A Simpler, Stress-Free System?

Posted on Oct 23, 2011 in freelance | 0 comments

I’m excited about this recent post by Jane Friedman, former publisher of Writer’s Digest and blogger of There Are No Rules. The title of the post is My Secret for Battling Procrastination, but I think it’s actually more about how to focus your attention and make reasonable goals than about motivating yourself.

Thank goodness for Jane. I can really use some of her tried-and-true wisdom on this topic.

It seems I’m always planning out my collection of grandiose goals, only to find (hours/days/weeks later) that I’m stressing myself out trying to micromanage every detail of my life for the next year.

Even just this morning, I attempted (again) to map out the phases of my major goals, point by point, in hopes of seeing into the future and being more productive with the here and now. And like every other time, I could feel the tension and anxiety creeping into my heart, rendering me useless.

I’ve got good news, though. The difference between this morning and many other previous “planning” sessions is this: I finally realized that this system is inefficient and must go.

The thing is, I’m so new at most of these projects, I have no idea where I’m headed from one week to the next–and that’s okay. There is a learning curve to overcome and a new path to pave for myself. And I’m only just headed down that path.

After 3 hours of excel table manipulation and labored breathing, I finally closed the file, shut my computer, and declared this system dead. It doesn’t work for me, and I’m a creative person, so it’s time to find / create / customize something else that does work.

After over a year of system insanity, I’m finally ready to try something new and simpler.

The reason I like Jane’s advice in this post is because her system is not only simple but also promotes a nice balance of focus. It allows you to see what’s up ahead and plan your time, but it also keeps the near future–all those intimidating white-water rapids–out of your way until you are ready to tackle them. And the way the system works, you may not even know you’re heading down those rapids until you’re past them.

In a nutshell, it’s a way to keep yourself from freaking out over too many new and scary things while still accomplishing tasks throughout the week.

I also like the worksheet she provides. The language she uses plays more to the emotional self than to the practical, robot self, asking questions like “What do I need to do to feel most satisfied?” instead of “What tasks do I need to complete to be successful?”

After attempting to “plan my goals” this morning, I’m feeling burned out with the whole planning thing. Still, I want to try out Jane’s system and see if it might make me feel better and more productive about my life.

Once my brain stops churning smoke and I can get the gears running on this new idea, I’ll let you know how it goes.




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How I Got into Freelancing

Posted on Oct 18, 2011 in freelance | 0 comments

When I was in college, slogging through mountains of reading as an English major, I had this grand idea that I would one day have my own freelance business.

At that point, I was already freelancing a fair amount for various companies, so the thought didn’t seem crazy to me. I liked the idea of having control of my time and creativity on a long-term basis. I wanted to be a career woman but still have the energy for a future family. Freelancing seemed like the perfect fit for me.

I fell into freelancing in college at the encouragement of my dad—a successful financial consultant with a nicely groomed network. With his help, I landed my first corporate clients and an editorial internship at Ancestry.com that later led to more freelance projects.

Through my freelance work, I built an impressive resume that paved the way for a decent in-house writing job after college.

That initial freelance work also gave me a taste of a lifestyle that I’d never be able to fully forget.


My Intro to the Corporate World

When I got my first job out of college, I was a fresh writer with a fresh perspective. I was enthusiastic and optimistic and hard-working. I ran circles around many of the older employees, who often lacked spark and ambition.

But my eyes were soon opened to the plague that can set in on companies that aren’t careful. As my company grew, things were changing, and the work life that seemed so great at first was slowly turning sour.

I learned first-hand the effect that a bad work environment can have on a person—particularly a creative person. With its control and mind games, I saw the workplace squash the life out of the intelligent, fun-loving, ambitious people around me. We were all on our way to becoming dull-eyed, mechanical, pessimistic, gossipy creatures.

The 9-to-5 schedule that had been tough right after college suddenly felt brutal. It was too much of my life to give to a cause I didn’t believe in. So much of the system seemed inefficient to me, with two-hour-long meetings that went nowhere and projects that never seemed to end.

I struggled with the politics of the corporate world—I consistently found myself back in high school, questioning whom to trust. I was ambitious and wanted to excel faster in the corporate system, but I felt so many things holding me back. I also wanted a mentor to help me learn the ropes better and faster, but my options were limited.

I had not been prepared for this in college. This was what people were willing to give for (limited) money and stability? What was I willing to give? What mattered more to me?

I understood that not all companies are like this, but that knowledge didn’t matter much. In the end, the whole environment depressed me, and I wanted out.


Jumping from a Burning Ship

A bad work environment can make you do desperate things—particularly if it is your first real job out of college and it is all you’ve ever known of corporate life.

One day in 2009, I decided I had hit the limit of what I could stand, and I quit. Out of the blue. I gave 12 days’ notice and waited to be done.

I didn’t have another job waiting—I hadn’t really even been looking. I was jaded, and scared to enter into another potentially disastrous workplace. But I couldn’t yet get past the fear of NOT having a stable job. I still valued money and health insurance over my sanity and ultimate fulfillment.

When my last work day came and went, I took a two-week break from it all, then started searching for something else. I found my next company and had another stable job within a week.


Burn Out

The environment at my new company was a hundred times better, but I soon discovered that the actual job I was doing was the exact same. I was a copy monkey, required to churn out writing but not think too much.

Suddenly, I realized this was also a problem for me. I already knew I could do this job; I needed a new challenge and new ways to keep my mind and interest alive. I found myself in a brand-new job with a desire to look elsewhere, which felt wrong.

I was so burned out by this point, I hardly knew how to think straight.

The idea to freelance full-time was never very far away, but it still seemed impossible. How would I manage to support us—to put my husband through his final year of college—if I quit my job like this? It seemed so selfish; there was no guarantee that it would all be okay. So I stuck with it.

The new job was fantastic. I could actually stand behind the company’s products, mission, and executives. I adored so many of the employees that I worked with. But there were still problems, of course. I was one of the only professionals my age. I was surrounded by managers but not actually a manager myself, which was difficult at times. There were still lots of politics and gossip, and problems seemed to be escalating.

I was also sacrificing more to be here. My first company had been a 7-minute drive from my house. This new company was a 45-minute drive. I had to figure out what to do.

Perspective is an important thing to note here. Yes, I was dealing with frustrations, but I was also allowing those frustrations to affect me emotionally. I allowed my situation to kept me in a perpetual state of burnout–which fueled the idea in my mind that the grass must be greener on the freelancing side of life. Mentally, I was too far gone to be happy in my corporate life again. I had gotten the idea in my head that it was time to try something new, and I wouldn’t be happy until I got there.

So my desire to leap built and built over the course of several months–and I let it build until it ultimately pushed me back into a crazy risk-taking mode. I found myself asking those self-seeking questions again: What was I willing to give up to keep my sanity? What was I willing to change within myself to make it happen?


Getting the Ball Rolling

In winter 2009, I finally latched onto the idea of quitting my job and starting a full-time business. In truth, I was feeling a bit reckless and overly hasty about freelancing, though, which is never a good state to be in when you’re trying to make an important life decision.

The good thing about such a wild state of mind is that it really helped me to relax and reevaluate the importance of certain things. I had spent years obsessing over the supposed importance of money and the idea that I didn’t have enough of it to feel stable. With the onset of my newfound interest in freelancing, I suddenly didn’t care about money or health insurance anymore. Money was just a means, and it would come. Living life more slowly and truthfully was now more important than living the fast, material life. I was no longer willing to sacrifice myself to an imaginary system, and I felt a huge relief from that new mentality.

Through all of this, Ryan was my rock and my stable sail. He was completely supportive of the full-time freelance idea. Thank goodness he was also practical. I was ready to quit right then and there, but he convinced me to stick it out a bit longer. He saw a safe way out for me, which would help give me what I wanted without destroying the financial stability I’d worked hard to achieve.

The safe way was this: in spring 2010, Ryan’s industrial design program required that he do an internship. If he could find something that paid well enough, he could support us for a few months while I got my feet under me.

It took all I had to not quit immediately, but it helped to finally have a reasonable plan—and a deadline.


Leaping with a Safety Net

Once a plan was in place, I wanted to tell my boss, so she would have time to find a replacement for me. In early 2010, I walked into her office and shared the news that I’d be leaving in a few months. I explained that Ryan had to get an internship for school and I wasn’t about to let him have all the fun without me. I also explained that it would be a jumping-off point for a freelance business I’d been dying to start for years. She was very supportive, though I think a little panicked that I was leaving her.

Then the countdown to my release began. 4 months, 3 months, 2 weeks, 1 day.

In the time that I waited, I read a shelf of freelance writing books and made a lot of goals and plans (all overly general and ambitious). There were days I was a bit terrified and couldn’t believe I was doing this, and there were days that I wanted to jump the gun and start my new life immediately.

April 22 couldn’t come fast enough, and then suddenly it was here. And I felt stress in other ways. Okay, was I actually ready for this? How would I handle the freelance life? Did I have any idea what I was getting myself into?

The short answer: no, I did not. But that was okay.

Ryan managed to land an awesome internship in Cincinnati that paid unbelievably well—as in, better than my salary at any of my professional jobs. (I admit to only a hint of jealousy.)

His full-time work that summer helped to support us while I pushed past the incredibly overwhelming task ahead and slowly figured out my new system, my new life.

This whole experience–from corporate life to freelance life–gave me (us) a solid foundation on which to build a more flexible life. It also gave us the freedom we needed to take a random trip to Europe. It’s amazing how way leads on to way, isn’t it? Even today, I find myself wondering if I shall ever really look back.

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Slug Pet

Posted on Oct 6, 2011 in life | 5 comments

I’ve discovered the presence of a fat slug in the weird hallway between the front door and the kitchen.

This slug is a creature of habit. The first night I noticed it, I picked it up (squeamishly) and set it on a flowerpot outside the door, thinking I should probably move it before the dogs get to it. But it came back around the same time the next night, and the next. I didn’t know slugs could be so punctual, but alas, I’ve watched the little squisher come and go at the same hour for 9 nights and have since changed my tune.

It comes in at twilight, as the sun casts its goodbye shadows on Dunoon. It squishes its way along the linoleum, the door, the walls of the hallway. It is gone by morning.

I’ve stopped rescuing it–the dogs don’t seem to care about it. It has become a part of their nightly routine, another living being in a menagerie of animals.

I decided at some point that I’m not appalled by the slug because the hallway is really an extension of the outdoors, just as the kitchen is an extension of the hallway. They are all dirty. No one really knows where they’ve been. I just prefer the outdoor spaces to the indoor ones here. They’re a fresher, more natural sort of dirtiness, even if they are drowning in rain.

In truth, I have become quite fond of the slug. I think it is fascinating that it turns up in the same hour and then leaves after its wanderings. What is it searching for?

It is kind of cute, in a leathery, mucus-y kind of way, with its beady little eyes taking in the room on their tall stalks.

It’s an animal that has voluntarily made itself available to us humans, like any other pet, and yet it takes care of itself. Besides washing away its tracks on occasion, I don’t have to feed it goopey pet food, change its urine-soaked bedding, or pretend to like it. It does its thing; I do mine. We don’t get in each other’s way; we just acknowledge the other’s presence. We have a healthy relationship, the slug and I.

Late last night, I was headed to the laundry room directly off the hallway to switch out another load of clothes. I was distracted, full of trepidation for my task, because the laundry room makes my skin crawl. I stepped on the poo-brown rug, preparing to weasel my way in through another clutter portal, when I felt a squish then a rush, as with a release of pressure.

And I knew.

I stepped on the slug.

I felt the sadness even before I looked down and saw the dull yellow mess oozing from the slug’s head. (At least I think that was its head.)

I was hoping maybe slugs were resilient, like worms. You know, when you cut worms into pieces, they still live, and the pieces become other worms. (At least, that was the rumor going around growing up. I guess I never confirmed the accuracy of it.) But the slug looked very damaged, and I couldn’t take the sight of it anymore. I escaped to the one place I’d never imagine I’d escape to. But I had a job to do, and the claustophiliac washer was mocking me.

I bundled damp clothes into my arms, prepared to sacrifice body parts to keep the dangling sleeves and pant legs from touching the floor. And I thought over the moments before the fatal step. The slug blended into the wet, mud-soaked rug so well. How could I have known it was there? Who knows how long it has frequented the hallway off the kitchen. The slug’s story had ended, and I felt the weight of it heavy in my chest.

It was such a meaningless creature, a pest, but it had slimed its way into my life, my routine, in such an unobtrusive way. There is still a hope that it has indeed survived–that it sucked its brains back into its tissue skull and made its journey out the door like every other night. But I’m guessing I shouldn’t have a hope, because I’m facing the real possibility that I’ll have to clean it up this morning, if the dogs haven’t already eaten it.

Ryan and I leave the house at 3pm, never to return. If the slug has disappeared and makes an appearance tonight, I shall never know.

photo by ecstaticist, under a creative commons license

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The Birds in Dunoon

Posted on Oct 4, 2011 in stories | 0 comments

We’ve got two birds to care for here in Dunoon. Both are as quirky as the house they live in.

Sweep is a one-eyed cockatiel. 19 years old—so practically ancient by cockatiel standards. He screams at you every time you open his cage to change his water or fill his food bowl. I assume he acts this way because it is freaky to have someone poking their hands in your tiny world and only be able to supervise them with one eye.

Then there’s Bird. Yes, that’s its name. Yes, that is a non-gender-specific pronoun. The homeowners have no idea whether Bird is a girl or a boy. What a poor creature this is, to not have any identity whatsoever. Bird is an African Grey, which is probably the smartest avian on earth. They have something like a 75,000-word vocabulary, which is simply astonishing.

In fact, if you’re feeling inclined to be amazed, here is a quick video of Einstein, the African Grey. I was so floored by this video that I’ve seen it about 10 times. (You may have seen it already, too.)


Anyway, this is the first time I’ve cared for birds before. So far, I like it. I’ve made friends with the parrot. He is always repeating sounds you make for him, like tongue clicking and saying “Good morning!”

I feel kind of badly for Bird, though. What would it be like to stay in a 3” x 3” area your whole life when you’re beautiful, intelligent, and made to fly? What a waste. It’s certainly made me think twice about owning a bird in the future. Cockatiels and parakeets are one thing, but parrots fit into a category all their own.

The birds here are tucked away in large cages in an area that acts as both a tiny room and a hallway to the lounge. The light in the bird room is yellow and old, which gives it a creepy look in the evening. Add that to Bird’s maniacal laughing (in several different voices) and his/her sounds of doors opening and you’ve got yourself a very creepy place.


Photo by Peter, under a creative commons license.

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Tales of 3 Gordons

Posted on Sep 30, 2011 in stories | 0 comments

Here in Dunoon, we’re watching 3 Gordon Setters (among other things). Rowan is the 6-year-old mommy dog, and Willow and Aaron are her 2-year-old puppies.

dogs from right to left: Willow, Aaron, Rowan

These dogs are pretty good-sized, and having three of them around in the tiny hallways of this quirky, old house makes them seem bigger.


From Cats to Dogs

Everywhere you go in this house in Dunoon, there are dogs draped on the floor or standing in clumps behind you, poking their noses into your bum, mouthing your hand, or rubbing eye goobers into your clothes. (Basically violating your space in every way.) Just walking around is a precarious endeavor; I’m always pulling myself around corners like a rock climber in order to avoid stepping on a dog.

When they get excited, they become bundles of energy that fly at you from every direction, and I find myself wondering if I will make it out of Dunoon. The simple act of filling a water bowl is so exciting to them that they forget I’m there, which means I’m bouncing off dogs while trying to keep the bowl upright and maneuver my way out the door.

No matter. Apparently the kitchen floor is better when it is covered in a fine goo anyway (at least to a dog). If I don’t spill water tripping over a dog, the dogs will lap up water until it dribbles down their jowls and all over the floor anyway. Or they’ll track a new pattern into the linoleum with their muddy paw prints.

This is a bit of a change from the calm, clean, collected cats in King’s Lynn.


Stinky Sharing

These dogs are a bit smelly. Yes, when they’ve been outside, they have that characteristic dog smell, but they are smelly in another way, too. Like last night, when we had two dogs lying at our feet and this awful rotten-egg smell filled the room.

“Was that you or the dogs?” I asked Ryan, plugging my nose with one hand and waving the other around frantically.

“Was what me?” was the reply. He looked innocent enough.

A few minutes later, Willow made the usual attempt to get on my lap (more on this later), and when I pushed her back, her throat contracted and the same gag-inducing scent wafted into my face. She looked back at me with huge, sad eyes that said “sorry” instead of “that’s what you get,” and I forgave her.


Naughty Doggie Moments

The dogs are pretty well-behaved, but they can’t be good all the time. We’ve had a few naughty doggie moments–and the trouble is almost always in the lounge. One morning, I walked in to find all the couch pillows on the floor. There were a few frayed edges, but all in all, it was a minor offense.

I walked in later to find various pieces of the fish food container (I’d been looking for that) scattered about the floor and multi-colored fish flakes stamped into the hard wood. A much more serious offense, because it involved more work on my part. (No worries. I found another can while looking for millet sprays in a random cupboard in the dining room. It’s probably 5 years old, but I’m using it anyway.)

Yesterday, I found Aaron hiding behind the dining room table, ripping plastic wrap off the brown sugar. (Brown sugar?! These dogs must be starved!) I caught him early in the act, much to his disappointment.

In the early days in Dunoon, I could tell the dogs approached us like middle school students approach a substitute teacher–with a mischievous grin and a winking eye. With me, the winking eye is still there, but I think it’s lessened a bit with Ryan.

Dogs will be dogs.


Human-Sized Lap Dogs

Willow brought out her most surprising weapon on our second day here, when she tried to sneak onto my lap while I worked on my computer. I’ve come to know the process well since then, for Willow is a persistent one: she’ll lay her head on our laptops first, smearing gooey drool everywhere. (To Ryan, in particular, this is a crime against humanity.) Next comes a front paw on the chair, followed by the other front paw, followed by one back leg and then the other.

I tested just how far she’d go with this one time, and she was literally on top of me in the chair. She’s as big as I am in that position, which is just ridiculous. The only way to get her to stop is to take her by the scruff of the neck and push her firmly to the floor with a deep “No.” Of course Ryan has a deeper voice, so she now listens to him and continues to maul me on an hourly basis. It’s tough to be small.

Aaron and Rowan do this lap dog thing, too, and we keep trying to figure out where the habit comes from. (At least Rowan responds immediately to “no” and Aaron doesn’t try it very often.) It seems like they do it when they want something, but I’ve never seen such an annoying habit. You want to go outside? Well, go scratch on the door, for heaven’s sake, like a normal dog! You want more dinner? Well, go wail in the kitchen or steal food! You’re bored to death? I’d rather have you whining than trying to climb all over me. I can handle normal dog behavior; it’s when they get into our space and threaten to ruin our clothes and electronics with drool, paws, and full-body contact that I get a bit miffed about being here.


Dogs in My Future

Looking into the future, I’d say my prospects of having a dog are getting grimmer by every dog-sit. Dogs are great, don’t get me wrong, but I’d much prefer the softer, more independent cat to the bounding, drooling, stinking, chewing canine.

The lap dog behavior alone has almost sent us over the edge at several points during our stay. Fortunately, Ryan and I have had our breakdowns separately: while the insane person is hiding and cursing upstairs, the other person can pick up the slack. Then we trade places the next day. Fun!

Sometimes I wonder if it is the cluttered house or the animals that has sent us over the edge at times. It’s probably a bit of both, but I really think the dogs are the culprits in this situation. It isn’t their fault, and it isn’t really ours either. We are all new together and figuring one another out, and there are bound to be growing pains in that environment. It’s just hard to understand why anyone would want three dogs. One dog seems like plenty.

The area we are staying in is beautiful, but sometimes when you’re dealing with the challenges of pet- and house-sitting, you start to question your sanity for wanting to travel this way. There are good days and bad days, but every time I look out the window (any window) at the rippling water, the moored sailboats, the changing leaves, and the shifting clouds of Dunoon–and I remind myself that I’m here basically for free–I start to change my tune a bit.

It is all a matter of perspective, after all.


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Build Me a Summer Home in Dunoon

Posted on Sep 27, 2011 in photos, stories | 4 comments



This place is beautiful! It reminds me of Alaska and Oregon, rolled up into one.

on Loch Eck, a fresh-water lake a few miles from the house in Dunoon

Ryan on the ferry

view from the ferry route between Goulock to Dunoon

a cute little cottage on the way "home" from Glasgow Airport

an old hotel in Tarbet, a small town on the A83 highway


Holy Loch in the evening (our view from the house)

a kayaker on Loch Eck



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A Day Trip to Ely

Posted on Sep 17, 2011 in photos | 0 comments

September 17, 2011

Today marks the 50th travel day of our trip. That happened fast! To celebrate, Ryan and I took an afternoon trip to Ely (pronounced “ee-lee”) to explore the town and see the cathedral.

I make it sound like we planned the whole thing, but in reality, Ely happened at random. We got in the car to go to the grocery store, looked at the rainy-turned-sunny skies, and decided to head the opposite direction instead. That’s the joy of travel (with a car)!

Ely is a character-rich city—the second smallest in the UK, in fact—with historic architecture and a beautiful 1080 A.D. cathedral.

The cathedral is quite an impressive one, with intricate gothic features and a tower offering nice views of the city (or so I’ve read; it helps that Norfolk is as flat as a pancake). You can purchase a tour of the building and/or tower inside the cathedral (£6.50/adult for a ground-level tour; £12–13 for ground level and tower tours).

It took us 20 minutes to get to Ely via car, and parking was a breeze—we found a spot in a busy short-term (and free) parking lot in 2 minutes. The cathedral was only a few blocks away, so after a light lunch at a random café (Café Carrington’s, half decent), we ventured through the local shops and along the city’s castle-like walls until we reached the cathedral grounds.

The grounds are open to the public, so we walked the paths for awhile, admiring the unique gothic architecture of the building and snapping a few photos.

Afterward, we found Oliver Cromwell’s house. Like everything else worth seeing, you have to pay for a tour of the place (£4.50/person). We figured the gift shop, located in the front portion of the house—could count just as well.

After that, it was back down Ely’s High Street, past more little shops holding this or that treasure. I found the post office there, too, and was excited—I’ve had checks in need of depositing for 4 weeks now!—but I was met with a locked door and a Closed sign instead. Bummer. Better luck next time.

A few hours in Ely seemed to be more than enough. From start to finish, we spent about 4 hours there (including a 1-hour grocery spree at Ely’s Waitrose), and I felt I’d had plenty of time to get a feel for the city and its short list of sights. We enjoyed that time without spending a dime, too. (We got lucky: parked 4 hours in a 2-hour Waitrose parking lot without a ticket to show for it!)

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