Santiago Skyline

The f-word

I was supposed to be home by now. Instead, I changed my ticket and delayed my return home by two months. Even then, five months just isn’t enough time. It’s surprising how much I haven’t got around to doing. Last week, we finally went to Chile—that trip was supposed to happen in December, when we first got here! I’d like to make it down (further) south to explore Patagonia a little; I’m dying to visit Bolivia’s salt flats and Peru’s high-altitude Incan cities; and I still haven’t made it to Rio, although I think I’m glad I skipped Carnaval. I haven’t taken a tango lesson yet, and while I feel like my Spanish has improved a great deal, that’s sort of like saying my suntan has developed—that is, I’m now “slightly ecru-ish” instead of “ghostly white”.

But, to be quite blithe: whatever. I’ve felt this way my whole life—like I’m not achieving enough—and I’ll probably forever feel like this. No matter what I manage to achieve, I will always feel that I’m failing on some other front. As long as I can remember, I’ve always felt overwhelmed, and I’ve always been spurred by a fear of Failure. In the past, what this has meant is that I work like a demon at something, letting other things slide, until the whole thing manifests itself into a giant mental breakdown, and I disappear for two days until I recover from it all.

I’ve finally changed this behaviour. Instead of focusing on my failures, I’m trying to turn that energy into positive direction. In theory, if I focus my energies instead on a positive direction, at least I’m making efforts against the almighty Failure, no?

More on Feelings of Failure and a rant about body image in Argentina

In which love bests money

Crossing the Rio de la Plata after a week-long “holiday” in Uruguay, I realized how much the way I spend my money has changed. Now that I no longer need to steal film from the grocery store or calculate the exact per-grain price of a loaf of bread, I find I’m more willing to spend a little bit more money on things. For example, I’ll no longer buy a pair of shoes that retails for less than $100, although I’m almost insistent on only allowing for new shoe purchases when the aforementioned shoe is on sale. I’d also rather pay a little more for a direct flight, or a faster ferry, or even the convenience of a cab to the airport. While I’m sure this isn’t surprising to most people, I’ve always been perpetually cheap. It took some time before I realized that price and value aren’t always as directly related as I thought.

The first website I ever built, as a graduated professional, cost my client a whopping $300. I wish I could say I was sixteen when I did it, but I was twenty-two, working a full-time job and freelancing on the side. Looking back, it’s no surprise when my first year of business after quitting my job landed me in debt. I’ve always had a policy of keeping my expenses as low as possible, but charging $20 an hour simply didn’t cover such non-tax-deductible necessities as “eating on a daily basis”.

When I first started out, my biggest mistake, bar nothing, was charging too little. My intentions were good—I wanted to save my clients money, and I wanted to provide quality design for a low price. What I failed to realize, of course, was that would become a difficult task when I quit my day job to run my business full-time. Sure, my clients were happy, but I was broke, overworked, and stressed out.

Things I’ve learned from Argentina

Hard to believe I’ve been here for over a month already. It feels as though it’s been no time and all, and before I know it I’ll be heading back to the Land of Ice and Snow. This trip was very much intended as a litmus test for my vagabond way of life—I’ve been looking for a way to combine work and travel for some time now, and I think I may have hit on a combination that works.

I’ve come to realize a few important things, though.

1. I need more time. Way more time.

This week, I am taking three hours of Spanish class a day, in what will most likely turn out to be a rather in-vain attempt to get my Castallano up to “serviceable”. However, given the fact that I tend to work roughly six hundred hours a day, it’s a bit of a challenge doing all the other stuff I need to do, like “sleeping” and “eating stuff that isn’t dulce de leche”. (Seriously, I’m not sure what sort of magic makes Argentines so skinny when their diet appears to consist primarily of ham and cheese emapanadas to start, then pasta, followed up by sixty tons of cow. Is it the mate or the fernet they’re always drinking?)

But South America is a big place, and I want to see more of it. As it is, I’ve only had time to go to Brazil thus far, and a quick weekend trip to the Tigre delta, and some exploratory jaunts here in BsAs—which admittedly is such a huge and sprawling complex city, with its own language and peculiarities, that it’d take me years to really get a feel for the place.

Last time I traveled, I went to Europe for five weeks and didn’t stay in one place longer than a week. I couldn’t work my usual sort of schedule, so it was sort of like a holiday for me. If I want my travel to be sustainable, I need to do it slowly enough that it doesn’t interfere with the day-to-day aspects of my life. That means three months isn’t nearly long enough for a place.

2. I can survive without constantly checking my email.

This is a tough one, but having my iPhone, I got quite accustomed to being constantly able to check (and send) emails. Problem was, this meant there was no off switch at all on my brain. I’ve been known to check emails in bed. It’s (still) usually the first thing I do upon waking up, and I was always sending emails and texting while out with friends, which I think is terribly rude.

Yes, sometimes it sucks not having access to my email when I’m idle at a bar. But for the most part, it means that I can go out for dinner, or go for a walk, without being perpetually distracted by work. If I leave the house, I leave work behind, and that’s a healthy habit to get into.


Missing things and missing out

Argentina is most definitely still in holiday-mode: it’s summer vacation here, a good number of the shops still have their shutters closed, and everyone who can afford to is off on the beaches of Uruguay. I’ve been working a lot more than I’d like to admit the last two weeks. Technically I still have a suntan, but I think it’s fading.

Balancing work and life has always been troublesome for me. I tend towards workaholicism on my best days, and it’s certainly not uncommon for me to put in a sixty-hour work week. I’ve gotten better: I almost always take most of the weekend off now, and I’m trying as much as possible to go out and about at least a little bit every day. I’ve realized that I’m simply not going to see as much of this continent as I’d like to while I’m here.


With all the shutters closed, you really get to see the lovely graffiti that covers the buildings here.

But I’ve got new projects coming in all the time, and work is (for the most part) going well. I wish I were doing more personal projects, but that isn’t anything new. I had signed up for the Sketchbook Project some time ago, and now the deadline’s looming. I’ve given up on getting mine done, in part because I totally lack art supplies and they’re on the expensive side here, and in part because I simply lack time. I’d rather spend my free time exploring this massive city or trying to pick back up on my Spanish, which is just terrible. (Porteños speak the most insane version of Spanish I’ve ever heard, complete with its own special pronoun and verb conjugation, strange pronounciations, and some kind of crazy pig-latin. I’m totally lost.)


In the jungles of the Amazon

In the middle of the Amazon jungle, seven hours by boat from the closest hospital, I cut off my fingertip with a machete.

This is how I spent my Christmas: I flew to Manaus, a big ugly port city on the Amazon river, where the warm, slow, black Rio Negro and the cooler, faster, sandy Rio Solimões meet up and run side-by-side for some distance, looking rather neat. Manaus was not the world’s nicest introduction to Brazil—the city echoes the surrounding jungle with its sprawling messiness. Once one of Brazil’s richest cities, it still contains the opulent (and rather tacky-looking) pastel-coloured palaces built during the rubber boom, but everything else is either a giant ugly factory or struck with urban blight.

But it’s a jumping-off point for rainforest excursions, and that’s what I was there for after all. It took two flights, one taxi ride, a speedboat, a bus through one of the most poorly-maintained roads I’ve seen yet, and another, much smaller, wooden boat to get to the jungle lodge we’d be spending a good portion of the next five days. Early Boxing Day morning, I was on my way to the jungle, excited for what lay ahead of me.

I’ll be honest: it wasn’t anything like what I expected. I was ready for a trip that would be physically and mentally taxing; I got this, but not in the way I’d expected. I’d thought I’d be tired from physical exertion, but instead I was just cold and wet. (Or, other times, hot and mosquito-bitten.) Worse yet—I was almost bored.


Murphy’s Law

It’s been almost a week since I landed in South America, and it simultaneously feels as though it’s been forever, and no time at all. In some respects, I’m still surprised we made it down here at all: the 9000km to Buenos Aires was so anxiety-ridden, I’m thinking I’ve used up all my bad luck for the year in one week. And that excludes that whole “breaking my wrists twice” period of the year.

Buenos Aires is utterly gorgeous. It looks like Mexico crossed with Italy, and culturally speaking, it draws equally from Western Europe and Latin America, which makes for an interesting mix.

I have no (Canadian) passport

I really meant to get one before leaving, if only to get into the U.S., and then back home, with less hassle. (I usually just travel on my British passport, which is generally more useful.) I’d been trying to find my Canadian citizenship card for a while, and was waiting until I moved into my friend Dan’s basement before I officially gave up and applied for a new one. (For those of you who were born in Canada, a Canadian citizenship card is proof of citizenship for those of us who weren’t.) I had an exciting series of phone calls and chats with the people at Immigration and the people at Passport Canada, who of course have no reasons to collaborate whatsoever. Their phone system actually at one point (twice!) led me through all the options, carefully informed me that it would not hang up on me, and to please stay on the line, then promptly hung up on me. You know, usually those automated systems are terrible, but I’ve never had one that outright lied to me. Anyway, the end result is that apparently there’s no “proof” that I’m Canadian without my citizenship card, because that card has a photo of me when I was nine (and an old surname) and thus qualifies as legitimate identification, and the twelve million other documents I have, plus the fact that I’ve been voting and paying taxes here for nearly ten years, is just my devious immigrant way of getting a fake passport, I guess. So I gave up, applied for the replacement card, and figured worst come to worst, I could always just return on a British visa.

My last day in town, the replacement card arrived.

How about one last trip to the E.R., for old times’ sake?

I was utterly convinced I was going to be the one who ended up in the emergency room. I went for an I’m-finally-cast-free! scooter ride with a friend before I started packing, and at one point I was very convinced something terrible would happen and I’d wind up breaking another of my bones, which are apparently made of glass and porcelain. As it turned out, it wasn’t me, but my traveling companion who broke himself. We were packing and getting ready to head off to their airport at 4am when he managed to slice his finger with a knife. Given that it was midnight, I actually vacillated for a bit (and called my dad’s wife, who very calmly talked me through the Steri-strip process) before hauling him down to the ER.

I’ve never been so impressed by a hospital visit: he was all stitched up and out of there within about two hours. (I was still making cupcakes and packing.)


A change will do me good

In five days, I’ll be on my way to South America. I’m wildly excited, of course. People keep asking me if I’m ready, though, and I’m never quite sure how to answer. I mean, I have a suitcase that will hold 25 pairs of shoes and still have enough room for a couple weeks’ worth of outfits. I’ve got an apartment in Buenos Aires all lined up. I’m finally cast-free and I’m working on my physio so that I’ll be strong by the time we hit the Amazon rainforests. I have a supply of sleeping pills for insanely-long flights and bus rides across the continent. I have my business here sorted out and ready for the transition. I know how to say “Where is the nearest shoe store?” and “I have broken my wrist!” in Spanish. I don’t have any kind of proof that I’m a Canadian citizen, but that’ll only present me with trouble when I’m attempting to return to the country, after all. I love traveling, I love adventures, what the hell is wrong with me, after all?

I recently realized that I hate change. This revelation came as rather a surprise to me: I’d always considered myself something of a chaotic free-spirit creature. Shouldn’t I happily embrace change? Why does uncertainty make me feel so queasy?

When I was in school, they told us that, as graphic designers, we had two choices, careerwise. We could get agency jobs, where we’d basically work 18 hour days for an 8 hour salary, or we could go it alone as freelancers and pray that our clients would actually pay their bills. (I’ve since realized that this advice is faulted on many levels, notably for failing to take into account Mysterious Option C, which is you realizing that Halifax is bursting with brilliant unemployed designers, and going back to school to study accounting.) I was quite certain, right then and there, that I could never handle the uncertainty of owning a business. I’ve always been a little paranoid about money, which, while I suppose is much healthier than being a little cavalier about money, means that I’ve been overly cautious at times in my life, especially when it comes to going into debt.

I figured I’d never be able to hack it as a self-employed type, mostly because I wouldn’t be able to manage the stress and uncertainty of it all. I ended up running a business mostly by accident; I was working at a video game development studio and doing freelance work on the side, when the freelance work took off and I was forced to choose between the two. Quitting my job was, of course, utterly terrifying for me, and every now and then, I really do miss the stability of a steady job.


Sarah’s Excellent Adventure

It’s official: in a little under a month, I’ll have my things all packed away in storage, and I’ll be on my way to gorgeous Buenos Aires, nearly 9000 km from home, and quite literally the other side of the world. I’ll be staying for three months, which officially makes it my longest trip ever.

I’ve had my tickets booked for some time, which is about as close as I come to long-term commitments these days, and I’ve been slowly preparing for the trip—by which I basically mean “talking along to my Spanish tapes as I walk down the street” (no, that crazy girl isn’t talking to herself!) and “contemplating how many shoes I can fit into a jumbo-size suitcase” (the answer, by the by, is “nowhere nearly enough”).


Interesting things

After spending three months in a cast earlier this year, I have managed to successfully break my other wrist now. (Apparently my bones are made of eggshell.) I’m still in the early stages, so typing is a challenge, and I’ve had all kinds of emails and business to attend to. Accordingly, I’m taking the easy way out this week, and sharing some interesting, mostly design-related, items from my Google Reader.

Pretty and/or interesting things

Jewel House Collection: Gorgeous pattern, and it resonates nicely with my new infatuation with English royals around the time when they liked chopping heads off willy-nilly.

Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang: The font’s a bit overused and inelegant, but the titles are otherwise rather charming and lovely.

Nanny McPhee

Stunning NYC Subway Station Hidden From Plain Sight, Until Now: My love for subway systems knows no bounds. I thought Grand Central was NYC’s piece de transit resistance!

Infographic of the Day: What the Bible Got Wrong: The short answer is “everything”.

Inside Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Unmakeable” Interactive Book: Remember real books?

Sixty-two Reasons Why “Gamification” Is Played Out: More arguments against FourSquare!

How to Bribe Police in Foreign Countries: Something I’ve always been curious about, and will almost invariably at some point need to know.

Nocturnalis / Durinalis: More gorgeous wine packaging.

Turns out, it *is* a river in Egypt: Utterly gorgeous view of Africa from space.

In Real Hot Sauce Now: I need to find this girl and marry her.


Gender Disparities in the Design Field: I wasn’t actually aware there were any, although it becomes rather obvious the more technically-inclined you are. Is it Lady Ada Lovelace day yet?

Equal Height Column Layouts with Borders and Negative Margins in CSS: I am almost certain this will come in handy soon.

Quick Tip: Using Nested Styles with InDesign: Holy crap, this is going to save me SO MUCH time.

Learning to Love HTML5: Because I already know how to love SmashingMagazine.

You Suck at Powerpoint!: Tips for better-looking presentations.


Are You a Freelancer Or a Consultant?: An issue I’ve been thinking about a good deal of late.

Handling Clients Who Just Aren’t That Into You: My clients love me, so of course this is never an issue.


12 plugins every WordPress installation needs

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I’m working on streamlining a number of my processes. The most important, and I think accordingly the most complex, of these processes is that by which I develop websites, which is often something of a mishmash of various methodologies and techniques. Since I build so many WordPress websites (and I do believe it’s magic), I’ve been focusing on developing a sort of generic template for WordPress websites. This includes the theme itself (and its corresponding frameworks and dependencies), but also a collection of plugins that I use on every site. Akismet and All-in-one SEO Pack are so ubiquitous as to be obvious, but I’ve been working on a list of others that are almost universally useful. Most of them improve upon the core functionality of WordPress straight out of the box, and so demand very little from either user or designer.
Here’s my list (at least for today).