Offices and social anxiety

I like my coworkers. I really do! Once I even became close enough with a coworker that she made me a bridesmaid in her wedding. But in every job I’ve ever had, I find myself going to great lengths to avoid certain office situations.

The issue is mostly that I dread small talk because I’m an awkward human being. (For hilarious proof that there are other weirdos like me, check out this genius comic on social entrapment.)

So for those of you who wonder whether I’d miss the social aspect of the office if I become a freelancer, I have documented my neurotic thoughts from a typical day at work.

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The morning

I pull into the parking garage at 7:30am, still waiting for the coffee to kick in. I check carefully to see if anyone else’s taillights are on. No? I throw the car in park and dash to the stairwell before anyone else appears. Yes? I check my makeup or arrange my purse or fiddle with my cellphone until they’ve shut off their car and headed inside. If I fail at evasive moves, I must a) follow them up the stairs to the office while discussing that day’s commute and trying not to think about how I’m talking to their butt, or b) get trapped into waiting with them for the rickety elevator while holding my tongue about how the two-story climb is much more pleasant.

The bathroom

It’s 10am, and the coffee has definitely kicked in. But I don’t want others to overhear the, ahem, results. And I definitely don’t want to end up in the stall next to one of the ladies who like to chat while doing their business. (Eew! Can’t we at least pretend we can’t hear each other??) So I keep an eye on the hallway until nobody has gone toward the bathroom recently. It’s time to make my move. I grab my water bottle and head to the door. Why the water bottle? Because if I run into someone else who’s on the way to the bathroom, I can seamlessly change course for the water fountain! Isn’t it genius? Then I can return to my desk for a few minutes before trying again.

The microwave

My stomach starts growling at 11:40am. Is it too early for lunch? Well, I won’t get anything done until I’ve got some fuel in me. I bring my lunch bag over to the microwave, add leftovers, and set the timer. Now I have two minutes to burn. First I turn to my regular standby: filling my water bottle. Did you know this only takes 20 seconds? That still leaves 100 seconds for me to stand around awkwardly. So I resort to staring out the window as if I have something really important to contemplate. Unfailingly, someone else comes into the kitchen and asks, “Couldn’t wait for noon, eh?” or “Smells good, whatcha got?” I babble that hunger is justified when it’s already been five hours since breakfast, or that I’m eating quinoa which is kind of like rice and yes there’s no meat in my lunch today but it’s not because I’m vegetarian or on a diet.

The afternoon BS session

Around 3pm, people tend to gather at one of the nearby desks to shake off the afternoon blues with some chatter. I’m all for taking a break from work! But their conversation usually centers around clothes shopping, dieting and body issues, or complaints about men. I am not fashionable, I am content with my weight, and I love and respect my boyfriend, so these conversations don’t draw me in. Unfortunately though, because I don’t join in I’m perceived as “too quiet,” a concern that one coworker has actually brought up with me in a friendly but accusatory manner.

I could go on…

…but this is already 700 words! So I’ll just ask you: have you ever noticed yourself taking a weird approach to everyday interactions? I suspect that nobody likes public restrooms, but not everybody experiences quite this level of mental discomfort.

Artichoke Flop

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Artichokes were on sale this week, so I bought one. I planned to steam it and serve it with a spicy garlic mayo dip, restaurant style.

They’re an awfully intimidating-looking vegetable, aren’t they? But the instructions I found seemed so simple that it couldn’t go wrong. After trimming and rinsing, all I needed to do was steam the artichoke for 25-45 minutes over water with garlic, bay, and lemon. When you can easily pull off an outer leaf, it’s supposedly ready to eat.

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No leaves pulled off at 25 minutes. Nor at 45. At this point we dejectedly ate the rest of our dinner, which I’d been keeping warm. The middle leaves pulled off around 65 minutes and I was sick of cooking the thing, so we tried them. No dice. The flesh just wouldn’t scrape off the leaves with our teeth as it has when I’ve eaten restaurant artichokes.

So we dismantled the whole thing to get at the heart. It was rather disappointing too. But at least I got this otherworldly photo of artichoke innards.

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Do any of you have ideas? Do you think my artichoke was too old or poor quality, or I cooked it wrong? I don’t want to be defeated by a thistle!

Goal Progress: Skyping a Client

Freelancing progress has been slow since I last reported to you, so I’ll distract you with my lovely iPhone photos (downtown waterfront, Padres fireworks, Mission Bay):

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BUT! This morning a potential Elance client emailed me to request a Skype call! The project is right up my alley — rewriting a photographer’s website. His time zone is 8 hours ahead of mine, so to work around my day job I have to call him at 6:30am. And because it’s a video call, I have to get up super early to look presentable. Ugh. But it’ll be worth it if I’m hired.

Tonight I’ll review my portfolio and prepare answers to expected questions. I wonder whether I’ll have difficulty understanding an accented voice over a digital connection. Oh and I hope this cold/cough I’ve had all weekend subsides by then. Otherwise, I’m comfortable with Skype after using it recently for fun (hi Em & Lindsey!) and for a full-time job interview a few years ago.

Here are my main tips for a business call or interview on Skype:

  • Camera angle: Set the webcam at or slightly above eye level for a flattering angle. For me, this means propping my Macbook on a shoebox on the dining table. I like to sit so the camera can see from above my head to below my shoulders. If you sit any closer, it looks too intimate (or like a myspace photo).
  • Lighting: Webcams need lots of light to record well. Position the light so it’s shining on your face, not behind you. I plan to face a big window for flattering daylight. If it’s night, use bright lamps at eye level — overhead lights cause harsh shadows.
  • Clothing: Avoid red (shows up like a glowing blob) and thin stripes (they “vibrate” onscreen). Choose a higher neckline so that your shirt doesn’t disappear below the screen. Comfy pants are tempting, but you should wear nice pants in case you have to stand up to grab notes or coffee.
  • Speaking: Talk slower to compensate for lag and poor audio quality. Don’t speak over the other person as you would in a normal conversation, because overlapping voices tend to cause the audio stream to blank out.
  • Sound: Close windows and doors and ask family/roommates to stay quiet while you’re on the call. Consider using a microphone headset if your built-in mic isn’t that great. Mine is decent close up, but gets worse when you sit farther away.
  • Eye contact: Your caller’s face onscreen is lower than the webcam, so when you look at their eyes it seems like you’re looking down. The best advice I’ve read is to alternate views: look directly at the webcam while you talk, and look at their face while they talk.
  • Notes: You can’t check info on your computer without looking weird. So print any reference materials ahead of time, and keep a notebook and pen in reach.

That list got longer than I expected… but I hope these tips help you someday. And I hope they help me tomorrow — wish me luck!

Homemade Spaghetti

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My parents make the world’s best spaghetti. They don’t know where the recipe came from but they’ve made it the same way for decades. It’s the first recipe I learned to cook by heart. The sauce is not garden-fresh or fancy — instead, it’s an easy pantry meal using ingredients you always have on hand. But it’s not boring or typical. It’s a hearty sauce with depth from red wine and olive oil, bulked up with savory olives and mushrooms, all cooked into a thick stew-like texture. I’ve made it before without the beef and it’s delicious vegetarian style too.

Favorite Spaghetti Recipe (serves 4)

  • 1/2 lb ground beef
  • one small yellow/white onion, diced
  • a few cloves of garlic, minced
  • one small can of mushroom pieces
  • about half a can of black olives, sliced
  • 14.5 oz can plain tomato sauce
  • small (6 oz?) can tomato paste
  • a splash of red wine
  • a glug of olive oil
  • dried oregano & basil
  • salt & pepper
  • dried pasta of your choice

Choose a skillet with a lid. Heat to medium-high. Brown beef, breaking into very small chunks. Reduce heat to medium. Check if there’s enough fat left to saute veggies — if too much, drain excess; if too little, add oil. Add onions, mushrooms, and garlic and saute until onions are translucent. Stir in tomato sauce and tomato paste. Fill the empty tomato paste can with half wine and half water, and add to sauce. Stir in the sliced olives. Season liberally to taste with oregano, basil, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil and cover loosely (tilt the lid slightly so it prevents splatters, but allows steam to escape so that the sauce thickens). Reduce heat and simmer a half hour or so until thick, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, boil water and cook the pasta according to the box.

Recipe notes:

  • I prefer 85% lean ground beef because it seems to have the perfect amount of fat left over for cooking the vegetables. Also makes the best hamburgers, IMHO.
  • I don’t use cheap cooking wine; I just use whatever I’m drinking with dinner. But if you don’t drink much wine, a great option is the tiny bottles sold in 4-packs for picnics. That way you don’t have leftovers to waste.
  • The box will say 2 oz of pasta is one serving, and many popular recipes suggest 4 oz per person (yikes!), but I like to make 1.5 oz per person — so 6 oz for this whole recipe. For me, the sauce is way more important than boring old noodles.
  • Top with grated parmesan or fresh herbs if you want to get fancy.

North Fortuna Mountain

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On Saturday four of us tackled the north approach to Fortuna Mountain in Mission Trails Regional Park. It’s amazing that such an extensive set of trails is available only 15 minutes from home! We felt like we were way out in the desert, but could see subdivisions and the downtown skyline from the summit. We’d all hiked the popular Cowles Mountain, which is in the opposite corner of this park, but this was a totally different feel — much more natural, and far fewer people. It was hot and dry and sunny, a nice change from the June Gloom that’s been pervasive downtown the past couple weeks.

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We parked on the west side at the end of Clairemont Mesa Blvd and chose a loop that took us about 6 miles around the park, through various slopes and valleys. There was a lot of elevation change so we agreed with the Afoot and Afield evaluation of “moderately strenuous.” I would definitely recommend printing and bringing the trail map, because the signage wasn’t very consistent or helpful. We stayed on track by using the giant power lines (dashed gray line) and SR-52 as landmarks.

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More people joined us in the afternoon/evening for games, and we all enjoyed some veggie sweet potato chili. Hooray for Saturdays!

Stovetop barbecued chicken

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This easy one-skillet pantry meal takes an hour start to finish, but most of that is hands-off. It was one of my all-time favorite meals growing up and now is one of Dan’s top favorites too. A total crowd pleaser with a wonderfully high ratio of effort to reward. Delicious with boiled new potatoes and green beans, both coated in butter, salt, and pepper.

Stovetop BBQ Chicken Recipe

  • 1 tsp oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped (1/2 cup)
  • 1/2 cup ketchup
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 Tbsp white vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • 1/4 tsp crushed celery seeds
  • 1 to 1.5 lbs chicken breasts or tenders

Heat oil on medium in a large skillet (choose one with a lid). Add onion and cook, stirring, until softened. Meanwhile stir together all sauce ingredients (I do it all in a 2-cup measuring cup for simplicity). When onion is soft, add sauce to skillet and bring to a boil. Add the chicken, placing the (former) skin side down, and spoon sauce over the pieces. Cover and simmer 30 minutes. Uncover skillet, turn chicken pieces over, and cook another 15 minutes or until tender.

I often increase the amount of sauce, especially if we’re serving the chicken with potatoes or rice. If you have a lot of sauce you might want to remove the chicken to a warm plate and boil the sauce until it reduces a bit. Otherwise it’s quite thin. This dish freezes well and makes great leftovers.

Goal Progress

On Sunday I got a haircut. Even though this style is my favorite ever — it looks nice air-dried wavy or blow-dried smooth — I had put it off for seven months because, well honestly? I dread making small talk.

But during the 45 minutes in the chair, I had a really fascinating conversation with my hairdresser. She and her new husband are working toward self employment because they want the freedom to set their own schedules, live wherever they like, and build a flexible lifestyle before having kids. I told her about my recent thoughts on the same kind of thing. We talked about how it’s so easy to get complacent in jobs like ours — decent jobs that pay well enough, but don’t allow the lifestyle we truly want. We agreed on what it means to live a good, self-directed life. I left with bouncy hair and bouncy ideas, too.

haircut

Then today I read a beautiful post about the art of being a goal-getter. The author, who’s only a few years older than me, talks about how she’s managed to build a rewarding career that led to freelancing and self-employment. And there are illustrations, too! So go take a look if you need some uplifting stories.

This inspired me to share what I’ve been working on since I wrote about my career goals. I plan to start by freelancing a few hours a week, on top of my day job, until I get a good sense of whether full-time self employment is truly right for me. So here’s what I’ve done the past two weeks:

  • Updated my professional website. I’ve had it for years, but really only used it while hunting for full-time jobs. Now I’ve added different pages and rewritten the text to make it clear I’m a freelancer (with a day job). I’m slowly adding more portfolio samples. And I want to blog there with a content marketing focus.
  • Created a new resume. The last revision was a year ago, when I was gearing up for my job hunt. This new version presents me as a freelancer and includes details about my current full-time job.
  • Filled out an Elance profile. Elance is an online staffing marketplace that matches freelancers with clients around the world. Unfortunately, it’s filled with a lot of low-quality, low-pay assignments like “write thirty 500-word articles per month for $1 each.” But there are also some high-quality jobs mixed in.
  • Applied to three Elance jobs. For instance, there’s a wedding photographer who wants to rewrite his website, and a small business owner who needs product descriptions. Each job has a few dozen bidders, so my chances are slim. But I’ve got to start somewhere! My main client from the past has switched jobs, and doesn’t need writing services right now.

Now that it’s all written down, I’ve done more than I thought. Maybe if I document my progress regularly, no matter how small, I’ll be able to look back someday and see how it all added up to something big.