Friday, October 28, 2005

Happy Layoff Anniversary to Me

Two years ago today, I was fired from my job as a technical writer at a small software company. I’d been there for a year and a half, but I had no illusions about job security. That lay-off was my third one in four years. While I might have thought I’d broken the curse when I passed my one year anniversary, I wasn’t really surprised when I was laid off on 28 October 2003. My only surprise is that it didn’t happen in November, my nemesis month when it comes to lay-offs, deaths and bad luck.

Being a veteran of lay-offs, I was able to laugh and joke through the exit interview. Lay-off #3 was a different beast than Lay-off #2, where I burst into tears talking to the so-called outplacement co-ordinator, a contractor who ostensibly was supposed to ease my transition into the job search market although in reality I think her chief function was to assess my mental state and determine if I was going to trash the network or lead an angry mob on a riot through the cubicle farm.

With lay-offs, how people take it is due, in large part, to how the company treats the event. At Company #3, the CEO was a very decent, honest guy who really didn’t want to have to lay people off. He had a couple of meetings with the entire company, to explain the situation and the possible courses of action. Everyone knew that lay-offs were imminent and when they happened, they happened in a humane manner.

At Company #2, the lay-offs were a stealth attack. It was the Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday and the HR department carefully orchestrated the event. The “safe” people were whisked away to a meeting so that they wouldn’t have to confront the fallen. The individual lay-offs were carefully scheduled and supervised so that the lay-off-ees couldn’t congregate. The HR person who did my lay-off wouldn’t tell me who else was laid off, she would only give me a percentage of the overall work force. It wasn’t until I got home that I found out most of my group had been axed.

Lay=off #2 was a lay-off by sniper. While the company may have felt it was protecting itself, its remaining employees and the confidentiality of the laid-off employees, the whole process was really just a gigantic institutionalized slap in the face.

Lay-off #3 marked the end (at least thus far) of my permanent regular employment. Since then, I’ve worked on a freelance or a contract basis. It’s not such a bad life, although the erratic and unpredictable income aspect of it can be a little unsettling, especially now that Peter is also pursuing the be-your-own-boss good life.

I think I could get used to contract work though. Sure, I’m going to have to figure out a way to make my own provisions for a pension and health insurance. But I like the flexibility. I like the idea of working for a couple of months in a cubicle farm and then working for a couple of months on my own novels and articles. I like to think of myself as a slightly higher-tech and better-paid version of an itinerant farm labourer.

In the 21st century, job security doesn’t exist. Working as a contractor keeps me from falling into a sense of complacency. I’ll never get too comfortable but I’ll also never have to see the Layoff Fairy in the doorway of my cubicle either.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

My New Gym

Editor’s Note: If you are related to me, say my father or my brother, I would suggest skipping this post as I might speak frankly about the sort of thing that you might not like to think about, being as how I’m your daughter or sister.

As part of my ongoing quest to put down roots and make this place my home, I joined a gym earlier this week. I’ve been a member of a gym or taken fitness classes for about eight years. I started out as a fat chick at the neighborhood YMCA, blubbering around in the pool without much enthusiasm. Then an 18-week program called FitStart introduced me to the treadmill and weight machines.

FitStart was my gateway drug. I became addicted to exercise and started running (okay, waddling along in) 5-Ks. The 5-Ks led to 10-Ks and the 10-Ks led to a couple of marathons. It took me a couple of years, but I lost a good chunk of weight and got my mile time down from a plodding 14+ minutes to a less laughable 8:30. I’m never going to race in the Olympics, but cars no longer slow down so frat boys can yell insults at my big behind.

I’ve been here in Dublin since April and have been trying to get on a consistent weight-lifting regimen, using dumbbells in the back garden. But it’s too easy, after running for an hour, to rush through the weights or just head right for the shower. I didn’t think of joining a gym because I didn’t think there was one that met my two criteria for gym selection – convenient and reasonably priced.

Convenience is THE key to regular and consistent gym usage. As for reasonably priced, I’m just a tight-wad and since we’re living in the Rip-Off Republic, I am suspicious of all service providers and goods sellers. This weekend, on the way home from the camogie match, one of my teammates mentioned there was a gym in the hotel down the street from where Peter and I are living. She said it was tiny but that it had a pool and they were capping membership so that the place wouldn’t get too crowded.

Sure enough, the Rochestown Lodge has a teeny-tiny gym alright. The entire place could be fit into the fitness room of one of the gyms I belonged to in Chicago. But since I can walk there in 2 minutes and those treadmills are going to look pretty damn good in December when it’s lashing cold, sleety-rain during the six freaking hours of daylight, I bit the bullet and joined up.

Today, I went to my new gym and I think it’s going to work out just fine. Since yesterday’s camogie training was pretty rough, I was just looking to lift weights and then take advantage of the hot tub and sauna. My right leg looks like I was attacked by a crazy girl with a stick, which is about half-true. The person responsible is actually very nice and it must be said, I’m sure I gave as good as I got.

After 20 minutes warming up on the treadmill, a short weight-lifting session and a 400-meter swim, I felt that I’d earned my time in the hot tub and the sauna. I don’t mind the 15-meter pool, the tiny weight lifting area or the miniscule aerobics studio. I can even live with the very small changing room. But there’s one thing about this new gym that is a huge bummer for me – co-ed hot-tub and sauna.

Ed. Note: Dad, Shane, you’ve been warned. I cannot be held responsible if you feel skeevy after reading further than this point.

A co-ed hot-tub and sauna are just not cool. There’s the obvious issue – if there’s some gross old guy in the hot-tub, I don’t want to share with him. Truth be told, I don’t want to share with anyone but I really don’t want to share with any leer-ers or drool-ers, you know?

But it’s more than that. The best gym I ever belonged to, Lake Shore Athletic Club, had great locker room facilities, which included a huge hot-tub and a roomy sauna. At first, I was very prim and proper and only used the facilities while wearing a bathing suit. But then, after the umpteenth hundredth time of having a nekkid woman climb into the hot-tub with me, I got over it. Yes, we’re all girls, we all have roughly the same equipment. And if you can’t let it all hang-out in the safety of the locker room, then where can you?

Once I got used to it (and really, after you got into the whirling water, who could see anything anyway?), I found I really enjoyed it. It was nice not having the constriction of a bathing suit. I did try to avoid getting into the hot-tub if it was already occupied, but this wasn’t always possible. It didn’t matter much though. Most women kept their eyes closed. It’s sort of how you ignore people in elevators or in crowded subway trains. It’s rude way of being polite – by acting like you have a confined space to yourself, you are paradoxically respecting other people’s personal space.

If you’ve never lived in a city where you have to commute on overly crowded trains – if you’ve never spent 30 minutes with your face practically crammed in someone else’s armpit – then this probably doesn’t make much sense. I know, it’s counterintuitive, but you learn to go with it.

After experiencing the bliss of nekkid hot-tubbing and sauna-ing, having to go back to prim-and-proper is a big disappointment. Not a deal breaker, of course, since my muscles appreciate the TLC of warm bubbly water and scorching hot air. But it’s like driving an ancient automatic-transmission wood-paneled station wagon after owning a sleek, sporty manual-transmission convertible. You still get from A to B, but you’re not having nearly as much enjoyment on the way there.

Monday, October 24, 2005

A Hair Away from a Breakdown

After the end of a relationship or the death of a loved one, there’s almost always that moment where you uncover one oftheir belongings. A t-shirt found in the bottom of the laundry hamper. A book wedged into the back of the bookcase. An old bottle opener left in the junk drawer.

The reaction to finding such an item is visceral. You remember the person wearing the shirt or you recall giving him the book as a gift. Depending on the relationship, your memory might be happy or sad, silly or angry. Finding the item is a surprise that churns up the memories and emotions, whether you want them or not.

In Chicago, we had a house full of pets. When it was time to move to Dublin, we had to find new homes for 2 cats and 2 dogs. Due to quarantine laws and the uncertainty of our living situation, taking them with us was just not an option. These animals were my child-substitutes and giving them up was like giving away a chunk of my heart.

The cats, Paddy and Jeeves, were difficult to place because no one wants adult cats, no matter how cute and loving they are. Everyone wants kittens. Paddy is a fussy calico who wants love and affection, but only on her own terms and schedule. Jeeves is a long-haired black and white tuxedo cat who is a veritable dishrag of love.

After a lengthy and fruitless search for new homes for our favourite felines, we had to take them to an animal shelter. It was a horrible, awful experience for all of us. But I’d volunteered at this shelter for 5 years and had a contact whom I could trust to ease the cats through the adoption process.

Finding a home for our younger dog was a lot easier. Caper, a three-year old blue heeler mix, is an attractive, loving and playful companion. We had no doubt that he would get snapped right up. A friend of Peter’s sister Ciara fell in love with Caper’s picture and description and arranged to fly him out to California. (I’ve never even been to California but now our former dog is living the good life outside of San Francisco.) Caper is truly a highly loved and pampered lucky dog.

If I thought finding homes for two adult cats would be difficult, I knew that finding a home for an eight-year old, nearly 100-lb. Great Dane-lab mix with hip and knee problems would be nearly impossible. Kodiak was my first dog and he and I were pretty much attached at the hip. We adopted him when we moved into a house. We’d been searching the shelters for weeks, looking for a laid-back, large, older dog, when I saw an ad for him in the newspaper. He was the perfect dog for us. He spent his days following me from room to room and he lived for Peter’s trips out of town, when he would get to sleep next to me in the guest bed.

I contacted Great Dane rescue groups, posted a pitiful plea on a Yahoo mailing list for injured dogs, and asked around at the barn where I volunteered, but all the softies out there were full-up on their quota of animals. We thought we’d found a home for him, but it fell through. We were running out of options. Peter was gently preparing me for Kodiak’s demise when my mother jumped in and saved the day. She broke out the doe eyes and asked my dad to adopt the mutt.

So now, here I am in Ireland, pet-free for the first time in eight years. As far as I can tell, there are only two benefits to being pet-free: 1.) not having to empty litter boxes, pick up poop or clean up vomit and 2.) our clothes are no longer full of animal hair.

Every once in a while, particularly when I take out clothes that I haven’t worn since our move, I find a cat whisker or a dog hair. Finding one of these cast-offs is like finding my grandmother’s favourite sweater. It brings back all of the memories and a deep ache of loss and longing. A normal person might grab the lint brush, maybe even feel a stab of annoyance. I have to fight back the tears as I remember the happy times we had with our dogs and cats.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Time Machine

Last week, I was cruising around on I-Tunes looking for some new music to supplement my running soundtrack. New, for me at least, usually turns out to be a relevant term. As in new to my collection, not new to the music world at large.

I try, I really do try, to go out and get new-new music. In fact, last week I was looking for a song called “Don’t Fail Me Now” by the Magic Numbers, which I-Tunes did not have. I also checked out The Constantines, which were recommended by my friend Dave and The Frames, which my dad read about in Esquire. While I-Tunes did have music from both bands, I wasn’t really inspired by the 20-second clips I was able to sample.

So, what’s a girl was $20 left on a birthday gift certificate and a need for running music to do? Go back to her roots, of course. And so I-Tunes became more of a time machine than a music procurement centre as I sought out the songs I listened to in high school.

I ended up buying a few songs from Joy Division, a couple from Social Distortion and a handful of Cat Stevens. Joy Division reminded me of a mixed tape I used to listen to on the way to meet up with my boyfriend who lived on the East Side (Capitial-E, Capital-S), which for sociopolitical reasons peculiar to Cleveland, was on the other side of the world even though it was only 10 miles away.

Social Distortion reminded me of the skateboard dudes who used to sit by me in German class. They were much cooler than I was, of course, but were nice enough to make tapes for me, in an effort to increase my coolness, I guess.

Cat Stevens might seem an odd accompaniment for Social Distortion and Joy Division but it reminded me of the summer I worked at a sleep-away camp before starting college. My friend at the camp had a boom box and a Cat Stevens Greatest Hits CD. We had more time on our hands than regular counselors and spent it on our bunks, listening to Cat and making lanyards.

We especially liked the song “Father and Son”. One session, a nine-year old camper took umbrage to the words. She asked me “What does that mean ‘you’re young, that’s your fault’? It’s not my fault that I’m young. I’m just young.” I tried to explain to her that I didn’t think he meant it quite like that. More like you’re young and that’s why you’re doing things I disagree with. Her nine-year old sensibilities were well and truly offended, no matter how I tried to justify the words.

The one group that I couldn’t find on I-Tunes during my trip down Memory Lane was The Smiths. I spent many, many, many torturous hours in my room, listening to The Smiths. The fact that I spent so many hours listening to their melancholy songs and managed not to participate in any sort of self-injurious behaviour is something of a miracle.

Yesterday, we went out to the movies and were early, so we took a walk and checked out a music and video shop, one of the few stores open at 9 pm on a Saturday in Dún Laoghaire. I found a Best of The Smiths CD for only € 8.99. Score! Even though I don’t usually buy CDs for myself, I snapped it up.

After importing it into I-Tunes and loading it onto my Shuffle this afternoon, I walked to the grocery store. While taking me back in Ye Olde Time Machine, they also just made me feel old. You know how you feel when you look at a picture of yourself when you were in high school and you thought you looked good, but now you just cringe? You wonder what you were thinking and why you left the house with [fill in the blank of fashionable fad that would now land you right into Glamour’s Don’t column.]

It was a good lesson in perspective. It made me grateful that my teenage years are behind me, although it also made me a little wistful. If only I could go back with what I know now. But the only place I was going was the grocery store, spurred on by a strange little man from Manchester telling me that heaven knows, he’s miserable now.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Confessions of a Technical Writer

For the last eight years, being a technical writer has paid my bills. From full-time employment to contract work, freelance assignments to unemployment benefits, I’ve always answered the “Profession” line in forms with Technical Writer.

I didn’t set out to be a tech writer. It’s something I fell into – like a deep, dark hole. The only difference is that most days, a deep dark hole would be more fun. The primary trouble with tech writing is that you write instructions that no one ever reads. When was the last time you used an online help system or opened a computer software manual?

I’m not complaining (much). Like I said, it pays the bills and decently paying writing jobs are few and far between. At least I’ve never really had to go over to the Dark Side. (i.e. marketing) I started a three-month contract this week and I’ve been thinking about divisions and sects. The world is full of divisions – Catholics and Protestants, North-siders and South-siders, chunky peanut butter eaters and plain peanut butter eaters, night owls and early birds…

In tech writing, the division is Framemaker or Word. In my long career, I’ve used both and I’ve developed some opinions and preferences. For this contract, I have to use Framemaker. The advantage of Framemaker is two-fold: its layout features allow you to put pictures and text exactly where you want them to create a good looking printed manual and WebWorks will create HTML Help files from Framemaker files. The downside of Framemaker is that it’s as fussy as the sort of old lady who wears pearls and carries around a yippy sweater-wearing, child-biting rat dog.

You don’t usually get a choice about which tool you’re going to use. Every company has standards and procedures and style guides and you just have to suck it up and jam your square peg into whichever round hole is signing your paychecks. Your preference is shaped by experience. I believe psychologists and other smarter-than-me-people call this adaptive preference, or something like that. You have to use the program so you learn to love it, warts and all.

I’ve used Word more than Framemaker, so I guess I prefer Word. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I’ve adapted to Word’s quirks. The worst thing about Word is that it continually makes the mistake of thinking it has a better idea of what you want than you do. You might find yourself typing along in Word, then you set something off with a dash and before you know it, you’re working on a bulleted list.

And what about that psychotic paperclip who always thinks you’re writing a letter? I hope they’ve sent him to the Office Supply Closet in the Sky. I hate that little blighter. He’s creepy and he’s stupid – not a good combination.

Word is also prone to the occasional freak-out. Numbered lists can be a little troublesome – sometimes the software just doesn’t want to let you restart the numbering. I find that styles I know I’ve created and saved to the template vanish into some the ether on a completely random, unexplainable basis. The grammar checker often can’t accept that you do, in fact, have subject-verb agreement or that sometimes, you just have to use a fragment or passive voice.

Plus, Word isn’t really designed to do desktop publishing. Setting up a layout in Word is always a bit of a gamble. It might decide you want your picture to appear on a page all by itself, regardless of the fact that you want it in a column surrounded by text. Styles in Word can behave a bit arbitrarily and you can’t create a style at the character level. For example, if I wanted to have my name in the middle of a paragraph and make just that word bold, italic, green and 32 point Helvetica, I would have to apply each of those formats.

Framemaker gives you a lot more control over how your text looks. I could create a character style called Crazy Ann and could use it to make my name look like big, green and crazy whenever I wanted to. I can anchor a graphic to some text to make sure that the two are never parted. Unfortunately for me, visual layout is not my strong suit so the most compliant layout tool in the world isn’t going to help me much. My designs will always look like they were created by an attention-deficit-disordered toddler who got into the coffee beans. I can use a template, but it’s a waste of everyone’s time to ask me to create one.

Framemaker gives you a shot at layout perfection, but it demands perfection in return. It does not have a multiple undo stack. You can’t type away, make a bunch of silly mistakes and then Control-Z your way out of them. You get one strike – like with a hanging judge. You get to undo only your last action.

Where Word caters to your customization needs, Framemaker requires you to use their toolbars and icons. You can’t set up keyboard shortcuts to speed yourself along. Speaking of speeding along, my mouse wheel doesn’t work in Framemaker files. I have to scroll down the old-fashioned way.

For the short-term, at least, I am in an arranged courtship with Framemaker. I’m going to have to learn to adapt to its fussiness. I’m going to have to slow down a little and not rely on Undo to get me out of trouble. I’m going to have to think about how best to use graphics and where to put them. I’m going to have to let go of customizable toolbars and keyboard shortcuts.

Otherwise, I’m going to end up like a bitter divorcee on a blind date. “Well, my ex-husband used to do things this way.” The blind date doesn’t care and neither does Framemaker.

Headline of the Year Award

Is it just me, or is this headline worthy of The Onion?

Nut-Cracking Gorilla Surprises Scientists

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Rules

Civil society is based on rules. We all have an understanding of the rules, we know what’s expected of us, and we know the consequences for breaking the rules. Every system is flawed, but we usually share a common understanding of how the system is flawed. We know which rules are strictly enforced (like the ones forbidding murder or robbery) and which ones are loosely enforced (like speed limits on highways in Montana or jaywalking in Chicago). Whether you agree with rules or not, 9 times out of 10, you at least understand what they are.

I was thinking about all this yesterday when I had my first real camogie match. After three practices with my team, I attended the second-last match of the season. I fully expected, given my inexperience, that I would be sitting out most if not all of the game. I spent several days thinking about what I would do if I had to play, worrying that I would make a total ass of myself. As luck would have it, our team was short players and it quickly became clear that ready or not, I was going to have to play.

When I took the field, I was wearing a decidedly non-regulation pair of sweatpants (the ref having agreed not to enforce the skirts-only rule) and our team started out with only 11 players instead of twelve. I was put in the forward line, where I couldn’t really screw anything up. My only job was to try to whack the ball into the goal, should the ball happen to come near me. I was also supposed to cover a tiny girl and try to stop her from clearing the ball away from the goal.

So, I understood in basic terms what was expected of me. What I didn’t understand were any of the rules governing how to play. When I confided this in one of my fellow forwards, she said “Just don’t hit anybody.” That’s a pretty broad rule, open to a wide range of interpretation. From what I’d read on the Internet before I joined a club, camogie was advertised as a less violent, physical game than hurling.

After getting shouldered, elbowed, jostled and nearly knocked down the first couple of times the sliotar came near me, I figured out that I might as well take my teammate’s advice literally – just don’t hit anyone. A little bit of shouldering and jostling were part of the territory. This guideline served me pretty well and I only gave up one foul, in the second half of the match.

The match was a lot of fun, once I got over my nervousness and got a feel of how aggressive I was permitted to be (pretty damn, or so it seemed). I described the match to Peter as “long stretches of terror interrupted by quick bursts of panic.” I wanted to do well and, as usual, my expectations for myself are much more stringent than anyone else’s. I had one shot on the goal, which went just a little wide.

The first half of the match was a hard-fought draw. After half-time, we made some changes to get some of our more experienced players into the mid-field, where they would have a better chance of scoring. We scored a goal, gave up a goal and then scored the go-ahead goal with about five minutes remaining. It was a well-played game and I wish I could remember more of it. Adrenalin and nerves took over and I just played without thinking too hard about it.

With a bit more practice and a better understanding of the rules, I’m sure this is a game I will enjoy and play for as long as I am able.

Friday, October 14, 2005

What the World Needs Now

I’m not usually about fads, but every once in a while, one crops up that I just can’t ignore. (Past culprits include jelly bracelets, Tamagotchi virtual pets and the heinous Lou Bega “Mambo Number 5” song. Hey, judge not, okay?)

I found the latest culprit on The Cure for Boredom. No, not Half-Nekkid Thursday. I'm talking about the practice of using Google as an advisor-entertainment medium in the vein of a Magic 8 ball or a Ouija board. The deal is, you go to Google, type in “your name needs” and then list the top 10 results in your blog.

How can you pass that up?

Ann needs:

1. If Rhonda insists on aborting, Ann needs to let her know that she cannot . Ummm, okay. But I don’t know anyone named Rhonda and I’m not sure I’m in any position to give someone advice on childbearing.

2. Dally Ann Needs Your Help! Dally Ann is in desperate need of surgery! Ah, yes. This is closer to the truth. I could do with a bit of liposuction.

3. The last thing Jo Ann needs is appearance enhancement: She's young, thin, Would that I were Jo Ann, instead of just plain Ann.

4. Ann Needs Your Help. Poor Ann. It's clear from one look at the woman that she’s been spending far too much time helping Christianize famine-stricken future second-amendment-defending Republicans in the third world, and neglecting the most important person of all: Ann.
Ha! Please do go participate in Buy Ann Coulter a Cheeseburger Day.

5. Of course, the primary factor is the grade (1). The ANN needs the current grade
I just don’t think I’m making the grade here.

6. Lucy Ann needs to be indoors only. and should be in a home with adults or.
older children who will respect her tortie whims and wishes

Yes! When am I going to find a home with adults and older children who will respect my whims and wishes?

7. Ann Needs to Get Ahold of Herself.
Frankly, this one hits pretty damn close to home.

8. Ann needs one of those dressing room stand-up mirrors just to handle her face, and I'll bet Sean dresses in women's lingerie and likes the cat-o-nine tails ...
For the record, I avoid mirrors and I have no idea who Sean is. Really.

9. Ann needs help with bristle worms.
I was really hoping to keep that one a secret. Is there no such thing as privacy?

10. Ann needs to find her inner-child and beat the chit out of her. Who raised this creature?
Indeed. You can find one of the responsible parties here.

I don’t know about you, but that was an enjoyable two minutes. What did we do on Friday nights before the Internet? (OK, I had Nerd Nights with one of my best friends that consisted of renting movies and eating popcorn. But besides that, what did we do?)

What I found particularly enjoyable about this whole exercise is how you learn something from everything, even if it’s just a fad. In the past, I’ve learned that jewelry you have to cut off to remove is just not cool. I’ve learned that I don’t have the patience to minister to something that beeps every three minutes and those damn virtual pets are nearly impossible to kill. I’ve also learned that you should never, EVER, no matter how cool you think a song is, impulse buy a musical instrument. (Anyone looking to buy a trumpet, barely used?)

Googling what I need has made me think about what I actually need. (I am just going to skip the whole damn internal dialog I have to have all the time about wants versus needs.) Having found my inner child, faced the truth about my bristle worms and gotten ahold of myself, I think I need an ending for my second book, a dog, and the winning numbers to the EuroMillions lottery draw tonight. I don’t ask for much, really.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Happy Anniversary

This evening, I ran home from camogie practice. That probably doesn’t sound like that much of an accomplishment and really, it’s not. It’s only about 2 miles, but it was cold, rainy and dark. Cold and rainy I can handle. It’s the dark that gets to me and makes tonight something special.

Eleven years ago – on the 12 of October – I was mugged in Camden, New Jersey. I’d been rollerblading on a tennis court on the edge of the Rutgers campus. I was sitting on the ground swapping my rollerblades for shoes, getting ready to walk the two blocks to my dorm. It was dusk and students sometimes cut through the tennis court to get to the commuter parking lot on the other side.

A guy came in, hooded sweatshirt up and hands in his pocket, and made like he was going to ask me a question. It happened so fast. One second, he was Mr. Nice Asking a Question Guy, the next second he was crouched on the ground next to me, Mr. Gun Right Behind My Ear Guy.

I didn’t know it then, because I was sure I was dead, but I was lucky. He took a couple of bucks, my credit card, my ATM card, my school ID and apartment key, and my walkman. Camden isn’t exactly the ritziest neighbourhood so the security at the dorm guaranteed that he’d never get into the apartment. It was just a scare tactic. And, oh yeah, it worked.

The things that get taken in a robbery, the things that really matter, have nothing to do with money or jewelry. The things that matter are your sense of confidence, your sense of security, your sense of well-being. Your purse might turn up in a garbage can. You can cancel your credit card and your ATM card. You can replace just about everything. But it takes a hell of a long time to get to the point where someone can lay a hand on your shoulder and not make you flinch.

When I lived in Chicago, I just about never went out by myself in the dark. I went to great lengths to avoid it. When I needed to get into work early and it was still dark out, I’d run to the L platform, panic bubbling just under the surface. When we moved out into the heart of Republican (and deeply law-abiding) DuPage County, I would sometimes walk Kodiak at night, but he was 100+ pounds of big, intimidating dog. It was a little like walking the streets with a water pistol that looked like a Glock. Yeah, I knew he was harmless, but no one else did.

I can say that this is the first time in eleven years that I’ve willingly gone from Point A to Point B in the dark without panicking or freaking out. It’s the longest I’ve been in out in the dark by myself since 1994. I was carrying my hurley and I wore my glasses so I could see better, but I didn’t feel as hyper-aware as I used to. My every nerve ending wasn’t twitching and ramping up for fight-or-flight time. It was just a fairly pleasant run in the cold, rainy night.

I didn’t realise that tonight was the anniversary, until I was on my way home. I feel like I’ve turned a small corner. Only a small one though. No one is home and I’m sitting here reeking like the inside of a gym locker because I still can’t shower in an empty house. Maybe that will be my big breakthrough on the twentieth anniversary.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Blinded by the Light

When we had our house in the States, Peter often made noises about getting net curtains. Our window treatments may have been a little lacking (mostly blinds with a valance at the top) but I strongly opposed the net curtains.

In Peter’s parents’ house, every window has a net curtain. When you look out the window, it’s like looking through a fairy’s wings. You can see everything, but it’s muted and gauzy. The outside world is just that little bit further away. The light that comes in is diluted, emasculated, broken down into a thin layer of light instead of a bursting ray.

Yeah, I am not a fan of the net curtains. Then a funny thing happened – the net curtains went away this week for their cleaning holiday. Suddenly, every window seems like it is gaping wide open. The world is right up in our faces, peeking into our bedroom. I feel like everyone can see me all the time. We’ve lost our privacy, our boundaries, our homey hiding places.

So, what’s the moral of the story? That I’ve had a conversion and seen the light on the net curtains front?

Not quite. I’ve learned that a little bit of covering on your windows is a good thing. The question is how much. Do you want the net curtains, which obscure and filter everything? Or do you want the blinds, which give you measured, reliable openings that let the light in and allow you to see everything without a filter?

After thinking about this, I have to say I am still all about the blinds. I like being able to open and close them, to control how things look. I like the idea that they can be entirely pulled up or shut tight to block out everything. Blinds give you the greatest number of possibilities. Net curtains are just there, all the time.

So, while I am surprised that I am looking forward to the return of the net curtains, I still want blinds when we get our own house.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Sir Barks-A-Lot

One of the neighbour’s dogs has taken up a habit – barking. And when I say habit, I mean it more in the heroin sense than in the building model airplanes or collecting Beanie Babies sense. The dog is addicted to barking.

Day and night, he barks. And barks. And barks. He is a new convert to The Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Barking.

The worst part is that he has one of those barks that is nearly impossible to ignore. It’s the exact pitch that has been laboratory tested to cause intense headaches in stressed-out, unemployed writers. Just when you think you’ve tuned him out, he changes frequency. He is not a dog that you can ignore – he makes sure of that.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love animals. Leaving my dogs was one of the most difficult parts of the move. As much as I love animals, having this dog’s annoying bark pierce my concentration throughout the day makes me want to go find him and tie his tongue to his tail. I’d never do anything like that, of course, but it gives me a certain grim satisfaction to think about it.

Today, he had a friend joining him in the yip-yap chorus. Then I got to think about tying both dog’s tongues together, so they’d be forced to go through life as bizarre conjoined twins, a warning message to other dogs to use their barking power wisely lest they run afoul of an edgy unemployed writer, hopped up on caffeine and twitching from rejection letters and bills.

As much as I am dreading winter, I’m hoping that the closed window will block out Sir Barks-A-Lot. For my sanity, and his safety.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

True Love

Now, I’m not a marriage expert or anything, but I have been with Peter for 10 years, which has allowed me to draw some conclusions about relationships. It seems to me like most arguments are either about money or about a misunderstanding, a flawed communication process.

I realise there’s probably a third cause – jealousy – but we’ve been lucky enough never to have to be afflicted with that. In fact, I point out chicks in short skirts and those ridiculous but inexplicably-fashionable suede snow boots and he points out buff guys running without shirts. (Sadly, there are far too few of the latter and far too many of the former.)

This morning we were discussing the possibility that there is a tiny possibility I might become gainfully employed in the near future, which would scupper my plans to accompany him on a photographic expedition in deepest, darkest County Cork at the end of the month. Peter joked about who would keep him warm and entertained on those long, cold Cork nights.

Then we had one of those conversations that could end in tears if you don’t have the right sense of humor and understanding.

Him: So, if I were to have a fling…

Me: But you’re not, right.

Ed. Note: I trust him, but it’s that whole motive, means, opportunity thing. As it’s possible he’ll have the second two soon, I want to make sure we’re both on the same page in the motive department.

Him: No, of course not.

Me: Right. Carry on then.

Him: So, if I were to have a fling, would you rather it be with an Irish girl or a Continental European girl.

Me: Irish girl.

Him: Why?

Me: Because an Irish girl is just an Irish girl but a Continental European girl is all sexy and shit.

Him: OK, so then would you rather it be an Eastern European girl or a non-Eastern European girl?

Me: An Eastern European girl, definitely.

Him: Why?

Me: Because if it’s an Eastern European girl, then I could imagine that she was just all skanky and whorey and that would just mean that there was something wrong with you. But if it was a French or an Italian or a Spanish girl and she’s all sexy and sultry and every-thing-I’m-not, then it’s that there was something wrong with me.

He laughed, then I turned the tables on him.

Him: So, a fling with an Irish guy or a European guy? An Irish guy would be worse. If it was a European guy then it was just fooling around but if it was an Irish guy, that would mean he was just like me, like you were looking to replace me. It would just be more serious.

It was a fun, silly conversation. I know he’s not going to run off with a sultry Simone or Monique and he knows I’m not going to shack up with a regular Liam or Séan. But just because we can joke about torrid affairs doesn’t mean we always listen carefully or communicate perfectly. Most of our arguments are rooted in fundamental communication breakdowns. I was thinking about this yesterday and I realised it was because what we hear isn’t always what was said. Here are a few examples:

He says: We’ll leave soon.
I hear: We’ll leave in five minutes.

I ask: Can we go do some weird activity that I’m going to love and you’re going to tolerate?
He says: Perhaps.
I hear: No way, José.

I say: Can you please do the laundry.
He hears: Can you please do the laundry sometime in the next century.
He knows: If he doesn’t do it soon, I’ll do it and he’ll be off the hook.

I say: Can we go to the beach now?
He says: No, how about this afternoon.
I hear: At precisely 1pm, we will go to the beach.
1 pm rolls around.
I say: Can we go to the beach now?
He says: No, I need to finish this first.
I hear: I have no intention of going to the beach today. You’re going by yourself if you’re going at all.
He meant: Not this minute, I’m doing something important. We’ll go in a couple of hours.

Like I said, we’ve been together for ten years. I know that we have these miscommunication problems. I should know by now what he means by “perhaps” and “soon”. But, like they say in the advertising industry, perception is reality. My perceptions are hard-wired, based on my innate personality. I’m a do-things-now-go-go-go terrier of a person. He’s more of an I-like-to-have-fun-but-I-also-like-to-lay-around Lab-Great Dane mix.

Whenever I have a meltdown because I thought we were leaving now and he wants to leave in a few hours, I remind myself that it’s no one’s fault but mine for not listening and asking questions to pin down details. But since we can recognise that it’s happening, we can quickly get over it and get to the part where we laugh and point out chicks with snow boots and discuss hypothetical affairs. If that’s not true love, I don’t know what is.