Going offline like it’s 1999

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Or at least as much as I can. I’ve been feeling my screentime edge up even more than usual lately – not helped by working in online media, of course.

So I’ve compiled a list of things to do that don’t involve the internet. I don’t see the point of taking a complete break – people do need to contact me, and with a small business I don’t want to miss a single message. But for the foreseeable future I am going to take any chance I can to travel back to a simpler time, before laptops, smartphones and social media turned many of us into eye-strained zombies; and everything into a photo op.

My ground rules for 1999 living:

  • Streaming TV on my laptop is ok – it’s the only way we can watch TV here
  • Messaging and email are ok – when my phone rings nowadays I’m filled with wonder and/or panic
  • Podcasts are ok – modern radio, really
  • Blogging is ok – obsessively checking my stats is not

Other than that, let’s unleash our inner neo-luddites! Put that phone down, and:

  • Read a book – a real bound book, with paper pages and ink print
  • Cook something
  • Bake something
  • Make something
  • Go for a walk
  • Play board games
  • Take a bath
  • Listen to music
  • Explore your city
  • Visit a museum or art gallery
  • Go shopping
  • Watch the passing parade from the vantage point of a nice cafe
  • Write with pen, on paper
  • Try a new look, update your makeup, maybe even a new hairstyle
  • Exercise however you usually do, or try something new
  • Meet up with friends;  but once you’ve all arrived – put your phones away!
  • Get a massage, a beauty treatment; hipster dudes, get a pro to shape your beard
  • If you feel like you need to talk to someone, enlist a friend or seek out a professional
  • Go see a film at the cinema, or support local musicians or theatre
  • Meditate
  • Garden, even if it’s just some tiny potted herbs on your windowsill
  • Play with your cat, your dog, your kids. Give them your 100% undivided attention. They can tell the difference. I know it’s not possible all the time but…
  • Do the dishes. Go through your wardrobe. Organize your books. Pick a task that’s been bugging you for a while and just do it. Might be tough to get started but it’s worth it for the sense of accomplishment when you’re finished.
  • Go get ice cream
  • Become a charcoal snob. Read a book while you wait for the coals to turn that pale ashy grey, then grill vegetables, meat, whatever you fancy
  • Drink a really nice glass of wine, beer, whisky, a great cocktail

Quitting Diet Coke

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Just say no to aspartame!

Over three months ago I made a great decision.

One day, when I realised I’d run out of Diet Coke, I didn’t rush out to buy more. The next day, I simply chose to not have some. I wasn’t drinking 2 litres a day or anything, but I was starting to depend on my daily dose to get me through the afternoon. One of the world’s most socially acceptable and ubiquitous addictions.

Unlike past attempts to quit, this time I didn’t get a withdrawal headache. And rather than being dramatic and going cold turkey, I was inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity secret – ‘Don’t Break the Chain’. On day three I began a holiday in Scotland and planned to drink tea, sparkling water, wine or whisky to get myself over any cravings. My competitive streak kicked in – I guess I was competing against myself? and I didn’t want to break that chain.

Within a few days I felt a shift.

I had noticed it once before on a cottage weekend when I ended up blissfully day-drinking lager instead. On that road trip home, we stopped somewhere for a bite and I had my first Diet Coke in three days. Within minutes, a familiar, uncomfortable jangling rushed through my nerves that had nothing to do with the holiday Monday blahs. That should have been my warning. But no, I just went straight back to my daily fix.

This time, I wanted to see who I’d become without that nervous tingle. That was the real impetus. I was getting really tired of myself – so bloody high strung all the time. Anxiety was starting to interfere with my focus, concentration and short term memory, and I couldn’t remember the last time my neck and shoulder muscles weren’t stiff. I wasn’t having problems sleeping, but I was haunted by a summer of insomnia a few years before. Making every molehill into a mountain made it hard to do anything easily or think under pressure. And I’m in journalism and media – that’s just a day in the life.

So I kept not breaking the chain.

And I calmed down.

A lot.

It’s not the only way I combat anxiety, but it’s the latest in a toolbox that contains mindfulness meditation, therapy, long walks, staying organised, avoiding sugar, getting enough sleep, never getting too hungry, and making sure I have enough downtime.

But this. This simple change just blew me away with its immediate results.

I began to do some research to find why exactly this was happening. And found all the information that had always been available online, except I wasn’t ready to hear it before.

Along with less anxiety, I noticed other huge changes. For the first time in years, I’d gone days and days without a migraine. My embarrassing runaway appetite calmed down and I found myself not being able to finish my plate, had fewer cravings for snacks and could go longer between meals. How Artificial Sweeteners Confuse Your Body…

It’s hard to say whether one of my migraine triggers is aspartame itself, or if blood sugar fluctuations caused some of them, but either way it’s a win-win for me.

Spending each day worried that you’re about to have another migraine is not a fun way to live, and one of the ways I tried to stave them off was to make sure I never got hungry. My unofficial mantra became ‘better to overeat than undereat’, and of course I gained weight. But hey – at least I was drinking Diet Coke with my meal, instead of something filled with sugar, right? Do you see how circular this is?

Ironically, I switched from Coke to Diet Coke years ago in a bid to reduce my sugar intake and get healthier. I feel so completely and utterly duped, and had to forgive myself for my stupidity. And because migraines run in my family, I never made the connection when I started to have them more often.

So now that I’ve replaced Diet Coke with water, one huge migraine trigger is just… gone. I still have a few others; hormonal fluctuations, sudden barometric pressure changes, and travel of all things (the universe certainly has a twisted sense of humour), but I can anticipate and deal with them.

When it comes to health, everything is everything, and quitting aspartame has improved my physical and mental health in a beautiful upward spiral. It’s hard to see where one benefit stops and another begins. I don’t really care, and it would take way too long to list each physiological explanation in this blog post.

I’m just happy to have my life back. I have more energy. I can think more clearly – much less ‘brain fog’. I’m more creative. I’m more productive and prolific. With fewer migraines come fewer days I have to deal with the stupefying, exhausting fallout from each attack.

I may not be a vegan marathoner, but I am proud that I’ve stopped putting a nasty chemical into my body – one big step closer to treating it like a temple. Like our Begbie says,

 

On being jealous of my younger self

wedding guest.jpgI was just chugging away, deep in my work the other morning, feeling happy and fulfilled, when I was tagged in an old photo on Facebook.

There I was, in a slightly blurry wedding group shot, not quite looking directly into the camera. Great hair (I’d had an elegant updo done at the salon), porcelain skin, thin arms, one chin. A brownish pink lipstick. Bright eyes. I am wearing an extremely pretty sleeveless dress in a wonderful pale yellow with blue flowers. I’m not quite smiling, and I’m looking elsewhere. I admit I’m curious as to what I might have been thinking – that half smile definitely looks a bit pasted on. It could be that this was the end of a long wedding photo session. I remember I had flown in early that morning. I know I was happy to be at the marriage of two amazing friends. I was happy to see Jeff, who I hadn’t seen for over a week.

The surge of jealousy that ran through me the other day was alarming. I wanted to look like that again. I pictured the lean, clean diet of salad, poached chicken and water I would have to live on.

But then I remembered who she was, what she was going through, what she hadn’t even been through yet.

She was extremely unhappy. The adjustment to working full time after university was rough. That was the second August that she wouldn’t be returning to school in September and she longed to be back in academia. Maybe not for the studies, but definitely for the lifestyle, flexible schedule and intelligent late-night conversations. Trying to find work without office experience in a new city that favoured Francophones had been difficult, so she ended up relying on her retail background to get a full-time job in a shoe store. A job she hated so much that she cried the whole way back to Ottawa the day after that wedding. It would be another year before she would be able to quit. She was embarrassed to work there, but it paid the bills. She was glad that she was nowhere near her hometown and Toronto, thankful that she wouldn’t have to run into more successful former classmates, or – horrors – have to sell them shoes.

She had already started to have anxiety issues, attacks that seized her throat in a vice-like grip, especially when she thought about money.

She ate like shit – fast food, candy, popcorn for dinner, and was deeply ashamed but couldn’t stop. Her high metabolism made it feel like a victimless crime, but she knew she should eat better anyway. Thankfully, she wasn’t much of a drinker – she didn’t like the way it made her feel.

She didn’t know how to cook. Or, at very least, not very well. And Jeff, studying for his degree in music, wasn’t home for dinner most nights anyway.

She dreamed of writing, but didn’t write. There is no written record of those years.

The only thing (she thought) she had going for her was what the mirror showed her. And let it be said, she did revel in it, just a little, in private. But she was also afraid to shine too brightly, for fear of being the centre of attention, for fear that other women wouldn’t like her, for fear of the unwanted male gaze. She wanted to be taken seriously and rarely was. Bold glasses helped a little. She even dyed her hair brown once, and thrilled in the temporary chestnut tones.

She started to shop a lot. Working next to a mall where she whiled away each lunch hour meant she knew all the clothes in her favourite stores, and could capitalize on sales. Still, she slipped into buying more than she could afford, rationalizing that she needed to dress properly for her job. Buying something would lift her spirits briefly. It became a spiral.

Her doctor’s diagnosis of depression was still months and months in the future. She thought it was just that she hated Ottawa, her job and lack of good friends. She was tired all the time. Moving closer to home in Toronto ended up being the watershed moment – she should be happy now, right? Why wasn’t she?

Cut to the present.

I wish so badly that I could go back in time and hug her. Tell her it’s all going to be ok. It’s going to take a while (maybe I won’t tell her how long, or that it’s going to get worse before it gets better) but things are going to get awesome, and be even more awesome because of hard work, patience and learning how to believe in myself. That while I do make an effort to look nice and take care of myself, my body is ultimately what carries my brain around, to paraphrase the late, great Carrie Fisher. I’m revelling in the creeping invisibility with an edgier look.

But god she was so pretty that day.

To hell with the uber-cheerful facade

I’m finding the returns on that investment grow smaller every year.

It’s a deeply ingrained pattern, a coping mechanism, a wall.

It’s helped me work with horrible bosses. It’s helped me advance my career. It’s helped me pretend I like people that I really don’t and tell them what they want to hear so that I can just be a normal, functioning part of a team. I will probably employ the cheerful facade in my business dealings until the day I retire. Don’t most people?

But I’ve noticed in my circle that this facade isn’t always helpful. People feel like they can say stupid things to me, patronising things to me, nasty things to me, and I’ll just take it on the chin. Newsflash – that’s not what just happened. I’m just surprised and baffled by what you just said, because after all, I’ve never been anything but nice to you. I won’t come up with the perfect retort until 3 am. But I will steam over it, oh yes.

And if I get angry, I’m adorable. Great. Just what every adult woman wants to hear.

I don’t know – have I done such a good job of fooling everyone that everything is awesome all the time that some people forget I’m real?

That I have feelings, character flaws I’m sensitive about, parts of my face and body I don’t like but have been trying to learn to love, problems I’m struggling with, bad days, creative wobbles, career woes, health concerns…

I could go on, and with some friends I do, in the right context and space. But in general, I try not to complain and moan, not because I don’t want to, but because people who do it all the time are deeply boring and draining. I also believe that keeping positive is the key to a happy, vital life, and the more positive and filled with gratitude I am, the more ‘luck’ I seem to have.

Yes, my life is pretty great. I’m very thankful for that. I’ve worked my ass off to make it great. But I’m sorry if my cheerfulness has given you the wrong idea.

I’m serious.

me

I posted this profile photo very briefly on my Facebook page last night. I was just so thrilled that I’d finally taken a selfie containing one chin instead of three, and realised my overseas friends and family hadn’t seen my face for ages – I tend to hide behind the camera.

I was surprised at the reaction some people had to my non-smiling face. One good friend quickly qualified his comment on my seriousness with a compliment, which I really needed to hear. Another person said I looked ‘angry’ and ‘upset’.

I dislike most photos of myself, and can ruin a group selfie with the best of ’em. I get sad when I see the disconnect between the fabulous woman I think I am, striding around feeling badass and wonderful, and the photographic (albeit slightly distorted) evidence that I’m not 23 anymore and those pints of Ben and Jerry’s don’t do me any favours.

So when I was playing around with my phone last night after a haircut, I was surprised and pleased with this image. It feels like the real me, when I’m on my own and not trying to people please. Which thank god for Yorkshire, and its down-to-earth straightforwardness, I feel less and less like I have to do. And before you think this outburst has anything to do with my new friends here, it doesn’t. Everyone is lovely and kind, in a much calmer, less forced sort of way.

So unless you have something positive to say about someone’s appearance, or it’s something they can fix easily – something caught in their teeth, a tag is sticking out, they forgot to zip up their pencil skirt all the way – shut the hell up.

I’m serious.

6 lessons from a reread of the ‘Anne’ series

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A Mayflower – Anne’s favourite first sign of spring. Photo credit, Justin Russell – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1337522

Ugh. I had to wash ‘Anne with an E’ out of my brain recently – I watched with fascinated horror as the show veered further and further away from a sweet, wholesome story of the transformative power of love into a nightmarish concoction that should have been left untold.

Many of the casting choices were spot on, and the opening credits are a beautiful dream that makes my throat seize up just a little. It’s painful that the show went so wrong after such perfection:

I’m not alone. After my Netflix binge, I read reviews to feel better, and cursed myself for coming to the series without any advance knowledge. Vanity Fair, Anne of Green Gables: Netflix’s Bleak Adaptation Gets It All So Terribly Wrong and VoxAnne With an E turns Anne of Green Gables into a high gothic tragedy, missing the point, have done a brilliant job of articulating how deflated I felt by the end.

There was only one thing to do – return to the books.

You can find the series in the children’s section of any bookstore, but I don’t think they belong there. Ok, so it’s not Ulysses, but the reading comprehension level has not been dumbed down one bit – a genuine respect for readers of all ages. A quick dip into Wikipedia confirms that Anne of Green Gables wasn’t originally considered a children’s novel – that classification only arrived in the mid 20th century. If you’ve never read any of the books before, don’t let that stop you. There’s a reason Prince Edward Island is always flooded with fans from around the world.

I’m halfway through Anne of Ingleside right now, the stories are veering off into those of Anne’s young children, and you can tell, ever so slightly, that L.M. Montgomery is starting to phone it in. But she is still a masterful storyteller and depictor of the human condition, even when she’s not fully engaged. And you need to get to know those kids for the final book of the series, set during the first world war.

My latest read has been a wonderful escape back into the Victorian and Edwardian eras, rural Canadian-style, and I do think life would truly be better if everyone occasionally asked themselves, ‘What would Anne do?’ Even her famous temper only flared up when someone was treating her badly.

  1. Pay attention to the beauty of the natural world. When things are not going well, and even when they are, take yourself to nature whenever you can. Draw strength, happiness and peace from it.
  2. Disagreeable people have always existed. I would love to know who inspired Josie Pye, Aunt Atossa and Aunt Mary Maria, such horrors on the page but yet, they remind me of a few people I know… Even Anne, one of the most positive, cheeriest heroines ever written, limits her exposure to such people when she can. When she can’t, she grits her teeth and keeps her own counsel.
  3. Tomorrow is a new day. With no mistakes in it.
  4. Bring something positive to the world, even if it’s only your own upbeat attitude. Some of my favourite people remind me of Anne – they light up every room they enter, ‘bringing happiness with them like a gift’. One is even named Annie – perhaps an unusual take on nominative determinism?  
  5. Take time to relax, to play, to do something fun, to do nothing but dream.
  6. Clothes are very important. Anne says so. Take that, Calvinists!

In praise of an in-use kitchen

teacups with lemon

Dirty dishes next to the sink, clean dishes in the drying rack. Jars of cinnamon and toasted, chopped pecans waiting to anoint my daily bowl of oatmeal. Small, red tomatoes ready to be halved and tossed with shredded basil, extra virgin olive oil and a smidge of salt. A pudding basin filled with apples. All the half-drunk bottles of whiskies we’ve been collecting. A new type of cracker meant for my plan to recreate Starbucks’ Cheese & Fruit Bistro Box. Bottles of nutritional supplements that have at least a fighting chance of being taken daily if I can see ’em. Onions, garlic, ginger. A lemon. Salt. Pepper. A potbellied brown teapot I almost never use, despite the fact that everyone who crosses the threshold gets a cup of tea. Two-litre bottles of fizzy mineral water to quaff instead of Diet Coke. Foil, cling film and parchment paper on top of the microwave. A hand blender for smoothies that I never bother to unplug. Pillow-soft rolls just waiting to be packed with homemade chicken salad. A toaster that could be unplugged and put away now that I’ve forsworn Nutella. A row of bone-china mugs filled with steaming hot lemon water ahead of a scrubbing with baking soda to remove tannin stains.

A small table with cookbooks, wedding invitations, poll cards for the upcoming election, a basket of clothespins, and a 10% off card for my next visit to Ham & Friends. Everything shoved out of the way to make room for the laptop. A load of whites quietly swishing in the washing machine. A cat in my lap, now frightened of the jet-like noises emanating from the spin cycle but unwilling to admit it.

I’ve made my peace with the fact that my kitchen will never resemble something in a TV commercial. Oh yes, we make spasmodic attempts at getting the chaos under control, but hey – LIFE is being lived in here. And from doing silly online quizzes I’ve realized that I am visual learner, and ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is my truth.

Goodbye 2016

2016

I want to say “and don’t let the door hit you on the way out”, but I can’t.

While 2016 has truly been rotten in many, many ways, it’s also been a great year for me, personally, as long as I don’t think very hard about the twin mournful slumps I had after BREXIT and the US election. Or all the horrible things happening in Syria and the terrorism throughout Europe. Or the sad moments every time an icon died.

Is it even ok to talk about the good things? I feel like I have survivor’s guilt. But then, I’ve had enough shitty years over my life that I think it’s ok to have a good one, especially one in which some hard-won, deeply-cherished goals have been met.

So I’m going to be positive, and if you feel like sharing my happiness, stick around. I’ll understand if you don’t. But there’s an otter eating breakfast at the end…

  • Setttled into village life in Chapel Allerton, with easy access to the city centre of Leeds; the compact foodie and shopping heaven I’ve always dreamed of
  • Temped (very) regularly at one of the colleges in Leeds, where I’ve made some amazing friends
  • Sat, mute with tears of happiness, during Jeff’s final recital for his masters, which he (of course) smashed. I’m so proud of him!
  • Had a great Bonfire Night weekend
  • Pulled off a pretty boss Christmas dinner
  • Cried over every icon who died, but also rediscovered some amazing music and films in their honour
  • Learned how to knit
  • Took some amazing Yorkshire walks – but also feel like I’ve merely scratched the surface
  • Flirted with a Glaswegian after drinking whisky
  • Took three old-fashioned steam train trips; I’m good now
  • Visited London enough times to know my way around, but still feel the magic every time I step off the train at King’s Cross
  • Launched the UK version of my proofreading and copyediting business, heatherhewer.com (tell your friends and colleagues!)
  • Still can’t get the hang of “Alright?” “Yeah, alright” as a greeting. What is wrong with me?