Safe in One’s Arms

I’ve been going along feeling quite fine overall for a long while until I stumbled upon this old chestnut about two weeks ago, whereupon I suddenly felt the floodgates of mixed emotions opening up.

Something in Jimmy Somerville’s voice never fails to touch me. He got me back in ’84 with his opening wail in “Smalltown Boy,” which still sends shivers down my spine. And there’s the fact he’s been such an unapologetic gay boy even when it wasn’t a “so what” like it is today.

Anyway, first I need to give you a bit of context, not to say give you a full confession.

I need to start off by stating, unequivocally, that I’m okay. I’m not unhappy. In fact, I’m content. Those little “things” that have occurred in recent months have not driven me into a funk — the kind of funk I’ve known whereby one wishes to be able to crawl out of one’s skin to escape from everything, including one’s self. No, I think I’m just taking stock at this point.

I’m still satisfied with living in Montréal and I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I still think I have a very decent job despite recent events that have made me look at it more than ever as “just a job.” I still have no post-divorce regrets. In fact, on that last point, I still don’t feel any sadness through wishing it had worked out, especially knowing as I do now that it never could have worked out.

But on the other hand there are five fingers.

Lately I’ve been thinking that I spend way too much time on my own — as in 99 percent of my time. I think that it has taken me a while to notice it for a few reasons: first, I have never minded — in fact, always enjoyed — my own company; second, because I spend so much time talking to people on the phone at work, I am not as disconnected as I would be if I were a mere office clerk working from home; and third, I do run errands and stuff like everybody else, meaning I do see people other than on a screen.

However, when weekends come along, I notice that I have no great desire to go out socializing (especially since summer temps have become but a memory) or doing anything much outside my routine. For instance, one of my rituals is that I always have brunch on Sunday at Restaurant Lafayette directly across from Métro Papineau. Going to that noisy Village diner where all the staff knows me by now has become my one and only “big outing” of the week.

But then, whenever I think about doing something else, like maybe a short weekend trip to Ottawa, I just don’t feel like it. In fact, I know my sister expects me to go for a few days at Christmas, and already there’s a big part of me that doesn’t want to go. But then there’s another part that says, “Well …what else are you going to do? Just stay home …again?!”

Except for tomorrow when I will be connecting to work because of an impossible Friday deadline, I spend most of my evenings and weekends doing mindless or not-so-mindless stuff at the computer. For instance, in the last weeks, I’ve spent way more time than I probably should have tweaking my budget. But it totally gets me off to see how successful my first year of returning to budgeting was, and since budgeting is all about looking ahead, I find it to be a fundamentally optimistic activity because, in the time when I had stopped doing it, I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to think of myself in a few years.

WARNING: I’m getting to the part that might be “TMI”… On most weekend late evenings, however, instead of going for a drink at the bar, I sip on some red wine at home and go to some x-rated sites. One in particular could, if I wanted to, lead to some cheap (as in “easy”) hookups. In fact, back in Halifax, I did indulge in that manner from that site. It is what it is. Then another site is merely to watch “dirty” videos. There again, it is what it is.

At the first and very superficial level, those sites have tuned me in to an obvious fact: I’m not getting any younger. Whenever I come across guys for whom I could easily be their father, I lose interest. In fact, no matter how attractive they are, they give me the creeps because it just feels wrong to me to look at them in that way. Although NowEx was considerably younger than me, I could not have been his father; I couldn’t then, and I can’t now, cross that line even if it’s not in the physical world.

That being said, even if I have no intention of seeking hookups these days, I can’t tell you how pissed off / annoyed / insulted I get whenever guys of any age go overboard in posing judgement while stating their preferences in mates. Due to my own stance about age difference, I can’t be hypocritical; however, I don’t think gratuitous putdowns based on age are necessary. Also, because I’ve always been very average physically — neither an Adonis nor an ogre — it bugs me that someone would exclude me on those grounds. Granted, that does tell me that I wouldn’t want anything to do with “that someone,” but it bugs me more because I know my other attributes far outweigh the physical aspects.

I know perfectly well that such sites — even more respectable ones — are not the place to “go lookin’.” But that’s just it: didn’t I just catch myself “lookin'”? Morever, while listening to that old Jimmy Somerville song I dredged up, didn’t I just catch myself “wantin'”?

Even before the NowEx/divorce fiasco, I never could have been accused of being a sentimental sap. I gave up idealizing “relationships” at about age 25. At that point, having a relationship became a “would be nice to have” rather than a “must have.” Part of the mental equation that ran through my mind at that time was the realization of how I crave perhaps more than most being alone. I can’t stand the thought of having someone clinging onto me at every available moment. Maybe that’s a selfish trait, but if it is, then be it. I know deep down that I have far more non-selfish traits than selfish ones.

But while that may be true, am I not also coming to a point of my life when I’m wanting a bit less solitude? Moreover, am I not coming to a point when I’m wanting a so-called “significant other”? My gut reaction to that old Jimmy Somerville song suggests that I am.

I remember at the height of my Depression Lite phase wanting others to take care of me because I didn’t have the strength to figure anything out, and thankfully others did step forward and helped me. Indeed, I remember hearing myself say to myself at the time, “Please take care of me.” Today, the context is completely different and entirely better. I don’t need someone to take care of me like I did back then. But I certainly wouldn’t mind not being completely on my own, occasional helping hand from friends and family notwithstanding.

An honest assessment of most of my past relationships and certainly those of the past decade or so is that they weren’t partnerships between equals, so I guess I’m feeling at a deficit at this point of my life. But whenever I start thinking about how I might want something other than being alone, I worry that my past might be a huge strike against me in the eyes of someone else. I worry that the deficit I just mentioned might be so plain to see for others that it might make a potental suitor run fast the other way. I even worry that the deficit might (have) turn(ed) me into precisely the kind of guy I wouldn’t want for myself.

But you know what? The more I think about this, the more I think I still view a relationship for myself as a “would be nice to have” rather than a “must have.” Maybe it’s just that it would be nicer than I’ve been feeling previously……

The Grind of Work? Hey, It’s Just a Job!

GrindingIt’s delicate, if not downright impossible, to write about work. I found this to be true when I was a freelancer, but it’s even more true when having a formal employer. Yet there’s always been a part of me that believes it’s possible to strike a balance. The hallmarks of that balance, in my mind, are to stick to generalities and certainly to avoid defaming anyone (bearing in mind that it’s only defamation if the content is untrue).

Regardless of the current malaise I may be feeling at the moment, my overall impression of my employer remains overwhelmingly positive. I still believe that, from an employee’s perspective, I work for one of the best employers in the nation. I can’t imagine where I would be right now if I hadn’t landed this job back in ’06.

By any definition, however, mine is a large corporate employer, and that has its downsides. When I was a one-man show, I had only myself to praise for the successes and only myself to blame for the failures, although most of the failures were the direct result of the difficulty — if not impossibility — of having one person trying to do everything. But there’s no comparison to the gratification stemming from knowing that I and I alone earned every cent even if there were far too few cents coming in, not to mention no security and no way of planning for a rainy day or a retirement. In a corporate environment, despite an employer’s efforts to recognize individuals’ accomplishments and to encourage career growth — and my employer is second to none on that front — an individual can easily be dispensed: “It’s not personal; it’s just a business decision.”

My own business never grew large enough to have staff. I had the occasional “contractor” toward the end before I mothballed the operation and those arrangements worked out well …at least for me. But what if they hadn’t worked out? Would I not have been obligated to do something about it? Of course I would have.

However, within a large corporate employer, the context seems more opaque. In one instance I can recall from about a year ago, it’s true that no one was really sure what exactly one person’s job was. But that didn’t lessen the shock of learning that, overnight, that person “was no longer with the organization.” Then it happened again more recently, except this time within my own team.

Allow me now to be totally selfish: it happened immediately after I had finished working on my financial rejigging, so my first thought was, “What if it had been me?” I immediately had visions of my best-laid plans falling apart in an instant. And then, less selfishly, I thought of my former team member, who may have had similar plans, suddenly reporting to work one morning and having the carpet pulled from under his/her feet. Conversely, another of my team members was moved to another job which, if not in fact, seems like a promotion. Still, it was discombobulating for me to go from a team of six to a team of four.

Objectively I know that I needn’t worry much about my job, at least for now, for I’ve managed through my work ethic, my “extracurricular” skills, and sheer luck of my location and being fluently bilingual to make myself more needed than my former colleague. But I also know that I have made some choices (and have been standing firm on those choices) that make me wonder if they’ll ever be held against me one day even though they would never be cited as such. For instance, now that I’ve finally moved to Montréal, I categorically refuse to relocate to Toronto and I’m resistent to the idea of ever giving up on working from home. I’ve been working from home since 1996, and knowing myself as fundamentally introverted, I know that my usefulness to my employer would plummet should I be forced to work in a cubicle jungle. But I can’t help feeling the pressure of not making myself as “malleable” as an employer that takes “not-personal-just-business” decisions would like me to be.

There’s also a kind of schizophrenia within a large organization. On the one hand, individual accomplishments are encouraged, praised and even rewarded — I’ve certainly been rewarded handsomely — but on the other hand, individuals expressing too much candour is frowned upon. We have to tow the company line with the blind belief that those who are higher up always take the right if sometimes hard decisions. After I wondered out loud how we would manage the same workload with a team reduced by one-third, I was later privately told (for my best interest, no doubt) “to be careful not to say ‘negative things’ in open discussions.” That stung a little, for I wasn’t (at least in my mind) being “negative”; I was expressing concern about my/our ability to fulfill our mandate. What I didn’t say out loud, which WOULD have been negative, is that I was pissed about how the data I helped design and accumulate got interpreted. That thought — that bean counters have no soul — I kept to myself.

In times like these, it’s difficult for a former freelancer and part-time university instructor like myself to fit into that kind of corporate culture. I come from a background in which criticism is not inherently negative; it’s an exercise to reach a better understanding and to effect change for the better. It’s also a background in which intellectual freedom is cherished, and is understood to be about the expression of ideas or facts that may at times be inconvenient to the prevailing orthodoxy but isn’t confused with an individual’s whims or style of doing things. So you can only imagine how I, with my degree in communications, don’t take well to being imposed quasi-Fordian methods, including not changing a single word in an outgoing e-mail even though it would personalize the message, because the text has been vetted and there’s an inherent belief that equal input always leads to equal results (or output). Insult is only added to injury when this state of affairs is the direct result of one bad apple previously sending out downright rude and equally impersonal e-mails because of his/her own Fordian approach to the work we do.

I toil within a corporate culture in which subtlety falls on deaf ears, superficial reading reigns supreme, and the adage of “more with less” is held as an inviolable objective regardless of the real impact on individuals — the impact that is invisible to the eyes of bean counters.

Despite what this rant might lead you to believe, though, I am nowhere near the funk I was in two years ago when I allowed myself to feel betrayed by my work. Note the emphasis on “allowed myself”: work didn’t betray me; I allowed myself to feel betrayed because, unable to face up to my horrendous mistake that was NowEx, I threw myself even more than usual into my work until the well was poisoned while under the supervision of someone who disliked me as much if not more than I disliked him/her.

No, today I just feel a bit shaken after being reminded that no one, including myself, can take anything for granted. I suppose that’s not a bad lesson to learn and relearn. But since my last visits with Lucy last fall and perhaps moreso now, after a shock like the most recent one, I pick myself up, dust myself off, turn off my computer for the night, and say to myself, “It’s just a job.”

I’m a Montrealer, god dammit, not a Torontian! Therefore, I work to live, not live to work. And I continue in my resolve to own what I own and not what I don’t. As such, I own the need to make a living, but I don’t own the need to make my employer even more filthy rich than it already is.

Rejig Time

Spreadsheet Heaven or HellI kind of fell off the budget-tracking wagon just after my summer vacation. My mammoth workbook stopped making sense after making a huge annual payment in early August for something I had planned, so I figured I needed to put the thinking cap back on.

I wasn’t off by thousands but by several hundred dollars. Still, noticing that this was the second time I needed to transfer funds around to bring myself back in sync, I knew I was missing something …but what was it? My theory of virtual or “make believe” jars didn’t get reflected in reality.

I started thinking that perhaps I needed to make my virtual jars more real by moving funds into a savings account when they weren’t needed and bring them back into my current account “just in time.” That way, I would not only not accidently spend those funds but I would also earn a tiny bit of interest which my chequing account doesn’t give. But trying to think about the schedule of transfers between accounts and how much savings I should have at this point gave me head cramps which, in turn, led me to go back to budgeting auto-pilot mode much as I had before last autumn, except this time for only two months.

I finally mustered up the courage last weekend to attack the task at hand. That’s when I immediately noticed that I practically went underground in those two months and, as a result, managed to amass a tidy surplus. But more importantly, I finally found the error in my workbook that had forced me to make those few significant adjustments in the previous year.

Amounts in my base budget changed in the course of the last year. Some line items went up or down; one line item — my landline — disappeared, and my net income decreased enough (due to starting to contribute to the pension plan at work) to throw everything off in my workbook. And that’s when the lightbulb moment came: I had coded stuff to refer to the base-budget line items, so when some changed, they retroactively updated some of the other spreadsheets, effectively rewriting my financial history in difficult-to-trace ways.

So, the solution is not just to have a separate savings account, which certainly helps to make things more concrete, but also to enter actual amounts in cells rather than making a reference to the fluctuating budget line items! At first that seemed counterintuitive for the programmer in me, but I’m seeing now that it’s really a matter of applying the K.I.S.S. principle.

Of course, there’ll be unexpected expenses along the way as there were last year. Take, for instance, that I got my winter tires stolen (I assume by someone in the Charest brood), or that a client I’m having to meet later this month is such a high-profile individual nationally that I can’t possibly show up to the meeting looking like a pauper. But, with a good and realistic budget, it just means it’ll take a few weeks more to reach a zero debt load.

Speaking of debt load: it was at about 60% of my annual take-home pay when I started my budget last year, which I’m given to understand is much less than half of the average Canadian household debt. In one year, I brought that down to about 36%, and I’m still projecting being at or near 0% by the end of 2013 — just as I had calculated a year ago. That’s a pretty damn enviable position to be in, and it means that I know exactly how I will be able to pay for my car’s replacement when that time comes.

Can’t complain about that!