Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Heaven: A Visit to the Toronto Islands

Heaven. We all have different definitions of what's complete bliss, but for me it includes the sound of waves, the smell of sunwarmed sand and salt water, a vast expanse of moving water with no land as far as the eyes can see, and very few other people.

I've been off my day job for the month of August, but a miscellany of events conspired to keep me working for the first couple of weeks. I didn't really kick into mental vacation mode until a week ago, but when I did, it was with a vengeance. It was a beautiful day, sunny and hot (we haven't had a lot of those this summer) and I decided to exercise my newfound range and go to the Islands with my camera. This time, I was not headed for Ward's Island, with its quirky cottages. This time, I wanted to see a lot of water and so I returned to Centre Island. I haven't been there for a long time — there's a small amusement park and carefully manicured park area and when I go, I want unkempt and natural. But the north side of the island provides the best access to the view I wanted, so that's where I went. And was I ever glad I did.

Going into the ferry, I saw a couple of unexpected extra passengers, a charming moment that started the day off just right

Although I prefer the natural and unkempt look, I have to admit that Toronto Recreation and Parks has done a stellar job with Centre Island. There are vast lawns with signs like this

Both old and new trees, wonderful flowerbeds and all of it is surrounded by waterways crisscrossing through all of the islands. It's incredibly beautiful and wonderfully peaceful. I wandered around for a while, enjoying it all. And then I headed for the other side of the island.

Once there, I gazed for a bit at the beach — crashing waves! Actual sand! —  but quickly moved on to something special. There was a pier jutting out into the lake! I'm pretty sure that it's new  — I don't remember this being there the last time I visited (granted, this was 15 years ago or so). It's a wonderful addition, taking you unexpectedly far out onto the blue water. The end divides into two, which is another wonderful design element. It means there are less people on each "wing" and you're much more likely to hear nothing but the sound of wind and the cries of seagulls. A less brilliant design element is that the railings are composed of two wide wooden planks, positioned just so that someone in a wheelchair can't see above the top. I did sneak this photo in the gap between the planks

I also spent some time communing with a young seagull, who fervently hoped that I would share some food with it. Since I hadn't brought anything but a box of raisins, its hopes were dashed, but it took a while for it to realize this. In the meantime, I engaged in some avian portrait photography. Seagulls are taken for granted and not like very much liked. Getting up close and personal made me realize anew just how beautiful they are. The colouring of the young ones is a particular favourite of mine and thanks to my young friend, I got an up close view of the intricacy of the patterns that protect newly hatched chicks from predators. Thanks to the wind, I also got a better idea of just how soft these feathers are

It eventually got tired of trying to telepathically intrigue me to cough up food. So tired, in fact, that it yawned. Yes, yawned!. I had no idea that birds yawn! Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera ready, but take my word for it. Then it flew off and after consulting the map on my trusty smart phone (best investment ever), I decided to do the same (sort of) and take a walk along the coast, headed west. I'd never been in that area before, but I thought I might be able to see more beach and significantly more water than I could at the pier. Moving off the pier, I got another beautiful view of this area. As in so many other places on the islands, you can see the CN Tower peeking up over the trees, a reminder that the city is right there.

And then I moseyed off along the path. There was a lot of vegetation between me and the beach, but every now and again, there was a really good view. There was also a path leading into a protected sand dune, the last of its kind on Islands and I followed the dock as far as I could, but stopped before I reached the sand. I have recent experience with the incompatibility between wheelchair tires and sand. Nonetheless, sitting in the middle of this dock, hidden from the path, was so peaceful.

I continued moving west, peeking out at the sand in the water, enjoying the silence, only occasionally interrupted by someone else enjoying the area on a bike.


Mostly, it was just me, the sound of waves, the smell of sunwarmed stand, and blue water as far as the eye could see.


Okay, so I was missing the smell of saltwater, but this close to the lake, there was still that undefinable scent of a large body of water, which is so close I'm not going to quibble.

Much too soon, I was time to return to the docks for the ferry back. And on the way, there was another moment worthy of inclusion in my version of heaven. Because what's heaven without something that makes you laugh? In this case, a veritable herd of purple first years celebrating f!rosh. I love engineering students…


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

4 Stress Busters for Writers with a Chronic Illness

There are distinct benefits to working for yourself and even more benefits to having an office in your home. The commute is ideal, the dress code very relaxed and you can set your own hours. This is fantastic when you have a chronic illness. There are also drawbacks. Recently, I’ve been forced to reevaluate how I work and manage stress (or rather, don’t manage stress) and I may have gotten a bit of perspective.

First, I wrote down the factors that contribute to my stress levels being unreasonable:

Multiple projects and roles. I often say I work part-time, but I don’t. I have 8 part-time jobs/roles/hats, some for pay, some not. Together, they add up to one (or more) full-time job. It’s a lot of balls to juggle.

No space for writing and thinking. The hats require so much energy and time that there isn’t room for things I want to do. Such as write my next book. Or having quiet time to think (also required for writing).

Multitasking. Lots of competing deadlines and massive influx of email. This doesn’t actually get more done. Instead, I flit from task to task and hat to hat, desperately trying to keep up. It keeps me from focusing and lend a looming sense of having missed something somewhere to every day.

Social media. This is part of my work, but managing multiple accounts over several platforms feels a lot like disorganized flitting. 

Not enough hours in the day. Because of my Mandatory Rest Period, I work in two shifts: 4-5 hours during the day and another 1-2 after dinner. That’s the plan, anyway. Often, the after dinner shift drags on and I’m still at the computer late at night. Often, I end the day exhausted and in a lot of pain.

I looked at that for a while. Then I started figuring out ways to deal with it.

Inbox Folders, Rules and Notifications
I wear a lot of hats. That means a lot of email which create an avalanche, under which individual emails are buried and often remain unaddressed. I’ve now created folders related to each individual hat I wear, as well as a Level 1 and a Level 2 folder, into which I will sort incoming emails not related to a particular hat based on urgency. Next I set up rules to funnel emails from individuals with whom I work under each hat directly into the appropriate folder. 

This helps my primary inbox to remain uncluttered (mostly). It will make it easier to focus on what I need to do for one particular job/task/hat, while emails related to other roles are elsewhere and not distracting me. Instead of flitting from task to task, I can now concentrated on one area at a time. 
And one more thing will help cut down on distraction. It’s one thing to get the ping to notify me of incoming email, it’s quite another to see a link to it hovering over the article I’m writing. I simply don’t have the restraint to ignore it. So I turned off desktop notification.

Do 6 Things
About a year ago, I talked about ways to give 80% at work, leaving 20% for things like writing a book or say, having a personal life. I also wrote about Mary Kay’s Six Things approach as a way to get there. Mary Kay built her empire by doing six things every day. She'd start out the morning with a list of six things and worked her way through them. If one didn’t get done, it would become Thing #1 the following day. I don’t know what she’d do if she finished her list at 3 o’clock, but in my variation of her approach, that means I can goof off for the rest of the day. Or write.

I did use this approach for quite a while and it had a wonderfully relaxing impact. I got a lot more done than I thought would be possible, had time for myself, the people I care about, and writing. And best of all, significantly less stress. Somewhere along the line, I started adding one or two more things to the list and lost control. It’s time to incorporate the Six Things approach into my life again and this time, be vigilant about not adding more to the list.

Automate Whenever Possible
This one deals especially with the social media black hole. Leigh Mitchell’s presentation at the Living ARTHfully event included information about how to automate social media to make using it more effective. I’ve already started using Hootsuite and Hootlet and aside from the new toy joy, these really are amazing tools.

Set Boundaries. Stick to Them.
This relates back to the 80% I talked about above. Sending email at 10 PM on a regular basis is just not healthy. So, I’m going to be setting boundaries that will create work-free zones in every day:

Take a one hour lunch break. As long as the weather is nice, leave the house! Head to the lake whenever possible. Come winter, read a book, write a chatty email to someone I like or call a friend.

No working after 9 PM. That includes email, writing, and phone calls in which work of any kind is discussed. Time off isn’t just about not doing work, it’s also about thinking and talking about work.

Have no-meeting days. Designate one day to be free of meetings and appointments.

Say no. Remember that other people’s priorities don’t have to become mine. Repeat this mantra to myself daily.

Call in sick. Working for yourself means no sick days and working in your home means you can work no matter how you feel. This is nuts.

Respect myself, my priorities, and my work. They come first. All of the above are great tips, but they only work if I let them. Making sure I follow my rules is an indication that I respect myself and the reasons I created them. I have a feeling this may be the most important.

And lastly, one more rule. Which is that the rules can be set aside when it’s important. The trick is to make sure that that happens only in situations that warrant it — crises, massive deadline, etc. However, if I do follow my guidelines, there should be enough energy to rise to such occasions.

Do you have a good tip to add to the list?

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Farewell to Joe

Dear Joe,

Yesterday, I walked away from you for the final time.

The signs have been there for a while, but I closed my eyes to them. I didn’t want to believe that you were leaving me. But today, after over six months of coming to you and having to walk away dismissed, I finally saw it.

You don’t want me anymore.

Joe, you’ve been my favorite clothing store for years. The style of your clothes is fresh, timeless, I love the bright colors, and your prices are pretty fantastic, as well. Since you opened a store near me, I have bought an embarrassing amount of clothes from you.

In the last year or so, there have been some changes. The wonderful wool V-neck sweaters that I bought two years ago are still going strong, but the ones I bought this past winter lasted only a few months before they pilled so horrendously that I had to throw them out. Still, when you only pay $19 for a sweater, you can’t expect the best quality. I understood that in order to keep prices low, you had to cut back on the quality of the materials you use. Although I miss the days where your prices were both reasonable and your clothes could last for several years if I took good care of them, I let it go.

Last winter, I also noticed that the accessibility of your store was deteriorating. I use a power wheelchair and until last winter, have been able to get to most areas in your store. Now that’s no longer the case. I find this odd, especially considering the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act and its customer service regulations. You’d think that the ability to get around in your store was a basic part of customer service, but I could be wrong. Although the shrinking spaces between displays has been quite annoying, there is generally one of your wonderful staff around to help me. Again, I let it go.

But then there was the shrinking of your clothes. I’ve noticed this for a while, but quite frankly, I thought I was gaining weight. I am a bit pudgy or, as I prefer to call it, well-rounded. Still, I haven’t gained any weight in the last year or so, so I didn’t understand why all of a sudden I couldn’t get into your T-shirts, even a size large. I wondered if it were because the style was more of a body hugging cut, which can be difficult to for me to get over my head, as my shoulders have limited mobility. Then I cleaned out my closet and found a T-shirt I thought that your store a few years back. For one, I noticed that the quality was very good compared to what you use now. Then I noticed that this T-shirt (a size large) was loose on me. And that’s when I realized that you have been shrinking your sizes. What used to be a large is now an extra-large or more and gradually, it’s become more difficult for me to find something that fits in your store.

And then this Spring happened. I was looking forward to it and not just because of the never-ending winter we had last year. I needed new pants and you always have a wonderful variety. I roamed the store and couldn’t find anything but white jeans and jeggings (it is perhaps a sign of my age that I don’t understand jeggings). Oh, wait! Look at that! A display of beautiful linen pants in different colors. I wanted two pairs. Except the biggest size was a 12 and I need a 16 (I am a 14, but a size up is more comfortable when you sit all day). How strange. This has never happened before. Usually, all your pants come in sizes 0-16.

Over the summer, I have entered your store every few weeks and walked away empty-handed every time. When speaking to your staff, they’ve told me that the larger sizes are few and far between. The reason I can never find anything is that the ones that do come into the store sell so quickly that the only ones left are the tiny sizes.

Yesterday, I went into your store on a lark. It was full of denim. A veritable sea of denim. They’d just put out a line, containing approximately 15 different styles of jeans. I saw several that weren’t super skinny jeans and… 

Excuse me for sidetracking, but I must make this point — Joe, please. Enough with the skinny jeans. It only looks good on about 10% of the population.

Anyway! I looked at some of the jeans and found sizes 0, 2 and 4, but not much above that. I asked one of your staff if he was up for the challenge of finding me a pair of jeans in a 16. It took him a while, but he finally found one pair. Unfortunately, they were skinny jeans and that just doesn’t work for me. I inquired hopefully about the boyfriend jean and he told me that only goes to a size 12 now.

Joe, you disappoint me. One of the great things about you is that you have always been inclusive in your clothes. You didn’t just cater to what I call the anorexic giraffe — those two gangly years around age 17— but also to women in their 30s, 40s, 50s and above, many of whom have more curves. This year, you seem to have made a policy change and are now trying to become one of those ridiculous stores where sizes are two below the true size and no one over the age of 25 or above a size 10 are welcome.

Why abandon what made you successful? Why eliminate a solid part of your audience, the ones who often have more of a disposable income to spend on clothes?

I am a lot healthier than I used to be, so I walked away, rather than keep coming back to a place that makes me feel unwelcome. I found another couple of stores that include my size and makes sure the aisles are bit bigger so a wheelchair can pass. Their clothes cost more than yours, but I’m willing to pay that to feel welcome.

It’s been grand, Joe, but my business is going elsewhere. I wonder how many other women are doing the same?