Back at it

I’ve been focusing on work and family recently (okay, let’s not lie, for the past year and change,) but it’s time to come back!

To get started I wrote a guest post for my good friend’s blog over at Let’s Talk. It’s all about working from home, and how to do it more efficiently. Check it out, and while you’re there, check out her posts about content marketing and writing your first blog post.

And check back here next week. Got some great content ideas, especially if you love stories about misadventures in the outdoors!

IMG_2377

This is where I’ve been for the past year. Just in a lake, chillin.

Advertisements

I Did a Thing

One of my favorite songs to play in the morning before high school began with a man asking: “Feeling stuck?” and rambled off into a jingle about fly paper before launching into a jaunty beat. It was the perfect way to trick myself into believing the world was a great place and high school was a place I wanted to be.

By college, that excited morning feeling couldn’t be conjured up so easily. I was pathetic, probably mildly depressed, and clinging to an odd assortment of friends.

So when an old friend mentioned walking the width of Spain during the summer after our freshman year, I seized upon the idea and began saving my meager minimum wages from a desk job I only kept because the woman who worked with me sighed so much I thought she might actually sigh herself to death without anyone to strike up idle chatter about the coffee machine.

Her pantsuits were my eventual destiny, I was convinced, and I practiced my long-suffering sighs on the treks home from work.

I was most definitely stuck, and the Camino unstuck me. I came back from the walk with a newfound appreciation for my legs for carrying me across a country, my mind for spending hours alone and with new people speaking different languages, and the world for its beauty.

I damn sure wasn’t going to waste any more time moping about anything I had the power to change.

During the four years since, I’ve gone back and forth about getting a tattoo to commemorate it. I’ve drawn the way marker on my skin in a billion locations, some visible, some hidden.

I wrote an entire blog post about how much I wanted it permanently etched onto my skin.

A week and a half ago, I settled on my inner forearm, just below the elbow. It’s about two inches by two inches and it’s still a little flaky with dead skin.

IMG_1304

They match c/o Gaytha at Sacred Rose!

To the clerk at Trader Joe’s, it’s a visual representation of some made up vision quest he decided I went on. To a bartender near my house, it’s just a seashell. To me, it’s a constant reminder of persistence and the importance of unsticking oneself.

Four years from now, I’ll probably need another reminder. Until then, I can look at the tattoo, listen to the song on full blast, and go for a walk.

I Know it’s Been Done, but I’m Still Defining Home

Mostly because my definition seems to be looser than others’.

When I moved out of my parents’ house the second time, it was with a girl in a similar situation, another soul adrift after graduation, someone else confused about the Point of It All, a girl who had amassed an impressive amount of furniture. This, and the aesthetic of our living room, mattered very much to her.

I slept on an air mattress and my books lay in stacks on the floor.

When I left, a year later and a single mattress richer, I took one mug from our stash of millions. She rented a U-haul and loaded it up with plants she uprooted from our tiny garden, her paintings, her bed.

She moved to Denver, and I moved to San Francisco. She crammed our apartment into her new bedroom. I unpacked the single mug and felt at peace.

You know that part in The Office when Michael Scott asks Pam how women her age feel about sleeping on futons? I’m Michael Scott, and my infinitely more put-together best friend is the long-suffering Pam, wondering how I’ve made it this far and managed to fool everyone into thinking I know what I’m doing.

When I told her my current apartment had a free futon so I had a place to sleep, she begged me to go to Ikea, but I’d much rather spend my paycheck on a day in the city than a better bed.

Besides, most nights I talk my way onto friends’ couches instead of going back to the futon. This semi-nomadic migration, to me, is home.

I suppose that’s the definition. I have a base. Somewhere I can stash all the books I decide it’s imperative to own.

Besides that, I have the exposed brick in a yuppie’s one-bedroom, a transient developer’s drab hotel walls and mediocre coffee machine, the stacks of greasy dishes in a grad student’s sink after we finish ruining dinner and roast kale instead.

Boarding a plane, I didn’t feel weird telling a chatty mother I was headed home after a business trip. If I was flying to South Carolina, I’d say the same, and the same of New Orleans. They’re all parts of home. They’re all places I could find a couch.

If you ever find yourself in San Francisco, let me know. I’ll probably be somewhere else, and you can sleep on my futon.

IMG_0560.jpg

Ed Ruscha painted this. I feel like it’s a succinct visual representation of the way I feel about home. Each one is a different heaven.

Just Travelin’ On

Thoughts from the middle of my front-end development class, written — but not quite polished — nine weeks ago:

I’d like to think there’s learning going on in some part of my brain, but by the end of the day I’m listening to Carly Rae Jepsen and making horrible jokes to which my similarly exhausted classmates respond with blank stares.

We just finished the fifth week of a twelve-week program to learn front-end web development, trying to build decent websites and make functional things happen when the user clicks on parts of the page.

Sounds simple. But building a pixel-perfect layout of this page would probably take me 48 straight hours, and if I ever hope to make a living doing this, I’d like to cut that down to something that’d allow me a livable wage.

Computer selfie ft. week two CSS/HTML mockup attempts.

Computer selfie ft. week two CSS/HTML mockup attempts.

I’ve consumed much more coffee than I’d like to admit to reach a few near-impossible goals, and nothing I’ve made looks like the assignment goal toward which I’m supposedly working.

All of this sounds negative, I’m aware, which is why it feels odd sometimes to realize how much I’d prefer this brand of absolute exhaustion to self-driven forays into Stack Overflow and other coding resources.

Comparing those learning strategies is like saying you’d rather jump into hiking the Pacific Coast Trail instead of reading the Yahoo Answers responses when you type in basic keywords about hiking.

I’ve tried the latter, and the former is definitely preferable, if stressful.

The best part is how self-directed all of this exhaustive learning is. I guess this is how being in class and treated like an adult at the same time works. We all value what we’ve given up our lives to do.

I could just as easily spend every night downtown and trade afternoon lectures for naps, but the lack of an actual choice there is obvious to everyone in the class.

What’s most interesting is how much active choice is involved, and that may not seem like it takes too much effort, but after being unable to solve a problem for hours on end and finding a command that does exactly what you’ve been trying to build, much of the learning process seems futile.

I’ll take a W at the end of this if I make it all the way through without wearing anything to class that I slept in the night before. So far, so good.

The One After the Seven-Month Hiatus

Failure: (n) [1] Not meeting a desirable or intended objective.

Little of my life seemed interesting after I decided to ditch my original glorious plan last November — until then, I was going to travel the world, teaching English and experiencing everything, full stop. Compared to that, slinking back home for no dramatic reason and taking the first job I could find was not worthwhile blog material.

But that’s what I did.

None of my narrative fit with what I saw around me: Endless stories of satisfied graduates, selfies on top of important mountains, new friends in strange places. Mine seemed more fatalistic.

The moral was sometimes, you fail, and it’s just you. There are people who will listen, and people to give advice, but the ultimate choice comes down to you buying the plane ticket home, staring down the future written on a glowing laptop screen.

Failure: (n) [2] Not choosing the right path.

1424749284751

Kitchen window in my very own apartment, ft. roomie’s plants.

I moved out of my parents’ house in mid-February, the best Valentine’s day gift I could give myself. My roommate bought the entire cactus section at Lowe’s and I provided us with air mattresses, a stopgap until we could buy the real thing.

We camped out in our new apartment, a darling, wood-floored place with two whole stories, crown molding, and chalk paint on the front door. It’s about the small victories after you’ve hit rock bottom.

When I say rock bottom, I mean no one’s dead, and I’m young, I’ve got the potential to fall further. I understand scale and scope. But another part of being young is having a limited scale for comparison, and my personal inability to hack it abroad hit home.

And this isn’t the first time.

Failure: (n) [3] Not learning from mistakes.

I started the Appalachian Trail during the first week after exams my second year of college. I lasted six days.

For those of you who haven’t heard, rucking a pack up and down hills all day, every day is a rough undertaking. The thing about teenagers believing themselves invincible is real, though, and I did, so I was.

The camp stove I’d shipped home made it back two days after I did, in its tiny package with a note to my family who assumed they wouldn’t see me until August, a testament to my previously iron will.

Failure: (n) [4] An opportunity for growth.

This story isn’t about a closed door and opened window, or the cosmos pointing anyone anywhere. There is no magical yes. It’s about how a year ago, I imagined my life very differently than it is now. It’s about taking opportunities right in front of you. Not waiting. Seizing the day. Whatever cliche you’d like to believe.

I’m still sleeping on an air mattress, and I’m still working the job I took in December.

But I’m also enrolled in a computer programming course, because you’ve got to reach for what’s out there, even that means the opportunity to buy a plane ticket home three months after your bus pulled into the Saigon station.

In class, the teacher talks about growth versus fixed mindset. Growth claims human brains are elastic, and our capacity for change is bound only by what we choose to believe. There’s scientific evidence.

Fixed mindsets lead to stagnation, and the belief that a person can only expand in directions in which they’ve excelled before.

In other words, anything is possible, if you put in the 10,000 hours.

Failure: (n) [5] This one’s all yours.

A Few Thoughts Upon Abandoning Blog Responsibilities

Turns out, life is kind of difficult. Moving abroad is hard, homesickness is real and making new friends when you don’t speak a language isn’t a walk in the park.

Walks in the parks are lovely though. As is the abundance of food options, living in an energetic city and the adventure of navigating a place where I don’t fit in at all.

See, it's beautiful! And growing! And there are trees!

See, it’s beautiful! And growing! And there are trees!

I’m working a nine to five job editing business reports, and spending my weekends getting lost by bicycle in the city, stumbling across coffee shops with wonderful smoothies.

Proof of smoothie goodness. And a book.

Proof of smoothie goodness. And a book.

But I haven’t been able to write a blog post. I remember to try, and then the reality of moving to a foreign country and taking my first job, opening my first bank account and renting my first apartment on my own comes crashing down, and I want to write about the oceans of anxiety between the moments of calm.

I begin to overthink things.

Am I doing this right? Should I go home? Am I allowed to spend a day in my bed, ignoring the amazing cultural experiences outside my window? (Literally, outside my window there is a pagoda and my apartment building is on top of a market, and last Saturday I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

I’ll write a sentence, stop, write another unrelated sentence, stop, save each of them in a separate document, stop, and then before I know it I’m still awake at 1 a.m. with 36 different documents, five post-it notes on my walls with other ideas and an early wake-up the next morning for work.

Newsflash: On top of life, writing is hard.

I’ve learned many of the dumb, simple lessons you read about in lists like, “Five Things College Grads Should Know Before Leaving School,” and it’s funny how much more vivid they become when you live the lesson instead of being told.

Appreciate the moment you live in? Check. No one really knows what they’re doing? Check. Pursue your passion? Check. Adult is just a word that means absolutely nothing? Check.

To quote John Patrick Shanley’s well-titled play, Doubt, I have doubts. And while it’s not about a court case, it’s about the direction in which I’m steering my life, which is kind of a bigger personal deal and kind of not a deal at all.

There are so many options and so much potential. And I decided on a nuclear one.

So damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, as my great-uncle used to say, quoting naval propaganda. There’s nothing to lose by trying to get better at the tough stuff.

Breaking: Job Interviews Difficult, Finds Doe-Eyed College Graduate

As you may have noticed, I’m a pretty naive person. Saying unworldly would belie my oh-so-extensive travels, but I’m still easily cowed by most new experiences.

For example, my first adult job interview. For which I dressed, according to my friends back home, “like a Mormon,” and according to me, “eerily similarly to the uniforms of the students I want to teach.”

It wasn’t on purpose. But it must have looked like it when I arrived half an hour late, parked my bicycle in the wrong place, and stammered out excuses to the put-together woman at the futuristically bare front desk.

Based on my interview-dar, it went about 70 percent as well as it could’ve gone. Twenty percent of that was my interviewer — let’s call him Sean — emphasizing that things were a little different since I was so late.

Which is completely understandable. Even though I left 30 minutes before I needed to, mapped the whole thing on Google Maps with the address provided, and had even passed the building a week or so before, I had yet to pick up on some essential adulting interview tips.

Like how if you’re in a strange city, scope out the place the day before trying to get there. Or maybe if it’s monsoon season, bite the financial bullet and take a taxi. And if not, learn how to say “Where do I park my bicycle?” in Vietnamese.

By the end of the interview, I had plotted out a pretty solid lesson plan and written down Sean’s email address to respond to a question I couldn’t answer.

But this was not the question that made up the other ten percent of my perceived failure, no, that was a technical grammar issue.

Sean posed the scenario, flipped over his clipboard, and leaned back in his chair, fingers laced together behind his head. For most of the interview, he was stone-faced, going through the motions. So when he began to smile while leaning back, I knew I was in trouble.

I felt like Alice, preyed upon by the Cheshire cat. See what I’m saying about naive? That’s not the way you’re supposed to feel in an interview.

From what I hear, you’re supposed to at least stand up for yourself.

As the moment stretched on, I sat up straighter, took a deep breath, and plunged into a convoluted explanation of the difference between adjectives and nouns.

Sean tried to ask leading questions as I stumbled through, doing my best to demonstrate my ability to do the job, completely disproving the resume and degrees that sat between us.

After I asked him a few questions — not nearly enough, I still felt too much like Alice, unsure where to tread, having forgotten the things I wanted to know — Sean presented the truth.

“How do you feel teaching our youngest learners?” he asked.

The death knell. The We-Don’t-Trust-You-With-Anyone-Older-And-You-Look-Gullible-Enough-To-Try-This Question.

As it turns out, the children’s class was the least disastrous of my student teaching attempts, so I told him I felt motivated, excited, and willing to teach them.

While Sean took a few final notes, I watched through the window behind him as the sky opened up and rain began to pour down over a skyline of many-colored apartments and the Bitexco Tower.

The view was similar to this. But better. This is just my rooftop.

The view was similar to this. But better. This is just my rooftop.

“It’s a beautiful view, isn’t it?” he said. “There’s a cafe on the top floor here where you can wait out the storm if you like.”

There are many firsts happening to this innocent in a foreign country since graduation. The end of Sean’s Cheshire catting was the first time I finished 13 levels of Sudoku on my Vietnam phone waiting for monsoon rains to abate during the lunch rush in a sub-par cafe at a language academy.

Here’s to my first time learning lessons for the next adult job interview, and hoping that Sean doesn’t burst out laughing at my first adult follow-up email.

Queen Said It Best

There’s a checklist for expats arriving in Saigon, and it goes something like: Apply for jobs, secure transport, get an apartment.

I’ve done it all backwards, starting with renting a room, continuing with applying for a few jobs, and then getting a bicycle.

You read that right. I decided to buy a bicycle in one of the most densely populated areas of the world with not-so-great (read: basically nonexistent) cycling infrastructure.

2014-09-11 17.20.51

Bicycle? In this hostile environment? Don’t worry, these drivers are pretty accommodating considering I still don’t quite understand the street signage.

The overarching culture here favors motorbikes. Top advice shared from old expats to new involves techniques for renting/riding/parking motorbikes, and it’s almost a given that you’ll need one to commute to work. Even lone tourists employ motorbike taxis to take them places faster than the average taxi.

There are cars as well, but in the city center those are mostly small taxis. So traffic makeup is motivated drivers with lithe vehicles who follow most rules unless it’s past midnight and there’s no one on the roads anyway.

If someone plans to do something unexpected at any time of day, they honk. Running a red light? Honk. Passing on the right? Honk. Turning left across three lanes of roundabout traffic? Honk.

For an American, this makes for a noisy, angry-sounding city, full of scary travel decisions and insane drivers.

With a shifted perspective — namely observing all of this from a child-sized plastic stool on a sidewalk while eating whatever the street vendor decided she wanted to sell today and drinking iced jasmine tea — the horns are courteous, the drivers vigilant and defensive. Roads are full of confident people and diverse options for getting from Point A to Point B.

Despite all these realized positives, I’m still not ready to take the plunge into owning a motorized vehicle in a strange city.

There’s too much potential speed, and I’ve never driven a motorcycle, motorized scooter, or anything similar.

I went for the familiar option instead. The way I figure, I’m already halfway around the world, interviewing for a job I’ve never had, surrounded by people I don’t really know. My traumatized mind probably appreciates a little bit of normalcy, even if that means sweating through my clothes within 30 seconds of being outside instead of a whole minute.

And other people ride bicycles as well. I counted about one for every 100 motorbikes from the window of a cafe yesterday.

There were teenagers on trick bikes, food vendors pedaling slowly with pre-taped pitches playing from megaphones on a loop, students with backpacks riding in baskets, and businesspeople in spotless work shoes.

I’ve joined a diverse subculture.

The best part is that I’m interacting with the city instead of relying on taxis and letting the city slip by past barely-tinted windows.

Even though a motorbike would provide a similar experience, it would be a little too fast, and you can bet I’d be halfway to Hanoi before I realized I’d made one wrong turn.

This leads to the second best part about having the controllable speed of a bike. With my penchant for getting lost, I can appear less of a target on a bicycle than if I were to walk, bewildered and staring at street signs. I can pedal slowly and not look lost. There’s no way to slowly rev a motorbike without looking like a complete n00b.

Next on my backwards checklist: Buy a towel.

It’s “Orienting Myself,” not “Getting Lost”

Saigon and I reached the next level in our relationship two weekends ago when I lost myself in the alleyways winding from my hotel to the cathedral.

The cathedral is gorgeous, though.

The cathedral is gorgeous, though.

When I say lost myself, I don’t mean it in a metaphorical sense. I mean I found streets I didn’t know existed and walked around for two hours trying to find my way back.

And I say from — instead of between — the cathedral and my hotel because while technically, anything could count as between two other things, some are more roundabout than others. I’m just glad I was walking instead of driving, so I couldn’t get into too much trouble.

I made it to the church fine, and it was gorgeous. Cocky with my new knowledge of HCMC, I chose a different way back to the hotel. A way not on my screenshot of Google Maps.

A dogged pride about my sense of direction and ability to recognize street names after I’d seen them once drove me past a gym, the Reunification Palace, and into the heart of District 1.

My hotel was in District 3. If you look on a map, they’re not too far apart, but at 7:30 p.m. in a strange city, it feels like they’re miles away from one another.

This is a map of the city painted on the walls in the Post Office. If the city were still this small, I might figure it out sooner.

This is a map of the city painted on the walls in the Post Office. If the city were still this small, I might figure it out sooner.

I ended up in a different district at a roundabout I recognized from the bus ride into the city, and from there locating a main street and backtracking wasn’t difficult.

Since losing myself on foot, I bought a bicycle and have gotten lost on it as well. I’ve visited four different districts without meaning to, so at this rate I just need to keep trying to get back to my apartment and I’ll visit the whole country.

That first night, I found a bookstore I never would’ve walked to otherwise. Last night, I rode past the tallest skyscraper in town and it was all lit up like a private show. Two nights ago, I rode down the infamous Bui Vien — think Bourbon Street for cafes where beer costs $.50 — going the opposite direction I walk it, and it was like seeing the street for the first time.

Getting lost takes me places I wouldn’t expect, and forces me to think creatively about my next moves. As much as I joke about leaving the city behind by accident, that could only end poorly with my basic grasp on the language and sparse geographic knowledge.

I like to refer to it as orienting myself instead of as straight up getting lost. After a month or so of allowing myself a little extra time to make it home, I’ll know more about ways home than if I paid a taxi driver to use his every day.

It’s a learning experience, not a reason to feel defeated by a city whose planning makes less sense than New Orleans, where even though streets change names, there are a few grids involved. It’s an invitation down the alleys covered in lanterns and through parks full of teenagers snacking on street food. It’s

And maybe eventually I’ll let myself stop at one of the restaurants I find instead of stumbling into Pho 24 when I’m too hungry to find somewhere legit.

Love Songs and Negotiations

In high school I made a playlist of my top ten songs to listen to when I needed a pick-me-up. Checking it now, I noticed there are 33 songs on it and one of them is a 17-minute-long concert. I have quite a few favorites.

Apartment hunting in HCMC feels much the same way. I have tabs upon tabs of Craigslist ads open and after visiting a few, I don’t think I could make a wrong decision about housing here, unless it involved the toy city in District 7.

With both, the important questions are aesthetic, personal, and completely subjective. Maybe it has to do with my lack of experience, but this surprised me. I think there’s still a part of my head that imagines the world is governed by some ethereal, objective checklist.

The more classes I teach and real life adventures I have, the less true this becomes. And I know this makes sense. I like songs because of the specific moments they bring me. Getting hired by the company with the right fit or finding just the Goldilocks-approved living space would of course be similar.

When I hear “Feels So Close,” I’m hiking through Spain in midday heat. “Murder in the City” is a twilit Baton Rouge night on someone’s mom’s couch. “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.” is sitting five people in the front seat of a pickup truck flying down a back road with stars bright and scattered across the sky above us.

My all time favorite love song, hands down, no joking, is Wiz Khalifa’s masterpiece, “Roll Up.” I know this song is about drugs. It’s also about love, so shut up.

Leon Redbone’s version of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is great, but not the best. It’s a sweet song, perfect for front-porch-sitting and the lazy hours in a long distance relationship. “God Only Knows” takes the prize for best loud sing-along while crying. “I Don’t Know,” by Lisa Hannigan epitomizes uncertain crushes.

But “Roll Up” has this brash energy. Wiz doesn’t care that this woman has a man, because this dude isn’t “acting right.”

He’ll roll up no matter what the situation. But only if she wants him there because he cares about consent.

He also says very explicitly that he’d like to be best friends. And if that’s not love, then come on, what’s the use?

I’m learning to apply Wiz’s philosophy to my own everyday routine. He supports this girl because they both want it, and that’s what matters. I moved to HCMC for quite a few reasons — the city wants me here to fill the native English speaker need and I want to be here to learn about a different part of the world.

Seems like a subjective win-win to me.