May 22nd, 2015
As I approach epic 37 on Saturday, I have been thinking about birthdays past and trying to see how many I can recall. When I began writing this post, I didn’t think I could make it have a larger meaning than “It’s fun for me to remember” but the time I’d delved backwards through 15 years of notes and photos and diaries, trying to figure out how I spent each milestone, I realized that I had learned something–I feel in the moment like I never change but I have… 23-year-old RR was so different from almost-37-year-old RR that it’s shocking. I think I have finally impressed upon myself that I am truly aging. How odd. Anyway, here’s how I spent every birthday, more or less, since my champagne year…
36: I threw a big birthday party for myself, something I hadn’t done since high school. Somehow I thought people would find it self-important or an imposition, which doesn’t make any sense because I go to lots of self-thrown birthday parties myself and find them delightful. So I did it and it was wonderful and I suppose if anyone was annoyed by it, they just didn’t come–lesson learned!!
35: This was a more chill birthday. It had occurred to me that I never go to fancy restaurants even though I am no longer dead broke and could do so once in a while. So Mark and I went to Joso’s for Italian style seafood and a decor of naked ladies. It was pretty great.
34: I was able to pull up the other memories here without any help, but I can’t for the life of me remember what I did this year. There’s no blog post about it and no birthday pictures on Facebook except for my colleagues taking me out to East Side Mario’s, as they do every year (love!) But usually I would do something else in the evening or on the weekend to celebrate…very mysterious. If you were there, what happened??
33: Challenging birthday–I had to go to NYC for 24 hours for a reading, plus I had both mono and a terrible rash from some misprescribed medication. But I got home and Mark gave me ice-cream cake and then I felt better.
32: Mark and I went to Montreal and I got the courier bag I carry to this day. I also maintain 32 is the best age because it is the only 5th power in the human lifespan. I enjoyed it anyway!
31: I was visiting my brother in Tokyo and we did a whole day of celebrating. One of my favourite birthdays ever (36 is also in that category).
30: My good friend Penny threw me a birthday party in the party room of her condo, although curiously this post doesn’t mention that–I wonder why? Anyway, it was a fun party and I remember it fondly. However, unlike all of the above birthdays, this one seems like a different era, a very long time ago. And it really was a different time–Penny moved out of that condo shortly thereafter, my friend Kim who brought a multi-tiered neon-frosted cake to the party went on to move to England, Kerry and Stuart were at the party and they didn’t have any children yet!! Most importantly, I suppose, though it seems all of a piece, this is the last birthday before I met the man whom I later married. Truly this was a previous age of RR.
29: Apparently I went to Port Dover with my family for my 29th birthday but honestly this isn’t a crystal-clear memory. 2007 was also the first year of this blog, so props to that!
28: We are now fully in territory I don’t remember, but I can check diaries and photo albums to figure it out. I spent this birthday with my family, as my brother had just returned from most of a year abroad and I was very glad to see him. Apparently the Kimster also gave me a kit to hand-embroider a silk scarf, which sounds so lovely but what did I do with that??
27: This is now pre-Facebook for me and my diary deals but a glancing blow on the birthday. I seem to have been in a bit of a low state on my birthday, frightened of going back to school and being unemployable. Fred came to visit shortly after the birthday and that cheered me up. As well it would!
26: Apparently I went to see Shrek 2 on my 26th birthday??? This is where old RR differs significantly from young RR, as I can’t imagine why I would have wanted to do that. It’s starting to feel a bit creepy, investigating these old events as if they were the work of a stranger into whom I have no insights.
25: All I know is I described the day as “excellent” and Melanie gave me sea monkeys. I seem to remember those sea monkeys…maybe. Also, I made this statement–really funny to me now that I felt mocking of the idea of Young People when I was all of 25. “I am all lethargic and groggy. All I want to do is lie on the couch and read Fashion, a truly dreadful magazine that my mother receives in the mail for no reason and saves for me because it seems, in her eyes, to be meant for Young People”
24: My notes from my 24th birthday are a bit demented. Apparently I was working at both of the jobs I had at that point on my birthday, as well as going to a class, so my plan was to “go out at midnight.” Not sure what I meant by that–hope I had fun! I sound very tired in this entry.
23: I was living at home after university graduation at this point and a touch depressed, but I actually do remember this birthday because my home bedroom still contains a “Becky is 23!” banner that Kim brought over. I think there was cake and other friends in there too. I was excited that it was my champagne birthday even though I had no desire to drink champagne…and didn’t.
22: I didn’t keep any kind of diary (that I recall, anyway) in university, but because I stayed in Montreal the summer after third year and almost none of my friends did, I can guess by default I spent this birthday with my friend Wren and maybe Zainab. I have a vague sense that maybe we saw a movie…?
And that’s as far as I can even guess. The summers after first and second years I went back to Ontario to work so I guess I spent my birthdays with people there, but I don’t recall. I could start going through high-school diaries and photo albums but I actually really don’t want to–this is enough nostalgia for one post.
Only one pre-20s birthday stands out, which is my 16th. I had read a story somewhere in which a girl was born in a leap year on February 29, so her birthday only occurs every four years. Thus, when she’s 16, it’s her “fourth” birthday and she throws a party appropriate for pre-schoolers. Which I thought was awesome, so I did it too, even though my birthday isn’t on February 29. Details! I remember my friends and I really enjoyed this silliness–I guess we all like having a little glimpse of our youth every now and then…
May 17th, 2015
As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m doing a bunch of stuff to try to improve and control the migraines. One part of the project is that I’m documenting them for the first time in a “pain diary” as per the title of this post. I guess you can’t say “diary” to a writer without her interpreting it as “cache of information I can later mine for stories”–at least, that’s what I’m think. It’s an interesting project, even though it does document some of my lowest moments, physical-health-wise.
Every day I’m supposed to rate the morning, afternoon and evening on a scale of 0 to 10, 0 being no pain and 10 the worst pain. Here is how I am scoring things so far, but honestly I have no idea if I’m doing it right. I’d really love to see other people’s pain hierarchies–any ideas how I would google that?
1–mild twinges of pain, maybe an incipient headache but could also be just passing through. Annoying, but doesn’t affect my day very much.
2–mild headache, a backround hum of pain. Makes me more tired than usual, but I can usually do what I planned to do despite the headache.
3–real headache, noticeable pain. At this point I would take some sort of med (but I’m starting to wonder if I should take them earlier) and consider whether my plans for the rest of the day are cancellable. If that’s not easy to do, I will continue as planned and probably still have an ok time, but be very tired and quiet.
4–serious headache, unhappy amount of pain. I’ll take the strongest drugs I have and try to just go home and rest, but if I can’t do that, I can usually muddle through whatever I have to do. I might fumble my words at this point, and my hands often shake. The last rung of functional.
5–severe headache, non-functional Rebecca. This is where I actually can’t do anything other than lie still and maybe stagger to get a drink of water. I can’t stand to be touched and I can’t talk very much, though I can say a few sentences. Some nausea, inability to eat. This has only happened to me a handful of times in my life, and thank goodness always in proximity to a bed (except once when Mark had to park the car so I could lie in the grass beside the parking area until I felt better).
6–I’ve never had a 6, but I have been close enough to see it on the horizon. I would probably vomit from the pain at this point, something I’ve never done wrt migraines but have thought about. Ditto crying.
7–I honestly think that if, with all the meds at my disposal, I got to a 7 and couldn’t get away from it, I would need to be under medical care or at least really want to be. The thing is, it is so impossible to do anything when you feel this bad, I don’t know how I could manage to say, walk to a vehicle and sit in it, then walk into a hospital and explain my problem. I’m kind of hoping that if I ever hit a 7, I’ll just lose consciousness so someone can call me an ambulance and I can be wheeled away on a gurney.
Does that sound accurate to you? I haven’t included 8, 9, and 10 because, well, I’ve never had a baby, been shot, or been run over by a car; I’ve never been deprived of oxygen–I imagine those things are what occupies the far end of the spectrum…I think. And yet the pain diary form I’ve been filling out actually specifies 10 as “the worst pain you’ve experienced”, in which case 5 becomes the new 10 for me…but then there’s no room for things to worsen, which in all honestly looks like where I’m headed. Also, it’s kind of disrespectful to those who’ve had those babies and been hit by those cars. My pain threshhold is low and I know it: I’m trouble at the dentist and sometimes if I walk into a door or stub my toe, my eyes actually fill with tears. We have to allow for a certain amount extreme reaction in my pain reporting, even though I don’t mean to do it.
So basically, I’m worried I’m doing my pain diary wrong, but also, the process is very fascinating. I had a 5 yesterday, and of course in the worst of the pain, I was just a trembling ball of nerve endings, but as soon as I started to feel a little better, I was trying examine the pain scale and see where I was. I guess that’s the writer’s instinct–as soon as we’re taking notes on the situation, we can see it from the outside and maybe analyze it a little for use in other writings.
So tell me your pain scales if you want–I’m fascinated and it’s research…
May 11th, 2015
Guys, I really do try not to be a snark-head, and this post is not intended that way. It’s just that I read a lot of fiction–stories in journals and magazines, big name novels and collections as well as those from unknowns, plus the literally 100s of fiction-contest entries I’ve judged. From this reading, I have categorized in my head a number of foibles authors of fictions often seem to have. Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do to fix published work and the people who run contests do not let you call up the non-winning entries and let them know where you think they went wrong. Sometimes I use what I have learned in creative writing classes, but since I am not currently teaching, I have no one to share these insights with. I do want to share–and offer some potential solutions. I’ve stayed away from problems I feel like a lot of writing advice thingums cover–like overusing research and having one-note secondary characters–in favour of stuff I haven’t seen covered too much.
Please (please please) do not assume that I am making this list under any kind of impression that I am a flawless writer. Ahahaha. It’s just that other people’s problems are far easier to spot than one’s own. I am actually writing this post as procrastination against my own writing. Yeah, I’m pathetic, but let me help you!
1) What happened: You started your project with the central character and you did a lot of free writing, character sketching, and thinking to explore who this person is. You feel you know what he or she would wear, think, eat, and imagine every second of most days. When you started writing the story or novel, you were able to write quickly and easily because you were so thoroughly in the shoes of your protagonist, but what you ended up with is very long and rambling, because you kept getting stuck spending pages on how the character feels as s/he, say, walks to the bus stop and realizes the bus is late. All of this minutiae is helpful in learning who this person is and why what happens to him/her matters…and yet people do claim to have been bored while reading.
What went wrong: I ran into this a lot with the young writers I taught in high schools, but you also see it with grownups and even published books. In my humble opinion, what is happening here is mistaking process writing for product writing. Authors often do need to know everything about their characters; readers very rarely do. It can be very useful to free write about your characters’ childhoods in great detail, for example, because that’s going to reverberate through their later lives and a reader will be able to feel it–without there being a word about the actual childhood on the page. It can be very hard, especially for students doing a writing assignment or adults with limited time to believe that they’ve written hundreds or thousands of words for themselves, not for an audience–but that’s often the way we write.
What to do: Sometimes, we just need to write the block of wood, then carve the story sculpture out that. So do it–write about every teacher your character had in grammar school and describe her whole house and all her friends. Then go back through what you’ve written and figure out what the story is about and trim it down so that most of the text is in service of that story. I don’t know your writing process but a random shot: maybe colour coding would help? Running a coloured highlighter down the page beside the text, switching colours when you switch content. Maybe green for dialogue, blue for action, yellow for character introspection. That can help show you schematically where cuts might be needed. You might also need a trusted and literary friend to go through the manuscript and note everything that doesn’t really need to be there.
2) What happened: You wrote a story that circled around a secret–a character’s hidden past, a mysterious crime –without knowing what in fact the secret was. You wanted to experience the mystery along with the characters and when you got to the end you were pleased to come up with a fascinating denouement and the secret has now been revealed to both you and the characters. However, you weren’t able to make the ending 100% line up with what came before–some characters’ actions don’t make sense given what they knew at the time, and other “mysterious” action has no real point at all now. You might have a character who knows the secret truth seemingly lying in interior monologue, or someone acting clearly counter to their own best interests for no real reason.
What went wrong: This is not a failure of writing–writing to find out what the ending is a totally fun thing to do–it’s a failure of editing. Really the first example is, too, but it is much harder to see when you have too much extraneous information–it should be obvious to an author when some information in the book is actually wrong in the face of other info therein. And I feel several really big-deal books were published in the last few years with this sort of thing not yet worked out. I read and read, excited by good writing and an interesting plotline–I was eager to figure out where all the pieces fit and get to the end…and never really figure it out. Apparently no one cares about this sort of thing because I look up the reviews of the books and my issues go unmentioned, but I still think writers should try to fix them.
What do do: Reread your manuscript once you know the ending ad make sure everyone’s actions make sense given what they know and what their goals are even if the reader won’t know these things until the end. You may need to make a chart of who knows what when, and what their goals are, if your plot is particularly complex. Really, this is just an extension of the challenge of writing any long fiction–make sure desires, personality traits, problems, and pleasures play through throughout the book. You can’t make a character who hates ice cream in chapter 3 gobble down a bowl in chapter 7, and you can’t make a character who knows who the murderer is throughout the book have a long internal debate about who might have been the killer.
3) What happened: You based your book or story on real events that happened to you and/or people close to you. Initially you thought that you’d either just tell the story as it happened or, if you got uncomfortable with writing some personal details, lightly fictionalize and make up things to replace what seemed best kept private. It turns out both these strategies are challenging, as more details make you uncomfortable than you thought, plus some people in your life have asked you not to write about them. The fictionalizing isn’t really working out either, as it hard to make things up when you know what really happened–it just feels like lying. So you’re ending up with a lot of holes in your story–big jumps in time and event where you skip over what you don’t want to talk about. You’ve also eliminated a lot of characters at the request of the people who inspired those characters–so it feels like the people who remain in the story live in a sort of social black hole. Yet another problem arises when real events were somewhat convoluted–people showing up even though they weren’t involved, multiple locations for reasons that are irrelevant–and you’re wasting a lot of time trying to explain all this stuff.
What went wrong: A humble guess–you might be too close to the events, emotionally or in time. It’s really useful in a therapeutic sense to write out important or traumatic events in your life when you are close to them, but it’s really hard to do that artistically in a way that a reader can understand and empathize with. It’s tough to walk the line between writing that you have no feeling for and writing that you have so many feelings for that it impedes your process.
What to do: For most writing problems, I would say one solution is to have a wise friend read it over and see what they suggest, but that might not work here if you are very emotionally invested in the work–criticism of plot and characters might come into your brain as criticism of your life and friends/family/self. Waiting is the cure here; eventually you will have some perspective on what is germaine to the story and what you can safely leave out or fictionalize. You need to be able to see what you are writing as something for strangers and work to make it what it needs for them to be affected, involved, empathetic. As long as it’s something you’re writing for yourself, beautiful and important as it may be, it will be hard for others to access. Writing is always a small act of generosity–you are giving a story to your reader. Wait until you have enough emotional strength to be generous to your reader.
That’s all the tips I have for now, anyway–I’m sure there’s loads more ways to solve these problems than what I’ve mentioned, and lots of other problems besides these. What are you seeing in stories and novels that you’d like to fix?
May 5th, 2015
I’ve been reading a lot about writing retreats lately. They just seem so lovely and idyllic–you go somewhere really pretty and fun yet somehow isolated and silent, and you get put up in a nice room just for you and given great meals you don’t have to cook or clean up from. You’re surrounded by people who want the same things as you do–solitude and time to work yet also later on stimulating company and challenging conversations and walks and laughs and snacks. You work so hard and so purely with no distractions that you end up with amazing new pages or spot-on revisions, a raft of new people to put in your acknowledgements and a few extra pounds of gourmet food. And a million good pictures from the gorgeous nature hikes you took every day after you finished work but before the social hour began.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to do that? Except I don’t actually have a life I much need to retreat from. I have a pretty nice home office with a door I can close and window with an interesting view. Besides work and writing, I don’t have a lot of demands on my time–well, no, i have tonnes of them but they’re all discretionary. Hanging out with friends, going to shows, watching Buzzfeed videos all take a bite out of my writing time, but I think I would just find other friends at a writing retreat…and somehow find a wireless connection to watch more Buzzfeed videos. My one non-discretionary obligation: I have a job, yes, but it’s pretty flexible–however, since I’m paid hourly every hour I take away from work to write quite literally costs me money. I try not to be nickel-and-dime about this, but I also try not to waste time…or money. Flying elsewhere at my own expense, taking a travel day and then possible time to settle in, just to get a room of my own when I have such a room already…I can’t really justify it.
I am NOT belittling writing retreats, which sound like they genuinely do simultaneously stimulate and soothe people into producing some amazing work–it’s just not in the cards for me right now, though I would like to go someday. And yet, in the meantime, my apartment is pissing me off lately (constant plumbing issues, some other stuff) and if I stay here I have to do my own cooking and laundry. So then I thought of it: where do I know that is pretty and peaceful, I could get a room of my own for free, and someone would make me lovely meals and have stimulating conversations with me? You’ve read the title of this post so you know what answer I came up with…
It went pretty well, actually! Minimal travel time, low cost, and no settle-in/getting-to-know-everyone time since I lived at my “retreat” for nearly two decades and have known the coordinators my entire life. The food was excellent, the weather was lovely, and there were even some birds singing the apple tree outside my window.
The downside is that I’m probably more eager to chat with my family than with strangers, and they of course have a vested interest in chatting with me. As well, unlike at a real retreat, they weren’t hard at work on their own projects, so whenever I went to get a snack or a drink there was the potential of sitting down and having a 20-minute conversation with an eager participant–a temptation I rarely overcame. I’m also just really comfortable in that house and it was a relief not to be constantly hassled by cats whenever I lay down (not that I didn’t miss them, but…) so I took a number of naps!
So I wasn’t as productive as I’d hoped to be but honestly I never am–this was pretty good for me, actually. I highly recommend the Childhood Bedroom Writing Retreat if your folks have a location and a relationship with you that’s amenable to such things. Or I guess you could also put in an application Chez Rosenblum….
April 20th, 2015
This one is unexpected, no? But it’s true–I love to watch endless videos about the many variations on “the smokey eye” (so many!) and follow various pretty ladies on YouTube as they make themselves slightly prettier over and over again. You’ll note my tone is not entirely serious, because I’m not really sure this obsession (unlike the Fitbit, which is fun and healthy, and Tig Notaro, who is fascinating and inspiring) is doing me any good. I spend a lot of time critiquing these videos, and very rarely actually use the tips they offer. But I can’t stop watching and sometimes I actually learn something useful.
I am actually wearing a good bit more makeup than I used to, too, which is where the video obsession came from. It all started last summer when my friend Wren (whose old blog had apparently disappeared when I tried to link to it just now) asked me to stand up in her wedding. I was very honoured and happy to do whatever she asked, which was originally slated to include doing my own makeup…with smokey eyes! I bought a bunch of stuff and started ardently trying to wear it, mainly to work (oh my lucky lucky colleagues). I was really surprised by how much I like wearing makeup. I don’t have a strong visual sense or very steady hands, so as with every art class I’ve taken, drawing on my face is hard for me. I also don’t have a flawless face, which is what most of the gurus on YouTube use as a basis for makeup art. If you don’t have really clear smooth skin, enormous eyes, and regular features, it seems like it’s really hard to have a successful YouTube makeup channel, completely missing the point that most of us want to wear makeup to fake having those above things we lack.
Why do I wear makeup? Well, that’s an interesting question. For one thing, it’s a fun thing to acquire–I can spend $15 and have a nice little treat. It last a long time, does me no harm, has no calories, and keeps me busy. Friends have commented that I’m sort of over-thrifty–I don’t buy a lot of stuff just cuz. Which is actually a good thing of course, but within reason. It’s nice to have treats, and a makeup habit is actually a lot thriftier than a shoe habit.
What else? Looking better is actually somewhere near the bottom of the list of makeup perks, though of course it’s pleasant when it works out. Anyone who has seen me with much make up on (oh, the poor Mighty J–she’s witnessed some alarming experiments) knows it doesn’t always improve matters. I have yet to master the smokey eye (someone else wound up doing my makeup at that lovely wedding) and thus when I wear eyeshadow it tends to be just a wodge of one colour. All this “creating depth” stuff was obviously covered in a class after I dropped art and joined band, but I am trying. It’s fun to change my appearance, even if not obviously for the better. It’s fun to make my eyes look wider or my lips look…crooked, or bigger, or whatever. I like that makeup makes me more mutable than I thought I was.
Another big bonus about getting into makeup is girl-bonding. I suppose I’m not a typical girly-girl, but I like being friends with all of the girly-girls, so you’ll often find me doing what they’re doing. Oh, the woebegone crafts I’ve made for a similar cause. But there was a whole world of girlfriend-intimacy that was not open to me since university (when doing each other’s makeup was a regular thing) and that was makeup-bonding. As soon as I started asking about eyeliner, I got a bit tighter with a whole set of females I already like.
Let’s get this straight–even the smartest people have goof-off hobbies, so if someone’s is makeup that’s doesn’t make them any shallower or sillier than someone really into video games or archery or whatever. I find the world pretty judgy about lady interests, so I don’t make the distinction that anything is more useless than anything else based on the target gender.
But still, a number of these videos have some unfortunate cultural vibes when you get into these things. The makeup ladies in the videos–as opposed to friends of mine who wear makeup–are really deep down the appearance-alteration rabbit hole. They see 365-day-a-year spray-tan, hair extensions, and eyelash perms as totally normal and often joke about their crippingly long nails or blinding fake eyelashes. Sometimes they still look great, so all the fakery is working, but other times the three inches of dark roots (is this is a thing now in LA?) and orangey spray tan just look…sad. And they’ve spent so much time and money on it, either way–could it possibly be worth it, no matter how nice you look? Who knows.
I like to think I’m a savvy enough cultural consumer that I can avoid internalizing the YOU MUST BE PRETTIER THAN YOU ARE message, but I do sometimes do the thing where I stand two inches from the mirror and tug on my skin until a certain wrinkle or wrinkles pull flat. But then I put on some copper eyeliner (crooked) and my favourite blazing pink lipstick and I feel better. So this is a slightly conflicted post and far too long to say, basically, I like makeup and videos about makeup. Here are some of my faves in the latter category, if you care…
Lisa Eldridge is the real deal–an actual makeup artist instead of someone who likes makeup…not that there’s anything wrong with that, but her technique is a bit more professional and her style more varied than someone who just has to make herself look pretty. Her explanations and tutorials are nice and simple and she is careful to include some reasonably priced product options even though she clearly prefers the high-end stuff. She’s also the Global Creative Director of Lancome Makeup, which means her principal income does not come from her videos, and is thus not so dependent YouTube subscribers and likes as some of the other video makers (it can get a bit depressing when they ask you to subscribe/thumbs up/comment several times in a video).
Kathleen Lights is more typical of the makeup video-istas than Eldridge. A very young, stunningly gorgeous American girl, she simply loves makeup, buys a lot of it, and loves doing her own face up many different ways. What makes Lights stand out is her euphoria–she’s in her early twenties but talks like a jubilant teenager, almost always pretty ecstatic to be alive. She LOVES makeup and her joy is contagious, though all but the simplest of her look tutorials leave me cold–she explains well, but I simply wouldn’t want to look like that. One of her datenight videos featured coal-black eyelids. But it works for her, and she’s fun to watch.
Chrisspy is the only makeup-video person I’ve encountered that is even slightly funny (on purpose funny, that is). She can be a little sarcastic and silly and has also created my all-time favourite makeup video (which will teach you nothing), Little Brother Does My Makeup. So charming! She has also said on-screen that when people tell her that her often heavy and dramatic makeup is not appealing to men, she tells them she doesn’t do it for men, but for herself (her actual response was less g-rated, but you get the idea). I love it, especially since most of these channels are filled with “makeup he’ll love” ideas.
Christen Dominique is a bit less exceptional than the other three. She does very nice, easy to follow tutorials for makeup looks that are a bit too complex for me at the moment but feel achievable enough that I might get there someday. She has a doll-like persona and is clearly trying hard, but in an endearing way. Sometimes her young son appears in her videos, which is sweet, but otherwise she’s not very different from lots of video-makers out there. But she makes the list of faves for her habit of waving with both hands and the fact that, if you watch her recent videos on YouTube you will see her carefully constructed set backdrop contains a copy of Canadian short-story talent’s Spencer Gordon’s collection Cosmo. It’s a great collection by a cool author, but it makes no sense in that context and that is why I love to see it there. A little hint of my main interest while exploring a sideline.
So in short, this is how I rest my brain and beautiful my face when I need to. What silly stuff do you get up to when you just can’t think anymore?
March 31st, 2015
I think late-onset adulthood is fairly common in our society now–even the phrase “live at home” has developed a meaning specific to recent times (surely we all, in fact, live at home). And frankly, at 36, I’m rather proud of all the grownup things I do–I support myself financially, I shop for and prepare healthy meals, pay bills, care for cats and occasionally other people’s children, take myself to the doctor when I’m sick, travel, even drive a car if I absolutely have to. I’ve booked hotels, helped friends in trouble, run meetings, navigated strange cities, gone to parties alone, hell, I even got married. Sometimes I add it all up (usually when I’m on the subway for some reason) I’m genuinely shocked that I’m so…functional.
But I don’t do my own taxes. I’ve always found this rather embarrassing, but every year I still bundled up the papers and trucked them off to my mom. She does the whole family, and is very very good at it. She used to be part of a volunteer squad who would go to nursing homes and community centres in low-income areas and do tax returns for whomever asked. When she wasn’t able to volunteer any more (logistical reasons), she still had us to keep her busy.
But really, taxes are stressful and I’ve been feeling guilty about putting the burden on her. Also, a bit embarrassed at not really understanding my own financial matters. So I’m on a slow, easy path to tax maturity–this is year three, and I figure there’s probably about three more in the process. I thought I’d share how I’m doing this, in case you’d also like to try for tax maturity. A few caveats…
* this process probably won’t work unless the person who is doing your taxes is doing it out of love–a parent, sibling, partner, or close friend–someone who is willing to help you however you want to be helped, and spend a lot of time with you to do it. This will probably not work with, say, a professional tax preparer.
* my taxes are semi-complex due to the fact that I have both a day-job and a small business as a writer and editor. I don’t earn all that much from my biz, but it’s all in little scraps and so are the deductions I have to take against the earnings (true fact: I got a T4A for $25 this year). Plus I’m dealing with lots of little, disorganized publications and groups, so they don’t always issue their paperwork properly–or at all–so I have to keep detailed records of what actually happened to present to the CRA. This makes my taxes more confusing, and much bulkier, than those of someone who just has a job with a single T4 and then some deductions and that’s it. So that sort of person could likely zip through the process a lot faster than me.
* I do my taxes by hand, because that’s how my mom does them. Apparently there’s all kinds of software that makes things easier, but if I used them then my mom couldn’t help me and I am only halfway through the process so I still REALLY need her help. I figure in a few years, when I’ve really got things sorted, I will try to learn the software–for now, my forms come from the post office and I mail them in a manila envelope. No online tax tips here.
Ok, here we go…
Year 0 (as many year 0s as you need): Sort through your receipts and slips and give the person doing your taxes an orderly set of papers. Sift out all the unnecessary stuff. If you’re me, you keep any vaguely important paper in a box all year–receipts for things you might want to return, vet bills, notices from your landlord–and only at tax time do you sort through and shred the stuff you didn’t wind up needing. At least, I do that now–I’m ashamed to admit there was a time when I just gave the box to my mother and let her decide to do with that fully-paid dentist bill.
In addition to simply removing the useless stuff, try asking the person helping you what categories the papers should be sorted into and then do that (the first year I also organized within categories by date, but I found out that’s pointless). This allows you to not only take some of the stress off your helping person, but also start to form a basic sense of how taxes work. I actually wrote a decent story set in a tax preparation class way back in 2007 based only on this sort of info. You can learn a lot just by making neat little piles of papers.
Year 1: Show up with your papers for your mom or other helpful soul to do your taxes, but then–this is big–stay. Don’t run away and let the tax preparation process remain mysterious–stay and watch, and hopefully your person will narrate what’s going on. I’m lucky (very lucky!) in that both my folks are born teachers and my mom is at ease not only working on the taxes but explaining what she’s doing. I wish you similar luck, but you may have to ask more questions if you’re not able to follow. Don’t be too intrusive, bring tea, offer shoulder rubs, and try not to let your mind wander. This is the last low-stress year, since you’re just absorbing the process and no one is asking any hard questions of you. But again, you should still be learning.
Year 2: Ok, this is the first scary year–show up with your papers, bring your person a cup of tea and now YOU do the taxes, with your helpful person watching. This can end up a lot like year 1, in that if you stare blankly at a piece of paper long enough the person who knows what she’s doing will probably just tell you what to do next, and if you do that enough times you’ll eventually be done the whole tax return. Try to make some stabs at finding your own next move, and trust your person to tell if you’re screwing up. Keep a copy of the Year 1 tax return handy, too, so you can imitate what worked last time around when the much smarter person was doing the return.
Year 3: Do your taxes by yourself based on what you’ve learned so far, the guidance of reviewing last year’s return, and the occasional phone call (I may or may not have called my mother 6 times in March specifically about taxes) or email. At the end of this process, give the completed return (good copy, but be prepared to make an even better copy) to your person to make sure you didn’t go off the rails anywhere. This is the year I’m just completing–I handed over my forms on Sunday at brunch, and I’m feeling pretty darn proud. I guess I should wait until I get the feedback before counting any grown-up gold stars, though…
Year 4: This is a projected year, but I anticipate it’ll be similar to Year 3 except with fewer phone calls.
Year 5: I think I’ll try to learn the software this year, which means I can call for advice during the process but I can’t show my mom the final product (because it’ll live in the internet somehow? do I have this right?) I really should be ok with that at this point, I think–especially with the in-process phone calls.
Year 6: I’m not sure this is really as close as three years out, but eventually I want to be the sort of person my mom is, tax-wise and generous with said wisdom. My aim is to take over my husband’s taxes and save him the money he’s currently spending on H&R Block, but I’d only do that if we were really feeling confident, because I find another person’s documents trickier to understand than my own. And then perhaps I’ll go further afield, wandering the streets and helping others with taxery. I shall be beneficent and carry a flaming calculator…
Well, you get the idea! Did you come to any useful life skills at a later age? How did you do it?
March 16th, 2015
My article on children learning to read, “How to Learn to Read (if You Don’t Already Know)” is out in Canadian Notes and Queries. It’s a great issue, with reviews by some of my favourite people, like Mark Sampson and Kerry Clare. Even the pieces by non-close-friends are awesome, like an article by Stephen Henighan (he seems like a good guy, but we don’t often hang) on Mavis Gallant’s mother–who knew that was exactly what I wanted to read, but it was.
My own article was a big challenge for me, because it’s as near as I dare tread to journalism. I mean, it isn’t–it has way too much about my experiences in kindergarten to be legit journalism, but I did actually interview people and track down lots of interesting information. Teaching and learning are some of my favourite topics of late. It’s no surprise, probably, since I work in textbooks but don’t actually have a background in education. I see a lot of pedagogical talk going on, and I’m slowly piecing together how things work–at least a little.
The best thing, though, is talking to actual students. I got the chance to do so a couple weeks ago, when I went to visit the Writers’ Craft class at Watertown High. It was a fun group engaged, chatty teens and I enjoyed myself though I was a bit exhausted by the end of the hour. Standing at the front of a group 25 eager faces, trying to entertaining and engaging and actually share something useful is very very hard. The coolest thing was that the teacher of that class was MY Writers’ Craft teacher, someone who taught me a lot way back in 1997. I mentioned this fact to the class when I arrived and a murmur quickly went through the room–I heard someone whisper “birthday!” It turns out that is the YEAR THEY WERE ALL BORN. I am twice as old as the grade 12s of today. Alarming. But brilliant that they still have such a great class at their disposal in the age of disappearing electives, and such a great teacher there to teach it to them. Thanks, Waterdown High–and thanks, Ms. North!!
March 6th, 2015
This is almost not a “current” obsession anymore, as I’ve more or less given up on actually buying a house, and that kind of takes the thrill out of the hunt (though I’m still reading the listings, of course, with the idea that if there were something REALLY good I’d go see it). I’ve long thought that I couldn’t begin to enter the crazed Toronto housing market (remember when I pointed that out nearly a year ago?) But everyone said of course, you could buy a house and encouraged my husband and I, and for a while we got swept up and got a real estate agent, got approved for a mortgage, and started going and looking at houses.
What happened then was that we found out that having a “budget” and looking at the listings according to “price” was foolhardy. Many of the houses in our budget were gleefully described as “a handyman’s dream.” Not being a handyman, I’ve never had those dreams, I guess, and the houses just looked like neglected older homes, many with uninsurable wiring, asbestos in the basements, leaks in the walls, or oddly placed shower stalls (one place had two in one bathroom cancelling out almost all floor space; another had one that opened directly into the rec room). But there are also a small number of reasonably cute, reasonably well-located, non-disintegrating houses in our price range. We call these “lies.”
Apparently, sometimes a realtor will price a nice house really low so as to attract more interest and, oh cruel irony, bid up the price very high in the end, higher than a normal we-can’t-afford-it-house. The only house we even considered putting in a bid on recently sold for $136 000 over asking. So basically, you can’t shop by budget–you can only sort through the listings and try to imagine which houses look sad enough to actually sell for something you can afford. This gets depressing quickly.
And also, we already have a nice place to live. Well, nice enough. Well, we could probably find something nicer. Or something. We’re going to move soon, somewhere, probably. It depends on the day you ask me. The existence of the apartment we already have hasn’t really cheered me in this round of the no-house blues (considering the amount of cognitive dissonance that went into the foredoomed house-hunting of the past little while, do you think it’s possible I will forget the whole mess AGAIN and want to start all over in 6 months? Oh no!) Things that have cheered me are
–the time we went to a really posh bar for no reason with Mark’s colleagues and Mark picked up the tab for everyone, because we have a little extra money and it’s nice to do things like that
–the big snow storms we’ve had recently, wherein we did not have to shovel anything
–the fact that our pipes didn’t freeze when so many of our friends’ did (not that we do not feel bad for those friends!)
–the freeing up of Sunday afternoons now that we aren’t going to look at houses
One of the really interesting things that this process showed me is what life might be like if I were not a writer. Not that I believe I’d have more money in that scenario–I’d probably just have the same job I currently do minus the small but pleasant trickle of writing income. It’s that I’d have so much *time.* I glean from the realtor and other house hunters that some people view houses multiple times a week, even on weeknights, and then they go to a bunch of open houses on top of THAT! They read all the listings and watch real-estate tv shows! AND they think nothing of going from this gruelling process directly into major home renovations that would take up even more time. It’s shocking and baffling. I have no free time to speak of–even tonight, when I’m going to eat takeout and watch Dr. Strangelove with my husband, is a long-planned treat. There are no empty slots in my schedule. Non-writing people are weird!
Other things I’ve learned about my fellow humans come from visiting the houses themselves, such as
–other people have very few things. I recognize that many of the houses we saw were at least lightly staged and heavily cleaned, but the reason I know the lack of stuff was real is that there was no space to accommodate it. Most living rooms we saw contained a sectional sofa and a flat-screen tv hanging from the opposite wall. Often that was ALL, and if there was more it was perhaps a single framed painting and a floor lamp. I don’t think of myself as really materialistic, and yet, you want to know what my living room contains? a) 6 Billy bookcases that contain over 2000 box plus assorted framed and unframed photos, candles, and other knickknack, b) a sizeable stereo system, the last of the really good ones that were large (from around 2002), with three components (amplifier, cd player and tape player [yes, there’s also a hookup for an iPod) all on a little wheeled cart, plus two toaster-sized speakers, c) a tube tv on a large cupboard that contains DVDs, a blu-ray player, a VCR, a Wii, and a bunch of Wii games and accessories, d) a coffee table covered in house plants, e) a second coffee table used as a coffee table, with an under shelf full of magazines, f) a side table for coasters and remote controls, g) two easy chairs and a small couch, h) two floor lamps, i) two end tables turned sideways to double as a console table/shoe rack. Yes, part of the problem is that our technology is outmoded, but I can’t see spending $1000 to replace the TV and stereo just so they would fit in a RIDICULOUSLY TINY TORONTO LIVING ROOM.
–some people live without bureaus. This is more on the previous point, I guess, but fascinating in that where is their underwear and socks? Toronto people REALLY know how to use a closet, though–some of the systems I’ve seen, with multiple layers and levels, are really impressive
–things I think are necessary–like a door on the bedroom–are to some people not necessary
–some people are very very bad at home repair and apparently have no idea. Who would caulk a window themselves, get the caulk all over the glass, and just leave it like that?
–I hate basements! Hate them. Many Toronto basements are very dark and almost windowless (especially in row houses) and if they are unfinished seem to even have dirt floors. They are criss-crossed at the ceiling with both wires and clotheslines, and the ceilings are often barely 6 feet, so it is easy to self-strangle. Always the worst part of the tour.
This is becoming a rant, so maybe I’ll end it here–probably I’ll continue to obsess but hopefully not too badly. Houses–they are the flame, I am the moth!
February 27th, 2015
This started out as a joke post, parodying those insufferable articles about how introverts are actually must smarter, deeper, kinder, and more sensitive than extroverts. In trying to equalize our perceptions of intros and extros, the articles nearly always go too far and suggest that there’s really only worthwhile kind of human.
I don’t honestly even believe that there’s some kind of binary among humans into these two types. We all have tendencies in both directions and it’s a spectrum. And I don’t think the introverts get all that squashed in society, though maybe because I’m in the writing and editing field my perceptions are skewed–there’s a lot of quiet types here. And that’s also why I sometimes stand out as a bit more talky than some of my colleagues. In many context, I don’t think I’d qualify as an extrovert, but in the word mines, I do. Of course, I also have friends who are much much more social than I am. As I say, a spectrum.
My extroverted feelings get hurt by those stupid articles above–I’m not callous, superficial, or inane, as they always seem to suggest. At least, I don’t think I am. So I started writing this rebuttal in fun, but I think it’s kind of true, too…
Why life is hard for extroverts too…
1) I’m often lonely. I know, I know–introverted people often feel overwhelmed by being with people and need time alone. I actually feel that way pretty often myself. But the thing about wanting to be alone is, it’s relatively easy to achieve. You can go home or take a walk or go stand in the broom closet if you have to. It’s much harder when you’re by yourself and wish you weren’t. Sometimes none of your friends are available to hang out. Sometimes your husband is sleeping and has told you to quit waking him up. Sometimes no one’s online. And there’s nothing you can do about it.
2) I get rejected a lot. One of my nicer qualities, so I’m told, is I see everyone I meet as a potential new friend. The downside of this is that many people do not want to be my friend. That’s fair, but I can’t help taking it personally. If I compliment a cashier on her nail polish or blouse and she ignores me, I feel bad even though I know intellectually that this relationship is not important to my well being. Worse, people in my actual social circle sometimes don’t really want to spend a lot of time with me. When I first moved to Toronto, I did not understand that “We should get a coffee/drinks/lunch sometime” was a phrase of general approbation, and did not actually mean anything. I was forever pulling out my date book and trying to make plans. Some of those interactions actually blossomed beautifully, but some were very very awkward. I’m always the friend who is still inviting you to parties long after you’ve given up authentic-sounding excuses and started saying things like, “I think I’m going to be really tired that night.”
3) My career path does not really suit extroversion. I write books, as I may have mentioned here, and that is a task that it’s very hard to make collaborative. I’ve tried, with writing groups, reading groups, uber-involved editors, and a husband who takes an interest in my work, but sometimes I do have to sit and my office and work and there’s no one else there… All alone! I also work on books during the day, and though there’s some more interaction to that now that I’m a project manager, I’m still just at my desk a lot of hours of the day. And yet these are the things I want to do–I wouldn’t have my career any other way! I just wish a bunch of people could come hang out at my desk with me, maybe occasionally make an interesting comment about something. I’ve actually started shunning my lovely office to work in the living room with my husband and cats. Bad use of real estate, but much more comforting.
4) It’s really easy to hurt my feelings. It’s interesting that the stereotype of an extrovert is someone who is shallow and callous and not really interested in what you have to say. Since I’m so invested in other people, doesn’t it make sense that I’m invested in what they think about me? Workplace sniping, subway grumbling, arguments with close friends–they all sting, although of course to different degrees. And I’m actually paying really close attention. I used to work with someone who took great care to thank everyone for their contributions to the project at every meeting, except me. I don’t really know why she disliked me enough that she couldn’t bear to thank me for anything, but I guess expected I wouldn’t notice. I noticed.
5) Socializing is time-consuming. Introverts can get their solo-recharge time while they scrub toilets or do their taxes, but none of my friends want to come over for that (do you?) If I want to see people at least a couple nights a week–and I do–I need to make plans, send an invitation, organize a time and place and then actually get myself there, even if it’s snowing and I’m sleepy. It’s worth doing, but it means putting off taxes and scrubbing and other things I should really get done.
Wow, what a sad sack list! I was trying to ape to woe-is-me tone in the introvert articles but now I just feel really bad about myself. But actually–I’m fine! I get to spend lots of time with people and lots of time alone, just as my personality prefers. I enjoy my own company and that of others, big parties and long walks, and blah blah blah, all that other stuff introverts supposedly are the only appreciators of.
I probably shouldn’t things I read on BuzzFeed so seriously…
February 23rd, 2015
I had the privilege of doing a photo shoot with artist Mark Raynes Roberts as part of a project he is doing, photographing Canadian authors. It will be displayed in the fall, if you’re curious to see it. I certainly am! In the meantime, here’s a selections of shots of me, courtesy of Mr. Roberts. Eventually, when I do a proper update of this site (ie., pay someone to do one) I will include one of these in the bio section, but for now all I know how to do is post them here… Feel free to let me know your favourite…I’d be curious!