Change Is Gonna Do Me Good

I live in a world of cats, these days; I share a house with no less than four, and a neighborhood with countless more, so many that they have nicknames and familiar meeps as I walk past and say hello. (There’s even one who has, to all intents and purposes, taken up residence on the porch, only deigning to go home to sleep, and even then I’m not sure that’s always the case.) All of this is preamble to the strange story that happened recently, which started in the way stories often do: with a knock on the door.

It was someone I’d never seen before, who quickly explained that they lived around the corner and had found a dead cat outside their house, and would I be able to tell her which house the cat belonged to…? She was distraught to the point of tears, but she knew the cat’s name and said she talked to him a lot on this street. I said I’d accompany her to tell the owners.

The cat lives just two houses down, so Sophie — as the woman around the corner was called, she nervously explained — and I went to see if anyone was home. They were, as evidenced by the fact that their front door was open and they were deeply unhappy to see us even before we shared the unpleasant news. Once we’d explained what was happening, however, one of the cat’s owners immediately walked out to see what was happening, so suddenly that we had to ask her if she’d rather wear shoes considering it was raining.

The cat’s corpse was so strange to see. There was no visible damage, but the face was frozen in a sneer as it lay in a gutter. The owner went to pieces instantly, telling us over and over that the cat knew not to visit this particular street because of the heavy traffic, but confirming this was, indeed, her cat. The grief had turned into shock and Sophie, not knowing what else to do, left to get a box to put the cat into.

Which is when the owner realized that it wasn’t her cat after all.

Sure enough, this cat had a collar that identified them as “Captain Fake” — it sounds like a joke, but it’s not — and a phone number. Lifting the cat to expose the collar tag, it was entirely stiff, in a way that seemed less rigor mortis and more taxidermied. When Sophie returned with the box, we quickly explained what was happening, and she added this, to make the whole thing even more odd: she was, she believed, being bullied by someone unknown, who kept leaving orange things outside her house — bags of Cheetos, traffic cones, and the like. The cat was orange, and now she wondered if Captain Fake was part of this sinister agenda.

We put the Captain in the box, and the owner of the not-dead cat determined that she’d take him and call the number to share news of his discovery. I haven’t seen her in the days since, but my head is full of questions. Was he a real cat, dead on the side of the road, or a stuffed cat left there to mess with someone? If it was the latter, who’d do that? Who’d call a pet Captain Fake? What world has such people in it?

This all happened January 2. As I walked home, I wondered if this was an omen for the year, and how strange it would end up becoming. Hold on tight.

Complicates/Compliments

I became curiously obsessed with sleep when I was in Brazil. That’s not exactly right; I actually became weirdly obsessed with the idea of the room I was in when I was asleep — what that physical space would be like, with me in it but not awake.

For some reason that I can’t put my finger on (but may, in all seriousness, have something to do with sleep-deprivation, ironically; I don’t think I slept longer than seven hours a night while I was there, and for the first few days of the trip, I think five hours was my limit), I started imagining the hotel room I’d been staying in, with me in bed, comatose. It became this strange existential idea, as if when I was asleep, I wasn’t actually me and there was this empty me-shaped shell in this hotel room, which was otherwise empty and devoid of life.

That idea stuck in my head for a couple of days; the image of a me asleep in that hotel room and the idea that, when I was asleep, my body was some other thing, not actually me. Both were new thoughts, although at least one ranges back to my teenage self, when I’d fall asleep and feel as if — when that was happening — the real me was shrinking and curling up inside my body, which was some kind of shell instead of actually being me.

At some point in thinking about this over and over, the thought struck me that what I was actually concerned about was the idea that, in Brazil, I was sleeping alone. If I had been with someone, the unexpected train of thought went, then their presence would have meant that I stayed “me” and didn’t abandon my body, as if the whole thing was a bizarre version of the “If a tree falls in a forest and no-one is there, does it make a sound” thought experiment.

Perhaps this all came from anxiety of sleeping alone in an unfamiliar place, or missing Chloe; perhaps it was just the specter of a mind that needed more rest and instead turned in upon itself to try and turn the very concept of sleep into an existential crisis. (There’s no reason it couldn’t be both, of course.) All I know is, when I landed back in Portland, I began to think about sleeping easier, for all manner of reasons.

Welcome Back To A Show Already In Progress

I’m surprised just how quickly the year started. By Friday, it felt like we were already midway through the month even though the calendar told me it was just the third day. How did that happen?

Part of it, I’m sure, was the combination of having visitors throughout the holidays and also spending the last couple of weeks low level sick, with a cold that faded in and out depending on how little time relaxing I was allowing myself; they teamed up to just leave me run down and tired no matter how much sleep I was getting.

More of it, though, came from the fact that… well, the year just started quickly. I grew up with the Scottish holiday cycle, which ends with time off on January 1st and 2nd, if not a day or so after that as well. But here in the States, that kind of break is almost comically ludicrous, especially for a freelancer; I was back in front of my laptop by the morning of the second, and my workload was suddenly, somehow, overwhelming all over again.

(Part of that comes from one of my editors asking, out of the blue, if I could hand in a ~1000 word piece the very next day, adding, “Yeah, I thought I’d mentioned it before the break” in such a way that it was clear that they didn’t expect either of us to buy it. That was a fun Welcome Back present, let me tell you. Also a reminder that work in 2020 is going to be like work in 2019, but more so.)

And if January second seemed a lot, the third was even worse; on my second working day of the year, I produced about as much as one of my heavier days running up to the holidays, although a lot of that was future planning and things that wouldn’t be seen for awhile yet. The third was when everyone else had caught up with themselves and started emailing with questions and plans that needed a response immediately. It was a curiously exhausting, overwhelming day that left me glad that the weekend was around the corner, as if I hadn’t had time off two days earlier.

I like the old way of doing the holidays, with having an actual holiday from work being central to things. This brave new world leaves me craving time off, wondering how and why we push two days worth of work into one day of reality all the fucking time.

May We All Have A Vision Now and Then

Somewhere around September or October, I realized that 2019 has been a year I was writing off as transitory in a lot of ways. It was the year the divorce became final, and I rebuilt my life in a better way, with me actually able to control things that felt out of control before — of course, there’s still a lot I can’t, and never will be able to, control, but that’s just fine — and in a far happier place and healthy relationship. 2019 was the year, I told myself, where I’d figure things out, even if it’s just what not to do.

(Money; I need to be better about money, for one thing. There was a point mid-year where I suddenly thought, “Wait, am I going to wipe out my savings when I pay taxes next year?” and had this massive chill run through my body. Still, at least I have savings, which was better than the worry I had earlier in the year when I didn’t think I’d be able to make rent because a paycheck was delayed.)

But if that’s what 2019 was — and now, I still think that I was right in that characterization of the year, perhaps feeling even more convinced — then what is 2020 going to be? What happens after the transition?

I have no idea.

And the more I think about that, the more I’m okay with it. There was a point where not knowing was terrifying, where I knew that I’d be expected to have an answer and a plan and that the plan would need to pass muster, and… that was unnatural to me, really. For better or worse — and really, it’s probably worse — I’m not one with longterm plans, one who has everything mapped out in advance. It always felt like a struggle to have those answers when they were asked of me, and it took me too long to realize that that, really, was a sign of something being wrong on an important level.

So, 2020 is going to be what it’s going to be, and I’ll probably only realize what kind of a year it is midway through it again. That’s kind of exciting to me, to be honest. When I was doing my Masters, I remember talking to someone in the school’s PhD program as they explained the idea behind their work method. Basically, she said, she followed what seemed interesting and exciting and right in some indefinable manner, and trusted that she’d realize what the connections between all those things were after the fact. It was called “emergent research,” she said.

If my life is emergent research now, that doesn’t seem like a bad thing at all.

Since We’ve No Place To Go

As we head into the final stretch of the pre-Christmas holiday season, I have to admit: I’m very, very tired.

The last week or so has been extraordinarily busy, as if the holiday gods looked down and thought that, if I was to enjoy some time off around Christmas Day proper, I should pay for it ahead of time. And so, it became a marathon of work and crash-relaxation, each evening seeing me trying desperately to unwind even though my brain was quietly spinning, thinking you still have all these stories to write and all these presents to buy and don’t you need to read these things for work and it’s the holiday season shouldn’t you be doing holiday stuff more?

Well, the evenings I wasn’t at the movies, that is; I did that twice in the past week. (Once was for work; there was a Star Wars, after all.)

At the heart of it all was an impressively Herculean workload, which saw a confluence of different elements come together to deliver a collection of deadlines that was utterly overwhelming. To give a sense of just how overwhelming, think of it this way: on average, I traditionally have one and a half stories I file to Wired each week; on a particularly heavy week, it’s gone to three. This last week, I filed five.

THR, too, saw an uptick in workload — there was a new Star Wars, after all, and it’s heading to the end of the year, so Best Of lists and the like need to be done — so I found myself doing things like getting up at 5am to start work and just… keep working until either I was done or, more likely, I couldn’t work anymore for whatever reason: Something else needed to be done (Mailing Christmas cards, going to the movie theater), or I simply couldn’t concentrate enough to get it done.

Suffice to say, it’s been a time. Thankfully, a time that’s more or less over as I write — I’m wrapping up final commitments now, soon to be followed by wrapping presents and then allowing myself to try and get in a holiday mood, or at least a mood that doesn’t see me chasing my own tail so much. The weather outside is frightful, they say; I’m looking forward to the chance to be able to look outside the window and see for myself.

It Puts A Great Big Smile on Somebody’s Face

The end of the year gets complicated, I’ve always thought. Not in a bad or difficult way, I hasten to add; while there are bad and difficult memories attached to this time of year — ones that have always been bad since the inciting incident, and ones that have turned bad over time like a fruit left out on the counter — I’m still very much a fan of the holiday season and everything it represents overall. But still. Things get complicated.

It’s a scheduling thing, really. I was in Brazil — or en route, for part of it — for a week, and because of that, I feel like I lost the only quiet time between Thanksgiving and Christmas between the trip and the last-minute scramble of planning for it. Everything else feels so filled with stuff in one way or another that, even though it’s good stuff, can feel overwhelming and exhausting. After all, Christmas is around the corner, then the end of the year. There’s stuff to do, things to prepare. Who can stop when all of this needs to be done…?

(That it’s difficult to be Christmassy in São Paulo figures in, too. Every now and then, I’d see a Christmas tree or some kind of decoration and it would be jarring to remember, oh, yeah, it’s December, isn’t it?)

This feeling is complicated by my belief that this year saw Thanksgiving sneak up unexpectedly when no-one was paying attention, although I know that’s really just how busy my November ended up being by accident; nonetheless, I feel like I got busy with stuff and then, bam, there it was somehow. To be fair, that’s been a lot of 2019 for me. Things seeming to happen when I’ve not been paying attention.

Anyway, we’re in the final couple of weeks of the year already, and this is when things get complicated. Work shifts gears as the daily grind adds Best Of lists and retrospectives and looks ahead; gift-buying and socializing get added to the everyday to-do lists, and the seasonal viewing and listening start to take hold. (Something I wanted to start earlier, but Brazil got in the way, gloriously.) None of this is bad stuff, and I’m not complaining. I’m just jetlagged still, somehow, and mentally scrambling to arrive in the actual moment.

And If My Mind’s Somewhere Else, You Won’t Be Able To Tell

There are two certainties for me about a work trip, I’ve come to realize after this past year of travel. (I’ve been to Chicago, San Diego, New York and now, São Paulo, where I’m actually writing this; I’m back by the time you’re reading it. I’m the inevitably jetlagged one moaning in the corner.) The first is, I always end up packing more clothes than I actually need, no matter what. The second is, I always end up working more than I intended.

I was sure I’d licked the first problem on this trip; as I packed in an admittedly hurried state the night before I left, I literally counted out clothes, mentally matching them to the length of the trip. “I’ll be gone seven days,” I reasoned, “so I’ll need seven days’ worth of clothes.” And then I counted them into my case. What I didn’t realize until midway through this trip, though, is that that’s not actually true: I have two overnight trips, so I really only needed five days’ worth of clothes. I tried so hard, but not hard enough.

The second thing is more of my hope crashing against the harsh shores of reality, I suspect. I imagined this trip having more downtime, with evenings I could explore the city and lazy mornings as I prepared for the show. Not so much — I went three full days before I could take any kind of serious break, just because I had deadlines on top of deadlines. (Being a freelancer means that, just because you take a trip for one of your gigs, you still have to hit deadlines for the others, even if they usually take up half a day at a time.)

The same thing happened in New York, as well, to an extent. Before the trip, I had visions of being able to spend time with Chloe on long walks through the city in the fall, or spending time with the friends I only see at shows. Nope; instead, I ended up working 12-18 hour days on every single day of the trip.

On this trip, there’s been a saving grace: Each morning since the second day, I’ve been wandering through the streets on a dérive, something I’m sure I’ve written about here before. It’s walking around with no plan and no map, and allowing the surroundings to tell you what you need to know about where you are. (It’s something from Situationist theory that dug itself deep into my head when I was in my early twenties, and I’ve done it every chance I’ve gotten when I travel to new spaces; I went to art school, so sue me.)

The early morning walks, as short as they are, are my time. No deadlines, no nothing except me, music in my ears — on this trip, oddly, music from 20 years ago for some inexplicable reason: a lot of Ben Folds Five and Supergrass. I don’t know why — and the city. They’ve kept me sane on this trip, giving me something of my own during a period where the rest of the experience belongs to other people. I’ve even got my choice of what to wear during them, as it turns out.

All Over The World Is How I Feel Right Now

Unexpectedly, I didn’t feel as if I’d really arrived in Brazil until the second day I was there. I’m unsure if it was jet lag or general exhaustion — I didn’t manage to sleep between Tuesday morning and Wednesday night, and spent almost every moment of that either traveling or working, which was as overwhelming as it sounds — but the end of the first day in São Paulo saw me essentially collapsing into sleep, too dizzy to be able to focus my eyes and minutes away from getting up to be sick after making the mistake of drinking water from the tap because I was so dehydrated. Everything felt surreal and skew wiff; I knew I wasn’t home, but it didn’t really feel like I was anywhere, if that makes sense.

The second day was much better. It wasn’t just that I had slept, although that helped considerably. I woke up and worked, because that’s the job, literally. But after I’d hit the deadline that was looming scarily in front of me, I did the thing I’d wanted to do since landing and hadn’t had the chance: I went on a dérive, wandering through the streets around the hotel with no plan or direction (Well, a mild plan to go get some breakfast, it’s true). Basically, I walked out the door to give in and let the city tell me what it was like.

The city is… I don’t know what to say. (I’m writing this while still here, so I don’t have the necessary perspective yet, that’s true.) The city is alive. And at once more green and more urban than I expected. It feels as if it’s been put together haphazardly, in the best way possible; the layout, the types of buildings, the uses for the buildings, all seem to have little rhyme or reason to it.

There’s a lot of traffic, and a lot of noise in general. There’s a street, a few blocks over, where it seems as if everyone walks their dogs. There are lots of tiny little storefronts within a few blocks, selling almost everything you could want, open onto streets filled with people and newsstands, God, I love the newsstands here, filled with newspapers and magazines and comics. It makes the city feel like a place obsessed with reading. How better to win my heart?

I’m writing this literally midway through the trip, and I feel grounded here now, but also… comfortable…? This despite not knowing Portuguese and basically reduced to communicating via hand gestures and goodwill. I needed a day to arrive properly, but now that I’m here, I feel like the world has opened up to me again. That alone makes the 18-hour travel worthwhile.

The Morning Found Us Miles Away

As you read this, I’m in Brazil, as odd as that might seem.

I’m actually writing this a couple of weeks prior, and to give you an idea of how quickly and last-minute this came together, it’s literally only just been decided that I will, in fact, be going to Brazil and my travel and lodgings still aren’t anywhere near finalized as I type. A week ago, this was nothing more than a vague off-handed mention at the end of a workday.

As that might suggest, it’s a work trip. Of course it is; even I am not scattered enough to try and book myself a vacation — what would be my first vacation in years — at the very last moment, leaving the U.S. at the start of the holiday season that I love so much to spend some time in weather that’s expected to be 80-odd degrees and humid as hell. Instead, it’s a work trip to cover a comic book convention in Sao Paulo, which seems surreal and unlikely enough that it felt impossible to resist.

Nonetheless, I feel compelled to confess that I did almost resist it, and that I am feeling curiously cautious about international travel for the first time in… almost a decade, at this point…? That can’t be right, but it’s certainly about seven or eight years, I think. It’s definitely been far more than a decade since I was in a country that wasn’t the U.S. or the U.K.

The prospect is as nervewracking as it is exciting, which feels like a sign of age as much as anything else: I won’t be able to speak the language! How (where, when) do you exchange currency these days? What is it going to be like working during all of this?!?

By the time you read this, I’ll be working some of those details out (I hope) and will be enjoying the trip (I also hope). One way or another, expect more on this subject when it’s all over.

Maybe 40 Hours A Week Is Enough

Traditionally, I don’t like to take time away from work.

I mean, that’s not entirely accurate; it’s more that I don’t feel comfortable doing that for a number of reasons — really, just a big one called insecurity surrounding my sense of self-worth and a misguided belief that I can become more valuable as a person if I simply just work harder, but I go to therapy for a reason, thank you very much — but it’s certainly true that, historically, I don’t tend to take time off if I can help it. It makes me uncomfortable, antsy. I feel as if there’s something I should be doing instead.

(Mixed In with this is traditional freelancer panic, of course; the feeling that saying no to anything puts my livelihood at risk, which is an obvious no-no.)

My usual disinterest in time off is so usual that three different people have commented on it in the past week, in fact, each expressing something akin to sarcastic concern over how I’d deal with the four-day weekend that comes with the Thanksgiving holiday.

Reader, I craved it. Heading into that break, I felt this intense need, a hunger, for that time off. I almost resented everything that stood in its way, the deadlines and requirements and the everything that traditionally helped me keep working. Even after the holiday itself, I dissembled and found reasons to stop myself from doing work that, in theory, I felt as if I “should” be doing. From out of nowhere, I discovered and embraced the joy of relaxing.

I have feelings about why this should be the case, but I think the truth is simply that I’m at a point in my life where — say this quietly for fear of upsetting people, not least myself — I’m not hiding from my life by working anymore. Indeed, I might even enjoy not working, but instead just living.

It’s a new thing I’m trying, as surprising as it’s going to be to everyone around me. I hope you’ll all be patient with me during this obviously trying time.