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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Of stinky feet, solutions and success (and a little bit of sweat)

Crystal Crescent Beach, 2013


Stinky feet

During my Master's I received a scholarship that involved being paid for supervising our French Literature department's library and assisting professors and students with bibliographic research. It was a great job, and a great way to spend time, surrounded by books and other like-minded bookworms! One of the friends I made during those wonderful years was A, a PhD student about 12 years older than me and who soon became my mentor. She was both incredibly smart and incredibly funny (and a great storyteller!) It might have gone too far as I'm not sure her boyfriend of the time would have appreciated that she retold us their "weekend activities" in the slightest detail, but we sure enjoyed listening!

Now, poor A was afflicted with a great problem. And like most people with big problems, she needed to tell someone about it. The someone she chose was me. I was expecting everything and anything from her (mostly in the like of kinky party stories), but not what she told me the fateful day she opened up and confided in me that... her feet reeked. 

(I hope x-boyfriend was not a foot fetishist!!!) 

She assured me she washed her feet every day. She had tried everything, she said. All the soaps, all the creams, all the powders. To no avail. She said her feet had the foulest smell that had ever existed. (When she offered that I take a sniff I politely declined.)

Looking for comfort, she asked me: "Do your feet stink? What do they smell like?" I could sense we had reached that intimacy level friendship is made of. I said "Er, my feet smell like... nothing at all!

She looked even more disheartened: "Okay, so I'm the one who's not normal, then. But I don't know what to do! What do I need to do for my feet to stop stinking like that?"

She was genuinely distressed and I started to feel sincere compassion for her predicament. That's when I went out on a limb and asked her "Do you change your socks every day?"

She looked at me, puzzled. "What do you mean, J? Do you change socks every day?"

"Well, ya!"

A decided to apply my state-of-the-art strategy. It worked. Her feet never reeked again! Well, that was easy!



Looks complicated, but it's not:
Just follow the path
Crystal Crescent Beach, 2013


Solutions

I'm using this little anecdote to demonstrate something that I think we too often forget. The solution to our problems usually is pretty simple. There is a well-known principle to attest of that simplicity; it's called Ockham's razor or lex parsimoniae: this "principle of parsimony, economy or succinctness, used in logic and problem-solving, states that among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected. In other words, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one" (source: Wikipedia).

Yes, the simplest explanation, and the simplest solution, often are our best bet. Some examples:

You want to be fitter? Exercise every day.
You want to become an author? Write every day.
You want to lose weight? Eat less.
You're tired? Go to bed earlier.
You don't want to binge on chocolate ice cream? Don't buy any.

Those are but some of my personal strategies. They work!

I would add this piece of advice: make sure that each and every one of your choices and actions takes you in the direction of your specific goal(s). Beginning now. There's no time to waste! Tomorrow is already too late! As far as I know, we get only one shot at this (life). 

(Although, based on some of my peculiar interests, I could very well be a reincarnation of a) a Holocaust victim b) an Indian Brahman c) a Tibetan monk d) a French novelist/poet... but that's another story.)

Long before the movie Catch Me If You Can was out, I had read Frank Abagnale's autobiography. This guy might be the biggest impostor of all times, "claiming to have assumed no fewer than eight identities as an airline pilot, a doctor, a U.S. Bureau of Prisons agent, and a lawyer" (source: Wikipedia). One of the anecdotes I remember from his book is that while he was pretending to be a doctor, a woman once came to him complaining of chest pain. He offered: "your bra might be too tight". She bought a bigger size. No more pain. Problem solved!

I do not advise consulting quacks, especially for medical issues (and certainly not for chest pain!), but in this case, the simplest explanation was the right one!

What do you do to ensure you reach your goals? Are there any simple solutions in your life that prove themselves time and again?

If you feel you are doing everything you should, and still are not reaching your goals, maybe this article could help (Why we read and follow money tips but never become rich)http://moneyning.com/money-beliefs/why-do-we-read-and-follow-money-tips-but-never-become-rich/

Again... so simple! And I'm pretty sure the same principles apply to many other areas of life! Think about it, and let me know what you come up with!


At the end of the path lies...
Happiness and beauty.
Crystal Crescent Beach, 2013


Success

I was browsing my local library branch in search of vacation reading (one of the greatest free pleasures of life!) when I noticed a special "success" display. As I flipped through some of the books, I noticed that the notion of success, in those books, was all about money and fame and status.

It struck me as a very partial definition of success at best. 

To me, success is attained when one finds 1) balance 2) serenity. Money, fame and status may or may not be in the picture. They have nothing wrong with them per se, but they are certainly not sufficient! Here's a personal anecdote to illustrate my thoughts on this topic:

A few years ago I was working A LOT. Way too much, actually. The nice part of it is that money was coming in, and at one point it was used toward a whole new living room: new couch, new rug, new curtains, new coffee table, new lamp, new TV, new fireplace, name it. Beautiful. I loved my new living room. Six months later, however, as I was briefly admiring said living room, I realized I had spent at most 2 or 3 evenings in it. The reason? I was working all the time! I had money to spend but no time to myself! How ridiculous is that? In the following months, I readjusted my life balance so that I would have more time, even if it meant less money. I can say without any hesitation that I am much happier now (and richer, albeit in a different way).

What's YOUR definition of success?

How do you find balance?

To remind myself of the fragile balance of life, I read Le blog d'un condamné, this autobiographical blog by a man in his fifties who's now, according to his doctors, 9 days from crossing the Styx. Yesterday, after meeting a fellow palliative care patient, D, who's a 34-year old dad and about to die as well, the "Condamné" writes:

"Une infirmière m’a confirmé qu’il était relativement courant de voir des jeunes aux soins palliatifs. Chaque hôpital connaît des cas comme D… alors qu’à l’extérieur, les voitures s’embouteillent, les gens pestent pour cinq minutes de retard et ignorent ce qui se trame dans cette grande tour grise qui s’élève sur l’horizon."

Translation: 

"A nurse told me that it's relatively common to see young people in palliative care. Every hospital has cases like that of D... while on the outside, cars get stuck in traffic jams, and people complain of being 5 minutes late, oblivious to what is going on in this tall, grey tower that rises above the horizon".

Let's remember this when we feel that our life is an entanglement of problems!



Why look far when the answer is so close?
White sand, turquoise waters, ... Nova Scotia!
Crystal Crescent Beach, 2013


Sweat

It's been scorching hot here in the past few days... but I won't complain, as summer is a reason to rejoice, not to whine! What gives me a better reason to sweat, however, is one of the assignments I have to do today. I have 3 lines to translate... for which the client has agreed to pay my hourly rate... but it being a perfume description (for advertising), it might take me the whole hour to make it sound appealing! I first have to decide which one of those words would more accurately and appropriately capture the meaning of a manly scent that is "sexy and bold" (I'd love to smell that!): is it téméraire, hardi, énergique, intrépide or audacieux? I opted for the last. This perfume would also be exhilarating. I'll make sure I don't translate it into hilarant, for that would mean it makes people laugh so hard they wet their pants. Now that would make for an interesting fragrance...

(Isn't it interesting that some people will base their choice of perfume on a colorful description? How about... smelling them!)

After sweating on that I will be back to my comfort zone, reviewing and editing a translation about a Cholesteryl ester transfer protein (CETP) inhibitor. Yippee!

And tomorrow... vacation time! Double yippee!

Have a great day! And don't forget to have some fun!



Enjoy what life gives you!
Crystal Crescent Beach, 2013



Friday, June 21, 2013

Summer is here! Be safe around water.

At the lake, 2010.


Happy solstice! Summer is finally back!

If you live in the northern latitudes like me, you know too well it's a short season that deserves to be enjoyed fully.

I don't know for you, but one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of summer fun is water. Let's jump, let's dive, let's splash around! Playing in and around water is such a joy.


My first video! Woohoo!


But are you truly ready for the joys of swimming?

Not to burst anyone's bubble, but as much as water is wondrous... it's also treacherous.

I'm not talking through my hat. I was a lifeguard, swimming instructor and swim coach for 10 years. I worked with children, adults, babies and seniors, whose abilities ranged from beginners (sometimes aquaphobics) all the way to university swim team athletes. I worked in swimming pool settings and on continental beaches (lakes). Apart from swimming, I taught the basics of canoeing, kayaking, windsurfing, and snorkeling.

In the second half of my aquatic career, I became chief instructor/lifeguard and was responsible for training, hiring and evaluating swimming instructors.

As of today I still act as editor and proofreader for Quebec's Lifesaving Society's paper publications in French.

First summer of lifeguarding, 1993.


Between all those roles, I've either read, heard, or seen it all. Believe me when I say water is a perfidious friend.

Some examples. Did you know that:


  • a child can drown in a few inches of water, including in the bathtub or a small pond?
  • many backyard pools are NOT safe? (e.g. are you sure there is no possible access to your pool unless you authorize it, including from the house? A toddler can be very quick at opening a patio door.) Do you have floating devices, a first aid kit and a phone at hand? Would you know what to do if someone was in distress in your pool?
  • a lot of drowning incidents occur when the victim had not even intended to go in the water, e.g. was in a boat, or was walking/playing beside the water, then accidentally fell in? Don't only watch your kids in the water. Watch them as soon as they get close to the water.
  • a significant number of drowning incidents occur in the winter (e.g. walking or driving a snowmobile over thin ice)?
  • a person who knows how to swim can drown, because of circumstances such as surprise (was not planning to fall in the water), cold temperatures, currents, waves, etc? No matter what your abilities are, always swim with a buddy.
  • adults (especially young men) can be particularly at risk because of their fearless behavior? According to the Lifesaving Society, "risk-taking 18 to 24-year-olds continue to have the highest water related death rate", and "the vast majority of drowning victims continue to be men". Apart from risk-taking behaviors, drinking alcohol would be associated with many incidents in and around the water, for example in small boats (capsizing, etc.) Even if you're a grown-up and know how to swim, when in a boat wear your PFD (personal floating device) and bring along the mandatory equipment - see here). 
  • drowning can occur within a few seconds only? I'm serious: you have NO IDEA how fast someone can go from having fun to disappearing under the water. You also have no idea how hard it is to fetch a victim who's already deep under water - especially in dark or moving waters where you don't see a thing - believe me on that one! We will never repeat it enough: DO NOT let young swimmers out of your sight. Not even for a minute. Ever. (If you're a trained lifeguard, you know to never let ANY swimmer out of your sight, right?)
  • drowning often DOES NOT look like drowning? (Would you notice the drowning child in this video if you were enjoying a nice day at the beach?)




Did you also know that:


  • life jackets and other buoyant objects can NEVER replace vigilant adult supervision? Your kids might be wearing so many floaties they look like the Michelin Man... you still have to watch them!
  • the presence of lifeguards does not suffice, especially when the pool is crowed? There is a reason why most pools ask that a parent accompany younger children in the water. This is the same reason why children in summer camps may have to wear a life jacket when swimming, based on their age and even if they "know how to swim". Although it's rare, drowning in supervised settings does happen. Some children have lost their lives to it. Need I add that as in any other profession, there are good lifeguards... and then there are the "other ones"? Just because they're sitting on the lifeguard chair does not mean they are paying full attention, and just because they did the whole training does not mean they won't "freeze" when a real situation happens (I've witnessed this). Don't get me wrong, most lifeguards are well trained, professional and attentive, but unfortunately, the exception exists. And sometimes... it's just really hard to see it all.




Finally, did you ever consider that a good portion of accidents that happen in or around the water have nothing to do with drowning? Spinal cord injuries and head traumas are probably the most serious examples (from diving head first in water that is too shallow - ALWAYS check first! or from slipping on wet tile, rocks, docks or diving boards - please walk! or from being jumped on!), but I've also had to treat hypothermia, heat strokes, cuts/lacerations/abrasions, bruises, fractures, hemorrhages (not to mention cardiorespiratory problems)... and even someone whose permanent teeth got stuck in the Tarzan Rope as she was swinging over the water. I'm probably forgetting some other examples.

Those incidents do not have to happen! Getting informed about the risks, and using precaution, will help ensure you have an incident-free summer in or around the water.

If I can offer one last piece of advice (or two): 1) make sure you and your loved ones learn how to swim - ideally, aim to become a strong swimmer, to increase your odds of surviving in a tricky water-related situation; 2) if you haven't done it yet, please learn first aid and CPR. You never know when you'll suddenly become a first responder!

As we used to say: safety first, then fun!





Thursday, June 20, 2013

A butterfly in the lilac



Sitting behind my desk in my home office, trying to get some work done. 

I take a pause and look out the window. It's a beautiful, warm, sunny day. I let my eyes linger, carried by the soft Yanni song my iPod on shuffle decided to play this right moment. I admire the lilac tree that's in full bloom right now. It makes me smile.




That's when I notice it. The butterfly. This lilac tree is pretty enough (and fragrant enough, these days), but a butterfly? I cannot resist. I grab my camera and step outside. 

(As usual, you can click on any of the photos to enlarge it.)

Standing on the porch, I try a picture.

That's when I notice them. The "contaminants". The elements that pollute what I thought would be a perfect picture (framed by my office window, it did look perfect). My camera is blunt and ruthless: impossible to catch the pretty lilac tree and its butterfly without also getting the mulch bags, the compost bin, and the kids' hockey net. Now I'm frustrated. I wanted a nice picture!




My disappointment doesn't last long. Because... what I'm looking at right now... isn't it the picture... of my life? Mostly pretty and fragrant and luminous and joyful... but definitely not perfect. There are elements in the background that are not pleasant to the eye, but... they are there for a reason. The road to happiness implies that I either get rid of those elements (if they have no good reason of being there or have a negative impact on my life), or... that I simply embrace them with serenity.


Can you think of such elements in your life right now? 


Do you know which ones fully belong in the picture, and which ones you should get rid of?


How do you feel about it?

What do you DO about it?


Do you also give yourself the right, once in a while, for the sake of your well-being, to zoom in and focus on the beautiful parts only?


This is what I did, for a short moment, this morning:



Zoom into the beauty


Zoom in some more

Zooming in allowed me to notice something I hadn't seen. There was not one butterfly, but two! I tried to take a picture of both at the same time, but they kept flying in different directions; clearly this couple has no codependency issues!





What does this butterfly in the lilac story evoke for you today?

A change in the angle of the camera...
just like a change of point of view...
... yields a completely different image.
Do you tend to notice the mulch bags
and compost bins in your life...
... or do you turn around and enjoy the beauty?


P.-S.: Even this post is imperfect. As much as I try, the font won't uniformize. I'm not wasting any more time on this detail. I embrace imperfection!




Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Do what works for you

We need to be willing to climb the steps to a healthy lifestyle.
Lawrencetown Beach, NS, 2013.


Note to the reader: I am not a nutritionist, dietitian or doctor; if those "food matters" interest you, please seek professional advice, especially before you make any drastic changes to your diet. This post is a "relatively informed" personal essay, nothing more, nothing less.

This is a post I've wanted to write for quite a while, and this week, a post by fellow blogger Norma gave me the kick in the but* I needed!

When it comes to food and exercise, and if we ignore fad diets - which is most of them out there - sorry pals! - and focus instead on serious research, there are still all kinds of "rules" to follow.

For example:

  • You shall imperatively have breakfast
  • You shall not eat late in the evening
  • You shall eat every 3 hours
  • You shall not make any specific food a taboo
  • You shall drink at least 2 liters of water every day
  • You shall work out early in the day
  • Etc.


Do my homemade chocolate-raspberry mini-muffins
follow the rules?
I couldn't care less! They are ugly... but delicious, and small!
Having one is fine. As they say: all in moderation!

Some of those rules really do make sense. Any other come to mind? (Remember: we're not talking about the 800-calorie or 20 grams of carbs per day type of diets, but of replicated, serious, research results!)

Some of the sensible recommendations from the point form list above stem from studies that have shown how those strategies yield better results in terms of health, fitness and weight loss/weight maintenance.

However, I keep hearing conflicting evidence from a variety of fit/slim people. Some skip breakfast. Some only have 2 (big) meals a day. Some have not eaten ice cream in more than 10 years (what kind of superpower do they have?!?) And yet the results are there, convincing, and durable: a strong, lean, fit body (and a happy camper).

Who holds the truth?

For someone who's starting from square one, I do think it's wise to follow serious research-based recommendations. However, if you're already doing good with your health and fitness results, and feel that a little exception to the rules might work better for you, I say why not! As long as it's done with intelligence and not as an excuse to fall back into bad habits.

I, for example, have never been able to eliminate my evening snack. When I did I would wake up hungry, stomach growling and all, at 3 am! I eventually figured it would be much wiser to have my yogurt and almonds at 9:30 pm than in the middle of the night!

Among my friends, I also seem to be the only one person who needs to eat as soon as she gets up, even if it's 5 am and I'm going for a run (needless to say, I eat something light and small in those instances).

When I listen to my hunger throughout the day, I usually end up consuming most of my calories around 10:30 am. Talk about weird meal timing.

Lastly, I do half of my exercising in the evening because that's convenient for me, and because I'm full of energy at that time. Plus, I've noticed that being away from home during those "dangerous hours" helps me keep my eating clean!

I broke another rule when I spent about a year as a vegetarian, and probably did not pay enough attention to my iron intake (I'm lazy that way). I mostly looked at getting my B complex vitamins (from food sources, not pills), because I had read this could be an issue. Well, when I got tested after a year, my hemoglobin levels were still superb (which had always been the case - it just hadn't changed). I hear this is unusual, and my mindless approach wasn't very smart, so please use caution, but it just goes to show that what applies to most doesn't necessarily apply to all.

When we think of eating healthy, no matter what we do, the trick is to make each bite count, and to make sure caloric input/output ratio is balanced (that's often harder than it sounds!)

Eating out of hunger (as opposed to other unfulfilled needs), ingesting mostly nutritious foods, and having small portions, accompanied by a lot of water and regular exercise, is simple enough... but it works! (Your blood type has nothing to do with it!) If only we were committed enough to stick to it a good 90% of the time...

Now if you like to make your own rules, why not make healthy ones? One of mine is to include vegetables at all 6 meals of the day, including breakfast. But who really feels like having veggies in the morning?


Colorful enough... but really? At 7 in the morning?

It's easy if you have a juicer (or even a good blender). Veggie smoothies are an easy way to significantly increase the amount of greens, reds and oranges you get. I started with mixing a little bit of vegetables with fruit, milk and protein powder, but now the vegetables make about 50% of any given smoothie. Example:


Today's smoothie: romaine lettuce, tomato, red and yellow
bell pepper, watermelon, Greek yogurt,
(a tiny bit of) mandarin yogurt, protein powder,
skim milk, water. Result: surprisingly good!

Other vegetables that mix really well without adding a weird taste:

- zucchini
- cucumber
- Chinese bok choy
- carrot
- avocado
- (a little bit of) celery

To cover the occasional bitter taste, the best fruits are banana, watermelon or pineapple. Otherwise, berries are wonderful!

And now here's an example of a meal that would be nutritious and filling:


Nutrients + volume - calories = this plate!
Sauteed bok choy and kale (with a little bit of olive oil,
fresh garlic and salt), with a turkey breast. Yum.
I lost the weight I wanted to lose by eating that kind of stuff!

(Total contents: about 1 cup)

Other example of a meal (notice the small portions):
Indian butter chicken, eggplant ratatouille with chickpeas, 

and mashed sweet potatoes-turnip-eddoe with skim milk 
and a little bit of coconut oil and turmeric. Yum again!

Now, don't ruin your good meal planning by adding unhealthy + caloric drinks, desserts and snacks!

In the end, we got to remember one thing: you get from it what you put in it. Small changes in behavior will bring about small changes in outcome. Luckily, those changes can add up, and you can build a lot from baby steps. What are you starting today?

Off to the bus stop to get the kids!








Sunday, June 16, 2013

Of fathers, music, and healing

Senegal, circa 1985


I don't quite know how to begin this post, so I'll just state the facts: twelve years ago, my father passed away.

It happened suddenly and was a total shock for everyone (him included I'm sure).

The first few days after his passing are a blur. A blur figuratively because everything seemed so unreal. A blur literally because my eyes were so full of tears I couldn't see a thing.

Afterwards I loosely followed Kübler-Ross's stages of grief

Denial
Anger
Bargaining
Depression 
Acceptance

I might have skipped the anger stage for a while. My explanation to that is that I've never been an angry kind of person. Anger did catch up with me, but much later. The first time I really got angry was when I realized that my dad would not be there to walk me down the aisle. The second (and third) time was when I had my children and realized they would never get to meet him, and he them.

In the meantime, I had done my best to cope. This might not be something people want to hear (or believe) in the beginning, but time does make things easier. Life goes on, and eventually you realize that you haven't thought about the deceased person for a full hour, then a full day, then - sometimes - a full week. 

It's a very gradual process, and the grief does not only imply dealing with the person's death; it also implies dealing with disillusion. I was only 24 when dad passed away, and my life had been relatively easy up to then. For dad, a healthy guy, to suddenly collapse and never get back up was a slap in the face of my optimism and ingenuousness. I knew bad stuff happens, but I still felt it only happened to others. It took me a while to trust life again.

In the face of all that emotional turmoil, three things were a savior.

1) Good friends

We were lucky enough to be surrounded by good friends, who offered a comforting presence. The first few days, some of them cooked for us and delivered the food at my mom's house. Had it not been for that, I don't think I would have eaten a thing. A friend also brought us the book "A Grief Observed", which inspired the next savior, namely:

2) Writing

How do you get rid of the overwhelming emotion grief brings about? For me, writing was the outlet. I wrote "to my dad" every single day for several weeks (if not several months). One of these first "letters" served as a catharsis for someone else who had been unable to cry, but who did after reading said letter. That letter made its way into the coffin, rolled and tied with a discrete ribbon.

3) Music

I realized soon enough that as hard as it was to listen to sad music, it did help relieve the pain. Oh, how I cried on this in the first week:




A few weeks later, as much as I tried to hold on to it, dad's image and voice were already losing their clarity in my mind. On the other hand, I regularly felt his presence right next to me. Then I heard this song on the radio, and it got me going again:




Some lyrics, translated:

I can still see you when you're not there

You words are harder and harder to hear
Now that wings are growing on your back

You can fly

You can go 
You can die

Still a little bit later, I heard this other song on the radio, and it literally talked to me (it felt like it was dad whispering in my ear!) This time, it did not make me cry; it was somewhat comforting instead.





Some lyrics, translated:
If you think that I'm afraid
That's wrong
I sent my heart on a leave
A bit of rest


If you think that I was wrong
Wait
Pretend that I've just conquered the sea
I've hoisted the large sail
And I'm gliding on the wind
Pretend that I've just took off the ground
I've found my star
I followed it for a moment
With the wind



And if you think this is the end
Never
It's just a break, a bit of respite
After all the dangers
And if you think that I forgot you
Listen
Open your heart to the winds of the night
Close your eyes

After 12 years (almost 13 now), even if there are occasional setbacks, acceptance has been reached, and what remains are the good memories. 

Memories of camping, hiking, traveling, playing tennis, skiing, swimming, dancing (dad showed me cha-cha-cha and rumba in the kitchen!), but most of all, memories of talking, talking and talking (and of course laughing). Some of the most interesting conversations I've had in my life were with dad.

Dad showed me how to start a fire, how to do self-defense (he did karate and judo), how to meditate, how to do a proper Sun Salutation. He taught me more things than I can list.

Dad showed me deadpan humour. Once, receiving a call from some company that wanted to sell him something, and being asked if he owned a house (which he did), he replied "Unfortunately, no. But I really want to. I'm saving $5 a week towards that."

To another similar call, when asked "How are you today, sir?", he said "Oh, not so good actually. I just lost my job. Then I got in a fight with my wife and she left, slamming the door. Then the dog bit me. Plus, I'm suspecting my daughter might be on hard drugs - that is, if she's not pregnant (Overhearing that made me jump out of my chair as I was a super  well-behaved teenager!!!) And I've been having those weird symptoms... maybe if I list them to you you'll be able to tell me what it could be?"

Yes, dad really abhorred "colportage calls".

Dad was not afraid of self-derision, either. He was blessed with both seasonal allergies and a bigger than average nose. Blowing his nose forcefully into a Man Size tissue, he once announced to his class (of 18-20 year old math students): "Big noses are beautiful, but they need a lot of maintenance!"

Later on, as I was in college myself, another guy who was in my dad's class got a crush on me at some point. Afraid of nothing, this young man would hand my dad love letters intended for me, so that dad could be the messenger. Dad loved it!

More importantly, dad made me feel like I was a pure gem, the most wonderful girl in the world. (All dads should do the same with their daughters!)

Tonight, one of our favorite movies (Top Gun), that we watched together a couple of times, played on TV. I watched it for both of us.

If you still have your dad, cherish him!


Dads: the next generation



Friday, June 14, 2013

Stop! Look at your life

http://www.freedigitalphotos.net


It's Friday, it's raining, I'm listening to Sonata Pathétique by Beethoven, comparing it with Mozart's piano sonata #14 (K457), and trying at the same time to get R' recital piece (Haydn's Surprise Symphony) out of my head - not that I don't like it, and she played it wonderfully... but I've been listening to her practice for weeks and need a change!

But mostly I am reflecting on my life.

A few different readings stimulated this contemplative state of mind.

FIRST, I received a magazine containing two articles that caught my attention: one about ambition and career (depicting women who have achieved a lot in their respective field), and one about a couple who decided to sell everything and live on the road for a few years with their 4 children. Those marginal life choices are appealing enough that I sometimes ponder them seriously, yet I still haven't made a move toward them. Why is the question. Is it too scary? Does it involve too many sacrifices? Or is it simply not truly my cup of tea?

Maybe I just don't "feel like it" quite enough. 'Cause when you really feel like it, you make it happen no matter what... right?

Sometimes it occurs to me that "I don't feel like it" is a perfectly acceptable reason for not doing something. There are two unavoidable things in life: death, and income tax. As much as some of us entertain the opposite illusion... we do have control over pretty much everything else (maybe with the exception of disease unexplained by controllable risk factors).

Are there things you wish you would accomplish yet do not make any crucial step toward? What is the explanation to your lethargy, you think? The true, profound explanation?

http://www.freedigitalphotos.net


About ambition in particular. We live in a competitive society, and are driven by the American Dream: you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. Empowering thought for sure. The second part of this American dream motto, however, cannot be overlooked: you can accomplish anything you set your mind to... if you're willing to put the effort and endure the necessary sacrifices. The actual amount of effort and sacrifice that's needed depends on a variety of factors including natural abilities (but of course the idea that we might not all have the same natural abilities to start with has become unpolitically correct). In any case, there isn't much more to it: ambition is great... as long as your goals are realistic, i.e. they can be achieved with a level of effort and sacrifice that are acceptable in your eyes (this obviously varies from person to person).

D and I have talked about this before: it seems like we've both gone from youthful ambition to "old age" detachment (that's a state of mind, not a number!) without passing Go and collecting $200! We work reasonably hard, but to us, a job is not everything, and prestige and money should be put back in their place. They are alluring, of course, but nothing more than an illusion of happiness. If one manages to gain prestige and money naturally with a reasonable effort, great! But striving for them at the expense of everything else is senseless. I am always impressed with D's attitude toward it all: despite carrying Dr. before his name and a couple other letters after (and despite doing an important job), he is extremely humble, never boasts, and more importantly makes sure his job never gets in the way of his other priorities in life.

As for me, my personal relationship with ambition and accomplishments is the following: I do not want to be an underachiever, and so I make sure I set challenges for myself and put my abilities to a good use. Hopefully, I will end up making a - small - difference in the world, in my own, personal way. I do not want, however, to be an overachiever either, i.e. live for performance only, and put myself in situations that significantly exceed my "level of incompetence" (see Peter Principle). I've been in those waters. It's NOT a good place to be.

The line between underachieving and overachieving is thin and blurry. Have you found where that line lies for you?

SECOND, I read about a fellow blogger's questioning; one of her mantras, these days, is "I am enough". The premise behind this is that we should be content with who we are (and, in her case, with what we look like). Simple concept, yet so difficult to achieve. 

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Is it even possible to feel that we are enough when everything screams at us that we could be better? Leafing through the aforementioned magazine, I was appalled by all the "picture-perfect" ads (or, should I say, "Photoshop-perfect"). This is but one example. We are constantly bombarded with images of perfection. Whether we feel pressure to "perform" at home, at work or anywhere else... it does not leave much room for "I am content to be alive and breathing fresh air", does it?

I am not making an apology of laziness; in fact, I believe we should regularly ask ourselves if we are doing our best (and, ideally, ask ourselves if we are making a change for the better in this imperfect world). But chronic dissatisfaction with oneself is counterproductive at best.

Do you think you are enough?

THIRD, I stumbled upon Le Blog d'un Condamné (in French), written by a 58-year old man who has been given 30 days to live (he's at day -20 today), and who in turn decided to write about his metaphysical qualms and reflections. Being confronted to his ultimate deadline, he puts on the page what all of us should start thinking about long before we face the final stretch: what is the meaning of life? Corollary question: what's important in life?

Have you ever taken the time to seriously ask yourself those questions?

One of the things that the "condamné", who used to be a senior engineer at the top of some prestigious firm, states, is that career, in the end, is meaningless.

I'm not completely sure about that, since a career, when well-chosen, can be a wonderful source of stimulation and exciting challenges. Contributing your time, energy, talent and training to others who need it, whatever the field (and making money from it), certainly has nothing wrong to it.

However, this statement struck a chord with me as I often reflect on the place our job should occupy in our life. From the mommy point of view, there is just no way to reconcile a great career with a balanced family life (most of my friends who are moms strive to work part-time despite their admirable credentials). I used to feel ambivalent and guilty about the whole concept, until I read this article entitled Why Women Still Can't Have it All. (I highly recommend it if this is a topic you're interested in.)

When pondering how much importance your career should take in your life, I suggest you try and rank your priorities. I, for example, want to keep my body and my mind (and those of my family) healthy. It's all about balance. I exercise for an average of 1 hour every day. I probably spend as much time prepping and cooking healthy foods (veggies, veggies, more veggies!) There, 2 hours a day just disappeared! Not to mention the time I spend taking my kids to their activities (even if they don't have that many compared to other kids we know!), and the time we spend talking, reading and playing together. On top of my job, I also, you might have noticed, write a blog, which is my creative and incredibly rewarding hobby (I believe all of us should have one). I walk my dog. I spend time with people I love (or write or talk on the phone) on a regular basis. I volunteer (giving some of your time to the community is also something I believe in). I sleep my 7 hours a night. Last but not least, I refuse to be overly stressed. How do you combine all that with a big career, I don't know.

I have known mothers with what you would call a big career. They were completely over-stressed and exhausted. One decided to quit and adopt a simpler way of life with a job that doesn't pay half as much as the one she previously had. When asked about it, she says without any hesitation that she would never go back.

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The only real motivation I have to work hard is my desire (need?) to travel to my heart's content, taking my kids along. Traveling was one of the best gifts I received from my parents, and it's true that it broadens the mind.

Do you have one thing you are willing to work harder and make sacrifices for? What's on your "worth the effort and sacrifice bucket list"?

Even if I sometimes question my choices, I am very aware that if I had made different ones (e.g. emphasizing the career at the cost of the rest), I would question myself just as much. There's just no way you can have your cake and eat it (without suffering an indigestion anyways!)

If you're feeling like you're not quite enough, or simply at the end of your rope... before you sit down and get started on your "life priorities list", may I suggest you listen to some soothing music?




'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

The French do it better

Paris, 2012

Putting together my "musical trilogy" has been even more fun than I had expected. Mom, (whose fault it is, after all) happily got involved and sent me comments and suggestions. We "talked" about music endlessly through email. 

The kids got involved too. You would be surprised at children's enthusiasm for opera! It's easy with R, who since she learned she shares a birth date with Mozart, has been passionate about him. Eventually she realized that not all classical music was composed by him, and other "big names" have made their way to her heart (Tchaikovsky among others). A, on the other hand, is my skeptical child, the one who always wants things justified and explained: her main interest for the longest time has been to discover why Beethoven always looks so pis*ed off (we have a bust of him on the piano). Not the kind to give anything for free, she grimaced while listening to Pavarotti, and said to me: "Mom, you sing better than this guy". I would take it as a compliment if it wasn't for the fact that I'm not quite sure how a (powerful, incredible) tenor voice can be compared to an (amateur, untrained) mezzo-soprano one!


R got to visit Mozart's birthplace
when we traveled to Austria in 2009

As it is usually the case with music, I got carried away this week (sorry for those of you I am exhausting!), and a trilogy apparently wasn't enough. So here we are again, this time for a little French opera add-on.


I had the pleasure of teaching French as a second language to adult students for a couple of years before translation became my main occupation. I absolutely LOVED teaching. I love the act of teaching in general (it's in my blood I think!), and the specifics of teaching a language in particular. Language classes encompass so much more than just the language! They involve working on communication skills and learning about a whole new culture. See for yourself! (I love this video as it features a Vizsla, the same breed of dog we have!)




One of my priorities when teaching French was to embed the learning in realistic situations as much as possible, or to call upon my students' passions. 

Once every semester, there was a weekend long "mini-immersion" for which all teachers got to organize talks on the topics of their choice; students simply picked the ones they wanted to attend. We could talk about anything, as long as it was done in French and actively involved the participants. For example, I once held a "French yoga class". I also organized a game of "French trivial pursuit". Hours of fun! 

But one of my favorite talks has to be the one I did about French opera. The participants got to listen to numerous excerpts and "fill in the blanks" on partial lyric sheets I gave them. They were also invited to comment (in French) on their impressions about the music, a strategy to help them build their vocabulary and improve their sentence construction. Many students were surprised to learn that some of the songs they knew were in French: they had never noticed! We had a great evening.

Let me have the pleasure to share with you the beautiful excerpts of French "art lyrique" I shared with my students back then. I have arranged them by composer, then by opera. Enjoy! (And don't forget to leave a comment!)

Georges Bizet 
(1838-1875)

Bizet is one of the first opera composers I discovered (thanks to mom) in childhood. He has a special place in my heart for that reason. His well-known opera is CARMEN. It's inspired from the eponymous short story by Prosper Mérimée. 

L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (Habanera) (Act I)

We are in Sevilla, where Carmen tells her admirers that she might love them... one day! According to the song, love is unpredictable like a rebellious bird, and the man Carmen will love should be cautious!




Votre toast (Chanson du toréador) (Act II)

Escamillo, the famous toreador, arrives with a crowd of fans. They have a toast to his most recent successes.  Carmen and her friends are impressed by his bravery.




La fleur que tu m’avais jetée (Act III)

Don José declares his love to Carmen, telling her he kept the flower she gave him while he was in prison. 





LES PÊCHEURS DE PERLES, another opera by Bizet

Au fond du temple saint (Act I)

Zurga, chief of the pearl divers, and his friend Nadir reminisce on how they both fell in love with Leila, a beautiful Brahman priestess. The men have promised to each other that their friendship was more important than this love rivalry. Here is a powerful duo one can hear in the movie Gallipoli.





Léo Delibes (1836-1891)

LAKMÉ

Viens, Malika (Flower Duet) (Act I)

This exotic opera features the clandestine love affair between a British officer and Lakmé, daughter of a fanatic Brahman priest. Lakmé and her friend Mallika are about to bathe in the temple garden's stream. Their song is inspired by the water, the flowers and the birds. This melody has been used by British Airways; one can also hear it in the movie True Romance.





Charles Gounod (1818-1893)
 
His opera FAUST is based on the tragic play by Goethe. Marguerite is seduced by Faust after he sold his soul to the devil.

Tintinophiles will recognize this aria!










ROMÉO ET JULIETTE

Based on the eponymous masterpiece by Shakespeare!




Jules Massenet
 (1842-1912)

WERTHER

Toute mon âme est là! Pourquoi me réveiller? (Act III)

Werther, the melancholic, falls for Charlotte, but she marries another man to keep her promise to her mother.  Werther reads a poem and finds that the words are the perfect expression of his despair. This opera is based on Goethe's novel,  Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther).




Jacques Offenbach  (1819-1880)

LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN

Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour (Barcarolle) (Act II)

This opera is a collection of stories retelling how the poet, Hoffmann, loses each of the four women he loves, and eventually gives in to alcohol and poetry. One of the stories takes place in Venice. It's a full moon night on the lagoon. This song can be heard in the movie La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful).






LA PÉRICHOLE

This is an "opéra bouffe", meaning it contains comedy, satire and parody. La Périchole is about to get married and everyone gets a little too enthusiastic with wine! One of the best, most colorful description of the  - fun - effects of alcohol!






Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921)

SAMSON ET DALILA

Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix (Act II)

Samson, Hebrew slave to the Philistines, knows he has to resist Dalila, but his determination escapes him when he hears this sensual love song. He allows Dalila to discover the secret of his strength: his hair. She cuts it, taking all his power away from him.






There's a composer/opera that I hadn't evoked during my "French opera conference", that mom now suggested I should add... and I said why not? Plus, this is a wonderful performance by The Legend!


Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)

LA FILLE DU RÉGIMENT





And to finish, proof that opera does make it into mainstream media, take a look at this commercial.

So, did you recognize anything? Any favorite?