure on myself. But at the same time, I worry that a couple years from now I will no longer be able to draw and I will lament the days I wasted when I still could. The only way to make myself feel better is to keep working hard, but at the same time, I don't want the drawing itself to be a source of stress. Stress doesn't result in good work and it doesn't exactly slow down autoimmune diseases.
Anyway, that's just a little bit of where my head is at this week. I'm still chipping away at the comic. I just don't have my head in the game like I did back in March and April.
I heard about a small bright spot coming out of the Cambridge community this week: Danielle Geathers just became the first black woman to serve as Student Body President at MIT. In the article linked above she reflects on the importance of prospective students seeing their own culture and background reflected in the student and staff community - especially in leadership positions.
The Greater Boston community has a long way to go though. I work in an MIT-owned building in Kendall Square, a Cambridge neighborhood and business community often criticized as an ivory tower exponentially driving up property prices and rent largely due to the presence of Google, Facebook, Amazon, plenty of biopharma companies, and more. My company’s main function is to provide affordable and flexible workspace and accessible networking opportunities for startups and innovators, in an otherwise expensive, exclusive, and densely occupied business neighborhood. But, as the price of rent continues to sky rocket, the company ends up having to charge more per square foot just to cover our own rent, which works in direct opposition to the goal of accessibility and affordability. (Note, we offer free events and donate space to/partner with various community-oriented initiatives and nonprofit orgs, but this is obviously not enough to fix the issue of inaccessibility overall.)
With the current exclusivity in our neighborhood in mind, last year, the Kendall Square Association kicked off a monthly Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion learning community bringing together local KS business leaders. The focus of this discussion group was "Can Kendall Square pilot and scale ways of building inclusive institutions, by applying its [Research & Development] mindset to the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issue?"
Since that group started, it sounds like there has been a lot of openness to accountability and self-criticism and lots of thoughtful ideas for future changes and initiatives to support the goal of making KS a more equitable and inclusive community. But of course there is still a lot of work to be done and a lot of those ideas are far from being rolled out. (Read more on the KSA DEIB initiative here.)
Because it’s easy to point to everyone else and whether they are/are not doing enough, I’m trying to turn the mirror on myself as a cog within the greater Kendall Square wheel. My big questions for myself within this context are:
1. What can I do as a member of a Talent Acquisition team in a Kendall Square business to make sure I am helping create a company that provides a welcoming, safe, worthwhile, and engaging community for existing and prospective BIPOC staff?
2. How can I work with my company to bring more BIPOC into positions of leadership and other parts of our work that are not accurately reflecting the community and population within which we operate?
Given that my team works in hiring and HR, DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging) naturally surfaces in our work every day and it's something we always address up front when hiring for the Talent Acquisition department. But I am challenging myself with the questions above because my professional identity has always felt secondary to me; I've often felt like my individual identity is that I like to make art and that my professional day job is a way to pay the bills while I also work on creative things during my free time. But I'm recognizing that with my line of work, that's a place where I can make a tangible impact in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Here's some sobering context: Boston was recently voted last in a survey on how welcoming eight major US cities are to people of color. Last. In a region of the world know for being extremely progressive and liberal. On average, I interview anywhere between 5 and 25 people every week, have worked on entry-level to C-level searches, and my team reviews hundreds of resumes and applications from all over the world each month. We are responsible for finding valuable contributors who reflect the fabric of the community around us. And right now, we have a number of ongoing initiatives to keep ourselves accountable... but we are continuing to listen and learn and admit where we can do better.
Layla F. Saad held an Instagram Live lecture on the topic yesterday, titled "The Revolution with not be Colonised... by White Business Leaders" and this has been a nice resource to make sure I am pointing the finger back at myself and my company whenever I think about racism. She reminds me that it is a shield to simply call out others who are not doing enough when the most effective calling out should be happening within myself and my immediate sphere. View Layla's full session here.
Some helpful words written and emphasized by Layla that white business people like myself should keep in mind:
“The revolution will not be businesses, brands, and leaders who have silenced black voices for all these years, only now to post a black square and proclaim “Black Lives Matter”. The revolution will not be white-washed into a movement where people with white privilege get to feel like benevolent white saviors once again. The revolution will not be slotted into capitalism and used to sell white supremacy back to us.”
The last few weeks have been nuts. I knew we wouldn't necessarily be "immune" to the physical impacts of COVID forever even as I was savoring the extra time at home not needing to commute. But right after my last post, Chris started feeling really ill. It started with unexplained fatigue and then rolled into chest tightness, shortness of breath, body aches, headache, and nausea. Some of those symptoms are textbook coronavirus... but on the other hand, he hasn't once had any kind of cough, and never once had a fever. The fever is being touted as such a trademark for the virus that we kept doubting whether that's what he was experiencing or not.
On May 6th, Chris left for work, but then came back an hour later saying he was exhausted and didn't think he should be out in public feeling like that. (He's an electrician so has continued working.) He slept all day and night, and wasn't interested in eating. The next morning, I was in a meeting when I got a phone call from him in the next room saying he needed help and thought he should see a doctor. He was so disoriented, in pain, and his chest felt very tight. He felt like he wasn't getting enough oxygen and I worried about his brain being affected.
We did a symptom checker and given that he was experiencing chest tightness and shortness of breath, it advised us to call an ambulance. They arrived within 10 minutes and took Chris to the hospital. They checked his vitals, which were luckily safe, did a covid test, and then I picked him up and brought him home. The relief when he called me to pick him up was immediate because I'd read so much about families not even having time to say goodbye to a loved one before they enter a hospital or ambulance and then they never see them again.
It was good to have him back home, but he didn't improve. He couldn't even sit up in a chair. The following week, the test covid came back negative and that concerned us more, even acknowledging that the false negative rate is high, the swab was taken very early in his symptoms, and he didn't have upper respiratory symptoms that could better trigger a positive.
Over the next three and a half weeks, he were in high alert. Neither of us left the house, nor did our roommates. Friends and family delivered us groceries. He quarantined in the little room where he works on music and I brought him all of his meals. I kept a digital "menu" of all of our groceries so he could tell me what sounded good, given that his appetite wavered. We wore a mask around each other at all times when I entered his room. I wore a mask around the apartment too in case I was exposing our two roommates to whatever he had. He sprayed the bathroom down every time he used it and brushed his teeth in his room, spitting into a trash can. We talked on the phone every night and tried to sync up movies or TV shows so we could watch them "together" from our separate rooms. Some days he was okay during those viewing periods, others he was really weak and could barely make it through the first few minutes. The only time I spent more than a minute in his room was during virtual appointments so that I could take notes and make sure he was asking all the questions we needed to cover.
A few days in, he had his first virtual call with his PCP. After two weeks with no improvement, he advised him to return to the ER and get another covid test, as well as a blood panel and chest X-ray. The ER staff denied everything but the blood panel and they told him that they "just didn't think he had covid" because his vitals were stable and he didn't have a fever. They sent him home within 30 minutes upon arriving. The blood panel was very broad and nothing turned up. Naturally, his PCP was upset that these services were denied and he advised that we find a private option for testing, so we eventually tracked down a covid testing site in Waltham at a CVS. The PCP scheduled an X-ray at his facility's onsite lab and later that afternoon he had the second covid test done. The chest X-ray came back clear and the covid test again came back negative. Who knows how much all of these hospital visits will end up costing with Chris's insurance. We haven't gotten any bills yet.
With the two negative covid results, his PCP had him come in for an in-person appointment. But before that could happen, Chris's symptoms got even worse. There was one night where I was worried he was having a heart attack. He felt like someone was sitting on his chest, which is exactly how my dad felt as he was having a heart attack. I almost brought him to the ER but as he weighed his options he started to feel better enough to sleep and our newly purchased blood oximeter showed normal readings. I slept on the floor next to his bed and checked on him every hour to make sure he was breathing. The next day, he was feeling a little better but really just not in crisis as much and after the previous night didn't want to take any chances, so we brought him to the ER for the third time. They did a full workup. EKG, another chest X-ray, blood test for clots, Lyme test, and some others. They gave him an IV with aspirin as a precaution. But again, everything came back clear and negative. They sent him home saying that maybe it was psychological and he should try exercise and meditation, and also made some comments about him coming to the ER three times in three weeks. While we knew this was because they couldn't find anything, given the state he was in with shortness of breath and chest pain, he could barely walk down the hall to use the toilet let alone go for a run. Not to mention his PCP had sent him to the ER the second time, the tests he'd ordered to get more answers had been denied, and assuming that their "it's not covid" assessment was correct, we had no way of knowing what was causing his chest pain, aches, and various other symptoms. How were we supposed to know if it wasn't something dangerous? Aren't you supposed to go to the ER when you have severe chest pain and pressure?
His PCP reviewed the test results at the in-person appointment the following week, and decided to schedule further tests after doing yet another EKG and not seeing anything abnormal. So on Friday, we went to the hospital for a CT and ultrasound. Both of those came back clear from what his PCP could tell, and now he has an appointment with a pulmonologist next week.
LUCKILY, within the last couple days he has really turned a corner. He has been making his own food, doing light chores, and walking. So our assumption now is that it was covid after all, and it just didn't show up on the two swab tests. If/when antibody tests become more available around here, I'd like for both of us to get one to better support that hypothesis. Because as much as I'd been social distancing and wearing a mask, it seems unlikely that I wouldn't also catch it and maybe just be asymptomatic. I was washing all of his dishes and laundry after all.
As if all of that wasn't enough, I have also been managing my own health issues. In March, I noticed a pink mark on my face next to my right eye. As a child I'd had a disease called Linear Scleroderma en coup de sabre, which caused hyperpigmentation and translucent skin on my right temple, as well as alopecia and a deep bone depression on my scalp. In college, a version of scleroderma reappeared on my side and back and again went into remission after 3 years. So when I saw some activity in the mark on my face, I started to worry. I checked the lesion on my side, and it appeared to be active as well. I monitored it for a couple months, hoping it was just a blip, but the signs didn't go away and the lesion on my side seemed to be progressing.
So taking stock of that fun development, just as Chris was getting sick, I was getting in contact with my pediatric rheumatologist from childhood, who has since retired, hoping he would have some recommendations on specialists in the Boston area. He responded quickly (and gracioulsy!) and I was able to secure a virtual appointment after some back and forth with his referral's office and making sure it was in-network with my insurance.
The concern at this point was not just that I could be sick again, but also that it might be active on my face again and en coup de sabre can cause neurological complications, even epilepsy. On top of that, scleroderma is an autoimmune disease and treatment involves immunosuppressants, and I have asthma, so both of those put me in the high risk bracket with a compromised immune system and breathing trouble. With my partner actively battling a likely case of COVID-19, it felt like terrible timing to say the least.
My doctor ended up having me go in for a lab test to explore diagnosis (scleroderma can cause specific abnormalities that show up in an SCL-70 and ANA test). This was the first time I left quarantine and it was very nerve wracking to be out in public after 2.5 weeks shut in the house. The tests came back negative, which is good because it does not point to more systematic forms of the disease that can cause organ and joint involvement. But the tests also have limited sensitivity and given the cosmetic signs on my skin, the diagnosis was fairly obvious. As such, as of two weeks ago, I'm now on mycophenolate (a medication that suppresses the immune system and is often given to organ recipients) and hydroxychloroquine, a disease modifying anti-rheumatic drug (same one that was being explored as a covid treatment and eventually proven otherwise). I'm at a half dose of mycophenolate right now, and assuming my biweekly labs continue to come back normal, will hopefully be at a full dose by early July. I'm relieved that I was able to start treatment quickly because the progress hasn't slowed down and I've even started to experience headaches. I've traditionally never gotten headaches, only a handful my entire life, so this development and the fact that the disease has changed the shape of my skull in the past is cause for concern. The doctor asked me to periodically photo document my scalp for changes over time, and if something looks or feels different, I'll have an MRI.
The med schedule is annoyingly finicky, mostly because when I'm supposed to eat/not eat is confusing, and one of the drugs needs to be taken 4 times daily. My last treatment therapy was much simpler: one 15mg methotrexate pill once per week. We discussed this, but apparently Brigham & Women's supports the myco/hydroxy combo for scleroderma more than methotrexate and have tracked better results. Which is interesting because as a 5-year-old I was originally on hydroxycholorquine until my specialist switched me to methotrexate for the same reason!
Once I'm on a full dose, a typical day will look something like this:
While all of this was bubbling up, I ultimately decided that I needed to take a step back from work. I started working 75% my normal schedule (30 hours/week) and I've found that I've really needed it. In normal circumstances, having an extra two hours a day would mean I have more time to draw, but I can tell I've needed it because I've spent most of that extra time just decompressing. There is a time and place to push myself but given that autoimmune diseases are exacerbated by stress, now is not the time. To add to everything, for the last month I've also been taking calls with job candidates in Tokyo starting at 6am twice a week; while also cooking and cleaning for Chris and myself and checking on him between every meeting and traveling to all of our various appointments and tests, work got to be too much.
That said, I have still been drawing even though my pace has slowed to about a half page every week instead of a full page. I've started posting content here since it was getting hard to follow on the blog.
I have some reflections on the Black Lives Matter movement that I will share next week, but wanted to get all of this personal context out of the way so I can move on. But for the record, I fully support the protests and riots, condemn the police, support reform and abolition (immediate reforms, with abolition as a longterm priority), and would be out protesting with my fellow citizens if it weren't for the new immunosuppressant + pandemic challenge. I'm finding other ways to support and donate while staying home!
Just to tie things off, a lot of the stuff I've shared over the last week I've found before COVID-19 and during it. It works for both my own art stuff and for my day job, and it's still stuff that I'm figuring out for myself. I'm sure the appeal of parts is fairly specific to the way I'm wired and probably won't work for a lot of work styles out there. But figured it was worth recording all the same. At the very least the next time I'm in a rut, I'll be able to remember some ways to get back on track.
I started working from home on March 9, so it's been almost two months. I started working on this chapter around the same time, so I'm averaging about one page per week, which is faster than I expected, even if it feels slow when looking at the project as a whole. This chapter has around 50 pages. I've finished six.... which means I have about 40 more. That said, only 12 more are the same 16-panel structure so I'm a third through those; after that it opens up into quadrant panels, full page splashes, and pretty stark pages with very little illustration at all. Hoping things will speed up by then! Might get there by... August? *shudders*
Above is an example of one panel with some two-point perspective. Below are all of the pages so far. All six of them haha. It's still satisfying to see them all together though! There are almost 100 individual panels here!
Escapism is such a useful tool, whether it's through movies, music, podcasts, books, or something else. Lately, I have looked for things that transport me to another time and place and that has mostly been through film. On an average week in normal life, I usually read on my way to and from work, typically an hour each way. With the current circumstances, I’m not commuting, so I'm able to repurpose that time for writing and drawing. Unfortunately, with less time accounted for in my commute, writing and drawing fall higher on my list of priorities than reading so I haven't read in quite some time.
Reading is also a more active form of entertainment in that it requires conscious engagement. I feel like it activates the same imaginative part of the brain that is accessed while writing and illustrating, which also require conscious engagement, so in a way replacing reading with writing and drawing is an equal swap - at least as far as engagement levels go. But I still feel there is an escapism void that can't be filled by my own work, so movies have been filling that instead.
Comics are an interesting blend of movies and novels; they are stationary moments in time but the reader must fill in the blanks between each panel. The visually represented moments are similar to film, and the reliance on the reader to imagine what's happening in the blank space mirrors the need to conjure up a mental visual when reading. It's fun to think about how movies insert ways to show and not tell, and how books find ways to tell without ever showing. For comics, the impulse I often run up against is to tell everything, so seeing how movies do the opposite is really helpful. For instance, a character may say they are doing one thing, but the next scene juxtaposes them doing the opposite. It creates tension and says something about how the character wants to be seen versus how they actually are.
Lately I've been looking for movies that are highly driven by memory and character development, high ranges of emotion, creative explorations of the passing of time, and introspection. Here are a couple that I've been thinking a lot about over the last couple weeks:
Call Me By Your Name: I read a review of this movie that compared it to the book, in which they suggest “The book is a mature and thoughtful vintage; in the film, we’re still picking the grapes.” I’ve yet to read the book (it’s on my shelf!), but the film exudes a nostalgia for a summery world that is at a total standstill, and so much of the characters’ motivations are shown almost imperceptibly through body language and double-edged comments. I love how subdued every moment is, but with a heightened sensitivity at the same time. The movie shows a past teenage romance being felt as if it's still in the present, as opposed to reflecting on it years later, and this causes it to feel more immediate. On top of this, Call Me By Your Name shows a world that is fairly isolated because it takes place in the summer when most people in town are on holiday, so there's a parallel of spending most of one's day at home with family and finding ways to fill the time. There are very few gatherings of more than a handful of people at a time, mirroring the contained world that we are living in right now. It is still magical and exquisitely rich despite the small-scale interactions.
Interstellar: While this is a fairly sensational sci-fi box office hit and it really speaks to my interest in any kind of space movie, what I love most about Interstellar is the cross-generational storytelling; the message is that heartbreak, longing, inspiration, and wistfulness can span any distance and any stakes. I also relate to the hurt the characters feel as their family is rendered inaccessible, causing thoughts and reflections that they had longed to share to be lost in the ether. In ways it's also about letting go of longing for a person's physical presence and focusing instead on their emotional impact, which I think we all experience when we suffer a loss. It makes me think about my grandmother’s dementia, and how there were so many parts of her that were lost before she was really gone. And how I wish that I had started writing about my grandparents earlier so I could share with them how deeply they impacted me, just so they knew. The most painful scene for me is when Coop - frozen in middle-age - leaves his elderly daughter on her deathbed, surrounded by her descendants, because she feels that no parent should experience the death of their child. I love the reversal of roles, of a child giving permission to their parent to feel release and forgiveness, when usually the parent takes the lead. Coop's son also loses a child due to illness, both of his children lose their father due to his mission, and his colleague loses her father due to time. There is a lot of loss across generations and experienced at extremely varied distances.
As much as I get energy from creating something and feeling productive, there are days where I need a day off. For instance, if I’ve put in two 8-hour drawing days over the weekend, have a long day at work on Monday, and am just not finding the motivation to draw later that evening, I designate it as a rest day and go all-in on the recovery (for example, a movie, ice cream, and comfy clothes). I’ve found that if I force myself to work when I’m not feeling engaged with the project, I won’t do my best work, and those feelings will only be compounded each day I feel that way. With creative projects, it’s important to feel excited to work, otherwise the lack of interest with show through.
There are little tricks that I use to see if I genuinely need a break, or if I'm just feeling lazy. Some moments of waning motivation are salvageable. It's one thing if I really can’t get into the headspace that I need to be productive, but it's another if I would prefer to just watch another episode of whatever on Netflix. In those moments, I try to find a quiet and introspective task like boiling water and making herbal tea. I put the cup of tea on my desk, set up the project I’d like to work on, and set up my workspace as if I am about to work. I let my tea cool for a few minutes, drink it while looking at everything in front of me, and often by that point, something grabs me and I’m good to go. Other times, I kick up my feet and start looking at pictures of my niece on Instagram or start making a playlist. If working is not in the cards, I try not to force it.
I have also noticed that I have a tendency to collapse after a long day of work and all I want to do is go to bed. If I’m feeling that temptation bubble up at 2 or 3pm, I will sometimes make a cup of lightly caffeinated tea to perk myself up but not keep myself awake at bed time. Usually at those points, my goal is to remove napping from my list of motivations; I know I will get sleep later on, but there is no need to dive into a nap at 5:30pm, feel disoriented when I wake up, and then struggle to go back to sleep when it’s actually bedtime.
I’ve been listening to Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani’s quarantine podcast, in which they share the insight, “You are not working from home; you are trying to get work done during a global crisis.” I try to remember that whenever I feel like I’m not being as productive as I'd like to be. While I've celebrated having more time and space to work over the last couple months, the normal measures of productivity just don’t apply right now. I try to walk the line between taking advantage of the extra time and not holding myself to an unrealistic standard given everything that is going on.
When I am writing comics, I need for the music I'm listening to to reflect the emotion I am meditating on in the scene. I also try not to listen to music with lyrics if I am writing because they will distract me and it can quickly become counter-productive. I will sometimes even note down what I was listening to while creating a draft of a scene so that when I return to it for final drafts, I can slip into the same emotional state I was in before. In instances where I've found a song that really suits the emotion of a scene, I will often listen to it on repeat so that it puts me into almost an emotional trance.
For physically writing out dialogue and narration in a final comic draft, I also cannot listen to anything with words. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get distracted and miss a word, skip ahead, or create some kind of grammar error.
On the other hand, if I am doing something that is more about technical drawing and measuring, for instance creating a physical space in a drawing, managing perspectives, or patterning, I often listen to light podcasts and audiobooks that are easy to digest and/or that I have heard before so that I can both focus and not focus on each. I've found that this makes the task feel more comfortable.
When I’m doing independently driven work related to my day job (answering emails, creating trainings, or assessing feedback), I try to find music that will keep me motivated. This really fluctuates depending on how motivated I feel. Some days I want 90s punk rock anthems to amp me up, other days I want ambient tones that help with stress release and focus, and sometimes I want hiphop music with a lot of bass to keep me plugged in. Some people are able to listen to podcasts while they work, but I find that I never actually get things done that way because most of the passive parts of my job are reading and writing based.
It's also a good idea to not listen to anything from time to time. If I'm plugged in 90% of the time that I'm at my desk, I start to feel disconnected or overly stimulated.
When working independently on comics or paintings, I usually take a break when I reach a stopping point. I often use part of the break to step back and assess my progress, while also taking time to use the restroom and grab a drink of water or a snack, and situate my body in a different position (for example, stretching my back and hips after sitting for a long time, lying down, or simply sitting in a different chair). With my day job, I will often take a break immediately following any meeting that is 45 minutes or longer. That may mean lying down for a few minutes and taking some deep breaths. Or it may be talking to Chris for a little while, either to unload to someone with an outside perspective, or to plan our next meal. We will often coordinate our lunch and dinner so that we have that as a rallying point at different points of the day.
I often try to establish a time by which I will have a reward of some kind based on what I am currently working on. This can take all kind of forms. Some examples:
• At 4pm I will take a break to make some herbal tea
• After I've gotten through the unread emails in my inbox, I will work on a slow-burn project that is energizing to me
• Once I finish this panel I will eat a pack of smarties
• Once I have finished this page, I will be done for the night and will watch a movie that transports me to a peaceful place
• Once I’ve finished all my meetings for the day, I will go for a walk around the neighborhood
• Once I’ve finished writing out this briefing, I will listen to an audio book while I cook a meal
Attaching an exciting or energizing habit to a practice you are not excited to do can create a symbiotic relationship between the two: the one you don’t enjoy gets the attention it deserves, and the one that you enjoy is savored even more because of the sense of accomplishment preceding it.
Hannah Dunscombe is a painter and portrait artist based out of Brookline, MA.