August 11th, 2013
One of the hardest parts about money management, for me, is finding space in what I consider to be an already stretched and stressed situation. We, like many Canadian families, are working hard to get out of debt. It’s an ever-constant battle to go from paycheque to paycheque, then try to get ahead on top of that when you’ve got a small child in daycare, and the added pressure of working hard to keep one parent at home. There simply isn’t enough money. And then, because it’s so practical, you decide that you need a vacation. The easiest thing would be to jack your credit back up, just say flapjack it, and go… Or not. Coming to terms with having to pay more later would stress me out and end up voiding the whole point of a vacation.
Not this summer, but next, we’ve been planning a trip to Disney World. We all know the pitfalls, the insanity, the cliches, but my sister-in-law really wants to go, and our two families travel exceptionally well together. Plus, my son adores his cousins, and he’ll have way more fun with them there, then if we went on our own, just the three of us. We’re planning on spending a couple of days right in the park, and then a couple more on the outskirts, maybe cramming in some other fun spots–hoping not to completely overwhelm the kids along the way.
Florida in the summer might be exhaustive, but it’s actually a really good thing for us because it gives us a good year, and then some, to save. If you’re like me and find it hard to squeeze additional, “look-ahead,” money into your already tight budget, I find I have to trick myself into saving. The number one rule that I have is that we don’t touch emergency savings (that I’m just trying to build back up now after some legitimate emergencies).
Trick #1: Use the Chatelaine Example
A few months ago, Chatelaine had a great idea for extra savings–start with $1.00 the first week, and add a dollar for every week of the year. At the most you’ll be setting aside in one week is $52.oo, but at the end of a year, it’ll compound to over $1000.00. I’ve been doing this for 14 weeks so far, and it’s starting to add up.
Trick #2: Change in the Change Jar
It’s the oldest trick in the book–not spending your change (especially loonies and toonies). At the end of the day, empty your pockets into a gigantic jar or piggy bank (sealed, locked, away from prying hands), and it’s out of sight/out of mind. Check in every once in a while to roll it up and stash it in the bank in a super-hard-to-get-at bank account, and consider this your spending money.
Trick #3: Right off the Top
The easiest advice is to tuck the money away before you even spend it. The day your paycheque drops into your account, set up an automatic withdrawal, and shorten your budget by the amount. If you can only afford a few dollars, start with a few dollars. It just means you’ve got that much longer to go until you have your vacation stash. The reward will come in the form of a super stress-free holiday because you won’t actually have to pinch your pennies upon your return home.
Trick #4: Buy Your Tickets Early, Shop for the Bargains, Do Your Research
I know this isn’t necessarily related to how to save, but it’s more how to spend your money smartly. You’ll have more to splurge if you’ve done your homework (Butter Beer at Harry Potter’s theme park is expensive, I hear) and found a deal on airline tickets, hotel stays, and other such necessities. Start early. Make lots of notes. Use the internet to your advantage.
All in all, sometimes it’s hard to get started saving. To keep putting it off, to ignore the sage advice to “pay yourself first,” to dig a deeper hole because you need time away… But as someone who used to travel now and pay later, and pay, and pay, and pay, I’m much happier knowing that next summer we’ll be away with Mickey and his crew, and won’t come home to a pile of bills I’ll have absolutely no idea how we’ll pay.
May 29th, 2013
This picture has been sitting here, awaiting a post, for weeks. That’s the pace of my life at the moment–frantic. We were just lamenting this in the office the other day, a co-worker and I, how we missed
[And that's where I started and left this post for a few more weeks.]
The inevitable pace of my life is such that I can’t seem to string two consistent thoughts together–they’re all in a jumble, each jumping up and down for attention, until my head feels like a pinball machine on speed.
[And here we pause again to get some work done. To have a meeting. To set up some meetings].
The whole point of this post, when I imagined it in my mind, was to talk about the new normal. My RRHB coined this phrase for me–and it’s been reverberating ever since. I’ve been deeply saddened, and having a lot of trouble coping with, the changes in my body/health post-pregnancy + delivery. The bits about the disease have been well worn on these pages, but I kept holding out hope that at some point, my body would rebound. But it hasn’t. For all intents and purposes, and this is happy, happy news–the disease is in remission. My bloodwork is stable for the first time in three years. My body is functioning. My body has a new normal. Getting used to living from such a depleted place takes some getting used to. At first, there’s the decided lack of energy (my kidneys not making enough red blood cells). Then, there’s the bloat and grossness from the meds (baby weight is now just “weight.”). There’s the rough eating habits that go along with not having enough energy (sugar, terrible, sugar). And this all equates the new normal, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m simply mad at myself. And this anger seems to be seeping into all kinds of parts of my life like a fog.
I like to think of myself as a problem solver. I can take a situation and sort it out. I can deal with just about anything, but lately, maybe I’m not quite sure how to deal with the new normal. Perhaps I have aged a century in a couple of years? Perhaps I really need to focus on the few things that I can control, and suss out some Oprah-esque platitudes, when I feel better, I’ll do better (with the diet).
It doesn’t help that we’re so busy these days that time moves at warp speed. When I’m home, my RRHB is working or running errands. When my RRHB is home, I’m doing the same. We are cramming our lives into the edges, and it’s tough–I am not going to lie, I miss lazy Sundays of watching movies (that are not Cars, it’s a great film, but I’ve now seen it 1,000 times), of reading a book in one fell swoop, of taking a long, leisurely walk with my child safely strapped into a stroller (and not complaining about it because, well, he couldn’t). My darling boy races along and we race after him. He’s charged and amped up, gloriously chatty, and deliciously energetic. This is coupled with readily exhausted, super-tantrum prone, and fiercely guarding his onslaught toward independence. He rode a bike the other day. A bike. He’s 2.5 years old. He’ll climb anything. Jump off of anything. Run into anything. He could solve our renewable energy sources if there was a way to project him into the power grid. He’s beyond amazing but with the new normal, I’ll never catch up. I only hope he never notices.
I’ve got a part-time job these days. I’m teaching publishing (publicity in particular) at Ryerson, and I’m finding that truly inspiring. It’s summer hours now, so the Fridays where we’re not going to the cottage, I can stay an hour or two later at work and write. I’ve got 30k words of a new project that’s fun. Oh, the places we are going these days. I just wish I could stop raging against the dying of the light in terms of the Wegener’s and accept my new normal. But it’s not in my nature. I’ve never met an immovable object I didn’t want to move–I’ve never accepted limitations before. I don’t know where to start. I wish I could regenerate like my perennials–have parts of my body pop up unannounced in my garden, and I’ll lovingly tend to them. There are ways. I know there are. I just need to figure out how to get there.
April 12th, 2013
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead seems to be garnering speed. Of course, Sheryl Sandberg’s in a position to spread the gospel of her book as the current COO of the world’s biggest social media site, Facebook. Her overarching message, that women need to lean in to their work life instead of falling back, resonates without. In a sense, it doesn’t really need to be a whole book–there’s a lot of repetition in terms of message–but I’m choosing to celebrate what it is: a manifesto of how feminism hasn’t quite achieved the equality women need in the workplace.
Manifesto, defined: a piece of work that urges readers/users/doers to carry out the change they wish to see in the world. In a sense, while ‘manifesto’ rings perhaps a bit to the left for Sandberg, it’s how it reads to me. There’s great research in here, both empirical and anecdotal, about how, regardless of the impact of the various waves of feminism over the last fifty years, there is still not equality in the upper levels of the companies that are running the world. How do we change that? Sandberg has very real and actually quite straightforward opinions about how to exact change–and, for once, I’m happy that she’s using the “f” word–feminism.
Those of us who would consider themselves feminists have no issues with the terminology. And I’m consistently surprised at how much we’re still divided by simply using the word. Strong women come from strong women. I’ve been lucky in my life to have role models, whether they worked primarily in the home or outside of it, where women are strong minded, intelligent, and have worked impossibly to build both family and foster their children to unite in a different kind of world. I was shocked that less than 4% of parents that stay home in the US are dads. For the majority of my friends, the women are the breadwinners–and that’s an exciting change. It’s challenging for all of us, because we’re still looking for that balance between work life and home life, and it’s forever changing. But it’s wholly different from my mother’s generation. Anyway, I’m still thinking about this book. I was all fired up at work a couple of weeks ago when I finished it, and now I’m not quite sure where to go next…
April 1st, 2013
I’m not sure what to say about Tamara Faith Bergen’s Maidenhead. I know it was hard for me to read, something akin to watching that film Thirteen where you know a world exists like this, but it’s just perhaps too real. Myra, a relatively inexperienced sixteen-year-old “meets” Elijah (and I say that in quotes because he was actually hunting her or someone like her, young, virginal, easy to be preyed upon) while on holiday in Key West. What follows is a story of sexual awakening coupled with some very extreme emotional issues as Myra’s mother leaves the family, and her father retreats into the basement, emerging red-eyed and downtrodden. Like many smart teenagers with little adult supervision, she’s back and forth between drugs, sex, and this Elijah character who doesn’t necessarily take advantage of her at first (as she’s ready and willing to be with him)… but, I don’t even know. She’s young, wild, and knows her own mind, but the situation, as much as it frees her, is dangerous.
There are a lot of themes, threads, and intelligent issues in the novel, but overall I felt it lacking something. In a sense, I wanted Myra to be more than just a f*#ked up teenager with a value to shock. I wanted the relationships with her parents to be less stereotypical, and I found the odd play-type dialogue between Myra’s friend Lee and Elijah’s girlfriend Gayl, a little off-putting. And the p0*n, which really isn’t my thing, was a little overwhelming. I do, however, appreciate that Coach House published the book–even if it ended up not quite being for me.
March 20th, 2013
Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome had been on my “this book seems interesting to me” list ever since I read the New Yorker article that Jonathan Franzen wrote, while the specifics of the article faded away rather quickly, the general sense that I should be reading more of her work stayed with me. We have done a version of this book for our public domain ebooks, and I glanced through it briefly, which gave me an idea of the tone and scope of the novel. But upon a closer reading, it’s actually quite incredible what Wharton accomplishes in the novella–she tells the entire story of the very sad, very tragic lives of Ethan, his wife Zeena, and her cousin Mattie with brevity, which actually allows for the weight of what happens to them to settle without it feeling overwhelming.
In short, Ethan’s unhappily married to a hypochondriac woman. Zeena wasn’t always that way–there was a point where she helped Ethan’s family out immensely (the reason they married), but for years they’d been engaged in a psychological battle. Zeena’s “illnesses” defining reasons why their lives are incapable of moving forward. When Mattie shows up, a poor cousin of Zeena’s without anywhere else to go, Ethan’s life changes. And when Zeena leaves for a far-flung doctor’s appointment, the two nights he and Mattie spend together have the potential to change their unhappy lives forever. For upon her return, Zeena means to turn Mattie out, and as she’s his last glance at happiness, Ethan will do anything to prevent it from happening.
Oh, the heartbreak in this little book. It’s truly and completely engrossing. Her choice of words, how she structures the story, it all comes together in a way that elevates the everyday-ness of the events to new levels. Parts of the house is described (and I’m paraphrasing) as “grungy” even for this poor area. Ethan schlumps and slogs through his life despite his relatively young age, and Zeena, with her greasy hair and dowdy clothes remains unbearable from day one. The narrator’s removed–a stranger, an outsider–they’re able to honestly look at what happened in ways that someone intimately involved with the events in the book would be unable to. Does their slight poverty increase the tragic elements in the novel? Absolutely. But it doesn’t define them. They act the way they do simply because they have no choice to otherwise. It’s a novel that explores how limited the choices are for women of a certain class, and it does that expertly. In a way, I enjoyed this little book even more than I enjoyed The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence, both books I adore, by the way, because of its simplicity and sadness.
March 18th, 2013
In The Blondes, Emily Schultz has written a terrific, original novel. I think, in my perfect pop culture world, it’s exactly my kind of book. The writing is great, the story is compelling, and it’s fresh in its tone. Hazel, a Phd student in film, embarks upon post-grad work in New York City. She’s left behind a disastrous relationship with her faculty adviser, the aptly renamed Karl Mann (having changed his moniker from Dichlicher [sp]), and has just found out she’s pregnant. Accident or no, finding yourself up the duff at the very moment of an apocalypse, well, it’s not terrific luck.
The epidemic starts with just one or two incidents–blonde women losing it both literally and metaphorically as a result of a virus that soon turns the world into a place where any light-headed person, peroxided or not, could fall victim. Hazel, a natural light-haired red-head, soon finds herself face-to-face with the kinds of situations most familiar to people who have seen and studied Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. North America on lockdown, Hazel tries to get home, and she ends up at a government run containment centre with other women who may or may not develop the virus, SHV.
Government officials let her out, eventually. And this part of the book eerily reminded me of Blindness, the moment when the government fully admits that it no longer has control over the situation. She manages to get herself back to Toronto, to see her best friend, but then, from there, it seems that everyone, anyone will do what it takes to survive. I’m making the book feel more Walking Dead than it actually is–there’s great humour here, a lot of laugh out loud, smart revelations by the writer. It’s funny, essentially, the novel is epistolary in format, Hazel’s retelling the story to her unborn child. And she moves back and forth from events deeper into the past and from where she is at the moment–in a cottage owned by her ex-lover and his wife, Grace.
All in all, if you are looking for an intelligent mash up of 28 Days Later without the terrifically horror elements, with a dash of Blindness, as above, with a wholly original, satirical point of view, The Blondes is the book for you. I, for one, would love to see Sarah Polley make this into a movie, because I think it would be great fun on the big screen.
March 16th, 2013
What has happened? Where has the time gone? I realize that it’s been ages since I’ve caught up here, and I’m woefully behind on so many writing projects, but things are good. We are going with forward momentum these days. My job is busy. My life is busy. I have thoughts that I’m constantly trying to get down on some form of paper. I have blog posts backed up like traffic on the Gardiner in mind. And yet, I’m also craving stillness. Ten minutes of yoga a day seems to be doing the trick. I loved my book about meditation. I’ve downloaded the exercises and have listened to them a couple of times on the subway. In the midst of the thrum of people cruising back and forth to work, I close my eyes and become that girl. You know the one. Breathing heavily and not caring what anyone thinks. This is what motherhood has taught me. I can leave my house in jogging pants with unwashed hair, not wearing any, ahem, support, all tucked into my winter coat, not having slept for days and go grocery shopping. S*#t just needs to get done. And if meditating on the streetcar on the way to get my sixth bit of bloodwork tests done in as many weeks, well so the flapjack be it.
For the first time in a long time, it’s not the disease making me sick. For all intents and purposes, it’s actually in remission. There’s a significant amount of damage to my kidneys, and they’ll never make enough red blood cells for me not to feel anemic, but I’m alive. I’m in remission. That’s something to celebrate. And then. And then, well, I started feeling truly crappy. Run down, exhausted, with lots of pain, feeling lethargic, and I thought, no, no, no, please Wegener’s please don’t be flaring again. I just can’t take it. And the bloodwork shows that it’s just my WBC (white blood cell count). It’s too low. And that has all the same symptoms as the disease. So, bam, the meds are making me sick, but that’s not unusual. They’ve slowed down on the imuran, and my counts are coming back up little by little.
We’ve been on two short ‘mini-breaks’ as the Brits say in the past couple months. The first, we thought was a super-cheap couple of days at Great Wolf Lodge. We got an amazing deal on the hotel, but then the fact that it’s an actual resort, complete with people walking around in flip-flops in February, and you have to pay for your ridiculously expensive meals meant our budget simply did not stretch to meet those demands. That said, the water park is really amazing, and we had a great time sploshing about. Of course, we got stuck in the epic snowstorm coming home, almost slipped off the road a few times, and dealt with a puking toddler not five minutes away from home. Awesome.
We’re trying to break the RRBB into travelling slowly. He’s habit-dependent, so it’s rough for him. He doesn’t sleep well while we’re away and nor does he eat terrifically. Just a couple of weeks ago we spent a really fun few days in Collingwood. Super cheap, ate mostly in the rented condo, and enjoyed the best that winter can offer (excellent skating, great tobogganing, cursing around the village near the ski hills). But, again, after his cousins left, our kid had a complete meltdown, and it was time to go home. Funny, I don’t think I’ve spent this much time outside, enjoying the winter, in years. A blessing, of sorts. You forget how terrific and crisp the snow is. You forget how great it feels to climb up a steep hill and come barrelling right back down. You forget a lot, until you remember.
Now comes the thaw. A whole host of to do lists revolving around spring cleaning and summer planning and trying to stretch what little royalty money we have left until the next cheque comes. They can’t be depended upon. And it’s glaringly apparent that I need to find alternative sources of income. That we need to find some ways to make ends meet in these lean months. Gift cards. Air miles. Gift cards and air miles. We’ll figure it out, we always do, scraping the backs of the cupboards, eating through the freezer. The thing is, I really, really don’t want to go in any more debt. There’s a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel, and if we buckle down, we just might get out of the maternity leave hole.
I’m in a funny place these days. An in-between place. Slightly between sick and healthy. Busy and bored. Pushed along from the current when I really want to be swimming in the other direction. But soon, really soon, I’ll be up at the lake. And that’s a balm for anyone. We’re lucky. I am lucky. It’s so easy to forget that with all that’s happened. I am lucky. What if I just keep repeating that?
March 13th, 2013
I read a lot of good books. Books I’d recommend heartily to friends and family. Books I push on strangers at various events. Books I try to sell. Books with good writing, a solid story, and that provide a solid experience from start to finish. Good writing is good writing. But great writing, well, that brings an emotional depth that resonates and goes beyond the story itself. Poached Eggs on Toast is, simply put, great writing. Frances Itani’s Deafening was a glorious novel, but I think that when she’s faced with the short story, her work packs a punch that the format allows–there’s no doubt that the pieces in this collection benefit from their length. They are focussed, sharp, intense, and brilliantly characterized.
It’s true. I had often devalued the short story in my own reading. Preferring the length of a novel, I grew tired of the collections I was coming across that depended on “twee” (ugh, I despise ‘twee’) and “quirkiness” to get them to the end. But here, the basis for all of Itani’s work are the very rich and very real experiences of life. Real life. Lives that are shared, and put under pressure. Disease, war, destruction–they provide the backdrop, the impetus for her characters to do something, but Itani writes about life like nobody’s business, and that I appreciated.
A few of the stories take place in war-torn countries, wives of soldiers, diplomats, peace-keepers themselves in a very different way, leave the comfort of their homes to exist on bottled water and food in packets to keep their lives safe. One story that has resonated with me, “Marx & Co.”, which is about two friends, one of whom is dying of breast cancer, remains one of the strongest portrayals of female friendship I’ve ever read in print. Overall, I read these stories in short bursts, subway rides, before bed, moments when I’m frayed and exhausted and burnt out from the grind, and found them to be inspiring, achingly so, and I didn’t want the collection to end.
February 20th, 2013
I had a moment of panic over the weekend where I tried to get caught up on a bunch of work reading before a big presentation, and to my delight, found myself embedded in Sight Reading by Daphne Kalotay when I probably should have been doing something motherly, like, well, taking my child outside.
Here’s the opening: a middle-aged woman gets her toes done, steps outside in paper plate-improvised flip-flops and runs, spectacularly, into the woman who stole her husband. Yes, many years of passed. Yes, much water has flowed through under various bridges. But, still, Hazel, finds it hard to run into Remy, and the story moves back from there. To the first days of Hazel’s marriage to the gifted composer/conductor/music professor Nicholas Elko, to the how’s and why’s their marriage fell apart, to how he and Remy fall in love, their life together (she’s a violinist), and the many people and piece of music they touch. At its heart, it’s a simple story–but it contains everything that makes life complex. Human relationships don’t work–and even though it’s not always the fault of the parties involved, the sounds resonate throughout the rest of their lives on a very personal level.
Sight Reading is a play on words, of course, the skill whereby musicians look at a piece of music and play it in the moment (am I getting that right?), for the novel, it also means the difference between the many different layers of a relationship. A note can go up, it can go down–and the musician can recognize the subtle changes–and the same holds true for a life, for love. It ebbs and flows with time, as people grow, as they grow apart, and Kalotay has visualized it brilliantly in this novel. I’d compare it to the great novels by Ann Patchett or Barbara Kingsolver, but where those two authors have political undertones, globalization of healthcare for example in State of Wonder, or environmental concerns in Flight Behaviour, Kalotay roots Sight Reading very strongly in human emotion and experience. The music is the backdrop to the novel, and she understands musicians (I think?) very well.
Throughout the book, it’s apparent how long it takes Hazel to come to terms with the breakdown of her marriage, and the idiosyncratic nature of Nicholas makes it difficult for Remy, too, despite the long-term nature of their relationship. Love is gentle, kind, but also heartbreaking in this book–and it truly puts into focus something that everyone tries hard to understand, how it sometimes simply takes over a life and leaves wreckage in its path. But these are adults. They have flaws. They have sadness, happiness, embarrassment; they are parents, partners, lovers, best friends, and even it its simplicity, I found this book exhilarating. I read it one big gulp, often how I listen to classical music, too, in long uninterrupted stretches that drive my husband crazy. Sometimes, all you crave is a good book with a good story, relatable characters, and a strong sense of its overarching themes. Sight Reading is all this and more.
February 14th, 2013
When I finished Rebecca Rosenblum’s latest book of short stories, The Big Dream, I had one thought in my head: she’s, to put it simply, a natural writer. I’ve been reading a sh*t tonne of short stories lately, mainly for work, but also for pleasure (and my work is pleasurably so figure that dichotomy out!), because I can digest them in the 10 minutes I have before crashing at bedtime, and they’re really great for commuting. So, The Big Dream. It’s different from Rosenblum’s first collection, Once, in that there was an element of whimsy to the stories, a few of them even touching into magic realism for lack of a better term, while staying true to their urban core. The same urban/suburban settings apply to this collection–many of the stories are centered around characters who work for or on a series of trade magazines that honestly reminded me of Rogers, even though I probably shouldn’t say that out loud.
Rosenblum has an uncanny ability for writing intensely modern stories with fresh characters, but they’re all leading lives that anyone might recognize. The core issues that all of our Toronto-centric humanity deals with–love, family, happiness, selfish/less/ness, the TTC, job insecurity etc.–run like undercurrents throughout. I don’t want to point one story out to be my favourite, because I think the whole collection is so even and well-written that it wouldn’t do the pieces justice. Taken as a whole, with its links between (emails from members of the Dream magazine company), the book pieces together modern life through the myriad different people who work for, around or in the organization, but in these ordinary lives are extraordinary occurrences, observations, the things that make people individuals. I love that.
There’s a lightness and a freshness to Rosenblum’s voice. Her metaphors are exacting, and her sentences direct, but the writing isn’t sparse. It’s rich and vibrant and keeps your attention. These stories are like good episodes of a some great television you’d see on HBO, they’re definitely cable, not mainstream, if that makes any sense. Overall, I was consistently impressed–reading this book made me happy, full stop. And isn’t that a wonderful thing for a book to do?
(other books finished: Jennifer McMahon’s creepy Don’t Breathe A Word, which I found really implausible but still read it recklessly to the end, and The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier, which I enjoyed but found a bit light; however, am intensely curious about all of the quilting designs she describes, and really loved Honor Bright, the main character).