2016/05/21

Pilgrim's progress

I'm about a week into my reform program. I hate reform programs and resolutions and self-improvement shit. I didn't want to change anything about my life. After too much time, I realized I was unusually stressed and anxious. Once I did realize it, I got over not wanting to change anything and started making changes. Because feeling bad sucks.

So far, not bad. It's been a week partly of being more conscious of how I already spend my time and partly of doing more priority things. I practised more, including with Leenie. I wrote an important email that took away the obligation to do something I really did not have time or desire to do. I sent some personal correspondence. I walked more, usually as transportation to do errands plus added distance.

It wasn't all work and then more work. On Tuesday, I did three fun things: took a road trip, had dinner out, and saw a band I love. Sweetie and I went out to dinner last night. And a lot of what I do is not work, including preparing meals and reading.

More time doesn't mean I get everything done. Some things are easy to do more of -- playing guitar and singing, writing to people, gardening. Some things, however, I'm not as good at doing.

Songwriting is one of those things. I get bored without new songs. I need new songs. But writing is work. I've mostly been a lazy songwriter, getting inspired occasionally and then following through. But with songwriting you need to facilitate inspiration, give it a kick start, and that means grabbing a notebook or opening a text file (I do both) and writing virtually whatever comes to mind, for a good hour at least. Topics, titles, bits of lines, rhymes, drawings, whatever. That's how you write more and write better. But it's one of those tasks that is easy to put off because it's daunting.

It's also too easy to put off house cleaning and maintenance. I can't say I've improved that situation much yet. But it's a lot easier to keep a reasonably clean and fixed up house if I don't let things slide until there are too many chores. Both cleaning and fixing are things that I should do at least every few days.

Getting overwhelmed is one of my biggest problems. The longer I let things go, and the more things there are to do, the more intimidating it is to start even one thing. It becomes easier to do nothing. The pile is so high! But there's nothing that will make the pile smaller other than to keep at it.

Most of the time I gained comes from being scarce on social media. As much as I enjoy tweeting, I was spending too much time on Twitter, and even then not keeping up. It's pretty much the same with Facebook. Unfortunately, the relief of having more time and less anxiety is offset a bit by the anxiety that comes from being out of touch. Without Twitter, it's harder to maintain contact with local people and know what's going on locally. Without Facebook, I lose contact with Vancouver friends and people far away and am unaware of even more events. And yet I'm afraid to do more than breeze in and out, lest I fall back into old patterns.

For the next couple of weeks, at least, my social calendar is fairly light. I will keep doing things I should be doing. I will keep leaving time to relax and do nothing (other than maybe watch TV). I will fill whatever time I have with things I claim to want to do. One of those things is hanging out with friends. I will try not to worry that social media invisibility will lead to actual invisibility. I do have email and text links to many people. I can reach out. I can hope that people reach in.

2016/05/17

Sea change, maybe

I'm at the end of a few months of being heavily booked. Overbooked, really. Everything I committed to was something that I wanted to do. But the lack of downtime started to get to me. And I realized that the overbooking caused the things I claim are most important to me to lose out. I can't be much of a musician if I rarely practise or write or play out because I'm too busy with other commitments as well as stressed out and unable to focus because of two months of house uncertainty and repair (thankfully done).

Just this past weekend, I felt something shift. I have no idea if it's a permanent shift. I imagine not. But I hope some of its impact endures. Right now I find I have at least some resolve to change the situation, to reorder my priorities. I feel the change even physically. My appetite is down (for me, that's a good thing). I feel more energetic, a nice change from the usual. I found myself on a social media break (it happened, then I realized it), not total but substantial. I have more time and energy to work on my time.

When I need to figure stuff like this out, my analytical and obsessive-compulsive sides tend to kick in. Probably both of those played into my creating a table of priorities. I entered activities that I do or want to do. I marked each as to whether I needed it, wanted it a lot, or wanted it a little. I added the frequency of activities, first as it is at present, and then as I want it to be. The table evolved as I added information, sorted it differently, remembered more activities, added and removed columns. It's full of colours too.

It's a chart of my life. I never realized my life fit into a Microsoft Word table.

The still-evolving table is currently sorted by desired frequency, so it's easier to see activities that need to happen daily, often, weekly, and so on.

Most important are the activities I need or want to do pretty much every day, such as work, walk (my only real exercise), practise music, make dinner (I get breaks from that), and screen films ('tis the season). There are things I should do at least every few days, such as housework (best if I keep at it regularly) and gardening (both so my garden will thrive and for my own mental health).

Just as important are the things I've been doing daily that I need to reduce or eliminate. At this point, that's pretty much just social media. It's not just the actual time on social media. It's the overhead of sitting at my laptop too often and for too long. There are always other things to do on my laptop when I'm not on Twitter or Facebook.

The chart also shows other things I need or want more time for, such as reading and personal correspondence (mostly email but occasionally handwritten). I would like to get together with friends more often, which is way better than social media interaction, but when it's less often than I wish I'm not going to stress about it.

The chart helps me be honest with myself. Am I ever going to play softball? Not without eliminating or drastically reducing at least a few other activities, and that's unlikely. Do I really want to blog more than I do? Probably not. My blog seems to run only off sporadic inspiration, not steady hard work, and that's okay. Songwriting, however, is something I need to do every day, or at least every couple of days. Block out time with minimal distractions and write.

One thing that's going to take a hit is political volunteering. I've realized that while it's something that I sometimes love to do, mostly it's something that I feel I ought to do. One reason that's been stressful lately is that I'm not very good at "ought to" volunteering. I'm a better volunteer when it's something I love to do, such as my arts and civic involvement. I'm always a political junkie, but only a sporadically enthusiastic political volunteer.

Full-time work makes a huge impact on the schedule, not just in the time it takes but in the desire not to work during non-work time, even when it's work I want and need to do.In only a few years I will be able to stop working. I have not yet managed to get my hours reduced, but at some point work hours will cease altogether. I can only imagine how my life—and chart—might change.

While I'm still working, however, I need to manage my time. There really aren't enough hours in a day (and sleep is not optional), so I have to divide my waking hours more carefully than I would like. I'm not very disciplined! But occasionally I get determined, and while that's so, I'd better take advantage of it.

One day at a time. I'm not going to get this changed all at once. I hope I stay determined for a while, however, lest this blog post become an embarrassment. Long-term determination has never been my strong suit. That itself must change.

2016/05/04

Vox pop

Over the years I've heard a fair amount of praise for songs I've written. As well, I've been complimented on my guitar playing, which surprises me but I'll take it. But I don't think I can remember anyone saying that they liked my singing.

Most of the time, I don't like it either.

I've been singing for pretty much as long as I can remember. I liked to sing as a child. When I learned to play guitar at 16 and began to write my own songs, of necessity I also became a vocalist. I've sung on my own, in a duo, in bands, and in choirs. I've sung my own songs and cover songs. As a chorister, I sing on key. My harmony singing is solid. But as a lead vocalist, I am meh at best. I sing with passion and intent, but quality, not so much.

I don't hate the voice I hear recorded, but I don't love it. I think it's harsh. Not very pleasing. Just not very nice sounding.

I don't know if others feel the same way. Or rather, figuring that some must feel that way, how many of them are there? Does my voice put people off? Does it make them not listen, or not listen again, to my songs?

The only bands of mine that achieved some level of success were those with a lead vocalist who wasn't me. I know my songs are good, but maybe that only really comes across when the vocal is by someone who sings better than I do. Maybe my voice will put people off from listening more than once and really liking. Moreover, it's just guitar and vocal now, with some percussion help from Leenie. When so little is going on, all the parts had better be worth listening to.

Since I still want to play professionally and get booked, I hope that somehow my voice pleases other people more than it pleases me. Or that they find my voice interesting. Or that it's an instrument the sound of which they happen to like. Other people hear me differently than I hear myself, and maybe I sound better to them than I do to me.

If that's true, then not having a good voice won't hold me back. Despite higher vocal quality expectations for women than men, there are women whose unconventional vocals are well appreciated. Hardly anyone can sing like Beyoncé or Adele anyway. Courtney Barnett's voice is distinctive in a pleasing way. PJ Harvey's voice can be challenging. I aspire to have a pleasingly distinctive voice. I'm probably more the challenging type.

It's really since I "went solo (again)" that I have been consciously exploring my voice, probably more than I have ever done. I'm looking for its strengths and strengthening weaknesses. I'm trying new things and taking risks. I listen to distinctive women vocalists, including Leenie, and learn from them. Leenie has also influenced me to make more extensive use of my capo, not just to create a key but to find the best key, the one where the melody, especially the chorus, is in a sweet spot for my voice.

It's funny how I feel at one with my guitar but not so much with my voice. My guitar is an extension of myself, and it expresses something about who I am. I want my voice to be and do those things as well. The work I've done hasn't improved my vocal quality that much but I think it has improved my expressiveness. Just have to see if that's enough.

2016/04/14

Action/reaction

Facebook users had long asked for more than just "like" to click on posts. The request I heard most often was a "dislike" icon, a "thumb down," such as Reddit and some newspaper comment sections have. Well, that didn't happen, and probably just as well. But five other things were added: "Love," "Haha," "Wow," "Sad," and "Angry."

Unlike a lot of Facebook innovations, I actually like this one. And I click on the various reactions. But I've noticed some subtleties in the way I do, or don't, use them.

"Love" is an interesting one. The obvious use is when you really, really like a post, beyond just "Like." But I have also used it, and seen it used, to mean "sending love," such as when a person is sad. It's a way of offering comfort, when "Like" just doesn't seem right. And then there are the times I'm tempted to click "Love" but have second thoughts. If I click "Love" for this profile picture update because I think it's really cool looking, will it be misinterpreted as meaning more than that? Especially when no one else has clicked "Love"? Peer pressure!

"Haha" is pretty obvious and unambiguous. When the person has posted something that's obviously a joke or something ridiculous but not horrifying, it's an appropriate reaction.

I don't think anything that I've ever seen posted has "blown my mind." But some things are really cool and surprising. So "Wow" is a good reaction to have then. Science posts often rate a "Wow."

I use "Sad" when it seems an appropriate reaction to the thing shared or to express sympathy with the poster. I think it's contextual whether I click "Sad" to sympathize or "Love" to comfort.

"Angry" is always used for something shared, never against the poster. Egregious sexism, horrifying racism, anything where someone is being mistreated and it makes you more angry than sad. "Angry" implies that you feel you could help do something to change it, whereas "Sad" is resigned.

When in doubt, "Like" is still a safe choice, even if you don't really mean that you like what was posted. It works as agreement, assent, "glad your band has a gig," or even "I took the time to follow the link/play the GIF/etc." If you kind of want to use one of the reactions but just aren't sure, "Like" will pretty much always work, as it did before the reactions existed.

At this point, the reactions that are not there that I most want are "Eye-roll" and "Side-eye." There are some things that get shared that just need those reactions!

If you use Facebook, how have you dealt with the reactions? Which others would you like to see?

2016/03/29

My city was gone

Sweetie and I live in a small city near Vancouver. We own a detached house. We have good jobs. We have even saved for retirement. We're the kind of people who can afford to live here. But as we near retirement, I'm not sure that I want to live here anymore.

Like the woman who wrote an article in The Province, I fell in love with Vancouver when I first came here over 20 years ago. Seeing the mountains so close by was what really did it, but it was also the water (and beaches), the neighbourhoods, and even occasionally (very occasionally) the buildings. I say very occasionally because Vancouver was already somewhat lacking in character. The beauty of the city was, and still is, more about the surroundings.

When I first arrived, I was working only part time as a technical writer and as an extra in films and television. I managed to afford a one-bedroom apartment in the not-yet-hip neighbourhood of Hastings-Sunrise, a decent place with a view of downtown and the mountains for only $495 a month. Having more time than money, and no car yet, I loved that I could reach Lynn Canyon Regional Park by bus and, after a short walk, be in the back country. Before I realized it was shorter to take a bus to Phibbs Exchange and then another bus, I used to ride the Seabus to Lonsdale Quay—functional but also fun! When I bought a bicycle, I ranged along False Creek and English Bay, sometimes all the way to UBC and back.

When Sweetie completed her master's degree and moved up from Seattle, we were able to rent the floor of a house at the far eastern end of Hastings-Sunrise, right next to Burnaby. We enjoyed that area. We did a lot of shopping in Burnaby Heights and bird watching in Montrose Park, a small gem at the foot of North Boundary Road on Burrard Inlet.

Fifteen years ago when we wanted to buy, we looked first at condominium units. But having lived in a house for a while, we couldn't figure out how to fit ourselves and our stuff into 600 square feet, even with a storage locker. After an improvement in our financial situation, we starting to look at houses. But even then, houses in Vancouver, even in East Van (where we would have loved to live) were either too expensive for us or somewhat marginal properties. As reluctant as we were to leave Vancouver, we looked outside the city and found a small but cozy heritage house in an area that is well connected to downtown by transit.

Now, of course, that house—or rather the land it sits on—is valued at far more than we paid for it. While Vancouver property has gone out of sight, the rest of the Lower Mainland and the Fraser Valley are not far behind. We might be able to sell our house and buy another, but we would be severely indebted at an age when neither of us wants that.

Greater Vancouver seems to be all about property speculation now. It wears me down when there is so much talk about real estate. Is that all we are about anymore? We still have a thriving arts scene, but for how much longer? How much longer will restaurants and small shops be able to afford to do business? We already know that tech start-ups are having trouble finding young developers, since prospective employees are unable to buy or even rent anywhere near where they would work. We wonder about heading to the Victoria area, but land speculation has begun to spread there as well.

Speculation leads not only to a lack of affordable housing but to an even greater loss of character. Beautiful old houses are being torn down with alarming regularity. Someone tweeted that our heritage might not be heritage for the buyers, might not be their heritage, and that's a fair point. But if heritage and older buildings of all kinds are torn down, will Vancouver become generic? Will it be completely about its surroundings, having no other distinctiveness at all? The great cities of Europe combine new building with preservation of their heritage. Many U.S. cities also retain a distinctive character as they modernize. But I fear that Vancouver could be picked up and dropped somewhere without its surroundings and no one would know which city it was.

I realize there are many reasons for the shine going off a city, many of them more personal than about the city itself. Before we came here, I had loved Boston for two decades before feeling that it was just time for a change of scene. There is still so much I love about Vancouver and the surrounding area. But it's starting to wear me down—the real estate speculation, the hollowing-out, the political inaction (at least for anything good, and that's at the provincial level too), and the decimated music scene. Just today, the Railway Club shut its doors. That's a loss for both music and heritage.

When we no longer can or want to deal with the two flights of stairs in our house, could we end up elsewhere? There are cities we love in the United States, although many of them suffer the same land squeeze as Vancouver, especially San Francisco and New York but also Portland and Seattle. We adore Kauai, but we both feel that we probably couldn't live there year round, even if we could afford it. And all of those places have a major drawback: they're in the U.S. The political culture has only got worse since we moved away.

Oh, Italia. Would it really be possible to retire to the Adriatic coast?

2016/03/27

Big city of dreams

New York is a city that draws me. When I was a musician in Boston, we always talked about moving to New York, a much bigger city with much more happening. Some did move. Some, like me, just visited with our friends who moved. Sometimes, I still feel a desire to live there. I make do with visiting often.

New York is now a long flight (or two) and an international border crossing away. I have spoken with people in Vancouver who have never been to New York. The flight is expensive and so is staying anywhere in or near the city. But still I am drawn, and for me it's worth all the 75-cent Canadian dollars that it costs.

Sweetie and I flew there last Thursday. Her uncle and aunt (who live just north of the city) generously picked us up at LaGuardia Airport and brought us to our hotel—on the Upper West Side, but a good deal via Flight Centre. Then we went to a restaurant not far away called Parm, a red sauce place in a former deli. Excellent Italian-American food, great service, and a fun place! We were even recruited by a woman at the next table to sing "Happy Birthday" to her boyfriend. I guess we seemed like people who would do such a thing. I guess our boisterousness was a giveaway!

Little by little we discovered the attractions of our neighbourhood, which included a French café called Maison Kayser where we had a light breakfast on Friday morning. We spent the rest of the day with the uncle and aunt. We always go to the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) with them (they're members), so that's where we went. We will never see all the wonderful exhibits there! This time we took in a special exhibit of (mostly) portraits by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the first woman admitted to the Académie, as well as an exhibit of Artistic Furniture of the Gilded Age and one of vintage timepieces. After a tour of a Fairway Market, which has absolutely every kind of food known to humankind, and Eataly, a collection of Italian-themed food shops and restaurants, we met Sweetie's cousin, her uncle and aunt's elder daughter, at Hill Country, as close to Texas barbecue as you can get in the north. Wonderful brisket, great sides, and the best company, as well as the beginning of a performance by Americana trio Underhill Rose.

Already some bloom even outdoors
On Saturday, Sweetie and I went in different directions. She met up with Facebook friend, now in-the-flesh friend, to go to the Museum of Natural History and to have lunch. I took the subway to Crown Heights in Brooklyn where I met a friend who had moved to Brooklyn from Vancouver several months ago. Jamaican brunch at Glady's was great! And then we walked around the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, chilly but lovely even barely into spring. We also had an indoor break in the beautiful glass houses to see a bonsai exhibit as well as tropical, warm temperate, and desert plants. A most excellent afternoon in great company!

In the evening, Sweetie and I had an early dinner at a Spanish-Argentinian tapas restaurant called Ella before walking to the Theater District to see Fun Home at Circle in the Square. My first actual Broadway show, and it was outstanding. Funny, entertaining, and ultimately heart-rending, Fun Home might be my new favourite show after West Side Story, which has a similar emotional impact. And it was a treat to be in Circle in the Square where so many amazing actors have worked over the years.

Reminded me of a Heart Tree from GoT
Sunday was our downtown day. We met with good friends who were up from Philadelphia for brunch at Balaboosta in Nolita, a restaurant we have now been to four times—because it's fabulous! This was our first time for brunch, and I wished I could have ordered everything. More great company! We then walked to the Lower East Side to the Tenement Museum and went on a tour called "Sweatshop Workers" with a knowledgeable and engaging guide. Afterward, we met with the sister of one of our friends, whom we had not seen in decades, and her seven-year-old daughter, whom we had never met. We wandered around the Lower East Side and made a stop at Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery, which specializes in cupcakes and—this is new to me—pudding! Tasty pudding. Later, Sweetie and I walked back to Little Italy, where we somehow managed to find a place with expensive, mediocre pizza (wish we'd been in the Village, which has great slice places), and then went to the Angelika Film Center on Houston, a wonderful art house, to see a French black comedy called Marguerite. It was snowing when we came out! We had planned to walk to the West Village, but the snow sent us onto the subway and back to our hotel, via a brief stop at the Amsterdam Ale House.

On Monday, we were lured to another neighbourhood attraction, DSW (Discount Shoe Warehouse), the place to buy shoes. Both of us had noticed a New York spring trend, cute booties, and yes, I bought yet another pair, along with some sandals for summer that I really did need. Later we walked across Central Park (for the second time) to meet again with Sweetie's uncle and aunt at the Jewish Museum, this time joined by their younger daughter, whom I had not seen since her wedding eleven years ago, and her nine-year-old daughter, whom neither Sweetie nor I had met. It was all delightful! We had lunch at a restaurant in the basement of the museum called Russ and Daughters (a newly opened third location, with great blintzes among other kosher dairy food) and then said goodbye to the family. We then took in a great special exhibit of Isaac Mizrahi fashion as well as some of the permanent collections of Jewish artifacts and art. In the evening, we took a subway to Midtown and then walked west to Hell's Kitchen, where we met my nephew and his wife for dinner at Taboon, a fabulous upscale Lebanese restaurant. More great food and great company, in a neighbourhood that was new to me.

On Tuesday, we were scheduled to fly out of LaGuardia in the afternoon. Sweetie was not hungry, so I found a gem of a local spot called the Eighty-Two for breakfast. We then packed up and headed up to Harlem to catch the bus to LaGuardia. Not long before our flight, we were informed that mechanical problems had prevented the plane from leaving Toronto. We were stuck. But while waiting in line at the check-in counter, I got on the phone with WestJet customer service, who did a fabulous job of getting us on the first flight to Toronto the next day and then on an Air Canada flight to Vancouver. So we ended up staying an extra night in New York, in the Queens neighbourhood of East Elmhurst. East Elmhurst seems to have a large Colombian population, and a Bollywood theatre and an Indian restaurant suggest that South Asians live there too.

It's always interesting, and a good reminder of our privilege, to walk around in a neighbourhood where we're the only Anglos. That struck us especially on the Upper West Side, where we were acutely aware of being well-off White people served in shops mostly by Black and Latina staff. I hope they are paid well, but no way to know. We're good tippers.

We flew out on Wednesday, a day late, well before the crack of dawn. And back to the Vancouver rain and spring bloom. With colds. Hard to fly on four airplanes, ride a lot of public transit, and be on a diet low in fruits and vegetables without bringing something more back from New York than clothes and shoes.

If you're interested in reviews of any of the restaurants and attractions we visited, I've turned into a TripAdvisor reviewing fiend.

2016/02/28

Touch of sense

I'm a hugger. I'm one of those people. I try not to hug anyone who doesn't want to be hugged, but I'm an enthusiastic participant. Not with just anyone, but I have a lot of friends who seem to like hugs, so that works out well.

But there are people I consider friends whom I usually don't hug. I know it's just not their thing. For some people, hugs don't feel like they do for hug-people. For any reasons or no reason (should not matter), they simply are not comfortable being hugged and hugging back. They might or might not want to be touched at all. They might like light touch, perhaps on the hand or arm. They might go as far as a semi-hug.

I'm not sure if there are more hug-people than no-hug-people, but hugginess seems to prevail. In these days of modern times, we hug a lot. People with whom we would have exchanged a handshake not many years ago now hug us and we hug them, with a greater or lesser degree of comfort.

We might have pushed this too far. The proliferation of hugging can be awkward even for me, because I'm free with hugs but not with just anyone. Shaking hands is a time-honoured way of greeting or parting.

And even though I love human contact, I don't think everyone else has to love it too. Non-huggers should be able to do whatever makes them comfortable and not do what makes them uncomfortable. Huggers need to remember that hugging or not hugging is not in itself a sign of the quality or depth of a relationship.

We need to be okay with handshakes, some kind of touch, or even words only without touch at all. We should know who our real friends are, regardless of whether they are into hugging or not. In fact, we usually do know who our non-hugging friends are and feel just as close to them. We don't base judgment on their non-hugginess.

I don't want to make people uncomfortable. I think society will be fine if we stop expecting hugging to be the default among a wide array of people. Huggers need to be more mindful, more perceptive of signs, and even ask if that seems to be called for. Be cool if the answer is "no."And give 'er with warmth if the answer is "yes."