Rebirth

I did not write any blog posts in the entirety of 2016.

2016 was a strange year. I spent it deep in a depressive episode that stopped me from thinking, from doing, and almost from being.

There are many reasons why, but I have done the work and I am tired of looking back. I want to look forward.

I am applying to do an MA in English Literature. I am maintaining a daily yoga practice. I’m working in a job that is challenging me – sometimes beyond what I am comfortable with.

I’m reading more, after a long break. I’m making friends and staying connected to old friends. At some point I will start writing again.

Life is actually okay.

Getting healthy

So, as part of the whole ‘re-starting my life’ deal, I’m going to get back into the healthy habits that I lost somewhere in the past six months.

For me, getting healthy starts with food. Now, to be clear, ‘going on a diet’ is a terrible approach to getting healthy. Diets, particularly those that are restrictive — no carbs, no fats, whatever — are pretty much going to stress you out. They contribute to overall unhealthy eating patterns, and — assuming you take up a diet to ‘lose weight’ — are going to fail.

Food underpins my health, both physical and mental. Food is something to celebrate; good food brings me joy. And food connects me with friends and family. Life would be far less fun if I couldn’t share a meal out with P. or gift a friend some cupcakes.

My focus when it comes to eating well is nutrition (as opposed to weight loss/calorie restriction). I strive to eat lots of vegetables/fruit, whole-grains, and good fats. I try and eat a varied diet, throwing in random different items and trying out new recipes as much as possible.

My food challenges tend to revolve around adding things in rather than taking things away. Drink more water, eat more vegetables and so on. Focusing on adding good foods means you don’t stress about ‘forbidden items’. Drinking more water automatically means you start drinking less soda, eating more veg means you eat less junk food almost by default.

My favourite food tracker is cron-o-meter, because it lets me track nutrition. Most trackers put way too much emphasis on weight loss/calories, but cron-o-meter comes more from the nutrition/optimum health end of the spectrum.

Nutrition is interesting. I am not an expert (more curious amateur) and I have read many many articles and blogs over the years, ranging from vegan-raw-food ‘vegetables are everything’ to the club-swinging, ketogenic loving, paleo offal-is-key.

Again: I’m not prescriptive. There are many routes up the mountain, and many diets that can work to make us happy, healthy and fulfilled.

So, today kicks off day one of me trying to eat more mindfully, and to make more healthy choices. I started the day with roasted tomatoes, asparagus and a poached egg (verdict: delicious) and then made a huge batch of pea-and-vegetable soup (pork stock, dried green peas, onion, garlic, celery, carrot and celeriac) and for dinner I shall be eating some left over chicken and dumpling stew.

I did also eat a cupcake, because cupcakes are good 😉

Re-starting my life

Can anyone believe that it’s actually June?!

I have been rubbish at blogging this year, not least because of the problems alluded to in my previous post. However, I want to start blogging regularly again. I now know that I will be remaining in the UK, for the foreseeable future. I’m currently working on finding a real home, and I’m so excited. I’m going to have an address.

First things first though. And the first thing to do is go on holiday. To Lake Coniston in the Lake District. As usual, I’m trying to read books set in and around the place to which I am traveling… so I picked up a copy of Swallows and Amazons last week. I also picked up a new Clive Barker book, because, hey, I’m on holiday.

I also picked up a copy of the next book on the 100 books challenge, having decided to abandon the Red and the Black on the grounds that it is incredibly boring.

Hopefully I will finish the short story I am working on during the holiday as well, and you can enjoy that when I get back!

Performing a U-Turn (pretend like you knew where you were going all along)

We all have plans.

Those plans, the big ones, become part of our identity. “I’m the science-type who’s going to make a career in bio-tech.” “I’m the self-sufficient sort who is going to build my own eco-friendly house from scratch.” or “I’m the kind of l33t player who is going to be a World Champion in World of Warcraft.”

I have wanted to move to the USA since I went there as part of a University exchange program. It didn’t matter that I went to a podunk town in the middle of rural Ohio. I loved the place. I loved the wide-open vistas, the idea that I could go into a real wilderness, the way everyone was so open and friendly, and even the food — venison, steak, ranch dressing, refried beans (not all on the same plate!).

When I met P, I fell in love and we agreed to get married. Initially, he had to come to the UK as I had a better paying job. We decided he would get his British Citizenship (two-three years) and then we would move to the USA.

For the next seven years that was the plan. We shifted priorities, but that was always the end game. I would move to the USA. We delayed it when I got my breakthrough job as Digital Communications Officer (until that point I had nothing that resembled a ‘career’), as I knew I needed at least two years experience.

But, at long last, I filled out my visa application. I let my employer know I would be leaving in a few months. And… I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Delays can mean legal immigrants (yes, even those married to an American) sit on a waiting list for months and months. In our case, I had already been separated from P  for most of the previous two years due to ‘life reasons’.

A year of waiting for the visa slipped by.

Our relationship, until that point incredibly strong, began to suffer. Both of us were ‘living in limbo’, waiting for a decision that could come at any point. Both of us were struggling alone, dealing with loneliness, the difficulty of communicating across different time-zones, and (in my case) the impossibility of planning your life when you have no idea if you’re going to be around for a week or another year.

Then I got a new job. A great job, part-time, that would give me time to write and still leave me with enough money to cover our living expenses.

Friendships I had formed in the UK were reaching ten and twenty year anniversaries. The thought of leaving them behind became devastating, especially as I leaned on them more and more in P’s absence.

But this was the plan. We had to stick to the plan. We had invested years of our lives and thousands of dollars into the plan. No matter that we were unhappy, lonely, and that I was less and less sure about the benefits of moving to a place with little work and no public transport.

Until, one day, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had a bad week. I was sick, and then I got food poisoning. As I threw up, alone, I realised I was done waiting and being alone.

The realisation was both terrifying and a relief at the same time.

The realisation that we could just stop.

Of course, it would be difficult. Giving up on anything is hard. We had spent the last couple of years ferrying suitcases of possessions across the Atlantic. P. had put a lot of work into trying to create a home for us in the USA. Our families had to be told. It was emotionally difficult.

It meant giving up on a dream we had held for a long time.

But giving up was less difficult, and less devastating, than trying to hold on.

Sometimes, you have to change direction.

Maybe that is giving up on a long-term relationship.

Maybe that is giving up on a career you’ve invested years into building but that isn’t making you happy any more.

Maybe it’s giving up on the idea of becoming a World Champion WoW player, because, hey, you need to focus on your job.

And maybe it’s giving up on the idea of living in another country.

 

Hello 2015

Happy New Year! Etc. Etc.

I already have my 40 before 40 list, so I don’t really feel the need to set myself more goals at this point in time. The only two real resolutions I have for this year are:

  1. Write *something* every single day — even if it’s just a full-stop.
  2. Complete the 100 push-up challenge.

My ability to manage my life generally is good — I eat pretty healthy, without obsessing. I exercise reasonably, without beating myself up when I miss a week or two. I have income and feel reasonably confident about the future.

My main hope for 2015 is to finally get my visa and move to the USA. But as this is somewhat out of my control, I’m not setting it as a resolution.

Farewell 2014

This has been a strange year.

  • I left my job and went to America for 3 months, where I survived on goodwill.
  • I watched my visa get further and further away.
  • I experienced an emotional roller coaster of goodbyes and hellos.
  • I made money from freelancing.
  • I wrote several flash fictions and two first drafts of novels.
  • I read 64 books.
  • I lay for hours in the sun.
  • I made new friends.
  • I lost old friends.
  • I celebrated my sixth wedding anniversary, but spent only 3 months in 2014 with my husband.
  • I waited for my life to start, and meanwhile my life kept happening all around me.

Tomorrow I will write about my hopes for 2015.

 

Impostor syndrome, women in tech, freelancing

When I was seventeen or so you would find me staring at lines of code, resolutely programming a custom CMS in PHP or designing yet another layout for my blog. I was that kid, the one terrified of speaking to people. Who had a bizarre fear of the telephone. Whose social circle was limited to playing D&D and who truanted from just one class – Physical Education.

By all rights I should have ended up a developer. Maybe a designer. The place I actually ended up was… communications and marketing.

It seems bizarre now, looking back on it. The kid who once let a store short change them rather than risk making a scene ended up managing relationships with people for a living.

The reason I didn’t study computers or programming at University is probably down to a combination of things. Neither of my parents went to Uni, I had a vague idea I wanted to create comic books for a living, my career advisor was crap. I ended up doing English & Creative Writing. It was a good degree. It even had a web design module, which taught us how to use Dreamweaver. (I sidestepped it and just wrote my code directly.)

My first ‘proper’ job after University — after a six month stint in a call-centre — was working for a Video Game start-up. I was super-excited! They hired me because I said I wanted to work in something that would use both my writing and my tech skills.

I used my writing skills. My tech skills were limited to copy&paste. Somehow I got pushed more and more into the marketing and PR side of things. I organised LAN sessions — but I didn’t play in them. I wrote peppy news-posts and managed the forum.

At some point, I got the chance to write a fiction blog detailing the lives of two ‘background characters’ caught up in the video game’s universe. I developed a character: an older woman, struggling with arthritis, a missionary in a strange land. The artist did a fantastic job drawing her.

Then our lead designer came back: “What is this shit? She looks sick! We need her to be SEXY.”

I quit not long after. For lots of reasons. I wasn’t getting paid even minimum wage, I was expected to be on call at 7am and 11pm. And I had realised I would never be much more than the peppy female face of the company, not someone who had any real input into the games.

All the designers, developers, programmers were male. The PR staff were mainly female.

After that I ended up in a part-time admin job, and decided to set up a freelance web-design business on the side. I worked pretty hard, coding up around twenty websites over the first year or so. I even built another custom CMS, this being before WordPress and its like had really taken off. I developed e-commerce sites. I learned Magneto’s templating system.

Then my part-time admin role went full-time. I couldn’t really afford to say no. I kept the freelancing up but on a very ad-hoc basis.

After three years or so doing the admin job, I eventually landed a new job. Digital Communications Offer for an environmental charity. Some of the essential skills included HTML, CSS, experience with Drupal, even Flash. There was to be a core coding component to the role.

But it was still a marketing role, not a tech role. It was the most ‘tech orientated’ of any of the jobs I have had. I built internal sites, including custom php scripts to manage an internal bulletin system. I built a localhost site for a touchscreen. I managed a linux server. But day-to-day? Producing fun graphics and running social media. Writing newsletters. Managing bloggers.

Don’t get me wrong. I have come to enjoy that side of my job — and I’m good at it. I tripled web traffic and increased conversion rates. I launched our social media strategy. I gave presentations to rooms full of people. But the days I really enjoyed my job were the days I spent picking apart php code.

I struggle with impostor syndrome — the feeling that I’m never good enough, that I’m out of place. When I meet ‘real’ developers I stay silent, unable to contribute.

Whilst working for this charity I liaised with a web development agency that managed our main website – one of the top London agencies, charging £750 a day — and discovered that many of their coders were no better than me. I frequently suggested solutions to the bugs I found. We had many problems that I ended up working around with code over-writes (a terrible solution, by the way).

I left that job, to try and move to the USA, and in the last couple of weeks I’ve launched myself as a full-time web developer.

I do know my stuff. I’ve been reading tech blogs for fun my whole life. I love learning about UX principles. I can solve css issues. I’m not up to speed on things like Ruby on Rails, but I can build a damn website.

But the voice that says I’m not good enough doesn’t go away.

Sometimes I wonder how different my life would be if I’d ever managed to get one of those developer jobs at an agency that I applied for. I applied to so many of them! Was it my skills that weren’t up to par? And yet my social skills, my marketing skills, they really were not ‘up to par’ when I started my career, and that’s where I ended up.

I guess I will never know.

 

 

 

 

Home sweet… home?

We can sometimes overlook the importance of friendship and (dare I say it) community. In a world where people are uprooting themselves, travelling further and further, taking opportunities in other cities, countries, continents… we should remember what we lose when we travel far from home.

It’s something I lacked in the USA. I went out and about with my partner’s friends and family, of course. But friendships that have lasted five, ten, even fifteen years are impossible to replace overnight.

Coming back to Towcester — my childhood home — felt strange. I know all the streets, can wander easily around the water-meadows, and the fields behind Belle Baulk. I run into people I haven’t seen since I worked as a bartender and they wave and say hi. A decade has passed, but they still recognise me. I have friends here, and in the nearby cities. People that did not ‘run’ as far as I did.

I worked here, built relationships with fellow writers (Hi Miss Write! Hi Matt Holland!)

There are people here that would take me in if I became homeless, that share their wifi with me when my internet breaks down, that recommend my web-development skills to people they know. A network, some people close friends, and some people just to wave at me in the street. But I am known.

It takes time, so much time, to build a group of friends and colleagues like that. And the benefits go far beyond someone to have a drink with. Those people have found me work, helped me move, kept me sane. They don’t call it a ‘support network’ for nothing!

Of course, it’s easier now. Emails, blogs, facebook, skype… they all help keep you in touch with people far away. But the truth is: nothing beats face-to-face, and nothing beats that web of favours given and received.

It’s good to be back, although I hope it is temporary.

The heartache of bureaucracy

He left in October 2013. Went across the Atlantic, to tend to family and duty and home.

I stayed in England. Filled out forms. A petition to apply for a visa to join the person I’d been married to for six years. The website said six months. I posted the forms and waited. Rented a room in a house closer to work. Each day I came home and cooked dinner for one. Watched netflix in an attempt to drown the wrongness. Slept on one side of a double-bed. Researched Cincinnati.

We got a letter that said the Nebraska Service Centre had received our petition to apply. We waited in vain for some confirmation that the petition had been approved, that we could move to the next step and fill out an actual application. Six months came and went. The days were filled with friends and work and people, but each night I curled up on the left side of my double bed and hugged myself. Each night the tension grew a little tighter.

In April I gave up. Cancelled my plans to catch a boat, triumphant immigrant, papers in hand. Instead I booked a plane ticket. Three month tourist visa. I would leave in June and return in August. Three months together: our seventh wedding anniversary, my birthday, his birthday. I would turn thirty, and had no desire to spend that day apart. I gave up my job, any hope of income, and absconded to Cincinnati for three wonderful months.

The approval to apply didn’t arrive until the end of July, eight months after he had left and we’d begun this process. The approval told us they’d sent the case on to the National Visa Centre, who would be in touch within thirty days. We waited thirty days. We waited another seven. I sent a polite email, having not been provided with a phone number. We had no response.

My leave date loomed. I found myself tearful, clingy. A sense of impending doom hung over us, made every minute together bitter sweet. A desperate attempt to stockpile love, to hug long enough that it would carry us through.

I leave on Tuesday. We have just got the next letter through, a bill for $88 from the National Visa Centre. His Dad pays it. We can finally submit the next stage of paperwork. As for how long that will take, nobody really knows. It could be a month. It could be another six months. It could be a year.

I leave on Tuesday. My skin crawls with the sick anticipation of a half-empty bed. All this heartache, all this uncertainty. We cannot make plans. Cannot book tickets. I cannot even take a permanent job, knowing that I could be walking out the door in a month. Our life together has been on hold. Skype calls that were exciting when we were first dating became infuriating after so many years together. Too many memories of low wifi, poor video quality, trying to sync up across a five hour time difference and radically opposite schedules. The months ahead of me stretch out like a cold desert that I must cross with no map.

Designing Pipettes in the Dark: thoughts on responsive design

I recently developed a custom ‘responsive design’ wordpress theme for new science blog Pipettes in the Dark. (I freelance in web design & development – you can see my portfolio over here at Monochrome Rainbow).

You should definitely go read the first post — about Lego and WOMEN IN SCIENCE.

It’s been a little while since I’ve developed an entire theme from scratch. One of the big challenges in web-design is crafting layouts that work on a range of screen sizes. We use a range of devices these days, from smartphones right up to smart TVs.

Don’t think a bigger screen-size is such a challenge? Well, you’re wrong. Text is easiest to read in columns of about 50-75 characters. This is why newspapers and magazines print in columns.

You have three choices on a big screen:

  1. Fix the max-width of your text areas so that they don’t grow (can often end up with ‘tiny website lost in acres of white-space’ syndrome).
  2. Make the font-size increase proportionally to the column width (actually not a bad idea, especially if you assume people are sitting further away from bigger screens).
  3. Or, final choice, you can ‘flow’ text into multiple columns using responsive design and media queries.

Native apps versus responsive design

There are two approaches to ‘solving’ the multiple screen-size problem. The first is by producing native apps for mobile, tablet etc. These usually work better, and can take advantage of mobile technology like GPS, notifications, etc. However they can be pretty expensive and hard to keep up-to-date.

The other approach, which works better for individuals and small businesses, is to use a responsive design. That way you can have one website that is fluid across different screens. You lose some functionality, but if you’re basically just delivering content then that’s no big loss.

Responsive design is mainly coded via media queries.

Media queries are awesome. Deliver different stylesheets based on screensize, and you have one website that works on multiple devices.

Media queries are used for responsive design
Media queries used for three breakpoints to create a responsive design

Pipettes in the Dark is a fairly standard blog, with no sales pitch or calls to action. I was able to stick to a tried and tested basic layout that everyone will be familiar with. The closer you stick to ‘standard’ layouts, the more familiar people will be with navigating and using them. Originality can be over-rated! Just remember the last overly-complicated flash website you tried to use. Frustrating, right?

So I went with the two-column site with a header and footer. I then adjusted the width of the columns once you hit the tablet size, enabling the sidebar to stay readable.

Finally, for mobiles, I got rid of the sidebar altogether. Sometimes, hiding non-essential information is the best way to go when you have limited space.

Designing for SCIENCE

The design elements have an interesting backstory. The header text or logo is meant to look like text spelled out with ‘PCR Bands’. Nope, I don’t know what PCR Bands indicate either, but I googled some images and was able to approximate the general look and feel in Photoshop.

The background texture is channeling the idea of pipettes in a box.

The colour scheme is grayscale, accented with hot pink. Keeping a limited colour-scheme can be challenging, but we kept enough contrast in each section to retain legibility. Hot pink is vivid and exciting, plus it is associated strongly with women. The blog itself will tackle some of the gender expectations/challenges within the generally male dominated field of science, and the colour scheme reflects that.

Pipettes in the Dark is also the first of one hundred websites I designed and deployed as part of my Forty Before Forty! I’m expecting almost all of the other ones to also use responsive design… unless there is a really good reason not to.

Want me to help you with your website? Get in touch with me suzie@monochromerainbow.com