The Power of Thresholds

One of my favorite recurring themes in fantasy is the protective threshold that forms around homes, shielding the inhabitants from supernatural harm. An unoccupied space has no protective threshold, but a home does. It just feels intuitive, that homes would have power to them beyond the physical walls that they provide. Feeling like I have a home, verses just a place to sleep and hang my proverbial hat, is really important to me. It can be a hard feeling to hang on to when renting, never really knowing when the next move might come, and especially when living in a city that’s far away from family and friends.

I particularly appreciate magic systems with thresholds that don’t just automatically pop into place when a place becomes occupied, because that doesn’t feel quite right. Just like it takes a while for a new dwelling to become familiar, it should take a while for that special homeness of it to grow and become strong enough to protect the people inside. That sort of power feels like something that’s built by the love and care of the people living there, and I’ve noticed that a lot authors include something of that in their particular twist on this theme.

Everyone does handle it differently, which is really cool. We all know that vampires can’t come into a house without being invited, but there’s a lot of variation on the idea. Depending on the author’s magical system, thresholds might just protect against the undead, or they may protect against all sorts of supernatural threats. In The Dresden Files, thresholds provide basic protection against supernatural threats, and are also a framework onto which more sophisticated magical protection can be built, like a scaffold. Inviting someone to cross the threshold often binds both guest and host to certain ritual responsibilities to each other, which is a very old idea, deeply rooted in folklore.

Homes have, historically, been a place of refuge in a dangerous world. Family mattered, of course, because who else would protect you from outer threats? Under good circumstances, (which, unfortunately, is not a given) family creates a sense of safety that’s almost palpable, whether it’s a family of two, or a large and extended family – whether they’re blood relatives, partners, or other people that you’ve chosen to be close with. People who live together may carry shared grief, as well as good memories, and can draw comfort from that. On the lighter side, homes are ideally shared with people who won’t judge you for your goofy jokes, because you share a sense of humor. Familiarity is a form of safety that makes it easier to relax and be yourself.

Beyond family, there’s also the love and care that’s put directly into a space. A person living alone could strengthen their threshold by caring for houseplants, organizing their bookshelves, cuddling with a pet on a rainy day, filling the place with their favorite things, cooking and cleaning, or just by loving the familiar chaos of their own messy little nest. Boundaries – the ability to decide who you share your space with, and when – are fundamental to the idea of a protective threshold. A home can be a powerful place, even (or especially) if it is just one person’s cherished sanctuary.

Magic generally comes from the energy within people, and so much emotional energy is expended in and on the places in which we live.

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Writing days this week: 2

What You Don’t Know You Know

English has a lot of rules that most native speakers know on an instinctive level, but could not explain to a non-English speaker. Order of adjectives is one of those rules, and it’s pretty neat to see how it works. If the order of descriptive words in a sentence is jumbled, it will just sound weird and confusing. The average person could correct the order so that it sounded right, but they likely couldn’t tell you why it was wrong in the first place. Sometimes the order matters, and can change the meaning of the sentence, but often it’s just a particular flow that we’ve all learned through exposure.

The key thing is, most people were not aware that they were learning it, and don’t know they know it until it is pointed out to them. Obviously, not everyone speaks the same way, and I’m not making any argument for the virtue of these types of grammatical rules. I’m just saying that this is an extremely pervasive thing in the English language. It is part of us, and most of us aren’t aware of it.

That’s why it makes such a great example of how prejudice works. If you can know how to order your words according to rules you never knew you learned, you can learn a whole lot of other things without ever being aware of them on a conscious level. Not all of these things are harmless, and many are not based in fact, but they are taught to us all the same, in a million subtle ways.

It’s easy to get angry and say you’d never choose to be racist, but the thing is that you never chose to order your adjectives the way you do, either. It is simply the way speaking is done. In fact, there’s no possibility of choice being involved if you aren’t consciously aware of learning something. You do not need to be a grammar snob to follow the basic rules of English every time, and you don’t need to be a hateful person to experience the instinctive fears and prejudices that are a part of our collective culture. Choice isn’t involved until someone makes you aware of what you believe, and the consequences of what you believe, and that’s not a pleasant experience.

It’s tempting to rely on your conscience to alert you to these sorts of issues, but that’s no good. Consciences aren’t magic. They’re actually pretty terrible judges of what is wrong and what is right. They’re much better judges of what is familiar and what is foreign. They’re formed on the same instinctive level as language, at around the same time. It happens when we’re children, and what we learn is generally reinforced for the rest of our lives by our environments. A person can be loving and generous, and also harbor terribly harmful beliefs about others. The only way to change that is to be willing to handle the shock of having those beliefs challenged. It will often feel, not just uncomfortable, but wrong. Incorrect. Against the proper order of things.

Small Wins

A day may come when I’ll sleep like a person instead of a raccoon, but it is not this day. Nor was it any of the previous days this week. On the upside, I have toast. Toast is excellent. I also got to go to the park with the pups and the boyfriend on Sunday, which was super nice, so technically I’ve been outside and seen actual sun pretty recently.

I’ve been trying to make my bed every day, even when I haven’t exactly slept in it, and found that it does make a surprising difference in my general chill level. It’s comforting to have a spot in the house that’s always neat, and it makes it more inviting when I actually do convince myself to lie down. Plus, it feels good to have taken even a small constructive action early in the day.

I recently finished reading The Power of Habit, which said something about small wins and how they help build momentum. The idea is to warm up with small, manageable tasks that give a sense of accomplishment and progress to work from. I feel like if I can get better at that, it might help with the executive dysfunction issues, because part of the problem there is that I tend to constantly feel like I’m waiting for some condition that’s right for getting started, even though I know that there’s nothing to wait for.

Experience should have taught me by now that it helps immensely if I just stop waiting to start whatever big task has me stalled and do something less intimidating, like loading the dishes or feeding the snakes. Switching gears is often the only thing that’ll get me moving, no matter how hard I feel like I should be focusing on the more important or time consuming task. Forcing it can be extremely pointless when willpower simply is not the issue, and as a matter of practicality, I really need to admit that and stop allowing myself to stall out. It’s not a conscious decision, but there are conditions that make it worse, and they tend to coincide with the typical responsible-work-ethic suggestions I grew up with. The common wisdom says to focus on the hardest task first and offer yourself some sort of reward for later, but I’ve found that that particular strategy can actually freeze me in my tracks for an entire day. If I had just gotten the dishes done, or gone to the park, or even just enjoyed the bath or snack that I was planning as a reward, I might have unfrozen myself earlier. Relabeling a distraction as a small win can sometimes yank my brain out of ruts much more effectively than just trying harder.

In that spirit, I’ll also say that it’s nice to be scheduling this on time, and I’m gonna count that as a medium-sized win even though it’s not all that much of a post.

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Spring had better get her ass here soon. I need blue sky and pretty smelling grass.
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Not that I can’t appreciate the whole swamp vibe. I just don’t like it every day.

Writing days this week: 5

 

Filling the Unforgiving Minute

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If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew 

to serve your turn long after they are gone,

and so hold on when there is nothing in you

except the will which says to them: “hold on!”

If by Rudyard Kipling

This is my favorite poem, and it has gotten me through a lot. It’s the second poem I memorized when I needed to cope with repetitive negative thoughts, and now there’s a whole list of them that I know by heart. They’re all pretty much just chosen because they appealed to me at the time I was ready for a new one, with no particular theme or genre. I started doing this because I desperately needed to be distracted, and turning my brain around once it gets into a pattern is really hard.

Distractions like TV and books and other activities are handy for this, but they tend to leave me way too distracted. I already don’t enjoy the way ADHD makes my head buzz, and it is extremely easy for me to get sucked into stuff in a way that isn’t enjoyable. Playing a game or watching TV is great, but less so when I’ve been doing it mindlessly for hours because I literally can’t stop. That just winds up with me feeling guilty and mad at myself, which totally defeats the purpose of finding distractions in the first place. Even so, I’ve relied pretty heavily on stuff like this.

Being social might seem like a healthier alternative, but I really value my alone time. I don’t get lonely, really. I definitely miss specific people and crave their company, but there aren’t a lot of them, and I still need a lot of space to feel comfortable and be able to work. Being around people takes up a lot of my attention, even when we’re not directly interacting, so it’s kind of difficult for me to get anything done when I’m not alone.

It’d be cool if I didn’t need the distractions at all, and now I’m hoping to change it, but it was really necessary for a few years. See, there’s this delightful thing called rejection sensitive dysphoria. It’s a very common symptom of ADHD that, for some reason, I had never once heard mentioned until about a year ago when I stumbled across a little tumblr note about it. Lots of people with ADHD experience overwhelming anger as part of their response to perceived rejection, but I just deflate like a sad balloon. My chest and all my limbs suddenly feel way too heavy to move, and I just want to lie down and let life go on without me because it’s too hard, and I’ll just mess up even more if I keep doing anything. It becomes extremely hard for me to even muster the energy required to speak.

RSD is fairly debilitating, regardless of the specific form it takes, because it happens so quickly and immediately swamps the brain in intense emotion before any logic or coping mechanisms can kick in. Once it gets going, it’s also extremely hard to defuse, and there was a period in my life when it seemed like everything in my life and all of my thoughts triggered it. Fortunately, that’s over now, but I’m left with a reflexive habit of staying distracted all the time. That’s not really the best for creativity, or for general peace of mind. It’s definitely not good for my tendency to get locked into activities in a way that isn’t actually enjoyable and, ironically, it makes all my ADHD symptoms worse.

So, now I get to unlearn the constant distraction habit. I need to be able to just be in my own head again without constant stimulation, if for no other reason than that it’s important for creative work. Memorizing poetry is still a really helpful tool, because unlike a TV show, it has clear limits and isn’t overstimulating. Reciting the ones I’ve learned, either aloud or in my head, gives me a little sense of satisfaction that boosts my mood, but not too much. It’s a very intentional and specific way to stop my thought process in its tracks and take it in another direction. When the feelings do hit, I’m usually able to recognize what’s happening and weather it out.

Mindfulness meditation also helped a lot with that, even before I knew anything about RSD. I recently discovered that Terry Pratchett actually described mindfulness practice in his Tiffany Aching stories, and he called it second thoughts. They’re the second thoughts that watch your first thoughts. They give you distance from the automatic ideas and feelings that run through your head. It’s not that any of the initial reactions stop happening, it’s just that there’s a part of you that is observing instead of participating. It doesn’t stop the feelings, but it can allow me to shift them a little away from my identity, and then just wait out the storm.

 

Writing days this past week: 7

Over-reliance on “The Zone” as an ADHD Creative

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I saw this piece at the Seattle Art Museum and it seemed like a nice little ADHD metaphor.

Once again, the count of my writing days this week sit at a measly two. One and a half, really, if I’m being less of a liar. Only actual work on Somnolence counts toward that goal, so it’s not as if I got nothing done on the other days, but I still find myself wondering if I actually care about my writing every time I look at that number. It’s a frustrating thing to wonder after years spent working on it, but my personal interest and commitment have never been easy to measure. They never seem to directly translate into the willpower to actually do a thing on a regular basis.

The basic formula seems like it should go: Level of interest + Commitment to a result = Productivity.

It feels like you should be able to turn it around and judge that if your productivity is high, you’re either very committed, very interested, or both. If it’s low, your interest and/or commitment must be low. It’s probably not that simple for most people, though, because obviously there are a lot of other potential factors in life. Mental or physical illness can throw everything thoroughly out of whack, because they suck up energy, time, resources, and simply make some tasks impossible. Being neuroatypical also messes with the equation, in part because we’re usually expected to approach goals and planning in a way that’s highly unintuitive and ineffective for some folks. Often, we’re not offered, or even allowed to seek, alternative methods that might allow us to succeed.

It can leave people with ADHD honestly believing that they just don’t care about anything, or that they’re incurably lazy because they can’t seem to muster the will to achieve any goals they set. They generally believe this because they’ve been told something like that after every failure. Many parents and teachers either don’t believe that routine tasks are significantly harder for kids with ADHD, or they figure that tough love will somehow motivate the kid to stop being so darn incapable of succeeding. It doesn’t work that way, but it’s amazing how many people think it does, as if kids routinely go through the emotional hell of failing in school and disappointing their families for fun.

I’ve got depression and ADHD, and it’s certainly been quite a lark. I’ve had both conditions all my life, for as long as I can remember. These days, they’re both being properly managed, which is nice but also kind of weird. As I’ve said before, actually looking forward to stuff with genuine joy is surprising after years of “excited” meaning something closer to “I’m motivated enough to do this theoretically fun thing, and the dread is currently manageable.”

My interest levels were permanently smothered under a huge wet blanket of bleh. Feeling hopeless and terrible about yourself really doesn’t help on the commitment front, either. If nothing makes you feel better and you’re pretty sure none of it matters, there’s very little reason to work hard at anything, even if you’re pretty sure you do care, somewhere deep down under the blanket. I knew I was depressed, growing up, but I didn’t know I had anything else interfering with my ability to function. Depression can act like ADHD anyway, messing up both memory and focus, so it is genuinely hard to tell the difference. Confusing matters further, ADHD also often triggers depression, especially in girls. Girls don’t get diagnosed as often, and face significantly harsher punishments for acting out, so they tend to just shrink into themselves as they continue to struggle.

People with ADHD can’t work as expected because certain types of brain function aren’t optional if you want to get certain results. If you don’t have the right chemicals and energy doing the right things in the right part of the brain, focus simply will not happen. Focus is just the result of those physical processes, and it cannot be faked or powered through. The rest of the brain, with all its willpower and concerns and intentions, can scream all day long about how important something is, but it can’t actually do what the broken bit is supposed to do. It can even become less functional under increased effort, and is significantly worsened by stress, guilt, and all the other feelings that come with pressure and frustration. The effort can be sort of mentally painful. It feels awful.

It also, in my experience, forms a horrible kind of negative feedback loop if the person doesn’t know what’s happening to them. If a kid gets homework and doesn’t enjoy it, but is able to hang in there and finish it, they learn that increased effort produces results and that maybe homework isn’t the literal worst thing in the world. If a kid with ADHD gets boring homework and settles in to give it their best try, they’re gonna learn a much less uplifting – but just as real – lesson. They learn that putting in that effort is significantly uncomfortable, and that they get inexplicably poor results regardless of how hard they work. The more times that happens, the less reason they have to put in the effort at all and the more stressed they’re likely to feel at the thought of it. It looks like stubbornness, and sometimes results in genuine anger and refusal to cooperate, because who wouldn’t be kinda pissed about being expected to keep doing something that feels awful and doesn’t work?

They might also get lectured, as I often was, about how they’re too smart to be failing and aren’t living up to their potential. This is a shitty thing to say to any kid, because when they continue to fail, they’re then faced with two logical conclusions. They can conclude that they really are lazy and that this is just what lazy feels like, or that they’re just not all that smart. I went with lazy, and then I went to the library. Class made my brain feel nauseated, and they wouldn’t let me read in class. I liked reading. Reading didn’t make my brain feel nauseated, so I did a lot of it. The first half of my sophomore year was spent reading through the very weird mix of literature that ends up in high school libraries.

The reason that I could bury myself in a book, even a fairly disturbing one, for hours, but couldn’t stand memorizing Spanish conjugations, was that it did something different to my brain. It got me truly interested, and the extra spark was enough to get that faulty focus engine to work properly. Increased effort won’t jumpstart it, but high levels of interest sometimes can.

So, people with ADHD often learn that if they’re really fascinated by something, they can actually pour all their focus into it and get results. They can soak up information about their particular interests like sponges and lose themselves for hours in a state of hyper-focus, also known as being in the zone. Being in the zone feels awesome, especially when all you have to compare it to is that staticky feeling of utter boredom and frustration. There’s very little middle ground to be had, since it requires so much extra fuel to get that part of the brain to do its job.

Just given that, it seems like if a person with ADHD has an interest that can become a career, they’re actually pretty much set. That hyper-focus becomes a boon, and they should be able to throw their entire heart and soul into the process of building a business, developing a profitable skill, or earning a degree. Some people are really fortunate and their interest is tech-related, but there are lots of other skills and knowledge-sets for people to get lit up about. Most hobbies can kinda fit into an industry niche somewhere. Reading and art are my hobbies, and writing came naturally out of my love for books and my interest in creativity.

Unfortunately, there are major draw-backs to running on this hyper-focus alone. The primary one being that, no matter how fascinating something is, it can become more dull if you do it all the time. It’s inevitable that most long-term commitments require doing boring stuff sometimes, even if other parts are still fun. Once something becomes routine and they don’t really feel like working on it, all the same ADHD issues crop up. A Neurotypical person would be able to push through the dull patches and do it anyway, but the ADHD adult who has years of experience telling them that boredom feels a bit like slowly being smothered in quicksand, is going to panic.

Hell, it’s so ingrained that I get anxious just at the thought of a boring task, and I instinctively shy away from letting the things I’m interested in become routine, because I know the experience is so bad and I don’t want them being tainted by it. That’s pretty much the worst instinct a writer can have if their goal is publication. It’s fine for a hobby, but not for a career. All of my habits, built up over years of trying to skip around the stuff that shuts my brain down, and feeling useless and crappy about myself because that was pretty much everything that I needed to do, are totally counterproductive now. They weren’t productive before, either, but at least they made some sense.

Now that I’m on a medication that brings my mental function in the right area closer to average, I actually can push through boredom and get into a working rhythm, even if that task wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing at the time. And yet, I still put writing off all day in favor of other, more immediately gratifying, things. I’m scared to pick it up if I’m not already feeling lit up about what I’m about to work on. I wait for that highly unreliable muse, even though I consciously know that I can now generate the required motivation myself.

It seems very likely that these old habits will shift over time. I’ve only actually been on the medication for a few months, and it generally takes longer than that to change a whole system of coping mechanisms. Hopefully, being aware of the anxiety that triggers that avoidance will help me stop acting on it without thinking. And, hopefully, I’ll also eventually be able to stop wasting my energy by questioning whether I actually really care every time something gets hard and it makes me want to quit.

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Toci also suffers from boredomphobia.

 

Balance and Tough Self-Care

As I’ve mentioned previously, balance is not something that comes easily to me, and I’m not just talking about my tendency to tip right over whenever I’m distracted from important stuff like where my feet are and how gravity works. It sometimes feels like I’m either ignoring all my other responsibilities to focus on work, doing all the things except work, or taking a mental and/or physical health day that stretches into a week of feeling guilty and frustrated. If it were possible to make a three way see-saw, that’s what it’d be like in my head.

Still, I think I’m in a better place than I was a few months ago. I’m sleeping consistently, instead of every other night, and running a little closer to normal person time in terms of appointments and deadlines. Work is happening. 

I’m getting better at being kind to myself instead of breaking down when I feel like I’ve failed, but I still need to learn how to be tough on myself without the breakdown. When I’ve been hard on myself in the past, it was pretty much just self-bullying. It had no purpose, it certainly didn’t motivate me, and it was absurdly out of proportion to anything I had actually done or not done. That was no good, but without any internal structure I tend to lose track of important things and miss out on opportunities to move toward my goals. 

Self care has been discussed to death lately, but what I really appreciate are the posts that remind me that self care isn’t just bubble baths and scented candles and wine with breakfast. (Or whatever you do with wine. I don’t really know.) 

Practical self care is taking care of yourself the way you’d care for a friend or a child. Or, as one person put it, like a demon taking care of its host body so that it won’t fall apart. Whatever works. There’s being your own personal bully, which absolutely sucks, and there’s being your own coach, which seems pretty valuable to me.

Till I get better at this, Toci has been appointed my temporary coach. So far, she has ordered me to sit in multiple uncomfortable positions so she can use me as a throne. I assume this is some sort of wax-on wax-off, hidden wisdom type shit. Probably to teach me endurance or something. 

For Writers With Depression – Just Keep Picking it Back Up

There’s a lot of debate about the merits of daily writing. It’s definitely good to write regularly, and writing every day basically guarantees more rapid improvement than if you only rarely make time for it. There are some ableism issues if it’s framed as the best or only way, since many people literally cannot write every day. Lots of the arguments against it sort of boil down to “but then it’ll feel like work.” If you’re trying to make writing a career, then letting it feel like work is probably a necessary part of that. If not, then it’s probably just fine for it to be a fun hobby that you only do when you feel like it. I think a lot of the time the issue is when people don’t want writing to feel like work, but do want to improve dramatically and be “successful” without putting in the effort.

I’m kind of stuck in a weird middle place. I struggle to finish projects, and I always have. Finishing my first, first draft was one of the biggest accomplishments of my life. It took a huge amount of dedication, and I’m proud of it when I remind myself to be, but I still didn’t work consistently and I constantly got down on myself for that. It took a lot longer than it could have. Feeling guilty about not writing consistently made me want to quit, pretty much every day. I was probably more consistent about berating myself for not writing than I was about writing, which I would not recommend as a motivation strategy. It is less than effective.

I’ve always had really nasty drops in mood because of depression and they randomly knock me on my ass. I used to (and still sometimes do) fantasize about not bothering to get back up because it’s just exhausting to know that it’ll happen again and again, but I always do get up. The weight just lifts, or the right person says the right thing, or the right song comes on, and I manage to tweak my mental state back into something functional. I’ve developed tricks that help, if I remember them when I need them which is never guaranteed. My dogs help, because the imminent threat of floor wetting and canine starvation is motivating in a way that kind of sidesteps my emotional issues and gets me into pants and a shirt and usually shoes.

One shitty thing about mental illness is that it makes things impossible, but they never feel like they should be impossible. I don’t sit in front of the laptop scrolling mindlessly through Facebook for hours because I know for a fact that I can’t write. I always feel like I’m just on the cusp of working. It might be executive dysfunction stopping me, but physically I could do it. My hands are on the keyboard. The manuscript is there. The fact that looking at it for a few seconds made me feel sick and panicky doesn’t register as anything other than weakness. I have no perfect or even consistent solution for this problem, really.

Building a habit helps, because it lowers the initiation energy required to get moving. It’s hard to build a habit, though, and easy to break it. Building a habit requires consistent effort in the first place, which is unbelievably draining if you’re already dealing with mental illness.

Sometimes I can just push through it, usually around 3am, and then I’m often surprised by how easy it feels once I get into the zone. Then, the next day, I’m shocked by how hard it is when the flow doesn’t come.

Prioritizing writing over basically all my other tasks feels impossible, but it seems to be one of the biggest barriers I’m facing right now. It’s a little easier to take out the trash and do the dishes than write a challenging scene, but if I try to do all three in a day, writing is almost always the thing that gets bumped off the list when I run out of energy. If I have to socialize, that burns me out, but I don’t want to admit that or disappoint people.

The only really solid advice I can offer to anyone who wants to write but is dealing with something like this is not to let it stop you from picking the story back up again, no matter how long you stall, or how bad you think it is, or how disappointed you are in yourself for missing those days or weeks or months in between. I’d love to be able to write every day. Maybe someday I will, because I have been slowly improving my skills and reorganizing my life and I have supportive partners who encourage me, for which I’m really grateful. But for now, just picking it up again after a week of feeling miserable about it is more important than doing it every day. It’s been a while since I went a month without working, and I think part of the reason for that is I don’t spiral quite as hard into all the guilt and feeling bad about it. I’ve made a conscious effort to prioritize something over perfect or even good, even though that idea feels like nails on a chalkboard to my brain.

I wasted a whole day on Minecraft and laundry, but Somnolence is sitting there at the bottom of my to-do list, do I:

A. Tell myself I’m garbage and stay up super late to punish myself?

B. Promise myself I’ll do it tomorrow and write today off as a lost cause?

C. Literally open it for five minutes and rewrite one sentence so I can cross it off my list?

It’s silly, but C is usually the most daunting option for me because it means facing that scary mountain of stuff I need to do and just doing this one tiny, inadequate, little thing and every part of my personality rebells at that. A sentence is still better than nothing, though. I don’t write every day, but I have managed to produce a blog post, albeit often an embarrassing full day late, every week for a few months now. Late is better than nothing, too. The only way to guarantee that it never gets done is to put it down and never pick it up again, but every day is another chance to try again. If I pick it up again enough times it will eventually be complete, and that is truly the best I can do right now.

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If they were good enough for Frida Kahlo, they’re pretty darn awesome. Hers were the Mexican Xoloitzcuintli and mine are Peruvians, but still. Something, something, artist goals.

P.S. I did not feel like I had any thoughts to share when I opened the page to write this. I thought it would just be crap, but damnit, I showed up with my crap anyway and I’m proud of that.

P.P.S. The breed history in that Frida Kahlo link is totally wrong, but it has cute pictures of her and her pups.