The Challenge of Writing Funny Stories During Covid-19

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, I have often wondered how other artists were coping with it, and how their creative processes were impacted.

In the beginning of the self-isolation period, this was all very new to us and like most people, I turned to the news to remain informed and to try to make sense of it. But it didn’t matter which channel I watched, even when the coverage was seemingly balanced and factual, it was scary. For an empathetic, sensitive person, the statistics alone drew very strong emotions.

In trying to find levity, I turned to social media only to find many people posting the same news articles that were starting to get me down in the first place. In the spirit of psychological self-preservation, I had to taper my news consumption and to self-isolate from social media.

When times get tough, I have the honour of being able to say that I can turn to my art to try to keep my mind occupied and to centre myself.

In the early years of writing this blog, I made the conscious decision that I wanted this to be a light, safe and fun place for people to turn. This was as much for the readers as it was for me. Once I reached that decision and found my voice, the stories followed without having to look too hard for them.

As the pandemic struck, I already had several blog posts in first draft, recounting the stories of stress, anxiety and unexpected humour behind the recent purchase of a home and the selling of my current home.

Finalizing those blog posts and keeping to my usual posting schedule was relatively easy. Coming up with new material after that series was surprisingly challenging.

I think it would be fair to say that for writing, inspiration can sometimes be a tricky thing. The “Eureka!” moment of a viable story idea and the discipline to write come from within. But the content that goes into the story often comes from threads of human experience.

That was when I realized how so much of my blog content is based on social interaction and how difficult it can be to write a blog post with a sprinkle of observational humour, when interactions with other human beings are suddenly scarce.

Let’s face it, when the trips outside of the house have been limited to grocery stores, pharmacies, the occasional take-out food and the curb-side pick-up of pet food and cat litter, that’s not a lot of opportunity to observe people’s foibles or for funny things to happen.

However, there was that one time I went to get a squirt of hand sanitizer which missed my hand completely and landed as a spoonful-sized cloudy blob near the bottom of my shirt. Fortunately it happened as I was entering a store that was limiting access to only a small number of shoppers at a time, so it’s not like many people could point or stare. Plus, I was wearing a mask at the time, so it’s not like they’d know it was me.

But beyond that, even if I returned to my index cards and journals to build stories based on past observations, will the posts need more setting up and explaining that these were pre-social distancing observations? Will they still strike the same chord with readers who are in the social distancing frame of mind?

But before I got too worked up in trying to make a blog post fit like a square peg in a round hole, in occasionally keeping an eye on my blogging statistics, I discovered that two past posts saw a huge spike in page views. Interestingly, they were appropriate for Covid-19 times, but never mentioned a word of it: “50 Reasons Why I Like Baking” and “Where Have All the Exercise Shows Gone?” a funny combination in itself.

Maybe there is a bit of the “Field of Dreams” movie’s philosophy when it comes to writing blog posts: “build it and they will come”… sooner or later.

Maybe writing a relatable story can be simpler than we think.

Perhaps in the same way that we’ve all had to adapt to new ways of doing things, as artists, we may also need to adapt and dig deeper to find the lighthearted stories that connect us, even in the absence of social interaction.

I sometimes wonder if in our “old normal” there was so much funny material to draw from that we didn’t have time to notice all of it. Or perhaps because of its abundance, we filtered out much of it, to the point that we may not recognize it in our “new normal”.

Either way, one certainty in life is that irony and humour are still there and will always be. We just need to keep an open heart, mind and spirit to allow those moments to tickle our funny bone, and then to do our best to share those stories with others.

Did you enjoy this post? If you haven’t already, please check out the rest of my blog at andrebegin.blog. From there, you can click on the “Follow” button to receive future posts directly in your inbox. Also, don’t be shy, feel free to tell a friend or to share the link.
Sincere thanks for reading!
Have a great day,
André

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What I Surprisingly Missed During Covid-19

With the recent announcements about gradually reopening the economy, I look forward to seeing how the new normal will unfold, even though we have already been adapting to progressive new normals like mice working their way through a maze.

By necessity, for the health and safety of employees and customers alike, businesses that were able to remain open have had to make significant adjustments.

This was also true for citizens being told to only go out for groceries and pharmacy items, and to only step out once per week to accomplish that if possible.

For me, cutting back on shopping trips wasn’t so challenging in itself because as I get older and more practical, the urge to shop seems to be on a downward slope. Similarly, with the finish line to retirement clearly within sight, it’s not like I need to stock up on collared shirts, pants or dress shoes. For those reasons, shopping only for the essentials wasn’t a huge adjustment.

The big adjustment was in HOW I shopped for the essentials.

The first thing to go was my ability to casually and spontaneously do errands. In the old normal, after my work day, if there was a traffic tie-up on the highway (which, due to a major construction project, was becoming most nights), I would make the best of it and use the time constructively to do errands in the neighbourhoods around the office, picking up a few items here and there. By the time I hit the highway later, with less traffic, I could actually be home in less time.

Also, with only a few items in hand, I could swiftly pay for my purchases through the stores’ express lanes.

The other benefit to my approach was that with the help of sales flyers, I could plan an itinerary to pick up items on sale at different stores on my way home, which helped to stretch my shopping dollars.

And for someone with recurring back issues, running smaller errands was ideal because I would be walking out with only one bag.

The experts’ advice to try to buy everything at one store was a bit of a struggle for me. Let’s be honest, no matter how many acres a single store may occupy, walking out with absolutely everything on one’s list is not a guarantee. When compounded by people grabbing enough staples for a six month isolation, the resulting shortages had me editing the week’s menu plans and rejigging grocery lists on the fly.

And when heeding the advice to buy from only one place, my treasure hunt for picking up sale items at different stores was no longer possible.

My small errands at multiple stores at short internals usually yielded individual totals in the 20 to 40 dollar range. The first time I had a grocery order that crossed over the three digits, I could feel the beads of sweat popping out of my forehead. The last time I had a total that high was Easter 2014, when I was preparing a dinner for 15 guests.

One week, I had an 8 day interval between shopping trips in which I had used up many staples. When the cashier announced my total was over $170, I asked her to repeat it… twice! Admittedly, if I took the time to add up my receipts from my old method with the multiple stops, it probably would have added up to something close to that, but I never really saw it.

Becoming a list keeper is not new to me. I’m usually pretty good about keeping a grocery list and to note items as they are close to running out. But in the first few weeks, I was tormented repeatedly when discovering that I forgot a key ingredient within minutes after returning home. With practice, I got pretty good at taking quick inventory of all staples and anticipating what might need replenishing.

The security briefings before stepping into stores were appreciated but so unlike our usual way of doing things. I remember one clerk advising I should “shop with your eyes, not with your hands.” I thought that was wise advice and hoped everyone else did the same. But trying to pick firm oranges with your eyes is not easy. When the first three I picked up with my freshly sanitized hand deflated on contact, I stepped away from the display and concluded that risking scurvy was the lesser evil when compared to risking Covid-19.

With grocery aisles not quite allowing two metres for social distancing, I appreciated the arrows on the ground that turned each row into a one-way street. But they didn’t come without their own share of issues like the dude parked in the middle of the aisle calling “Honey” to find out which flavour to buy. There was no way to get around him safely to respect social distancing rules and I feared the dire repercussions of doing a three point turn and going down a one-way aisle illegally. Who knew that my new normal would become this kind of traffic tie up?

With a full cartload of groceries, the express lane was out of the question, as I stood semi-patiently on my red dot, two metres behind another frowning shopper with a full cartload of groceries, grunting as he threw his items on the conveyor belt.

And then it was the production of hauling multiple grocery bags back to the car and then into the house. Every step felt infinitely more cumbersome and time consuming. Oh, and I found out the hard way that paper bags are crap on a rainy day.

And then when I got home it was the decontamination process of the items, of me, of the car, of the front door, of the entry hall, of the doorknobs, of the light switch, of the railings, etc. That, in itself, was enough reason to reduce the number of shopping trips.

Between the sanitizing, the social distancing, the bombardment of signage and the multitude of lines, arrows, dots and crosses on the ground, doing groceries wasn’t a heck of a lot of fun. But each time, I recognized the need for all of these precautions, to remain safe, healthy and to not become a community transmitter.

Through the first two months of the outbreak, I didn’t realize how much I would miss something as simple as breezing in and out of stores to run quick errands. Getting into the habit of less frequent trips to acquire more items was indeed a significant adjustment, but given the risks to staff and my fellow shoppers, the adjustment was worth it in the long run to do my part to help flatten the curve.

Did you enjoy this post? If you haven’t already, please check out the rest of my blog at andrebegin.blog. From there, you can click on the “Follow” button to receive future posts directly in your inbox. Also, don’t be shy, feel free to tell a friend or to share the link.
Sincere thanks for reading!
Have a great day,
André

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The Housing Market Roller Coaster (Episode 8)

When my house sold, I no longer had to live within the boundaries of a home staged for showings. I could finally spread out, enjoy my space and not obsessively pick up crumbs before they hit the floor.

It was finally time to go back to “normal” life and to start preparing for the move to our home in the country.

The drive to my cat’s hotel was an opportunity to reflect on the emotional ups and downs of the process and the huge milestones that were behind us.

It was also an opportunity to “high-5” myself, psychologically speaking. The nervousness and the anxiety I felt before we put in the offer on our future home was off the charts, and rightfully so. It’s not like we buy or sell houses every day. The last time I did this was 19 years ago, and much has changed in the industry in that time.

For someone who likes to be organized and whose pride wanted his home to show as well as possible, there was indeed a lot of work required to be prepared and to do it right.

But the reassurance from my real estate agent that this could all be accomplished within reasonable time frames was the antidote to my nervousness and the encouragement to face my fears.

Just the same, I was guarded as I knew that once the train left the station, there wouldn’t be much opportunity to slow down until we were comfortably seated in our new home with the cat purring contentedly in my lap… in about 3 months. This period also came with Julie Chen’s Big Brother voice permanently in my subconscious saying “Expect the unexpected” at least a few times per day, just to keep me on my toes.

That was when I put into practice what I know works best for me: I made a list… several lists, actually. I broke down the large tasks of buying and selling into smaller sub-steps, laid out in chronological order, and scratched items off the list as I completed them.

This method works for me because I am not looking at a mountain of activity as one large unmanageable obstacle. I seem better able to wrap my head around many small tasks and to accomplish a few each day with steady and consistent action. If I don’t, that is when the racing thoughts can take over and rob me of valuable sleep.

Another element to trying to remain composed through it all was laying appropriate boundaries around my worry, and not letting a 5 minute task occupy an hour’s worth of head space. It sounds obvious, but sometimes the “what ifs” can get the best of me. It’s just part of my professional programming and a reflex to be prepared for any eventuality. Shutting it off can be a challenge sometimes.

This major life event was the ultimate test of my “list method”, and it seemed to work, even though it wasn’t without its share of smaller-scale freaking out moments anyway.

I was pleased that the humour in some of the situations encountered along the way was not lost on me, even when I accidentally locked myself in my own powder room while changing the doorknob.

Of course, I couldn’t have made it through without the moral support of family, friends and colleagues, the expertise of the professionals we hired at critical decision points, and of course, the best partner in the world.

It really was cause for celebration to be on the other side of the mountain, to resume a new normal and to start the countdown to the big move.

When I brought Ivy the Wonder Cat home, her standard operating procedure for rediscovering her surroundings was pretty much the same as any other time I brought her home from her cat hotel. She walked around the entire house a few times, sniffing every step of the way. She located her food, her litter box and her sleeping quarters, which all seemed to meet with her approval. Before I knew it, she was pretty much back on track and in her usual routine.

However with the dawn of COVID-19, it appeared that the rest of the process of preparing for the big move would be anything but normal. With stay-at-home advisories, social distancing and lockdown procedures, was it going to be business as usual for the big move? How long would these measures be in place?

Fortunately many of the services required to prepare were deemed essential by the province, much to my relief, including booking movers for our closing date.

I was also able to purchase a huge stack of boxes and packing supplies with the intention of using free time constructively, and to get as much packing completed in the time that we were told to stay home.

Nevertheless, the realization that the biggest steps, the buying and selling, were well behind us brought huge pride and gratitude. Unfortunately, under this new normal, the celebration of these milestones would have to wait a little.

To return to Episode 7 of the Housing Market Roller Coaster, click here.

Did you enjoy this post? If you haven’t already, please check out the rest of my blog at andrebegin.blog. From there, you can click on the “Follow” button to receive future posts directly in your inbox. Also, don’t be shy, feel free to tell a friend or to share the link.
Sincere thanks for reading!
Have a great day,
André

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The Housing Market Roller Coaster (Episode 7)

With renovations completely behind me, the house was ready for showings.

One might think that this might be the easy part. With the house de-cluttered, with the cat living it up at her cat hotel, and with the house staged to help prospective buyers see themselves living at this address, what else was there to do?

Well… a lot!

Ironically, the first thing was to minimize signs of someone actually living here day-to-day.

Planning elaborate meals that would require serious cleaning time afterward was completely out of the question. I had already thought of that and prepared large quantities of food ahead of time, stored in single-serve containers, ready to go from freezer to microwave to stomach.

I even reverted to my young bachelor ways of eating certain meals right out of the containers to cut down on the dishes that would be needed afterward.

Next, my game plan was to keep to a minimal number of core activities that wouldn’t mess up the house. The home routine became eating, sleeping, reading, watching TV, using the computer and working out to my exercise videos. As I yearned to extend the core activities, I had to keep reminding myself that this was temporary.

Every morning, before heading off to work, I would set aside 30 minutes (which turned into 45) for a quick dusting, a quick vacuuming to restore the splendour of vacuum tracks into the carpeting, and a quick once over here and there with Windex or Fantastic. I finished by cleaning the bathrooms to reduce the perception that someone just got ready to go to work. Continue reading

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The Housing Market Roller Coaster (Episode 6)

In early March, with the countdown to home sale just a few days away and Ivy the Wonder Cat safely at her cat hotel, I could truly commit myself to the last minute renovations and touch-ups.

With the quick progress that I was making, zipping from room to room, obsessing about every little detail to make the house sparkle, I was getting a euphoric feeling that closely resembled a runner’s high. Or maybe it was because of the intense aroma of cleaning supplies.

I found myself starting to consider the staging activities that my real estate agent prefaced with “if you have time…”

Changing the door knobs on all of the interior doors from cheap plastic ones to shiny metallic ones was not a deal breaker but it seemed like a nice touch to spruce up the place. With the experience of successfully switching out the door knob on the “eyesore door” last summer to very satisfying results, I was very confident that I could do this.

Despite my approach from every angle with a multitude of flat head screwdrivers, I couldn’t find the trick to remove the first door knob. It actually took a half hour of fussing, cussing, struggling and then breaking the plastic door knob to separate it from the door.

By that time, I needed to get back to another time-sensitive task that was underway, so I left things as they were for the next day.

When I returned, with many other tasks completed, I really could put all of my focus on the door knob project.

As I experienced with the eyesore door, I knew that I needed to drill some pilot holes for the screws to hold the shiny new hardware in place. I found the right size drill bit and started drilling. I then tried pulling the door shut, to check my work and to see if the door would close easily.

To test it out, I inserted the basic hardware in the door without the door knob, just to see if the strike plate would get past the face plate. It didn’t, as the hardware was still sticking out and blocking the door.

So I drilled some more… and checked again… and drilled some more… and checked again. I could see I was making progress but the finish line still seemed a long way off.

In trying to figure out how much more drilling it needed, I went into the powder room and gave the door a mighty push to see if it would close. It finally closed, but then I realized…

OH!… DARN!… Continue reading

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The Housing Market Roller Coaster (Episode 5)

I knew that for the duration of the showings and open houses, it would be best for everyone to send Ivy the Wonder Cat to her cat hotel.

Not only would it avoid the need for me to withdraw from my work day and relocate Ivy each time someone wanted to see the house, but for a cat that is so structure-oriented you could set your clock my her nap, meal and treat times, avoiding the change and disruption altogether was likely the best idea.

Given her early signs of discombobulation and confusion from just having some furniture leave the house for the staging process, I contacted her hotel to see if they could take her sooner. I was relieved that they could.

I knew she would get the best of care and attention for the duration of her stay. I’ll never forget the time I went to pick her up after an extended holiday and she jumped out of my arms and ran back into her room. I was heartbroken, but also deeply reassured that Ivy liked it here.

Just the same, letting her go was a challenge. I didn’t foresee that this would be such a difficult part of the home buying and selling process. Continue reading

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The Housing Market Roller Coaster (Episode 4)

Up until now, my only experience with self-storage has been the occasional viewing of the TV show “Storage Wars”.

As much as I have witnessed self-storage facilities sprouting up throughout the city at a crazy pace, I never really gave them much thought as I assumed that they were just for people with too much stuff.

When my real estate agent suggested that I needed to edit out some furnishings to help certain rooms feel bigger, I didn’t really resist the idea as I trusted that my agent knew best.

Frankly, I relished the idea of trying out the self-storage solution as I knew that this would be an interesting new adventure for me.

Shortly after we put the offer on the house, I called the storage facility company to check on availability, knowing full well that I may need to do some editing. Last summer, a friend of mine was put on a waiting list because demand was so high at that time, so I worried that might be the case for me as well. My fears were put to rest as they said (at that time) that there were many spaces for rent in all sizes.

When the real estate agent gave me her official verdict on the staging situation, when I called to make arrangements for a space, the size I was looking for was no longer available, so I went with the next size up.

The day that the movers came to haul some boxes and the marked items to the facility was also my first time setting foot in the warehouse. With my signed contract already on file, it was just a matter of handing me the keys to my space, showing me around the facilities, and demonstrating the security features to access the space. Continue reading

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