Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Monster's Shadow

"Every monster has a big shadow.  That's what makes it a monster.  In fact, when you look the monster in the eye, when you calmly and carefully examine the actual monster, you discover he's not so bad after all.  It's just that the shadow is scary."  --Seth Godin

When I think about the amount of time I spend worrying about things--little things from making sure forms get filled out to bigger stuff like difficult yet essential conversations and, in the not-so-distant past, really big decisions about my personal and financial future--instead of just tackling them, I get really annoyed with myself.  I hate it when I lose sleep over things not because they are a big deal but because I am avoiding actually doing them. 

What I've realized is that taking on all of the little, easy things and getting them done in a short time helps me a lot, because a huge part of what gives me stress is just the length of the list rather than the amount of time and effort required to get everything done.  If I knock out seven of the ten things that are chasing around in my mind, even if they aren't the most difficult ones, I can focus on the three that need real attention.  I am learning, though I still slip often.  I mean, it's always somethin', right?  The list of stupid little stuff only gets smaller for awhile, then it builds up like junk mail on the kitchen counter. So it's an ongoing battle. 

The big things we generally avoid are, as Seth says, the ones that cast the biggest shadows.  But it's the sense that if we start down the road to dealing with them, we're going to get eaten alive, that stops us from taking care of ourselves.  Sometimes it's a matter of opening all the mail and looking at what we're really dealing with, then making the dreaded phone call to the lawyer or the bank or the IRS.  When we do, often there is such a sense of relief we wonder why we didn't do it a year ago. 

The real monsters, though, are the emotional ones.  This is why so many people (yours truly included once but I started again and got mostly to the bottom of things) stop therapy. They start because they really want someone to help them feel better.  They stop when they realize they have to look at the monsters.  The shadows scare them so much that they would rather hide than move in for a close-up.  For the Hannibal Lecters of the world, this is a legitimate concern.  But for most of us the monsters aren't, as Seth says, all that scary.  If we are too scared to look at them, though, they retain their power over us. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Wool and Water

A couple dozen years ago I met the blogger for Wool and Water.  Her spare yet delightful style makes for wonderful reading. Back then, she knew my housemate from working at church camp. By then she was dating him and unlike the rest of us in the house, she'd been Out in the World for a year.  We were all getting ready to convocate, as Queen's called it, and had the collective anxiety of people ambivalent about giving up our extended adolescence. 

Although she'd grown up, like me, in a small Eastern Ontario town, she'd graduated from a great school and worked for the better part of a year in London.  England.  She had gorgeous strawberry blond curls and a fine way of tying a scarf.  She read and still reads serious novels, not just the reviews, and actually understands them.  I haven't seen her in person in a few years, but based on her emails and her Facebook page--lots of points deducted on my part, for the record, as she has a nice husband, lovely daughter, and the beautiful hair and general good looks remain intact--she still is doing particularly well. 

Read her post entitled "Commencement."  Actually, read all of her posts, but read this one first.  While she is a little embarassed by her typing awards--I must wonder if this skill can't assist her in her writing and re-writing, which it's clear she does so well--it can't compare with the Oral Proficiency Award I received upon high school graduation.  It was for French.  Never mind.  

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Circle is Small

Today two dear friends of mine met, serendipitously.  Or maybe not so much, even in a city of two point something million.  I've known the two of them for two and half decades, as we were all at the same school together.  One is the South African, as he is known on this blog, although that doesn't do him justice.  Readers know he is a good husband and a fine cook, but he is also a man of the sea and his ribald jokes make me laugh, as he would say, bloody hard. 

Last summer I got to visit with my friend Colin--Mir, his smart, fun wife had gone off to South America on a work summons of some importance, so I unfortunately missed her--and the adorable daughters he and Mir raise in the Beaches area of Toronto.  Colin is a brilliant engineer turned patent agent who could also make Genius mixes for iTunes, if he weren't so cool.  To him I owe my discovery of Elvis Costello, for which I can never adequately repay him. 

As readers also know, in 1991 I traveled with my then-husband in a 1971 VW bus to Halifax for a wedding.  Along with the South African and his good wife, we also met their friend Bob.  He had spent a number of years in the Caribbean on his boat, and espoused the compelling notion that the number of keys one walks around with is inversely proportionate to his freedom.  Bob spent a good many years with a key to his boat and nothing else--not to an apartment, a storage space, or even a girlfriend's flat.  A lot of men admired him for that, but then in his mid-forties he settled down with a nice woman. It's been a long while since I've seen him, as I recall being heavily pregnant with my first child, who will be fourteen soon.

At any rate, Colin knows Bob but has never met the South African.  Okay, SA's name is Hugh ("Hugh.  Your Hugh," Colin wrote) and that they've been sailing from the same damn place from who knows how long is further proof that men don't talk to one another enough. 

So now two of my favorite people have made a connection perhaps because of me, but in spite of my absence.  It makes me think of that movie Sliding Doors, where we learn Gweneth Paltrow could make a completely different life from the one she's living by virtue of taking a different train on the tube in London. Had I not met a boy from Arkansas in a fountain in Brindisi, Italy, I might be living in Toronto instead of Texas. I'd be married to some rugby player named Graham or Angus (Queen's University in Kingston was, in my day and probably still so, a kilt-wearing, bagpipe stronghold) and would have given at least one fine party where Colin and Hugh might have hunkered down in a corner with their respective pints to discuss intricate knots or wind currents or whatever else elicits my inevitable technicolor yawn off the side of nearly every boat I've had the misfortune of boarding.

Those thoughts of what I might have become if I hadn't held hands with that redneck and then jumped off a cliff in Corfu can be seductive in my weak moments. But then I wouldn't have nine months a year where I can properly run outside. Or Austin, three hours away, as I know it and hope to know it better in the future. Or procured the DNA that gave me the people who make my life happy and worthwhile and  have given me the pleasure of watching them grow up as native Texans.  But as my countryman Gord Lightfoot sang, the circle is small.  Hope I get to have a pint with Colin, Hugh and their wives when I head north again.  They are among my happily married and cherished friends.  So glad they've met.

Correction:  Upon a better reading of Colin's email (meaning not on my Blackberry minus my glasses) it seems that it was Colin's skipper and not Colin himself who knew Bob.  Another degree of separation doesn't diminish the fun of the story for me, but maybe for readers. Also, I think The Circle is Small is about adultery, so perhaps not the best title.  At least Gord is Canadian... 

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Facebook Schaudenfreude

Stumbled across a marvelous blog called Mon Avis, Mes Amis--Life, A Review.  The author is, I gather, an expat American turned unabashed Anglophile.  She throws about posh British phrases and annoying nicknames, but her extravagance (not sure about command, as I am no authority) with the King's English is quite amusing.  She hasn't posted since May, as I expect she's gone to the south of France and is enjoying a daily lie-in followed by mid-morning cocktails that sap her Protestant work ethic. 

My favorite post so far contains the following description of her idea of a fine diversion:

We hacked my brother's account and invented Facebook Schaudenfreude.  It's a hilarious game for adults based on spite, bitterness and nerves of steel.  Look up people you should really have got over after 20-odd years.  Check out as much of their lives as they've posted in the ether.  Award yourself one point each for divorce and redundancy.  Take away one point each for photos of a ten-year anniversary party and second homes (second homes on another continent, minus five points).  Award yourself two points for each child that is boss-eyed, scowling or otherwise unappealing. Deduct two points for each child that is playing sport at an international level under the age of 16 or well-dressed and smiling. Profile pictures by Demarchelier, school reunions at Fouquet's you weren't invited to and a Porsche for a 21st birthday (I am not making any of this up, sadly) are just Plain Bad Manners.

I've no earthly clue what Fouquet's is and only the foggiest notion of who Demarchelier might be, but I think she's maybe being a bit tacky. And yet when one is tacky with an accent like cut crystal, people don't always mind so much. This post is clearly prior to those new privacy settings, which kind of takes the fun out of it. What I must recognize is that based on her criteria, beyond the cute kids, I'm doing a fine job of raising the self-esteem of former boyfriends and within the thin ranks of rivals I might have had. 

She's not always nice, but she has good taste in books and gets around quite enough that I enjoy a vicarious look into her world.  Hope she gets back from Beaulieu soon. 

Monday, July 26, 2010


When Nelson Mandela was freed in 1991 from almost three decades of incarceration on Robben Island in South Africa, he was either a terrorist or a hero, depending on whom you asked.  While much of  the world saw his release and subsequent election as President as a grand victory over apartheid, white South Africans waited for what they believed was the inevitable payback for the years of keeping their collective boot on the black population's neck. 

While the recent World Cup highlighted how far the country has come but also the distance it still must travel to be a prosperous and safe democracy, the early days of the Mandela age had the potential, if mishandled, to send it into a downward spiral to civil war.  In the film Invictus, which I had the pleasure of finally watching over the weekend, the audience is given insight into one of the most remarkable political characters of our time.  In the opinion of director Clint Eastwood, it is largely because of Mandela's resolve and wisdom--not to mention his canny instincts as a politician--that South Africa did not completely disintegrate.  

Eastwood has made a career out of movies about retribution, and in this variation on that theme, he gives the audience the gift of a version much evolved from Dirty Harry and Unforgiven.  Morgan Freeman's portrayal of Mandela shows the leader's remarkable charisma: it's clear he makes everyone he meets feel like the most special person in the world.  This would be amazing enough, given his long prison term, but then we get glimpses of his humor, not to mention his charm with the ladies. It's impossible not to be enthralled with Freeman's version of Mandiba, as Mandela is known to his intimates. He has endured so much, yet conducts himself with remarkable grace, even when he finds himself estranged from his wife and children after so many years away and with the burden of a nation upon his shoulders. 

Mandela has determined that typical vengence--in the particular moment of the film, taking away the colors and symbol of the country's essentially white rugby team, thereby teaching the former ruling class a lesson in humility--would be shortsighted and in no way helpful. Yet the hokey bits, where they are, are saved for the rugby field. To be sure, Mandela is portrayed as a man of compassion, but what makes the role real is his calculated approach: keeping what matters most and getting the whole nation behind it will give him the room to make real change.  So in the World Cup of rugby, he does all he can to give his people, all of his people, a reason to feel proud.  Mandela, unlike Harry Callahan, knows the rules apply to him as much as to anyone else. He changes the game not by flouting them, but by playing it well and with class, despite intense criticism by both supporters and detractors. 

The film's name--invictus is Latin for "unconquered"--comes from a Victorian poem Mandela asserts gave him strength at his darkest moments.  He shares it with Francois Pienaar, the captain of the South African rugby team (played by Matt Damon) just prior to the start of the tournament.  The last line gives weight and beauty to the entire plot. 

I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.  --William Ernest Henley

Friday, July 23, 2010

"Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame."

-Benjamin Franklin

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Wedding Planner

There was a story on the local news this week about a woman who has booked her wedding for February---she's got the perfect dress, booked her dream venue, chosen the cake and hired the photographer.  She just doesn't yet know who the lucky guy is going to be.

But she's working on it, managing a campaign on Facebook. She's been on almost fifty dates since beginning her pursuit of a groom.  She claims to be getting inquiries for all sorts of fellas, and says she will know The One when she meets him.  I thought it was more than a little ridiculous at first, but really, it's kind of an extension of on-line or speed dating, just with a  lot more optimism thrown in. 

The whole notion of on-line dating is that you can make a list of things you want, go out and look for it, go out on dates with those who meet your criteria, and eventually find what you want.  It's a numbers game, people say.  You've got to put yourself out there.  This woman clearly has faith in the idea of deciding what she wants and going after it.  If you are wondering, she is objectively quite attractive, as was the guy they showed her with on the date.  "She's brazen," he said admiringly.  (This chick and those Rules girls would have quite the catfight.)

And therein lies the problem for me with such a system.  The times I've been struck by love haven't been because I've made a list of what I want, though I maybe should.  But that presumes I myself know what I need, and given my track record, I'm not sure that's true.  And I am such a romantic that I think love is going to find me rather than the other way around, although it's been suggested to me by friends that love is unlikely to locate me if I am at home with a book.  Fair enough. 

There are lots of ways to find a mate if that's the goal.  Many years ago I was at a birthday party for a five year old, and a few of the mothers were talking about how we'd met our husbands.  One woman, a beautiful, educated Pakistani, piped up and said, "I had an arranged marriage."  Well, that stopped the conversation dead.  She looked at us.  "Well, I was young, and my family knew what would work long term.  After all, who of us has the good sense to know a good match when we're young and silly?"  A fair point, though I know a good many old and silly people, too. 

In the end, a lot of it boils down to luck.  I'll be watching for updates on the bride to be.  In a way, I'm kind of impressed with her confidence.  And if it doesn't work out this time, at least she's got the dress. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Chase

The difference between deciding upon a goal because it's what one really wants versus what one thinks will impress others, or even make them think well, she isn't a weird loser like I thought gets a bit easier as one grows older, but sometimes not.  Once we're out of our twenties most of us have grown into ourselves and worry less about being misfits.  But we worry about other things--are we regarded, for example, as a responsible parent?  A good spouse?  A successful person who has it together? 

My immediately previous post is an example of said pressure.  Some people can ignore these social cues to keep up--though I believe nearly every one of us has some strain of vanity--our competitive instincts say, well, if it's being held up as success, shouldn't I try too?  Often we are painted into a corner because we don't want to do the really hard work of sorting out what it is we really want.  Ridiculously hard even to sort it, never mind act on it, but in her post today, Communicatrix details a great first stab at doing so:

If pressed to decide the difference between chasing a thing and going after a thing, I'd say this: a chase ends up being about the chase, and less about the fox at the end of it; going after something is putting one foot in front of the other and moving towards what you want.  Deliberately, thoughtfully making choices, and perhaps delaying gratification elsewhere, so that you can get to the Next Right Place you need to be. 

It's a fine post with crunchy nuggets of wisdom. 

Monday, July 12, 2010

Aging Boomers

Photo: Buzzfeed

As I've written before, the Baby Boomers' experiences frame the discussion for the rest of us, and so the media is increasingly preoccupied with second acts and with aging well.  For our achievement-oriented society, getting older and doing it well means, well, doing. 

Like celebrities who gestate, success is equated with being perfect and fabulous.  As all women who've just given birth are given the implicit message they should compete with a bikini-clad Giselle on the pages of Vogue, people drawing their first Social Security checks are comparing themselves with aging rock stars and the Dali Lama. I remember when Bill Clinton got elected and someone said, "The President of the United States is now older than Mick Jagger," and I thought it was a big deal. Now he's 75 and strutting around singing Satisfaction.  Love him, but to extend the metaphor it's kind of like looking at a pregnant woman at forty weeks wearing leggings and a sports bra.  The Victorians may have had a bunch of stuff wrong, but confinement really wasn't such a bad idea for all concerned.  (Perhaps not coincidentally, Jagger and Clinton sat together a World Cup game or two, and as you can see from the shot above, Grandpa Mick can still drop an F-Bomb if provoked.)

Notions about getting older in an admirable way are still a reflection of the youth culture.  Part of it is that we all hang onto our ideas of our own selves as perpetually young, even as the mirror tells us otherwise.  But a huge part of the public discourse comes from two very American ideas: Puritanism and action. 

In order to live a century (and let's face it, those post-war overachievers won't be satisfied with a pedestrian seven or eight decades, by God) all anyone, the sub-text tells us, we need to live properly.  Organic food, exercise and more exercise, no booze or cigarettes, no ice cream, no bacon, no steak--it's just a matter of willpower and clean living to get us there.  But then, we'll have missed the fun and all of our eating and drinking buddies will have died off, so no one will be there to see us win the last man standing contest. 

This related to the deeply Puritanincal notion idea that people get what they deserve.  What goes around, comes around is a satisfying notion for so many people, yet honors students get killed by drunk drivers and war criminals die in their sleep at ninety.  And few of us are perfectly good or bad, but a lot of both, so depending on whom you ask, we might deserve lung cancer or malaria or an earthquake, but it's subjective.  And then there is the genetic wildcard, which means some people eat lentils and die before their kids grown up and other knock back a fifth of Scotch and two packs a day their entire adult lives and still hit eighty. 

Then there is the preoccupation with action: if we're not writing books or running marathons or doing tantric yoga for two days at a time, the notion goes, we're frittering away our old age.  When does the bloody race end, then?  Didn't old people used to get to sit in rocking chairs and pontificate on the lessons life had taught them?  And didn't younger people have to sit and listen out of respect? 

I know ageism is an issue and that we shouldn't limit our ideas about what people can contribute to the advanced years any more than we should to their gender or the color of their skin.  And anyone who wants to tackle me on the running trail or in the workplace can quite likely beat me and teach me a great deal in the process.  But honestly, the pressure.  At some point, I hope we can collectively decide there is something to be said for sitting down and just being.  If baby boomers leave any legacy, maybe it will be this:  they will finally find contentment trumps achievement.  But I doubt it.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Julia Child's Big Life

We were on our way back to DC after a sweltering day in New York City. Even the cool marble tiles on the floor of Penn Station were hot (the trains were backed up and it was the only spot we could find to perch while we waited for the board to tell us our ride had pulled in was on the floor against a pillar) but in the dingy bookshop I'd found a biography of Julia Child that already had me absorbed.  Even as a mom sitting with my own children, I felt for a few minutes like a student waiting to go home for summer break.

The first years of Julia's life were idyllic, spent in Pasadena in financial comfort, as her father, John McWilliams, was a talented and even visionary businessman, and other than the mention of cheaper rent in New York during the early forties, there is no mention of the Great Depression.  This life of privilege doesn't detract, however, from young Julia coming across as the sort of person we'd all like to know. Even if Child hadn't become famous, Noel Riley Fitch's sketch of the young Julia reveals to the reader an enormously likable character.  And everyone, it seems, did like her very much.  But though she was pretty, she was also very tall at six feet two, and had cultivated a larger-than-life personality to compensate for her lack of traditional attractiveness, which after all was what mattered in those days.  Not an easy romantic match, to be sure, and when she graduated from Smith College in 1934, she was not, like so many of her classmates, betrothed.

She would be thirty-four before she married Paul Child, the man she would love with all of her big and passionate heart.  After unsatisfying stints as a party girl in Pasadena and then as an advertising manager in New York, she'd gone off in search of adventure and wound up posted with the OSS (precursor to the CIA) in India and then China.  She was smitten soon after meeting Paul, ten years her elder, but Paul had strong ideas about the sort of woman who interested him.  Like the first love of his life (Edith Kennedy, who had been fifteen years his senior and his mistress for ten years, had died several years before he met Julia) he believed she should be petite, dark, sophisticated and intellectually disciplined.  Julia was tall, fair, exuberant and, though very intelligent, intellectually unruly, especially by her own admission.

Julia persisted in her pursuit of Paul, becoming as she had been to other men, an understanding friend and enthusiastic travel companion. Her patience would pay off, demonstrating that in the throes of war in a third-world country, the rules from He's Just Not That Into You don't necessarily apply.  Paul, we learn, is much like the rest of us: he hasn't a hot clue what's best for him romantically. Julia's joie de vivre brought him out of himself, everyone who knew him saw immediately.  It took him awhile, but eventually he kicked himself for not recognizing the wonderful woman who had been right in front of him for so long. Many years later in an interview, he said that if he hadn't married her, he'd have lived on an island and been a "miserable old bastard."

Julia's love life prior to Paul wasn't entirely barren, of course, since she was certainly charming company. She'd had a marriage proposal from Harrison Chandler of the Los Angeles Times family.  She could have easily married money and gone off to be a matron of the California social scene, but after rejecting the proposal, she was characteristically adamant in an entry in her diary, asserting " is a SIN to marry without LOVE...I know what I want, and it is 'sympatico'--companionship, interests, great respect, and fun.  Otherwise and always--NO."

How strong she was in the face of what surely was strong social pressure to conform to the notions of womanhood of her day, and to know her own mind.  I wonder if she didn't despair at times, but her family wealth and natural optimism made living on her own more practical than it would have been for another young woman.

In the end, she held out and found her true partner, the man who helped uncover her real passions of cooking, teaching and writing.  Once he was hooked, Paul was her best friend, her passionate lover, and her unwavering supporter.  They had tremendous fun and took good care of each other.  The reproduction of her kitchen at the Smithsonian (photograph above, by my daughter) famously shown in the film Julie & Julia, shows the outlines of the pots the meticulous Paul drew on the pegboard so she would always know where to find her tools.  It's a touching gesture of love, and I envy Julia more for that even than for her culinary expertise.  More than anything, I admire her resolve to hold out for what she really wanted.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Summer Fun

My children are back in the house after nearly three full weeks away at their father's.  They bounded up the steps last evening and waved at their dad and his SO, then came in with full bags and big hugs.  Suddenly the house, which had been so quiet and orderly, was filled with their energy.  I hadn't realized until that moment how much I'd missed them, and I got a flash of how it will be when they come back for holidays once they leave the nest.  I resolved to savor our time together even when things get crazy during the school year.

For now, they are out of school and we're excited about our upcoming trip to Washington, DC.  We'll take in all the sights and also ride the train to NYC for a day.  Last year we went to Chicago, their first big city trip, but this year they seem so much older and more sophisticated to me.  They've got the idea about looking at the Fodor's and figuring out what they really want to do, and they are happy we're flying and not doing an overnight roadtrip, Dad-style.  Gone are the days of Benadryl and Goldfish and hoping the timing would jive with their nap and diaper schedules so entire planeloads of people wouldn't scowl at me. 

I have them for an entire month, and it seems to me that summer has finally really started, even though it's been a hundred degrees in Texas since Memorial Day.  For those of you celebrating Canada Day, I hope you've taken a long weekend.  And for those who are looking forward to the Fourth of July, have a safe and happy holiday.