Seven times four

We spent my twenty-eighth birthday in Tel Aviv, wandering around in as little clothing as possible (I ran in a bra! And didn’t even feel self-conscious!) and eating as much as possible. It was a wonderful break, as always, but I spent the whole weekend in a state that Eric termed my “grumpy quarter-life crisis,” griping about what if I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing? and I can’t tell if I’m the right meeeeee and maybe I should just work in a barrrrrr over our pretentiously-named but legitimately delicious small plates at a tiny restaurant that – birthday miracle – had my favourite New Zealand-made wine by the bottle only.

I am trying to be more spontaneous, and to that end I bought: low-quality jorts, a tank top with a beagle on it, a beautiful man-repellent tent dress from a small Israeli designer, and handmade shoes. No more agonizing over are these the best possible items of clothing I could spend my money on? Satisfice that shit for once. Although I regret the jorts because they already have a hole in the pocket and I think the button is going to fall off. But these shoes feel like they were made for my feet, and are the colour of caramel; I could fit a picnic for 12 under this dress.

I was comforted to come home and read the internet and realize that seemingly everyone is also twenty-eight and feeling the same weird nostalgic-panic that I am. Nobody tells you that at 30-2, the fact that you can’t simultaneously do everything you wanted in life – all those contradictory things, like be married and have eight kids slash be single with a fascinating revolving door of lovers; be a diplomat slash no-nonsense bartender chick slash back-country canoe guide – and that in fact, by choosing one you are not choosing the others, that you’ve – maybe without even realizing it at the time – started down a corridor and closed those other doors, maybe even thrown away the keys – is going to hit you in the solar plexus and leave you panting shallow breaths on the floor while your heart flutters in its increasingly old little ribcage.

Except that my first “real job” boss, when I was 23, explained exactly this phenomenon to me, and I nodded and said mm-hmm, yeah, totally, and had not a single fucking clue what she was saying at the time.

I used to hate reading the Choose Your Own Adventure! books because I would panic and try and hold the page so that I could go back if I made the wrong choice. But choices led to other choices (if I wasn’t eaten by a dinosaur) and I would end up running out of fingers, lose track of which bookmark was where I made the wrong turn, berate myself that if only I had taken the treasure and ran the story would’ve turned out better. 

Satisficing my shopping is a good start but I need to apply this to my actual life. Did I chose the right everything? Probably not. But I can’t go back and back, stopping and peering at each juncture to see if I should have hopped on a different timeline. I have some good shit going on – yes, my dog gets everything covered in fur and I occasionally make snarky comments I wish I could snatch out of people’s ears, but I am married to this funny wonderful dude and I get to use my brain at work. Could things be better or worse? Yes. But they are what they are.

It’s not my birthday, but I’ll write a birthday post if I want to

As a narcissist, I’ve always felt that the new year should be my birthday, not January. The start of the school year, leaves crunching underfoot new shoes; harvests and apples and a reprieve from the heat. 

The lead up to my new year comes with an advent calendar of reflection, of considering how I’ve been this year and where I’m going. Twenty seven has been hard. I’ve been stretched professionally and personally; I think I’ve reached most of what I needed to, but I’m tired. I have discovered that I’m not as easy-going and adaptable as I wish I were – there are certain things (lots of things! Humans are awful!) in the world that I’ll never be okay with. I’ve discovered that I don’t always like who I am (especially after one too many unpleasant cultural encounters) and that it’s not always so easy to just refuse to respond to something. Damn you Seneca, for making it all sound so easy!

But it’s also been a year of unfolding, of discovering a little bit more about who I am and how I can make my way in the world. I’ve been doing all this angsty who am I and what is my life and what does it all meeeeaaaaaannnnnn? Dashboard Confessional-soundtracked pondering that I haven’t done in a solid 10 years, but it’s comforting and feels like a good thing – not that I have answers, but at least I’m checking in with myself and asking those questions. Maybe I was too cocky in my early-to-mid-twenties about thinking I knew the answers, but I’ve remembered that we’re all just idiots taking shots in the dark (which I mean in the best possible way).

Resolved, then, for the penultimate year of my second decade: to keep on working at this chilling out thing. To continue asking myself unanswerable questions. To clock all my overtime. To move somewhere that will appreciate my short-shorts. To sitting on rooftop bars as much as is humanly possible.

Summer reading

It’s been a long time since I’ve jotted down what I’ve been reading. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few titles, but here are at least most of what I’ve been flipping through:

Where Men Win Glory, Krakauer. I’m such a sucker for his impeccably researched narrative non-fiction. I’ve also gotten to know some actual real-life military people this past year, so it was interesting to read about that culture a bit.

Uncoupling, Wolitzer. Meh magical realism.

This is where I leave you, Tropper. Funny; the forthcoming movie doesn’t look promising though.

Astonish Me, Shipstead. Breathtaking, dazzling, superlative prose.

Hanson’s Marathon Method. I read a running book on vacation in Tanzania because I’m a total geek. I’m on week 9 of this plan and loving it, but it was great to read about the science behind the strategy. Buy a hard copy though; reading the charts on an e-reader is a pain.

The age of miracles, Walker. A re-read; kind of cute.

The Fault in our stars, Green. Good; surprisingly didn’t make me cry. Also, no 16 year olds are actually capable of this level of witty repartee (at least, none in my acquaintance).

English for the natives, Ritchie. I also read a grammar book on vacation because I’m the world’s most boring person.

White Teeth, Smith. I reread this annually. I love this book so much I would be reduced to nonsensical stammering if I were to ever meet Zadie Smith in real life. 

Infinite Jest, Wallace. A reread again; I took my time this time around and got a lot more out of it; I also ended up feeling like a goodly bit went over my head because DFW was so effing smart. 

The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver. Listen, if I’m going to own all these books, I should read them again and again, right? Yes. Right. I love this one too.

134. Sometimes I think I read a lot; sometimes I don’t.

 

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on feelings

Love is probably the one emotion people actively stop themselves from feeling, he burst out. 

What do you mean?

How long does it take you to get mad at someone? How long does it take to get annoyed at a complete stranger who cuts you off? A second, second and a half? We do it all the time. But allowing yourself to love someone? Why is that one thing so hard to do?

Annular

Coming up on a year in Jordan, I’m starting to finally feel more positive about being here. I didn’t experience the typical culture shock pattern of honeymoon period, slump, and ultimate settling in – I skipped the honeymoon and spent a large part of our first several months in some kind of slump. First it was a disappointed slump, that I didn’t immediately fall in love with Amman the way I’ve experienced with other cities. It gradually morphed into a slump of Constant Feminist Outrage as I fixated on all the ways that I was constrained from just being me, the person, instead of being singled out as a woman.

Since we’ve been back from Tanzania, though, I’ve finally hit that uptick of settling in that I given up on. I’m feeling pretty content to be in Jordan these days – I’ve got some good friends, a killer backyard, and a challenging and fascinating job. I’m typing this with peach juice running down my chin and I’ve learned where to find top-shelf gin (Israel).

I’m just not a Middle East person, I don’t think. This distressed me a bit at first – I’ve always found something about other countries and cultures to embrace, and I’ve spent so many years daydreaming about how wonderful and rewarding my life abroad would be, so I was panicked at the thought that maybe I wasn’t cut out for this lifestyle after all. But I’ve realized that it’s okay to not love a place. In fact, it’s rather satisfying to find myself settling in and finding things to keep me happy despite the knowledge that this isn’t the right part of the world for me.

 

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Mzungu

Pedalling a beat up mountain bike through the slums of Dar es Salaam, I couldn’t help but keep a running mental tally of how many people’s annual salaries my outfit equated to. Sunglasses, iPhone, wedding ring, to say nothing of tattoos – I spent a fair amount of time in Tanzania cheeks a-flush at how frivolous I must look, how my priorities must seem off-kilter.

And yet the people we met confirmed that Maslow was full of horseshit when he drew up his pyramid. Nobody waits until they have potable water and three best friends to start solving problems. People laugh, dance, innovate, get their hair done, and generally act like all people everywhere in the world, regardless of their circumstances.

Poverty isn’t romantic. Subsistence farming isn’t a noble back-to-the-land pursuit. A lot of the people we met would certainly be happier and healthier with a bit more cash, and we tried to tip well and promised to tell everyone we knew to visit Africa. But life is life; we do the best we can with what we have.

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Settled

Everyone everywhere seems to equate marriage, buying a house, getting a “real” job, and having kids with the end of travel, adventure, and fun. This cultural narrative bums me out quite possibly even more than sexism; it’s an equal opportunity form of telling people that the thing they were instructed to covet is now going to make their life worse.

And yet my life features 75% of those things and I don’t feel mired in boredom. Could it be that this whole concept is reductionist and artificial?

I mean, of course I have to show up to work instead of going strawberry picking when the urge strikes me (which is often). My marriage prevents me from having crazy sex with random people I meet at parties (but your marriage might not – whatever works!). So it depends what your metrics are for adventure and excitement, but in general my life still holds plenty of interest.

A friend of mine is the definition of free spirit. She is preparing to leave a job, a boyfriend, and a community of people and things that she loves to head off on her own for some touring around in a new place – and she does this regularly. I’m awed at her bravery; her confidence that the world holds plenty of love and food and laughter for her to leave what she has behind and strike out anew. The wind in her hair as she pedals out of town with her only possessions in panniers must feel exhilarating. I know she’ll learn a lot and have a fascinating time.

But I don’t particularly envy her. I’m proud of her, but I’m comfortable to have traded in some measure of that freedom for the opportunity to hold still long enough to build something. I may be holding still, but I’m learning a lot and having a fascinating time nonetheless.

It comes back to metrics. On paper our lives look very different, and hers is definitely sexier. But if learning, exploring, and cultivating relationships are forms of adventure, then we’re both intrepid pioneers in the wilderness.

 

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Leaning

My friend J is one of those incredibly calm, competent people that I really look up to because I will never be able to handle myself with such aplomb. When we were in Ottawa, I would often drop into his office bearing cookies in exchange for career advice; now we’re a few time zones apart but still touch base over the phone every once in a while to strategize and compare notes on our first postings.

During our most recent exchange, he mentioned that, although he wasn’t exactly qualified, he was going to apply for a promotion several levels above ours (although he’s about 10 years my senior, we joined the department at the same time). I told him I thought he’d be great if he got it and I would totally work for him (both true!), hung up, and promptly ended up reading this article in the Atlantic about how women don’t apply to things unless they’re certain they’ll get it.

After I had finished harrumphing, I emailed J the article and said I was going to apply. I spent this afternoon writing my cover letter and resume, and self-deprecatingly emailing my former supervisor to tell him I needed to put his name down as a reference.

I’m basically doing this to prove a point (to whom, I couldn’t say). There’s very little (like, negligible) chance of me succeeding, but I figure that it’s at least good practice for applying to promotions. The thing is, though, I don’t want a giant promotion right now – that would drastically narrow our field of possible postings, and I’m not ready to face another Ottawa winter.

But, while I would happily work for J and am cheering him on (his prior experience makes his application a lot stronger than mine), I can’t stand the thought of some unqualified dudebro getting a promotion just because he applied and I didn’t. I may not be that enthusiastic about leaning in, but I can’t seem to fight the urge to win prizes I don’t particularly want.

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Hooked

Last summer when we first arrived in Amman, Eric and I gamely set out for a run in the 35 degree heat, in a hilly city 1000m more elevated than the place we had recently departed. That adventure lasted about 10 minutes and wasn’t repeated for months.

In Baghdad, though, there wasn’t much else to do besides work and exercise. I was also able to run a flat, traffic-free kilometre loop on the compound, and so started getting up in the mornings for runs – short ones at first, then gradually longer, until I was considered the weird Canadian nursing a single beer at the Thursday night parties so that I could get up at 7 for a long run before it got too hot. But I also ate more pudding than the Brits and never felt guilty, so I’ll let you be the judge of who was weird.

Back in Amman, now, I’ve stuck with it despite the challenges. The sidewalks make every run a bit too much like parkour for my liking, and I could do without the stares, catcalls, and honks I get… although Eric had a firecracker thrown at him, so I guess I’m getting off easily.

But those things are worth putting up for in exchange for faster starting to feel easier, for further seeming more in reach every week. We’re googling destination races for the fall. Every time I hit a particularly steep hill (which is often in Amman), I tell myself how much easier this will make a flat course seem.

Obviously, getting to eat everything in sight is a big perk. I love the fact that I basically need giant brunches, extra cookies, and spoonfuls of peanut butter to function.

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Cucumber, cool as a

Traveling anywhere in Latin America, I’ve always felt an immediate click with the country and the people. The mountains and scenery, colourful hats, and fried dough dipped in chocolate speak to me. I’m still waiting on that feeling with the the Middle East, and have resigned myself to the fact that it’s probably never going to happen for me. But arriving back in Amman after two months in Baghdad has made me appreciate the city more than I had when I left. The driving may be crazy, but at least I’m allowed to go places!

Spring in Amman is beautiful. The normally bleach-white-and-beige city is awash in green, with lilacs spilling over walls and brilliant wild poppies splattering the road side like wed paint. The weather is perfectly crisp and sunny, and the first of the summertime produce has started to appear on the back of pick-up trucks parked on the highway.

I realized that even though I’m not in love with the city, that’s no reason not to fully live our lives here. Since I’ve been back we’ve started exploring again – the new Thai place, the cool artsy neighbourhood downtown, more ruins. I’ve said fuck it to the hills and the catcalls and started running seriously again; with the view to maybe signing up for something biggish in Europe this fall.

The posting lifestyle is teaching me to make the best of things, instead of waiting until things are perfect. Life lesson: things will never be perfect, so just get going.

Becoming a manager at the same time as I was learning the ropes to my new job was highly intimidating. I’ve had to deal with some pretty serious issues with my staff, but I’m slowly becoming more comfortable with the role. People mostly seem to want the same things I want as an employee – a degree of autonomy, but direction when it’s required; a challenge and the tools to meet it successfully; clients to not be mean to us. I can’t influence the last one but I can do my best to give my staff the first two (and for anyone in the same shoes, I highly recommend the Ask a Manager archives for invaluable managerial advice from a smart lady).

Acknowledging that my sphere of influence is very tiny has also been helpful in managing my stress about my job (the physical manifestations of which, luckily, turned out to be my very first parasite). I love that my job amounts to solving problems, but I’m learning that there are a lot of problems I can’t solve on my own. I can offer advice but I don’t get paid enough to carry the burdens of others.

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