the optimism continues

Today I was given the much-needed reminder that, even though some of the shine has come off the Trudeau Liberals, they are still an infinite improvement over the horrors that came before.

I started working in the Social Planning section of the City a few months ago, and since then, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing non-profits and service providers who do incredible work in Surrey.

I was reminded today how much their jobs have improved tremendously since November 4. Even though we’ve all been much busier, it’s been a “good” busy… more funding, more initiatives, thus more work… from a government that actually seems to care about people.

Even the little things, like giving non-profits a break on their mortgage rate, means a lot for organizations that operate on a shoe-string. It’s a huge turn from a Harper government who told a colleague that affordable housing “wasn’t their mandate.” Ugh.

Anyway, with the state of the rest of the world right now, I am feeling incredibly lucky.

the winter months

Sometimes I feel like an asshole for complaining about the winter when I live in Vancouver. I see photos posted by friends who live elsewhere in Canada and they deal with Real Winter.

Real Winter, to me, is snow and toques and leaving for work half-an-hour early to navigate the ice. Real Winter only really lasts a day or two – a week, tops – in Vancouver. The rest of the season is characterized by grey skies, rain, and just… darkness. rain Thus, Vancouver privilege and all, the winter months are always a bit of a lull. This is so common for me, in fact, that I expect the annual mental health lull and try to steer into the curve. I force myself to make something productive come of my desire to spend all winter in my pajamas. I read. I write. I make dates with people I haven’t seen in a while. I catch up on all the Oscar movies.

This year, however, was just too much. On top of the grey sky blues, my sister got married, work consisted of on-going computer problems my boomer colleagues left me to solve, and I was struggling with crazy writer’s block. My life is easily segmented into four parts and all four of them were shitty.

One could think of these four parts as realms:

The Social Realm, including family, friends, all other personal relationships, and my domestic life. This realm is an easy one to take for granted. For an introvert like me, relationships take work. I don’t cross paths with too many people during the course of my daily life. I have to make time for people. And this is hard, because whenever I get free time, there’s usually so much more I would rather be doing. Like nothing.

The Work Realm. I really wish this weren’t a thing, but alas, that’s the world we live in. I wish work was something I could incorporate into one of the other realms, but I can’t. At least not now. Work is this thing that just sits there in the middle of my life sucking time. I try my best to incorporate what I can into my work life, including writing, or making lunch dates, or trying to get exercise. However, this all is required to take place during my lunch break, and by the time lunch rolls around, it’s Sophie’s Choice and I’m so paralyzed by indecision that I just end up scrolling Tumblr for an hour.

The Mental Realm, or “My Inner Life/Sense of Self.” This pretty much means that constant battle in my head between happy and sad or Good Mood vs Bad Mood, and generally feels beyond my conscious control. So much of this is at the mercy of the other realms. But sometimes the other realms suffer solely because this realm is suffering. And then they influence each other back and forth in a horrifying dialectic most commonly referred to as a “downward spiral.”

The Creative Realm. I almost labelled this the Writing Realm, but writing isn’t my only outlet, even if it is my most important. I don’t know if everyone has this realm, but I like to think that most people have some kind of creative outlet. Perhaps it’s just my own artistic myopia, but I can’t imagine living a life without creating something somehow, be it whittling sticks, making model trains, or designing avatars for World of Warcraft.

The impulse takes me to arrange these realms like a hierarchy of needs, but that wouldn’t do it justice. For instance, The Work Realm is the least important to me emotionally, but it’s the one that must be taken care of first. If it isn’t, I lose my job. It’s that simple. The Mental Realm is probably the most important, emotionally speaking, but it’s the one that’s the hardest to maintain. There are just so many variables. The Social Realm is thus the first to suffer, at least in a visible way. It’s just so easy to not make plans. It’s so easy to take people for granted. It’s so easy to give into that drive to keep to myself. I need alone time. But sometimes an overdue conversation with an old friend does wonders.

And, as it both feels extraneous yet is totally necessary, the Creative Realm requires discipline. But, for some reason, it’s so much easier to apply discipline to this than any of the other realms. And it’s so much easier to fall apart when I get stuck. If I hit a writing wall, I can try another outlet, like drawing or zine-making, but it just isn’t the same. I need to write. It feels like the hook on which everything else hangs. If one of the other realms suffers, I can usually power through by focusing on another. But if I go too long without writing, it eats away at me. (It’s like I based too much of my identity on this or something… weird.)

That’s why I try to set goals. I try to write 1000 words a day (and let weekends slide a little because I’m not fucking crazy).

In the fall, I was hitting a wall with the project I was working on, so I forced myself to try other things. A new project with no pressure might be good, I told myself. But, as the other realms collapsed over the winter, I hit a wall too high. I was lucky if I got 500 words a week done. On anything. I couldn’t even muster a blog post.

It was really starting to wear at me in a way that I know must seem ridiculous. But when I can’t write, it feels like some intrinsic part of myself is locked off and I can’t access it. It’s like that irritating, itchy feeling when you can’t remember the name of something but it’s on the tip of your tongue. Just imagine having that feeling all the time and you don’t even know what it is you’re trying to remember the name of.

I needed a solution. I had to force myself to write something. Anything.

I needed to let go of the idea that it had to be good. Husband even gave his words of support: “You do you, boo.”

So I thought about what it was that might have been holding me back. I had managed to write several decent openings for different pieces, but quickly lost momentum. I was struggling with world building. I was struggling with character building. This is not something easily overcome by sitting down and brainstorming it all out, like I do with a plotting problem. I need to feel a setting. I need to intrinsically know a character. (And the themes are always an after-thought. Like Dumbo’s ability to fly, there were there all along but only realized at the end.)

So… anyway…. here it is: I wrote fan fiction.

Ugh. I did. I have no problem with fan fiction at all, I just never thought writing it was for me. I wrote a piece once at the request of Dr. Roommate that crossed-over her favourite character of mine with Sandor Clegane, and, while I wrote my own character fine, I found it awkward writing someone else’s character. As I said earlier, I need to intrinsically know a character, and I didn’t think I could do that with a character that wasn’t mine. It was like wearing someone else’s shoes.

But I could. I did. And although it felt weird at times, the exercise of writing fan fiction worked wonders.

I didn’t have to build a world or characters; that was all done for me. I could just drop them in a plot or conversation without needing to provide context. It was like taking a warp pipe around the writer’s block. While my writer’s block is not perfectly removed, the frustration of not being able to write at all is gone. It’s like a fog lifting.

And now it’s a sunny day and all.

Maybe I’ll go out for a walk.

an introvert learns to say no

I work with many different people whom one could objectively describe as “lovely.”

The problem is… well, perhaps the problem is me… but there is something that slowly wears away at you when you spend the better part of your day with people you have nothing in common with. (In that regards, perhaps that is how high school truly prepares us for the real world.)

As an introvert, I’ve spent years forcing myself to socialize. I have this carefully practiced persona that I flick on like a switch. Some days, it’s easy to do. Others, it’s just… ugh. Too much work.

For most of my life, I did not realize that being introverted is normal. I always assumed that extroversion was the default setting. I was broken.

The pressure to socialize and to have a flourishing social life was always overwhelming. Being bright and bubbly is the gold standard for how one should act, just as weekends spent out with friends – cramming as much gossip and cocktails in as possible – is how one must live. A Saturday night at home makes you a failure.

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When I lived with roommates for the first time, I felt this tremendous relief that I didn’t have to leave the house to socialize. There – right in my own home – were people who would save me from the social blacklist! No longer was I sitting at home watching TV all weekend, I was “hanging out with friends.”

When surrounded by people I genuinely enjoy and respect (and don’t feel judged by), I can be a bright and bubbly person. I can actually like socializing. But most people I simply don’t enjoy.

Maybe it’s because I’m an asshole, or maybe it’s because other people are, but I feel shoe-horned into the greater swathes of humanity. It seems as though most people want to talk about their mortgages / children / retirement plans, how much they enjoyed the Expendables movies, and how the protesters in Ferguson should just shut the hell up already.

If this is the average person, then I’m just not a good fit, and I’m okay with that.  It’s exhausting to have these conversations over and over. Does no one want to discuss anything substantial?

The thing with discovering yourself, whatever that is, is that once you realize something significant about yourself, you can’t go back. It was just like when I realized I was an atheist. It was not a decision I made, but something about myself I was unable to change… like the fact that I can’t stand canned tuna. I can force that shit down, but I can’t make myself like it. Once I realized that socializing had no objective benefit to my life, then I lost the will to do it.

So it’s tough, eight hours a day, forcing yourself to socialize with people with whom you have so little in common.

The obvious solution seems to be to find like-minded people with whom to work with. But alas. To make such a declaration is to be naive about the current job market and to be oblivious to the fact that most other like-minded people are also introverts. We don’t make real friends easily. I know many people at my place of employ with whom I am sure I would get along fantastically. The problem is, most of them I’ve worked with for years and have barely spoken to. I think we all take to the internet, and I guess that’s where we find each other too.

The best I can do is cut the people who exhaust me from my life as much as possible. No, I will not waste Sunday afternoon listening to you drone on about hockey draft picks, thankyouverymuch. No, I won’t watch your racist / sexist / uninformed bile spew up on my Facebook feed all day. No.

No, no, no.

I’ve learned to say No.

I think you have to sometimes. It was a formative moment for me when I realized I could do that. Wait, what do you mean I don’t have to attend every social obligation I’ve been invited to? What do you mean I don’t have to like everyone?

And I don’t have to be bothered by the fact that people don’t like me?

It’s such a relief to really accept that. It’s the only way to make it through those days when you have to grin and bear it when someone complains about their “paltry” pay cheque that’s easily double yours, or try to come up with a politely worded rebuff when someone makes a casually racist joke.

No way I’m doing that when I’m not on the clock.

british bureaucracy for the impatient

It’s been a week on and we’ve yet to hear anything from the estate agent. It’s been more than a month since the first job applications began and we’ve yet to hear anything from potential employers.

Is our luck running low(er)?

Or are we victims of the infamous British bureaucracy?

It’s something we noticed rather quickly yet it has increased in its frustration. There’s a middle-man to everything. As difficult as apartment-hunting was back home, at least it only comprised the following steps:
1. Call landlord to arrange viewing
2. View apartment and sign application
3. Landlord phones you to say, “you can move in Saturday”

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Here it is thus:
1. Ring up an estate agent
2. Estate agent tells you it’s already been let but they don’t take down the posting because fuck-you-that’s-why
3. End up on a mailing list where you get ten spam emails and two phone calls a day with the estate agent trying to flog you other flats
4. Do this several times and end up on several mailing lists
5. Finally find a flat that is available, arrange to see it
6. See the flat, decide to apply, but that means you agree you have to pay up front because you’re still on the job hunt
7. Wait for the estate agent to ring the landlord to see if this is okay, even though the only person benefiting from six months’ rent in advance is the landlord herself
8. Pay your two hundred pounds agent fees
9. Discover the estate agent doesn’t even check the references themselves and outsources it to a referencing company even though we don’t need a credit check because we’re paying up front so all someone needs to do is email our old landlord to check that we never broke anything.
10. Wait and wait and wait

As the job hunt grows bleaker and bleaker, we can’t help but wonder if a similar form of bullshit exists for recruitment agencies on which to blame the delays. Otherwise, we’re just unemployable in this country. That’s a distinct possibility. Doesn’t keep the job-seekers spam out of my inbox, however.

The options now seem thus: rent a flat (eventually) and keep up the (possibly futile) job search while our savings dwindle, or cut our losses and go home, pride bruised and bleeding, but finances intact.

The reality is, we’ve decided that we don’t want to stay here forever. I could elaborate, but that’s what it’s come too. We like it here, but can’t see making a life of it. If we could, perhaps that might change things.

plot twist: we flee from london

As my first day of being thirty years old passes, we find ourselves having forsaken London. We went out flat hunting, paperwork in hand like rifles, the tube like horses and hounds. After several false starts, I had to admit to myself that London just wasn’t worth it. Paying a thousand pounds for a small flat (bed bugs likely included) in a part of town I would be scared to walk in at night, spending an hour on the tube just to get to a part-time job at a fabulous bookshop just didn’t add up.

I feel terrible about it, but I turned down the job at the bookshop. As much as I would have loved to work there (and the fact that job-hunting in this country has been as futile and depressing as hell, but that’s the subject of another post), the part-time hours and level of pay just didn’t rationalise the ridiculous London rent. After crunching numbers, I calculated that the difference in price to live in a shitty London flat versus a decent flat anywhere else was more than I would make. In essence, living outside London unemployed would be cheaper than living in London and working part-time minimum wage.

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Site of the fabled London Tim Horton’s.

Realizing this seemed something of a relief, actually. We were both tired of London but couldn’t justify admitting it. Had we turned tail and fled without the power of mathematics on our side it would have felt like failure or cowardice. I already feel pretty stupid for having believed the glorious picture of London. But then again, a lot of people have told us since: you have to realize for yourself that London sucks. No one heeds the warnings non-Londoners give; as my cousin said, if the person telling you is from the north, you just assume that it’s part of the whole Northerners-hate-London thing.

But they are right to. Trust them. London is beautiful in the centre, terrible on the outskirts. It’s a wonderful place to visit, but not to live. Lesson learned.

So then, we fall back on Plan B, which is actually returning to Plan A. Our sights are set on Hebden Bridge or somewhere like it. And if we don’t get jobs, then we travel and write until the money runs out and then go back to Vancouver.

Plan A sounds fantastic actually. Why did we even form a Plan B?

stephen fry – a fortuitous symbol?

It seems quite ironic (or perhaps not ironic at all) that after discovering at long last the unencumbered joy of QI and the limitless glee of Stephen Fry’s memoirs that we should spot him strolling along Piccadilly as we sip our organic coffee.

I do not believe in signs or fate or anything of the sort. They are a trick of psychology: a confirmation bias wherein we see what we want in order to justify our desires or decisions. Thus, seeing Stephen Fry in London is not a sign that we have made the right decision in moving here, or that everything will turn out fine. Yet it seems so obvious a sign. Prior to the sighting, did I not just post not-one-but-two Stephen Fry quotes (as some allegedly nuanced depiction of my inner self)?

Aviary Photo_130301708977252343Yes. But it means nothing. If this were a fictionalised account, one would call shenanigans at the utter lack of imagination in the cliché of Stephen Fry waltzing through our brave new world. It reminds me of a scene in Douglas Coupland’s The Gum Thief where the main character spots Johnny Depp leaving a shop in Paris. I remember thinking it such a deus ex machina for character growth. I remember it being the moment I realized I outgrew Douglas Coupland.

Would it not be a better sign the fact that I got a job at a bookshop?

Yes. But that still means nothing.

I am very eager to work at this bookshop, but I know that there is still so much against us. I cannot predict how a part-time, minimum-wage job is going to pan-out long-term. Perhaps our days here are numbered.

But I’m almost okay with that. Perhaps that is why I choose to ignore the potential symbolism of Stephen Fry.

The difference between London as I knew it and London now is five years. For me, that means I’m days away from thirty; for London, that means a recession. Between twenty-five and thirty lies the most transitive period one undergoes short of puberty. That’s when you really settle into who you are.

As we spent this morning moving from one hostel to another, from Bayswater to Docklands, from tube to bus (thanks “track maintenance”) to DLR, there comes a moment when you find it just too tiring to fight off that nagging realisation that “I’m too old for this shit.”

Aviary Photo_130301708622643821I’m too old for hostels. I don’t need to get to know young people from Holland only in town to party. I don’t have the patience for single beds or shared showers or a lack of privacy. God damn it, I’m almost thirty. Some most evenings, I just want to collapse into the sofa with my husband and watch a few episodes of whatever show we’re working our way through this month.

Now will someone please rent us a flat so we can get on with this already?

the anglo job search begins

It hardly seems right that we’ve been in England almost ten days. It’s been something of a fog, like we’re stuck on a transatlantic cruise liner with nothing to eat but chips and tea and nothing to do all day but watch the BBC and apply for jobs.

I am at the point where I can now only describe myself in the glorious veneer of management-speak. I can only use phrases like “hard-working,” and “skill-set.” It’s an odd frame of mind to feel trapped by. Husband and I have discussed it when we can, but it’s tough to escape. It’s a roller coaster of viewpoint. At the peak you’re optimistic and the world looks like an employment buffet. At the trough, however…. The trough is a demoralising bastard.

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Suddenly it feels as though everything I’ve learned means nothing just because I never bothered to figure out Adobe Illustrator or because I can’t quite articulate how running endless film sets qualifies me to set someone’s datebook. But it does. I know it. I know I can do so much.

I did receive one cold call after putting my CV on the “public” setting through the Job Centre. It was for a call centre. In a fit of optimism, I turned them down.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that.

the turning point

By virtue of waking up early to get everything out of our apartment, I am at work a whole fifty minutes early. The near-silence is astounding. I say “near” because a diligent few chatter on phones in the distance and the barista at the coffee stand is organizing her till. But the usual din of ringing phones, insolent queries, and idle gossip has yet to cycle in.

Aviary Photo_130301663784626827Patches of darkness cling to corners of the office: lights not yet turned on because there is not yet anyone to illuminate. It’s a strange feeling, something of a parallel and/or flip-side to leaving our home this morning and staring one last time at the blank walls and swept floors. From here I will spent one more day at this job: one more day of holding all this information in my mind. At 4.30 I will let it go.

From there we drive my rattling, old car (and its backseat of miscellaneous furniture and throw pillows) to my parents’ house. The adventure will have not begun yet (because that takes place next Thursday) but it will be limbo. Purgatory even. What else could it be? Husband and I will be awaiting a judgment to be handed down by… well, ourselves, really. Do we have what it takes to cash in and run away?

I guess we’ll find out.

ashleigh’s taco salad recipe – by request

This was originally requested by Amanda alone, but then I thought, “it is not my place to hold back genius from the larger world.” So here it is: on the internet.

ASHLEIGH’S TACO SALAD*

Makes 1 big, potluck-ready bowl. You can adjust these amounts as you see fit. I pretty much eyeball it every time.

1 lb lean or extra-lean ground beef
Head of iceberg lettuce, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 tomato, diced
3 green onions, sliced
2 cups cheddar cheese, grated
½ bag Nacho cheese-flavoured Doritos, broken into small pieces
½ bottle of Kraft Catalina™ dressing (or “California” if you’re me and bought the no-name brand)
Other taco-related ingredients as you might so desire, such as black olives. (This is your canvas; make it your masterpiece.)

Look, Amanda! Just ask and Google Images provides.

Look, Amanda! Just ask and Google Images provides.

Cook the ground beef in a pan and season with however much taco seasoning as your senses can allow, which—if you’re like me—is a lot. (The salad is best if you let the meat cool in the fridge, but you might only want to do that if you’re working with extra lean meat. Otherwise, a little part of you will die when you see the cold, hardened, taco-seasoned fat in the bottom of the container. Appetizing, I know.)

After that, you can follow the basic logic that this is, indeed, a tossed salad. Which means you just mix everything together in a bowl.

You will probably want to serve it right away otherwise the crunchiness of the Doritos is comprised faster than a Bond girl.

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*I feel like a bum taking credit for this. I didn’t make it up. But I don’t know who did, but I should at least get credit for bringing it to the masses.

the etiquette of facebook, or, “please don’t bring up those elementary school pictures i was tagged in in front of all our co-workers”

Even if Emily Post hasn’t quite got round to adding a chapter on it, there are unspoken rules to social media. They boil down to Wil Wheaton’s motto: “Don’t be a dick.”

Here are a few:

Aviary Photo_1303017340043412251. Don’t tag unflattering pictures.

2. Don’t start comment wars over something irrelevant.

3. Don’t invite me to play Candy Crush.

4. And definitely don’t invite me to your friend’s nephew’s private school fundraiser.

5. Don’t trick yourself into believing passive-aggressive comments somehow give you depth.

6. Don’t carry on conversations that really should be private in a place where they clog up a feed.

7. And definitely, DEFINITELY don’t bring up non-work-related Facebook information in a crowded workplace environment.

That is what Facebook has become. It is no longer that small enclave of the internet where you can connect with new genuine friends and reconnect with old genuine friends. That now seems to be Tumblr. Is is no longer that place where you can expose your immense wit and intelligence (or lack thereof) through the sheer power of typing then pressing enter. That is now Twitter.

Facebook is now the place where we try to put our best selves. It’s so carefully curated that to expect a Facebook page to be an accurate represenation of a person is to expect the Louvre to be an accurate representation of history. No one’s life is as awesome as they make it seem. They’ve edited out the long, boring nights they spend watching television.

As a co-worker, if you have made your way onto my Facebook list, that means that I would actually consider us friends. If I don’t, and you “friended” me anyway, trust me: it’s only a matter of time before I discreetly unfriend you. At that point, etiquette dictates that you do NOT bring up said “unfriending,” especially not at work in front of everybody; you accept it, stew quietly, and proceed to hate me in silence. I don’t care if you dislike me; that’s why I don’t want to be your friend.

As a co-worker, and a friend, it is your duty to help me shield my private life from the prying eyes of the rest of the world. That means don’t mention around the watercooler that I dressed a clown for the majority of the fifth grade (as several other elementary school “friends” of mine clearly do not understand Rule 1).

Facebook is essentially the curriculum vitae of the social world. Use it wisely.