‘As ithers see us’

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
– Robert Burns

Ok. I get it. The parts of my life that I make public – especially on social media – seem enviable: living in a new country, surrounded by beautiful architecture (more on that later), easy access to awe-inspiring countryside and quaint towns, with dazzling European cities a short plane ride away. Career is doing quite well, marriage is going strong and we have a cat that really loves to cuddle. Living the dream? You fucking bet I’m living the dream. And I give thanks for all of these things every single day.

I struggle a lot with what to post on social and have done so ever since Jeff and I crawled out of student debt and were finally able to think about travelling further than Montreal. Some people genuinely want to see and hear about our experiences and actively request photos and status updates, especially of our adventures while living in England. Others, and I know first-hand because I was this person for many years, might find it frustrating to scroll past travel photos, especially if they’re at work and it’s not Friday afternoon yet.

Hello from #whitby! #daytrip #199steps

A post shared by Heather Hewer (@heather.hewer) on

A few years ago, I read, loved, and thought an awful lot about this piece, 7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook. To my eternal amusement, an acquaintance on Facebook actually posted it and suggested that his Facebook ‘friends’ should follow its advice. An excellent candidate for a brisk ‘unfollow’.

I try not to fall into any of the annoying categories the writer listed, and often ask myself if a post fits his criteria – is it:

  • interesting?
  • informative?
  • funny/amusing?
  • entertaining?

Now I realise there’s nothing more tiresome than a person who thinks they are funny, and isn’t, and I know my limitations – I can’t tell a joke worth a damn, for instance, but I like to think I’ve made a few people laugh over the years. I try not to complain, in real life or on social. I think that whining online (or worse, ‘vaguebooking’) is deeply boring, especially if the person complaining isn’t receptive to suggestions or solutions. That said, my stance changes completely if we meet up for a cup of tea or a glass of wine –  I’m all ears and sympathy.

When posting, I like to share interesting articles, tag people in recipes that are right up their alley, or support a restaurant, jazz venue, musician or product I particularly like. I’ve worked in social media – I know how much every single like, retweet, share, or comment can mean to the person responsible for engagement. But I don’t always manage to stick to these guidelines, and if everybody did, our feeds would be nearly empty, with tumbleweeds and suggested posts rolling through them. You can’t just ‘fix’ people like that, any more than you can control a party beyond food, drinks, places for people to sit, lighting and music.

And this criteria gets really murky when it comes to travel photos. If one were take a hard line with that article, travel photos are an instant ticket to being insufferable; reeking of ‘image crafting’, ‘attention craving’, ‘narcissism’, and ‘jealousy inducing’. But what about the people who truly want to hear about these trips? What if I’ve taken a photo I’m proud of? What if posting from the city I’ve travelled to is the quickest way to let my loved ones know I landed safely? What if friends and family miss us, but also understand that we are taking advantage of an amazing opportunity and want to see the evidence? What if they are -gasp- happy for us?

I’m not going to stop posting travel photos. It’s enough that I’ve given my cat her own Instagram account that people can choose to follow or not.

I’m also not going to tell you about the not-great parts of my life. Why would I? And I certainly wouldn’t do it in a forum like this. But just like everyone else, I’ve had them. I’ve got them. One of these days I’m going to actually create the t-shirts I keep meaning to, that simply say:

You don’t know.

Because You. Don’t. Know.

We’re all just walking around, doing the best we can every day, even if our best isn’t always that great.

When I was very young, most of my world was bland, mediocre, if not downright ugly – my family’s church springs to mind as a particular example of hideous modernity.  It was all an affront to the eyes of a bookish, romantic girl fascinated by old stone buildings, Victoriana, fairy tales, princesses, hobbits and pretty things. I once wrote an exam at Guelph C.V.I., one of the oldest schools in Ontario, and thrilled at its ‘oldness’ – the closest I ever got to feeling like ‘Anne of Green Gables’. That girl is still me, and I delight in drystone walls, hedgerows, 18th-century stonework, rolling hills, fields of grazing sheep, and the stunning cathedrals of Yorkshire, England, Great Britain, and Europe.

But bless, I also know the power of the Unfollow button, and it’s there for a reason. Use it. Nobody needs to know.

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Me too

This is showing up on my facebook feed today:

Me too.

If all the people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

Please copy/paste.

Me too.

It occurred to me that while nothing incredibly traumatic like rape has ever happened to me, I nonetheless have a list of sexually harassing experiences that I have tried to forget or in weaker (younger, inexperienced) moments, rationalized or minimized.

In no particular order,

  • The creepy old guy that worked at the shoe store in Ottawa with me, who constantly made inappropriate comments about my body and my appearance. I never reported it, but dreaded and feared every moment that we worked alone together.
  • My male ‘stalker’ in Ottawa, who was a customer at the shoe store. I was being nice to him because I was selling him shoes, he misunderstood and thought I was flirting with him. He tried to ‘visit’ me at the store a number of times, but I always managed to hide in the stockroom until he left. Thank god he never found out where I lived.
  • The guy at university who plied me and my girlfriends with drinks all night and was incensed when I wouldn’t let him ‘take me home’. Found out later (from one of his own friends) that this was his MO for date-rape.
  • The guy at work who said ‘no offense, but are your boobs getting bigger?’
  • The manager at a place I worked  that sells Chicago-style deep dish pizza who would ask me about my weekend plans with my boyfriend by saying inappropriate things like  ‘ooooh are you going to do the nasty?’ I heard he got fired for sexual harassment a few months later, so obviously someone was more proactive than I was.
  • The man who exposed himself to me while I was about twelve and walking home from school. I turned away quickly and didn’t see much, but I was too afraid to tell anybody. We had been decorating Easter eggs with beeswax designs that day in school and to this day the scent of beeswax elicits a faint memory – I’ve all but suppressed it otherwise.
  • All the high school dude-bros who barked like dogs when I passed them in the hallway.
  • Two guys at a sandwich place who openly leered at my cleavage while I ate my sandwich.
  • Any guy who ever asked if ‘the carpets match the drapes’.
  • All the places I haven’t been able to go to on my own after dark for fear of assault or rape.

And this is just a short list, of a fortunate woman who:

  • is in a long term relationship with a respectful partner
  • has lots of wonderful male friends who always have her back on nights out
  • was raised with a take-no-shit attitude
  • has never doubted her access to equal rights
  • has worked (for the most part) in places with excellent HR departments
  • has never been desperate for money, food or shelter

How much longer would my list have been without any of those things?

Wildflowers, or RIP Tom Petty

heide-1659928_960_720I don’t often write about music – in fact, this is my first time publishing a music post – although I have a draft about Leonard Cohen that never made it out of its half-spun cocoon last fall. I’m not a musician – I was dragged to piano lessons for 10 years of my childhood and took music each year of high school for some easy ‘A’s, but living with a proper, fully realised musician means that when he’s not home, silence, TV or podcasts are my usual jam.

But this week the side of me that loves the jangly acoustic guitar and soulful lyrics of not one, but two singer-songwriters busted the folksy-hippie-chick side of me right out of whatever recess she normally absents herself to, and cracked open my heart in the process.

It started while I was watching the most recent episode of Outlander. If you saw it, you know what I’m talking about – pairing those devastating final scenes with this beautiful Bob Dylan cover:

And then the universe decided that within 2 minutes of drying my tears for a well-loved, but ultimately fictitious character, I should receive the news that Tom Petty was dying/near death/dead.

Oh Tom. If anyone’s held my soul in thrall all these years, it’s Tom Petty. One night last December I was happily flying high on some career success, and a glass or two of wine, singing to the cat rocking out in my living room to Tom Petty and wondering how he was doing – 2016 wasn’t quite over yet. A quick google confirmed that he was not only alive and well but announcing a tour with a stop in London’s Hyde Park. Tickets were purchased and Tom Petty!!!!!!!!! typed into my online calendar for 9 July.

Except, except, except… I.Can’t.Stand.Concerts. Literally. No matter how comfortable the shoes, I have trouble standing for long periods of time, so all-day outdoor concerts with general admission are basically a circle of hell for me. Even though it would mean that we’d be pretty far back, Jeff and I decided to arrive right before Tom was scheduled to go onstage. Before they appeared I even still had a moment of wondering why we’d gone through all the trouble of taking the train to London so we could stand in a park watching a screen of the far-off, tiny stage. And then the music started and I forgot about my feet, forgot about everything. I was super embarrassed at the time, but some of my favourites: “Walls”, “Wildflowers”, “Free Fallin'”, “Into the Great Wide Open”, and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” made me cry (and yes, I ran out of tissues). I think sometimes part of the reason I don’t listen to great music that often is because my favourites affect me so strongly. Hard to explain choked-up tears on a bus, train or in the office. I’m also looking at you, Leonard Cohen.

This wasn’t the first time Tom Petty had affected me so much. Wildflowers is an album that often ended up on repeat, I fell asleep to it many, many times, and it’s simply one of my desert-island discs. Vox, in their wonderful piece, Tom Petty can’t be explained in just 11 songs. We tried anyway. did a nice job of summing up what spoke to me but could nonetheless never quite put my finger on:

…“American Girl” also gets at the heart of Petty’s great thematic concern: the lives of ordinary people who can’t escape either their circumstances or the perhaps foolhardy dreams they can’t give up.

and this, about “Free Fallin'”

…a great reminder of how good Petty was at capturing the gap between desire and fulfillment.

I may not be an American girl, but well have I known that feeling of being trapped in a small town, with outsized dreams that felt like they were never going to take flight.

And finally, I have Tom Petty to thank for feeling at peace with our decision to up sticks and move to England. One day in Toronto, when we were getting close to the point of no return, I was walking alone on my lunch hour, wondering for the umpteenth time if we were making the biggest mistake of our lives. A car pulled up to the same intersection I was waiting at, and “Wildflowers” just happened to be blaring on its stereo (where Tom Petty’s music sounds best, if I’m honest). As I stood there, Tom sang “Go away, somewhere all bright and new”. Thanks for the well-timed epiphany, Tom.

Rest in peace.

And in case you were wondering – the wildflowers in Yorkshire are pretty great.

16 boring secrets for a happy relationship

dishes.jpgJeff and I just celebrated our nth wedding anniversary the other day, and it’s pretty clear to most people that we are happy together. I often get asked what our secret is, sometimes by other musician widows, because of his irregular and busy calendar. Short answer? He’s lucky I’m very independent.

Oh yes, we have some pretty great arguments and yell-y fights, some which are supremely ridiculous and unique, along with disagreements and frustrations that are probably similar to everyone else’s. One shiny pound coin or a batch of freshly baked scones to anyone who can clearly explain to me why we sometimes act the shittiest to the people we love the most.

So, while riding a train to somewhere beautiful last week on our wedding anniversary, we came up with this list:

  1. Do the dishes. You don’t have to want to do the dishes, but that’s a moot point if the dishes are already done. Just do them. Errands, chores and emotional labour resentments can build up quicker than you think, and constantly being the lazy one is never, ever going to be a sexy look. RAWRRRRRRRR.
  2. I’m going to take that horrid, misogynist adage ‘happy wife, happy life’ and break it down:
    • First, do everything you can, big and small, to help each other realize their hopes and dreams.
    • Second, if something matters way more to one person than the other, whether it’s minor stuff like looking for a specific type of electric kettle that suits your vintage modern kitchen, or major stuff like the type of property you buy, let the person who cares more ‘win’.
  3. One toilet per person, if that’s possible.
  4. Be polite to each other. People have actually made fun of us for this – but why wouldn’t we be nice?
  5. Share your online calendars – and if you both stay on top of your own, planning stuff gets so much easier.
  6. Get the biggest bed you can.
  7. You don’t have to spend all of your time together. As a jazz guitar widow, if I hadn’t maintained and developed my own interests and hobbies, I’d be a very bored, possibly codependent, person. That also goes for keeping your other friendships strong too.
  8. Relatedly, taking separate trips doesn’t mean you’re staring down a divorce. Life gets busy and sometimes it’s the only way. It will give you a chance to miss each other.
  9. Let your partner rant and vent about their bad day or problem for a while, and ask permission before offering solutions.
  10. Don’t jump ahead on the TV shows you’re watching together.
  11. Respect each other’s daily routines and circadian rhythms.
  12. Try to figure something out on your own before disturbing your partner. Look for the thingummy before simply yelling ‘where’s the blah-blah?’, or google the thing you don’t know. The internet is pretty amaze. Your washing machine’s manual can most likely be downloaded as a pdf.
  13. Get onto the same page when it comes to sex. Someone incredibly wise I know likes to say, ‘use it or lose it’.
  14. Ditto for money. Except for the ‘use it or lose it’ part.
  15. Make a comprehensive grocery list and actually look at it while you do the shopping. Everyone has a few grocery must-haves: replenish those without being asked. 
  16. Be on each other’s side. For big things, of course, but for little things too. Don’t say yes to the date of a big, raucous family thing when you know it will take place a scant number of hours after your jetlagged partner flies in from a different continent. If someone is saying something hurtful to your partner, speak up. If your bantam-sized wife decides to run outside and tell off the 6’3” guy whose car alarm has gone off all night, every night, for a week, stand beside her, even if the car alarm guy is terrified within seconds of her tirade.

What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other? – George Eliot

Going offline like it’s 1999

knitting and cat.JPG

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

Aspartame.svg.png

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.