Knowing When it’s Time to Quit

There’s a mistake I make over and over in my life–I don’t know when to quit. I’ll press on with a project even though I’m tired, cranky, and no longer paying close attention.  It’s the road to perdition, clearly marked, and I’m driving the express train. But I won’t quit. I keep thinking that in the next minute, I will finish the project, solve the problem, complete the task.

A badly tangled thread diagram from an H-P article entitled, Ropes, Strings, Threads,

It doesn’t work that way. Right at the moment when the end is brushing my fingertips, almost in my grasp,  something goes wrong. Tonight the just-repaired part on the sewing machine failed again. I was stitching the last piece of a card I had promised to get in the mail tomorrow, and the needle flew out of the holder, followed by the thread manager and the entire chunk of sewing machine that holds the needle and the thread tender.  It tore a hole in the card. The one I’d been working on for two hours. The one you are not seeing a picture of.

I could give you a hundred other examples. When I made jewelry, I would press ahead to finish a clasp, even if I knew it required more thought than I had left. The instant I focused on the clasp, something would go wrong, and the necklace–a piece of intricate engineering–would be ruined. I did this more than once, more than a dozen times. I’d recognize the situation and think, “it will be different this time.” It was not.

It’s a combination of wanting to complete something ahead of deadline, the need to be done with a project I’ve been working on too long, and the bad decisions made when I’m overtired. It’s rooted in the idea that if I push harder I will do more than if I go to bed. It’s the nasty Catholic-school idea that you don’t rest until your work is done, no matter how tired you are. And I’m not even Catholic.

I want to find that moment I need to quit. Because I keep overshooting it,

Susan Long from Momma Mindy's Moments.

wasting too much time doing over what I should have quit doing while I was ahead.

Tonight, I think I found the answer. The time to quit is long before I make the mistake. I keep thinking I need to stop right before the mistake. But that’s not it. The time to stop is while everything is still going well. Before tired becomes exhaustion. It’s so counter-intuitive. We don’t go to bed when we are tired, we fall asleep in front of the TV and get up at 2 in the morning, drag ourselves to bed and find our eyes open and our weariness gone. The next day, our eyes feel like they’ve been rolled in panko crumbs and placed on the grill.

The time to quit a project is while it’s still appealing, before it becomes a chore. Yes, there are times to press ahead, but when you grimly fixate on getting it over and done with, you have jumped the shark. (Another example of not knowing when to quit.)

And instead of finding the perfect ending here, I’m going to bed. Before I wreck it. Feel free to give an example of your own.

Quinn McDonald is slowly learning when she’s had enough and needs to quit for the night. Slowly.

Hating Change: Hate the Wind

Change causes us to break out in a sweat. We react to change with procrastination, with fear, with stubbornness. It doesn’t matter how we react, change is driven by time, and change happens unexpectedly. Fast. Unnervingly fast. Hating change is like hating the wind–it doesn’t care that you hate it; it still blows.

The instand of change: you are traveling 65 mph, you can see, the weather is good. Suddenly your windshield smashes in, glass flies throughout the car, you can't see. Change. Did you notice the image of the bird in the middle of the impact zone? It's not what hit the windshield, it's what you see in it.

What makes change so awful? Most of my clients answer, “it’s the unknown next-step portion of change I hate,” but I don’t think so. When I ask a coaching client to give me an example, they tell me about feeling excruciatingly emotionally unprepared. Awkward. Not up to the task of facing change. Feeling not ready is the inevitable companion to change. So is feeling awkward, ungainly, not suited for the task. What makes change so awful is the lack of adjustment time. No time to prepare the perfect reply. No chance to look chic and unsurprised. Change catches you by surprise, with your shoes untied and not ready to run.

Change throws us into a formal party while we are still wearing our emotional play clothes. Suddenly, what seemed appropriate for the emotional playground doesn’t fit into the serious polished-shoe environment we find ourselves in. We are caught off-guard. And off-guard,  without time to plan, we make bad decisions.

My coaching practice is rooted in helping people survive change. Then thrive with it. But it’s not easy, and there can be a lot of tears first. Change is not always a friend.

When change whips around us, it’s a windstorm of confusion, decisions, and often paperwork—all within a tight deadline. You get laid off, and must choose a generous package with a non-disclosure signature or no package and a sense of righteousness. A loved one is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, the kind that destroys plans, futures, whole families. What decisions are right? What decisions are right now?

The second part of change we hate is the fast decision making. We make decisions that are based in fear, and then see days and months of self-blame stretch in front of us. When loss is a choice, we make decisions that buffer the loss, and watch anger flood in, because we settled for less than we wanted because we had to decide quickly.

Change doesn’t always mean bad news, but even good change can look like bad news. Teaching clients to deal with change often starts with learning how to stay calm. Harder than it sounds. But once you’ve learned that, you can see change as a tool, not as a result. And that gives you the power to build.

Quinn McDonald is a life- and creativity coach who helps people survive change and thrive in a changing time. Write her at QuinnCreative @yahoo. com to find out how she can help. [Close up the spaces to make the email address work.]

Wisdom from a Serrated Knife

Dad was a scientist. To be precise, he was a rocket scientist. He loved us, but until we were able to hold a decent conversation with original-source proof, his love was limited to providing for us. My predominant memory of him is the back of his head, studying and writing. We knew not to bother him. But occasionally, he became involved in our lives through science. Sometimes it was physics, sometimes biology.

We baked our own bread. My French mother wasn’t about to bring cottony, tasteless, insubstantial white bread into the house–it couldn’t hold up to sauces, her powerful sandwiches or the rigors of French Toast. Our homemade bread had texture and a crust that eliminated the fear of gingivitis and replaced it with a fear of the scouring action of chewing a crust that would leave the roof of your mouth throbbing.

One afternoon, I was in the kitchen slicing the bread. It was minutes–fresh, and not given to slicing well. I was shredding more than cutting. My father came into the kitchen, observed what I was doing and said, mildly, “That knife is a saw. Less pressure. More action.” I quit pressing down on the knife. I used my upper arm to saw the serrated knife blade forward and back. Magically, the lesson in physics worked: the action allowed the serrated blade to do the work. Almost no downward pressure was necessary.

This principle, like “take care of the edges,” works well in daily application as well.

–Put pressure on yourself and the project disintegrates. Take some action and the project moves forward, almost by itself.

–Put pressure on your story to tell a lesson, and it becomes pedantic filler. Let the characters take action, and your story is memorable.

–Put pressure on your kids, and they fall apart, howling in protest. Put consequences into steady, reliable action, and hard downward pressure isn’t necessary. Action is far more powerful when it repeats consistently and predictably.

–Put pressure on your client, and they will crumble and vanish into client-dust. Put action in your promises and deliveries, and your clients will be firm and square, and just what you want to work with.

–Put pressure on your art, and it turns into a chore. Put action into your art, and it makes meaning in your life.

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who prefers action to pressure.

Butterfly Journal Page

When you aren’t an illustrator, you develop workarounds to show figurative work. I have a strong sense of narrative, and that comes first. Ummm, that means if you can’t draw, you better have a good story to tell with color, design and texture.

I’m working on a series of loose-leaf journal pages. The idea for this one is about the ability to change–opinions, colors, emotions–any kind of change. The butterfly, a figure I like very much, represents change. Colors, shapes, number of legs. From something that crawls to something that flies. From something that chomps to something that sips. A huge change.

Two fine, see-through, jersey-like fabrics.

I found a swatch of blue and greeny butterfly-print fabric. Perfect. I found another swatch in a sort of paisley in a darker blue and green. Both were very lightweight and elusive.

Cut-out butterfly

First, I cut out a piece containing a butterfly. Using fusible webbing, I ironed the butterfly onto a soft, firm paper. This gave it enough body to cut out the shape without worrying about the silky fabric crawling away under my scissors. I discarded the antennae–I’ll add those back in later.

Butterfly on paisley background.

Using more fusible webbing, I iron the silky blue-green sheer fabric to a journal page, in this case, Strathmore pre-cut watercolor paper. I attach the butterfly with another patch of fusible webbing. Since I’m going to sew the butterfly, I just need to hold the butterfly in place, so there are just four spots of adhesive.

Glue would pucker the fabric, bleed through to the watercolor paper, or stain.

Using a sewing machine, I zig-zag stitch around the postcard using an intense blue.This finishes the edge and gives the piece a frame. I also sew the edge of the butterfly with a variegated thread to add textural interest. The antennae get put back on with glitter glue. I also edge the wings in glue to create a big separation from the background, and yes, to hide a few wobbly stitches.

The butterfly doesn’t quite read “change” yet. I want to show that this butterfly had ambition–so she stole her colors, not from her background, but from another winged creature–a peacock.

Butterfly takes wing--from peacock.

Using Misty-Fuse (thanks Rosaland, for showing me that trick!), I attach a peacock feather to the journal page. The Misty-Fuse creates hold without glue-marks.

The other side will carry the story. And that’s another blog post.

Quinn McDonald is completely enchanted with the idea of loose journal pages and the covers that will hold them.


I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

—Wallace Stevens, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

An abstract of shadows.

Shadows are wonderful art. They are both the object and a color. They have more possibility than the object itself, because everyone gets to fill in their own idea of color and size. Yet they are completely dependent on the angle and the amount of light.

A shadow is not the object, but it identifies the object. The shadow is never far from the object, and can be more beautiful and meaningful than the object.

A dandelion puff and its shadow.

Sometimes shadows bring understanding. What we cannot grasp in three dimensions and color becomes clear in black and gray, stretched out before us.

Bonsai and its shadow

Shadows give dimension, add depth and occasionally a completely different perspective of our own opinion.

However you see them, shadows belong in your life, your journal, your photographs and your art journal. They will never bore you.

-Quinn McDonald would like to cast a long shadow across the earth, but still requires growth to accomplish it.

Driving the Desert at Night

The trip to California was far more fun than I thought it would be. The hosts were friendly and open, the spaces were perfect for teaching, the participants were warm and welcoming and eager to try new things.  The weather was. . . well, it rained, but that was fine, except one of my windshield wipers didn’t work.

For that reason, I decided to drive home after class on Sunday. With more rain predicted, I didn’t want one wiper not working. After class, I packed up, grabbed a sandwich from The Great Harvest Bread Company across the street (told them I was driving and they wrapped a huge sandwich so I could eat in the car).

Desert towns at night, NASA

My goal was to be through the San Bernadino Mountains before nightfall. I love the trip between L.A. and Phoenix. Coming home, you drive L.A. traffic till it thins out. You then curve through foothills, until you get to Redlands. Suddenly, you are in the mountains. The San Bernadinos tower over you, capped with snow. The sun was setting and the snow was orange and pink while I drove through the bunny-gray twilight below. What you don’t notice in the gathering dark is the shift from green, lush plateau to the desert. By the time you are in Banning, you are in the desert. It was dark. I smiled at the signs that said, “Indio and Desert Towns.” It sounded mysterious. It was night.

There aren’t any lights along the freeway, but the road has reflective stripes and markers, so you can feel your way along the path. Trucks make up about 80 percent of the traffic; you follow a string of red lights, and across the space between the East and West-bound lanes, you see headlights topped by rows of amber truck lights.

The Milky Way on a clear night, NASA

It’s a driving experience like no other. The average speed is about 90 mph, despite the signs that say 75 mph. You are driving through a tunnel of darkness. There aren’t many exits, and in addition to telling you that you are exiting at Indio or Bermuda Dunes or Wiley’s Well, the signs tell you it’s 65 miles to the next exit. There’s not much out there except mountains you don’t see.

You drive through a tunnel of darkness, hooked into a line of lights. The road climbs and at the top you see a scatter of sparkling lights in the distance. A town. The air lifts away from your car as it gets brighter, but you press on and the dark settles close around your car again.

Finally I pulled over into the break-down lane. I got out of the car and stretched. And looked up. What you don’t see when you are driving is the heavy sky, spangled with stars. So many it was breath-taking. I haven’t seen the Milky Way in 20 years, but it is still there. I didn’t want to get back into the car, but I was still 200 miles from home.

And then, like counting the beads on a rosary, I was back in a line of trucks, pushing ahead, sliding through the few towns that manage to exist in the desert. I wonder what those people do for a living, a hundred miles from a hospital or airport. It was quiet, no answers.

The dark comes right up to the edge of the road on those drives. You don’t see the mountains, although you can feel them.

You slide into Blythe, clinging to the banks of the Colorado, and then you are back in Arizona, on the way to Quartzsite, Pioneer and Hope. You know when you are in the farming communities of Tonopah and Buckeye by the feel of the air. Less dry, more green. You speed on through the night.

And then, just as you begin to think there isn’t an end to this road, the horizon turns from black to brown. There is a distinct color band that signals a big city before you see the start of the freeway lights. And then you are back on freeways with exit ramps every mile, and you feel a little relieved and a little sad to leave that enormous space of dark unknown behind.

Quinn McDonald lives in the Sonoran Desert. She is a creativity coach and teaches what she knows.

Sakura Children Redux

A woman in Miyagi Prefecture washes a shoe found in the wreckage of her house.

About nine months ago, I asked you for postcards for the children of Miyagi Prefecture–a part of Japan leveled, first by an earthquake, and then by a tsunami–a tidal wave that washed so far inland that factories, houses, schools, stores collapsed under water and vanished, along with thousands of children, parents, workers, and teachers.  The devastation hit at the time of the cherry blossom (Sakura) festival, delicate blossoms blooming over devastation.

The postcards were a simple way to let the children know they were not forgotten, that someone cared about them, thought about them, wished them well.

You sent postcards–some of you asked your quilt clubs and Sunday School groups to make them, some of you got your classes and your children to make cards. The first week, I sent thank-you cards for each card that arrived, and then, as cards arrived without names, I thanked you from here. I thought I’d get a few. You sent me hundreds.

With help (many people helped forge the connections), I found a contact in Japan, and sent off the postcards. Some of you sent money to help cover the postage. I never knew if the postcards arrived, or what happened to them.

The postcards in display for the town of Ibaraki, Japan

Until today. I got a package from Japan–a book filled with images of the damage and destruction of Miyagi prefecture. (The picture at the top of the post is from that book.) There was a letter and photos tucked into the book.

The letter said, in part:

Thank you very much for your kindness.
I saw all of the cards.
I’m very impression.
Kitaiharaki City people saw those cards.
I’m thinking bring those cards for elementary school of another city.
I wanted show children worried about Japanese earthquake.
Umehana teacher is thanks to you and children!
She appreciation about that! SO MUCH!

I didn’t “fix” the words because I appreciate the struggle that went into answering me in English–I don’t speak, read or write Japanese, so who am I not to appreciate any effort to write me in English so I can understand the thoughts?

Your postcards in Japan.

What a gift–to know that the postcards were received and appreciated–put on display for all the people in one city to see, and then moved to another city for display.

I recognized some of the cards, I love the idea that they made it and someone hung each one of them.

To all of you who made and sent cards–you helped heal a pain, comforted a loss, sent strength and understanding. Art heals. It doesn’t get better than that. Thank you for helping, thank you for making art. Thank you for taking your time and making the effort to heal through art.

Quinn McDonald is grateful.

Gel Transfers for Art Journaling

Note: Two exciting teaching days in California means I got home very late last night. Today’s post is a quick tutorial on gel transfers. Tomorrow, I’ll share some impressions of the classes.

Gel transfers are not only fun, they add a lot to the pages of your art (or raw-art) journal. Joyce Bank, president of the Calligraphic Society of Arizona,  sent out an interesting summary of YouTube tutorials in various gel medium transfer methods. In each section, the link is followed by a list of interesting points covered in the video.

Golden makes a huge variety of gels, glazes, and mediums

Instead of gel medium, this artist uses a sculptural gel to make transfers.

  • he uses a sculpture gel—a very thick acrylic medium instead of gel medium
  • replaces brush (which can leave marks) with a  plastic palette knife applicator to spread the gel
  • Instead of a laser-print image, he uses a National Geographic magazine image
  • He wets the image so that it will dry together with the acrylic medium
  • He burnishes the image when he applies it

This artist used a soft gel gloss medium

  • a brayer to burnish the image
  • a magazine image rather than a laser printer or photocopied image
  • emphasizes that the darker areas of the photo would show up better
  • lets the transfer dry thoroughly before applying it
  • uses a piece of sandpaper to get the rubbing process started
  • uses a spray water bottle to moisten the back of the paper while she’s rubbing it off

This artist transferred a laser photo image to a piece of tempered glass. Once dry, the image is lifted from the glass and stored on a piece of wax paper until it is used. The glass method allowed him to observe the drying process and yields a smooth surface image.

Quinn McDonald drove across the Sonoran Desert in the dark last night, and was amazed at the experience. She liked being amazed.

Review: Strathmore Marker Paper

Strathmore Marker pad. Cover art by Katherine Cantrell.

Strathmore paper company came  out with a marker paper in 2010. Advertised as good for layout and graphic design and made with 100 percent cotton, the paper has a smooth, white finish and a great hand. Part of the 500 Series, the formal name is Strathmore Marker smooth surface.

The paper, according to the cover sheet,  is “100 percent cotton, acid free, semi- transparent, white smooth surface.” Because of its translucence and light weight,  I was doubtful that a marker wouldn’t bleed. There is a difference between bleed and bleedthrough. If a paper bleeds, it allows ink to spread on the surface.  If it leaks through to the other side of the paper, it’s bleed through. If it bleeds through and stains the next sheet, it is called epic fail.

Markers don’t bleed on this paper. I used both Pitt Pens and Copic markers to test the paper. Pitt Pens go down smooth and even, dry quickly and look great. Copic markers (alcohol-based) don’t dry quite as fast, allowing for blending and dragging color with the blender. The blending is seamless, smooth and has the finish that’s finer than watercolor, but not as velvet as colored pencil. The paper stands up to multiple layers of colors, even without waiting for the marker to dry. I prefer to give each layer some drying time, it adds to the depth of color and doesn’t muddy the final result.

I also tried colored pencil on the marker paper with wonderful results. Blending is smooth and easy. The paper doesn’t love a heavy hand or rubbing, but it works well with colored pencil. Colors are brilliant and clear.

Watercolor pencils don’t work well on this paper. I keep thinking of alcohol markers as wet media, but they really aren’t. I tried watercolor pencils, and when I wet the paper, it buckled. Once it was dry, it still showed stretch marks. But the color blending is beautiful.

If you are going to use this paper in a journal, you’ll want to tip the paper into your journal after you’ve worked it. Don’t use glue, it will show on the paper. Use tape–a decorative art tape is a great idea for this. I love to use washi-paper tape, also called kawaii tape. It’s repositionable and comes in so many colors, it’s an addiction on its own. You can find sources for the tape (and lots of colorful examples) at Kelly Kilmer’s site.

I love the Strathmore marker paper. I will admit to a strong bias for Strathmore; when I lived in New England, I would cadge visits and tours to the company near West Springfield, Mass.

FTC-required disclosure: I received the paper as a gift from a friend. No expectations of a review were expressed.

–Quinn McDonald is a raw-art journaler who uses markers, watercolor pencils, inks and Pitt Pens in her journals.

Growing Up Wonderful

When I was very young, I became a mom. It was not unusual in those days–people were often grandmothers by the time they were in their late 30s. Like mothers of those days, I was eased out of work about halfway through my pregnancy. There was a war in Vietnam, so I was alone when it was time to drive to the hospital. My son was born at 4 in the morning, and one of the nurses had a staph infection, which she transferred to my son. And then everything went bad.

Bilirubin lights turn the incubator blue.

He went downhill fast with the infection. His liver stopped working. He turned yellow.  He lost half his birth weight. The doctor noticed that my baby had a single line across his palms–in those days called “simian creases.” It accompanies many terrible genetic diseases–among them Down Syndrome and Kleinfelter syndrome. The chaplain made it to my bed before the doctor and began to discuss picking out a coffin. The doctor followed and told me my son would most likely be low-functional, and never have a normal life.

I was young and alone. I was not allowed to see or hold my son, who was attached to so many tubes I could hardly know he was a real person.

Both sides of the family became silent. I learned what it meant to be alone. I saw a life of incompetence and struggling ahead of me. I was scared. Even at a young age, I was good at sucking it up and moving on. I was sent home 12 hours after the birth, and returned with breast milk the next day. For the next weeks, I stayed at the hospital until they threw me out, and sang to the little bundle amid the tubes. “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” and “Forever Young.” I have a bad voice, and one nurse told me it would damage the child, and I should let his last hours be in quiet. I hated her.

He lived. He was stubborn and tough. He came home. No one gave me referrals

Yale University

or instructions for this under-functioning baby. He sat up late. He walked late. He talked late. I tried to be brave. He kept me busy. And then he began to talk. In full sentences. Every night, I read him stories and sang to him. At 23 months, he read the stories along with me. At 25 months, he would put his hand over my mouth and say, “You are singing it wrong.” And I was. I can’t sing. Not even hum.

A doctor examined him and told me, “Mothers of retarded children [that was the term in those days] often think their children are brighter than they are. You must accept was God has meant for you.” I don’t believe in a vengeful God who punishes children or their mothers. I was a little older and a lot tougher. Ian and I  left the office, both stubborn. He was reading chapter books before kindergarten.

I took him to a new doctor and didn’t mention the past. In a time without computers, it was easier to lose the “retarded” label.  Over the years, it turned out that he was amazingly bright, determined, focused and impatient. He often didn’t understand that others weren’t as bright as he was. Bright children have their own struggles, and we muddled through.

When times got tough, I’d think about those first hard months. And those days were the first thing I thought of when he phoned me today, to tell me he had achieved tenure and been promoted to full professor at Yale University.

It has not been without hardship, loss, sadness and struggle. But it has also been with laughter and growth and, now, just plain pride.

I’m so very proud of you, Ian, for not quitting, not giving up, not saying “I can’t go on.” Congratulations. You have made me so very proud.

-Quinn McDonald is the proud mom of a very happy tenured professor.