Describing myself and being described

In my last couple of posts (Feeling lost about feeling lost and Can you do a psych profile of yourself?), I’ve been talking about how I’m doing these days as I’ve hit a COVID isolation wall. Mental health, resiliency, a bit of mid-life crisis maybe, general squirrel-dom, it’s hard to define, but my brain is wrestling with some issues.

I’m reading the Robert B. Parker Spenser series and it has that Western / gunfighter feel to it at times. Manly but sensitive men doing manly things, relying on themselves and others, living by a code. Some of it is macho BS, some of it resonates.

One of the key elements in some of the early books is about how Spenser is generally “self-reliant” as well as “self-contained”. That resonated with me given my own back history of my five-years of “tadpole status” where I ripped apart my psyche from age 28-33 or so and rebuilt it in a different way, figuring out who I was and who I wanted to be. Like Spenser, I was self-reliant, but I knew that I wanted to eventually get married, have kids, etc., and to do both of those things, you have to let people in. Which I did. But in doing so, you trade off some autonomy. Not in a bad way, or unwelcome way, but a part of your soul goes with it, at least it does if you do it right.

But I feel like I’ve dropped too many balls in the last couple of years. Some of it started with my change in job at one point, something that seemed like a good idea at the time, but would be a change I might make differently now, if offered today. Not a regret so much as more info than I had, and no guarantees that the other choices would work out better or worse. I like to tell myself that I’m going to retire in about 4+ years, but I haven’t worked all those details out yet. It might be another 5 or 6, could be 9 or 10 I suppose. I feel like I don’t have a plan at the moment, and that lack of a plan is a bit endemic to my age and position. It isn’t a failure to plan, it’s that I know any such plan has way too many variables to be useful right now. The right thing, so to speak, is to go with the flow.

So, if not a plan, then what?

One option, as I described in earlier posts is to think of it as simply a journey:

  • Where am I now?
  • What is my destination?
  • What are the available routes to get there?

It’s an option, but when you are not as clear about the second and third parts, it’s not that helpful.

Another option, as per my last post, is more of a character test…who am I? What are my strengths and weaknesses? How does my mind work? In short, the psych profile I did. As an aside, I find it a bit intriguing, that post. In the history of everything I have ever written, that is probably the rawest. It is not the rawest thing I have ever done, some of that is the stripping bare of my soul in my tadpole days, the parts I didn’t even show my friends, but it is most likely the rawest, purest thing I have ever openly shared about myself and how my brain works. I got a couple of likes or hugs, and zero comments. Yet I know people read it, I can see the stats. Did I bore them? Was it mere mental / emotional masturbation? Or was it too raw? I’m not throwing a pity party that nobody commented, I’m really wondering who knows…I sure don’t. But I digress.

Another technique is a bit more challenging. It is, in a word, imaginative. You essentially try to answer the classic question of “Where do you see yourself in x years?” but with a much more pointed outcome in mind. You ask yourself a far more pointed question, one built not just in your own mind (internally focused) but on what others would say about you (externally focused). A balance between the yin of how you describe yourself and the metaphorical yang of how others describe you. Some people do it with a five year timeline. What would you like people to say about you in 5 years? Or they use 10 years. Or the inevitable, at time of death, what would they see as your legacy?

There are some risks in attempting this process, of course, not the least being some forms of toxic masculinity and stereotypes. The macho stoic man who never cries, never shows emotions, provides for his family, never backs down, blah blah blah. But if you’re careful, some of what can be revealed is intriguing.

Another risk is looking more for superlatives and adjectives than something that is a bit more pointed. “A good husband, a good father” are common catchphrases, and they show up in lots of obituaries. A friend to the people, cared about his community, etc. A thousand different phrases and they could apply to almost anyone, or more importantly, to two people who are completely different yet would have the same phrases said about them at a funeral or wake.

Ten things for your obituary

Over the next month or so, I’m going to write ten posts about things that I hope people could and would use at my funeral. Things that I see and that I hope they see. A yin and yang balance of perspectives in some form of objective reality. What would I want my legacy to be, beyond biology?

Can you do a psych profile of yourself?

If anyone has been watching the Blacklist, they would know that much of the “mystery” of the show has been revealed in the last couple of weeks, written as if the show was ending before it was renewed, and letting many small cats out of the bag, if not the largest. I enjoy the show, and since it is on NetFlix, I watched the very first episode the other day, seeing how they described things, to see if any of the original content didn’t seem to match the latest version. Mostly I just wanted to watch the very beginning where he turns himself in and says he will talk only with Elizabeth Keen.

Yet in watching the episode, I saw a short scene that I had completely forgotten. Liz is meeting with an Assistant Director (her boss for the rest of the seasons, but she hadn’t met him yet) and he’s trying to find out ‘why her?’. She’s a newly trained profiler, first day on the job, and she has no answer. So he asks her to profile herself. She starts answering a bit about her work experience and he stops her…holds up her file and says, “I’ve read your resume and file. What’s not in there?”. So she profiles herself, how her coworkers see her, her plans for a child, her deep-seated desire to understand the nature of crime and the criminal mind as a form of control, etc. Cool concepts.

But it got me thinking. As I’m feeling lost, and wondering how to respond, can I profile myself? What would I say?

My profile of myself

I am an analytical introvert but can appear extroverted in situations where I have a predefined role or in a controlled environment, often betrayed by a desire to talk, mostly about myself or to tell stories. I like to tell myself that I’m a writer, based more on potential and abilities than actual results. I aspire, in all things, to be first true to myself or at least true to a self-actualized or sometimes self-aggrandized vision of myself. I assume other roles by choice, such as son, husband, father, worker, manager, friend, by the way I choose to live my life, but at the core, I see myself first, a single entity, the smallest indivisible unit I can be.

I talk a lot, digressing regularly, monopolizing conversations not as much out of mis-perceived narcissism or self-centredness as out of fear of chaos, loss of control. Talking helps me frame the experience, control the narrative so to speak, literally and figuratively and insecurity makes me talk more when I should listen or when I am already nervous around people.

I am obsessed with nuance. The shades of gray hidden in word choices, concepts that defy identification or discussion. Ethereal differences between similar concepts, positions. I would rather do the wrong thing for the right reasons than the right thing for the wrong reasons. If I can, I would choose to do nothing if not for the right reasons, even where failing to do so might not be what I want or the best solution for everyone. I frequently care more about the means than the ends, but even with means, I care more about the motivation behind choices. I can pursue nuances down rabbitholes to the point of analysis paralysis, well beyond what is “good enough”. I stop myself better in a work setting than I do a personal setting.

Living most of my life inside my head can be exhausting as there is no “off switch”. Yet I pride myself on my brain,. It is the most important part of my sense of “me”, and has been since I was very young. I don’t know if I have a soul, or a religious spirit, or an indefinable “consciousness”, but I have a functional brain, and I’m arrogant about how it works, an arrogance that can taint relationships with others, but I would choose to embrace self-reflection over friendship every time if I was conscious of it. It nourishes me and sustains me in ways the body can never do. Physically, intellectually, even emotionally, ironically. I analyse my behaviour, my feelings, my motivations. I constantly review, consider, judge my own behaviour. I can’t be “me” without it.

The physical world doesn’t interest me in the same way, or at least, not all aspects of it. My corporeal form is a mystery to me, a surprise anytime I look in the mirror to realize I even HAVE a corporeal form in a sense. I avoid manual projects requiring dexterity of movement, or skill in action, rather than the exercise of the little gray cells.

I have three competing thoughts at war in my soul, a triangular battle:

  • One side of the triangle is the intellectual ideal, a self-actualized version of me in thought and deed. Not as an abstract but as a vision of who I could be…self-contained, independent, resilient;
  • The second side is the ideal of the emotional me, the one that embraces others, builds connections, who is definitely NOT self-contained or independent, whose strength lies in connections forged with others…family, friends, a community, strangers on the street even; and,
  • A third side of the triangle, serving as the base for the war…the “real” me, I guess. Influenced by both, buffeted by the outside storms, living. Existing. And with the harshly clouded and biased filter of self-assessment and impossibly high standards, feeling quite often like a failure not in the attempt but in the result. Like I am not achieving any of the potential versions of myself that are better than the current one. Occupying space and time. Flotsam in the tide, no direction, no value-added beyond fate. Seeing too many trees in my life that need tending, not the forest that is often thriving.

I live with three great fears. The greatest public fear is the idea of wasted potential. As a father, as a husband, even as a writer. That I could have done “more” or “better”, even if I didn’t even know what “more” or “better” looked like nor how to define them. Yet the idea of wasted potential seems simple, obvious, clear.

My second less public fear is one that was nailed by a personality profile that I did some time ago (2004 or so). That the nuances I see, the ones that I think are the most important thing in the world, the pinnacle of my reason, the outcome of all my analysis and reflection are not only beyond my ability to explain to others but also that for many people, even if I could explain them, their reaction very well might be simply “meh”.

And of course the greatest fear, the greatest weakness based on the greatest strength…that my mind will falter, and whatever “me” that I am will simply cease to be. Not a physical death but a cognitive one.


I don’t entirely know where that came from. It’s been germinating for a while, as you can see. But even with all that mental masturbation, I am not entirely sure where it leaves me. It’s unlike anything I have ever wrote about myself before, certainly rawer than anything I’ve written before either.

Yet it feels like I’m on the right track to somewhere. I just don’t know where the journey is going. Maybe I don’t need to. I know where I am, I know somewhat what my choice of destinations looks like. Maybe all that I need to accept for now is today’s step.

Blowing the dust off the last 16 months

So, today was the day. I got my first vaccine shot, Astra Zeneca, back at the end of April. Two months later, today, I got my second shot, this time Moderna. I’m doubly vaccinated.

Quick overview of the process

My wife booked me in through the provincial system, and with lots of bookings coming available in the last week, she found me a spot in August, then July, then two in June. We adjusted the schedules slightly and I went in at 4:30 this afternoon. The site was a local sportsplex, and I know it pretty well. My wife has played curling there as well as taken some courses, my son has had multiple summer camps, we’ve done a few expos there, swimming lessons, even attended a friend’s wedding vow renewal ceremony. Best of all? Lots of free parking. But overall, my greatest “sense” of the place was volunteers out the wazoo.

I pulled into the lot, and there were three people near my entrance directing traffic, checking timing, etc. with another three on the other side managing another entrance. They directed me to the best place to park, someone directed me at the main door to the right hall (a curling rink area in normal times that I’ve been in lots of times previously for various functions), someone at the main door directed me to another greeter, and the greeter directed me to a specific registrar in a long line of registration booths with nobody at them at the time I arrived. I spoke to six different volunteers before I even spoke to the person who registered me.

They checked my health card and did my symptom screening, all simple, and then directed me to follow a series of dots that took me down a long line only to double back and come back about half way to meet another greeter. It’s set up to deal with a lot of people at the same time, but there was only me. As I walked by the ultimate greeter spot, and she was directing me down this long unused corridor, I joked, “See you soon!”. Once I went down and back, I was like, “Long time no see!”. She directed me to another traffic director who took me down a corridor of booths lined with see-through vinyl/plastic, like a trade fair, except in each booth there was just two chairs. One for you, one for a guest. And you wait.

A nurse comes along eventually with a cart with her tablet on it, any supplies she needs, etc., and then she goes back and gets her ergo chair and wheels it along the corridor too. When she’s done a row, she goes back to the first booth and starts over. There were about 12 “corridors” / rows I would say, and all of them double-sided, so call it 24 rows of booths with about 6 kiosks per row, about 144 in total. But 24 nurses doing the shots.

I didn’t have to wait long, we chatted briefly while she got set up, and found out they’re doing about 1900 a day, and yes, it does feel like an assembly line to her. Not surprising.

Pfizer shots were what was booked, but we’re low on supply in the province right now, so everyone is getting Moderna. Fine with me, no real difference so far in outcome.

What did surprise me was the feeling as it went in. I know it goes into the muscle and I made sure I relaxed the arm in advance. But the whole time it was “in” the arm, I could feel the sting. I’ve had that with multiple things recently. Bloodwork that I did about a month ago was the same…normally you feel it going in, but once “in”, it kind of stops stinging until it comes out. I mean, you know it’s there, but it doesn’t “sting”, usually. However, for me, the bloodwork stung the whole time the needle was in. I thought it was something unique to the bloodwork but today was the same. The needle was in my arm maybe 15 seconds in total, but I felt it sting the entire 15 seconds. Nothing problematic, just made me nervous for Jacob. He hates needles and I’m hoping he doesn’t experience the same when he gets his second shot.

After it was over, I had to do the standard 15 minute wait, so over I go to the waiting area. Which is also an extra registration area? A little confusing, but whatever. Anyway, I finish my 15 minutes, walk up expecting to just show my form and leave, but no, I have to basically be “deregistered” and for them to complete the receipt process etc. Another two volunteers had pointed me to the waiting room, and then two more were directing “deregistration traffic”.

The first one told me to go to booth 1…I took about ten steps, passed volunteer 2 who told me to go to booth 4. Umm, okay, whatever. The guy at booth 4 heard both and was kind of shaking his head, and said, “No problem, I’ll take you here.” Except he couldn’t find me on his list. I gave him my health card thinking it might be a misheard name or something, but no, my file wasn’t “closed”. So he tells me to sit back down, and he’ll go check, but his question to me is, “Do you know where you got your vaccine?”. I swear to god, my first reaction was to say, “umm…here?”. But I over-rode it and told him which booth I had been in so off he want to find the nurse to get her to properly close my file, etc. He’s gone about 10 minutes. He comes back, I’m sitting about 10 feet in front of his desk, and he says in a pretty loud voice, “Okay, Paul, I’ve got you set up and you can come over now and we’ll finish this.”

I join him at the desk, and about 10 seconds later, one of the two traffic volunteers comes over and says in a big embarrassing voice, “You knowwwwww, we have a line here.” The registration volunteer helping me is like, “Umm, yeah, we know. He already went through it. Thanks.” Anyway, he is able to close the file, all good, I pick up my paperwork, about to leave, and he says kind of jokingly, “Don’t forget…we apparently have a line.” He thought the other guy was hilarious.

I pass four more volunteers to get out to the parking lot, and three more as I exit the lot. Wow, that is a LOT of volunteers.

My emotional reaction

When I had dose 1, I wrote about the fact that it seemed anti-climactic in some ways. I thought I might be super emotional, and then convinced myself it was more about dose 2. I also hoped that they would have one of those little kiosks set up where you could take a selfie to say, “I got dose 2!”.

There was nothing set up, and I had no overt emotional reaction at all. But as I walked out of the hall, I did have a physical one.

I got a bounce in my step. And I suddenly had a craving for something to “mark” the change. Something to blow the dust off the last 16 months, something memorable that I would recall in years to come. Something different, but not some ritual or anything. And then it hit me.

I wanted accompanying music. I wanted fanfare. I wanted a song that was not something cheesy like “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang or “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves, although the sentiment would work. I wanted something rarer. Something a bit more like “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. Something I wouldn’t necessarily hear on the radio very often but maybe in the future I’d hear it and think about this as a watershed moment. A turning of a corner, so to speak.

I wanted something that I could crank loud in the car, would get my toes tapping, and honestly, something with a bit of a harder rock feel, not pop. Out of the blue, I had a craving for a very specific song.

I like the song. I think somewhere in my old CD collection I even had the album it came on just for that song. But it is a song from ’73, from Scottish rock band Nazareth. It is not a song I came to myself, it is very much a product of having a much older brother who had all the 70s music there was in album and, yes, even 8-track. I think I even heard this for the first time on 8-track.

There was only one song that would suit my mood and meet my need. It’s Razamanaz.

Since 4:00 p.m. today, I’ve probably listened to the ’73 version over 20 times. Each time, it jazzes me up. It is my “end of COVID isolation” anthem. I know, I know, we’re not there yet, but I needed a song, and this one is mine. I will never hear it again in my life and not think of how I’m using it to blow the dust off my life.

Even my wife noticed, wondering where this upbeat, energetic, finger-snapping, shoulder and head-bobbing husband came from when we were running errands afterwards.

I’m fully vaccinated. Willingly stabbed twice. If that isn’t a reason to turn the stereo up to 11, I don’t know what is.

Feeling lost about feeling lost

As I’ve blogged about a few weeks ago, I’m really hitting a wall these days. The lack of social release has been messing up my brain, as has my continued impersonation of a rabbit living in a subterranean burrow. The physical health stuff for my leg wound is behind me, thankfully. We have no financial pressures. Nothing looming on the horizon, at least nothing we aren’t prepared for already mostly.

Yet I’m struggling.

I have always prided myself on my ability to carry a fairly high degree of stress. No matter what, I can get most jobs done if I’m physically, emotionally and mentally capable of doing them. Build a house? No. Rewire the basement? No. Write a guide to astronomy? Sure. And most of the time I am pretty clear about my limitations. I don’t usually take on something that I can’t handle. Occasionally, I overcommit on some stuff, scheduling things as an introvert that I really shouldn’t, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. I’m thinking more like a taking on a project.

Like biweekly trivia, for example. I started running a game back in the late winter / early spring, and it was an opportunity for 10-12 people to play online trivia against each other, mainly for my wife and son plus friends and family. I expected the crew to grow, and it has slightly, but also waxed and waned. I like trivia, it seemed like a good social connector, and I was happy to do it. Until I wasn’t. It’s actual “work” for me to organize the questions, and as much fun as the initial part can be in some ways, the actual running of the game was producing very little payoff for me. The people playing would go off to their breakout rooms, joke, guess, compare answers, submit answers and come back to the main room, while I sat in the main room by myself and waited. It’s not fun doing that part as I’m not interacting with anyone much, unlike previous iterations I’ve done as trivia master. I didn’t expect that, I confess.

And it was getting to feel like a chore. One that I couldn’t emotionally or mentally commit to consistently. I found myself realizing on Tuesday night that I hadn’t prepared the questions, and trivia was set for Wednesday. Or I would go to host the game on Wed and suddenly realize I hadn’t created the draft answer sheets yet (it’s only a few minutes work, but it IS work that I had to do at the last minute before the game started). I found myself regretting running it or more pointedly, regretting having committed to it.

So I did something I almost never do. I backed out of my commitment. I announced no more trivia until at least September. That was REALLY hard for me to do. Yet it was also self-care. Letting myself off the hook with the same advice I would give a friend if they were in the same boat. “Heal thyself first, everyone will understand, and it isn’t a ‘must do’, it’s a ‘nice to do’ at most”. I feel like I let Jacob and Andrea down, but I couldn’t carry the load.

Dropping another major ball

Today I dropped another major ball. I am part of a local astronomy group, and an idea came up for a project. It is something I had considered doing in part for some time, potentially on my own, potentially as PolyWogg or with the astronomy group, or even another astronomy org. It came up, I volunteered to do it with someone else, and I even signed out some materials from one of our partners to do it. That was February.

Since then, I’ve worked on it piecemeal here and there. Writing, testing, researching. I tried some setup previously, worked okay, I thought I was good to go. Timing was an issue, as was the weather, but I thought, “No problem, by the end of March”. Then April. May.

I’ve been getting super stressed. Stuff I tried wasn’t working the way it should have. The editing wasn’t coming together. But I stuck with it, I’m stubborn.

But then I hit another wall yesterday. I tried to assemble the telescope to get the last bit down, and two of the things I needed to do, I couldn’t remember how to do them or figure it out. It was like I’d never seen a telescope before. Yet I need the steps to work to complete the filming. It was a no-go. And in the current COVID world, it’s not like I can have someone simply pop over and help me over whatever mental block is happening.

It has been feeling like a weight around my neck pulling me down. No longer a project I was excited about but one I’ve been dreading. And as I said, some of the pieces were done, but when I went to assemble them as a draft, the video quality is not up to standards. It looks terrible. Almost like image stabilization wasn’t on (comes standard) or my quality settings were at the minimum (they weren’t).

In a different world, I would blast through. I might even take time off work to just “get ‘er done”.

Except I don’t actually feel right now like I CAN get ‘er done. I have no gas in the tank, emotionally, physically or mentally.

As unprofessional as I feel having to tell the organization I can’t do what I started to do, and that most of what I created so far is unusable, it would be even more unprofessional of me to continue trying to make it work when I have no confidence it will.

So I returned all the materials today and wrote my organizers to say “Sorry, I’m out.” I feel more ashamed than relieved. Maybe relief will come later. For now, I feel like I let myself down, as much as them. Sure, they’ll say “We understand”, and say all the right things about mental health, etc. But it doesn’t change the reality for me which is I committed to something that I feel I should normally be able to deliver. And instead? I’m flaking out. More like tapping out, but it feels like flaking out.

Feeling lost as I turn 53

On a larger scale, I’m feeling lost. Confused. Languishing as they say in the New York Times and elsewhere. Overall, mentally, I like the newer metaphor that we have a preset limit for our mental bandwidth. We can put through only so much, and as the noise of COVID and isolation grows, it reduces the usable bandwidth further.

Mine feels like I’m operating at 50%. I’ve had some recent social outings, one to some friends for an afternoon by the water, one on the weekend with Jacob and Andrea to Pinhey’s Point and then eating on a local patio. But it’s not replenishing me, not filling up my bucket as rapidly as previously, nor diminishing the noise that reduces mental bandwidth. It’s refreshing, but it doesn’t feel sustaining.

As an analytical introvert, I get an energy boost from reading, and I am binging like crazy this month. I read about 20 books a year over the last few years, plus or minus 10 or so, mostly fiction. Since June 1st? I’ve finished 21 already and half-way through my 22nd. It’s keeping me going, but it ain’t replenishing things either.

I have huge projects outstanding, and I have a way forward, to rebuild what I have lost, to find myself so to speak, but that is a post for another day. What has been interesting to me is a combination of three feelings.

First and foremost, I’ve been wondering about the nature of being lost. If you think of being “physically lost”, say in the woods, when exactly do you reach the stage of “lost”? Most people think of metaphorical “lost” as being without a destination or more aptly a plan to get there, while physical “lost” as being more about not knowing where you are or how to get anywhere necessarily. For me, I think it is a combination of not knowing where you are, not having a plan to get you somewhere else, and not necessarily having a “somewhere else” in mind as your destination.

But at what stage, as you lose your location, your route or your destination, do you become officially lost? I have always had a pretty good idea of my current location, the “id” as my sense of self and my capabilities. As my mental bandwidth takes a beating, I don’t know that I know my current capabilities exactly. I don’t know that my destination has changed much, I feel relatively confident on that, but I have no confidence that my previous “route” so to speak would get me there. I have doubts.

Secondly, one of the series’ I’ve been binging is the Jane Whitefield series. The premise is simple…she’s a one-person Witness Relocation Service to help someone disappear when people are trying to kill or hurt them. While I don’t want to disappear, the series does bring up lots of questions about the relationship between “self” and “identity”, “habit” and “character”. For example, her primary advice to her clients in the stories is that everything is about simple incrementalism. If people know you like to read, don’t go to the local library in your new life. You can read, but altering your habits slightly will make it harder for them to find you. Small steps that move you from your “old life” to your “new life”. Equally, there is a lot of discussion of how much of “you” is from your “nature” side and how much is learned from your “nurture” side over the course of your life. What can you easily change, what can’t you change?

Finally, I’m also binging the Robert B. Parker series called Spenser for Hire (or at least on TV, that is what it was called). In it, Spenser is the intrepid private detective. He has a best friend, Hawk, who is a top-level thug, a mercenary free-lancer doing whatever he is paid to do and not worrying about the metaphysical nature of it all. Spenser, by contrast, thinks all the time. It is not uncommon in the books for other characters to treat him a bit like he’s some wannabe throwback to the Knights of the Roundtable, rescuing fair maidens and young men in distress, including his brilliant psychologist girlfriend. He lives by a code, he does what he says he’ll do and never quits even if it hurts him; he’s quite thoughtful in general, neighbouring on philosophical; thuggish in his physical behaviour; and the renaissance man who likes to cook good meals, drink good spirits, and read voraciously. While he sounds impossible, he’s also rather down to earth in his wants and desires, eschewing dress up clothes, etc.

Yet what entices me to the series of late is the sense of “completeness” that he has created. Like most characters, you can see the “self-reliance”, that’s inherit in most protagonists I think. But what sets Spenser apart to a great deal is much of his life is also relatively “autonomous”. He knows what “completes” him. And in the early days of the series, what completes him is simply him. I’ll come back to this in a later post, as it seems misleading and disingenuous to try and discuss it in detail here.

But between the feeling of being lost, wondering about identity, and the ideas of autonomy vs. self-reliance, I feel somewhere in there is a nugget of wisdom I need to find.

Each year, on New Year’s and my birthday in June, I take stock of where I’m at, where I’m going, and how I’m doing at getting there. This birthday seems more like a crapfest, not feeling like I’m in control at the moment. I’ve got some ideas of how to get back on track, but I’m not there yet.

Tune in tomorrow for another episode of the weird mind of PolyWogg…

When reading resonates…

I am part of what I call the PolyWogg Reading Challenge, a year-long “book club” with low intensity, lots of variety, and monthly themes. It’s nothing big, a small group of friends/family and myself, with me acting as ringleader. Part of the goal was to encourage me to read more and to have small discussions with others without being overwhelmed by the firehose approach of sites like GoodReads.

Most of the time, I read for simple pleasure. Many of my choices are murder mysteries — detectives, lawyers, detectives and lawyers, amateur sleuths, coroners, consulting detectives, etc. Way back in the ’90s, I followed an online discussion group and they had a list of rules for participation, one of which said that members were not allowed to discuss Anne Perry’s backstory. I didn’t even know who Anne Perry was, but she was the only author whose “history” was essentially verboten. I learned from others that she wrote historical fiction, and I didn’t know much about what that entailed. The closest I came was Sherlock Holmes, Murder in the Rue Morgue or Agatha Christie. Not “historical” in any sense other than it was previously contemporary fiction but written at the dawn of mystery writing.

I sought out some Anne Perry books to try one, and I tried a series with Charlotte and Thomas Pitt. Basic premise is 1860s England, Charlotte is not the typical society woman / lady, will never get married because no man is likely to take her opinionated self, etc. Thomas is a detective who befriends her. Joint sleuthing leads to affection to love to marriage, etc. I enjoyed the series and some of the sense of time and place. I bought a few in the series, but didn’t advance too far just by time and interest. In case you are wondering, the reason the author’s backstory was banned from discussion was that as a teen, her and her friend committed a murder, knocked down to manslaughter, and both were found guilty. Soooo, lots of people have views about reading a murder mystery written by someone who killed someone in real life. Most of the time you see current concerns more like cancel culture; this was way before that and discussions erupted with strong reaction on both sides until the moderators finally said, “Knock it off, no more discussion of her life, we’re here to discuss books.” Personally, it meant little to me, I just liked the books.

What did I say about resonance?

One of our past months had the theme of “history” and the goal was to read a book that was set or written before 1965. I included Anne Perry as one of the formal “challenge” authors, and I dusted off some of the old copies. One of the other series is a character named William Monk and most sites list the books as the “Monk” series. There’s something ironic about the fact that the other series lists both the husband and wife as the series name, but this series is marketed as the William Monk series yet has two other characters, Hester Latterly (a former Crimean nurse) and Oliver Rathbone (a solicitor & barrister). Hester figures prominently in the series, as does Oliver in many of them, and deals extensively with the role of women as a plot device, yet ironically it is the “Monk” character that gets sole billing as the protagonist.

In the first book, one of the most interesting aspects of William Monk was that he had had an accident and is suffering from some degree of amnesia. He didn’t remember his name, nor remember any part of his past, yet he was still functionally able to converse, talk, understand, etc. None of his functional abilities are impaired in any way, he just didn’t know who he was.

A police captain comes to see him, he finds out his own name, and he is scared that if someone finds out he is an amnesiac, he’ll be fired. And have no money on which to live. So he fakes it until he makes it.

I remember when I first read it, I was intrigued by the idea of nature vs. nurture. As Monk detects, he also starts to see how others react to him and he gets a picture of himself as a relatively harsh person. Regularly cutting, frequently ruthless in his dealings with others if he feels they don’t measure up to his professional standards, intolerant, aggressive, abrasive, and virtually no friends. He lived for the job, and while he was well respected by everyone for his abilities, it seems like no one likes him very much. He’s an ass regularly, just brilliant at his job. But it rubs him raw. His “new” self doesn’t much like his “old” self.

In short, without all the layers of nurture/experience from his life, he has been reset to a bunch of core values of duty and honour, and even justice above both of those. The inherent “nature”, perhaps. In the novels, much of the mystery of his past is contrived. For example, he remembers he has a sister who lives in the country and he goes to see her. She’s warm to his arrival, but it’s clear he hasn’t stayed in touch much, nor reciprocated her feelings. There’s no animosity, they’re just not very close. He has a thousand questions, and he tells her nothing. Rather than simply say, “So a funny thing happened when I got knocked on the head, I don’t remember any of you or mom+dad, do you think you could fill in the blanks?”, he remains silent. It may work as a primary plot device in a lot of TV shows, but as a literary device, it’s a bit shallow. At least in a TV show, you wouldn’t be privy to all his thoughts at the time. And in many situations, he prides himself on showing courage and just asking something, facing his fear, but when it is his sister and the safest space he knows, he says nothing. Yawn.

But some of the books have been fascinating to see different aspects crop up. In one book, he remembers a woman that he cared about deeply, but not the context. He investigates, narrows it down to three possible cases, and goes to visit them. In all three, the people involved in the old case react to his arrival in both shock and awe, more signs of his ruthlessness and brilliance. But when he finally meets the woman, she reacts very harshly to his arrival. It’s a bit convoluted, but essentially they did both love each other, but she decided he was too much of a drama queen with the lows of feeling injustice for others and the highs of success in thwarting them; she preferred a more even keel, and chose a nice, quiet, safe life over being around his potential ruthlessness and passions, even if not directed at her. When they parted, they agreed that he would never return, yet here he is, so she ain’t happy. He’s devastated by the truth of the memory and also that he allowed himself to misjudge her. He’s not as upset about her, as he is about himself.

It’s a tough nuance, but that idea resonates with me. Revisiting old behaviour, reinterpreting how that behaviour played out, even your own motives for why you behaved that way. I find the idea compelling. Not to judge OTHERS or reinterpret their behaviour and ascribe motives that weren’t present at the time, but in analysing my own motives to find any hidden truths. While I didn’t get conked on the head, I have spent a lot of time in my life looking back at previous behaviour, analysing it, examining my motives, and not always liking what I found. There’s also an element in there of the “road not taken”, not in the sense of wondering “what if”, but more of the idea that a thousand little decisions affect the way your life unfolds. Simple decisions like choosing to sit in the second row of a lecture hall and meeting someone who if you had sat in the third row, you wouldn’t have. And perhaps they introduced you to someone else who introduced you to someone else who introduced you to your spouse. A domino effect that started simply because you sat in one row rather than another. In Monk’s case, he comes face to face with the one who got away and while he gets closure, it comes at a heavy price.

Sustainable employment income

Because the books take place in the 1850s/60s in England, of course there is very little evidence of a welfare state. The difference between classes is almost a sub-character of its own in both series, and one overwhelming theme is “what money will I live on?”. For Hester, the nurse, she does not want to rely on her brother to look after her, so she works as a nurse in various homes for those in higher society (i.e. those with money to pay her). It puts her a bit above servant, but not much. Yet she has to work because she needs money to live on. The books don’t dwell too much on whether she has any savings or if she’s literally living one paycheque away from disaster, but it’s not a soft cushion, if she has one. In that regard, it is something commented upon for most of the female characters.

They can’t own property, they cannot inherit anything, most of them cannot work without losing societal status, and many of the stories revolve around women and whether all of them married for money or occasionally love. It could sound almost cliché, and at times, it is.

But Monk himself is not too far off that point. He is terrified in the first book that he will lose his job, have no income after 2 weeks, and might end up in a workhouse which almost nobody ever leaves. I went to university, even law school for awhile, and I’ve worked for the government in a good job for the last 28 years. Yet I can remember wondering when I was in high school what would become of me.

Would I find something I liked? I sucked at pretty much anything manual, but had no real idea of what other types of jobs were out there. I never really saw any jobs where I thought, “I could do that. I could make a living at THAT.” When I was in university and working at the library, I loved it. Some of that was the nature of the job, and I’ve blogged about some of that previously, but some of it was straight cause and effect — I worked and I got paid. And they liked my work enough to keep hiring me. I was GOOD at something. So, for awhile, I thought, “Hmm…I like books, I like working in the library, maybe I could become a librarian.” Or one of the back office staff.

I *saw* jobs that would generate income and that I could foreseeably do. I had, in short, options. But I remember all too well when I didn’t think I had any options. I didn’t know if I could/would go to college or university. It seemed so expensive to me, it was not a “guaranteed” option for me. But I got a summer job at the library. I earned real money for a change, not the previous temp stuff I had done for pocket change. I started at a minimum wage of about $8.50 an hour or so, but within a few years, I was above $12, and I thought I was amazing.

More importantly, I was starting to see other jobs I could possibly do. A step above my station, as it were. It wasn’t until I went to work for the Ministry of Education in B.C. for a co-op that I saw what government really was like and saw TONS of jobs I could do. A myriad of options.

Yet when I look back, and partly because of the nature of my job now that focuses heavily on the labour force and what “skills” people need to have for various sectors, I wonder if there are students like me who are in high school with no pathway in front of them that they can see. Not because they have no pathway, or that their options are too limited, just that no one has said, “Hey, do you see this path over here? Or over here? Or over here?”. For some people, that was what guidance counsellors were for, except most guidance counsellors had no real training or special information about jobs. The internet has helped with finding information, but if you don’t know what to look for in the first place, how do you know where to start looking?

For many people, they’ll do a career quiz. If I pretend I’m a high-school student, and looking at potential careers, there are a lot of career quizzes out there. Many ask you questions you have no idea what the answer is…would you rather be an auditor or a politician? Umm, neither? Both? As a high school student, you may have no clue what a production manager does, or if it says “salesperson”, do they mean a telemarketer, a retailer, or someone who works for a company selling company products to other businesses?

For fun, I did one quiz, and I tried to answer as if it was me 35+ years ago. It came back with 30 suggestions…financial played heavily with accountant, auditor, actuary, bookkeeper, financial aid officer, financial analyst, foreign exchange trader, business valuator, and financial planner. That’s not a bad list, to be honest, although trader wouldn’t be anything I would like. But 18yo me wouldn’t have known that. It would have given me a starting point, I suppose. But I was already taking accounting in high school, and liked it enough to win a small local accounting contest, so that was already on the possible list. Court reporter showed up, as did a corporate lawyer but not a general lawyer (partly as I said I didn’t want to convince people in adversarial arguments, probably).

Weirdly, some health care stuff shows up…Health care administrator, hospital administrator, research tech? Sure. But dental lab technician or geneticist? Huh?

Other odd ones include surveyor (?), economist (yes, but back then I would have had no idea what that meant), food service manager (okay, a little specific), office manager (generic), IT manager (okay), systems administrator (hmmm), systems analyst (okay, but would have no idea what that was), venture capitalist (umm, I think I would need some capital first), small business owner (never), quality assurance engineer (maybe), and consultant (pretty generic).

The weirdest two go to opposite ends of the spectrum. The REALLY weird “hard pass” was sommelier. That is just plain laughable. Not only do I not like or appreciate wine, I have no discerning palate or nose for it either.

But the one that struck me as really odd, a hard yes of sorts, was not something that showed up ANYWHERE in the questions…astronomer. Unless the quiz pulled my browser history, that seems like a really weird coincidence.

Yet the problem with all of it is that nowhere in that list is “government employee”. Economist, perhaps, although when you click their link to see what they mean, they generally mean at a large banking institution. It’s just natural, most HR advice out there is geared towards the private sector, not based on an equally detailed knowledge of the public sector.

But I digress

As I read the books, and the various options available to women, it seems generally like it would collapse down to a much smaller list:

  • Get married
  • Servant or servant+ (professional nurse, not a general nurse)
  • Shopkeepers, general rabble
  • Prostitute
  • Corpse

Sure, I know it’s historical fiction, not a documentary, but I find some resonance in wondering “What do I do?”. We of course have a safety net, but it doesn’t stop people from asking themselves a fundamental question…not “What do I do or even want to do?”, but the simpler question, “what CAN I do?”

Some of that despair permeates through, and combined with the question of “Who are we if we are not surrounded by our decisions, if we were to break free and start fresh tomorrow?”, I find some of the thoughts consuming.

It’s strange to me that those ideas should resonate with me so much.