Sunday, January 29, 2012

Driving Me Crazy

Creativity works like breathing.  You can't breathe out without breathing in.  Before I have something to write about, I need to breathe in the world.  The beautiful, horrifying world.

"I wonder if we do not waste most of our energy just by spending every waking minute saying hello to ourselves."
-Annie Dillard

It's easier to breathe if I can get out of my head.  I spend at least eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, living as though my body were only a mobile stand to carry around my brain.  I need to get kick my shoes off and wiggle my toes, walk barefoot on a scratchy carpet or a smooth wooden floor.

I need to get outside and breathe fresh air, someplace away from traffic, off the clock, with nothing in my hands.  I need to just stand still somewhere and watch clouds float across a blue sky.  I need to be able to lean my head back and look up into the swaying branches of a willow tree.

On Friday Ken picked me up from work early so that I could write the test for my learner's permit.  On the way there we passed a car accident.  The intersection was littered with scraps of car.  When we got to the testing office, I got queasy.  I stood in the disgusting, stinking bathroom stall with scrunched straggles of toilet paper on the floor and the door bolt dangling from one loose screw, talking myself down, telling myself I wasn't allowed to be sick.  I wasn't allowed to manufacture an excuse not to take the test.

I wrote that stupid test.  And passed it.  It wasn't that bad.

Here's an example of the type of question that was on the test.

What should you do when a school bus stops in front of your car?
A) Honk and accelerate
B) Turn on your four-way-flashers and keep to the right
C) Execute a three-point-turn
D) Stop 20 metres behind the bus

As you can see, it wasn't an overwhelming challenge.

Day-to-day, anxiety is still close at hand, but I am dealing with it.  I am taking baby steps out of my comfort zone.  I am giving myself tough love, suspecting every physical symptom.  Dizziness, queasiness, fatigue: all these are manipulative tactics my fear uses to control me.  I refuse to let fear run my life.  It's used to having the upper hand, so it's pushing back as I push forward.

I'm stubborn.  If I have to take one step back for every two I take forward, I won't give up.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


One of my sets of parents is renovating their new home in Toronto; the other set is renovating their new villa in Mexico.  A good friend is in the middle of tearing down and rebuilding his kitchen.  Even Ken and I are doing home improvements.  We're finally replacing our broken kitchen light, and our water heater is scheduled for replacement next week.

It's about time that that kitchen light finally got replaced.  First it was intermittently flickery; then two of the four fluorescent tubes conked out.  Finally the other two gave up the ghost.  We moved two standing lamps into the kitchen several months ago have have been cooking and washing dishes in semi-darkness ever since. 

I just glad that we're not facing any major renovations in the near future.  I super-hate disruption and mess in my home.

In 1980 when my mother remarried, I was 8 years old.  We were living in a cute little post-war house, all painted white inside, with pale blue carpetting, a bay window in the dining room, and a lovely big back porch.  By the time the renos were done, and it took many long months, the house was transformed.  It was bigger and uglier.  The back porch and yard were smaller.  The bay window was gone.  The carpet was a cool, oatmeally shade of beige, which wouldn't have been bad if it hadn't been combined with a sofa-and-loveseat set in an obnoxious shade of rusty orange.  All the previously white wooden trim was stripped and stained dark brown. 

My parents don't have terrible taste.  Unfortunately they were limited by two things: an interior decorator who was a slave to the latest trends, and the bottom line.  The renovation itself, the bones of it, had gone so over-budget that they were forced to make their decorating choices from whatever was on clearance at the time. Therefore we ended up with materials that everyone else had rejected because they were so ugly.

I was happy with how my own bedroom turned out.  I kept it simple: pale green paint on two of the walls, and a cheap white wooden desk-and-dresser set.  As for the rest of the house, I disliked it very much. It was so different from the old house, my house, that I didn't feel at home there anymore.  I'm sure it didn't help that my step-dad had just moved in and we were all having a hard time adjusting to the change. 

15 years later when they had the money, my parents redecorated again.  The oatmeal carpet was ripped up, and pale blue carpet was installed.  The dark brown trim was painted white again.  In other words, to some extent they returned the house to how it looked originally.  That was after I moved out. 

I understand that the end result of a good renovation is worth all the hassle and expense, but still, I'd rather avoid ever having to live through something like that again, if I can.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Fighting the Good Fight

Lately I've been feeling angry more often.  Not ragey, irrational anger; healthy anger, the kind that comes as a response to people overstepping my personal boundaries.  I have always been prone to sacrifice if I sense that someone else's needs conflict with my own.  I'm not doing that as reflexively as I used to.

It's serving me well at work.  My assistant manager, who usually deflects a great many questions and complaints away from my office, has had to take a lot of days off lately due to a personal situation, and it looks like her schedule will be sketchy for the foreseeable future.  She usually takes an early shift and I take a later one.  On days when she's not in, sometimes I don't even get my coat off before people starting throwing problems at me.  It's very irritating.  Unless the building is on fire, there's nothing that can't wait five minutes.  Let me put my lunch into the fridge, boot up my PC, and catch my breath so that I can think clearly, please!

I'm not censoring myself as carefully as I used to.  If people are going to be inconsiderate, I don't feel the need to enable them.  One of the more senior professionals I serve approached me waving her laser pointer angrily, demanding to know why the batteries ran out so quickly.  I didn't tut-tut and commiserate with her frustration.  I said "I have no idea.  I didn't design it."  Batteries run out.  That's how life works.  Deal with it!

I had an argument with someone on my staff.  Previously, I wouldn't have done this.  I would have felt honour-bound to retain the moral high ground by playing it cool.  I'm the boss, I used to think, so I should graciously accept that my employees are sometimes going to cop an attitude.  I shouldn't let it get to me.  I should rise above.  This time, when one of my girls* got resentful of how I'd delegated work, I met her resentment with my own. I expressed how hard it is for me to keep balance and harmony in a large department, and how annoying it is when my staff forget that I have to consider the big picture, not just what they want individually.  I thank them and praise them all the time for their work, but I'm more likely to get complaints than appreciation.  It ticks me off.

Expressing my feelings was scary and empowering.  I didn't feel drained after the encounter, the way I do when I spend a lot of energy keeping a calm facade.  In fact, we both felt better for having shared our frustrations.  By the end of the discussion the woman I was speaking with didn't like my decision any more than she did before, but she understood my point of view and respected it.  

Having a proper argument with someone, an honest, constructive one, is a funny kind of blessing.  It's like medicine that tastes bitter going down but leaves you feeling better.  Do you know how to fight a good fight?

*My female staff range in age from 23 to 50-something, and they all cheerfully refer to themselves and each other as "girls".  I tried to avoid that for the first few years in order to be politically correct, but finally I gave in.  If they want to be girls, then they can be my girls, and I'll be happy with that.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sizing things up

Since the events of this past summer, I have lost my taste for clothes shopping.  My priorities have been rearranged, and "being stylish" ended up way down near the bottom of the list.  However, I'm still a working girl, and "looking presentable/professional" is one of my duties.  Therefore, I must shop, albeit with much less enthusiasm than I used to.

Over the summer I lost around 10 pounds, and, judging from how my pants are hanging off me like hand-me-downs I haven't grown into yet, the area that slimmed down most was my butt.  Pants that were previously tight are now roomy, and pants that were previously comfortable must be cinched in with a belt, and are obviously puckered at the top.

I've spent some time shopping for pants, without much luck.  There are so many ways for pants not to fit, and I have encountered all of them.  I did buy a pair of brown jeans that, with a little alteration, look good at work with a button-down shirt, but I need more.  I tried on all the pants I could find in my size at a nearby mall, with no luck.

Frustrated, I thought that maybe I was barking up the wrong tree.  Instead of fruitlessly shopping the smallest size of women's pants, I might have better luck with a girls' size 16.  It's basically the same size, just cut with different proportions.  Perhaps I would find a better fit that way.  I used to find things in the kids' section back when I was in university and shopping in thrift stores.

Off I went to the mall to test my theory.

I walked into the Kids section of Old Navy, and immediately had a visceral reaction against my own plan.  Although, rationally speaking, if the pants fit, I would be happy, in reality it felt all wrong.  I know that it's perfectly safe for humans to eat cat food, but I would not feel good about going grocery shopping in a pet store.  I'm neither a cat, nor a kid, with no desire to masquerade as either.  However, I pushed aside my revulsion, and forced myself to take a look.

5 stores later, I gratefully admitted defeat.  I never even found anything worth trying on.  The main problem is that apparently kids these days only wear jeans.  There was the occasional yoga pant, and of course leggings, and jeggings.  But 99% of the pants for kids, male and female, were jeans, and most of those were skinny jeans.

I have a couple of pairs of nice, boot cut jeans that I wear to work.  I don't need any more.  I am in the market for more sophisticated fabrics.  Hot pink skinny jeans with diamonoids on the pockets aren't on my shopping list.  Shopping strategy FAIL.

I ended up in the Sears women's department and, after extensive rack-browsing and trying-on, I did find one pair of work-appropriate (i.e. boring) trousers.  They were marked down from $50 to $15, so that was a bonus.  I just need to get them hemmed and I'll be good to go.  One pair down, a bunch more to go.  Oh well.  If that's the worst problem I have this month, I'll count myself lucky.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Silly Man

There is a type of person I refer to as a "bubble-dweller".  Bubble-dwellers live in their own little world, usually a mild and pleasant place, surrounded by an invincible barrier that keeps them from acknowledging anything that they don't particularly want to deal with.  Bubble-dwellers, a.k.a. "space babies" (Ken's preferred term) tend to be dreamy and unfocused, pleasant enough company, but very disorganized.

My step-dad (I'll call him "my dad", now that I've distinguished him from my bio-dad) is not a typical bubble-dweller.  In his life as a businessman he is focused, and can be ruthless if you get on his bad side.  However, in all other respects, he is something of a space baby, and getting spacier as the years go by.

He just bought a new car.  His previous car was only one year old, but he's not a careful driver, and it was covered with scrapes and dents.  We all agreed that this car was too big for him.  He's better off with a small one so he'll have more room for error.  He assigned Ken to get rid of his old car.  He suggested contacting a business called Lease Busters, which he used the last time he wanted to get rid of a car before the lease was up.  Turns out the old car wasn't leased.  My dad had bought it, only a year ago, but he didn't remember that he'd bought it. 

My dad is forever misplacing his cell phone.  Once it was missing for a week when he dropped it into one of his shoes.  He doesn't have a smart phone because a) he's not that comfortable with technology and b) it would be more catastrophic when he lost his phone if he depended on it for his contacts and schedule.  Instead, he writes notes on little scraps of paper.  At least when he loses a scrap of paper it's only one piece of information that's gone.  The last time he lost his cell phone, my mom found it buried under the pile of scraps of paper on his desk.

My dad is usually on some kind of weird diet.  The latest thing is he sprinkles some kind of powder on his food while he's eating.  I'm not sure exactly what the powder is supposed to do, but there's one type of powder for sweet foods and one type for salty foods.  It's all very mysterious.

Recently he went out and bought a bag of avocados.  He put the bag in the trunk of his car without securing it, and by the time he got home all the avocados had escaped and rolled into every corner of his trunk.  He gathered some of them up and brought them inside, but he didn't get them all.  The remaining avocados froze solid, and rattled around his trunk for the next week or two.  He went golfing and there was an avocado in with his golf clubs.  He opened up his carry-case in a business meeting and pulled out an avocado.  I'm not sure if he saved those ones to eat.

Being inattentive is costing my dad a lot of money.  He has lost two wedding rings within the past year, and each time my mother has insisted (understandably) that he buy a replacement.  I don't know if the jewellery store has ever had such a regular customer in the wedding ring department, especially one who has never been divorced.  Maybe they think he's a polygamist who just married his third wife.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Look Out, Here I Come

Third time's the charm, as the saying goes.  I sure hope so.  I am beginning my third attempt at getting a driver's license.  Previously, I gave up before scheduling the road test.  This time, it's do or die.  Or do and die, possibly.

The first time I took driving lessons, I was 18.  I wasn't motivated personally, but my parents thought it was time.  They sent me to Young Drivers of Canada, supposedly the best program available.  I aced the in-class segments, but I was not a natural behind the wheel.  The difficulty of the weekly lessons progressed far too quickly for me.  I got overwhelmed and flustered, and consequently made disastrous decisions, such as turning left with barely enough time to clear oncoming traffic.  During the freeway driving lessons, in heavy, fast-moving traffic, my instructor told me to change lanes.  I forgot to check my blind spot.  He wrenched the wheel from my hands just as I was about to drive straight into a two-storey-high, bright yellow street sweeping truck that I had not noticed looming up directly outside my window.  I would return from my driving lessons drenched in sweat, needing a full change of clothes and a lie-down to recuperate from the stress.

The second time I took driving lessons, I was 26.  I had been hired to do a sales job.  My territory was the entire province of Ontario.  For five months I toured the Golden Horseshoe area on a dozen different public transit systems.  I carried a packet of maps and bus schedules in my briefcase.  My office was a little suitcase on wheels.  It was not ideal.  This time I had a reason to get my license.

At the time I was married, but my first husband did not drive.  I relied on a variety of relatives (mom, dad, aunt) to take me for practice drives.  I made my mom and my aunt very nervous.  Used to the view from the passenger seat, I always drove too close to the right-hand side of the road.  They would soothingly murmur "You're a little close to the parked cars" as I came within a hair's breadth of smashing a row of rear view mirrors.  I would correct more to the centre of the road, and then slowly but surely drift back to the right.

My father is not easily made nervous, but I do believe that I manage to rattle him the time he was teaching me to parallel park.  I had the car maneuvered into the space, and centred perfectly.  Triumphantly, I stomped on the brake.  Except I had confused the brake with the gas pedal.  I rammed that car into the car ahead, with a crash that got the neighbours out on their front porches to see what had happened.  Was it you or me who said "That's what bumpers are for!" as we fled the scene?

I quit the sales job before I got around to taking the road test.  I figured I would be doing society a favour by staying off the roads.  I don't mind walking or taking public transit, plus being a pedestrian saves me from having to buy a gym membership.

However, this summer my perspective changed.  I realized that if Ken got sick, I would not be able to drive him to doctors' appointments.  Ditto for my parents.  It's not just about me anymore.  I have responsibilities to other people.  So, at 39, I am making my third attempt at learning to drive.

This time is different.  First of all, I have Ken, an excellent driver, to give me lessons.  Secondly, I'm more motivated than I have been at any time in the past.  It will be a labour of love.  And lastly, but certainly not leastly, I am on anti-anxiety medication this time around, just enough, hopefully, to keep me calm under pressure.

So far all I have done is study the Ontario Drivers' Guide in order to prepare for the test to get my learner's permit.  It's chock full of essential driving facts, like This is a Stop Sign.  When you see it, stop.  I'll get around to writing that test soon, and then we'll have some in-car fun.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Eve

Traditionally, Ken and I spend New Year's Eve with our good friends and their young son, now four years old.  There have been a variable number of other guests at these gatherings, but they've generally been fairly low-key.  This year, however, our friends invited some other families in the street, and as word got out a snowball effect occurred.  When we got there, it looked like at least half the neighbourhood had showed up.  There were kids, parents, and babies all over that house.  I can't tell you how many.  They didn't stop moving long enough for me to count them.  I tell you, it was some party!

Once I got over the culture shock of being surrounded by so many children, aged 8 weeks to 11 years, it was great fun.  I sat on the floor and played with an adorable 16-month-old girl.  She had wisps of dark-gold silky hair floating around her face,  clear blue eyes, and an irresistible little pot belly.  She was mostly interested in digging around in the toy storage bins, pulling out every object she could find and then leaving them on the floor.  When she tired of that, she would toddle over to the snack area and find a gingerbread cookie to suck on until the edges were reduced to mush.  When it was nice and squishy she would then very hospitably offer it to a grown-up.

When I arrived at the party, it was already 2 hours past this toddler's usual bedtime, and she was going strong.  Can you believe that this kid made it all the way to midnight with barely a whimper, a yawn, or an eye-rub?  She was wide awake and making the rounds in her jammies all the way to the final count-down.  A little glassy-eyed, but still.  So impressive!  To put this in context, our friends' son, then aged 3 years, only held out until 11:45 pm last year, before passing out on the floor with his head on his mother's lap.  

Later on in the evening, I had a chat with the oldest kid, an 11-year-old girl.  We ended up sitting next to each other, and she started merrily chatting away.  At one point I looked away from her to catch a mental breath, and thought to myself "Gee, she's very nice, but she sure does talk a lot!"  When I turned back to face her, she looked me straight in the eye and said "I talk a lot."  You know that expresion "it was like she read my mind"?  I have never experienced it quite so literally.  I laughed nervously.  Then I thought to myself "Is she psychic?" and half expected her to answer me "Yes, in fact I'm reading your thoughts right now".  

She didn't.  She did keep chatting until I found a reason to relocate.  As I said, she was very sweet, but there is only so much kid-intensity I can handle, not being used to it.

A highlight of the evening was the Zimtsterne.  "What the hey?" you may ask.  Zimtsterne are traditional Christmas cookies which are naturally gluten-free.  Let me tell you, they are mightily delicious, kind of half-marzipan-half-meringue chewy delights.  My friend, our hostess, made extra ones this year so that I could take a batch home with me.  Isn't that so incredibly thoughtful?  I have finally gotten to the point where I do not actively sulk every time there are wheaty foods I can't participate in, but it was really nice to be able to partake of some Christmas sweets with everyone else.

A good time was had by all.  The evening culminated with all the kiddies except the 11-year-old running around in their incredibly cute pyjamas, blowing noise-makers and cheering in 2012.  Ken and I celebrated having officially survived 2011, something we sincerely thought might not be in the cards.  I have a new calendar up, and it gives me a good feeling every time I see it and am reminded that we have a fresh start.  Happy New Year, everyone!