look alive out there

Tonight, I went to a BAM “Eat, Drink and be Literary” event to see author Sloane Crosley speak on humor and insight in her writing.  Sometimes, I just want to hear another slightly sarcastic forty year old white woman speak to experiences I can sort of relate to. Crosley is of the school of humor where she ties personal anecdotes and observations back to universal conditions, a synecdoche that I feel is representative of Generation Xennial.  We tend to speak in metaphors, in pop culture references and personal essays, in stories that represent the feelings we cannot allow ourselves to be insecure enough to voice.  We are the last generation before social media, the last to have come of age in a time before oversharing was common, and our personal essays therefore depend on circumstance as metaphor for emotion.

That said, I enjoyed all of Crosley’s books, and while reading them, I saw her as being a voice of my generation, using humor as a lens to examine what it means to live in New York City in the twenty-first century.  Yet I have trouble connecting to Crosley’s essays in the visceral way that I connect to, say, Lindy West.  Crosley’s work, and her voice, somehow comes across as too polished, too East Coast, almost academic.  Her wit is polished and slightly self-deprecating, but not in the passive-aggressive snarky way that I relate to as a Canadian.  Her essays are exceptionally well crafted, and exemplify, to me, what it means to be a New Yorker here and now: a sense of being polished and well spoken, of being quick witted and literary, of the inheritance of the legacy of hundreds of years of writers in this particular city.  I am not, however, polished and well spoken, at least not consistently, so my disconnect is entirely a personal one.

And yet, there was a period at the end where everyone was asking questions, and I did not.  I wanted to ask about how being a woman, and a woman of our age, impacted Crosley in her writing.  I thought about asking, do you feel you approach your work differently than you would have had you been born a few years later?  Were you better able to perfect your craft because you were first published in 2002, not 2012, and personal essays were not yet tarnished by a culture of oversharing?  I wanted to ask, how do you feel your voice is affected by being a woman?  Do you feel you write differently or approach humor differently than your male counterparts?  However, I felt like it would have been putting that author on the spot to ask about the differences in how women experience humor, especially since she has never written about the challenges of being funny as a female.  I felt like she was somehow disconnected from the challenge of being a woman in comedy because of her medium as an essayist, as opposed to being a woman comedian in a performance role.  I feel like we’re just not making progress in allowing women to be funny in America, and yet this was not the funny woman to ask about that particular topic (unlike again, say, Lindy West).

Still, I was riveted by Sloane Crosley, by how quick her wit is in conversation.  I appreciated hearing about the writer’s craft, about the intensity of fiction versus non-fiction, about the way creating a story out of memory impacts the original experience.  It’s so true, how crafting an anecdote impacts our perception of an event, as we select only the details that are most relevant to the concept we’re trying to convey, or that are most interesting to our audience.  The memories I’ve written about over the years are now one-dimensional, almost shellacked and preserved for posterity.  Some may have been lost otherwise, but others have been polished into representative tales.  It was interesting, to hear that perspective from an essayist who has given her own memories to her craft.

I even actually enjoyed the most awkward part of the evening, which was where I sat down at a table of total strangers.  The series format is a buffet dinner, at tables of 8 people, each table stocked with wine, thankfully, to help it along.  I took a seat at a table with two welcoming older people, who kindly told me where the empty seat was and then said the nicest thing possible, which was that they guessed my age at twenty-five.  They were lovely people who lived in Brooklyn Heights, and had been in Brooklyn for decades.

The rest of the table, once they returned from the buffet, also all turned out to all be closer to my parents’ age, retirees with time and means to engage in the arts.  They weren’t all familiar with the author, but they all came to every event in the series, whether or not they had read the books.  I quickly discovered that most of them were also long term residents of Brooklyn, going back to the seventies, a time unimaginable in Brooklyn to those of us who consider a pre-2008 home purchase to make one a pillar of the community.  Fortunately, I am fascinated by anecdotes of Brooklyn and New York City from the 70s, and they seemed interested enough in my anecdotes of being a Canadian.  We all got along just fine, and despite my initial nervousness, I found myself chatting away.  (Did I mention these tables also had wine?)

I found the whole experience immensely worthwhile: a chance to support literature, to support the National Book Foundation, to support BAM – but most of all, it was important to support myself.  I do not write essays, exactly, but I do write thousand word blog entries.  I would like to write those kind of essays, to be able to tell a story that encapsulates so much of the world around me, to be able to use non-fiction as a narrative that still manages to contain metaphor.  That, to me, is a high art.  This was also something I chose as my first “artists date“, part of the Artists Way project I’ve committed to doing this quarter as a way to reconnect with my own writing and creativity.  It was something that inspired me, that challenged me a bit, that gave me some concepts to mentally chew on – an idea right in line with the dinner party.  Maybe I’ll go back in a month for Min Jin Lee.

 

 

the scourge of rumination

I have always been prone to an unfortunate cycle: that of impulsive action, resulting in a negative response, followed by self-shaming and rumination.  In recent years, I’ve recognized this cycle, and begin the process of distancing impulsive and inappropriate behavior from my self-worth or my value as a person.  I Vaguebooked about one such incident and my mental process on Friday.

The problem is that I still have a lifelong habit of ruminating.  It’s a well-worn track in my brain, a habit that is hard to break.  It’s re-living and re-thinking through the Moment of Shame: the moment of realization I have where an external response causes me to re-contextualize my behavior as wrong and inappropriate.  I will then ruminate over the behavior and berate myself for it.  In my twenties, when these actions were bigger and clumsier, I could really self-shame myself. It’s why some of the emotion expressed on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend resonates so strongly with me:

Now, it’s both better and worse.  The problem is better because whatever I did, it’s usually a small faux-pas, as I’m obviously much older and wiser and have been working on my social skills for years.   However, the problem is worse because my rumination isn’t limited to my own brain.  It now spreads out and colors the lives of my husband and son, or my friends, or my family.  It’s hard to be an attentive and loving wife and mother when the inside of your brain is busy regurgitating shame and anxiety all over itself.

I’ve also realized lately that this kind of rumination triggers a second narrative, which is that of a greater sense of self-doubt and failure.  Once my mind starts telling itself this story, and my brain recognizes the emotions, it starts referencing other similar incidents to create an entire negative narrative.  Whatever the context of the original mistake, be it social or professional, family or friends, day job or volunteer work, my brain will use the latest incident as a trigger to reference past incidents.  These become citations and proof points that I will never function in society as a successful human because I am not trying hard enough to develop and display behavior that would garner mutual like and respect.

The whole process then expands from one small incident into an entire Flowchart of Negativity:

rumination spiral

I suspect that the original rumination process was a coping mechanism I developed in my late teens and early twenties, a way of trying to make myself better so I wouldn’t have to spend the rest of my life in the kind of social isolation I experienced growing up.  Originally, this was a way of trying to understand external response to my actions and correct the behavior so people would like me.  Over two decades though, it’s now expanded, like some kind of self-destructing grow in water toy.  There’s two additional boxes now on the original rumination track plus an entire new macro level track of negative thought that opens up from these kind of incidents.  Its a disproportionate response that in turn, can open up a depressive episode.

Lately though, I’ve started to realize that my response is not too far outside the spectrum of normalcy, which means there’s plenty of research and material available on this particular mental process.  I’ve read that this is especially common because of the way humans are programmed to need their tribes.  Without the tribe, one is vulnerable, and therefore we are overly worried about behavior that could cause one to be cast out of a tribe.  It turns out that I’m not special, I’m just human.  

Furthermore, rumination is a well-known negative mental process.  It is not something I need to further berate myself for.  I have made it a default behavior, which has made it stronger and harder to break from though.  Just as how I’ve developed the muscles for riding a bike (and killing it in spin class), I’ve also developed the mental muscles around negative thought.  Just like my quads though, these have grown stronger, and more developed, with time.  So just like how I can return to spin class and make progress quickly, it’s also entirely too easy for me to re-build the strength of these old mental patterns.

The strength & training metaphor also makes me realize that I also have control over the situation.  I used to say I wasn’t a runner, that I had developed my muscles for cycling, not running, and that I couldn’t run.  Years later, I run perfectly well – slowly, of course, but I am capable of running and getting faster over time.  I also used to think that the rumination and shame process was hardwired into my brain and that it was a function of my depression and anxiety.  What if it is actually just something that I need to re-train on, just like how I re-trained my quads to run?  MIND.  BLOWN.

That isn’t to say there isn’t a connection between self-shaming and depression – but the depression can be a function of rumination rather than the other way around.  That makes it more controllable.  I’ve observed and documented above how my self-shaming not only leads to rumination, but now opens up an entire additional track of negative thought.  That’s been studied and there are real, scientific brain connections between rumination and depressive episodes.  It’s still a bad thing that I have built connections in my brain between meaningless incidents and a conviction of failure, but it isn’t unique or extreme.  It’s a known quantity, and it’s possible to fix it.

Finally, knowing that this is a mental process happening to other people makes dealing with me so much easier.  It’s easier for me to feel compassion for people other than for myself, and I do not believe that anyone deserves to go through this kind of self-berating shame cycle.  Therefore, if I don’t believe that other people should do this to themselves, I should extend the same sort of compassion to me.  I need to let go of the “tough love” narrative I’ve used to justify berating myself over the years, telling myself that ruminating and the resulting suffering was necessary to make me a better person, one less likely to engage in the poor behavior in the future.  That rationale was a terrible story to tell myself, and one I would never encourage in others because it’s a needless source of torment.  I should therefore show myself the same compassion I would show any other human.

To that end, I’m looking into self-compassion solutions.  If I can stop the process at the original root – the Moment of Shame – I can keep it from branching out into a whole thing.  It turns out there is literally an entire center for this, and they have courses and books and all kinds of things I can use to upskill my brain.  I am a great believer in books, knowledge and training.  It’s also something a therapist is very likely to understand and support me with.

Figuring all this out is hard.  Admitting to it is harder – there’s also an element of lack of self-control here, a further berating for not getting over this years ago.  However, like most things, it is easier once I take it apart, break it down, build a flowchart and attack the problem at the root cause.

why i dislike holiday music in november

Christmas is a strange holiday for the the Western world.  It’s a weird mix of secular economic greed and religious fervor, layered over tribal European traditions. It’s a holiday in which our culture values a combination of iconography as representative of connections and sentiment.  It’s also a holiday that countless marketing campaigns have made nostalgic and emotional in order to better push the purchase of physical and material things.  And in order to give us all more time to buy those things, in America (and by extension, Canada) it’s now also an eight week holiday, an orgy of capitalism that starts the day after Halloween.

In these so called “modern” times, we have also re-tribalized ourselves in how we choose to celebrate the holiday.  In recent years, some media channels have leveraged outrage to ensure that individual celebrations of Christmas are aligned to identity politics.  And like all identity elements, people are very attached and emotional about how the holiday is presented in the public consciousness.  People are hurt and disappointed when their image of Christmas doesn’t match up to the Christmas they have “in their hearts”.  Hence, the false perception of the “war on Christmas” for those who associate Christmas with the birth of Jesus even though it is NOT Jesus’ birthday.

Image result for starbucks cups

It isn’t that they don’t say “Christmas”, it’s that these cups represent a seasonal money-grab of unhealthy sugary drinks that are based purely on olfactory nostalgia!  HUMBUG.

It will fully admit that it is my own identity association, and my own attachment to the two-week max Very English Christmas of my family and hometown that has forged my general dislike of the eight goddamn weeks we now have to spend on this overly commercialized capitalist holiday as an entire season.  I cannot grumble enough about how much I dislike hearing Christmas songs in November, or how unnecessary it is to have holiday cups appear at Starbucks at Halloween.  I cannot make enough statements about how unnecessary holiday movies seem to be, the vast majority of which rely on emotionally manipulative narratives to reinforce a “true meaning of Christmas” as being about “the people one loves”…right before there’s a cut to a commercial encouraging one to purchase more stuff for the people one loves.  Christmas has become an extended exercise in emotional selling for secular America, a holiday no one can escape.  To quote my father, “by the time Christmas gets here, we’re all bloody well sick of it.”

So I grumble because I do not want to be sick of Christmas by the time it gets here.  I quite like the holiday season!  I love celebrating our world’s version of the Feast of Sunreturn!  I love everything to do with kindling light, whether it be a menorah or a Yule log.  It’s the part of the holiday where I feel the two sides of my heritage have a common denominator, instead of just being from as far apart as you can get within Europe.  And I love classical carols, even if I do find the metal versions more fun:

My idealized holiday season is to celebrate Hanukkah, and then follow that with a traditional Yule coated in a thin veneer of Dickens.  This, unfortunately, does not fit with eight weeks of commercialized American Christmas.   I want my Christmas to be an actual special occasion, not an extended holiday media and shopping season.  I want it to be a few days of extended meditation triggered by the dark of the winter solstice, expressed by burning a Yule log and the celebration of not dying through some evergreen foliage.

Being grumpy about the extended American Christmas season is also a strong family tradition.  My father would cheerfully remark, when Christmas themed commercials came on in November, that it was all a bunch of American capitalist nonsense.  Everyone thinks I’m a lefty because my mother was a hippie, but I come by my socialist leanings honestly on both sides: it was my father who pointed out every year that Santa was a creation of Coca Cola and Rudolph and Frosty were just extra commercial fodder.  In his family, the holiday was compressed to a few days with minimal decoration and classical carols because that’s what my grandparents could do with the time and resources they had.  To extend the season would be preposterous and wasteful; to add extra gratuitious emotions to it would be downright un-English.  (I honestly do not get how Love, Actually came out of the UK; it seems to drip superfluous emotion in the most non-English ways possible)

Where exactly is the line though between celebrating the holiday in a way that is true to one’s cherished family memories and traditions and caving to the commercialized version we’ve adopted as the de facto extended holiday in America?  Is it fair for me to be cantankerous about Christmas music in November just because my Christmas is more aligned to a Very Minimalist Northern England Coal Miner and Steel Mill Worker tradition?  Or does this put me in the same identity-alignment camp as those who insist we are taking the Christ out of Christmas?  By insisting that everyone needs to pare down Christmas, am I being as willfully culturally blind as the individuals who insist that Jesus is the reason for the season?

Maybe.  After all, there are many people out there who adore the extended Christmas season, and who love all of the trappings of the modern extended capitalist American holiday.  Someone must be the audience for all those Netflix movies about Christmas, after all.  It is unfair for me to insist that other people’s traditions and seasonal enjoyment are wrong just because my family believes that society could have well done without continuing to reinforce stupid anti-feminist romance tropes in seasonal movie plotlines:

And yet – and yet – one has to ask if perhaps celebrating a shortened minimalist holiday is better for everyone.  Does it really make people happier to have an extended holiday season, or does it create additional emotional labor for women who are reminded at every step of the journey that they are supposed to be making it a goddamn magical season?  If we shortened the season down to twelve days, if we set more minimalist expectations, if we made it less about the magnanimity of Santa Claus and more about not incurring the wrath of Odin, would we appreciate it more?  If we kept to the Dickensian Christmas Eve party, in its echoes of the old Yule feast, would we be more grateful for the celebration instead of being overloaded?  If we only sang the classical carols instead of listening to Christmas radio, would we be more likely to sing for joy?  There is some logic – and possibly more gratitude – to a shorter, less ridiculous season that has been long forgotten in the commercialization and subsequent extension of the holiday.  After all, even the Who’s down in Whoville didn’t start singing until the day of the holiday:

 

 

mama-ben adventure day!

Many years ago, I came up with the model for Mama-Ben adventure days.  These were days in which we would pick one or two activities to do together, usually in Manhattan, hence the “adventure” part because you never know what kind of adventure would await those who brave the weekend subway! With Ben’s sports schedule though, it’s been a while since we’ve been able to do a solid Saturday adventure together.  So yesterday, we decided that we would spend the day exploring and seeing things a little further from home, both in Manhattan and the Bronx.

20181201_132038

Ben is actually in the Bronx!

We started our day at the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibit, at the New York Historical Society on the Upper West side.  This was a literal history of magic as seen through a Harry Potter lens: historical artifacts from magical practices over the last five centuries, intermixed with illustrations and notes from the books.  A friend and I bought tickets for this in April for our Pottermaniac children to see the exhibit together.

Harry Potter exhibit at British Library
This made the exhibit a smidge drier than expected, even for my self-identified Ravenclaw.  While he had mild curiosity around alchemy as the forerunner of chemistry, and enjoyed the interactive elements (projections of Tarot cards were an especial favorite), not even the Natalie Dormer narrated audio tour could make this magical enough.  Individuals more into the magical aspects of the Harry Potter series, as opposed to the action elements, will get more out of this exhibit.  The exhibit was beautifully done, of course, with each room carefully crafted and designed to reflect the studies covered within.  I wish photography had been allowed.
We moved on from there to an impromptu lunch at Shake Shack: having run into another friend at the end of the exhibit with her two sons (the younger of which is also buddies with Ben), we decided to all get lunch together.  Believe it or not this was our first trip to Shake Shack!  Ben declared it the best burger ever.  We plan to test drive the method at home ASAP.
We headed from the Upper West Side to Orchard Beach after lunch, a half-hour drive across the Bronx and through the also unvisited Pelham Bay Park.  For the seven years we’ve lived here, we’ve clearly not prioritized visiting all the parks as we should.  Pelham Bay was lovely and huge, with an extensive shoreline that was austerely beautiful in the winter cold and grey.
20181201_132818
This reminds me of beaches in Victoria: it looks cold even in the photo
We had traveled out for seal watching with the NYC Park Rangers.  I am so grateful for the park rangers in this city: every single one of them has been amazing in their kindness, knowledge and in the joy they take sharing their love of nature and their parks.  For the seal watching, they had set up two high powered telescopes so we could see the dozen or so harbour seals lounging on the rocks just off the beach
20181201_132903
Ben is very fond of harbour seals: he bonded with the ones that live off the Oak Bay marina when he was just a toddler:

It was therefore meaningful for us to visit those seals’ New York cousins, even though I’m pretty sure that these Bronx seals were all WHAT’RE YOU LOOKING AT, PUNK.  Ben still enjoyed seeing them, and I appreciated the opportunity to show him seals that are not dependent on humans for food.  Ben is very concerned about the Victoria seals since the “no feeding” rules were enforced; these seals proved that even metro area harbour seals can survive without handouts.

From the seals, we stayed in Pelham Bay Park and went to the Turtle Cove golf center for mini-golf.  I was underwhelmed by the mini-golf course, which I suppose could be described as “minimalist”.  I suspect the positive reviews of the location are for the driving range, which looked quite nice.  However, we were the only people playing mini golf and they had a heater in the women’s bathroom so the experience was redeemed.  Also, Ben’s attitude towards mini golf is what most people say about pizza: even when it’s bad, it’s still just fine.  It was hard for me to say no to a second round, even in the ocean-adjacent chill. Fortunately, that was when one of Ben’s buddies mom’s texted, asking if Ben could come see Ralph Breaks the Internet with her son, and I was able to leverage that as a reason to skip Round Two. Also, Ben only wanted a round two because I had beat him, 49 strokes to his 63, and he is very competitive about his mini-golf.

It was, chilliness aside, a lovely adventure day.  Ben is getting larger every day, and needs me less and less all the time.  I’m grateful when he genuinely wants to spend time with me, when in-city adventures with Mama are more important than playdates.  I’m even more grateful when I can find an activity that is special to both of us, like going out to see the seals.  I do not wish to appropriate the phrase “spirit animal”, but in my British Isles heritage, there is the myth of the selkie instead, which both Ben and I insist we are when there is a plate of raw fish involved.  However, we are coming up on teen years, and I’m running out of days when Ben will want to acknowledge the significance of marina mammals in our family narrative.  Some day, I will just get an eye roll and a muttered “seals are so lame, Mom.” from him.  Until that day comes, I need to better prioritize the time I do have him for adventures like this.

return to omnicom

Fourteen and a half years ago, I had my first day at Tribal/DDB.  This coincided with my first day in Los Angeles, the day after I drove Zippy the Wonder Saturn down from Vancouver.   I was 25, and I was heading to the big city to work in an advertising agency.  It was the most exciting – and one of the best – decisions I ever made, to pursue my career in digital marketing with an agency in Los Angeles.   I only stayed a year at Tribal before moving on to Integrated Media Solutions, but it was a great agency to start my career at, and gave me a solid foundation for #agencylife.

Today, I returned to an Omnicom agency when I started work at OMD USA, a highly decorated media agency.  A few things were different as I’m now obviously much older (and hopefully wiser) and more experienced, but I still felt a lot of the same excitement I experienced when I started in the binoculars building in Venice Beach.  This morning that moment was when I came out of the subway, saw the new WTC 1 tower down the street, and remembered with gratitude that I am living my dream.

I also dress very differently now for my leadership level jobs in NYC than I did fourteen years ago for my entry level role in L.A.:  today I wore a velvet jacket over a blouse, with black jeans and flat tall boots.  I also wear a lot of makeup that I didn’t need when I was a 26 year old assistant interactive media planner.  I’m going in to manage the assistant media planners (and the media planners, and the media supervisors, and the media directors) as an Exec Account Director.  So since I am now the management level grownup I was in total awe of in 2004, even though it is Friday, I still dressed up a bit:

20181130_080400

Best thing from my stint on L’Oreal: I learned how to use undereye concealer.

My first impressions of the job are positive, both in terms of the team as well as my role within it.  It will take me weeks to really understand the mechanics and politics and details, but my surface level impression is that this role is a good fit for me and for my own growth goals.  As I wrote a couple weeks ago, my career path was growing stagnant, as the clients I worked on became more limiting and less conducive to my own goals as a leader.  I needed bigger and better opportunities.  I’m lucky in that I was able to find a position that, based on my first day’s interactions, seems to be the step up in my career I was searching for.

Finally, one of the best technological innovations since 2004, aside from all the technology that actually makes my job possible, is the invention of better coffee machines.  I did not have to embarrass myself on day one by spilling coffee all over the break room as I did in 2004, but rather, was able to make myself look clueless by holding up the line while I got overwhelmed by the number of choices on the touch screen.  Progress!

four days of unemployment flow state

I’m actually unemployed for the next four days.  I haven’t been out of work since moving to NYC so I’m kind of in shock at this.  This isn’t like taking a vacation because I literally cannot work.  Merkle has cut off my IT access so I can no longer work on anything for them.  I have not yet started at OMD.  There is literally nothing for me to do in terms of actual paying work.

I cannot work, so I have the extreme luxury of spending my week engaged in my own personal projects and self-development.  Which, today, means a Cave Day.  This is enforced focus time, in which phones are confiscated and participants are encouraged to work on singular projects to encourage “deep work”.  I chose instead to work on my backlog of email and Scout related tasks, which doesn’t quiet my monkey mind, but does make me feel like I’m making headway on my always overflowing inbox.  Despite not having sunk completely into the “flow state” that often soothes my brain,  I  was able to action, reply, and file over a hundred emails in a couple hours and identify new projects and opportunities to be of service to the community in the process.  Feeling like I am supporting my people, my community, is valuable, even if I’m doing it one small task at a time.

For this afternoon, I’ve chosen to write blog posts for the sheer experience of being back in a “flow state”.  This means that this isn’t going to be a terribly entertaining post.  (Although, really,  have my posts been that entertaining since I stopped chronicling the Adventures of Being In My Mid-20s In Los Angeles?  PROBABLY NOT.)  It is, however, a chance for me to get my own thoughts under control and to assess my priorities in a slightly more public forum.  When I’m not working an actual paying job, what is it that I choose to do and why?  And what long term effects do I hope to get from only four days of such chosen activities?

Let’s start with the challenge of being in a flow state.  This does require one to focus on a singular project or task.  No checking emails, no checking Facebook, no responding to notifications. However, there is a school of thought that believes that the state of flow is one of the most critical factors to happiness:

https://embed.ted.com/talks/lang/en/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow

The inverse of flow state is what I have most recently heard referred to as acedia, a state of despair resulting from apathy and a disregard for life.  This term was originally coined to refer to monks who did not pray sufficiently, a condition that later became a sub-category of sloth.  I tend to think of it as inertia, an inability to move forward or to regain the energy for life that keeps me in perpetual motion.  The cause, however, seems to be ultimately a lack of flow state activity.  A brain without flow state activity, be it a monk unable to focus on meditation or prayer, or a secular individual not engaging in deep work, seems to be a disconcerted and unbalanced brain.  Add to this our American Puritan notion of work & the value we place on ourselves as related to our accomplishments, and you have a tremendous recipe for mental illness from both shame and misery.

To combat some of this, I’m focusing more on activities that bring my brain into a flow state.  Blogging is one of those; I spend an average of an hour on a blog post, from concept to writing to editing.  I drop into a flow state sometimes when I’m sketching out concepts for work, drawing out slides for a presentation.  Give me headphones and Excel and I’ll drop into flow state while I tease out data for the story of a presentation. I can spend a half hour drifting along on the piano, noodling on scraps of pop songs.  And when I’m biking in traffic, with my whole brain occupied with movement and not dying, I’m really in a flow state.

Still, writing is the best and most reliable way to enter that brain state, so I am trying to change how I look at it.  Instead of writing for fun as being what I do when I have finished my other work, I am trying to look at it as what I do to train my brain back into being able to do deep work.  Ultimately, by doing so, I’ll also quell my monkey mind, capture a state of deep work and satisfaction, and make my brain a little calmer and happier.

I also want my brain to be practiced in how to do deep work as I transition to a new job.  The value of a knowledge worker like myself is in her ability to do work that no one else can do.  That is deep work, the work I pull out of myself, the observations I create and act on, the goals and vision I work towards.  I will be looked to for my ability to deliver unique work, and only by really focusing and delving deep into my brain will I be able to do so.  I have to practice putting my brain in that state so I can deliver on that promise to my new team, my new agency, my new clients.  Whether it is the distraction-free peer-pressure focus of a Cave Day, or an hour spent framing up a blog post, I must work my brain just like I work my quads and hamstrings in a spin class until I can beat my own time over the Brooklyn Bridge.

It is with the end in mind, or rather my mind in mind, that I therefore planned out my “week” of unemployment.  I could have spent a month doing this, easily, and I actually considered taking more time off to do so.  However, I also have to have healthcare benefits for my little family, so four days it is, and I’ll be grateful for the time I do have.  With that said, I’ve chosen to spend today trying more to monotask, at a morning Cave and then spending the afternoon in the same physical space, albeit without the facilitator (meaning I get to keep my phone).   After this, I’ll go to the gym, lift some weights, do a spin class to stay in my bike commute shape, and then go to a GTD meetup so I can revisit my productivity ninja skills before going to a new job.

The rest of the week, I’ve opted to alternate productivity practice with “staycation”.  I plan to spend Tuesday at the spa on 57th, getting a good old fashioned Korean skin scrub to fix my itchy, itchy winter skin and then I intend to loiter extensively in their hot tubs and saunas for the day before going to meet friends for drinks.  Wednesday, I have another morning Cave, followed by the (sigh) next stage of my right side dental implant and then I’ll be home to celebrate my husband’s birthday for the one hour between when he gets home and when he has a co-op shift.  Thursday, I have no agenda, and I may  choose to spend at least part of the day at one of the museums (the Morgan, the Met Bruer) that I really would have liked to have gone to by now .   I’ll also prioritize re-establishing some of the habits I fell out of while in my own state of acedia the last few months that benefit my mental health so much, such as my love of intense cardio (spin classes!), and my piano practice.

Four days isn’t anywhere near enough to engage in the kind of re-development, habit building and brain-training I’d like to be able to engage in but it is something.  It’s like four days of gifts in a row, the free time and ability to refocus my energy on something that isn’t agency work, a license to engage my brain on projects that are easier to launch myself into and stay engaged in.  Of course I will obsessively plan the time five times over and realized I still won’t have time for everything I wanted to do, but that’s also okay.  It’s four days of learning and focus.  It’s four days where my only job is to not have a job.

canadian culture as emotional pajamas

The metaphor I use the most for being in Canada or being with other Canadians is that it’s comfortable.  Canadian cultural references are embedded in the foundation of my brain.  They are patterns I recognize.  Some people’s brains light up at the idea of comfort food, or their own local state traditions, mine lights up at talk of parliamentary government and references to the Hip.  It is that bedrock of knowledge that corresponds to my childhood in Victoria, which means it brings a sense of security and comfort, an emotional halo, as it were.   Being in a space with Canadian culture is the mental equivalent of wearing pajamas.

This is not uncommon for immigrants.  If it were not, we would not have opportunities to experience other cultures in NYC.  Everyone coming to America needs a connection to their home cultures.  It’s just that mine isn’t that different from the dominant, mainstream, white American experience.  I’ve said to my husband before, I feel like I just came from a slightly alternative dimension of America, one where a bunch of stuff happened that didn’t in this reality that he and I live in.  Being Canadian, after all, I still have the historical knowledge of America as it happened in my lifetime.  I just have an extra layer of Canadian specific memories on top of that.

So that’s why I appreciate the opportunity to go to Canadian expat gatherings.  This includes going to Dirt Candy for the Great Canadian Beer Hall, to which I enthusiastically drag my American friends.  Often this is more of a Canada themed event full of Americans who are fans of Canada rather than actual Canadians, but it is still a direct connection to the homeland, and one with an excellent house wine to drink if one does not feel like drinking a Molson’s (I didn’t drink Molsons in Canada, and it therefore has no nostalgic appeal to me.)  Last night we went to see a screening of Iron Chef Canada because the Dirt Candy chef, Amanda Cohen, is from Toronto and is a proud Canadian as well as an extremely badass chef:

The main point of the event was to screen the episode of Iron Chef Canada where Chef Cohen took on a challenger from Ottawa, but afterwards, the Canadian culture resumed, with Anne of Green Gables on one screen, SCTV on the other, and both without sound so the restaurant could play a mix of Canadian music that was heavy on the Hip.  That is the draw for Canadians: the references to our own cultural touchstones, an environment where our brains are constantly releasing serotonin as a response to familiar media.  It’s also a reminder of some of the cultural influences that have impacted my own personality: the open-hearted nature of Montgomery’s original Anne series, and the smartass comedy we keep exporting to the USA.  Hey, I’m a smartass with a soft spot for my own Island too!

The flip side of all this is that one cannot sit around all day in pajamas (although when working from home, I certainly try to do so).  Similarly, I felt like I needed a different challenge than I was going to experience as a grownup in Canada.  Staying in my homeland would have been both too difficult and not difficult enough.  My life has been significantly easier in America: within two years of moving to L.A., I had met my husband and placed myself squarely on a solid career path.  Even now, my income-to-housing expense ratio is better than it would be in Toronto or Vancouver, and my career options are wide open because I work in a city with a high concentration of marketing jobs.  However, the cultural challenges are much more intense in this country.: America has much less equality than I thought it would have when I studied the Constitution and resulting Supreme Court decisions at university.  In the last two years especially, America’s worst legacies, of racism resulting from white supremacist foundations, along with the economic inequality resulting from capitalism, have been at the forefront of my consciousness in a way that those issues might never have been raised to me in Canada.  Those issues certainly exist in Canada, we are just better at making them less extreme and less visible, with our socialist leanings and our cultural mosaic narrative.

I’m not sure if this is a common dichotomy for all expatriate Canadians, to feel like our lives are easier here, but to also feel like being in America is less comfortable than being in Canada.  Maybe that’s also an experience that differs based on location.  I might feel less psychologically challenged in Seattle, a city that is culturally similar to Vancouver and Victoria due to proximity.  I might feel more discomfort outside of my neighborhood in Brooklyn, which is pretty much Vancouver in NYC.  Still, when given the opportunity to take comfort in a Canadian expat activity, I take it as a few hours of nostalgia.  But at some point today,  like every day, I will take on the challenges I’ve chosen by moving to the States, and I will also change out of my pajama pants.