Deep breath

*Blows dust off this abandoned blog*

You see, this is what I fear.  I was so full of good intentions when I started in December, and then I got a new job and my social life interfered and before I knew it, three months had flown by. And while I haven’t forgotten about this tiny space I can call my own on the internet, it becomes so much more difficult to keep up with if you haven’t written anything in a while. Every time I thought about my blog in the past months I cringed and figured that perhaps it’s better just to leave it. I had told too many people about its existence, and knowing that they were keeping tabs on me gave me performance anxiety.

And yet I don’t want to give up this time. Sure, this place is a little dusty here and there, and I can’t promise any regular updates, but I refuse to go down without a fight, dammit. I can do this.

So. Deep breaths. This thing is still on. And I’m sure I have it in me to surprise you.

Advertisements

Lost and found: on starting a new job

The first month at a new job is always a whirlwind of information and questions: who are the people I now work with? What are their habits, their talents, their ideas? How do I fit into this organisation? Am I living up to expectations? Is there anything I can do to impress people? And why the hell do I keep getting lost in this building? It’s like you’ve been given a torch and sent off into a huge cavern: fumbling your way into the dark, trying to find some more torches along the way to light so you can see more of this brand new environment you find yourself in. Every day you discover new things and your map starts to take shape: you feel more confident about your whereabouts and the direction you’re heading in, even though you sometimes stumble upon unforeseen barriers.

Of course, sometimes jobs fail to provide torches for newcomers. You’re expected to know everything your job demands, do your work post-haste and without complaining, and there is no room for questions. Everyone in the organisation pretends they are fully in control and on top of things, and they gossip about anyone who appears to be lost. A friend once told me about her work in the academic world: a place where you’d expect people to be curious in their endeavour to learn. Nothing could have been further from the truth: asking questions meant you were unsure, and therefore less than competent. My friend once got chided for forwarding an article to her research group that someone else had already sent several months before she started her job. Her résumé should probably have included some psychic abilities. People who dared to show vulnerability by admitting they did not know everything were swallowed whole by a system kept in place by fear and competitiveness. It can’t have been very healthy.

I count myself lucky to have found a new place where questions are welcomed, encouraged even. My colleagues told me that even though they have worked there for many years, they still discover new things every day. It’s a large organisation, and it’s in constant transition: knowing that the cavern is being explored by many other people at the same time gives me confidence to soldier on, to try and find those other tiny lights in the darkness. Who knows, maybe I’ll end up handing out some torches at the entrance one day…

What I think about when I think about running

I have always had a lazy streak. Exercise was only ever a means to an end, the end being able to fit into my clothes and not dying when I climbed a flight of stairs. That is why no-one was more surprised than I was when I suddenly took up running about a year and a half ago. I’d contemplated doing so loads of times before, but I have never made it to the point where I actually put on some running shoes and went out. Far easier to just stay home and marathon another series. But then I heard about the Couch to 5k training schedule, and it seemed so simple. So… manageable. And one day I put on my shoes and went out and I found out I could make it. Sure, I looked like the missing link between man and tomato for the first month, but gradually my breathing evened out and my muscles stopped screaming. I ran.

All beginning is easy. When you start from scratch you are beating your own records left and right. Every time you go out you can run a little longer, you go a bit further, you’re a fraction faster. Runkeeper dutifully notified me of all the achievements I unlocked and I felt like I crossed the finish of the New York Marathon when I came home panting. I went out for a run! I am such an athlete. I watched my body change and I noticed how strong my legs were getting. I was able to run a 5k after 3 months. I participated in races. Within 8 months, I had pushed myself to 10 kilometres, the distance I never believed I could run. And that’s when I hit a snag.

Although I have been lucky enough to run without injury so far (knock on wood), distances beyond 10 kilometres tend to scare me a bit. Where does it all stop? The idea of ever having to run a half-marathon, or, god forbid, a full marathon, boggles my mind.

Having reached my own milestones, and unready to set new ones, I started to measure myself against others, and I found myself wanting. Suddenly starting at the back of a race meant I was slower than the others, instead of not being overrun by the wild masses. Friends who only just started running easily beat my averages, without even trying. What didn’t help was that it never became easy for me. I had heard about people achieving some kind of trance while running, where they felt as if they could go on forever. I figured that once I was able to run comfortably, I too would stop thinking about every step of the way. But it never happens. Sure, sometimes I am able to think about something else for about 20 seconds, but inevitably I fall back to earth, focusing on the only questions that matters at that moment: how much further? Mostly I have to beg, bribe and cajole myself not to stop. The famous runner’s high? I get it, right after I stop, when my brain is comfortably clouded in endorphins and the battle is won.

The final blow came when I read an article in the newspaper about the Badwater Ultramarathon, a gruelling race of 138 miles (217k) where participants drop out because they are delirious with dehydration or  because they have lost their toenails… And there I was, struggling with my measly 10 kilometres, while these people ate marathons for breakfast. What hope did I have of ever improving? My motivation dropped to almost nothing, and I allowed the laziness to creep back in. I still ran, ostensibly to improve my average time on my 5k, but in reality I didn’t see the point of it anymore. Running just for the sake of exercise turned out not to be enough for me. The Blerch, the Oatmeal‘s great depiction of the little demon that tells us to forget about running, just eat a snack, was clearly winning.

I decided I needed a turning point. Talking my frustration over with my friend Hester provided me with some valuable insights: stop expecting running to be easy. If you want to get better, be faster and go further, then expect that it will hurt. A lot. But it will be worth it, and you will feel so much better about yourself if you give it all. Don’t just use running as an excuse to eat all the cheese you can lay your hands on, but start treating it as something that is rewarding in and of itself. After all, it has taught me to love my body and what it can do in just 18 months: it probably has some more surprises for me in store!

So that’s where I am today: looking at training schedules for 10 English miles (16 kilometres). I will have to start interval training, to prepare my muscles for this distance. I feel slightly scared but also exhilarated for finally taking it to the next level. Most important: I finally feel as if I can say ‘I’m a runner’ instead of ‘I run’.

Can and cannot: the art of collecting

I greatly admire people who collect things. Stamps, Happy Meal toys, first editions of Stephen King novels, salt & pepper shakers: anything really (well, perhaps not cats). The idea of hunting for that one thing that will make your collection complete, to order everything neatly and to make sure it won’t get damaged, to be able to show people around your house and say: “All of this was gathered by me. Isn’t it beautiful?” It appeals to me. Unfortunately, I completely suck at starting a collection. I tried, many times. At first, opportunistically: I told everyone I collected sugar packets, but I was busted one day when my mom entered my room and found me in a wild sugar frenzy, tearing open packets and pouring them down my throat. After my stash was taken away from me I turned to stamps, but I was in way over my head: there are just too many stamps, and I had no idea where to begin. I tried to focus on stamps with animals on them, but even that subset was overwhelming, there were about 8 million stamps with butterflies on them alone.

When I abandoned the world of philately (roughly around the time my first book of stamps was full) I turned to my brother for guidance. He was my shining example, since he started a very succesful collection of cans some years before. I’m not sure where he first picked up the idea, but one day at the local swimming pool we all had to help him collect empty soda cans, and it took off from there. At first he collected all sorts of cans, but he quickly learned to specialize: soda cans became his domain. He subscribed to newsletters and we attended many trade sessions, where I was in turn fascinated and horrified: these people worshiped at the aluminum altar. At first, the entire family was on the lookout, we dug through trash cans on holidays, looking for that special can, and at one point my father even had the Minister of Agriculture helping him during a business trip. But as his collection grew, our ability to help diminished: we were out of our depth, since we didn’t have easy access to that special set of Olympic Coca-Cola cans that was available for 1 day in the spring of 1976. The cans we found him were not good enough, since real collectors do not open the tab, but instead punch a hole in the bottom with an ice pick and drain it of its contents, so the can remains in pristine condition. With my sugar addiction still firmly in place I thought this was an enormous waste of good soda, and I volunteered to help drink it all, but my mother firmly prevented this.

And one day, almost as suddenly as my brother started his collection, he quit. He placed an ad in one of the newsletters, and a slightly smudgy man came by and took all of it away. My brother’s room, which looked so neat and colorful with rows and rows of cans, now seemed so desolate. He shrugged and said he had grown out of it, and his empty walls were soon covered with scantily clad ladies, but I felt bereft. Even though I couldn’t commit to a collection of my own, I was by proxy very proud of his: at least someone in this family knows how to gather stuff and display it in an orderly fashion! But now we were just ordinary again. What did we have to show visitors? How could I impress neighbors and friends?

I went back to half-heartedly starting collections of my own, most notably comic books in my teens, but I discovered that no matter how hard you try, you can never complete it, unless you focus on an extremely small set. And where’s the fun in that? Collections need to be vast, in my opinion. You always start half-way, and you either have to work your way back to the beginning (and that is when you have to start donating essential organs in order to be able to pay for it), or you have to accept that you can only move forward and can still build up an impressive collection from there. But I can’t. It’s the same reason I can’t watch soap operas on television: I need to know it will end somewhere. My mind can’t accept the idea that it could just go on and on and it will never be completed, there’s always something you can’t purchase anymore or a new set is coming out. Why bother starting something that you can’t finish? Then it’s just junk that takes up a lot of room: best to focus your energy on other things.

I like to say I have made my peace with my inability to collect. I think of how much time, money and space it saves me, and I pride myself on being sensible. But every once in a while, when I have more than 6 things that are alike, I catch myself thinking: perhaps I can find more of these. And I wonder how a display case would look in my living room… 

How to make friends

I never had an imaginary friend as a child. Truth be told, I had enough trouble navigating friendships with my peers, so I never felt the need to add a non-existent playmate to the mix. Instead, I longed for a penpal. I scoured all the girl magazines I could lay my hands on for possible matches: though most of the girls offering themselves up as penpals were into horses, even the expat children living in faraway places like Mauretania or Oman, I decided not to be judgmental and give them a chance. I painstakingly wrote letters in my best handwriting (slightly more legible than the Rosetta Stone) on my prettiest stationary (with Snoopy and Woodstock!), detailing my life and my ambitions: to read all the books in the children’s library, make friends with all the pets in my neighbourhood, and to become a forester when I was older, even though I had no clue what a forester even did (I had the vague notion you were free to wander around outside all day and befriend small animals). My photo album was raided for pictures where my hair didn’t look as if I’d just escaped from a tumble dryer and the need for braces wasn’t as obvious as usual. I would scrounge stamps off my mother and bring my letters to the post office, fantasizing how I would become best friends with the girl at the other end: the notion was even more exciting if she’d happen to live on the other side of the world. I’d tolerate her love for horses and I’d share all my knowledge about penguins with her, and when we were older we would totally discuss our crushes on the boys in our schools.

I never once received a reply. The first six times I sent out a letter I figured the post was just slow and one day the mailman would show up with a bag full of letters from girls all over the world, but by the time I was down to the decidedly less flattering pictures in my photo album it became clear that for some reason nobody wanted to be my penpal. Wait! I did get a letter back once, from a girl telling me that she had gotten many responses to her request for a penpal, and that unfortunately I was not chosen as the lucky one. Come to think of it, the tone of the letter was eerily similar to the rejection letters I received in my job search later in life, and I was only ten years old.

When I finally faced up to the fact that my penpal fantasies were destined to remain just that, I decided to instead focus my energy on becoming friends with the girls in my vicinity: at school, Girl Scouts, the local tennis club. I knew it was possible: both my sisters had a best friend almost from birth, and I was determined to have a friendship like that for myself. Not with a boy: I had plenty of friendships with boys. That was easy: you’d shove each other to the ground, eat candy until you got sick and fight over the controller for the Nintendo. Boys I had down pat. But girls were far more difficult to crack, at least for me, with girls my age. I struck up some friendships with girls a few years older than me, who seemed impossibly cool and composed to me. Looking back, they were probably flabbergasted why a 10-year-old had suddenly decided to follow them around at recess, but enjoyed the attention. I was treated as a slightly retarded pet and I loved it: at least I didn’t have to talk about horses or field hockey, the two obsessions of girls in my class. But the older girls left for high school and I was alone again. I flitted from girl to girl in my class, striking up various short but intense friendships that would fizzle out as soon as we discovered that we had zero interest in each other’s hobbies: a mutual love for candy can only take you so far.

I didn’t crack the friendship code, not when I was in elementary school. Only after a particularly disastrous friendship in my first year in high school (let’s just say I can never watch the movie ‘Free Willy’ without some serious PTSD-flashbacks), after which I resolved I would never again change myself in order to fit in, did I relax enough to stop searching for the Holy Grail of social interaction. And one day, a girl I’d seen a hundred times before at school talked to me about her love for field hockey. And instead of feeling annoyed, I listened, and discovered she had a million more interests, many of which matched mine (including a mutual love for candy). That’s how I learned that even though I had assumed that no-one could ever appreciate me for the special person I was, and I was better off on my own, I had been just as much of a shallow idiot in return. But I like to think that it was all for the best: I only needed a bit longer to know who I was before I could invest that attention into someone else. I’m just happy that I got there in the end: field hockey girl has been kicking my ass for almost twenty years now.

Multitasking madness

I have a tendency to rush through life. There’s always more places to see, books to read, movies to see, skills to learn, things to discover: no time to sit still! My default is set to multitasking, so I’m always keeping my hands and mind occupied. Why just watch a movie if you can knit a scarf, read a book  or browse Tumblr on your phone? Or all of these at the same time?

Although I like to think that this habit makes me extremely efficient, truth is that it tends to bite me in the ass. While cooking, I treat recipes more as suggestions than as guidelines and fail to read them all the way through, meaning I more than once read ‘allow to set in the refrigerator overnight’ just as my dinner guests rang the doorbell. Sometimes I discover I missed major plot points in books and movies when I discuss them with friends. What do you mean, Dumbledore dies? And I used to drive my dad nuts by speedclicking through all installation menus on the computer, often accidentally installing spammy toolbars, while he would have preferred reading the end user agreement from A to Z.

Of course, I’m a bit late in discovering that multitasking is not working, the rest of the world has jumped on that bandwagon a while ago. But while I’m starting to realise that it’s better to focus on one thing at a time, it also means I have way less time to spend on all my hobbies. As someone with a broad interest and a million dreams, this is killing me. So I slip back into my old habits. Dinner in the oven? I can do a load of laundry, download some music and play Bioshock: Infinite. Work meeting not that interesting? Let me check my mail, update my Twitter and text a friend. In fact, about the only time I am only doing one thing at a time is when I go for a run. And that’s only because it’s taking all my willpower to motivate myself to not stop running that I don’t have time to think about anything else. Believe me, if I could write blog posts while exercising, I totally would.

It’s difficult to find the middle ground. Even while writing this I have to force myself to continue, no, don’t click that ‘save draft’ button, no, you can’t play Candy Crush, no, you’re definitely not going to see what’s going on at Tumblr, and no, now is not the time to clean your desk. It’s hard, but I realize it must be done, lest I spend the rest of my life doing everything half-assed: if I really commit myself the end results tend to be so much better. And I’m sure my friends will appreciate it if I’m actually looking at them while we’re talking, instead of gazing down at my phone while I’m telling Facebook how much fun we’re having.

Now, if you excuse me, I’m off to prepare some lunch, eat it, and put some pictures of it on Instagram… Ah, crap. I guess the road to recovery is a long one.

I have seen the past and it scares me

Batman and robin

There is no easier way to frighten the pants off of anyone over thirty than by telling them anecdotes that make it abundantly clear that they are aging: ‘The Tale Of the Little Girl Who Had No Idea What A VHS Tape Was’, ‘I Handed A Child A Real Photograph And It Tried To Zoom In Using Its Fingers (A True Story)’, ‘What Is The Relation Between A Cassette Tape And A Pencil: A Horror Story In Two Acts’. Thirty-somethings now stand around at parties whispering about the intern at work who only remembers floppy disks because of the ‘save’ icon, and whose childhood memories of ‘Batman’ are of Christian Bale, not Adam West (and this reference will date itself once Ben Affleck takes over the franchise, I’m sure). At those times the generation gap seems more like a chasm, impossible to bridge.

Just as a gramophone or telephone switchboard has no direct meaning for us and is only a relic from the past, the generation below us will have no frame of reference for many things that once seemed the pinnacle of modern technology to us. Recently I heard a song on the radio that referenced an answering machine, and I caught myself thinking who even has one of those in the age of smartphones and voicemail. Perhaps it will be relevant again in the future, when we finally have servant robots to take our calls, but until then I’ll just feel as old as the hills when I hear those lyrics.

I’m sure this feeling is nothing new, our parents must have felt the same astonishment when we had no idea how to work the rotary dial on a telephone, or didn’t know what the antenna on a television was for. The breakneck speed of technological advancement just means that there’s a lot more things for our generation that make us feel ancient: the sound of dial-up modems, pagers, old-school Gameboys, AltaVista, roll films, and dot matrix printers, to name a few.

But there’s hope: sometimes things from the olden days get to make a comeback. Polaroid has achieved minor success in the hipster crowd, there’s more music available on vinyl than you’d imagine, Star Trek movies are incredibly popular and even the Care Bears have been granted new life. After becoming tinier and tinier for years, mobile phones are now often the size of a brick again (which suits me fine: they’re far harder to lose that way). And the archival nature of the internet means we can easily share our nostalgia with the next generation: I can’t wait to watch Pinky & The Brain with my nephew. And perhaps he’ll even get to wonder what the hell we were keeping animals in laboratories for.

Say it wrong, say it right: the curse of the pedantic

I love getting things right. It’s probably the reason I have a particular passion for trivia, nothing pleases me more than producing the right answer to a ridiculous question. And once you’ve memorized every American state capital, there’s no turning back.

But wanting to be right all the time inevitably leads to disappointment when faced with your own fallibility. I tend to double and even triple-check my facts, and spell check is one of my closest friends. However, as a non-native English speaker most of my vocabulary comes from reading (I’d pretend books, but let’s face it, it’s mostly the internet. We should be thankful I don’t communicate in lolspeak all the time.). Sure, I hear a lot of English on television as well, but the kind of television I watch doesn’t require a thesaurus to understand. Most of my ‘big words’ I have picked up from texts, to be stored away and whipped out when I really want to make an impression. What can I say, I’m a total snob.

This leads to one massive hindrance: pronunciation. Awry, epitome, melee, pomegranate, banal, archipelago, GIF, hierarchy, mischievous: all words I have butchered at one time or another. I vividly remember when I discovered that the title of one of my favorite blogs was not, as I’d blindly assumed, pronounced ‘hyper-BOWL’, but rather ‘hy-PER-bow-li’. I had to lie down for a bit. Usually I try to avoid words I don’t know how to pronounce in everyday conversation: you can see the look of abject terror on my face when I start a sentence and realize I’m headed straight for a word I have never heard spoken out loud before. I will in all likelihood start over and dumb things down. It’s not just that I don’t like getting things wrong: I also tend to forget what I was saying when I have to wonder if I’m saying it right.

I’m pretty sure that this pedantic streak actually stems from insecurity, but I’m fine with that. It’s one of the more harmless ways in which it can manifest itself, and my ego is big enough to take the occasional blow. But just when you think you have made good progress, there’s one final pitfall: the difference between American and UK English. Lieutenant, aluminium, leisure, harassment. Eddie Izzard sums it up best in this bit:

Just don’t ever ask me to say “The sixth sick shiek’s sixth sheep’s sick”, because I will cry.

The second step is harder

Creating a blog is a breeze, but what terrifies me is the thought of delivering interesting content at regular intervals. I call it the Diary Syndrome: when I was younger, I was obsessed with finding the perfect notebook to record my (in my not-so-humble opinion) incredibly fascinating world views for posterity in, but as soon as I jotted down the first entry I felt it was tainted. Everything I wrote seemed so boring. When I reread it days or weeks later I wanted to claw my own eyes out. Then came the question: now what? Tear out the pages and mutilate the notebook? Cross the first entry out and try again? Or continue as if nothing is wrong and run the risk that someone stumbles upon it and thinks I’m a complete idiot? (When I was young this ‘someone’ was usually my older sister who went hunting for my diaries, eager to find out everything she could about my crushes. Every diary attempt therefore started with ‘L.,if you read this, stop it!!!’ and was subsequently abandoned because I wasn’t very good at hiding things) This is another problem: I tend to write with the reader in mind. And my imaginary reader is extremely demanding. Be funny, be interesting, be engaging, be clever. As soon as I finish something it is set in stone for me, so if my first post was funny? I now have a funny blog! And immediately I can only think of serious matters to write about, or nothing at all. Writer’s block is only a sentence away.
Truth is, I’m still finding my tone of voice. And I’m not quite sure where this blog is headed: I think it will be all over the place, if it’s going to reflect me. But I have made my peace with that and I will resist the urge to purge my blog of previous posts when I reread them, even though it’s easier to delete a virtual post than to tear out a page from a notebook. I think I have some interesting things to say, and I hope my (imaginary) readers will want to stick around for them!

Hello World!

Getting fired always seemed so scary to me: it’s the ultimate rejection, confirmation that you’re not good enough. I used to wonder what I would do if I would ever become jobless. I envisioned a mad scramble to secure an income, taking on anything and everything I could get, figuring I wouldn’t be too good for cleaning jobs if it ever came to that. What I didn’t expect, now that the shoe has finally dropped, was to feel elated. While thoughts of mortgage payments still lurk in the distance, the sense of impending doom is strangely absent. Instead I think about all the free time I will have soon, and all the things I could do: take up yoga, cooking classes, travel to new and exciting places (Helsinki?), master HTML, deep-clean my home, start a stamp collection, knit a sweater from cat hair, learn French. Hell, I don’t even like yoga, but the thought I could become a contortionist if I wanted to makes me feel giddy. The whole world is suddenly open to me, and I am punch-drunk with possibility.

Of course I’m pretty sure the newness of it all will wear off soon. I will probably wake up one day, take a look at my half-finished sweater and accompanying collection of cats and think: Merde. And I’m already dipping my toes in the deep blue sea called ‘job market’, though for the time being I’m more focused on all the sand castles I can build at the shore. The one thing I look forward to? Time to write. So without further ado: hello world!