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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Less is More project: Week 0 - First impressions

MacLauren70, Flickr



January is upon us. I feel similar to when I stand behind the start line on race day: a little nervous. (What did I get myself into? Am I ready for this?) But mostly excited. Only one week of "challenge prep" and I'm already becoming aware of all the things I had been taking for granted.

Which takes me to one of my current preoccupations: privilege. It only took reading a handful of articles on minimalism/frugality/simplicity to realize that making the decision to not spend is actually a privilege. As Meg Hourihan, another proponent of buying less, put it nicely:  “I’m not comfortable with how easily I spend money and buy things on impulse, simply because I have the luxury to do so." 

Voluntary simplicity: the term says it. It's a choice.

If I wanted to, I could go shopping. (Plus, the bank just offered to increase my credit card limit. How ironic.) I have not been coerced into buying only the essential. At no point have I (and will I, unless something goes awfully wrong) worried that my children would not have enough to eat, or that I would not be able to make ends meet. I fully appreciate that. 

As soon as you evoke the benefits of a simpler life, such as working less in order to focus on what really matters (spending quality time with loved ones, reading, meditating, spending time in nature, exercising, etc.), you add another layer of privilege. I never want to forget that some people simply do not have that option:

"People at the bottom of the social ladder are pressed for time not to go earn high incomes but to juggle all the different balls they have to keep in the air at the same time (child care, commute, lack of health insurance and physical safety), to barely keep afloat on low incomes. The kind of consumption that [minimalists] say we can do without is that of those who are already privileged." (source: The Global Sociology Blog)

I am worried about that "privileged brat" side of myself. Is it going to pop out unexpectedly? Come the middle of the year, am I going to whine about the fact that I haven't been able to drink a decent wine for the past 6 months? If you catch me talking like that, kindly guide me back onto my path, will you?


WEEK 0 IN REVIEW

Temptations 


1) The ever-tempting pharmacy


As part of my plan to replace some personal hygiene products with a homemade alternative, I went to the pharmacy to do what I envisioned would be my last purchase of the year: a small bottle of lavender essential oil (I will explain in a later post what this is for). Even if it wasn't January yet, I was on a mission to not buy anything else. I figured it would be good practice. I also thought it would be easy. I was mistaken: pharmacies are filled with temptations! There's all the cosmetics, nice soaps and lotions of course (not that I need any). There's the food aisle (chocolates, anyone?) And worst of the worst, there's the Sales section. Oh god. I fell for one thing. I bought mascara (even if I still have some - maybe I got scared it's not a true need, and unconsciously wanted to stock up). Then I quickly rushed out of the pharmacy before something else caught my eye!

2) So much bling

I had to take my watch for a battery replacement. I figured I would be in and out the jewelry store. I had not occurred to me that this store sells Pandora charms. I happen to have a Pandora bracelet. I started browsing the selection. Luckily for me, the salesperson was really not helpful - may I say she was borderline unpleasant? (I know, I know, this is a stressful period for salespeople.) In any case, it kind of turned me off. I left the store with nothing new except that battery in my watch, as planned. Pandora charms hardly qualify as a need!

3) Sports fans beware

Ever the basketball enthusiasts, we went to see a game. Afterwards, I caught myself browsing the Rainmen t-shirts. Some were nice. The price was reasonable: taking $20 out of my wallet surely wouldn't make a huge difference in the long run. And I do want to support the team. Slight detail though: I definitely do not need any more t-shirts!!! I walked away. 

4) Free... until proven otherwise

As a nice, free activity for the whole family, we visited the new central library in Halifax. Once we were there, though, I remembered the Lululemon store right across the corner, and also felt tempted to go to a restaurant afterwards. But those thoughts only briefly crossed my mind: I busied myself with finding books, and when we were done, we went back home and made homemade pizza instead! (which was delicious, by the way) 


5) Accidents happen

One of my favorite pairs of pants ripped beyond repair. I had to throw them away. In "normal times", I would probably have gone shopping to find a similar pair as a replacement (I liked them a lot). But I won't, because I don't need any more pants than I already have. 

6) Gifts

My friend S offered me a shoe rack. Free stuff is hard to resist, but I said no, thank you. I did accept, however, the ruled paper and erasers she handed me: they will go toward next year's school supplies. I hope I did not violate a rule by taking those.

Money saved this week: between clothes, jewelry and other random items... more than I'm willing to admit. Luckily I don't hang out in those places on a regular basis.


Donations


A few times a year, I fill a bag of clothes and donate it to some charity (or friends with younger kids who appreciate hand-me-downs). In the past 2 years, prompted by some books I read as well as by a basement flood, I also got rid of a lot more things, e.g. baby gear/toys, duplicate kitchen supplies, some furniture. Whatever's left right now are things I have a harder time parting with, so this should be interesting. To be completely honest, however, there are things in this house that we took with us (a 1500 km trip) when we moved to Nova Scotia, 7½ years ago... that haven't been used once.  I think it's time to say farewell. Apart from a few baby sweaters that my grandmother knitted, that fit into one small box, and that I want my grandchildren to inherit, what else should I keep if it's not currently being used? Nothing!

In the past 2 weeks, I donated:

  • kitchen supplies (a variety of containers, a tea infuser, some towels/place mats/oven mitts)
  • recipe books
  • an iron
  • some clothes (including workout clothes - I could train every day in different ones and not have to do laundry for 2 weeks!)

Good riddance - the things that are in too bad a shape to even be donated: I got rid of children's footwear: 2 pairs of sneakers, 1 pair of boots, 1 pair of sandals and 1 pair of water shoes. I also got rid of the abovementioned ripped pants.


Observations

I realized that:

  • I own eight different tubs of lip balm: 2 in my bedroom, 2 in my office, and 4 in my purse. How on earth did that happen? Lip balms are an easy buy because they are not expensive. This year I will make sure I use them all before I buy any other.
  • I own four bottles of facial moisturizer, and as many of body lotion. In case you were wondering, no, my skin is not that dry. From now on I will wait until they are all empty before buying any more.
  • My kids are the only kids I know who did not receive any electronics for Christmas. 
  • I cannot afford to gain an ounce this year, lest I have to buy clothes in bigger sizes. 


Cogitations

I'm about to run out of chai tea. Is chai tea a need? I only have 1 pouch left. Will I have to assemble my own chai tea from now on?



What did you resist this week? Did you donate or get rid of anything? How did that make you feel? Please comment below! And...


Happy New Year to all! 



Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Less is More Project: Week 00 - Setting the stage

JSM


"People buy things they don't need, with money they don't have, to impress people they don't like."   (Clive Hamilton)


I am choosing this ultimate celebration of consumerism, Boxing Day, to launch the Less is More Project.

This is not a new fad, but rather a new step toward a life of mindfulness. For a few years now I have had a desire to let go of the material sphere and to take my distance from the ubiquitous consumerist tendencies, for reasons that range from saving the planet to saving my wallet, but mostly because it fits my quest for well-being. You see, I have noticed that the least I own, the lighter I feel. That every time I get rid of something, I acquire freedom. That past the initial high of acquiring stuff lies a much less exciting feeling, of the blasé type: once you've owned something for a little while, you become so accustomed to it that you don't even notice it anymore, let alone derive pleasure from it. What's more, what you are left with is less money in your account (that you could have used for other, more meaningful things) and more clutter in and around your house. Some people even sacrifice free time on the altar of consumerism, as they work longer hours in order to afford the stuff they buy. If those are the rules of the game, I don't want to follow them. More and more, I feel like I don't want to play the game altogether.

This mindset makes me feel a teeny bit like a fringe element of society. After all, that consumerist frensy seems to afflict all socioeconomic groups, with the exception maybe of the ones that struggle the most. Depending on our means (and often regardless of our means), most of us end up buying things we don't need, just because we like them, because the price is good, because the act of purchasing in itself gives us a high... or to keep up with the Joneses. Luckily, there is a growing trend to go back to the basics. It's called minimalism, or frugal living, or voluntary simplicity. Numerous people want to extricate themselves from the nonsense of consumerism. I want to be part of that group. I have already experimented with simplicity, and it has never failed to provide me with a great sense of freedom and meaningfulness. I want to take this further. I am curious to see how far I can go, and what good it will do me.

I also want to share about my experience. The discoveries. The ups and downs. The struggles and challenges, my strategies to overcome them, my successes... and my failures. This blog will be an open book on the whole process. In addition to narrating my Less is More Project, I will retell my past encounters with simplicity. I will include the stories of other people who are making the choice of frugal living. I will share my readings. I will tackle some related - and sometimes hot - topics. I might even explore some frugal, environmentally-friendly alternatives to some of the products we think we cannot live without!

What this project is:

Beginning on January 1, 2015 and ending on December 31, 2015, I will not buy anything unless it answers a true need¸ such as basic groceries (I will have to determine along the way what exactly that encompasses), sunscreen, school supplies and seasonal clothes for the kids as they outgrow them - new winter boots, for example.

I am not expecting to personally need any of the following during the year to come: clothes, accessories, books, music, wine, games, sport equipment, household furnishings big and small, electronics, gadgets, etc. I might want them, but not need them, and that's precisely the point! No need, no buy.

Gifts are still in the air: how am I going to manage loved ones' birthdays, the traditional end-of-year gift to the teachers, etc? Especially given the fact that I do not enjoy making or baking things? We will see as we go.

I will also keep track of the things I get rid of, just to see how much stuff I still owned (after donating a lot already in the past two years) that I did not need. 

I will be as honest and well-intentioned as I can throughout this project, e.g. I will not try and make excuses.

What this project is not:

This is not a hardcore homesteading project. I am not ready yet for a self-sufficient, off the grid existence, therefore I will keep buying most of the food we consume. However, I will try and be creative with replacing cosmetics, hygiene and household products with a homemade, simple and clean alternative. I have already been going in that direction, so the idea will be to switch almost entirely to those alternatives as the year goes by.

This is not about obtaining for free the things I want no matter what. This is about not acquiring those things in the first place, and being okay with it. 

I have been asked if I would renounce luxuries such as professional hairdressing, my gym membership and eating out - after all, none of those fulfills an actual need. For now, however, I want to focus on actual things that I might have bought, as opposed to services. I also value experiences (such as concerts and traveling) much more than objects. That being said, my use of bars, cafes and restaurants will remain very occasional, and I will question my use of other services and entertainment publicly on this blog.

I will not sell everything and move into a tree house or a sailboat... not yet, anyway. Given the fact that we live in the countryside and that D commutes to work downtown, I will also not get rid of the car.

If the house or car require maintenance, I will make sure it gets done. However, there will be no upgrades or renovations.

I will not do an inventory of what I already own before the project starts, and I will not go and stockpile either (something that was reproached to Judith Levine after she published Not Buying It - My Year Without Shopping). I want this project to be the most genuine as possible. Apart from writing this post, I will do absolutely nothing unusual in preparation for the start of the project.

The goal:

The main goal is not to save money (although that will most certainly be a positive side-effect), but mostly to discover how little I actually need, and the true reasons why we consume.

Your participation: 

You are more than welcome to participate in the project in your own unique way! Let's all start where we are, and get where we can. Please share your questions, anecdotes, insights and suggestions in the comments. 

To ensure you will not miss a post, become a Follower (top left corner of the page). 

You can also follow me on Facebook: 
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To subscribe by email, write to mleuxj@gmail.com

I cannot wait to read your input!





Saturday, December 13, 2014

The ambition dilemma

Horia Varlan, Flickr



I was recently reading this post by fellow blogger Joshua Becker at Becoming Minimalist.

It is about the ambitions you have as a young adult, that will or will not materialize themselves by the time you hit midlife.

It is a topic that speaks to me as I approach (two years from now) my forties: have I accomplished, or am I in the way of accomplishing, what I really wanted in life?

Becker talks about choosing between career paths, some that will bring fame, prestige and money, some that will provide other types of - mostly non-material - benefits. I read his post early morning yesterday, sipping on my coffee, and it is still resonating with me so much I had to write about it.

As a young(er) woman, I had big dreams. And a way to achieve them. I started by attending one of the most prestigious universities in the world (arguably the best in the country - depending on the year and the faculty you look at).

On the way to - ahem! - stardom, a couple things happened.

I could blame it on the children, and it would not be entirely false - becoming a mother did have an impact on the order I put my priorities in - but it wasn't all of it.

With adult life, and the help of experience, readings, discussions with other, older, wiser adults, and pure and simple introspection, I realized that there are some things I value highly that kind of get in the way of a BIG career. Notably the following:


  • Contemplation is important to me - and by contemplation I mean all things ranging from petting a cat absentmindedly and daydreaming to taking a quiet stroll in nature. Meditation fits in that category, too. I do not do well if I don't have some alone time to indulge in those contemplative activities on a daily basis. Maybe my previous life was spent in some monastery? I used to feel somewhat guilty about my contemplative predispositions, until my favorite aunt, M, told me how central it is to her life.
  • Balance is very important to me - I cannot bear the idea of not having enough time to sleep full nights, to eat healthy meals, to exercise, to write, to read a book, to relax with loved ones. Those things are sacred to me. I am lucky enough to have the choice, and I won't waste it by neglecting what matters. 
  • Stress is okay... in small doses. I function really well under pressure, be it in the form of tight deadlines (crazy translation industry!) or in the form of undisciplined students. It does not affect me too, too much. I rarely become overwhelmed. BUT. I need time to recharge my batteries on a regular basis. I am no Energizer Bunny. I cannot go-go-go. I need breaks. Peacefulness is both underrated and underrepresented in our society. In my life, it occupies a special place. 
  • I question the real motives behind ambition. Do we have ambition because we aspire to something, or do we have ambition because we want to get rid of something (e.g. feelings of inadequacy, of not being enough, of lacking value?) The former is a great motor. The latter... not so much. Before I go "on a quest", I examine my true motives.
  • I cannot fathom taking advantage of others to advance my own career.
  • I'm willing to set the bar lower and to sacrifice some sense of accomplishment and material luxury if it means that all of the above criteria will be met. My family's and my own well-being makes it all worth it.


Instead of single-mindedly following the path to "as much fame, prestige and money I can get", I have made each life and career choice mindfully. I started small and slow. Back in the day, my main drive was to remain the main caregiver for my own children. Gradually, I instilled more time and energy into my career, but always with the bigger picture in mind. It's easy to get carried away, especially with a start-up business, and I sometimes got caught up in the excitement: there were moments when I took too much on my shoulders, and was rewarded with "economic growth" (i.e. money) and renowned clients (i.e. big companies), but soon realized other areas of my life were suffering. I had to learn the fine art of keeping everything afloat and balanced.

Keeping my business on the smaller side not only helps me maintain balance, it also allows me to indulge in other things I cherish, namely, working with people. I teach French "on the side". I give talks and workshops. I write. Without being specific with the numbers, let's just say teaching pays significantly less than translating professionally. As for the talks and workshops and writing gigs, they are occasional at best, and do not yield a significant income - yet. Still, I hold on to those activities for dear life - because they make me feel alive, precisely. As much I enjoy (greatly!) my work in the translation business, I cannot fail to notice that:


  • Translation does not exclaim, when I walk into a room, "Yay! You're here!"
  • Translation does not chat with me and ask for my input on important, sometimes personal, issues.
  • Translation does not excitedly want to show me her latest project.
  • Translation does not run to me screaming "I love you!" and give me cuddles.
  • Translation does not thank me profusely, teary-eyed, for what I've done for their child or themselves.


(Note: all those things happened in the past week in the context of me teaching and tutoring.)


I think this whole letting go of ambition belongs to a wider predilection for detachment. Detachment from trying to impress people (I would rather inspire people). Detachment from accumulating stuff (I would rather accumulate wisdom). This detachment does not only apply to my career. It applies to my life as a whole. However, there are some things I have NOT renounced:


  • Striving for excellence - what I do, I do it well, as any of my clients could tell you. 
  • Hard work, passion and dedication - when I am immersed in something I love, like preparing lesson plans or reviewing a text for style and flow, I could go all night. I have not lost the drive to accomplish things, to push myself. If I had, I would not get up at 5 am to run in the cold and dark Canadian winters before work, or set my alarm on weekend mornings to take advantage of the quiet house before everyone gets up to write my future book. 
  • Wealth and prestige - there's nothing wrong with them per se, and I still get excited when I make "gains" in those areas. 


However... bygone is the yearning to prove something at all costs.


What have you been willing to let go in order to achieve balance and well-being for yourself and your loved ones? Share in the comments.





Saturday, December 6, 2014

Joy

Jack Mallon, Flickr


Who does that to themselves? I think as I get out of bed on a cold, dark December morning.

I get dressed nonetheless. Try to find comfort in the fact that my new gear will make the run more comfortable: thin, 2-layer socks and thin, 2-layer mitts, keep you warm without being bulky. Totally worth the price.

I take 2 puffs of my bronchodilator (asthma requires it in this weather). I think back on the time I "could not" exercise because of asthma, and feel grateful that it was eventually properly diagnosed and treated. It will always need attention, but it will never stop me.

I step out. Two things immediately hit me: 1) the cold; 2) the pink, orange and yellow layers that paint the sky at this hour. In awe, I start running.

Despite the inhaler, breathing is a challenge. Those lungs haven't exercised in that kind of cold since last year. Hopefully, they will get used to it again. The conversation with "running partner K" makes everything more bearable. And a quick look at the multicolored sky makes whatever's left of the discomfort vanish.


Amy, Flickr


Running partner K talks about her lack of sleep, but does not use it as an excuse to skip morning runs. As she says simply but wisely, running  before the day starts has twice the benefits of sleeping that extra hour. We will both be busy today. But we're not stressed: we know that run will have prepared us for anything the day throws at us.

Now I am sweating. Sweating outdoors when it's below freezing point. That in itself is a miracle, especially for the woman-who-is-always-cold.

Running partner K tells the story of a coworker who recently had to undergo heart surgery. A man in good shape, who has always exercised and eats well. Life can be unfair. But the surgery went well, and according to his doctors, the only reason he recovered so fast and is already back on his feet is because he was such in a good shape in the first place. Which reminds me of a documentary I watched recently: taking care of your health doesn't only make your life longer; it also makes it healthier. No matter what happens, you are better equipped to deal with it. You suffer less. Or for a shorter amount of time. And apparently, there is a nice proportion of centenarians who die peacefully in their sleep, without having to endure a long disease.

That applies to mental health as well: nurture your mental health, and life will be significantly more enjoyable. Great news: running takes care of that as well. Our run is now over, and I feel like I've ingested a joy potion. My legs are tired but I'm bouncing. My body is damp and salty under those layers of winter running clothes, but I feel light. K points to a bird in the sky and we both marvel.

As I reach my driveway, I come upon a gathering of blue jays and chickadees. I see them everyday, yet right now I almost cry they're so beautiful.

This is why we do this to ourselves.


Find inspiration here!
One of my favorite movies of all times
(might be because of the music)


Monday, December 1, 2014

How to get people to despise you

Kiwi Morado, Flickr


My friend A, in a surge of honesty, recently declared that "there is only one person I hate in Nova Scotia". We were instantly intrigued, for if there's a person who likes EVERYONE, it's A. I've never heard her say anything mildly negative about anyone. She loves all human beings. It's as if she wears special glasses that allow her to see people's qualities and magnify them, all the while completely overlooking any flaw they might have. Her using the "H-word" about someone was unusual to say the least.

Curious, I asked: "What makes you hate that person?"

The reasons proved to be rather simple. According to A, that unpleasant person is guilty of the following:


  • She talks way too much
  • She talks solely about herself
  • If someone tries to add their grain of salt, she interrupts to keep talking about herself
  • She fails to notice the non-verbal cues people show as they lose interest. E.g. if you start looking away, turn your feet or even slowly back up or walk away, she just keeps on talking (she might talk louder or follow you to force you to keep listening)
  • If she feels cranky, you can be sure you will pay the price (even if you have nothing to do with it)
  • Etc.


Ensued a discussion about "those people who don't know when to shut it" and "those people who think only their own stories are worth telling".

This all reminded me of Dale Carnegie's advice on "How to Win Friends and Influence People", one the first popular self-help books to be published (in 1936). It was probably the first self-help book I read, too. I stumbled upon it at my great-aunt's cottage. That great-aunt arguably being the most pleasant and kind person I had ever met, I figured her owning this book was no accident. I picked the book. I read it. I was 15. It had a bigger impact on my interpersonal relationships than I could ever have imagined.

As it turns out, my friend A's insight, my great-aunt D's attitude in life, and the contents of that book have a lot of things in common. In fact, the rules of pleasant human interactions are both simple and effective... that is, once we know them and, more importantly, once we apply them to everyday life. I feel that most adults eventually master most of those rules spontaneously, although following them can be a challenge even on a good day. In any case, a reminder is a never bad thing.

Here's a sample of the "rules" put forward by Carnegie. They work for everything: friendship, love, family ties, the workplace, adults, children,... name it. Once we know those rules, the main challenge might be to be consistentgenuine and sincere in their application:


  • Don't criticize, condemn, or complain.
  • Give honest and sincere appreciation.
  • Become genuinely interested in other people.
  • Smile.
  • Remember that a person's name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
  • Be a good listener. 
  • Encourage others to talk about themselves.
  • Talk in terms of the other person's interest.
  • Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.
  • Show respect for the other person's opinions. Never say "You're Wrong."
  • If you're wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
  • Begin in a friendly way.
  • Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.
  • Try honestly to see things from the other person's point of view.
  • Be sympathetic with the other person's ideas and desires.
  • Call attention to people's mistakes indirectly.
  • Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.
  • Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.
  • Let the other person save face.
  • Praise every improvement.
  • Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.
  • Use encouragement. 
  • Make the fault seem easy to correct.
  • Make the other person happy about doing what you suggest.


Does any of this particularly talk to you? Do you find any of them to be a challenge? Is any one of them your "specialty"? Do you have your own "tricks of the trade" that make human interaction easier and more rewarding? Share in the comments!






Friday, November 28, 2014

Not my world

That Guy Who's Going Places, Flickr


"If you have time to whine and complain about something, then you have the time to do something about it." (Anthony J. D'Angelo)


We all have reasons to think that this world is not ours or, put differently, that this world would not be the way it is if we were the ones in charge: such reasons include war, terrorism, violence, poverty, hunger, pollution, racism, sexism, flagrant social inequalities, greed and dishonesty, ... the list is endless.

The thing is, we are in charge. And there are simple things that we can do, at our level, to change this world. It's been done before. It is being done right now. When enough people start talking and acting about a certain situation, in time, it changes. Not instantly, but eventually.

What are your causes? What are the things that bother you at your level, on a daily basis? And what do you do to change them at your level, on a daily basis?

The following are "my" causes. I am definitely not claiming to be a leader in any of those fields - I mostly get inspired by such leaders - but I do try and make my tiny little difference... day after day.


1) Health and fitness

Those who have been reading this blog for a while know that I am a strong (no pun intended) fitness advocate. To be completely honest, my interest in fitness initially stemmed from an aesthetical point of view. To quote my friend M, at first my main goal was "to look sexy on the beach". Quickly enough, however, I started reaping benefits that had nothing to do with appearance and everything to do with well-being. I know from personal experience the difference between being in shape and being out of shape: it far exceeds what one sees in the mirror.

The tricky thing, when you become an advocate for health and fitness, is that you don't want to sound like you are judging other people's lifestyles. Yet it's easy to get caught up in your own enthusiasm and desire to share "the good news" of how important and wonderful it is to "eat clean" and exercise daily. To this day, I am still afraid of being annoying when I write or talk about fitness (which I do a lot; just browse this blog), or when I exercise publicly in places where most people don't (e.g. doing push-ups at the park or running up flights of stairs at the stadium while my kids are at their sport practice). What keeps me going is 1) my unshakable belief in the importance of health and fitness and 2) the positive response I get. Whenever I get told that what I write or do has inspired someone to make their health a priority, it is such a reward!

My favorite thing to do, however, is to destroy myths such as: "people are too busy to exercise" and "exercise takes up your precious energy". An hour a day of exercising makes the rest of the day so much more productive, it's absolutely worth it. Period. As for "eating healthy is expensive", I have to disagree again, because eating healthy involves money saving decisions such as staying away from restaurants, takeouts and cafés, planning your meals and grocery list in advance, avoiding caloric drinks (such as alcohol), and eating less as a general rule.

For a wonderful link that describes all the benefits of fitness AND all the real sacrifices that are involved, click here.


2) Environment

Idling cars. Please forgive the rant, but they drive me nuts. There was yet another one at my school yesterday. Its owner was a parent who actually let it run for the whole 5-10 minutes it took his - young - child to get ready (boots, jacket, hat, mitts and all). What I did: I took a kind, empathetic and concerned voice and told the dad that "we" (another teacher and I) had been wondering whose car it was that someone forgot to turn off.

What do you do to diplomatically let know other people that they are not to ruin the environment we all live in? I am at a loss, sometimes.


3) Materialism

Our society is so much about stuff it makes me dizzy. Even blogs about so-called frugal living are all about stuff: basically, they provide advice on how to create or acquire stuff... without a high price tag. But it's still stuff! As this article (click here) wisely points out, even minimalism has its limits, and involves focusing on stuff. What I do: I vote with my wallet, and only buy what I need.

What we really need has been tackled in this short article (click here) by Aubrey Cloutier: according to that author, the must-haves" for the holiday season are 1) food 2) air 3) water. Thereyago.


4) Gender

This might have been my longest lasting battle. Even as a swimming instructor in my late teens, I was quick to tell my students that "yes, boys can use a pink flutter board". The rigid, binary gender system isn't doing much good for humanity. And the ideas that should have been long gone are still being spread. No later than last week, I heard a teacher tell a group of kids that "girls are kind, gentle and delicate". I almost choked. As if boys did not have those qualities in them. As if girls were defined by those traits. Another example: also last week, in a store, I saw a little boy (around 3 years old) standing, mesmerized in front of a Frozen display (DVDs, posters, stuffies, dolls and dresses). His mom, not sharing the enthusiasm, pulled him by the hand as she said: "those things are for girls. Not for you". I would have liked to say something, but I did not know what or how. What would you have done?

Yet another example: in one of the groups I teach, the students are working on fictional characters for a story. I couldn't help but notice that the first draft contained no female character. When I pointed it out, it appeared that no one had even noticed. I gently suggested they come up with some female characters. And that such female characters should have a "real", important role (as opposed to sitting pretty waiting for Prince Charming to show up). The following week, one of the students enthusiastically told me that he was now creating a female character... who is going to be the captain of a boat. No mention was made of her looks. I gave the kid a high five.

It's the little things like this that make a - small - difference (hopefully it all adds up in the end). I have given conferences about gender fluidity, to both adults and children. Every single time, a few participants come and talk to me afterward, and every single time, it strengthens my idea that something can be done - and that it's for the best. Last month, after such a conference, a little girl (around 8 years old) came up to me and asked if it was okay that she does not like "girl toys", prefers sports, and dresses "like a tomboy". I reflected the question back to her and gently said: "what do you think?" She replied that after listening to me, she now knew that it was probably okay. That was the highlight of my day (and possibly of hers as well).

Click here for the story I read at that conference, among other things: Artsy Boys and Smelly Girls (by Élise Gravel).


Oh, and here's another one of my causes:





What are YOUR causes? 




Monday, November 10, 2014

The Ghomeshi story: what to learn from it

Gidi, Flickr



(Note: for the sake of conciseness, this article refers to genders in their most common acception, including the role most often played in sexual assault. We are aware that a whole array of situations does exist.)



Is Jian Ghomeshi guilty, or is he the innocent victim of a smear campaign? Despite the early widespread and rather enthusiastic support he received, evidence now seems to be pointing in the other direction. But of course our justice system is based on a presumption of innocence, and no matter how outraged we may be feeling, a jury has to declare someone guilty before we can conclude as such.

Therefore, let's leave Ghomeshi aside for a moment, and focus instead on the debate(s) that have been prompted by the recent events.


The good guy illusion

A few years ago, a friend of mine learned that one of his acquaintances had been found guilty of sexual assault. My friend's reaction was one of surprise - which is understandable if you never suspected the person to be capable of such things. But my friend went on to explain that it was particularly surprising since "this man was a smart guy, with lots of degrees and a great career"... as if that had ever rendered anyone unable to do wrong!

I believe the reason Ghomeshi got so much support in the beginning of this saga is a similar one. I heard and read comments such as: "But he is such a great host!" "He has liberal views!" "He has talked about domestic violence!" and even "He has a wonderful voice!"

Better make it clear right away: rapists, molesters and violent people in general come in all sizes and shapes and are not easily recognizable. If they were, no one would agree to hang out with them in the first place (since rapes often happen when the victim already knows the aggressor). Rapists can be found in all strata of society. Some (many) are fathers. Most probably act and look nice - from the outside anyway. I was discussing this with a friend recently. When I said that it's impossible for a woman to know, initially, if a man is a "good guy" or a "bad guy" (hence the precautions many females feel obliged to take), my friend was offended. He proceeded to try and explain that it's unjust to perceive all men as potential predators. He felt like I was vilifying 50% of the population. I wanted to say "Believe me, I (and most women) would much rather have good reasons to trust men!" It reminded me of the "Not All Men" meme (click here) and its response: "Yes All Women" (click here): despite the fact that many men are respectful and generally pleasant to be around, all women will face, at some point in their life, discrimination based on gender, harassment, sexism and misogyny. Many women will end up having to tell a man to "please back off" after trying to send more subtle signals, in vain. Not to mention the high number of women who will be sexually assaulted (official numbers are around 20%, but it is estimated they might be higher). What are we supposed to do? Walk around happy-go-lucky and ignore the risks?

My friend was also skeptical when I said that just because a woman is kissing and making out with you, it doesn't mean she wants to have sex with you. Maybe not that night. Maybe not before a couple dates. Maybe never. You should never assume that someone wants to have sex with you, and the only way to avoid a misunderstanding is to be very attentive to their body language and, ideally, to ask. My friend disagreed with all that. Yet I consider him to be a - very - good guy, who wouldn't hurt a fly.


The definition of consent

What is consent, and how do you obtain it? To counteract any potential ambiguity, a trend has been growing, enjoining us to move from implicit consent to an explicit, or even better, enthusiastic consent, in all our "encounters of the flesh". A consent that cannot possibly be obtained, for example, if your partner is in a drunken stupor. It might seem like a no-brainer to most of us, who would immediately worry - and stop to inquire - if our partner did not seem enthusiastic about the physical contacts s/he is having with us. Unfortunately, it seems that many tend to overlook any clear signs of consent, enthusiastic or not, before they make their move, during, and after. This is complicated by the fact that women are generally taught to be passive about flirting and the initiation of sex. In that context, any hesitation might not be taken seriously.

Is consent a complicated thing then? Can no mean yes? Here's my very simple advice: if your sexual partner does not seem enthusiastic, moves back, says no, or shows any other sign of hesitation, just stop whatever you're doing, and check in. If they really want you to keep going, they will  let you know. If they don't, too bad, but at least there will be no risk of making someone very uncomfortable and then having a very bad surprise when you learn later that whatever happened was not consensual.

Consent also has to be ongoing, meaning that no matter how far you've gone with a sexual partner, it's always an option to declare that you don't want it to go any further.

To learn more about consent, click here and here. Quotes:

"Consent is a whole body experience. It is not just a verbal “yes” or “no” – it involves paying attention to your partner as a person and checking in with physical and emotional cues as well. Consent is also mutual (both people have to agree) and must be continuous. You can stop at any time, you can change your mind, and just because you said yes to one thing doesn’t mean you have consented to anything else [...] Positive sexuality begins with enthusiastic consent.  This means being as excited and into someone else’s enjoyment as we are excited and into our own enjoyment.  Only yes means yes – and yes should come from an engaged and enthusiastic partner." 
"Freezing up, saying you're tired, crying, or pulling away are a few examples of ways to communicate no. A person doesn't have to yell "no", scream, kick or bite for it to be exceedingly clear that they don't want to engage in sexual activity." 
(from the Consented website)

But it ruins the magic!

If you think checking for consent "ruins the magic" of sex, you clearly haven't properly pondered the alternative. Are you really willing to take the risk of doing things that your partner doesn't really want to do, but is afraid to speak up about? Because yes, that happens. In the wake of Ghomeshi's story, a friend of a friend published this on a social media page:

"We were X years old. I loved him with all my heart. Our relationship was so intense. With him I discovered intimacy. Really, we had something, and it was great. But I felt bad saying no. I said yes to please him, so that he would think I was hot and intense, just like our relationship. I remember the one time I did say NO... he took it like a yes. I loved him, so I did not insist with my NO. I was in tears as he "finished". He whom I loved. My story might not be the most horrible you've heard, but I would be appalled if one of my children ever felt the way I felt that day."

Consent is a little bit like condoms: it kinda sucks to have to stop and put them on, but really, the alternative makes it worth it. And in both cases, consent or condoms, there is a way to incorporate it into the act without killing the atmosphere. There are ways to "check in" without completely interfering with the progression of pleasure. I have seen it at play. It's totally doable. As Lennon would say: "It's easy if you try".





The definition of rape

Contrary to the mental picture most people have of a rape when they hear the word, most rapes don't happen in a dark alley in the late hours, perpetrated by a stranger with the use of violence. Most rapes are done by an individual the victim knows. Sometimes very well. I remember a movie of Elvis Presley I watched as a teenager. In one scene, he imposes sex on his wife (Priscilla), who says no before and during, and is left shaking after. When I asked my mother what had just happened, she told me he had just raped his wife; I remember wondering how that was possible since they were married. There is no way we can get rid of rape as long as we have such a narrow-minded idea of it.


But women are just crazy liars!

Yes, that's what a lot of narcissistic manipulators or abusers say about their exes. False allegations of rape and/or violence might exist, but they are very, very rare. The prevalence of unreported rape and/or violence, or the instances in which the stories "fall between the cracks" is much, much higher. As a general rule, women are not taken very seriously when they accuse a man of rape, and all the more if such man is a prominent figure. I could list names here but I will let you do your own little research: who are the public figures who have never had to pay for their - sometimes recurrent - sexual assaults? They are numerous.

I understand that some men now worry that they could be accused unjustly. But between that and worrying that you could be raped and not be taken seriously, as have most women since the beginning of time, I wonder which is worse?...


It's easy to get away with it

For the longest time, our society and our justice system have meant that for many rape victims, going to the police (or even just telling someone) didn't even seem like a viable (and/or useful) option. Ghomeshi's story has clearly illustrated that. His victims had all kinds of good reasons to say nothing. Going to the police and to justice has been shown time and again to be a humiliating process... for the victim. But it doesn't have to be that way. And as debates such as this one happen, there is hope that it will change.


But it was just a compliment!

I would like to conclude with a note on harassment. Based on the comments I have read all over the Web, it seems like a lot of people cannot distinguish between a genuine compliment and harassment. It becomes clear, however, that if someone gets mad at you for not smiling back, and lets you know aggressively, ("Can't you take a compliment, bitch?"), there must have been an issue to begin with. As a general rule, I have a feeling that most men don't get the fact that being complimented by a stranger can feel, in some instances, like a threat. Many women have been used to men going too far. And thus they are on their guard. It is very unfortunate, but it's the way things are. I have another friend who got a very cold reaction when he complimented two coworkers on how good they looked at the Christmas party. He wasn't drunk nor obnoxious. He simply said something along the lines of "You ladies look great tonight!" and the reply he got was "Maybe, but that's the farthest this is gonna go", delivered in a stern voice. He was surprised - and hurt. Can't we pay compliments anymore, let alone flirt? If you are a "good guy" and are unhappy with this situation, go talk to the "bad guys". They are the ones who ruin it for everybody else.

"Sometimes it is suggested that definitions of harassment have become so blurred that people are wary of ever complimenting anyone, lest it be interpreted as an unwanted advance [...] Most men are capable of differentiating between a genuine act of friendliness or flirtation (an act that intends a positive social outcome), and a hostile act of sexual aggression (oblivious to the impact on its recipient, or even actively calculated to cause distress). Many men who engage in verbal or physical harassment are probably aware that it will render their victim distressed, or at least uncomfortable. And yet they do it anyway. The question then is why?"  
(source: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/15/sexual-aggression-not-maleness-minority-problem)

For another edifying story, click here.
And for a bunch of other links on the topic, click here, here and here.


By Misstenebra7, 9gag,com



Monday, October 27, 2014

Sexy Halloween



Halloween uses "humor and ridicule to confront the power of death." (Sam Portaro) 

Has Halloween become the celebration of sexiness? Last time I checked, Halloween served as an acknowledgement of death. Not the same thing. Although some will make a connection between sex and death. Don't the French call orgasm "la petite mort" ("the little death")?

Maybe that's why Halloween has become increasingly sexy. Let's blame it all on the French! But really, what does the need for females of all ages to show as much skin and curves as possible on that occasion stem from? And how disturbing is it when it involves prepubescent girls?

As it turns out, dressing up sexy for Halloween might not be as much of a choice as we might think. For the most part, sexy costumes is what the market offers to females. Even in toddler sizes, there is a "sexed-up" version of the traditional Cookie Monster, Police Officer, Firefigther and what not. As for the "girl costumes" that do not qualify as sexy per se: they still, for the most part, put the emphasis on looks and being beautiful - princess galore! (as opposed to actually accomplishing something, empowering yourself and being useful). What does this teach our kids? As is it a "natural tendency" for them to look for "gender appropriate" and stereotypical costumes, or does society slowly but surely instill the idea in their malleable minds?

Let's see what this mom thinks about it (interestingly, a lot of the readers who comment below the article do not agree with her rant; what do YOU think?): click here.

This and this should also get you thinking about Halloween costumes and appropriateness.

Let us know what you think!

Ah, but Halloween is also a great opportunity to express your creativity. Here is an excerpt of what my eight year-old wrote in preparation for this sweet holiday (spelling mistakes corrected; contents her own):

Outside, two ghosts were swinging on the swings and talking about how much they loved being able to walk through walls and fly. When they were done, they decided that they wanted to scare somebody, so they went inside Bob’s house through the window and scared Bob and Kevin right out of their pants! Bob and Kevin screamed at the top of their lungs and ran out the door into the woods… and got lost. But luckily they had fruit bowls on top of their heads, that they had put in the morning when they woke up. Somehow the fruits were still good! So they each had five pears and five apples. After that, Bob and Kevin found a river. They were super thirsty so they drank. They talked about the ghosts. Bob did not know that his house was haunted! The house actually belonged to the two ghosts! Meanwhile, the two ghosts were wondering why Bob and Kevin were in THEIR house. They didn’t even know them! The two ghosts' names were Hallo and Ween, so put together, it was Halloween. They went to their beds, that were sink-proof so that they would not sink through, and started happily sleeping. Then the way that they woke up was by hearing a loud sound! The loud sound was actually a wrecking ball about to crush both of them! Quickly they got out of the house and left to build a new one. Their new one was going to be in Ghostville so that they were not the only ghosts around. And also when they woke up they could go to their neighbor’s house and say "good morning, how are you?" without spooking them, then go back home and eat breakfast, then go for a nice walk, come back and do whatever ghosts do other than scare people. Meanwhile, Bob and Kevin were still lost in the woods somewhere that nobody knows or will ever know. So basically Bob and Kevin were in the middle of nowhere. That is so very sad. And the ghosts were still wondering who Bob and Kevin were and why they were in their house! But it kind of makes sense because the two ghosts had gone on a two-year vacation to Disneyland and had just come back, and so they hadn’t scared somebody in a long time… that’s why Bob and Kevin thought they could move in! Finally, at night, Bob and Kevin found a friend whose name was Joe, and he brought them into his house and gave them hot chocolate so they were warm and toasty in Joe’s house. Joe asked Bob and Kevin how they got lost in the woods and they had to explain how and why that happened.


Happy Halloween everyone! Choose your costume wisely! And be ready to be spooked!