On practice (and perfect)

Six months ago, I had my first piano lesson. That’s the easiest way to put it.

The much truer, and, as always with that, more complicated version of the one sentence above is: I’ve been wanting to play the piano for a very long time: at first, mostly because I found the instrument beautiful, in the same way that I still think the cello is beautiful. My best friend as a kid was learning the piano, and I still remember this one afternoon in her parents’ living room, standing behind her on cork flooring, looking over her right should as she played Für Elise. I didn’t listen to much piano music back then; whenever I did, it was on the old radio in the bathroom with the tinny sound, on the station for classical music, and I found the sound of piano music strangely cold. And yet, I was fascinated by it, but it was far outside of my reach. Fast-forward many years, to the 2000s, the rise of digital pianos, and my first job after my apprenticeship. My first piano lesson was in 2009. After this first lesson, I left the country (no causation), but I accidentally kept the piano teacher’s book and lost his phone number (in case you’re reading this: I’m sorry). A while after, I moved again, and became part of a band that had a great piano player, who played so well that it seemed like I could never get to this level. In 2015, I picked up piano lessons again, with a great teacher. After three lessons, I quit my job and couldn’t afford the lessons anymore. In 2016, while standing on a terrace late one night, my band mate (the piano player) and I confessed to each other that we needed to break up the band. In the summer of 2018, I made a digital floor plan of my apartment, moved some furniture around in it, and accidentally dropped a piano on my living room floor plan (I still disagree with the categorisation of a piano as furniture). At the same time, I was working later, and had more time in my mornings that I was looking to fill with things that brought me joy. Before I met my teacher and his piano for the first time, I told him the story above, and he responded: “Well, let’s see what we can do for you to stick with it this time.” And then he told me, “I don’t teach people to become concert pianists.” This is why—

Six months ago, I had my first piano lesson.

Now I have a piano sitting in my living room. It’s a digital piano, with pretty wooden keys and a headphone port, which is one of its most important features for me (and my neighbours). It’s big— as it turns out, that’s what happens when you design an instrument with 88 keys which need to be wide enough that you can hit each of them with an adult-size finger. The room it sits in is not big. In this room with furniture in light colours, it sits there, all black, with a black chair half under it. Nothing one would overlook. I pass it multiple times every day. There are many days when I pass it without sitting down and playing, even once, even briefly. On some of these days, as I walk past it, I think it’s staring at me. With judgement.

Whenever I do sit down and play, I keep thinking practice makes perfect. It’s one of the first English phrases I learned, I don’t even know how I picked it up. We have a similar expression in German, Übung macht den Meisterpractice makes the master (though unnecessarily male-gendered in German). Eventually, lots of practice will make perfect. Lots and lots and lots of practice; that’s the hope, that’s the dream.—And then I sit there, again chewing on this one piece that I’ve already been working on for three months, and it’s still not perfect. Far from it, even. On some days, it even feels like it just gets worse over time. Not enough practice, not even getting close to perfect.

The spirit of practice makes perfect is that, to improve a skill, one must practice—but this also makes the idea behind the phrase quite different from the literal meaning. Perfect is, even as a decidedly aspirational goal, so far out of reach for me. Perfect: as good as it is possible to be, entirely without fault or defect. Wich translates to: humanely impossible. If this was a landscape, perfect wouldn’t even be on my horizon; perfect would be long gone, far gone, behind the horizon, on a tiny pony, riding off into the sunset, with only a dust cloud left behind.

It took me the last months to understand that none of what I’m doing is about perfect. What it is about instead is:

Learning about muscle memory, and how to trust my instincts, my senses, of where to hit which key at what point in time. Reading notes in the base clef like they’re a foreign language; trying to stop translating each and every one of them in my head. It’s about learning how to name chords again, and how to make good guesses (and how to cheat). It’s about grasping that thirty percent of the way to playing well, is knowing which keys not to hit.

This is about learning that some musical styles are very difficult for me to even practice; admitting that I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around them; and taking, embracing them, as learning opportunities. It’s about being humble, and knowing that I can only learn when I understand, admit, and ask about what I don’t know.

It’s about being gentle with myself, and keeping my wish to be good at what I do in check. Often, this means walking past the piano in the morning, awake and ready to work, and once more at night, tired, after a long and good work day, the only keys I touched being those of my keyboard; accepting that that’s where my life is at. It’s about writing down fingering for an entire piece one night, and realising the next morning that I mixed the finger numbers up. Again.

It’s about reminding myself that I always go too fast, and learning to pace myself, even though it’s hard. It’s about sitting down and playing this same piece again that I’ve been working on for months; and about the same three bars in Chilly Gonzales’ version of Shake it off, which I keep stumbling across like pebbles in the street. It’s about taking 37 attempts to play saman by Ólafur Arnalds and make a video recording of it on my phone, one that I’m sufficiently okay with that I share it on Instagram. It’s about 28 attempts at recording a beginner’s version of Ludovico Einaudi’s Primavera, and it’s about this point halfway through the piece where moves through a Crescendo and it gets really intense and loud and I get really excited and emotional and the piano vibrates and it’s about the eight attempts during which the phone crashes onto the floor; always at the exact same bar.

It’s also about the times when my teacher and I decide to start the lesson late and instead sit together outside the small cafe in the sun with black tea and coffee and we don’t talk about music, but about the latest neighbourhood gossip.

It’s also about learning that, when I’m working with this instrument that’s much heavier than I am, the way I conduct myself in relation to it matters: how I arrange the chair and sit on it; whether I pull up or lower my shoulders, how I use my arms and hands. Learning how to play this one bar without feeling like my hand is falling apart; and that the feeling of my hands falling apart will only very slowly fade. All of this is also about, five months in, realising that, all of a sudden, my hand span has increased from 10 to 11 white keys. This is also about breathing: learning that I tend to hold my breath when I’m very focused; and that holding my breath makes my body tense; and that this body tension gives me pain. It’s about learning to relax while focusing.

Now, every time I sit down again, and I still think, practice makes perfect. But then I think of all the above – and I remember what my teacher said about not training concert pianists.

It’s not about practice makes perfect. It’s about sitting down and putting in the time, and none of this is about perfect.

All of it is about practice.

Twenty-Eighteen

This was quite something. Thinking about it and going over last year’s events, I’m not quite sure how all of it ever fit into one year. As I’m writing this, I’m sitting on a red couch with a piano nearby while the wind is blowing outside, I just had some tea and mini pizzas, and, honestly, this is the best I could wish for.

And, in good old tradition (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017): here goes. —


The months

January

Last year with a treasure hunt in Tuscan vineyards, and the new one starts with a dog by the fireplace, pretty horses, and cold, sunny days. I buy too much olive oil, wine, and too many cookies, and have significant excess baggage. Spending just enough time at home to do the laundry before heading to Asia for the first time in my life. I travel to Hong Kong for work and stroll through the streets in the mornings and at night, trying to grasp the impressiveness of this place. And then, the view from the hill, these narrow streets, the trees and roots everywhere. Have lots of very good food of which I only remember the taste, and the hope to return one day. Travel onward to a Thai island for a few days right after – it had looked so close on the map, and is still a day’s travel away. I get off a bus very tired and suddenly the air is warm and humid, and the beach is only a minute away. Trying to find a helmet to wear while riding a scooter, and even the largest one I can find sits on top of my head (yes, there are ridiculous photos). I ride a scooter for the first time, have the best pineapple I couldn’t even have dreamed of, almost blow up a gas station, climb through a cave, go snorkeling and see incredibly beautiful fish, get horrible sunburn and have to go swimming wearing my “don’t look for love, look for pizza” shirt, spend days with friends at the beach, in the hammock, and in the inflatable pineapple, floating in the water, looking at the star-strewn sky above.

February

I get home and immediately want to leave again. I quit my job and accidentally eat heart-shaped pizza on Valentine’s Day. See a Belle and Sebastian concert and visit the the local animal shelter. Other than that, it’s a pretty uneventful month with very bad weather which doesn’t really matter, I have a lot of memories to process and big change ahead.

March

Spend a lot of time with very good dogs in the park and the forest. Take a trip outside of Berlin and landed in the snow. Realise that, after years of remote work, I don’t own interview-appropriate pants anymore. Meet someone who wants to take a selfie during our first date to commemorate it, in case we last (we don’t). Have my last day at work and start an interview marathon. Rearrange my apartment. We welcome a new dog into a friend’s life.

April, May

I celebrate my birthday a few months late, and it’s the most wonderful night with drinks that taste like salt and pineapple, and beautiful friends in one of my favourite neighbourhood bars. I try to find a good dress. Still looking for a new job, I spend a lot of time preparing for interviews, in interviews, on my way home from interviews. My job search takes me to New York, where I have a lot of good pizza, go to my favourite book shop, finally see MoMA and fantastic exhibitions (Adrian Piper was so good, and I walk into a Monet painting, completely flabbergasted), and meet some of my favourite people.

There’s a gentle feeling of spring in the air and, as always, my stay is too short. A dog moves in with me [eventually, he’d only live with me for a little while, and is now thriving and living a very happy life in another home]. I go to a wedding, nervous and exhausted, get to show a favourite person around a favourite place and have ice cream in the place I used to go to every night, and have drinks and Schnitzel on a boat. I finally sleep, for once, wear a beautiful dress and look fabulous while meeting a lot of people I haven’t seen in a very long time. I briefly wave at what could have been, and return feeling so much better. When I get home, my cacti blossom.

June

Spend two nights by a lake. I’m back to work, and go to San Francisco for a few days for the first time. I’m still trying to understand this place, and how the tech industry has impacted it. I go to SF MoMA, sit by the water for a while, eat a grilled cheese sandwich and fresh yellow cherries, and watch the seagulls. This is the furthest West I’ve ever traveled, and I’m horribly jetlagged for over two weeks.

July

We sit by the canal very far in the West. Back to riding my bike everywhere I go, and it brings me so much joy. I contemplate moving house and end up not doing it. I attend a dinner with a bunch of lovely women, speak at a D&I panel and meet a few very good people. Enjoying a bunch of late-night bike rides home. Spend a lot of time in the park and by the lake.

August

We see the blood moon over the water by Berlin Dome. A lovely friend is visiting, and we sit outside over drinks and watch people pass by, and nudge each other when we spot a good dog. Another D&I panel and meeting old acquaintances again. I take a few trains to get to another wedding, enjoy looking out the window and seeing this familiar landscape pass by; spend the weekend in the countryside, meet goats and horses, I wear a suit and my favourite bowtie, dance until the last song, walk home past 5 in the morning, and sleep in a bed that’s too short and too narrow. The stars are brighter than I’ve seen in a long time. On a whim, I buy an inflatable donut. I spend a week working from a lake house with a few friends, we go for swims in lunch breaks, float across the lake, watch the clouds and waterlilies, find a frog, make barbecue in the backyard, and have dinners on the balcony, almost seeing Mars.

September

I have visitors and get to show them around town; we spend a wonderful weekend together, going out and wandering the parks of Potsdam. I start taking piano lessons again. Spend a few days in New York, meet friends who help me stay awake with pac-man and ghost-shaped dumplings, and another friend and we share a cheese plate. I get myself the most wonderful gift. Another round of apartment rearranging. I get back to a balloon donut and brunch with my best friends and the best dogs. I find the first chestnut this autumn. I find a piano teacher and take my first piano lesson in a very long time, and it’s mind-boggling.

October

I miss New York and good bagels, and while I can’t bring the city to my home, at least I can make bagels. I go to Hamburg for a night to wander around this city again (it’s been too long) and see Ólafur Arnalds at Elbphilharmonie, which is absolutely phenomenal. Take a train back home and perform my first stand-up comedy bit; needless to say*, I’m killing it. (*Absolutely not needless, I was incredibly nervous and anxious, which is the whole reason I even did this in the first place; but that’s another story for another time.) I see Ólafur Arnalds once more, this time in Berlin. The leaves are turning yellow and we marvel at the trees by the lake. I get sweet treats from a fabulous new bakery in my neighbourhood. Friends host a Halloween party and I get to dress up and turn myself into the Pizza Witch that I’ve always been.

November

Many walks in the park, as long as there’s daylight. There’s less and less light, and it’s really wearing me out this time. I spend a particularly dark and rainy afternoon in one of my favourite museums in town and probably trying to see three exhibitions in one day was a little too much. Speak at a local meet-up. The sun is out for a few days and I hope it never ends (it does). Go see a musical and end up closing my favourite bar with the staff; have gin truffles for the first time, and it turns out they’re even better when you have them with extra gin on the side.

December

Spend the weekends with friends. Make a new batch of pizza dough. Go to New York once more, meet up with friends and finally make it out of Manhattan, have a little pizza, buy a few books, go to a social justice holiday market (and it’s as fantastic as it sounds), stand by the water looking at the skyline, and wear the bowtie again. Get home, jetlagged. Spend a few days with friends and dogs in a house in the countryside and it’s marvelous. Learn what it’s like to really fall in love with a dog. I meet calves and watch dogs playing and staring out the window, we go for long walks, make cookies, cook dinners, get milk from a farmer, have homemade gelato for dessert, unfortunately have no panettone, and I finally get to play card games again.


2018 in numbers

(I like numbers)

  • Traveled around 82,934 km: returned from Italy, went to Hong Kong, Thailand, New York, Vienna, San Francisco, Stuttgart, two villages by lakes near Berlin, Hamburg, a village by the Baltic Sea, and another village near Denmark,
  • spoke at two conferences, one of them my first management conference, hooray!
  • wrote not much, really (and as always, I wish it was more),
  • posted 540 Tweets,
  • way too many Instagram stories,
  • took more than 11,033 photos,
  • read 21 books, plus 12 Mio. words in Pocket (they say that’s 163 books, whatever that means),
  • Bought way too many books. Finally got a book shelf.
  • listened to music for a lot (my last.fm counts 14,867 songs),
  • went to see live: Belle and Sebastian, Ólafur Arnalds (twice), Welcome to Hell (a musical),
  • Quit my job. Found and started another one (yay!!).
  • made 68 contributions on GitHub,
  • accidentally quit drinking coffee regularly; probably got to around 50 cups over the year,
  • Listened to 4,839 songs and over 72,000 hours of music
  • The 11 songs I listened to the most this year:
    • Keaton Henson – Beekeeper (made it into this list again)
    • Blondie – Call me (it’s not a song, it’s a mood)
    • Santigold – Disparate Youth
    • Portugal. The Man – Feel it still
    • Django Django – Marble Skies
    • The New Pornographers – The Bleeding Heart Show
    • Sequoyah Tiger – Sissi
    • Flunk – Only You (Yuleboard Live Version)
    • Chromatics – I’m on Fire
    • Cosby – Everlong
    • Fruit Bats – Humbug Mountain Song

Bits and pieces

  • Learnings: Realised how hard it is to make friends as an adult (still working on it, but I got very lucky a few times this year).
  • Best decisions: Starting a new job. Not moving house. Taking piano lessons again. Not dating anymore (for now, sigh).
  • Endings & beginnings: a bunch.
  • Change: Went through some big personal changes, which I’m really excited about. I’m, probably unsurprisingly, turning another year older next year, and still grappling with it; also still thinking a lot about this thread, and what it means to be the age that I am.
  • People: many good ones.
  • The day I ran out of fucks to give: January 29

2019

Doing more of the things I greatly enjoy and am not doing enough of: Meeting friends, meeting new people, making new friends; protesting; dancing; practicing piano more frequently and learning exciting new pieces; cooking better food for myself; baking more. I’d like more dogs in my life, more nights out, more park time, more good books, more photography, more ice cream, more learning, more floating on lakes, looking up into the sky.

The biggest lesson I learned from my piano practice over the last months is: even on good days, you’ll rarely play perfectly, and that’s okay. But don’t let it keep you, don’t restart – when you fail, what matters most is that you find a way to recover, maybe even with grace (or at least a little dignity), find a way get back on track, and keep going.

And on this note: happy 2019 to you. May it be a good year for you.

Eleven rainbows: Melbourne in Winter 2017

This is a diary of my time in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, containing musings, thoughts, notes written down in June and July 2017. Edited in August 2017 and February 2018. The number of rainbows is true and something else; everything else is as true as you need it to be. 


Day 1

A bird on a daring flight crashes from the sky, down, down, down, approaching us, this crowd waiting at these traffic lights by the library. Only right before hitting the ground right in front of us, in this very last fraction of a second, it comes to a halt, seems to pause in the air, before it rises back into the sky again. I’m in awe, I almost want to applaud the performance (even though I despise birds). I look around me to find out if anyone else has seen what I just saw there. Only one man and me noticed. His and my eyes meet and lock eye contact for a second. We both nod, knowingly, turn our heads and go our ways.

This is how it begins.

I’m overcaffeinated and underloved and most of my misery stems from distances and men. (This might as well become the title of my autobiography one day.) It’s been six and a half months since my last visit and I’ve been counting. Now, I’m back here to find out what has changed since, but much more interested in what hasn’t.

I’m so tired. Just so, so tired all the time. I stay in bed as long as I can, refusing to open the heavy brown curtains that block the overcast sky from my sight. I spend the mornings, the evenings and late nights working, because time zones are not my friend these days, and everyone I work with is so far away. In between, I face fundamental questions about the work I do, where I do it, and why. A friend talks me through a Visa processes for Australia and I’m tired.

Does Superman take superpower naps?

My dreams are mostly nightmares these days. Meanwhile, I learn that Berlin is having a few summery days, with temperatures around 35°C. Much later, I will learn that this time already came to a close after four days, and this was all of summer that Berlin got that year. And much, much later I will find out that this will be my year without a summer.

I’m so tired, and so cold. It’s cold, everywhere and always. When I’m outside, I hear the people here talk about winter like it meant something. Sometimes, when we’re out together, you’d spot dogs in the streets for me; the bouncy dogs look so happy when they’re walking. Walking by myself, I’m too tired to try. As I stroll past the library and cross paths with a seagull (we ignore each other; until today, it’s unclear whether it was polite or passive-aggressive ignorance), I watch a group of 50 blue suits collectively cross the street on the other side. All suits are the same shade of dark blue. It’s so close to #06224f. Right next to me, someone holds a phone to their ear, listening with eyes closed; they open their eyes and look straight ahead saying: “Take everything, nothing matters to me.”

A child smiles at me. I think about what matters and still wait for the traffic lights. Jaywalking is practiced on a regular basis here, even during traffic as heavy as this one right now, so it is very surprising that so many people have gathered here and stayed for so long that it allows for a glimpse into their lives, or this version of their lives that’s right here, waiting as much as I am, or even more.

I find an “I heart NYC” sticker on a lamppost. I do heart NYC as well, and I’d love to go back. It’s funny how, no matter where we are, we dream of being somewhere else. Maybe it’s this casual unfulfilled thought of escapism, the inner sticker on a lamppost, that keeps us from running wild right where we are. It’s not always the light that makes a city special; sometimes it’s only the façades that create reflections.


Day 4

The weather is bad, but at least it’s authentic. These are days for velvety coffee and dreams of the sun. I admire the dip section in the supermarket and am very happy about the opportunity to finally try French Onion dip. As I tell someone about it (very proudly), they break into laughter and tell me that this has been absolutely out since the 90s, and I tell them that it’s still absolutely en vogue in my life.

In front of the museum, there’s a white van parked close to a wall, doors slid open. There’s only one woman inside of it. She sits in the middle of three rows of passenger seats, close to the door, her chin leaning on her arms that are resting on the headrest of the seat in front of her. She looks out into a distance that’s not there.

In the first exhibition, I see: a baby donkey; a dolphin; a woman dressed in a long red skirt, forming a bridge with her body; a baby’s and a grown-up’s feet; a collection of circles and paper balls; the question of all questions. As I walk out, they’re playing my favourite Elton John song.

In the second exhibition, I see colourful paintings of unspeakable things, pieces of leather and branches, sculptures of ghosts throwing shade, and so much art that was shaped by violence, racism, abuse, and colonialism.

On my way out of the museum, a museum guard named George tells me stories of Aschaffenburg and Fiji. When I’m back on my way in the rain, it takes me a while to wrap my head around the beauty of this encounter. I cross a bridge, turn around, the sun comes out, I take a photo of the dramatic clouds and it’s only on my tiny camera display that I notice the huge, half-faded rainbow. Seconds later, it fades. Leaning on the bridge railing, I keep staring in this general direction, waiting for the rainbow to come back.

It never will.

The crows are flying towards the sunset, into a sky full of dark grey clouds set against a bright yellow and blue backdrop. I watch the sunset and I care more about the way it’s reflected in the building next door. At night, I watch other people do Karaoke. I love Karaoke, I even maintain a list of songs I’d sing during Karaoke, and I always want to sing during Karaoke (kind of). But I never do: all of the songs I enjoy singing will kill the last sign of good mood in a party crowd. So I only watch and listen. With every new 90s song that’s on, I actually listen to the lyrics for the first time in my life, and this way, with every new 90s song that’s on, another childhood memory of mine gets destroyed forever. Here’s one advantage to growing up listening to pop music while not speaking English.


Day 8

On my way out of the city, I stand under a sign saying “Hail tram here”, and I look up what “hail” means, just to be sure. And as the tram approaches, for the first time in my life, a I hail a tram. The tram stops and I get on. Inside the tram, there’s an old man carrying a lion balloon.

As I get off the tram, a child gets on the first step leading up into the tram, stops on the first step, looks back over their shoulders, says “bye bye park!” at the park behind them as if it were the best and most exciting thing in the world. And it probably is.

A palm leaf strokes my hair. I meet a woman with an incredibly fluffy dog and she tells me the dog’s name is Ewok. There’s an amusement park with a rollercoaster and a ferris wheel and I wonder why I know the word ferris wheel. I think about what the loneliness of riding a ferris wheel by oneself feels like. The palm leaves keep sizzling in the wind. It might as well be spring. It might as well be good.

There’s an ice skating area under palm trees and a sign that says LOVE right next to a fortune teller’s tent. The palm trees are wearing fairy lights, and it might as well be spring. And then I stand on the green area between two roads and for the first time in my life, I see two wild, light pink parrots sit in the grass just a few steps away from me. I keep walking down the road, and then there’s the sea, that’s so calm and quiet today under this overly shiny sky. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to walk down a beach without looking for shells and stones. I sit down on the beach and look straight ahead, narrowing my eyes because the sunlight is so sunny and light, and then I drop there, into the sand, right where I stand, in my winter coat and sweater, my boots, my tiredness, and my emotional exhaustion, and I just stay right were I am and look straight ahead. A container ship lingers on the horizon at ten o’clock. And oh, the waves.

On a tram back into the city, I sit by the window. A drunk man squeezes himself on the seat next to me, then onto me, and blows his drunk breath into my face. I say excuse me, get up and head over to a different seat on the other side of the carriage, a seat that allows me to keep an eye on him. As I sit down, I think about apologies.

I see a man sitting on a wall hug a backpack and lightly rock it as if it were the most wonderful, precious thing in the world. As the tram keeps moving, I see a tiny dog stick its head out of the backpack, and I finally understand. Someone on the tram keeps saying “last stop” over and over. We’re still very far away from the last stop of this tram, but maybe it means something different for them. Also on this tram: a woman looking at food photos on Facebook; a man making a phone call and taking a photo of a photo on his second phone. Outside: an advertisement to “earn your black belt in 18 months”; a mattress shelter under a bridge. I love trams for their ability to gently drive us past each other’s lives, while giving us this smooth transition between where we were and where we want to go.

I get off the train and suddenly find myself whistling along to a Vengaboys song that’s playing in a store I walk past. I meet a dog again that I last saw six months ago. His name is Doc. I take a picture of your window as the sun is hitting it.

My fingertips keep tracing the shape of a snail shell in my pocket. I walk past a drawing saying “Colour the dream”.


Day 13

Standing at a bus stop at a major crossroads, trucks blasting past me, I think about my life choices. But then I’m on a bus out of the city and as we drive past houses, trees, houses, I keep wondering where the city actually ends. The grass is glowing in the milky light of this day and I can sense, hear, feel your affection when we’re close; it’s so hard when we’re apart. I walk past a garden center, their slogan: Our reputation is growing.

A child walks out of an enclosed part of the park asking their parents: “why are there no snakes?” One parent responds, “because it’s too cold.” The child responds, a disapproving look on their face: “but I’m bored!”

I wonder about the plastic that’s wrapped around the trees and it’s only days later that I learn it has to do with possums. Someone walks past me looking at their phone, which has the picture of another person as a home screen. I always enjoy seeing this: it must mean this person has someone in their life who means that much to them.

There’s a girl throwing red leaves into the air; a giant walnut sculpture; a bush with leaves that smell very familiar, but I don’t know the origin of the familiarity; a child looking at a sculpture, wearing a jacket with golden dots; frames with yarn woven through them into beautiful shapes;

I’m drawn to a tree carrying tiny orange fruit and white blossoms. I pick up one of the fruit from the ground and hold it in my hands. I want to know what it is, and I want to eat it, but I don’t dare. The more I see of all this, the more I want to show you what my life was like many, many years ago.

On the other side of the park, I find a giant apple tree. I stand under it and smell the sweetness of the overripe fruit. I close my eyes and dream of falling asleep and three weeks later, I would wake up again and I would be in a different life. Time goes by much more slowly when I’m alone.

Someone writes me that they’re living vicariously through me, which is funny because, while this is so exceptional, I’m trying so very hard to find a sense of normality in all of this. And most times, I fail horribly. I fail myself, and I fail us.

It’s late and dark as I head out to go home. Out the door, right, down, half-left to open the door, left, right, down the road. I’m incredibly sad. On the next corner, the keyboarder that always plays here has set up shop again. As I approach, I hear some chords. A group of people is standing around them, all filming on phones that they’re holding up like trophies. I get closer and as I hear the first sweet bites of a melody, the rest of my gut drops right to the spot where it hurts so much, and I want to break down and cry. I keep walking, past the shops that are now closed for once but are still blasting music onto the streets, through groups of people chatting, and even as I’m way further down the street, I still hear the keyboarder play.

It’s a night for a half moon, lying on its back.


Day 17

The coffee place is still at the same place where it was back then. I enter, the brick walls are still white, the sign in the back corner is still there, I walk up to the counter, and there’s someone I know. They look up, look at me, with something in their eyes that says they recognise me. Just a little later, it turns out that it’s T., someone I met six months ago three times for very brief interactions over coffee, – they still know my name, they still remember my story; and I remember theirs. It’s so funny how sometimes people just see us, and we see them.

I walk up towards the market. There’s a parking space on the left hand side of it. The last time I was at this parking lot was last summer, the same time I met T., when it was more than 35°C hot and I sat out there in one of the few bits of shade, leaning against a red brick wall, sending WhatsApp messages back and forth, waiting for someone to go to sleep and a phone call between a Wednesday and a Tuesday on the other fucking side of the world, sixteen hours difference, finally picking up the phone and staying there for four and a half hours, only moving to follow the shade, curling up as much as I could, making myself invisible to everyone passing by. The connection kept dropping, and on the other side of the line, there was someone very far away, much too far away, and I tried to hold it all together. I couldn’t, and we ended up crying together. A day later, I was on stage to give a conference talk. Life is a funny thing, but many times, just a fucking sad thing.

A man rides past the coffee shop on a BMX bike, with a transparent glitter balloon attached to it. Somewhere in the room, hanging from the ceiling, is the question how you want to be remembered.


Day 22

There’s construction work happening outside of my building. A construction worker wearing a hard hat (I still am amazed by the beauty of the term “hard hat”) stops traffic so I can cross the road. The sign in his hand says “drive slow” on one side, and “stop” on the other side. I’d love to have this sign. (And a hard hat.)

I watch a dog run away, pet a cat, and have my portrait taken and eggs and conversations about bureaucracy. Meanwhile, there’s an outrage on the internet about something that I’ve never even heard of. In a very small tree, a very large bird is trying to sit comfortably. A young woman asks me to help her navigate. She seems nervous and insecure, she tells me that she’s from a small city on the other side of the country (which also means the other side of the fucking continent), and that it’s her first time here. I try to calm her down and we figure out directions together. I watch her walk away with her suitcase. She reminds me of myself, a long time ago.

A woman with a guitar standing at a corner singing very sad songs makes me very melancholic. (I have a soft spot for women singing sad songs.)

At a feminist theater play, one of the parts contains a fantastic bit about proposals, which contains the punchline “Let’s blow up the local Woolie’s together”, which I will heavily re-use in the weeks to follow. ”I am not sorry about the watermelon.” – ”It looked like wastelands where we thought we were building mountains.” I go back home feeling like I could achieve anything. On the way home, I stop for a bit to look over Yarra river at night and realise that I don’t care about the city if you’re not in it. A busker has a sign saying “Rock’n’Roll ain’t noise pollution”. I fall asleep over the idea of a beach.


Day 27

I have a theory of a secret net of book stores world wide which are connected through a door hidden behind the poetry section. (The theory may or may not be connected to my love of books, my admiration for good poetry, and my deep hatred towards distance.) There are at least three versions of every one of my stories, and sometimes that’s eating me from the inside.

I cross a wild road like I knew what I was doing, and I think that’s actually true. I take a walk back to where we began, and I wish I could go back there in time. I’m really starting to know my way around here. I realise that it’s because home is where you are, I can’t help but see this place as home.

Everywhere I go, I ask myself could I imagine? Could I imagine living here? At the same time, I don’t know what home is anymore. The birds are singing songs I don’t know.

For years, I’ve now been thinking in English. And I’m starting to lose vocabulary in my native language, this language that I’ve nourished and broadened and deepened with so much care and dedication. At the same time, I’m lacking words, so many words in this language that’s dominating my mind. And it’s frustrating me. I don’t have names for the things around me anymore. I only resort to categories: palm tree; christmas tree; tree; thing. Flower. Bird. I am back to painting my language with very broad brush strokes. I miss the ability to have accurate words at hand when I need them, where I need them. Instead, I have to search, look all over the place, sift through drawers in my head to find them (and, more often than not, I fail). All of a sudden, as I feel it fading, I feel much more connected to my native language and my home than I’ve felt in more than a decade.

Everything in my brain needs to be adjusted. Everything is like what I’m used to, but it’s still not the same. Everything is similar, but still off by about three to twenty-eight point seven percent. It is like when you’ve just woken up and everything looks a bit hazy, foggy, in weird colours, and you have to blink a few times and rub your eyes and it slowly adjusts. I carry this feeling with me all the time. An incomplete list of what feels off by about twenty-eight point seven percent: the birds, the trees, the rose hips, snakes in gardens, daffodils blooming in July, the intense greenness of the grass, wild orchids, the brownness of the river, the red brown of the soil, the traffic, “kiwi fruit” (you just don’t say “there are kiwis on the counter”), the backyards with their walls, the architecture, the cricket grounds, the footy, the undergrowth, the bushes, the way the forests smell.

No matter how often I rub my eyes, it’s just still off.


Day 33

On a train down the coast, I can’t stop starring out the window, admiring those great open skies over wetlands, the reflections of light, the fields, the trees.

As we arrive, a rainbow is here already. Finally, a place to start and finish a thought, and a place to take endless pictures of the sea.

The next morning, I wake up to a garden view and the sun. We walk down to the beach and I want to open my eyes as wide as I can, to capture all this beautiful light. I look at your eyes, overlooking the open water. The tide is high, and we need to run from the waves. Getting a sense of connectedness with nature has always been fundamental in my life, and I seem to have lost it. I think back to the time when I tried to photograph exactly what you can see when you look at the dunes at midday in sunlight and half-close your eyes.

There’s this one moment when the sea holds its breath.

I take too many pictures of the sea.

As I walk to our place by myself, I smile at the dogs and their people don’t smile back. The soft smell of freshly cut grass in the air. I walk up a hill that people only seem to drive up with cars, and I’m starting to get a sense of how lonely I could feel out here. The bushes look soft in the late afternoon sun.

There’s a rectangle shaped spot of light on the wall, like a second window into a sunnier world. The days go by so fast, and I realise that I only have very few nights left. I’ve known it all along, but now, the realisation sets in: you can’t stock up on anything that really matters.

I begin a thought about belonging and have to drop it, before it makes me too sad. I’m not ready to leave you, nor to get back to my life as I’ve known it so far. The promise of another summer doesn’t make the current winter less sad. I always think that it just can’t feel closer to being over. Then, another second goes by. This was a day of five rainbows.

A moon is out, shining bright over the bay. I want to go down to the beach tonight and walk straight into the sea.

The next morning, we need to head out early. The sky is blue, and a double rainbow is stretching across the sky. Our bus departs in an hour.


Epilogue (Day 34/35)

This is the time when I can’t go anywhere without thinking that it’s the last time. I had more than five weeks to prepare for this, and I didn’t. The pain hits me right as my last airplane touches the ground. And here I am, a body that has traveled maximal distance, waiting for a suitcase at luggage belt. As I open my suitcase, I take out the donut I bought. Twenty-eight hours and a lifetime ago. And this is how it ends.

We were beautiful before this went down
We were beautiful before the years came
And turned it upside down
We were beautiful before we got wise
We were beautiful with sky and blanket laying low


These and more photos are also on Flickr.

On community

As I’m writing these lines, I’m sitting at Munich Airport. I’m waiting for my flight home after spending the last two days on a pretty spontaneuos trip to Munich for JS Kongress. Despite knowing of the event, I hadn’t even thought about, let alone planned to go, since I wasn’t feeling very well (and even less social). Only in early November, I learned that a very lovely friend was going to be there, and suddenly had a chance (and a very good reason) to go as well. The conference itself was great, and there was a bunch of talks that I really enjoyed.

At and around the conference, there was also this very friend, as well as a few more wonderful women who I’ve known for a while, some even for years. Most of us live very far apart, and if we ever meet at all, we only ever meet at conferences. This conference was a chance to reconnect with them over walks and hot beverages and breaks between talks, and an opportunity to exchange stories: from our work, our public speaking, our lives. It left me with a very warm and fuzzy feeling, and, most importantly, with the feeling of community. These few days with these people were a tangible version of some thoughts that have been on my mind for a while now—thoughts about hard times, and about community.

This is what this post is about.—


This year of 2017 has been a pretty exhausting year for me (and as much as I wish that these remaining six weeks will turn everything around, I have a feeling that’s not going to happen). It’s been one of these years that start out pretty okay, until, suddenly, everything is very much not okay anymore. I had a bunch of heavy personal things going on, and was already pretty underwater by the time I went through a big role change at work, which by itself was more challenging for me than I’d expected. This change also meant not working so closely with my amazing team anymore (and there’s another story in here about what happens when, suddenly, you don’t have 14 direct reports anymore, heh), and instead started focusing on and building out my work with a whole new team of awesome team leads. All of this was incredibly exciting and a wonderful opportunity, but: change is hard, and it’s even harder when you’re already stressed out.

In the past, during times of stress and overwhelm, I’d go into survival mode: I’d bundle all my remaining resources, shut down everything that was not absolutely necessary, and retreat to myself in what I’d call cave mode. This would also mean that I’d cut any social ties, to the extent that friendships heavily suffered. For a long time, I’ve been working hard on combatting this behavioural pattern. But cutting back on social ties, neglecting friendships and companionship, is still something I easily fall back into in times like these.—

The realities of this industry don’t help with finding companionship: being a woman in tech in a management role can sometimes be a pretty lonely place to be in. There are still just not that many of us, and this also means that there’s only so many people who share our experiences. And while I interact a lot with people on a daily basis, I also work remotely (and from home), so social interactions don’t just happen, but need facilitation. Lastly, there’s the sheer reality of my work: my work is about 60-90% emotional labour, and this amount of emotional labour, together with some personal things™?, easily results in what I was for most of the last months:

a pretty weak basket case, mostly held together by carbs, Netflix, and anxiety.

Two months ago, I noticed what was happening: It had been ages since I’d looked into one of the countless community Slacks that I’m in, or chatted with someone in a role similar to mine, or even just joined one of my local Women in Tech groups for a night out. It was a time when I was struggling (with) myself, and found it incredibly hard to get out of my survival mode and engage with others out there. I was missing the feeling of connectedness, companionship, and community. The people I met at this conference were a wonderful reminder for me of how important community is.

The bad thing with systemic issues in an industry like the tech industry is that they’re systemic. The good (okay, “good” is a strong word, but you know what I mean) thing is that they are systemic. In societies where so many of us have been taught from early on that we’re less than, where we’ve been taught not to trust ourselves; in spaces where we’re pushed to work twice as hard to get half as far, and where we’re told that only the toughest make it through; and in an industry that keeps diminishing our experiences, qualifications, perspectives, identities, and us: community can also be about reality checks. Like so many of us, I too have inhaled and internalised the societal beliefs that there can only be so many of us that are “successful” (by whatever definition of “success” that you apply here), and that there can only be so many of us that “make it” . It took me a while to learn that all of these beliefs are fundamentally false, misleading, and that they’re robbing us of the greatness and wonderfulness that we can find when we overcome them—and it took me another while to understand how this needs to apply to my work.

For many of us, this is of an industry that we’re in regardless of (the crap, the bullshit, the microaggressions, the *-isms, the setbacks…), and, at the same time, because of (our strengths, our experiences, and all that we are). The people who are here with us are a reminder of the because. The companionship of people who have been or go through similar struggles as we do is a reminder that we’re not alone in those experiences, that we actually are all in this together. Under circumstances like these, there’s great consolation in community. Just the reminder of not being alone in all this can already take off the edge.

The times when we need this community the most will often also be the times when we don’t have the energy, time, emotional resources to engage with it. (And self care needs to take top priority no matter what—but I also needed to learn that there are also times when self care can mean longing for community, and working to find this community.)

All our perspectives and past experiences will differ, but more often than not, the realities we’re in will not differ so much, but will still be similar enough that we can lean in onto each other, learn from each other, move forward with each other.

But community is not just sitting around all our trash fires together to keep warm (while desperately trying not to get burnt)—it can also be this same community that shows us paths forward, give us perspectives for how it can be done (or at least ideas that may be worth a shot), that becomes about being and working together, building things together, and moving forward together.

I have been thinking about all this for a while now. I’ve also been working on incorporating this more into my work—connecting with women and non-binary people, to be in this together, and find ways to support each other and lift each other up. Practically, I asked women colleagues for chats over coffee (yes that also works in a distributed team), and am making a deliberate effort to work with them more closely whenever possible. I reached out to another woman in an engineering management role, and got a chance to speak with her. And I made an effort to reconnect with other women and non-binary people who I hadn’t been in touch with in a while—to move beyond my own old patterns, but, most of all, because I was wondering how much others were experiencing, feeling, the same or a similar way.

This was supposed to be a short, more philosophical note, and now turned into something much longer and vulnerable. It’s taken me a long time to accept my own vulnerability, and even more time to embrace it. What I’m working on now is being with this vulnerability at and in my work (but that, again, is another story for another time).

So often, we’re so caught up in treading water, and don’t notice the others around us doing just the same. For a long time, I haven’t really understood the joy and wonderfulness of community, and the power that comes with it. Now that I’m starting to understand it, I’ll keep trying to find my community. The sense and feeling of community, of connectedness, can change our perspectives. I still have a long way to go, but it has changed mine already. And I greatly hope that, no matter who you are, where you are, and what you do: I hope that, if you want, you will find yours as well.

March 2017

Now that the server problems are fixed and I secretly snuck the February blog post out in the open (potential oxymoron? Let’s not think about that, maybe), we’re officially back on track with a look back at March.

March was the month of added time zone headaches, and an overall interesting month – one of these times when photos are, as so often, not more than barely functioning frames to help us hold on to something at least. Even if that something is not more than a few pixels, optimised for web.


Found

  • More signs of spring.
  • A plant where no plants would grow.
  • Something funny just around the corner.
  • Great book stores.
  • My new favourite outfit.
  • …out.

Wrote

Read

Books I finished

  • None this month, focused on re-reading bits and pieces from books I’d read over the past months. Started some great new ones though.

Watched (or saw)

  • An extremely fluffly dog

Heard or said

OHs of the month

  • “The problem is that men are men.”
  • “You’re ours now.”
  • “What would the deer do with money?”
  • “If you come here wearing something like this, you get free coffee all day.”
  • “Just call it an adventure. Sounds better.”
  • “I have visualised my emotional situation with emoji and it is not pretty.”
  • “The next days will forever ruin my last.fm stats.”
  • “We should write a song about it!”
  • “It’s a shot show.”
  • “When Netflix is down, I call you instead.”
  • “This is Silicon Valley meets How I Met Your Mother meets Fast And Furious.”

Was

  • At a concert.
  • At another concert.
  • At the airport.

Did

  • Buy flowers.
  • Take screenshots.
  • Bring pizza home.
  • Laugh about robots with friends, and then again at home.
  • Come back.
  • Photograph a menu, a mirror, a castle, a hill, and shoes.
  • Swear at airlines.
  • Feel weird about buying an easyjet upgrade.
  • Take the best selfie.
  • Walk through the park.
  • Pet a dog.
  • Close my eyes and listen.
  • Not let go.
  • Upload a video.

I did…, although it was a bad idea

  • Nothing and everything.

Had

  • Tapas
  • Brunch
  • Dumplings
  • Scones
  • The usual Olives & Pizza date
  • Burgers
  • So much brunch
  • Breakfast at 4pm
  • Biscuits (!)
  • Schnitzel
  • First ice cream for the year!
  • Pastel de Nata (finally)

Listened to

Heard or said, part 2

  • “You can still turn everything around and into a telenovela.”
  • “That’s the nature of all tragedies: the hero dies, but the story lives on forever.”
  • “I just wanted someone to share my cookies with, and then things escalated from there.”
  • “I am grammatically outraged.”
  • “It’s basically a car wreck in the making.”
  • “Do you only like me for the adrenaline rush?”
  • “I’m going to make an executive decision about the berries now.”
  • “Let me mansplain this to you.”
  • “First thing you always ask is: is this food?”
  • “Love or lasers?” – “How is that even a question?”
  • “Now, about that flame thrower…”
  • Take your heart by the hand and run.”

Thought about

  • The total inability to grasp the realness of things.
  • Timing.
  • Eyebrows.
  • Being meant.
  • About becoming the person I want to be.
  • The inevitable light.
  • A giant pancake.