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Ring in the new

Ring in the new

This summer, a coworker and I were chatting while kayaking in the Burrard Inlet when I mentioned a former colleague had moved back from Europe and was now living on Salt Spring Island, picking up freelance work so she could work remotely. “I wish I could do something like that,” I said.

I recognized the look that flitted across her face before she said “Well, you could.”

I used to have that look. I used to say that to people when they said it about my decision to move to Mexico.

In the last couple years I’ve found myself saying things like “I always thought I’d do something like that again, moving to some other country” with a shrug, like it was too late.

People who know me at all know I like to travel. People who know me well know I moved to New Brunswick, Calgary, Mexico, and Vancouver for no other reason than the adventure of it. It’s what I do. I just haven’t done it for a while.

I always meant to put down roots in Vancouver after returning from Mexico. It’s the longest I’ve ever voluntarily lived somewhere. But it’s time for my repotting. Maybe past time. It was back in 2012, when I was working on the London Olympics, that I first got the birth certificates I’d need for a UK ancestry visa, which lets Commonwealth citizens with a grandparent who was born in the UK live and work there. Back then, I thought I’d want an escape after Steve’s imminent death, but I was wrong. I needed to not think about logistics, to not be away from my comfort zone. But recently I’ve been restless.

So I’ve given notice at my job. At the end of January I’ll head to South Korea to work on those Olympics, then finish up some things here at home and travel a bit. If all goes well I’ll be settling in the UK by June, trying my hand at more freelancing, less sitting in a cubicle, more European travel, shorter flights to do it.

I have plans to make that possible. I have layers of plans because some will work out and some won’t, and that’s part of the adventure.

The last time I felt like this, like I was working toward crafting another phase of life that excited me, my brother’s death derailed me. So I can’t shake the feeling that making these plans is an invitation for the universe to smite me. But I’m too rational to really believe that. Mostly.

As with my move to Vancouver I have no end game. I’ll settle somewhere until I don’t want to be settled there anymore. I’ll travel around the UK a bit but right now I’m thinking Edinburgh is where I’ll land, at least at first. By the end of the year, or decade, or some time after that, I may end up back in the Vancouver area, or I may end up somewhere else. There’s no need to plan that far in advance; there are too many variables.

I’ll sell my home. I’ll bring the cats. I’ll get rid of my stuff, except for a couple suitcases to take, and a bare minimum of sentimental and useful items I’ll store here until the future is clearer. There are a lot of logistics to work through but it’s not new; I’ve done this before. More than once.

There are always reasons not to take a leap like this. It’s going to be hard giving up the home I decorated to my taste and my taste alone. I’ll miss friends. I’ll miss the camaraderie of my workplace. I’ll be anxious about getting work and a place to stay. What if something disastrous happens to derail me before I even start? What if I can’t find enough clients, and can’t find a job? What if I can’t understand the Scottish accent? What if I can and they’re saying nasty things about me? What if I’m run over by a car because they drive on the wrong side of the road? What if a post-Brexit UK devolves into a Black Mirror-esque dystopia?

I’ve reached the point where I’d rather face these temporary what ifs about taking a risk than a lifetime of “what if I’d been brave enough to do what I really wanted to do?” I’m ready. Let’s do this, universe.

I don’t care if you like my tattoo

I don’t care if you like my tattoo

When I was young I would wait until it was unavoidable to admit my dad was dead. I wouldn’t correct the plural on “parents” but if someone asked directly about my father, well, I wasn’t about to lie, evade, or reenact the Monty Python parrot sketch.

I didn’t avoid talking about it to avoid my own pain. I was 10 months old, not yet a sentient being, when he died, so I felt an absence more than a loss. My reticence was to avoid the discomfort of others. When a child tells you her dad is dead, if you’re like most people I encountered you react as if you have just killed him yourself. My protestations that it was ok, I was too young to remember him, you haven’t picked the scab off a wound, didn’t erase the regret from faces. At a certain point I’d worry that protesting how little talking about it bothered me would make me seem freakishly cold.

In general us WASPy type people don’t like talking about death and aren’t good at it. About a decade ago I lived in Mexico for a couple of years and admired their openness and playful sense of the macabre, but whatever lessons I learned were mostly as an outsider who wished my own culture had less of the “do not disturb” attitude of talking about death.

Dealing with a loss that has rocked my foundations over the last few years has meant being more open about my brother’s death. Also? I’m an adult, and death is far less rare among acquaintances than it seemed as a fatherless child, and I buy into the philosophy that we’re all adults and we can handle a little discomfort in the service of showing our humanity to each other.

I still wondered how I would answer the first time someone asked me about my tattoo. I’d meant to get it in a place only I could see, but an aversion to pain and desire to be able to easily see it myself means it’s exposed when my ankle is. If only we lived in Victorian times I wouldn’t have had the fear of many awkward conversations to come.

I can’t remember who asked about it first, just that it was someone I didn’t know well. But I remember it being a lot easier than expected to say a simple: “It’s a memorial to my brother who loved robots.” I didn’t feel awkward, I felt relief. Since then, I answer with as much or as little detail as the situation warrants. Closer friends (and complete strangers on the internet) get the “everything’s better with robots” story.

It turns out I don’t mind being asked about the tattoo because I like being able to share in a very small way who Steve was and what he meant to me. If people regret asking, they generally don’t show it and honestly? I generally don’t care. We’re adults. Discomfort is not the worst thing we face.

Some people have made comments before asking – my realtor laughing at it, people expressing their distaste for tattoos in general. I learned that I don’t want them to feel badly, any more than people should have felt badly for talking about fathers in front of Little Diane.

I’ve also learned that I don’t care. I hadn’t considered before getting mine how personal and meaningful many tattoos are to their bearers. I hadn’t considered how welcome the question “what does it mean?” might be to someone who was showing their heart on their skin, even if they originally meant it to be on hidden skin. The tattoo is for me. It’s part of me. And I appreciate people who let me share myself with them, awkward bits and all.


This Was My Year That Was

My online life, like most people’s, is an edited version of reality. Not in a conscious attempt to make myself appear in a certain way, but because some stories aren’t mine to tell and I generally don’t use social media as therapy. I feel like in a world where everything is the BEST and WORST and you WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, people who don’t rend their garments and wail are perceived as not feeling as deeply. In a world where I like to divide people into Elinors and Mariannes — as in the Dashwood sisters in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility — I am an Elinor. In a world … uh oh. I recently saw Lake Bell’s movie In a World and now I can’t stop using that phrase.

The Facebook year is the year I can present publicly, and it hits the highs fairly accurately and blunts the lows fairly consistently. I like to post pictures from my travels, and I love to travel, and I had a good travel year. I didn’t take a lot of pictures of me on a couch trying to anesthetize my brain after a hard day, or trying to write my feelings out … unless the focal point is the inevitable cat curled on my lap. Only my hesitation of appearing like a crazy cat lady prevents me from posting more of those.

But looking back, it was an interesting year, in those highs and lows. I was in Russia for 6 weeks, Chicago to visit a friend and fall in love with Chagall, at 2 NASA Social events to hear from smart people doing cool things. I haven’t posted yet about Galapagos and mainland Ecuador, or the NASA Social for the Orion launch, or Christmas in Maui, because the rapid fire succession of trips have left me scrambling on the reentry to reality. But here’s to a 2015 full of more highs, more adventures, and an abundance of love and kindness for all of us.




My bud the SPUD

My bud the SPUD


It’s not that grocery shopping is so hard, it’s just that you have to keep doing it. Especially when you run out of cat food.

I’d generally avoid the big grocery shop which meant frequently stopping at Safeway on the way home from work, hungry for dinner, unwise choices hankering to be made. That was the best case scenario: worst was grabbing take out on the way home.

Then I met SPUD. I’d heard of it for a while — a grocery delivery company with a focus on local, organic foods and cute little trucks wandering the city. Think Whole Foods on wheels. Problem is I don’t shop Whole Foods, don’t care much about organic, try to care somewhat about local but do care about price, and it didn’t seem like a great fit for me. Plus there was the concept that grocery shopping isn’t that hard. How pathetic would it be to outsource?

But as life piled up, that kind of pathetic beat out the other kinds of pathetic that found me at Safeway making hunger-based choices. Now every Wednesday I come home thrilled to find a blue box of goodness in front of my suite door, sometimes with a bouquet of flowers on top (SPUD loves me too! Oh wait, I order them. Never mind.)

Every week I make considered choices about the week’s menus and fill my online cart with things like chicken breasts, salmon, produce, some prepared meals like Aussie pies and salmon & dill quiches, snacks, yogurt, and that all-important cat food. Sometimes I even eat all the produce.

Though the individual items are sometimes (though not always) more expensive than what I’d pay at Superstore if I ever psyched myself up enough to go there, or even Safeway, the total without the plethora of prepared foods and hasty choices is less than I was paying for food previously.

There are items I won’t get through SPUD. My weakness is cherries. The short growing season gives me such anxiety that I have to buy all the cherries while I can, and they’re expensive enough without the organic delivered premium.

I won’t often pay for the local, grassfed, yogic, college-educated beef and whatnot either, but I’m more a chickenarian anyway.

Another downside is my inability to visualise what, say, a pound of grapes looks like, so that I end up thinking “I spent how much on this handful?!”

But overall, SPUD not only takes away the burden (don’t roll your eyes) of going grocery shopping and curbs some unnecessary spending, it forces me to plan meals ahead. Now I just have to get better about bringing some of those meals to work for lunch.

If you want to try it out, my SPUD code will get you $20 off your first order (and I think I get the same discount). You earn points with orders and it doesn’t take long to accumulate enough to get $10 off.

If it doesn’t sound like it’s for you, enjoy this Stompin’ Tom Connors song:

Uncool before it was cool

I saw a woman wearing this on a t-shirt today and it made me laugh … and reflect on my relationship with the word “cool.” I’m so uncool I use cool more frequently than any grown woman should to express admiration. If you followed me for a week and wrote down everything I called cool you’d a) be worthy of a restraining order b) wonder what dictionary definition I was using.

One of my early bosses once said he bet I was one of the popular girls in high school. I have no idea why his perception of me was so far off reality other than his cool-dar was way off. I’ve never been one of the popular girls, never wanted to be, never been comfortable with a large percentage of the population. My best friend and I used to sit by our lockers and make snide comments to each other about the “hairspray girls” as they passed by, those heavily made up and follically teased girls who went to the bathroom in packs. They were (theoretically) cool. We were in the segregated International Baccalaureate classes, which made us the poster children for uncool high schoolers. I was so uncool that when a vice principle called us the Bobbsey Twins as we sat by our lockers, I had to point out they were fraternal boy/girl twins so the comparison was off — predating my tendency to point people to Snopes when they spread misinformation. I know that’s uncool — turns out no one really wants to know the truth, Mulder — and usually refrain nowadays.

I’m not part of the cool uncool who love video games, graphic novels and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I don’t follow Wil Wheaton or Felicia Day on Twitter. I don’t lay claim to coolness of any sort, uncool cool or not. But what I have found in very recent years is I’m more comfortable embracing my interests — travel, science, reading, web geeking, animals, cable TV, volunteerism, whatever. And there’s a certain type of person — the kind of person I find cool — who finds that cool.

I’ve known people who maintained the same definition of cool they had in high school – valuing the right music, the right clothes, the right car, the right tastes and things — and to me they are the epitome of uncool (the uncool kind of uncool). I knew someone who created a Meetup group and hosted a murder mystery event so she could meet more people in her new city, and while I’d rather have poked a fork in my eye than attend, I thought the idea was cool: she felt a lack in her life and did something she thought was fun to rectify it.

That is, in the end, how I would write that dictionary definition of cool: people who enjoy things unironically, whole-heartedly, non-judgementally, and without using their specific passions as a secret handshake for entry to their friendship, trust that the people they find cool will find them cool for that.

Embracing my Hubble life

Embracing my Hubble life


In my job and in some of my freelance assignments I’m often in the position of interviewing experts on subjects in which I have little to no expertise, to put it mildly.

Interviewing an electrical engineer a few years ago, I hit on what’s become my standard “charming” way to remind subjects that they’re talking to a layperson who needs to translate their knowledge for other laypeople: “Talk to me like I’m seven.” When he got into imaginary numbers and vectors to explain an acronym I’d queried, I interrupted to say: “OK, now talk to me like I’m five.”

I often feel as though interview subjects find me stupid because I’m asking what to them are simple questions — sometimes because I know the answer but need their words, sometimes because I don’t understand the first frigging thing about electrical engineering.

So I was delighted to stumble across a post a few months ago called “Embracing My Hubble Moments” by Cassandra Willyard. She was studying science writing when a professor brought an astronomer in to talk to the class. The assignment was to listen to the lecture, ask some questions, call other experts for some quotes, and write a news story.

Dr. Astronomer had made his discoveries using the Hubble Telescope and, as he talked, it slowly dawned on me that this telescope he was talking about, this Hubble, is in space. My mind was officially blown. We put a goddamn telescope in SPACE! Holy. Effing. News peg.

I soon realized, of course, that my hook was more than 15 years old. Yes, I had heard of Hubble. And, yes, I knew it was a telescope. But somehow the fact that it orbits Earth had escaped me. Or maybe I knew and then forgot. This was not the first nor the last time I would be astounded by knowledge that everyone else takes for granted. For me, graduate school was peppered with Hubble moments. As these moments piled up, that delightful rush of discovery — we put a telescope in space! — was replaced by burning shame. What else had I missed?

Another joke I like to make, usually in reference to myself, is: “There are no stupid questions. Just stupid people.” Willyard started to feel that way herself:

On the phone with scientists, I tried to avoid asking too many questions. If they said something I didn’t understand, I would “mmm-hmm” like I did. I’ve often heard teachers say, “there’s no such thing as a dumb question,” but that’s not really true. You don’t want to be the science writer who asks a famous astronomer, “So are you telling me that there’s a telescope in space?!”

In the end, by embracing her Hubble Moments she learned to be a better writer — after all, we all have these Hubble Moments and your readers have no hope of understanding the concepts you’re writing about if you don’t understand them first.

Interviewing a lot of scientists and medical professionals is a great way to reduce your Dunning-Kruger effect — that cognitive bias where you think you know more than you really do about a subject, and in fact the greater your ignorance the more likely you are to believe in your superior understanding.

Confucious and Bertrand Russell were right: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” said the former, and “In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt” said the latter.

I’m obviously not immune to that bias but I do feel as though I walk around in a perpetual state of humbled Hubbleness. So I love that for 2014 I’ll be reminded to embrace my own Hubble Moments by a wonderful Christmas gift: a Hubble Space Telescope Desk Calendar.

And as Willyard says, no matter how many times you hear it, it remains very cool that there’s a goddamn telescope in SPACE whose pretty pictures are available to become an awe-inspiring calendar.