May 23rd, 2018

I am 40 now listen to me: advice

As probably most people know if they spend time with me: I am obsessed with advice columns. I read and adore a great number of them (current faves include Ask a Manager, Captain Awkward and forever champ Dear Prudence with Daniel Mallory Ortberg.) But show me an advice column and I’ll probably read it.

My dream is to have my own advice column, a dream I am pursuing mainly by wishing for it. I don’t even give advice to people I know that often, let alone strangers, because I am waiting to be asked–ideally, via postal letter. But I turned 40 today and I know some things, and I think I’ve earned the right to share them. Just this once. You don’t need to worry that if you go out to coffee with me I’m going to critique your outfit (unless you are married to me) or tell you how to talk to the loud guy on the train –this is a one-time deal, and then I’ll go back to waiting to be asked. It’s really like a resume: here’s some stuff I would advise about the world and human interactions, learned in my 40 years on earth. If you want more, hit me up! I’ve tried to make it clear whether I learned from interaction or observation or just reading advice columns, but basically, I just know, ok?

1. Don’t touch anyone unless they see clearly that you are going to touch them and have given some small sign that they are cool with being touched. I learned this from cats needing to sniff your hand before you can pet them, but it applies to humans too: don’t hug someone until they’ve opened their arms to be hugged, don’t clasp someone’s arm until they have acknowledged your hand there, don’t pull off loose threads or tags without asking permission. If you never see the acknowledgement nod, you never touch them. Everyone gets their bubble.

2. There is sometimes a second cigarette-lighter-type jack in the car glove compartment between the passenger and driver’s seat (in modern cars with bucket seats), down at the bottom. There also might be an audio jack inside the top of the glove compartment in front of the passenger seat. No one ever tells you this for some reason, you have to go feeling around to check.

3. It’s ok to work on contract for a while, if you are young and flexible and don’t need a lot of non-OHIP healthcare or dental work. People a generation older who had full-time jobs for their entire careers are horrified by contract work but more importantly they are unfamiliar with it. They just find it insulting on principle and it’s not ok to have unexamined principles in today’s economy. If there’s a reason you don’t want contract work–like you require expensive medication and really need drug coverage, or a particular company or industry is known to be terrible to contract workers, do what you need to do, but there is nothing inherently evil about contract work if all sides agree on what is going down.

4. You can double-dip if the only people sharing the dip are people who mouth kiss on a regular basis. Still, it’s polite to ask first.

5. If you ask someone for a favour and they say no nicely, say thanks anyway or something else cordial rather than snark or just stop speaking to them. Sure, you may not be getting the thing you want from this person right now, but keep the relationship friendly because it’s a) the right thing to do and b) it’s not like they’ve lost all their powers (probably); maybe they could do the useful thing or a different useful thing later if you aren’t a jerk about it.

6. Cold water gets out blood–hot makes it worse. It seems counter-intuitive but it’s really not–blood is meat, so think of the heat as cooking the blood in. Gross, but now you’ll remember.

7. It is cruel to declaw a cat–I imagine you want to keep your fingernails, too. However, if you feel you absolutely must have a declawed cat (and if you care to give me a call, I would debate all your reasons for this) there is a loophole. Some people are cruel and declaw cats and then don’t keep them anyway, and those cats wind up at the Humane Society or at cat rescues. If you were to adopt a declawed cat from such a situation, and promise to keep it forever indoors and away from aggressive situations (because it can neither defend itself nor climb trees to flee) you would not only be free of the charge of cruelty but doing that cat a favour. Everybody wins.

8. You don’t have to cook anything for a potluck–anything nice from the grocery store, deli, or bakery is just fine. You can’t bring the ingredients for a dish and ask the host to provide you with implements and kitchen space to make it, though. Seriously, just buy a family size bag of Doritos if you like–no one will be sad.

9. Insomniacs shouldn’t take naps. It’s really sad, but necessary.

10. Cats need to come to you. Do not pursue cats.

11. You need at least an hour to change planes at LAX–probably more if you don’t like to live dangerously. It’s a very very big messy horrible airport. Better advice is maybe just don’t fly through LAX.

12. You shouldn’t brake on the highway unless you are in heavy traffic. That was advice I got from a truck driver I had a crush on in my teens (I know!) and it’s really good. If you find yourself braking to regulate your speed or because you’re accidentally tailgating or you want to let someone in, all that is bad. I still do it occasionally when no one is behind me, but I feel that cute truck driver shaking his head at me.

13. There are no questions you need to ask anyone about their fertility ever unless they are your partner or your patient. Not when they will have children or why they haven’t yet or why they had the children they did have when they did or why so many or why not more or if they had “difficulties” or “accidents” or conceived “naturally” or whether they are happy to be pregnant or sad that they are not or ANYTHING ELSE. If you are a warm, interested friend, people will volunteer what they feel comfortable sharing and if you feel like you need more information than that, you must ask yourself, before you say anything aloud, why you need that information. Because unless you fit into one of the two categories mentioned above, I cannot think of a single reason.

14. Always ask permission before posting photos of other humans on the internet. Obviously this applies especially to minors, but I have been trying lately to apply the rule to everyone. It took me embarrassingly long to get with this one–I genuinely didn’t see why I’d have to ask. But I get it now–your face, your call.

15. Advice repeated from neurologist: Eating protein first thing in the morning is good way to stave off migraines. Advice repeated from naturopath: If you are struggling with your health–migraines or otherwise–protein at every meal and even in every snack is probably a good bet. Doesn’t have to be a huge portion, but at least a bit.

16. It doesn’t matter whether someone can document a food allergy or prove an intolerance–if they don’t want to eat it, their reasons are not open to discussions. However, if I’m hosting them for a meal and their needs are really complex or obscure, I am allowed to say that I don’t think I’m able to accommodate them adequately and ask that they either bring something they know they can eat or suggest a takeout place that works for them. Everyone should get to eat what they need, but that doesn’t mean I have to cook it.

17. “Perfectionism” is supposed to be that flaw that’s not really a flaw you mention in job interviews, but after a couple decades of working in actual jobs, I can tell you–it’s really a flaw. At best, perfectionists are smug, assuming that they are capable of Platonic ideals in everyday life. At worst, they are bitter and resentful that they must work with imperfect colleagues. Sure, we all have a little perfectionism in us–I have a lot less than I used to, owing to the chronic failure to write the perfect stories that live in my brain–but it’s nothing to humble-brag about.

18. Ditto romantic jealousy. Happens to the best of us? Sure, but something to work on, nothing adorable.

19. If the ends of your tomatoes in your garden are all gross and grey, there might not be enough calcium in your soil. You can fortify it with bonemeal in spring and fall, but for an immediate fix, there’s actually such a thing as calcium supplements you dig into the garden–you can buy them at a garden centre. Fixed ours right up!

20. Coordination of benefits–possibly my most boring advice, but useful! If one partner has medical/dental benefits, they can be used by the other partner if cohabitating and by their children. Most people know this and it’s lovely. If BOTH partners have medical/dental benefits, the assumption seems to be that they will just have both and use the second to cover copays and whatever is not covered by the first. Which can be great in certain situations but in others is nutso–just a bunch of insurance covering everything twice, essentially. Please, if you are in this situation, look at what you actually need and what your options are–some plans will allow you to cash out your benefits if you have other coverage, and others won’t but you can have a health care spending account so you can put ALL the money towards whatever health-related expenses you want (all the massages!) Some companies will insist you keep all your benefits, period, and like I said, some people actually can make use of two plans, but you need to think it over and read the fine print!

21. “Self care” isn’t ditching plans at the last minute and leaving people in the lurch/wasting their time (except for extreme/surprise situations). I’m so sad that I’ve seen the opposite advice repeated so often. Real, everyday self care is looking at invitations and requests and the other demands on your time and what you actually can and want to do and politely RSVPing no thank you to the rest well in advance.

22. The best thing to give to charity is money. Money does not require transportation, can be used for literally anything, can used flexibly at the charity’s discretion (they thought they were going to get a new sink, but then the stove broke) and many charities have much better buying power than the average citizen because of their charitable status and because they buy in bulk (your four cans of tuna might cost $4 versus the 400 cans they bought for $100 or some such). If money is not something you have to give or feel comfortable giving, there are myriad other things you can give away that will help, but research is required to find out which charities take what and how. Giving something to an organization that doesn’t accept it–used clothing to a group that only takes new, or expired food to a food drive that asks you not to–because you didn’t research the rules or think the rules are dumb is unethical, because it takes resources away from the actual charity and expends them on sorting and disposing of a useless donation. I have learned this from countless articles, and a number of volunteer stints.

23. The best way for women to not get urinary tract infections is just not to be physically disposed towards them aka lucky. The second-best way to avoid them is to pee after sex and ideally before too, though that is a lot of peeing. I learned the second half of that from an issue of Seventeen magazine back in 8th grade, when I didn’t know what a single word of it meant.

24. There is no reason not to repeat every compliment you hear or even think about everyone you know. All the nice words should be known!!

25. There are no books you have to read. There are no TV shows or movies you have to watch. There are no places you have to travel to. (Unless any of the above are your job, I suppose.) It was weird when I stopped feeling guilty about not watching Breaking Bad, reading Moby Dick, or going to Hawaii, but it was definitely better.

26. Inviting a single small child to an adult-oriented event means some adult is going to spend the event with that child or the child is going to watch tv. No little kid has ever “just coloured quietly” for longer than 10 minutes, no matter what their parents say, and it’s not fair to expect it. Invite at least one more kid, get a tablet out, or say goodbye to at least one adult.

27. If you get a tax refund because you put money in an RRSP, you haven’t actually gained the money–you’ve borrowed it from your future self. The refunded money is tax you didn’t have to pay on the cash in the RRSP, but you will wind up paying tax on sheltered money when you take it out, post retirement. It might be at a lower rate if your income is lower at retirement, as many people’s are, but then again it might not. SO if you use the refund to put yourself ahead for the future–savings, paying off debts, buying something you needed anyway–you are winning because you get the interest/use value years ahead. But if you use the refund to incur an expense you wouldn’t have had otherwise–a random vacation, new clothes–you are actually putting yourself in the hole against future taxes. If you can afford it, it might not matter, but most people don’t think of it that way so just fyi. Sorry, I know this is a depressing one.

28. If you melt chocolate in the microwave, you have to take it out and stir every 10-15 seconds or it will burn. Still easier than doing it on the stove, in my opinion.

29. The idea that women cannot manage their own grooming is incorrect. If a woman wants to pay a professional to make her eyebrows/toenails/leghairs/whatever look different, that’s a very legitimate path. But so is doing her own grooming at home, or deciding that whatever body part does not require grooming. I’m startled to be living in an age where not paying to have someone paint your toenails and wax your legs could actually be considered lazy or sloppy. The aesthetics industry exists for no benevolent reason–it’s there to make money. We all know that, right?

30. Sitting all the way at the back of the bus or streetcar cuts down on the need the need to watch for elderly/pregnant/disabled people who need your seat–the accessible seats are at the front and it’s unlikely someone with a mobility issue is going to come to the back of the bus anyway, especially up the stairs, though one should still not be completely oblivious. The subway is harder, for though the blue accessible seats are scattered throughout. One needs to pay more attention on the subway, or when in doubt, just stand if you can.

31. It hurts my heart when parents tell their kids–or adults tell themselves–that they can’t be writers because they need to earn a living. As if the only stories we need are those of the independently wealthy! With a few extremely brief exceptions, I have always worked full-time to support myself while I wrote my books and it’s tiring but fine. That won’t work for everyone, but there are many other paths! Really, many! Please, always look for ways to tell your stories!

32. Unsolicited advice is almost never cool unless someone is about to drive into a ditch or do something else immediately dangerous. Thanks for humouring me–I promise this is it unless I’m asked…until 50!!

December 4th, 2015

Way back: Grade Nine Flight

I don’t usually go on about my old published work–I figure if anyone wanted to buy my books they could figure out how, and if they wanted to read a particular story they could google it or check my “publications” link above and try to find it. But there’s a few stories that didn’t get into a book and aren’t available, or aren’t easily, on the web.

Grade Nine Flight was my third acceptance ever, and my second publication (because of how speedy online publishing is. It came out in the December 2006 edition of the old version of The Danforth Review, that wonderful online mag but out by Michael Bryson (the new version of The Danforth Review remains wonderful, but does not include the archives of the old one. Rather, those archives are housed at Libraries and Archives Canada, which is a wonderful service but doesn’t appear to be google-search-able. So if you were looking for this story that way you wouldn’t find it, but why would you even be, because who has heard of this story I published nearly 10 years ago?

So here it is–the link above should work, if you’d like to read the story. I read it over lunch, and even though it’s so different than the stuff I’m writing nowadays, I still really like it. Is it bad to admit that? I feel so distant from the person I was when I wrote like that, saying I like it doesn’t even feel like vanity–that writer is another person entirely, I feel.

Yet, I know I wrote it, and I remember why: my brother was travelling abroad for a year, and I missed him. Even though none of the characters are based on anyone I know, the vibe of kids living in a house together is definitely something I am personally familiar with, and some of the games they play and conversations they have and tv shows they watch are things I remember fondly from my childhood.

It’s weird that I’m nostalgic for the person I was when I wrote “Grade Nine Flight,” but that person was nostalgic for a yet earlier period. We never get done longing for things, it seems (though I am very glad my brother lives nearby now).

If you read the story, please let me know what you think!

June 2nd, 2015

Things I feel awkward about

Oh, they are many and legion, the things I feel awkward about. In this case, I am not referring to social awkwardness, although those things are many and legion, too. Today I want to talk about experiences that weren’t awesome or terrible and that maybe I still haven’t fully processed–I just don’t feel exactly one thing about them and that is…awkward. These were all going to be separate blog posts and then I realized a) I won’t write that many blog posts in the next few weeks, and after a few weeks these topics will all feel irrelevant and b) they fit together this tidy theme. And so…things that made me feel awkward lately…

Career Day I usually agree to do just about whatever I’m asked if it gets me an opportunity to speak to young people. I’m at an age where teenagers and early twentysomethings won’t speak to me voluntarily at a party or even at work, but all my friends still have only little kids, so they can’t help me much with the zeitgeist (though they do help me get to swing on swings without anyone giving me weird looks). So I did a career day at UofT and it was definitely an awkward experience. I was on a panel on working in education, which was a bit weird as everyone else taught in some format. Youth today is much for savvy than I was in my uni years, and much more goal oriented. In part, they have to be–the job market it is tougher now than in 2001 when I graduated, and it was plenty tough then. I saw a lot of fear in the eyes of the people at the seminar, and I wanted to help them but I wasn’t sure how. One way they very much were like me in my youth is that they couldn’t really process the idea of jobs they hadn’t heard of before–teachers made sense to them, along with firemen and doctors and crossing guards, I’m sure. For those not playing along at home, I am a production project manager and that most definitely did not make sense to anyone there–I thought I explained pretty succinctly (and my job isn’t rocket surgery, as they say, though it’s pretty interesting/challenging) but most of the young folk were looking right through me. Hell, maybe they knew exactly what i was talking about, but just didn’t want any part of it. I did get a sense of the zeitgist (panic!) but other than that the day was kind of sad.

Klout Scores I had the opportunity to go to a seminar on how to land a book contract, and even thought I actually already have a book contract (and I can’t say enough hoorays about that) I went–it’s always good to know more about the business, and I wasn’t doing anything else. It turns out I learned a tonne, because the author who was speaking has an American agent and submitted her book to only American houses. It is VERY different over there. (Also, I should point out that the speaker, Rachel McMillan was so incredibly charming and well-spoken that it was worth the hour just to listen to her, and I will defo buy her book when it comes out!)

Anyway, to publish in the States is a very different thing, it seems, than publishing in Canada, and one of the differences is how many things other than an author you need to be. Skilled marketer and respected influencer are two; the presentation touched on Klout scores, which are a measure of how known/respected/influential we are on the inter webs. All of us, even if you don’t register for Klout or look into it, you are still out there, with our certain amount of influence in the world.

I’m really into quantifying stuff so even though I’d like to pretend I don’t care about Klout scores, of course I set off immediately to find mine out. It was a 10/100, which I felt sort of bad about but resigned to, but it turned out it took a few days for the data to feed into the system–now I’m a 52. On the one hand, that’s a bare pass; on the other, Rachel said influence begins at 35. I don’t even know if telling you this is appropriate in polite company–is this like revealing my weight?

Christina Kelly Has a Blog It’s called Fallen Princess and I love it even though it makes me squirm. If you’re not familiar with this writer, she was one of my heroes back in the early 1990s when she wrote for Sassy. When Sassy, the best and weirdest teen-girl magazine I’d encountered crashed and burned, I was already 16 and basically ready to leave the teen-girl mag world behind and actually, gendered magazines full stop, so I missed out on the rest of Kelly’s career there–she went on to Jane, YM, Elle Girl…and apparently did good work at all. For some reason, even though the Sassy writers put a lot of their personalities into their writing and I loved them all, I didn’t attempt to find out where they went or what they did next. Actually, I do know why that is, if I’m honest–I read them as fictional characters, and when Sassy ended, the novel I was reading about these people ended.

At that point in my life, the first person was verboten in anything but novels–everything for school or even the student paper or the yearbook was supposed to be this weird unbiased unreferenced speaker. The first glimpse I got of self-referential journalism and criticism–the world that would become the blogosphere–is via Sassy. And Rose-coloured is actually where you can hear the greatest influence of that kind of writing; if you follow the link above to Fallen Princess, you’ll hear a voice that echos distinctly around here.

Christina Kelly was the tougher, scarier one at Sassy–known for her sarcasm and being in a rock band. I thought she was an amazing super-adult, and I dreamed of having her life while simultaneously knowing I’m not cut out for a rock-and-roll lifestyle and I don’t understand sarcasm. And honestly, I’ve done a lot of amazing things in my failed attempt to become the person I imagined CK to be in 1994 (that’s a tough sentence to get right, but I think I got it), so the result was excellent.

But now, having stumbled upon this blog, I’m startled to discover that the target has shifted and Kelly, while still a charmingly brusque and funny writer, is also a suburban full-time mom, Girl Guide leader and yoga-doer. She still sounds like an excellent person to meet for dinner, but I no longer wish to be her. Maybe I’m just older and no longer wish to be anyone other than myself (which is true) but also I think this is a good lesson that people change and life changes and you’re not always on the road you think you are on. Or something.

I don’t really have an issue with the suburbs or the yoga or the Girl Guides, but I’m distinctly uncomfortable with the regularly-bubbling-to-the-surface subtext of the blog, which is that it is f–king hard to be a writer. I found this Non writer post kind of heartbreaking, because it is such a well written (right until it trails off onto another topic, but such is the license of blogs) meditation on not writing. But the post I Am Actually an Actual Feminist Housewife is probably the best post on the blog (and yes, when I found out Fallen Princess existed, I did go back to the first post and read it straight through like a novel–I often do that. Maybe I sort of wish everything was a novel.) It’s so complicated and honest and when you finish reading it, there’s no designated response, no obvious, “right on!” or “what you should have done” or anything–you just need to think about it.

So the awkward thing is that I’d like CK to write more for publication so I could read it, but I also think I’m happy for her that she’s comfortable making the choice not to…for now.

May 22nd, 2015

My Life in Birthdays

As I approach epic 37 on Saturday, I have been thinking about birthdays past and trying to see how many I can recall. When I began writing this post, I didn’t think I could make it have a larger meaning than “It’s fun for me to remember” but the time I’d delved backwards through 15 years of notes and photos and diaries, trying to figure out how I spent each milestone, I realized that I had learned something–I feel in the moment like I never change but I have… 23-year-old RR was so different from almost-37-year-old RR that it’s shocking. I think I have finally impressed upon myself that I am truly aging. How odd. Anyway, here’s how I spent every birthday, more or less, since my champagne year…

36: I threw a big birthday party for myself, something I hadn’t done since high school. Somehow I thought people would find it self-important or an imposition, which doesn’t make any sense because I go to lots of self-thrown birthday parties myself and find them delightful. So I did it and it was wonderful and I suppose if anyone was annoyed by it, they just didn’t come–lesson learned!!

35:  This was a more chill birthday. It had occurred to me that I never go to fancy restaurants even though I am no longer dead broke and could do so once in a while. So Mark and I went to Joso’s for Italian style seafood and a decor of naked ladies. It was pretty great.

34: I was able to pull up the other memories here without any help, but I can’t for the life of me remember what I did this year. There’s no blog post about it and no birthday pictures on Facebook except for my colleagues taking me out to East Side Mario’s, as they do every year (love!) But usually I would do something else in the evening or on the weekend to celebrate…very mysterious. If you were there, what happened??

33:  Challenging birthday–I had to go to NYC for 24 hours for a reading, plus I had both mono and a terrible rash from some misprescribed medication. But I got home and Mark gave me ice-cream cake and then I felt better.

32: Mark and I went to Montreal and I got the courier bag I carry to this day. I also maintain 32 is the best age because it is the only 5th power in the human lifespan. I enjoyed it anyway!

31: I was visiting my brother in Tokyo and we did a whole day of celebrating. One of my favourite birthdays ever (36 is also in that category).

30: My good friend Penny threw me a birthday party in the party room of her condo, although curiously this post doesn’t mention that–I wonder why? Anyway, it was a fun party and I remember it fondly. However, unlike all of the above birthdays, this one seems like a different era, a very long time ago. And it really was a different time–Penny moved out of that condo shortly thereafter, my friend Kim who brought a multi-tiered neon-frosted cake to the party went on to move to England, Kerry and Stuart were at the party and they didn’t have any children yet!! Most importantly, I suppose, though it seems all of a piece, this is the last birthday before I met the man whom I later married. Truly this was a previous age of RR.

29: Apparently I went to Port Dover with my family for my 29th birthday but honestly this isn’t a crystal-clear memory. 2007 was also the first year of this blog, so props to that!

28: We are now fully in territory I don’t remember, but I can check diaries and photo albums to figure it out. I spent this birthday with my family, as my brother had just returned from most of a year abroad and I was very glad to see him. Apparently the Kimster also gave me a kit to hand-embroider a silk scarf, which sounds so lovely but what did I do with that??

27: This is now pre-Facebook for me and my diary deals but a glancing blow on the birthday. I seem to have been in a bit of a low state on my birthday, frightened of going back to school and being unemployable. Fred came to visit shortly after the birthday and that cheered me up. As well it would!

26: Apparently I went to see Shrek 2 on my 26th birthday??? This is where old RR differs significantly from young RR, as I can’t imagine why I would have wanted to do that. It’s starting to feel a bit creepy, investigating these old events as if they were the work of a stranger into whom I have no insights.

25: All I know is I described the day as “excellent” and Melanie gave me sea monkeys. I seem to remember those sea monkeys…maybe. Also, I made this statement–really funny to me now that I felt mocking of the idea of Young People when I was all of 25. “I am all lethargic and groggy. All I want to do is lie on the couch and read Fashion, a truly dreadful magazine that my mother receives in the mail for no reason and saves for me because it seems, in her eyes, to be meant for Young People”

24: My notes from my 24th birthday are a bit demented. Apparently I was working at both of the jobs I had at that point on my birthday, as well as going to a class, so my plan was to “go out at midnight.” Not sure what I meant by that–hope I had fun! I sound very tired in this entry.

23: I was living at home after university graduation at this point and a touch depressed, but I actually do remember this birthday because my home bedroom still contains a “Becky is 23!” banner that Kim brought over. I think there was cake and other friends in there too. I was excited that it was my champagne birthday even though I had no desire to drink champagne…and didn’t.

22: I didn’t keep any kind of diary (that I recall, anyway) in university, but because I stayed in Montreal the summer after third year and almost none of my friends did, I can guess by default I spent this birthday with my friend Wren and maybe Zainab. I have a vague sense that maybe we saw a movie…?

 And that’s as far as I can even guess. The summers after first and second years I went back to Ontario to work so I guess I spent my birthdays with people there, but I don’t recall. I could start going through high-school diaries and photo albums but I actually really don’t want to–this is enough nostalgia for one post.

Only one pre-20s birthday stands out, which is my 16th. I had read a story somewhere in which a girl was born in a leap year on February 29, so her birthday only occurs every four years. Thus, when she’s 16, it’s her “fourth” birthday and she throws a party appropriate for pre-schoolers. Which I thought was awesome, so I did it too, even though my birthday isn’t on February 29. Details! I remember my friends and I really enjoyed this silliness–I guess we all like having a little glimpse of our youth every now and then…

 

March 31st, 2015

The Late-Onset Adult: Tax Tips

I think late-onset adulthood is fairly common in our society now–even the phrase “live at home” has developed a meaning specific to recent times (surely we all, in fact, live at home). And frankly, at 36, I’m rather proud of all the grownup things I do–I support myself financially, I shop for and prepare healthy meals, pay bills, care for cats and occasionally other people’s children, take myself to the doctor when I’m sick, travel, even drive a car if I absolutely have to. I’ve booked hotels, helped friends in trouble, run meetings, navigated strange cities, gone to parties alone, hell, I even got married. Sometimes I add it all up (usually when I’m on the subway for some reason) I’m genuinely shocked that I’m so…functional.

But I don’t do my own taxes. I’ve always found this rather embarrassing, but every year I still bundled up the papers and trucked them off to my mom. She does the whole family, and is very very good at it. She used to be part of a volunteer squad who would go to nursing homes and community centres in low-income areas and do tax returns for whomever asked. When she wasn’t able to volunteer any more (logistical reasons), she still had us to keep her busy.

But really, taxes are stressful and I’ve been feeling guilty about putting the burden on her. Also, a bit embarrassed at not really understanding my own financial matters. So I’m on a slow, easy path to tax maturity–this is year three, and I figure there’s probably about three more in the process. I thought I’d share how I’m doing this, in case you’d also like to try for tax maturity. A few caveats…

* this process probably won’t work unless the person who is doing your taxes is doing it out of love–a parent, sibling, partner, or close friend–someone who is willing to help you however you want to be helped, and spend a lot of time with you to do it. This will probably not work with, say, a professional tax preparer.

* my taxes are semi-complex due to the fact that I have both a day-job and a small business as a writer and editor. I don’t earn all that much from my biz, but it’s all in little scraps and so are the deductions I have to take against the earnings (true fact: I got a T4A for $25 this year). Plus I’m dealing with lots of little, disorganized publications and groups, so they don’t always issue their paperwork properly–or at all–so I have to keep detailed records of what actually happened to present to the CRA. This makes my taxes more confusing, and much bulkier, than those of someone who just has a job with a single T4 and then some deductions and that’s it. So that sort of person could likely zip through the process a lot faster than me.

* I do my taxes by hand, because that’s how my mom does them. Apparently there’s all kinds of software that makes things easier, but if I used them then my mom couldn’t help me and I am only halfway through the process so I still REALLY need her help. I figure in a few years, when I’ve really got things sorted, I will try to learn the software–for now, my forms come from the post office and I mail them in a manila envelope. No online tax tips here.

Ok, here we go…

Year 0 (as many year 0s as you need): Sort through your receipts and slips and give the person doing your taxes an orderly set of papers. Sift out all the unnecessary stuff. If you’re me, you keep any vaguely important paper in a box all year–receipts for things you might want to return, vet bills, notices from your landlord–and only at tax time do you sort through and shred the stuff you didn’t wind up needing. At least, I do that now–I’m ashamed to admit there was a time when I just gave the box to my mother and let her decide to do with that fully-paid dentist bill.

In addition to simply removing the useless stuff, try asking the person helping you what categories the papers should be sorted into and then do that (the first year I also organized within categories by date, but I found out that’s pointless). This allows you to not only take some of the stress off your helping person, but also start to form a basic sense of how taxes work. I actually wrote a decent story set in a tax preparation class way back in 2007 based only on this sort of info. You can learn a lot just by making neat little piles of papers.

Year 1: Show up with your papers for your mom or other helpful soul to do your taxes, but then–this is big–stay. Don’t run away and let the tax preparation process remain mysterious–stay and watch, and hopefully your person will narrate what’s going on. I’m lucky (very lucky!) in that both my folks are born teachers and my mom is at ease not only working on the taxes but explaining what she’s doing. I wish you similar luck, but you may have to ask more questions if you’re not able to follow. Don’t be too intrusive, bring tea, offer shoulder rubs, and try not to let your mind wander. This is the last low-stress year, since you’re just absorbing the process and no one is asking any hard questions of you. But again, you should still be learning.

Year 2: Ok, this is the first scary year–show up with your papers, bring your person a cup of tea and now YOU do the taxes, with your helpful person watching. This can end up a lot like year 1, in that if you stare blankly at a piece of paper long enough the person who knows what she’s doing will probably just tell you what to do next, and if you do that enough times you’ll eventually be done the whole tax return. Try to make some stabs at finding your own next move, and trust your person to tell if you’re screwing up. Keep a copy of the Year 1 tax return handy, too, so you can imitate what worked last time around when the much smarter person was doing the return.

Year 3: Do your taxes by yourself based on what you’ve learned so far, the guidance of reviewing last year’s return, and the occasional phone call (I may or may not have called my mother 6 times in March specifically about taxes) or email. At the end of this process, give the completed return (good copy, but be prepared to make an even better copy) to your person to make sure you didn’t go off the rails anywhere. This is the year I’m just completing–I handed over my forms on Sunday at brunch, and I’m feeling pretty darn proud. I guess I should wait until I get the feedback before counting any grown-up gold stars, though…

Year 4: This is a projected year, but I anticipate it’ll be similar to Year 3 except with fewer phone calls.

Year 5: I think I’ll try to learn the software this year, which means I can call for advice during the process but I can’t  show my mom the final product (because it’ll live in the internet somehow? do I have this right?) I really should be ok with that at this point, I think–especially with the in-process phone calls.

Year 6: I’m not sure this is really as close as three years out, but eventually I want to be the sort of person my mom is, tax-wise and generous with said wisdom. My aim is to take over my husband’s taxes and save him the money he’s currently spending on H&R Block, but I’d only do that if we were really feeling confident, because I find another person’s documents trickier to understand than my own. And then perhaps I’ll go further afield, wandering the streets and helping others with taxery. I shall be beneficent and carry a flaming calculator…

Well, you get the idea! Did you come to any useful life skills at a later age? How did you do it?

May 12th, 2014

The no-house blues

I am a relatively lucky person, I freely admit it. I’m also a pretty hard worker with low standards. So, what I mean by that is, I’m not troubled by a relatively large amount of work, and a relatively small amount of stuff–and I’ve been lucky enough to get opportunities to do the work and get the stuff I want. While I do enjoy material possessions, I don’t need very many or very nice ones to feel happy–my pink $30 skirt from Target thrills me every time I put it on. If you gave me a nicer skirt, I would probably wear and like that too, but I wouldn’t go looking/shopping for it.

What all of the above adds up to is I’m pretty generally happy. It’s nice, but the side effect is my being a bit spoiled, in that I’m relatively unused to the feeling of wanting something material that I can’t have. I want few enough things things, and I earn enough money that when I do want something–trip to visit friends, out of season fruit, pink skirt–I can usually afford it. I haven’t been dissatisfied in the standard capitalistic way in a long time.

But I do not have a house and, judging from current trends, I won’t be getting one. I understand that this is not a tragedy; many people are unhoused in a more literal sense while I am lucky enough to have a relatively large and nice apartment where the kitties run free all day.

But it is not a house. It has no front door into the street, and no backyard in which to plant things. I can’t go “up to bed” or “come down to breakfast” rights of daily passage that I always expected to have as an adult. I have no basement in which to store holiday decoration, out of season clothes, and other things that i do not wish to be reminded every day that I own. I’m not making an investment in my future/the city of Toronto/”the market” either. I don’t know where my husband and I will live when we are old, let alone the cats. All this makes me sad.

I love that I live in a thriving vibrant city with vast and various neighbourhoods, a bajillion parks, tonnes of cultural institutions and a relatively healthy job market. But the price I pay for it is a literal one–almost every time I see a listing on a real-estate websites for a house in our price range, it is listed as a “teardown” or only slightly better, a “handyman’s dream.”

Tiny Rebecca assumed that adulthood would include stairs, a basement, and a yard, because that’s what her parents have. But adulthood is doing your best with the circumstances–emotional and physical–that you find yourself in, not enjoying a set of generic perks that everyone gets upon reaching a certain age (would that it were). I’m sure my husband and I actually could buy a house, if we were willing to take on a terrifying level of debt that would cancel most of our fun in life (even pink-skirt buying) or move out of this city that we love. But we won’t because doing those things would make us sadder than buying a house would make us happy (I think the cats would be happier in the house and they wouldn’t have to pay the mortgage/sacrifice the skirts, but they don’t get a vote).

Not having a house is not a tragedy, it’s not even something worth getting upset about–it’s just an expectation adjustment. But I *am* sad, because past conceptions of the future are hard to let go of. This post has no real larger message than that: I’m sad, but I shouldn’t be. I’ll try to stop.

May 5th, 2014

Hanging with the youth

During my vacation, I offered to participate in a couple of old-leading-young type events. I had the free time, plus lots of people helped me when I was a whippersnapper, so I like to pay it forward. Plus, more selfishly, I’ve crossed the age wire where young people will talk to me socially without a reason, and I miss them. Sometimes they talk to me in social situations, but only if I am friends with their parents and their parents have taught/ordered/prodded them to be polite. That opportunity with teens or older is rare, as most of my friends have little kids–7 and under–and those ones still like me for no real reason. If I want to talk to teens or early-twentysomethings, I need to find something I have that they want, and wave it like a carrot.

Why do I want to do this? Because I’m a writer, and an inherently nosy person. I want to know what everyone is doing, wearing, thinking about, and listening to on their iPods. It irritates me that there are demographics I don’t have access to right now, and so while I’m waiting for my friends’ kids to get older, I go further afield.

Hence the two events last week. The first one was a career-day type event for graduate students/those considering grad school at UofT, run by the Backpack to Briefcase folks. Unlike previous panels of this nature that I’ve been on, no one on this panel was spouting nonsense like, “Follow your dreams” and “Be the best you you can be” so I didn’t feel I had to run interference to give elementary practical advice like “get practical skills and put them on your resume.” In fact, everyone on this panel was REALLY sharp and accomplished–I was actually the least so, and the youth weren’t too interested in talking to me. That was a little boring, but fine since they were receiving really excellent advice from my colleagues.

Impressions: students were tidy, well-dressed in mainly nondescript ways, polite and respectful. They were all obviously accomplished students and sometimes had to dumb down descriptions of their academic work so that we could understand. Almost everyone asked clear and interesting questions, though some of them seemed a little under-researched–there are lots of easy templates you can find to make a resume, so asking at a panel discussion seemed odd. But I think a lot of the folks at the presentation were not yet graduating, so it makes sense that they weren’t really ready for the job market. They were all quite sharp and poised, but I did wish they had a *little* less distain for non-academic jobs. My real advice, which no one asked for, is that they should take part-time or summer work outside of the university while they worked on their degrees, so they could see for themselves what maybe their profs aren’t telling them–every job has its good and bad bits, and none are completely fulfilling. There are many ways to put together a good life. Seeing one ideal option (professorship) and a host of lesser ones is a good way to be sad a lot of the time. Again, no one asked for that sort of advice, so I didn’t say it straight up, but I tried strongly to hint at it.

The second event was probably a lot more up my alley: the Toronto Council of Teachers of English run a short-story contest for high-schoolers every year, and if you make the long list your prize is a lunch and afternoon workshop with a local writer. I was thrilled to be one of said writers, and tried hard to be worthy of my “prize” status. I couldn’t have been more impressed with the 10 students I got to work with–actually, all the other writers said the same, so apparently there was pretty uniform awesomeness at this event.

There was little hyper-fashion in my group of 14-18 year-olds–just lots of jeans and long flowing hair for the girls, jeans and plain shirts for the boys. The girl sitting next to me had picked a pattern of holes in her black tights that looked like a solar system–gorgeous–but otherwise it was mainly the teen standard of trying not to try.

But outside of fashion, these kids were SO keen. I have a speech I make to young workshoppers about being generous in giving as much and as detailed feedback as possible, and doing the work of specifically digging into the details rather than generically chirping, “So good!” which doesn’t help anyone. These kids did NOT need these speech–right through 10 stories they kept up lending each insight, support, and genuinely constructive criticism.

The standard of the stories was also very high–obviously I had my favourites, but everything brought to the table was worth reading. If you are curious, I suggest having a browse through the many awesome stories posted on the website for the contest. You’ll be impressed!

So in short, the kids are more than all right–they are smart, self-possessed, generous and funny. I would have loved a few more hours to pick their brains about tv, movies, their studies, and their parents, but I couldn’t make that not seem creepy. There was actually a “networking event” after the Backpack to Briefcase panel, but I didn’t quite feel comfortable accosting strange young people and asking them career questions, even if it was ostensibly for their own benefit. I left quickly, with complete confidence that they’d be fine without me.

November 1st, 2013

Rose-coloured reviews Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

I reread Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, the second in Helen Fielding’s series, to prepare for reading the third, which is just out. The first of these books is a classic, and when I reread it last Christmas it held up just fine. It’s a very Christmassy book, which is why I had it out, but beyond the holiday spirit, beyond the nostalgia for a time in my life when I saw my friends every second day and told them EVERY SINGLE THING, it’s simply a very funny, very charming book. Bridget’s a nitwit, of course, but a sweet one you can root for, and Fielding really makes a very simple girl-nabs-boy-after-lots-of-chaos story work in that first book.

In the second…eh, not so much. BJ #1 is a book that spawned a genre, and it really shouldn’t have–it’s a good book, but simply not deep or complex to support a host of imitators with much variation. The later chicklit was all. the. same. (I haven’t read everything, of course, and Marian Keynes is an exception, though a number of her novels are something other than the chicklit.) Some was a bit funnier than others, some a bit more realistic, some a bit less. But it was all manic and bouncy and reveling in the shallowness of fashion and self-help and dieting without Fielding’s dollop of self-aware irony. And, kinda, so is BJ #2–it’s later chick-lit, and it’s not as good.

Bridget’s still sweetly dopey, of course, but now sometimes she’s such a dope that it’s hard to believe she deserves to see everything work out. Her friends are bitchier and/or dumber in this book, depending on which friend, and sometimes you don’t really believe they’re doing her any favours with all their “support.” The biggest problem, surprisingly, is the absence of a villain. In the first BJ novel, we had Daniel Cleaver, Bridget’s boss, crush, and eventually, terrible boyfriend. He was a jerk, but a hilarious sardonic jerk and I loved reading about him even as I hated him (and Hugh Grant’s performance as Daniel is the best part of the film version, in my opinion, especially when he falls out of the boat).

There is no such delightful jerk in this novel. Bridget’s boyfriend is actually the dreamboat Mark Darcy, who is always right and super-sweet and thus a fairly dull foil for Bridget. He does have some nice moments–not being able to find the fridge in his own kitchen is sweet–but mainly Mark is banished from the narrative. Either Bridget or Fielding isn’t able to cope with the idea of a functioning adult relationship, so entangles Mark a barely funny series of misunderstandings and then they break up.

I do not accept Tolstoy’s premise of happiness being dull, and I think if Fielding had tried harder we could’ve had some fun with a happy couple (my parents have been married 41 years, and they’re hilarious).

Instead, the novel just kind of rambles for a while. When I first started the reread, I wondered why the movie centred so much on the Thailand bit, since that didn’t start up in the book for 200 pages. But, when I got there, I realized that it was because it was the funny bit. Actually, the immediately preceding bit, where Pretentious Jerome is reading essentially gay erotica to the Lifeboat book club, and then Bridget’s dad and Admiral Darcy burst in and begin reciting Rudyard Kipling’s “If” is one of the most sublime bits of comic writing I’ve read in a while. And the book gets better and better from there, ending at a point where you’re once again rooting for Bridget and Mark to hook it up, those crazy kids. But there’s the 200 pages before that that we’re just going to have to not count, because well…meh.

I am SO curious about the third book in the series. I’m also #600 on the library waiting list, so it’ll be a while. I’ll keep you posted.

July 25th, 2013

YA Round Up part 2: Moral Ambiguity

Following up on my first post on my YA reading experiences, I’d like to talk about a topic not particularly dear to my heart but, I feel, still necessary to being a human: moral ambiguity.

This is one area where I feel that YA writers have advanced considerably since my youth. Maybe I’m just misremembering, or was reading the wrong books at the time, but I recall the YA novels of the late eighties and early nineties being exclusively about exclusively good people. Earnest souls trying to do the right thing while still having a good time and maybe getting a boyfriend/girlfriend. Whereas, in Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mother, Violet does something truly terrible in the first chapter–tricks her toddler half-sisters into eating cat excrement. She’s mad at her dad and taking it out on the little and vulnerable, but it takes her the whole book to own up to her failing. And that’s not even the plot of the book–lots of other stuff is going on, and Violet’s realization that she has hurt little children for no reason is interleaved carefully, not a huge moment, but a quiet meaningful one.

Just to be clear, the George Clooney book is technically middle-grades: the protagonist is 12 and the recommended readers are 10+. When you get to the teen years, a few things change–most particularly, genres split off from the whole mass of “age-appropriate books.” For instance, I read two Harlequin Teen books by Hannah Harrington (I didn’t mean to read two by the same author–I got confused–so I’ll try someone else from the imprint soon). In both of the these books, the heroine (definitely a heroine and not a protagonist) is kept pure as the driven–she feels so sensitive, so *guilty* for something that’s gone wrong, but in both the terrible Saving June and the kind of ok Speechless, the final catharsis is not the heroine taking responsibility for her actions but in fact, deciding her guilt is unreasonable and she’s not at fault for anything. Powerful role models–ha!

In better books, the characters are more complex and it’s not as simple as “good person/bad person” or even “good action/bad action.” In the super-famous The Hunger Games, 24 children battle to the death (I know, when you put it that way…) I was really scared that author Suzanne Collins would carefully set up the action so that protagonist Katniss Everdeen would never have to deliberately kill anyone, but somehow through her strength and ingenuity still win anyway. Such a classic YA move. But Collins comes through in the end, with Katniss causing some deaths indirectly and finally actually murdering some kid. It’s an odd kind of victory, but hurray!

Authors of the protagonists-are-heros camp believe that young readers can only root for a character that never does anything wrong. Actually, lots of writers of adult fiction believe that too, and hell, it’s true for some readers. But it’s condescending to assume I can’t tell the difference between someone who was put in a bad position or screwed up, and someone purely evil. I think it’s a good lesson for young adults to learn, and also reading about these grey-area folks makes reading so much lesson boring.

That said, I do feel the characters in Gossip Girl are so bad they’re boring. If no one ever tells the truth, it’s as predictable and dull as if they always are honest. My dislike of this book (I refer only to the first GG book, not the series–I think I’m done now) might stem not from the moral-one-noteness but from the entirely separate issue of incredibly low stakes. Who cares if the couple that has no love or respect for each other has sex with each other or other people entirely? Who cares if a pretty girl feels lonely at a party for a minute? I mean, I’ve known some shallow rich people in my day, but come *on.*

I think I’m going to read a grown-up book next–I need a break from all this youth! But I’ll be back with more YA roundup in August, promise!

You know you love me (Gossip Girl joke!)

July 16th, 2013

YA Roundup

Over the past 6 or 8 months, I’ve been reading a lot of YA (young adult) novels. This is something I haven’t done since I was, in fact, a young adult. Very young, actually, since I more or less stopped reading this sort of fiction when I entered high-school, before my critical skills were really up to par. A lot of what I was reading back then was pretty bad. Which is fine–I totally endorse a tween’s right to read crap, and I doubt it did me any harm (though I have an unquenchable desire for a red Spider Fiat).

But when I restarted YA reading after that 20-year hiatus, I wanted to read the good stuff, because someone had asked me if I could write a YA novel and I had no idea. I figured I would try to read the best of the genre and see if it inspired any ambition in me. No one wants to write trex, and while I probably can’t be the best myself, if you aim for the moon and miss, you are still among the stars, right?

The learning curve has been steep, because YA has *way* evolved since 1992–earnestness is out, drugs and sex aren’t just for bad girls (what, you think Jessica Wakefield had sex????), and the slang is all different now. I know, I know, there’s lots of good books from back in the day, but why not look at the current context, the one in which I could conceivably be writing in.

At first, I also had lots of other rules: no sci-fi or fantasy (because I can’t write that), all Canadian, a few others I can’t remember. Those went by the wayside–I don’t have a tonne of people in my life to recommend these books, so if it looks promising I go for it. Also, I can read a YA novel in a day or two, so they don’t take up much time (and make me feel smarty!) so why not try everything.

Here’s what I found out about the state of the YA novel in 2013. Please keep in mind I’ve only read a dozen or so books so far, with new ones regularly, so these impressions could change… Also I think I will break this post up into installments because, as ever, I am chatty.

Cad dads and trampy moms
If you trace the evolution of YA back to The Grimms’ Fairy Tales (I don’t know if anyone else does that, but it makes sense to me), you’ll see authors have been desperate to knock parents out of the picture for a long time. Moms are always dying in childbirth, dads off to war in the Grimm days. In mine, it was divorce and absentee dads–lots of sad moms drinking wine in the kitchen when their kids got back from the court-ordered non-custodial parent’s weekend. I know that that is a reality many kids face now, and always have in its various forms, but I do think it’s often a writer’s way of not having to write so many darn characters!

That is still going on, but it’s way dirtier now–if you’ll pardon the image, moms and dads are getting laid now. While plenty of dads ran off with mistresses back in the day, now it’s way more explicit: in one of my favourite reads so far, Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mother, Violet’s dad runs off with a big-breasted starlet (standard for me) and her mom dates a string of losers and flashes her thong in a Facebook photo. NON-STANDARD.

Now, instead of writing parents out of the action, authors are writing them off–I came across so many stupid, self-absorbed, slutty parents in my reading. I think this is a convenient way for authors to clear a path for kid characters to have adventures no parents would sanction if they were decent at the gig. In the incredibly far-fetched Saving June, Harper drives across the country with a stranger because her sister died and her depressive mom is so useless. Dad’s out of the picture. In the much more realistic Red Rage, Mara spirals into tragedy because her parents are basically the worst people one earth (but realistically depicted, I swear). In The Hunger Games (yes, I said no sci-fi, but who can stand up against that kind of hype?) Katniss’s mom is, again, a weak idiot who relys on her teen daughter to keep her from ruin.

When I complained to a friend who teaches grade 6 about this “all parents are losers” theme, she said I don’t know how bad some kids have it, and fair enough–I have good parents who never appear on Facebook. But I still think making a teen protagonist essentially parent-free is cheating. Like I’m not saying Jillian’s situation in Wicked Sweet–abandoned by her evil-incarnate mother day after day to take care of half a dozen siblings under 8–would not have happened in real life. I’m saying it would be an emergency and Children’s Aid would’ve shown up in chapter 2. A lot of these books give the false sense that 16-year-olds can do anything, and parents are just dead-weight.

That’s why I liked The Perks of Being a Wallflower so much (so did everyone, I guess). Charlie’s parents are present, his siblings are important parts of his life, grandparents, an aunt, cousins–he lives in a fully realized world that Steven Chbosky took pains to imagine in detail.

I guess what I’m saying is that I read as a writer, and as a writer summarily saying, “This person is bad, let’s not talk about them anymore” is sloppy writing most of the time.

***

Whoo, I have a lot to say on this topic–more topics soon!

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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