the junk drawer of the brain

I’ve had a lot of metaphors for how I’ve felt since the COVID-19 crisis started. The most frequent I use for myself is an image where my mind is clogged with short pieces of thread, a drifting mass of incomplete thoughts that I am constantly trying, and failing, to braid together into coherent strings. This is often at its worst when I have not taken the time or headspace for myself, which I need in order to focus on smoothing all those little pieces of thread out. Once I parse through my thoughts, I can often transform all those incomplete fragments into substance that can be subsequently spun into extended threads of consciousness. It’s a new condition for me, because while I am used to writing to make sense of my thoughts, I am not used to having my thoughts this fragmented.

My brain has become a junk drawer.

This isn’t a new condition, but seems to be worsened by two separate factors, both circumstantial from the pandemic. The first is from my professional sphere, combination of task switching and call overload that is killing my discipline to focus. My job often requires a lot of task switching, but the virtual nature of my team has resulted in a substantial uptick in how many times I am task switching per day. With a dispersed team, we are all IMing each other instead of engaging in person at the office. This results in more interruptions and task switches, as we can no longer rely on the visual clues of a person at work to better time our messages with their breaks from flow. We also IM much more because of the lack of hallway conversations, an inability to chat with each other in natural conversations that would be far more efficient than the all-day random Teams chats we use as a substitute. The result is a constant switch between Microsoft applications. I feel my ability to focus on just writing a PowerPoint is deteriorating as a result.

Eliminating Task Switching to Improve Productivity of Teams
The knowledge worker at the best of times.

The second factor is from my domestic sphere. It is the nature of being the person at home, working, with a child in the house. Let me preface again here, I have a child that requires far less effort than he would have two years ago. He’s able to log himself into Google Classroom and Hangouts and get through his own day. He sets up his own playdates in the afternoon and bikes (or scoots) to play dates and sportball practices all by himself. He logs himself in to his online activities: D&D, comedy, guitar. But even with all this, I am still constantly identity shifting throughout the day between Boss Lady and Mama. I’ll come out to refill my water bottle and find Ben sitting on the couch, camera off, reading instead of participating in class. I’ll find him procrastinating assignments or playing Words with Friends during school hours. I’ll realize that it’s 2pm and while I have been eating protein bars and leftovers at my own desk, he has not eaten lunch yet because he was too distracted reading to eat. And while he tries not to bother me, if I am not in a call, he will come in to ask for permission to watch TV or shift his Fortnite time from the weekend to a weekday.

Fortnite for Nintendo Switch - Nintendo Game Details
“No, child, you may only pursue your highly addicting game on weekends”

All of this is exhausting and is training my brain to expect to go from one task to another instead of remaining in flow. Flow is that state of being on which I wrote a solid blog post a couple years ago, the week before I started my “new” job at OMD. Here is the TED talk that also summarizes this state:

I need the efficiency from a flow state to get through my day as a knowledge worker. Being in flow is also where I really create the work that shows the talent and intellect that powers my career. Like much of my childhood, my career is partially built on a reputation for being “smart”. The pieces of work that showcase my intelligence are built in a state of flow. Without being able to go into that state, where my ideas come together into a narrative and where I’m able to put something together that ties together all the tech and details that go into the back-end of my job with the concepts that make up the front-end of it, that is where I excel.

Transforming knowledge workers into innovation workers to improve corporate  productivity - ScienceDirect
Insight, information and knowledge all require focus

Where I am struggling now is that all of this disconnect, all of these short attention activities, do not deliver the value to my work that just being present and paying attention does. It’s multitasking on calls, it’s spending more time flipping through emails, it’s being unable to work consistently without getting distracted doing stuff that is kind of worthwhile but not worthwhile in the context of interrupting my workday. Part of this is just having too many things to do (did Anthem process the claim for Ben’s doctor visit? is OptumRX sending my prescription?) but part of it is that the quick tasks feel easier than the longer tasks, and surfing for weekend getaways or quarantine AirBNBs feels easier at any time than working. Now that my brain is in this horrible place of constant disconnect and short-term procrastination, it’s exceptionally hard to be present in ways that reinforce my value at work, much less get anything worthwhile done…and those are the losses and misses that are ratcheting my anxiety up…and anxiety is exhausting.

I could now go into all the ways I am going to fix this, but I think instead of that, I am going to process this for the weekend and re-set the habits and behaviors. Maybe it’s just putting a “BE PRESENT” post-it on the wall behind my computer. Maybe it’s resuming meditation. Maybe it’s focusing on goals, not tasks. I am pretty sure it is all these things and more, but something has to change to combat the clutter that I feel my head is just constantly stuffed with every day.

perspe-x-tive

I have lobbied for years to be included as Generation X. I associate most with the generation that came of age just in time for the post-post punk that became termed as “grunge”. My husband, born in the mid-70s, is squarely in the GenX timeframe. My late 70s birthday was, for years, debatable as GenX vs. millenial, with the original GenX cutoff being 1977. My argument was that, because I graduated high school in 1994, with kids born in 1977, I should be counted as culturally Generation X. Finally, in 2014, Good Magazine coined the term “xennial“, and now GenX has been re-defined as being through 1980. I am therefore Generation X, and can lay claim to that culture in its entirety. This has never been more relevant than it is right now:

It’s still a little weird being among the youngest GenXers though, because so many of the cultural touchstones of the generation are really five or ten years before my time. I got to thinking about this lately because I subscribed to Luminary so I could listen to the Roxane Gay/Tressie MacMillan Cottom podcast, and ended up also listening to “Break Stuff: The Story of Woodstock ’99“. For most of my life, on the very rare occasions I thought of either festival, I would think of my generation’s event as being Woodstock ’94. I always thought of Woodstock ’99 as being for people who are younger than I am, like the elder Millenials. Then, this week, I realized that most of that festival’s attendees were between the ages of 18 and 25 at the time of the event. Meaning these people, who went to this exceptionally awful festival all about nu-metal, are literally exactly my age. Why did I always think of this festival as being for people who were not born early enough to be part of what I think of as “my” generation?

Part of my mental distance from the pop culture of 1999 was my status as a full fledged ADULT (TM) at the time, just like all the other GenXers who started their careers in the 1990s. I was living in Texas in 1999, a college dropout with a car and an apartment, trying to climb some mythical corporate ladder that I didn’t quite understand, because I just wanted each rung to take me further away from high school. My mid-teen years had been an absolute disaster, and even a couple late-teen years of Reasonable Bohemian Normalcy weren’t enough to redeem the concept of youth. I wanted to be an adult fast. I wanted to get away from all the youth culture so I could get away from my own expectations to fit in as a Young, Cool Person. It was with the smugness of an adult that I read the MSN.com reports of Woodstock ’99 at the time, thinking “oh, those crazy kids!” as I saw the video of the fires and looting and broken stuff. (I went back to being a young person a couple years later when I returned to UBC in 2001, but that’s a different story.)

The bigger reason that I’ve always had a mental distance, as well as a sense of smug superiority, to separate me from attendees of Woodstock ’99, is that I am highly judgmental of the two awful genres that came after “grunge”. I remember in the years after high school as the music industry desperately scrambled for a replacement for first Nirvana, and then, by 1997, Pearl Jam, when the latter left the spotlight in protest of the industry. The music industry promptly filled in the gap with nu-metal and pop-punk, lifting up genuinely terrible (and often misogynistic) music to fill the liminal space between post-punk and classic hard rock that the Seattle pantheon of bands had filled. And most of the “alternative” music of the late 1990s is terrible.

Look, I know there’s someone reading who probably thinks the late 1990s was a great time for music. And I even recognize that a lot of these bands are made up of talented and hard working individuals. that these late-90s bands all worked hard to pay their dues before being headline acts. However, I will never accept that the nu-metal bands, exemplified by Korn and Limp Bizkit, have the artistic or aesthetic appeal of an Alice in Chains or a Soundgarden. I will also never accept that the pop-punk bands of the late 1990s (with the exception of Green Day) have the same appeal as the post-punk bands of even five years before. And I will never accept the existence of Kid Rock. As far as I am concerned, most of the genre lumped under “alternative” music could jump from 1994 to 2003 and with the exception of Fiona Apple and Garbage, I doubt I would miss anything.

It is these kind of cranky old person rants that put me squarely in the camp of GenXer.

The other aspect of my GenX status is my early adoption of technology. I have had an email address since 1994. I have had a cell phone since 1997. When we think of a tech early adopter now, we think of someone who gets on the latest social media platforms. I was such a tech early adopter, I got on the internet before it was a thing, without even using AOL to do it. I remember a text only internet as it transitioned to Netscape. I remember when the Internet was for engaging in actual discussion and not oversimplified arguments!

This is one of the other keystones of Generation X: we are also referred to as the “Oregon Trail Generation”, a generation who grew up with personal computers and then transitioned seamlessly onto the Internet. I’ve been working in digital for a career since 2003, which is not even a decade after the first banner ad appeared, and I remember placing media buys on Excite.com. Some of these huge sites from Web 1.0 that don’t exist anymore or are so radically altered as to be irrelevant, I am old enough to have put ads on them. That career starting point, along with my encyclopedic knowledge of 90s Simpsons episodes and Seattle grunge bands, should be my GenX resume.

The final reason I disconnect so much from the late 1990s and insist on a retroactive cultural association with the pop culture earlier part of the decade (even though I was a hopeless nerd completely disconnected from the zeitgeist at the actual time) is my pervasive sense that, by the year 2000, we were trending back away from any promise of inclusivity, cultural or gender, promised in the earlier 1990s. Perhaps this is the jaded view of someone who doesn’t want to do a ton of research right now, but in the early 1990s it felt like we were seeing more perspectives, more representation in pop culture from non-white groups. By the late 1990s, it felt like any responsibility for inclusion had fallen by the wayside, as the North American culture tried to convince itself that we had reached a point of equality and therefore didn’t need to do actual work for equality. By the year 2000, colorblindness would prevail over any active anti-racism, and third-wave feminism would be transformed into a weak “girl power” glitter sticker.

So this is why I cling so much to my status as a GenXer, and despite my love for tech, kind of wish it was still 1994 some days. Maybe the trajectory of the 1990s is where history went wrong. Maybe the existence of the super-white, super-male, super-violent festival that ended the decade should have been a warning sign that we needed to fight harder and make the 2000s about representing other voices, other perspectives, other visions, instead of assuming a neutral stance and throwing our collective hands up in the air. Maybe we should have realized that the Internet should have some sort of learning based barrier to entry so the lazy and gullible would have less access to it and we wouldn’t have elected the worst president ever. Maybe being a GenXer is a way to keep my nostalgia point fixed at a time in history when we thought things were going to get better, not worse. I’m not sure. I will, however, continue to happily place as much blame as possible on Boomers until such time as we get the first GenX president and might actually have to take some accountability for everything that’s happened since we got old enough to not care.

the lassitude of lockdown

I have been looking for a good word to capture the inertia of the past thirteen days in Toronto, the time Ben and I have been spending on hold, waiting out our time in self-isolation. There is an exhaustion to it that I couldn’t quite describe. Eventually, I started looking at synonyms for lethargy. This time has been slow, but not languorous. Languor implies a more pleasant state of tiredness. Lassitude seems to sum it up better:

It is easy to enter this sort of scenario, as we did so much of the pandemic, with the best of intentions for self-care and self-development: journaling, meditation, education. Instead, I have found myself too mentally exhausted on any given day to do anything more taxing than watching Netflix. The first week, I was barely able to get through the four days I had committed to work, and spent Friday zoned out with my twelve year old, unable to ask him to practice his self-care regime when I clearly was not practicing my own. By the end of the day, I had sunk to watching romcom movies while drinking wine, as if I were some sort of cultural cliche, a metaphor for fortysomething women in the pandemic.

A contributing factor to this exhaustion is my current bout of insomnia, the kind where I wake up at an inappropriate hour, and then cannot convince my body it is time to sleep again for three hours. I usually read during this time, until I’m sleepy again, and then I will try once, twice, three times to fall asleep. Each time, I’ll take off my glasses, turn out the light, close my eyes and try to sleep. Each time, my brain revs back up, convinced that I have to be awake at that moment, and I’ll turn the light on and resume reading to keep myself from descending into a whirlpool of anxiety. I am usually able to fall asleep again for a few more hours, thus capturing 6.5 or even 7 hours of sleep for the 9 or 10 hours I’ve been in bed, waking up when Ben does at 8. This week, the hours I wake up have been later each day, culminating in 5:15am today, a point where I just decided to stay awake and read.

I have to ask though, what is causing my insomnia? Why am I so consistently anxious and charged with cortisol that I cannot even sleep through a night without my body chemistry waking me up? I feel as if I am constantly in a state of adrenaline rushes, fight-or-flight, or in a state of anxiety where I am waiting for the next stressor to attack. Paul wisely suggested that the state of lockdown is something of a callback to the trauma of March and April, where we all watched New York City shut down and reach its pandemic peak, fearing for our friends, our neighbors, our very city. I also feared for my job at that time, as my agency underwent layoffs. Perhaps the parallel is why I am hyper-sensitive about my job performance again this week, staying up until 10pm to answer emails, self-berating for not performing at my peak throughout the pandemic as I go through old, uncompleted action items.

Both the cause, and the result, of the poor sleep are the same: it is exhaustion, through and through. And yet, I feel I am returning to life a bit more this week. I spent Sunday in an almost-normal state, working through a course on Aboriginal Canada and then spending time in the yard of our AirBNB with my mother for her birthday. We have been fortunate that our hosts here are campers, and we often have unfettered access to the yard on weekends:

Subsequently, I have felt a little better each day. Each day, I have been a bit more focused, a bit more committed, a bit more willing to engage in activities that have more meaning than the mindless consumption of television or novels from the first week. Much of that activity is still work, as I clear out my Outlook at the end of each day while listening to podcasts. Still, as we edge forward towards our release from lockdown, and as time resumes meaning, there is a sense of moving forward again. With that motion, I am more motivated to take action: to turn off the TV and write, to do the HIIT workouts I promised myself I would, to continue the slow, life long development each of us undergoes as we engage with the world around us.

Tomorrow, we are released from lockdown. I cannot wait to run again. I cannot wait to be able to go to a grocery store. Perhaps this mental inertia is due to physical inertia being forced on me and my son. Back in May, I reflected on the absence of choice, how the pandemic took away so much of the dynamism of each day by reducing our options and making our lives flatter. Being in a two week self isolation period has reduced our choices even further. I cannot wait to be able to appreciate the choices I will have again after tomorrow. Perhaps when time has meaning again, this lassitude will lessen.

I miss the Salish Sea

In 2010, the Canadian and US governments made a decision to recognize the “Salish Sea”. This is the network of waterways that meander from the northern end of Vancouver Island to the southern end of Puget Sound. It includes the Strait of Juan Fuca between Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula as well as the Georgia Strait between Vancouver Island and the BC mainland.

Salish Sea Bioregional Marine Sanctuary & Coastal Trail ~ Map ...

I am from a city at the heart of the Salish Sea. Growing up, I thought that Victoria would never change. I thought even Vancouver was reaching the apogee of its change when I left in 2004. Now, I have to say that the cities on its shores are the places I used to know by heart. Not because those maps and vistas and landmarks have faded out of my heart, but because those places have changed. Victoria has moved into its future, and has become a real Canadian city instead of the lost British colony it was for so long. Vancouver has become even glassier and more unattainable for my generation to stay in.

I am growing used to change in my homeland. I am adapting to the idea that these places cannot stay the same as they were in my childhood. And I have never lamented change on the Island so much as I regret that I am home so rarely as to be surprised by it. Even changes a decade old are new to me, like the SkyTrain extensions or the Olympic Village in Vancouver. Vancouver Island has changed less than the Lowe Mainland, as it is is made up of a series of towns built on exploitation of natural resources and indigenous peoples in the 1980s and 1990s. As the exploitation subsides and those industries run out, the Island will change. As Vancouver continues to be more and more expensive and more difficult to live in, more of my peers will take their families over the Straits, and the Island will change.

In order to adapt to change in British Columbia though, I have to actually see it. My family were supposed to be in Victoria a few weeks ago, together. My sister, mother and I were supposed to be bringing everyone to our home. We were supposed to stay four days in our old neighborhood in Victoria, followed by four days in Parksville and one in Vancouver. We wanted to revisit the magical time we had with Ben and his cousins last summer on the shores of the Salish Sea.

MAGICAL I TELL YOU. Kids in Bastion Square, Victoria

Obviously, this trip did not happen for a myriad of COVID-19 related reasons, not least of which was that we did not want to risk bringing COVID-19 onto Vancouver Island. We canceled all the flights and hotels ages ago, accepted the loss as a minimal event in the upheaval of April, and moved on. It would take a lot of entitlement to complain about not going on vacation, especially in the wake of the disaster and mass death that is the spread of the coronavirus. To complain about my inability to travel to a high-end hotel would be a whole new level of self-centered. The only appropriate reason to publicly lament a lost vacation would be to express regret at not being able to spend tourist dollars in an economy that depends on that income.

“Disappointed,” however, is how I might have expressed the sentiment felt at the loss of a trip to any place but BC. “Grief” feels closer, even if it is “grief lite”. It’s sadness, it’s a sort of longing, it’s homesickness. We are lucky in that we are not grieving a loved one, like so many families this year, and we are only grieving the loss of time with our loved ones. It feels like the culmination and the apex of all the longing I’ve had to just be with my family during COVID is represented in the loss of this trip to BC. We had hoped to be together in the place where we are all most at home, where my sister and I are most ourselves, in the place we know by heart. We were supposed to be together, on the shores of the Salish Sea, the place where we scattered our father’s ashes. We were supposed to there with our mother, our husbands and our children, connected to the islands we know by heart.

Instead, we are still separated, and still unable to say when we will be able to return to British Columbia. I am here in Toronto, back in Canada, but still in self-isolation for one more week until Ben and I can actually hug our people. We are still not able to be with our family, and can only wave at them when they kindly stop off to bring us food or games or books to make the quarantine more bearable.

It still feels a little safer here than in the United States, knowing I am home, knowing I am back in a country that places a higher premium on the common good than on demonstrating individual liberties through an absolute lack of compassion. Being in Canada, especially since 2016, always makes me feel at ease, as I slip back into the emotional pajamas of the culture I was raised in. I know Canada isn’t the kind, accepting, cultural mosaic that I always wanted to believe it was, but it’s a kinder, more accepting, and more welcoming place for diversity than the United States. That’s a low bar, but it’s still always comforting to be in Canada.

Right now though, I would give almost anything to be home, in British Columbia, on the shores of the Salish Sea, just to have the solace of being in the place I love the most in all the world, at a time when the world is at its worst. I have never regretted my decision to leave, and to go out into the world, because I belong in a much wider world than the cities of the Salish Sea. I still miss my home though, every day, and losing my time there to COVID-19 has amplified homesickness into a sense of loss that is hard to move past.

Add it to the list, I suppose, the list of the hundreds of cuts that bleed my emotional strength every day. Compared to the fear for my neighbors and for New York City, this should be a minor concern, a small loss. And yet, at a time when every emotional impact lands in a different way, when the world wears on each of us in disparate, yet consistently exhausting ways, I grieve for that lost week on the shores of the Salish Sea in a way that is greater than the loss itself. I physically feel the loss at a higher intensity than I typically feel the low level of homesickness that has dogged me at every step of my journey in the States.

I do not have a path that takes me back to any of the Salish Sea cities, nor do I intend to create one. I only hope that the world rights itself soon, and the movement I took for granted, the roads and ferries back to my homeland, is restored to me and my family.

how capitalism ruined my birthday

Note: I am being somewhat “facetious” or “tongue in cheek” about my birthday being ruined. I just like pointing out where capitalism has had negative impacts on what our society considers a special day.

I turned 42 on Wednesday. Whereas my birthday have been becoming lower and lower key over the past few years, this year had low-key-ness imposed upon it by the Canadian government. Ben and I are waiting out our mandatory 14 day waiting period in an AirBNB suite in Toronto, about a kilometer away from where my sister, brother in law, nieces and my mom live in Baby Point. It should be noted that the Canadian government are not messing around with this, as unlike the shelter in place in NYC, going to local parks for exercise or local shops for necessities are not permissible activities. Between the actual law, and the justified concerns of my extended family, we are therefore on lockdown with limited exposure to the human population of Toronto.

These were all anticipated mitigating factors on my birthday. And at the time we planned the trip, knowing I would be in lockdown on the day itself, I accepted these circumstances. After all, it would relieve a lot of the pressure on the social side of the birthday, meaning that I wouldn’t have to agonize over scheduling an event in the time of corona. I thought would be able to quietly celebrate with my son, under the radar, and save the big celebration for next week with my family. My mother is the 23rd of August; my brother in law is the 28th, the same day as our release from lockdown, therefore prompting a family celebration. I would therefore just ignore the date, and choose to enjoy my birthday at the appropriate time.

Then we had the Great Uber Eats Debacle and my entire perspective on my birthday changed. Ben and I had ordered sushi for lunch from a local restaurant, using Uber Eats as the laziest option. The order arrived slightly early, prompting me to send Ben upstairs for the contactless, outdoor pickup, as I was still on a work phone call with one of my client’s bigger, more valuable media vendors. Ben triumphantly returned…with only one of the ordered lunch combos. I immediately called the driver, to let him know we had not received the entire order. The driver insisted that we had to call the restaurant to sort the situation out. When we called the restaurant, the business owner was then upset because she had absolutely given the driven the correct order. I continued to text and call the driver, to no avail. Stymied, hungry, and with limited lunch time, I decided instead to burst into tears, collapse into a puddle of cortisol, and give Ben the only delivered combo so at least he would get to eat before returning to comedy.

I continued to Tweet and email Uber to remedy the situation, and the driver eventually texted back and informed me that he had been given the orders and directions from the restaurant and it was clearly the restaurant’s fault for not giving him the correct order. When I asked if the driver could possibly bring the extra meals back, he informed me that he had delivered them to the subsequent customer and that I would need to sort this out with Uber and the restaurant.

This did not resolve the bigger issue, which was that it was my birthday lunch that had been given to another customer, and I had had limited time to eat said lunch before resuming my workday. And while Uber was willing to promptly refund me the cost of the items not delivered, they refused to refund delivery or platform fees. So as I understand it, I ended up missing my lunch, the restaurant ended up losing the cost of the items mis-delivered, and the driver lost his tip. The only entity that made money on this entire transaction was the megacorporation that set its own rules and standards.

It took me some time, as well as an afternoon snack, before I was able to fully think through why I was so very angry about this situation. Part of it was that the driver could very well have checked the receipt that was stapled to the bag we received when he handed off the food. Part of it was that he could also have called the restaurant or done a double-check when I first alerted him to the issue. My bigger issue was why he didn’t take either of those steps at the time, and chose instead to continue on his path to incorrectly deliver my birthday sashimi combo to the next customer on his route. This is where capitalism, and the gig economy, conspire to overshadow the entire incident. My hypothesis is that Uber’s failure to take accountability for the people whose labour they exploit contributed to this debacle in two key ways:

  • The gig economy pays by the job, not the hour. Uber pays based on an algorithm of time and distance. Any additional investment of time by this driver would put his next delivery and his daily earnings at risk
  • Uber offers zero training for their Eats drivers. The entity making the profit here should have been responsible for communicating the delivery roster to the contractor they parceled out the work to. The driver should have been taught to check a receipt or check off the items in an app rather than rely on the restaurant staff and the potential language barrier inherent there

Thinking through this entire issue made me take a step back and re-evaluate who pays for the convenience of these apps, and how that might change or impact the behavior of the contractors who provide these services. Is the Uber Eats system partially responsible for the loss incurred across the board by the restaurant, the driver and me? Or is the driver just a jerk? Perhaps it is both, as I am not willing to discount the impact of the gig economy on this situation.

Taking a step back, I also have to question where else the capitalist system is responsible for my inability to celebrate my birthday appropriately. There’s no question that capitalism and fiscal gain have driven the US response to the coronavirus, as the federal administration have prioritized a return to a “normal” economic state over further lockdowns. Trump has also empowered states to determine whether or not those decisions should be made on a state by state basis, resulting in decisions motivated more by fiscal policy votemongering. The resulting patchwork of inconsistent policy has resulted in continued resurgence of the disease, with almost three times the infection rate of Canada (even Canada’s right wing newspaper confirms America has horribly botched the response!). Hence: the border closure, and the forced self-isolation for all returning Canadian citizens.

I am basically in lockdown because America’s leadership chose to roll the dice on people’s lives in order to preserve the gains made from the extreme capitalism of the current administration.

I’m not sure if capitalism entirely ruined my birthday. I received dozens of kind texts and Facebook posts from my friends. My mom attempted to make the day special within the restrictions of the law. My family will still celebrate me after lockdown, and my friends will still want to connect with me for a very belated party. However, between my beloved socialist democratic homeland having to put me on lockdown because of my sojourn in Capitalist America, and the gig economy exposing itself as a failed system incapable of delivering my sashimi, capitalism definitely put a major dent in my birthday.

Finally, I would like to note that we re-placed our sushi order through SkipTheDishes.com today, and received the correct order. Both mine and Ben’s lunches were still intact and beautifully presented, and our delivery person took the time to properly wear a mask and set down the food for contactless delivery. We were very pleased and recommend Tokyo Sushi for their lunch specials going forward.

maternity leave the second

At some point in the last couple weeks, it occurred to me that I have now been home with Ben for fifteen weeks: almost the same amount of time that I spent with him when I was on maternity leave in California. Paul was here with us for a couple weeks at the height of the pandemic in April, but for the most part, it has been me and the kiddo, every day, since March 16th. It is the longest I have spent with him since that leave. It is the longest stretch of time I will spend with him for the foreseeable future.

This second leave, home with Ben, feels like a bookend to his childhood. It feels like I spent fourteen weeks with him at the beginning of his life, and then fourteen weeks again as he transitions from being a child into being a teenager. Ben is growing up: his language and attitude and emotions mature in leaps and bounds, similar to how he grows in fits and starts. He has finally crossed the invisible lines from being what we called the “biggest little kid” into being almost a teenager. It feels like a stretched out milestone, and it’s a milestone that sits on my chest to crush my heart.

This pandemic has gifted me with extra time with my son. Even though it has been challenging to manage him while working full time, it has still been extraordinary to be home with him every day. We have had the full time together, not just a few hours at the end of the day. We have been able to travel together to Georgia to visit our family at the beach. We have watched the entire run of Anne with an E, which Ben actually loved (#canadiancontent!). We had so very many days where we had lunch together, and even a handful of days where we sneaked out to a park or went for a walk.

So today, I’m reflecting on how this is my last day of this time with my son, the last day of the bookend of time we have. Tomorrow, Paul will pack Ben up and take him to Pittsburgh, where Ben will spend two weeks with his grandparents and their backyard ravine. He will then come home and go to YMCA camp in NJ for two weeks, after which he will go to Camp Jupiter (the tween-to-teen aged version of the Percy Jackson themed Camp Half-Blood) in Prospect Park. We’ll be together again after that for two weeks of quarantine in Toronto, plus a week with my family once we are released, as a sort of coda to our time together. But I still feel like today is an occasion, a time for reflection, a time for me to look at my son and reflect on how he is the piece of my heart that has been walking around outside of me for twelve years…and now he is his own person.

One more thing: I love symmetry. And to give today a full sense of symmetry, for my last day of a second maternity leave, we are spending it with Ben’s beloved aunties. Z and Wendy showed up at the hospital the day Ben was born, part of a crew of a half-dozen friends who came in that day to see the first baby born to any of us. So today, we are going to the beach with Ben’s beloved Aunt Z and her sister, and then will have a picnic (weather permitting) with Aunt Wendy as well. They were also there on the first day of Ben’s childhood, and they will be there on the official “last” day of it as well, next year, when he is bar mitzvah’d. But if we can get through the day without the predicted thunderstorms interrupting our plans, they will also be with my son, the creature they have known since he was an angry meatloaf, on this last day of this time I’ve had with Ben, before he resumes his (mostly) normally scheduled summer.

selling cheap to social media

Last week, while on vacation, I realized how much time I was spending on Facebook. I was putting at least an hour a day into the platform, scrolling through posts, engaging in groups, liking and commenting friends posts. I would tell myself that it was social, that it was beneficial for maintaining connections, to assuage the guilt that I felt every time I put down my phone and realized that twenty or thirty or forty-five minutes had just gone into the app. I would look up from the screen, and feel sick, almost dizzy, with the realization of the loss of time.

I thought about this a lot while on break. And in my “morning pages” journal exercises, I realized why my own perceived waste of time of social media was causing such an extreme self-judgement. There is the loss of time, of course, but there is also the loss of words. Every word that I put into a Facebook post is a word I am not putting into my own writing, my own craft. It is a double loss, of both my time and my creativity, when each blog post idea becomes just a Facebook update. I am not working on my own craft when I post or comment in social media, but rather, abbreviating my thoughts and putting the mangled remnants of concepts into the massive pile of content that fuels the Facebook platform.

This is not a new concept, even for a digital native like myself. I’m an Xennial, the very last micro-generation to remember a time before Internet, but I’ve also been online since my senior year of high school. As an adult, I still use the Internet much the same way I did as a teenager, to chat and post on bulletin boards. And, like a teenager, I will lose all impulse control when allocating time and energy to those activities, no matter what platform is in vogue at the time. (A side note: people my age went ten years before social networking sites arrived on the scene with Friendster in 2003, and Facebook’s most addicting feature, the News Feed, has only existed for the past thirteen years, which is half my online existence.)

Unlike my teenage self, however, I am now a grown woman who makes a living by putting ads on the Internet. I have seen the business plans of Facebook and Twitter as they pitch for my clients’ ad dollars. Alt-dot bulletin boards had no business model: Facebook does. I sit in presentations where I hear that each grown adult scrolls through an Empire State Building’s worth of content annually. I hear the monetization proposals, of how people my age are spending at least 30 minutes a day on the platform. That push for Groups this year was obviously to restore the slipping time spent on platform…until COVID-19 drove us all back to Facebook as we clung to ways to stay connected.

In the abstract I also know that the time and writing that I invest in Facebook is for the platform’s benefit. I know, conceptually, by posting, I am the product. I love engaging on the platform though, and it is hard to reconcile that cold, fiscal reality, with the imaginary warmth of connecting with friends. When I step back and look at the idea though, it’s disturbing. I am putting my time, my energy, my ideas, into a platform for Facebook’s stockholders’ benefit, not my own. And I am selling myself exceptionally cheap: the equivalent of $0.26 for each day’s use:

Being on vacation last week, having unallocated time, truly made me question how I was choosing to spend that free time. That was when I posted that I was taking a break from Facebook. I needed to rebuild the habits to prioritize activities that are of higher value to me. I have spoken of this idea before in the context of parenting: how I need to help Ben train his brain so the dopamine reward he receives from video games does not diminish the joy he takes from his creative activities. Clearly, I needed to build the same mental structure for myself.

So even though this was a great Adulting Decision, it didn’t quite work. Without Facebook, I promptly moved over to Twitter where I also have a bad habit of losing time. Only on Twitter, instead of fondly scrolling through friends’ posts, I get into debates with people with differing views than mine. I reply politely and I try to use more compassion than many people deserve when doing so, as one cannot change another person’s mind with aggression and cruelty. Still, those replies and engagements rapidly became a new time black hole, and an addiction of looking at notifications so I would be able to fire back responses because I am also addicted to arguing with people online.

I finally just deleted both apps, and downloaded one of the multitude of focus apps available (I chose Stay Focused) and set timers for the root domains: twenty minutes a day each for Facebook and Twitter. I can log on, check for actual news on Twitter, and check my most important groups on Facebook. I can prioritize those sites for the actions they are most valuable for, and know that, should I be tempted to exchange my valuable time for less valuable engagement on either, I will be kicked off the platform for the rest of the day. If there’s a trending news event, as there was Saturday was the flop of a rally in Tulsa, or a lively debate on a BPSA Scout leadership group on Facebook, and I have already spent my time for the day, then I will not be able to use those platforms to catch up. The #FOMO!

So far, it’s helped. I sat down and wrote this post today, for example, instead of spending the time online. The last hour disappeared the same way an hour on social media would, only I have a thousand words to show for it. I have my ideas, my story, my writing, a practiced craft. Writing is not only how I make sense of my thoughts, but also the equivalent of instrument practice for me, time to work on forming sentences and paragraphs that are in order, capable of transmitting my ideas into someone else’s brain. I will now, with absolutely zero irony, go post the link to this on Facebook and Twitter to share it.

the golden isles of Georgia

Ben and I are on a plane tonight, in first class because we’re so fancy, coming home from the Golden Isles.  We’ve been visiting my cousin and her sons for the past week, as they camped on Jekyll Island, just outside Brunswick.  It was a concept that my cousin and I came up with when I realized Ben desperately needed to get out of NYC, and wasn’t going to have his usual access to summer camp to do so.   We decided to fly down via Jacksonville, rent an AirBNB, and spend our week hanging out on the Georgia coast.

The Georgia coast, I should note, is incredibly beautiful.  This was the Low Country, the marshes and coastal ecosystem that extended up into South Carolina and down into Florida.  We would drive over the Jekyll Island causeway in the evening and I would catch my breath at the vista of marshes with the sparkling creeks running through them.  Jekyll Island itself is only partially developed, and is crisscrossed with roads that run under overhanging trees, dripping with Spanish moss, linking the beaches and historic areas of the island.  The island also has the petrified forest of Driftwood Beach, dozens of eerily beautiful trees left on the beach, dead from erosion and preserved in salt, that the boys climbed on for hours.  It was a beautiful piece of the world that was surprisingly under-exploited.

There is something deeply romantic about the Southern American coastal towns, built as they are on swamps.  The live oaks and Spanish moss, the secondary growth forests, the unique coastal landscapes of marsh and reclaimed land.  It is so different than the clean salt air of the Pacific Northwest, and yet similar in the way the landscape is dripping with life.  The moss hangs instead of carpeting the forest, and the trees grow outward instead of up, but it has that same timeless quality, a sense that the forests and the marshes will outwait the humans who try to settle and inhabit them.

This is why find it hard not to be charmed by the South at times.  There is an eccentric note to the Southern cities, an emphasis on aesthetics over business in places like Savannah.  It is like having an old aunt who tells the most marvelous stories while holding court in a perfectly preserved house.  Coastal Georgia also holds tightly to their English heritage, looking to not just an antebellum heritage, but to the very origins of European colonization (I almost wrote “founders” and then changed that: it is so very ingrained in me to refer to Europeans as “founders” or the first people).  I am also from a British colony, although one built much later in history, when More’s Utopia was a more distant memory, when the colonizers knew they sought exploitation and were no longer coating it in a layer of socialist vision.

This history is a fascinating narrative, until you start reading between the lines to what isn’t in the narrative: the people of color who are left out of that charming story altogether.  Those preserved towns and squares were likely built by Black hands.  Those beautiful buildings were paid for by cotton proceeds, profits stemming from stolen labour.  The coastal marshes and fertile islands were taken out from under the indigenous tribes that shelled and ate the piles of oysters found on the islands.  Considering what isn’t in the narrative of the South makes it much less charming.

This is why I find it hard to visit the South, because the narrative I hear when I go there is so skewed, with no interest or insight in creating a more inclusive story.  We hear stories about Europeans who came to Georgia and the Carolinas, but we do not hear about how their existence was made possible by the unpaid labour and land that they took at the expense of other peoples. We see the marsh ecosystem but not a tribute to the native peoples who lived i it. We see plantation ruins but do not hear the multidimensional perspective of who built and ran it. In many places, even outside of the Northwest, this narrative is becoming more inclusive; even in Virginia, at places like Monticello, this one dimensional storytelling is changing. In Georgia though, especially out on the coast, I felt like there were voices I couldn’t hear. It was like hearing a single topnote poorly and loudly played on a piano, when I knew there should be a whole melody, a whole orchestra, to make the sound whole.

The reason I’m also writing this, as I parse through my own thoughts this week, is because I’m thinking about statues coming down right now throughout the South. I am thinking of the Confederacy story, how romanticized it is, how those losers are lionized. The accusation is that destroying statues erases history, and I think it is the reverse: keeping statues is what keeps history one-dimensional and keeps the stories that need telling completely invisible. With this perspective top of mind this trip, it was difficult to stop seeing the limited story the Georgia coast presents to the outside world, history that is so narrow as to be revisionist.

the flattening of 2020

There is a flat aspect to life right now that we are just not used to in 21st century urban America. The world seems like it lacks dimension, like everything has been reduced down to the flat line we’re all traveling on to get to the other side of this crisis. We are so used to lives with so many wonderful aspects, that to be lacking in experiences, whether those are shared or not, renders life strange and devoid of color.

Walking through Manhattan today, I thought about how one of the major impacts of this shutdown is the removal of choice. Being out of the house, walking around a city, my instinct is to be able to take a break in a cafe or restaurant, to be able to go inside a landmark or museum, or to be able to shop if I see an interesting store. All of those choices are gone right now. There is no choice to duck into a store, nor is there an option to sit in a Starbucks and doodle in my journal. At night, the bars and clubs are closed, and there will be no goth club events for the foreseeable future. These small, everyday choices are effectively negated by the pandemic, as all “third places” have been rendered closed until further notice. For a city like New York, which depends on those third places to give its citizens space outside their tiny apartments, this adds a further sense of confinement to the already narrowing world.

The second shared impact is temporal dysphoria effect of the shutdown. The pandemic has created a shutdown state in which we are all reduced to the same daily routines, in the same space, without any of the movement or change that delineated days, weeks or even months. It isn’t just an issue on weekdays, when the workday ends and we lack the transition to home lives. It is the weekends, in which we remain in the same space, often doing the same tasks on a Saturday as we might have on a Monday. It has been the months in which we have not been able to gather for holidays, or attend the events we associate with spring, or engage in any of the societal milestones that usually mark time. Time has lost meaning for many of us, as our spatially based routines have been interrupted and eliminated. Our lives have lost those temporal dimensions.

With the flattening of our experiences though, and the compressing of our sense of time, there is also a shared sense of loss for these strange months. We all feel as if our lives are passing us by. There is a lethargy and a despair that is beginning to set in among New Yorkers, as we go into our twelfth week of quarantine without a real end date in sight. There is a lack of hope setting in, coupled and connected to a deep fear of negative change. We are unable to hope without a timeline for when hope might be practical, yet we are absolutely able to fear the future without a set schedule of when it might arrive. We lack the hope of being able to look forward to all of the things we loved about the city, which leaves us all without a counterbalance to the deep sense of foreboding and dread as to what the city will look like when we are on the much anticipated other side of this pandemic.

Fear without hope means that even this flattened existence feels unstable. The one-dimensional existence we all feel we occupy right now still manages to feel as if it has a deep dread underneath it, as if we are all on a sheet of ice over unfathomable dark waters. Every day we hear new stories of loss, of possibilities being extinguished, either by the disease or by the economics of the situation. It is the only thing that moves time forward, the litany of news that seems to remind us every day that there is a disease threatening the most vulnerable among us, that the urban way of life may be a victim of the disease, and that there is a madman in charge of the country who offers no support or compassion to any victim.

I am hopeful that these will, however, be the darkest days of the pandemic. I am hopeful that we can open up NYC without putting the people at risk who already need more support just to survive, provided we are mindful of that risk as we do so. I am hopeful that experiences and choices will expand, slowly, to give us all back the connection to the city, to each other and to our lives’ experiences we miss so very much. Until then though, we will all have to rely on our sense of empathy and compassion to get through this.

a change of scenery

At some point over the last couple weeks, my beloved apartment became claustrophobic. Instead of the just-right sized space it’s been for the last five and a half years, it became too small for the three people that live inside of it. I am fond of pointing out that we have nothing to complain about; my ancestors on the Lower East Side would have had three families crammed into the space we have, and probably a boarder or two to boot. It’s likely that the women in the family wouldn’t have even left the house, but would have stayed home sewing piecemeal work in sweatshop conditions. I should not be so quick to kvetch, and yet, I am. I love my husband and son dearly, but I am also used to leaving them on a daily basis, and I have not done so for over two months.

One of the key factors to the need for space is my renewed commitment to writing. I am intensely private when writing, and will instinctively hide a page I’m working on, which in turn breaks my flow of words. I may eventually publish whatever it is I am working on, but I may also be unable to spin out the concept into a full post, and may not be able to articulate my ideas. When I am working on my art, I am very protective of it, and will even raise my hackles at my beloved husband. This may be a fear based reaction, the old fear of ridicule that haunts many people from childhood, but it’s a reaction I honor when writing.

Over the last few weeks, even outside of my protective sense for writing, I’ve felt myself getting more and more prickly about space, both physical and mental. I feel as if my brain is overfilled at any given time with thoughts that are both superficial and overwhelmingly numerous. It feels as if my brain is overcrowded with short fragments of thoughts, all of which are too truncated to be braided together into a cohesive pattern or narrative, resulting in chaos. Adding in the mental spillover from two other people makes it even worse, a maelstrom of individual pieces, none of which I am able to focus on. I am overwhelmed not only by my personal and professional obligations, but also by the thoughts of my son.

I therefore decided to pick up one of the inexpensive mid-range hotel rooms in Manhattan, the sub-$100 rooms that are now common throughout FiDi and Times Square, where the demand for business hotels has fallen through the floor. After all, without business travelers, and without even the typical amenities of common space and lobby lounges to draw visitors in, hotels are merely trying to literally keep the lights on. I would reserve a room, I decided, and then I would settle in with my Chromebook and my planner, a glass of wine and a takeout salad, and write. I would continue to plug away at my steampunk novel. I would write blog posts, like this one you are reading now (how very meta!). I would be alone with only my own thoughts for an evening.

Over the past week, this ideal also evolved to include a walk to the hotel in question. I decided I would walk to the DUMBO ferry dock and take the ferry across the East River, and then I would walk home via the Brooklyn Bridge in the morning. I would return to that sense of adventure I love so much, setting out with a backpack in a city. Perhaps in the morning, I will go for a sunrise walk through Manhattan. It struck me as time I could re-connect with this city, which I love so very much, which I have not grown tired of exploring in the eight years I have lived here.

I set out this afternoon with a sense of adventure. I felt more like myself again, listening to Tiesto, loaded down with a backpack, walking past the boundaries of Prospect Heights. Except to drive to Central Park last weekend, I have not left the confines of my neighborhood since March, and like my apartment, my beloved neighborhood even feels too small as a result. I walked past the familiar reopening coffee shops and restaurants, heading northwest on Flatbush. I passed the Duane Reade and the UPS store, my most frequent errand locations. It wasn’t until I got to Atlantic Avenue that my steps slowed a little, as I passed the Modell’s with its bankruptcy announcement (although that is pre-pandemic), and then continued to pass store after store after store that was closed, each with a variant of the same note, dated March 22nd, in their window: “To our customers, we are closing to keep you and our staff safe during this global pandemic. Visit us online and come back when this is over.

This should not have been a surprise, and yet, I’m shocked at the emotional impact that this walk had on me. Upon reflection, I believe it was because I am used to my own neighborhood being closed, but seeing the next three neighborhoods in the same condition gave me a more realistic sense of scale of the disaster that has befallen New York City. It is one thing to see a microcosm of the economic devastation in my neighborhood, while reading about it in the abstract in the Times. It is an exponentially harder impact to walk two miles down one street, and see dozens upon dozens of independently owned restaurants and shops closed. Each one of those shops and restaurants had its own story, a possibility brought to life by brave owners who brought their passion to food or wine, art or hardware, clothing or housewares. Each one is now deeply at risk of being gone by the time the world starts up again.

I finally reached the end of Atlantic, where it hits Pier 6, where the ferry to Governors Island remains closed, along with the playgrounds on the pier that Ben loves so very much. I walked up Brooklyn Bridge park, past the piers, past the soccer fields of Pier 5 being used for practice still, past the forest at Piers 3 and 2, past the lawn at Pier 1 where I saw The Importance of Being Earnest (gender bending edition) last summer. And I tried to process this immense amount of sadness that seems to be pressing more on me than it has for weeks as I slowly walked the last half mile to the ferry.

What this feels like to me is a combination of grief and fear, that neither I, nor most of my generation in North America, have had to experience. I am grieving for the loss of New York City as I knew it, the city that represented this ultimate in intellectual sophistication to me. This city has centuries of being heavily invested in the arts in a way that the Pacific Northwest cities cannot replicate at this point in their history. It is a city where so many people are unique that being different seems to be the norm. It is a city where every individual is encouraged to have their own narrative and story and perspective, with none of those being identical or repetitive. I cannot bear to see this city choked to death by bankruptcy, by economic circumstance (even though it has lived by economics and capitalism its entire history). I cannot bear to see New York forced to accept chain stores and the monotony they bring, and I cannot bear to see a city that has so prized individual narratives forced to accept repetitive stories out of fiscal necessity. I fear that the city may not be able to rebuild in a meaningful way, and that the tapestry of New York City may be irreparably damaged.

The only consolation to this sadness is knowing that it will resonate strongly with many people, and that so many of my friends and neighbors will be able to understand everything I’m saying. As a person with a mental health condition, I have always assumed that my emotional responses are different than everyone else’s. I often describe my brain as being wired a little differently, as having pathways and connections that either fire in atypical ways, or that, on extremely bad days, do not fire at all. (I assume that the rest of the world is able to feel positive emotions consistently, that everyone else is able to receive those little rewards of happiness that are received throughout our existences for even the most mundane of activities. )

I am therefore surprised to realize that I am sharing an emotional experience with others. How strange it is to feel as if one is typical! I am disturbed because this is a case of mass sadness and disappointment, a circumstance created by disaster, but I am still comforted because it is an experience that so many people seem to be able to understand. I can speak of my grief and my fear and have others say “yes, I understand what you miss, and I understand your fear for our city.” We all have not just empathy, but a true understanding of each other’s emotions. That connection seems rare to me, outside of this kind of shared traumatic experience.

Being here, alone, in a hotel room, I do see that there’s a strange juxtaposition: I wanted my head space back so I could muse on sharing that head space with the rest of the city. But I really wanted my head space back so I could process this sorrow, this grief, this fear, this anxiety. These are the dominant emotions that make up my thoughts each and every day as I worry for my fellow citizens. I fear for all the individuals in all walks of life who make this metropolis so very vibrant. Today, I am more aware than ever of the devastation of the measures we have had to take to contain this virus, and how long and hard the road back to recovery will be.