Thursday, March 24, 2016

14 Things to Stop Doing to Myself

Photo: Freeimages.com/Carl Dwyer.
I suspect I’m experiencing a transitional phase of my life, with plenty of changes unfolding around me—moving in with my partner-in-crime, a chaotic move, analyzing how my career is going, etc. As spring pushes away winter’s slumber effects, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to fix things which have caused near-paralytic bouts of fear and anxiety over the past few months, and left me with the feeling that I’m spinning my wheels.

While cleaning up the bookmarks on my computer, I found an article outlining “30 things to stop doing to yourself.” Reading it provided a framework to look at personality aspects which make me my own worst enemy. A list of items that nicely catalogues recent acts of self-sabotage I want to combat.

Rather than tackle all 30, I’ll jump around the list.

Stop spending time with the wrong people: not a worry here—I run with a great crowd. Where this is applicable, and already showing great results, is trimming my social media feeds, especially utilizing the mute/unfollow functions on Twitter (don’t fret—if my musings annoy you, I won’t be annoyed if you do the same). I’ve cut down to voices I truly enjoy or respect, even if there are philosophical differences, and now focus on institutions and organizations related to my work. My blood pressure has dropped considerably by viewing fewer Twitter fights.

Stop putting your own needs on the back burner: working on it. Exercises like this one, launching a newsletter, investigating new services I can offer, etc. One that needs to be addressed soon-ish: finally launching the business site I’ve tinkered with for years.

Stop trying to be someone you’re not: and truly acknowledge my strengths, weaknesses, and areas of expertise.

Stop being scared to make a mistake: doing so shuts me down, fueling my stress levels. Acknowledge life and work are never perfect. There’s much to learn from screwing up.

Stop berating yourself for old mistakes: one of my greatness weaknesses, as I have a habit of second-guessing nearly every decision I make. I could have done this. I should have done that. Well, yeah, but it’s time to move on.

Stop being idle: I berate myself for not dedicating enough hours to projects (even if I’ve worked on them for days) and for not stretching myself as thinly as possible to produce large volumes of work. These don’t do wonders for my mental state, blocking me up so much that I waste many more hours being idle. The right balance is out there.

Stop thinking you’re not ready: As Louisa tells me whenever I fret about a major project or interview, deep down you’re ready, and you can do this. There are times when I over-research, which leads to as many problems as true under-preparedness. Having stomach butterflies is natural. I sometimes think back to hearing veteran Toronto journalist Christie Blatchford talk about her career and how, decades in, she still gets nervous.

Stop trying to compete against everyone else: I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve stopped great ideas cold in their tracks because I saw someone else doing a fantastic or highly-respected job. Maybe they can do it better than I would, but that’s a lousy excuse for avoiding taking chances, or finding my own voice on a given topic.

Stop doing the same things over and over without taking a break: yup. Not doing so leads to mental and physical fatigue, fueling feelings that I’m spinning my wheels.

Stop making things perfect: a big one. See “stop being scared to make a mistake.” Also, my perfectionism eats up time better spent on other projects or enjoying life more. I’ve accustomed myself to working at a certain level of quality, hoping others will notice and offer interesting new opportunities. I must realize that sometimes, ya just gotta get the job done, or that imperfections sometimes lead to opportunities or great unexpected experiences. Take a perfectly planned road trip which may be “wrecked” by traffic or weather issues, forcing alternative plans which prove far more memorable.

Stop following the path of least resistance: I may miss out on a great routine-breaker.

Stop acting like everything is fine if it isn’t: I long prided myself on maintaining a public persona of being cool, calm, and collected. Those closest to me know this isn’t always the case. I used to bottle a lot up, internalizing my feelings because nobody needed to know about them, giving time to figure out a fix. Lately I’m realizing just how much the support of others really, really helps. And when I’ve been upset, I let it out…though I might not recommend screaming in the middle of Atrium on Bay while working a job I loathed, as much as a stress-reliever/cry for help it was.

Stop trying to be everything to everyone: the article mentions how this leads to burn out. So true.

Stop worrying so much: this has plagued me for most of my life. I’m a chronic worrier, fretting about things I should be concerned about, things I’m overblowing the significance of, and things I have zero control over. My imagination runs into hyperdrive when I have a major case of worry-itis. Rarely do things turn out as horrible as my worst visions. Shit happens, as does success. Don’t get obsessed about what others may think of, say, an article—there are always going to be nitpickers. Don’t fret about damaging relationships out of fear of displeasing them on a particular item—if it’s a good relationship, you’ll find alternate solutions, or laugh it off and move on.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Age 39

I had thought of writing a long, reflective piece about how age 39 went for me. The sort of piece where I analyzed what went right, what went wrong, and what fell between the cracks. How I learned that being on camera isn’t so scary. How I learned that the banking industry and I were not made for each other. The great writing opportunities that came my way over the past year, the might-have-beens, the perennial battle with freelancerus financius nervosa, etc.

But it’s 20 minutes to midnight. And if you know me, you’ve heard me natter on about those things enough.

So, as 40 prepares to knock on my door, here’s perhaps the most important development over the course of the past 12 months. A development whose seeds were planted in August, and which has provided much happiness since then. A development which kept me sane during some particularly rough periods, especially when I was burning the candles at both ends of the day juggling a day job I loathed and freelance work I loved.

At Manny & Merle, Louisville, KY, July 4, 2015. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

My Sporadic Seminar Attendance in University

Click on image for larger version. 
While digging through some boxes this morning, I came across a cache of papers from my university daze. Among the items was this slip of paper, which is probably from my last year or two of school. This suspicion is based on the comment about my attendance at whatever seminar sessions this was related to: by year four, I was more likely found puttering at the campus newspaper or radio station, which was far more enjoyable (and better for my long-term career prospects) than listening to my peers expound on their favourite literary theories in a seminar.

Confession: I wasn't an engaged university student. It's one reason I never pictured myself going back, unless it was a subject I was passionate about. Maybe it was my major: while there were exceptions, I often felt out of place within my English classes, a throwback to the past. My love of placing works in their context didn't always go down well, even if my marks were fine (a lot of low As/high Bs).

This accounts for the lack of participation commented on in this note: I either felt like I was going against the flow of the rest of the seminar group, or I felt like a dum-dum for not being able to spit out post-colonial/post-modernist/French intellectual theory off the top of my head. Maybe I was a small town yokel after all. When I don't feel intellectually comfortable, I shut down. Contemplating flipping my English major and history minor occurred often, but a nagging fear of reducing my chances for post-grad employment scuttled that move.

Subconsciously, it may have been around this time I realized that I'd be a storyteller, not the great academic everyone quotes. And that this was OK. Everyone has their own talents. I admire those who are comfortable with theory and shape their interpretations into great work. My talent was diving into things instead of thinking about them, which was why I increasingly played hooky in order to crank out stories for the Ontarion or prepare my next CFRU show.

Though living in Arts House loosened many inhibitions, allowing me to explore and experiment with new possibilities, I still wasn't confident enough in class or working on campus to let those inhibitions reassert themselves when faced with holier-than-thou types. Recurring dreams involves reliving certain classes and contexts, but armed with knowledge and crap-cutting attitudes which developed after university. But one shouldn't fixate on the past in such ways - it's better to take the lessons learned from that time, realize personal weaknesses, note the positive accomplishments, and carry on.

Just don't ask me to explain structuralist linguistics.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Letter from Whitfield Landing


May 21, 2015

Mid-afternoon. Out for a drive intended to skirt the city’s suburbs, but which has brought me to the back roads south of Peterborough Airport. Off the end of one of these roads is a narrow driveway leading me to a township park. I drive as far as I can go, which brings me to a parking lot where grass grows in between the loose stones.

Hopping out of the car, I notice a picnic table, a dock, and a sign: “Whitfield Landing.”

I walk down to the dock. It wobbles, but seems sturdy enough for me to sit down upon. The setting is what I always imagined being at the perfect cottage would be like (I’ve never been to a proper cottage, though that may be crossed off the bucket list later this summer). The Otonabee River flows gently in front of me, occasionally rocking the dock. Across the river, chairs line the backyards of waterfront homes, waiting for people to watch the sun go down. Apart from the occasional airplane, the only sounds are birds chirping. The postcard blue sky is dotted with puffy clouds.

The temptation is strong to slip off my socks and shoes to dip my toes in the river. Then I remember it’s still only May, and given the cool morning, frozen feet might spoil the mood. Instead, I open a notebook I brought to a meeting earlier this morning and jot down passing thoughts.

It is the perfect haven on a Thursday afternoon during a month where I’m starting to shape my future. A month ago I was a stress case, juggling winding down a job I needed to leave and a burst of freelance work. Today, these beautiful surroundings are lulling me into a state of serenity.

If somebody sailed by, they might glimpse a satisfied look spreading across my face.


OK, maybe the next great Coca-Cola ad campaign isn’t flowing through my brain. But thoughts are turning toward future plans.

Taking a moment to allow myself to fully relax and let my head fill with ideas is one of the elements I hope to achieve through my “regeneration” this spring. Clear it of the stresses, frustrations, worries, and fatigue-fueled anger coursing through my veins since last fall. Getting rid of things, physical and philosophical, which are cluttering my life. A rebuilding process to restore balance and discover new directions for my creative energy.

(Warning: you're going to hear a lot about "regeneration" in the next week. Get used to that word.)

For now, I’ll sit on the dock. Take in some good deep breaths. Admire the beauty of these surroundings. Embrace a satisfying life.


Monday, December 1, 2014

Shuffling on a Monday Morning with the Semi-Conscious Zombie Hordes of Toronto

Kensington Market, October 18, 2008, before the great plague of the undead which struck Toronto that year

I’ve commuted to work downtown for the past three months. Nothing usually tickles my imagination, apart from the occasional encounters with people who block entry to the empty bus seat beside them, or that time a man spent the entire subway ride relating to me the gruesome details of his buddy’s motorcycle accident.

Last week it became apparent how zombified my fellow commuters look on a Monday morning. My sense of this might have been heightened by my own level of fatigue, due to a rough night (unlike motorcycle accident man, you’ll be spared the details), or perhaps something in the air turned upstanding Torontonians like myself into semi-conscious zombies.

The shuffle of fellow passengers boarding the bus. The glossy, dead eyes of teenagers headed to school. The higher-than-average number of heads which gravity forced toward their chests. The occasional snore heard on the southbound train. The commuters attempting to exit the subway station via the “enter” turnstiles. The remnants of a Tim Horton’s spill on the stairs leading into the office complex.

All that was missing was the low drone of “braaainnns”

***

This morning, I noticed the same patterns, sans turnstile clumsiness and Tim Horton spills. It’s tempting to argue the TTC itself suffered a case of zombieitis on the Yonge line, except that extended subway rides due to signal issues are a fact of life.

Questions racing through my head as I surveyed the sleepy hordes: 
  • Are they tired from Black Friday weekend shopping and/or the first major blast of holiday festivities?
  • Are they struggling to rouse themselves to mentally prepare themselves for work they dislike? Have they told Santa all they want for Christmas is not two front teeth, but a new job?
  • Are they slowly losing their brain capacity, as the cells in their head slowly mutate into goo?
  • Are they catatonic from the news that Denzil Minnan-Wong is Toronto’s new deputy mayor?
  • Should I worry that the snoring guy beside me will collapse on my shoulder, briefly wake up, and eat my brain? (Follow-up question: should TTC officials Andy Byford and Brad Ross make a video next Hallowe’en explaining how to handle such a situation?)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Sick Washing Machine



As some close friends know, recently I’ve experienced difficulty focusing on my usual writing/research. I’m enduring a horrible bout of malaise, where anything will distract me from tasks I should be doing. Sometimes this involves staring at the screen blankly when I could be doing something else productively away from my desk. Sometimes this results in running excess errands. And so on. I hope writing the following silly story pushes me out of my compositional funk.

The inspiration: Sunday morning, the washing machine at my apartment building broke down . It’s an aging beast, and it has had recurring drainage problems during the final rinse cycle. When I opened the lid to move my dark clothes into the dryer, a third of the washer was still filled with water. Cue several minutes of wringing out t-shirts, underwear, and socks, followed by two full drying cycles. Irritated, and realizing this could provide another trigger to dodge writing, I posted the following note to friends on Facebook: 
I will not let a malfunctioning washing machine distract me from trying to break my writing/research malaise. I will not let a malfunctioning washing machine distract me from trying to break my writing/research malaise. I will not...
A friend offered the following suggestion:

Write a story about a washing machine that gets sick?
Bingo!

This won’t go down in history as literary genius, but it accomplished its goal of lifting me out of my writing funk. The following, with light editing, tumbled out of my head. It may or may not make any sense. End disclaimers.

***

“Christ, constipation again?”

The repairman sighed. It was the fifth time he’d visited the patient in the past month. For years, the glistening white washing machine had faithfully served several generations of tenants. Its owners had dutifully maintained the shine it had when it left the showroom floor. While all looked well on the outside, inside age was creeping up on it. A slower gear here, a touch of rust there.

Lately, the washer had drainage issues. Users discovered their clothes doing backstrokes in a pool of water. Despite increasing evidence the machine was ready for retirement, building management was determined to extend its lifespan. But by this point, both the super and the repairman were pleading to euthanize it.

One tenant was so annoyed by the parade of “out of service” signs that he bought a washboard he saw in an antique store. As he washed his underwear the old fashioned way, visions of marketing washboards to hipsters and back-to-the-Earth types floated through his brain. Perhaps the washer’s technical difficulties offered a golden opportunity! “Washboard Sam’s 1893 Original Washeroo!” He made a few phone calls.

Another tenant resigned herself to trips to the laundromat. As the apartment building was one of the few in its neighbourhood, the nearest laundry involved at least two bus transfers. The front was easy to spot, thanks to a sign which screamed “FREE SOAP FOR AUGUST!” After loading a washer, she sat down and pulled out of her purse the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle she brought to kill time. 112 across stumped her: “Album with the 1978 hit ‘Deacon Blues.’” Nearby, a man waiting for his clothes to dry noticed her furrowed brow. He came over and asked which clue was frustrating her. She pointed to the across list. “Aja,” he replied. “Steely Dan. Heard that song way too many times on the classic rock station my parents liked.” He asked if he could offer any more help, with the disclaimer he hadn’t had time to do the puzzle this week. Gradually, the grid filled in. His clothes remained in the dryer long after it stopped whirring.

Back at the apartment building, the repairman sighed again. He dissembled the washer’s drum, trying to figure out alternative ways of fixing its drainage issues. He sensed he’d be back again before long. After restoring it to a functional state, he called the super. They outlined points that could sway management over to the possibility of bringing in a new washer, ranging from pricing units to making a case that a fresh washer would seal the deal with potential tenants. They would make their case tomorrow.

Left alone with an “OUT OF ORDER” sign taped to its lid, the washer contemplated its future. It hoped it would either be taken to a used appliance store to be overhauled, then bought by a family who really needed a washer. Or it hoped to be stripped of its best parts like humans who donate organs when they die. Anything but being taken to the dump. The dryer offered reassurance that the washer would avoid a horrible fate. “You’ve put in good time. You deserve a proper retirement or burial.”

Two days later, the super wheeled a dolly into the laundry room. The washer’s faithful service to the building was over.


On its way out, the washer noticed a new model being wheeled in. It decided to give the rookie some advice. “There are good people inside. Don’t be temperamental. Take care of them, and they will take care of you.” 

Crossword clue drawn from the August 17, 2014 edition of the New York Times. Thanks to Jennifer Radford for the story suggestion.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The National Magazine Award Winning Historicist


We did it...

Being nominated for a National Magazine Award for a second year in a row was a great honour, providing recognition for all the hard work Kevin Plummer, David Wencer, and I put into Historicist each week. But looking at a field in the Blogs category which included major publications (Maclean's) and excellent, long-established writers (The Grid's Edward Keenan), I figured I was simply going to enjoy a nice night out with colleagues.

First, Torontoist's city hall coverage (featuring the talents of Hamutal Dotan, David Hains, Steve Munro, Christopher Bird, and Desmond Cole) tied for a Silver award in Blogs. A whoop went up from our table. This felt good - recognition for the site's mighty fine analysis and reporting on the circus at Nathan Philips Square. 

And then Gold was announced...

"Stunned" is an understatement. It's hard to define what my body experienced at that moment. If it were a mixed drink, you'd shake together shock, amazement, and euphoria. Especially since this news occurred at the end of a trying week. I wished the others were on hand, so that all three of us could go onstage to collect the award.

Photo by Dale Duncan.
But it was just me, so up I went. As one of my editors told me, I accepted the award, started to walk off, then realized I could give a speech. Mind blanking, I briefly thanked everyone, said something about telling Toronto's past stories -- can't remember if it was thanking the audience for reading them or promising to bring more in the future -- then wandered off.

One of our editors promised to keep reminding me about what just happened every few minutes. 

Emailed Kevin and David with the good news. Texted close friends. Called Mom and my sister. Amy said I "sounded giddy." I remained so for the rest of the night, my body being in a state I've heard others describe while high.

***

There were two influential people in my writing career I was happy to see carry award envelopes Friday night. Representing Western Living magazine was Anicka Quin, who was the first editor-in-chief I worked under at The Ontarion. The atmosphere and opportunities she provided that year (1997/98) lit the idea in my head that someday, if circumstances were right, I could be a writer. In terms of Historicist, David Topping (who won for work at The Grid) has to be credited for his help as Torontoist EIC in launching the column six years ago, and for encouraging plenty of work on various sites since then. Thanks to both of you for your guidance then and now -- really appreciated.

Thanks to Hamutal Dotan, for her ongoing support and suggesting many ideas over the past few years that have turned into some of my favourite pieces. And for encouraging gratuitous use of archival photos of diving horses

Thanks to you, our readers, for showing there's plenty of interest in Toronto history.

And, most of all, thanks to Kevin and David. It's an honour to co-write the column with you guys. We've shared a lot of stories over the years, and look forward to future tales.