Neighbourly Conspiracy?

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Zombie vs. Baby

Now here’s what I’m getting at…

A friend of mine who’s obviously as enthralled by toddlers as I am recently posted this image on his Facebook page. The first thought that crossed my mind, as the usual thumping was occurring over my head, was to print this image and tack it on my neighbour’s door. It would be rude, but I don’t give a flying fuck (or any other type of fuck).

I was making myself something to eat last night after calling home for Mom’s 83rd birthday when the noise got progressively worse to the point I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I turn off the stove to go knocking on my neighbour’s door …again. When dad opened the door, holding back his devils with one arm, I just looked at him, raised my arms up in the air in a “What the fuck” expression and said nothing …because it was obvious why I was there and there was nothing to be said.

However, my forceful three knock on neighbour’s door led the Hispanic tenant across the hall to open his own door to see what was going on. After I stepped away from the offending/offensive neighbour’s door, I ended up having a little chat with him and his guest, who, as it happens, is also a neighbour who lives directly below my neighbour across the hall.

Observation One: I get the feeling I’m not the only Friend of Dorothy in the building. As we chatted, two adult guests of Offending/Offensive Neighbour With the Kids From Hell left, but I paid little attention to them as they walked by me except to note to myself that they were among those blasted singing Christians. When I returned to my place, the noise continued, albeit one notch down on a scale of 1 to 10.

This morning was another typical Saturday morning and early afternoon: noisy and thumping. Around noon I had set an appointment to get my hair cut in the Village at 2:00, but as I was leaving for my appointment I bumped into the Hispanic neighbour in the hallway, who was moving stuff for, as it turns out, the dog lady with whom I began talking when I realized she wasn’t standoffish as much as terrified of our janitor and her brood. We all talked briefly; when I said to Hispanic neighbour that I’m hoping they move out next July 1st, he opined they may well do so because they’re afraid of the dogs. Dog Lady, who’s hard of hearing, then asked me, “You mean those Chinese kids?” Which I confirmed.

Next time I get the chance to see the janitor, I’ll complain again and insist not only that she should talk to them but that she must ask the landlord to send them a formal letter of complaint. To that, Hispanic neighbour and Dog Lady said they would do whatever they could to make life as miserable as possible for the Offending/Offensive family by not holding back their dogs and what not — all within reasonable boundaries and only when the opportunity just happens to fall in their lap, I assume. (By the way, these dogs are big but wouldn’t hurt a fly, so this only sounds like a nasty thing to do.)

“I have seniority over them in this building,” I said, to which they echoed, “So do we!”

You know what? This all ties into the changes I’ve been going through in the past months as a result of therapy. How well has always trying to be the nice guy worked out for me? Obviously not well if it got me in that state! And what if these people eventually get evicted or driven batty by “unfriendly” neighbours? Well, quite frankly, if they don’t realize that they must set boundaries on themselves while living among others, then they would be getting what they deserve.

No, none of this sounds like the old me. I’ve come to make peace with myself over something fundamental: that taking a stand for what’s rightfully mine might be confrontational at time, but if I don’t do it, no one else will do it for me.

It’s funny… That’s more or less what a colleague at work said to me when I came back to work last month. “Take care of yourself,” she said, “because no one else will.” She meant that in the context of the corporate environment we’re both in, but it’s true elsewhere in life.

My next appointment with Lucy is on Thursday. I’ll be telling her the appointment after that will be my last. I think in the six months since I reached out for help and now, I’ve learned what I needed to learn and I’m very much on track to putting all of that into practice.

Now I wonder what I could do about the Canadian-edition featherbrained chavette next door who screams like hell while fucking to make her boyfriend believe she’s having a far more shattering good time than she really is…

Living Within One’s Means

Money WorriesWhen I started my permanent job in March 2006, I calculated my net debt at the time was two-thirds of the gross salary I would be getting. What’s more, I was officially being hired on a one-year contract, so while I hoped that it would be extended beyond that point or even become permanent, I didn’t count on it. Therefore, I made plans to use that year to make a serious dent into my debt load and to transition back into my freelance venture.

As it turned out, at the end of that year, my contract was extended by six months and, within a few months during that time, I was made a permanent employee. Furthermore, I had made financial preparations because I had anticipated keeping my previous freelance work as a sideline on evenings and weekends, except that the day job turned out to be so intense and time- and energy-consuming that I did little to no side work, choosing instead to delegate much of it.

However, the thing of which I was most proud in my first 12 to 15 months at the then-new job is the near-miraculous debt repayment I managed to pull off. Even with buying out the remainder of Junior ‘s lease, I found myself with a debt load below 30 percent of my gross income by early summer 2007.

I achieved this feat in two ways: First, I mapped out in detail my income and spending for 12-18 months in an elaborate spreadsheet and, second, I kept my expenses roughly at what they were when I was earning so much less. Granted, I allowed myself some extras, like getting “grown up” accommodations while travelling (i.e., staying at B&Bs rather than with friends) and making a few essential purchases (e.g., a new computer and replacing a desperately need dinette set). But the most critical element of the two was keeping a close eye on that spreadsheet and sticking to it and cutting back in some places to compensate for those places I went over budget.

By summer 2007, a small expected and a big unexpected happened: I decided to move to Montréal and I fell in love, in that order. Followed a spending frenzy during which I pulled all the stops. Yet when I recently decided to start paying attention again to my finances, which I hadn’t the energy to do for more than a year (when “depression light” started in earnest), I had to reach a rather pleasant conclusion: my financial position today is closer (though certainly not quite as good) to early summer 2007 than late winter 2006.

Since that personal financial “high spot” of 2007, much has occurred outside day-to-day life, most notably worldwide economic uncertainty stemming from the Great Recession, which today is threatening to return. Even though it doesn’t seem likely that my job will be terminated soon, I decided that I can’t make such an assumption. Despite racking in billions per quarter most of the time, an employer like mine could start crying famine after one or especially two consecutive quarters of deficits. And to be sure, executive salaries wouldn’t be the first thing on the cutting block; front-line workers like myself would be expected to take the brunt — and this despite past performance or the very negative impact on clients.

So that brought me to thinking about my “miraculous” spreadsheet of ’06-’07. “If I could do it once I can do it again,” I thought to myself. Therefore, I fired up OpenOffice Calc a few weeks ago — I prefer not to have Micro$oft products on my newer computers, except for the operating system itself — and by now I’ve refined a financial outlook to the end of 2012 that would lead to an improvement similar, though perhaps not as spectacular, to the one of ’06-’07.

The biggest challenge in my opinion is realizing that a budget is theoretical and can be quite detached from cash flow. We tend to think in terms of months, quarters and years, but those of us who are paid every two weeks actually receive 26 paycheques per year, not 24 as a monthly projection would imply. Yet it seems those “extra” two paycheques always go to waste.

So what I designed on the first worksheet is a yearly budget, trying to come up with all unavoidable expenses like haircuts, web hosting, insurance, annual auto plates/insurance renewal, and so on. The only thing I didn’t consider is gas for Junior or the occasional refills on my transit pass, as those are next to impossible to predict. As for a budget item like food, I decided to go much higher than average to take into account that I’m not likely to change overnight and start eating in nearly 100 percent of the time. (Basing budget numbers on hope rather than reality is, in my mind, a sure-fire way of creating a doomed budget.) The most important line item I added was to automatically place 16% of my net income on servicing my debt, which one day will become an automatic deposit into a savings account. I then calculated in subsequent columns how much each line item represented by month and, most importantly, by pay period.

That’s how I figured out how, despite a year-plus of neglect, I managed not to sink back too far into debt: my expenses remain lower than my income, albeit not by an enormous amount. I found that there is some wriggle room when looking at the yearly and per-period picture, but the trick is to plan months ahead rather than paycheque to paycheque.

So now what I do is save small per-period amounts into fictional accounts for all recurring expenses. For example, I spend about $300 per year on my dentist, but setting aside $11.54 per paycheque is much easier than scraping up $150 after one visit to the dentist, which usual ends up going on the credit card and gets paid later. (And if one visits ends up costing more than was set aside, there’s that much less to defer.) The same goes for once-a-year payments like auto plates/insurance. Since I leave those set-aside sums in my general account, I ignore what my actual bank balance is at any given time; I trust only the balance shown my spreadsheet.

Although the per-period leftover is small, I add that amount to all those fixed “set-aside” amounts; I then consider that lump as one row of “money spent” in my general ledger but track in detail in a separate worksheet a detailed breakdown of that lump that includes all those fixed per-period amounts placed into my fictional “accounts.” I have another worksheet where I tally only the fictional “accounts,” which gives me a running total of what’s waiting to be spent in the near or medium future. And as I mentioned, I have another worksheet which is the general ledger in which I track cash flow: one row for paycheque, another for fixed debt/savings payment, another for living/”set-asides” into the fictional “accounts,” and one row placed “just in time” (i.e., at the date each is expected to hit my general account) for each item like phone, hydro, cable or rent. That means when I do pay cash for my dentist or a haircut, I don’t record the expense on the general ledger but on the “running total of money set aside” spreadsheet.

Theoretically, some periods end in the red, but the beauty of this scheme is that, after a few months of following this regimen, the accumulated savings into those fictional accounts prevent me from actually dipping into my overdraft yet the cash is there “just in time” when I need it (to pay my dentist or hair stylist cash). I also added formulas so that if I go slightly over budget during a period, I have less discretionary income in the next period, but if I stay slightly under budget, the surplus goes into the next period and it can go either to making the next period balance more easily or towards more debt servicing or savings.

It’s a thing of beauty, I tell ya! I’m keeping a few details secret from this blog for now, but what I can say is that within a foreseeable future, I should be in the situation most financial analysts say one should be, namely with a few months’ savings in case of sudden unemployment (although employment insurance would likely kick in as well at first). And although Junior continues to run well for an aging car, I can foresee replacing him when I have to without getting back too deeply into debt. I know there’s bound to be unexpected expenses (right down to vacation getaways), but those can comfortably go into the debt column for a while because, under this scheme, credit is for such extras that can be reimbursed in full within a reasonable period of time and not for day-to-day living.

I know this is a terribly boring topic; we unfortunately all have to worry about our personal finances. But I suddenly feel like such a responsible adult for a change! And I recognize, after this exercise, that I’m more fortunate than most …no pun intended. I may never be able to afford real estate in Montréal, but otherwise there are many who would envy the situation I’m in.

Apples and Oranges Can Be Compared

Apples and Oranges?Something occurred this morning that made me question the limitations, if any, of my reflections yesterday. Mind you, I recognize that the thought process that follows from therapy is an ongoing process and that, just as one person’s mantra may not work for someone else, I can’t expect a “one size fits all” solution for every situation. However, “Stop, now think…” is as good a place to start to try to put into perspective this morning’s annoyance.

You’ll recall how I recently railed about my neighbours’ kids. Well, today being Sunday, I wanted to sleep in. I have to be fully awake and working by 9:00 each weekday morning — certainly a reasonable time and not as early as many people I know — so, on weekends, I enjoy staying up late and only getting up between 10:30 and noon. I guess it’s a tip of the hat to my ways of old when I was a certifiable night owl.

After going to bed well after 3:00 last night, I was brutally awaken shortly after 9:00 by the kids upstairs playing. That’s when I felt it, as I tried but failed to turn over and pretend I wasn’t hearing the noise: yes, that ball pressing against my belly, a.k.a. my anger.

I should mention before going further that, after I wrote that post in which I ranted about others’ kids, I asked my building’s super if I was within my rights to complain and she said that I was, so I mustered up the courage to knock on my neighbour’s door. Of course it wasn’t the least bit nasty and the father said, in his very broken English, that he would try to teach his kids not to run in their apartment. The noise level, which on a scale of 1 to 10 was around 9 when I complained, went down to about 6 or 7 until the little devils finally went to bed. However, it remained a 5 until dad himself went to bed, for he walks heavily enough to make the light fixture in the kitchen — one of those long, ugly fluorescent thing — rattle each step he takes while in his own kitchen.

I’m starting to understand that the anger (or resentment in this case) stems from my sense of being powerless. My thoughts become completely irrational, not to say a wee bit too maudlin for my liking. I question my super’s decision to accept having little kids occupy an apartment where there are tenants below, but then I recognize that everyone, including (or especially) kids, has a right to housing. I start thinking about moving out, but then a flurry of other thoughts cascade all at once: I shouldn’t be the one to move out; what if I move out and find myself in a similar situation or worse; I can’t afford to pay more than I’m paying now and, if Kijiji and Craigslist can be trusted, I can’t get much better than I already have; besides, I like this location in this neighbourhood; I hate moving with a passion; I’m just being a curmudgeon; I have the worse luck with neighbours; maybe they’ll move out on July 1st; this has been a theme in my life for more than a decade, but maybe I’m the one who’s in the wrong…

When I finally dismiss all the maudlin thoughts, I’m left with one thing: powerlessness. As part of my exercise of getting rid of the noise that surrounds me, I developed a plan to take back control of my finances. Compared to a lot of other people, I’m in pretty good shape in that sense despite having coasted and payed little to no attention to that matter. However, after spending a whole day crunching numbers in a spreadsheet and my banking website, making both optimistic and pessimistic projections and acknowledging that I earn considerably more than the national average for someone living alone, I concluded that I will never, ever, be able to afford a mortgage. That might not be the case if I had been at my current job in the decade I worked as a freelancer, for I would have been able to build equity before housing prices doubled in that time. But I can’t turn back the hands of time.

Some might argue that I am not as powerless as I think, that I “only” need to find a way to earn more, or that I should just find myself a guy to shack up with in order to become a DINK (dual income no kids). Indeed, the minute I pretended that I had a partner earning only full-time minimum wage, a bunch of possibilities opened up on the mortgage calculator I was using. I was floored when I saw that!

As I was brushing my teeth and making some coffee upon getting up this morning, I merged this personal conclusion with the whole “Occupy Wall Street” movement that’s been taking hold of late. The middle class really is disappearing! In a different time not that long ago, my parents, with a comparably more modest single income than my own, managed to afford a car, a house, and four kids. That’s unthinkable today. I think of my best buddy at work: she has two kids, her husband works as well and, as I’ve come to figure out, is quite prudent financially and rather old-fashioned in the sense that she manages to make her kids understand that choices have to be made.

My goodness, what a meandering road! I mean, how the heck did I manage to make connections between Occupy Wall Street, diminishing buying power, and fucking kids waking me up too early on a Sunday morning? Maybe I’m crazier than I think!

No, instead I think that the apple/orange displayed with the post is an extremely apt illustration.

What bugs me is that this sense of powerlessness seems associated with material gain. But I think that’s just the appearance. All I’m really yearning for is more control over something that’s fundamental: my home. I just can’t come up with a viable solution right now.

Mantras and Mental Images

Mantra and Happy PlacesIf there’s one thing I’ve learned since I began getting help for what I initially feared was depression but was eventually diagnosed as “adjustment disorder with mixed mood” (i.e., “Depression Light”), it’s the importance of developing little mantras as a result of what one finds through introspection. Sometimes we joke about needing to “find that happy place” when something or someone upsets us, and that’s not entirely a bad idea. However, over time, simply finding that happy place is little more than applying balm to an injury in order to dull the pain, but when the anesthetic effect wears off, the sensation of the injury returns — maybe not as sharply, but return it certain does.

Two weeks ago as I was walking along Rue Sainte-Catherine towards Lucy‘s office for my weekly visit, I was wondering how long I should continue seeing her. I was feeling as though she had already directed me in all the areas that I would not have, on my own, deemed worthy of investigation; I couldn’t imagine where else we might go together. In fact, although not unpleasant, my previous visit with her hadn’t yielded much; she tried to turn a few stones that, for many, might have been covering some nasty resentments — but not so in my case. So, as I was nearing her office, I was wondering if my legendary inability to assert myself would lead me to continue seeing her only because she fells we’ve only just begun when in fact we’ve come full circle already, albeit in spectacularly record time.

One of my mantras, as I believe I’ve already mentioned, is “Stop. Now think…” In other words, whenever I find myself feeling guilty or anxious or sad, or whenever I find myself wanting to do something a bit unusual for someone else, I stop …now think. That simple mantra helps me pause long enough so that I can think about what triggered the feeling of guilt or sadness, or what is motivating me to want to act in a certain way rather than in a more conventional way. Before therapy, I couldn’t go beyond dwelling on the negative feeling or acting on an impulse; now, I can pause long enough to consider causation — maybe not finding the answer each time, but at least not letting myself sink back in. By no means is this mantra the magic bullet for everyone, but for me it works.

Anyway, I don’t know how it came up, but during that visit with Lucy two weeks ago, I brought up that icky dream I had back in July, before I started seeing her. I think I had mentioned it to her before in passing, but we hadn’t really gone into it back then. This time, however, she really jumped on it because, as I was telling it to her, I was once again making connections with the notion of anger that both she and Gary (the psychiatrist) had brought up earlier. Indeed, although it is not a notion with which I’m comfortable associating myself, I recognize its validity. But now, I have transformed the notion of my anger into an image: quite simply, I picture it as a big ball of yarn in my lap that I’m pressing against my belly. So now that I have such a tangible image (if only in my mind), I can address it with detachment, in the second person: How did you get there? What makes you grow? Can I dissolve you, make you smaller? Why do I fear you so much, as demonstrated by my gut reaction when Lucy calls you by your real name (anger rather than ball)?

Well, little did I know that, a few days after that visit, something would happen at work with one of my colleagues, with our supervisor acting as an impartial arbiter. I won’t get into the specifics but suffice it to say that I was accused of telling other people how to do their work even though I’m not their boss, and that accusation triggered a milder but very definite form of bad feeling I’d come to know too well (sadness? anger?). For sure it was not nearly as sharp and debilitating as the feeling had become back in the spring and early summer, but I instantly recognized its signature. So I pulled up the mantra: “Stop …now think.”

This incident became the topic during this week’s visit with Lucy. On the specifics of the incident, she immediately agreed with everyone else to whom I mentioned this and previous incidents that I was on the receiving end of jealousy. Some might perceive my inability to suppress my creative urges as an attempt to be a show off, and my sharing of tips that could get everyone in our team to work more cohesively as an attempt not only to get everyone to do everything exactly as I do, but also to undermine our supervisor’s authority. This colleague even went as far as to mention that I’m no longer the new kid on the block, implying that I should stop trying to prove myself — as if that’s ever been my motivation. (And become hopelessly set in my ways after five years? Not on your life unless you manage to lobotomize me without my noticing it!) The clincher is not that I can’t take criticism; it’s that I can’t cope with unwarranted negative criticism. Thankfully, I’m becoming better at referring to the latter as “noise,” or that which blinds me from what is essentially true.

In way of comparison for Lucy’s sake, I recalled another unrelated incident a year ago when I knew I was being very unpleasant toward a client but, like watching a train wreck in slow motion, I just couldn’t stop myself. Finally, quite justifiably, the client had had enough and gave me a well-deserved tongue-lashing. I instantly felt something I can only describe as a wave of heat flushing from my head to my toes, as I knew without a doubt that I was in the wrong and the criticism was more than warranted. In that case, not only did I apologize profusely on the spot and change my attitude, but later I recommitted my apology in writing, which the client graciously accepted. (In hindsight, I recall that this incident occurred as I had begun my downards slump.)

The point, I told Lucy, is that I can take criticism when it’s warranted but I can’t take it when it’s not or when it’s downright misguided. There she made again that connection to my perception of how the way other kids my age treated me was unfair, and how that honed my sense of injustice and brought me to want to come to the rescue of those who, in their own way, weren’t being treated fairly. Her reflection got me to make the connection: I saw this latest untruth as another injustice, not unlike the myriad untruths I allowed to drag me down to the point of feeling inert and neglectful of myself. Yup! Just more “noise.” Indeed, that one silly incident with that work colleague was only one more little sound bite of noise, which is why it reanimated those same bad feelings as before but, being only ONE incident, not as intensely. So once I had stopped and thought, I was able to assess the validity of criticism, or its lack thereof. Hence the lesson: if the point is valid, seek to change; if it’s not, flush it — don’t attach it onto that ball in your lap that you’re pressing against your belly.

I think the fact I crammed so much into that ball for so long has shaped my perceptions so much that I will never completely dissolve that ball. In fact, I don’t want it totally dissolved, because its core is what I now consider the infamous “fire in the belly” one needs to move forward, to continue being creative, to believe that things can be changed for the better. I recall writing earlier this summer that there are parts of me I don’t want to change: HOW I came to hone my outrage toward injustice may not have been pleasant, but I much rather have that outrage than forever be inhibited by defeatist numbness. What I need to do, however — in fact, what I think I’m finally doing — is keep shedding away what’s rotten from that ball so that I can keep an eye on that pure core.

In my view, those rotten parts are what we all come to call our baggage (in the pejorative sense) while that core is our collection of experiences that can lead to good things. Baggage might be unavoidable but no one needs to hold on to it. The parts that are untrue can be trashed, while those that are true can be added to our experiences that can move us toward more, better and brighter experiences.

I feel another mantra coming on. Hummm… what could that be? Shed the bad and keep the good? I think survivors of far worse ailments than simple “adjustment disorder” would agree with that one.

A Drive Up North

Autumn at Mont Tremblant

Although I’ve been living in Montréal for more than three years, I’ve never driven dew north from the city. I’ve been several time northeast in the Lanaudière region around Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon, but never in the Laurentians. That all changed, though, last Sunday.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Indian Summer this year was beyond spectacular. I knew that many in this town choose to go to the Eastern Townships at the height of the autumn colours, but I thought I’d outsmart them and head north. Not my brighest idea.

It didn’t matter which direction, except possibly east on Autoroute 20 or west on either Autoroute 20 or 40; traffic was a slow accordion crawl for more than 60 kilometres outside the city in all directions. However, once out of ultra-ugly suburbia — as most suburbias are — the slowness of the traffic offered time to really look at the beautiful fall foliage. Under a cloudless sky and temperatures well into the 20s C, it was a real treat.

I think I long avoided going to Mont Tremblant because of the many pictures I’ve seen of the resort. While certainly attractive on the surface, it all seemed so cookie-cutter and unnatural. Also, since I’m no skier, I’ve never had much reason to go.

And indeed, the resort is as artificial and horrible as I expected. However, the cynic in me stayed home and I enjoyed watching everyone enjoy the extraordinary weather. I was even amused to see how all little children seem drawn to water fountains and unable to resist the urge to touch the water or climb into the pool. Some parents might have found it odd that I should be on the verge of laughing out loud as I sat there sipping on an espresso, but what they failed to realize is that their child’s antics had been repeated a dozen times in the previous few minutes by other people’s children. So much for their “oh, my child is so special” line!

The southbound drive back into the city was another accordion-like bumper-to-bumper adventure, but again I took it in stride since this was meant to be a “nowhere.” Still, I couldn’t help but notice how many assholes there are on the road — either those who try to go too fast when no one is getting anywhere very fast given the gridlock or those who cluelessly stick to the fast lane and hold back faster traffic for easily a kilometre or more. I believe both types are selfish but the latter even more so because they seem oblivious to anyone but themselves. I think I’d clue in if I saw half a kilometre of unobstructed space in front of me and an endless lineup of cars behind me, but that assumes such selfish people [a] look in their rear-view mirror and [b] give a fuck. I wouldn’t be surprised if some do A but don’t do B, either because of their selfishness or some kind of mental challenge when it comes to handling themselves on the road.

You might be thinking, “Oops, there’s that Angry Maurice again!” And maybe you’re right. People who think only of themselves piss me off. They always have and they probably always will. But the difference now compared to earlier this year is that, beyond the initial “being pissed off,” I don’t let a petty little thing like traffic behaviour augment my sense of outrage. Because in 50 years or so when we’ll be very dead and buried, it won’t matter, so why make it matter now?