Monday, 29 July 2013

Finding Edward

I hate cleaning. My mother and sister thrive on it. They somehow don't feel whole if they can't observe extreme clean. And it de-stresses them to do it. I really am trying to be motivated to be like them. It's not working - part of my unchangeable personality which makes me the black sheep. Not that I like mess and dirt, just that a) I'd rather have someone else clean and b) I can ignore it easily.

So, how much of our personality is changeable and unchangeable? During my first months of lay-off, I was obsessed with doing personality tests to try and understand just what career path I really should have, would have, and could have taken if I had really asked myself "Who am I?"

I found that taking the on-line tests over and over again got me a result I didn't want, and wasn't who I perceived myself to be. I took solace in the fact that although I may have this nature, I can also nuture myself through behaviour modification. However, I have possibly over-cooked it on the nurturing end of things, trying to supress my true self through almost my entire academic and professional life because I was afraid to be me. I haven't read James Altucher's recent book yet, but I am imagining that is what it's all about.

As I try to find balance in what I do, and what I will get paid to do, I have also been thinking about nature versus nurture concept in the context of marriage or long-term relationships. And I realize I am bastardizing the notion of nature as a genetic phenomenon, to which I clearly have not inherited the cleaning gene. Nonetheless, my friends and I often have the conversation about whether chemistry (I am beginning to hate that word) is just there (you know when you feel it) or whether that is something that can develop over time. And which one really leads to long-term bliss?

A couple of weeks ago, I was watching the Proposal with my daughter. It struck me that one of the remarkable things that happens seems too good to be true: An editor (driven female) and her assistant (younger male) who have a very close working relationship (albeit an unloving one on the surface) figure out they love each other over the course of a long week-end. Having faked an engagement and being asked to kiss at a party, the male character reveals later that he "knew it" when they kissed. Was it nuture? (3 years of working together) or nature? (it was going to happen regardless).

How many rom-coms have we seen where there seems to be very little relationship development and couples just happen to fall in love? Or started out as friends only to realize later that they have actually been in love this whole time? Is this fantasy or can you actually intuitively know that you were meant to be together? How do you decipher a "sexual piquing of interest" versus "this just feels right"?

I had a brief conversation with a friend recently about "transference". About how we bring all the experiences of our past relationships into our future ones, including the relationship with our parents. I was one of the first in my group of friends to adventure into serious coupledom (age 17!) which led to marriage after nine years of dating and a lot of waves to ride in-between and after. It ended in divorce. Were we too young to know any better? Our brains had reached maturity (just) by the time we married at age 26. What I think about now though, is why didn't I follow the pattern of my parents in their marriage rather than how they raised me?

I was raised to never give up with a strong push on independent performance. So, that transference makes sense - I think I just didn't want to give up and get a poor score on my life's record. Failure was not well embraced by me or my family. And for 18 years I tried not to fail. If I had really paid attention to my parents, and listened to what they were really trying to teach me,  I would have realized that my failure was that I didn't give up sooner. I always give the excuse that I had to wait for my two children to be born. And maybe that's true. I can't of course imagine this world without them. No parent can.

My parents don't have a perfect relationship and they also haven't given up. My kids once asked me why Omi and Grandpa weren't divorced because they fight so much. But, there are two things that seem different to me when I compare them to my experience. One - they were engaged after a relatively short time. They were 10 years older than me when I first started my relationship at seventeen with my now ex-husband, but I don't think the age factor is as important as I previously thought. My parents knew each other for 9 months before they were engaged. My grandparents for 3 months. My sister and her husband (who I set-up through a friend of mine) dated for less 3 months before they moved in together and were engaged within the year. They all have or had successful relationships. Not without work, or what I am calling "nuture", but somehow they figured out the nature part early on.

The second thing is there seems to be an underlying bond they have that I am not sure I ever had. In my marriage there was always chemistry, but perhaps not the right kind of chemistry, or mixing of natures that could continue to be nourished through the long-term. Is that love? I don't know. But, relationship gurus will tell you what to look for with respect to longevity. How can couples who knew each other for such a short time learn all that "experts" claim will lead to success? 

I do support the concept of "know thyself and know thyself well" as I mentioned above. I have been exploring "me", or the "lost me" for sometime now. Whether this must be in place first, however, is up for debate. Maybe if it is the right person, you can find yourself alongside them. Without being absorbed by them. In essence, their nature support yours.

I think, and I hope, I can do this now - combine the work ethic from my parents that includes not giving up on myself or the relationship, but also ensuring that I pay attention early on. I am going to follow the advice from my sister. She once said to me you "will know" because from the beginning it is just "easy" to be with that person. It feels "natural". You don't really have to think about it and nothing they do really bothers you. I need to transfer that learning, and understand that although the seeking is not easy, once found, it will be. Nature=Easy. Nuture=Work on top of easy.

And now a little bit of funny...

At dinner the other night, my friends and I made our first list (because there are so many more) of statements we have heard on first dates which were good indications of our "not the ones":

- Mensa I: "Let me stop you right there - I don't read"
- The un-funny Seinfeld: "'Johnny' likes his pasta" (referring to himself - and yes, it's true)
- The really, did you say that: "Are your hands dry from washing so many dishes"?
- Mensa II: "Is that fiction or non-fiction? I always get those two mixed up".
- The date interviewer: "So, what drives you?"

You may be thinking "those bitches, the guys were probably just nervous", and that may be true. But, if our natures had allowed it - we wouldn't have noticed, or even remembered.

I dedicate this blog to my sister and my best friends. To my sister, who found Easy. To my friends - I am not giving up on us finding our Easy! Or as I like to call Edward.

Laugh. Out. Loud.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Does it matter if a genius is an asshole?

I sort of knew Ernest Hemingway was a blowhard. I didn't know anything about Frank Lloyd Wright except for his famous works and style. Apparently also an asshole.

I just finished reading The Paris Wife. At the end the author says she tried to keep it as accurate as possible. The book focusses on Papa and his first wife during the 5 years of their marriage when they lived in Paris. Hence the title. Hemingway is one of my favourite writers. Old Man and the Sea is on my top ten book list. Now that I know he was a terrible husband, a violent drunk, and a hurtful friend, does that change anything?

Frank Lloyd Wright was mentioned in another book I am reading called Give and Take. He was a "taker" who did not acknowledge or support his team (when he was working with one), insisted on getting credit for every project to which he contributed (even if it was small) and even his son publically criticized him for his approach to family and work. The FallingWater house was a last minute, off-deadline design that the client never wanted in the first place, and he charged way more than was in the original contract. Nonetheless, the design is more than stunning. I pondered further - do you have to be an asshole to be a genius? Does being an asshole create the conflict and pain that drives creation?

According to the author of Give and Take, Adam Grant, the answer to the second to last question, appears to be "no". In the chapter I just finished reading he gives examples and talks a lot about a man named George Meyer - one of the comedic geniuses behind many of the award winning Simpsons episodes, among other things. According to Grant and his research, Meyer is a genius, a genius maker and a successful "giver". The opposite of Frank Lloyd Wright.

So we can answer the third question also - if George Meyer can be a genius without being an asshole, then creation is possible without having to force pain and conflict (albeit that might be there already). Ernest Hemingway was just as much an observer of the gory details of "real life", but was certainly driven by his own feelings about, participation in and wounding that occurred during World War I. He took from himself and he took from others. Then he gave it back - sometimes in an unflattering way. We have to remember however that no matter what - it's still fiction.

The answer to the first question is harder and I think answerable only on a personal level. Knowing that these men, these artists, did not practice the virtues I cherish, still does not diminish my appreciation of their work. It also doesn't change my approach to life. I think that's because I can separate the work from the person. It becomes it's own thing. The Old Man and the Sea is The Old Man and the Sea, regardless of who wrote it and what drove them to genius. The FallingWater house is what it is.

I also did not know them personally. I am going by what other people say and write. Their lives and therefore "they" are interesting stories alone. Even if I did know them, I still don't think that would have changed my opinion of their art. Would I have been a lover or a wife? If I knew the history and I was smart- probably not. Again - that's hard to say. I am naturally attracted to creative genius.

So, I am obviously not above judging. But with respect to the arts, I prefer to look at the outcome, not the process, and not the person. In fact from what I know I feel sympathy for them both. It is not how I would have wanted to live my life. Ernest Hemingway had four wives, and eventually committed suicide. Frank Lloyd Wright alienated his family and colleagues. Could they have helped themselves not to be that way? I don't know - I am still reading the book. And I don't know how they produced such organic beauty, being ugly in their own way. But, I do know I will look to the George Meyers for inspiration in how to lead my own life, create, and try to be a genius maker of others, without isolating myself in an asshole dome.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Parenting with a Teenage Brain

Maybe it's the crazy weather. Maybe it's the fact that my "vacation" from the kids is coming to an end. And I miss them dearly! Maybe it's that I am tired of having conversations with myself - like I am doing right now in writing this blog. But I am just in this mood where I feel like being reckless - not feckless, but downright irresponsible.

So I started fantasizing about what types of things could I do that would be totally reckless, and would the consequences actually be that bad? I recently saw a movie where one character says to the other: "Are you stupid?" Her response was "yes". And I really took to that. However - easier said than done! I may have the desire, but I no longer have a teenage brain. My friends may beg to differ, but I am pretty sure I am wiser than I appear.

Lately I have seen a lot of attention paid to the topic of "the teenage brain", and whether teens in-fact behave they way they do because they are hard-wired for it. If I could find where I stashed all those National Geographic magazines my "pre-teen but acts like a teen" daughter never reads I might be able to describe the findings more articulately. She probably hid that one from me because she doesn't want to me to know or even try to understand. But, from what I can remember, and a little Google search there are a few elements that help drive classified risky behaviour:

1. The brain is not fully developed until the age of 25 (NIH study), and

2. Teens are more likely to take risks that have unknown consequences because they do not understand the "gist" of it, which may in fact also help them leave home because they are not afraid to venture into the unknown (

So...while I know I must prepare for the onslaught of raging hormones and illogical arguments that will be my destiny for the next 7 years, the thought stream in my subconscious of how I might best prevent the things I don't want to happen to her plus my own current desire for recklessness, made me think: what if some of those things were to happen to me? Like, right now?

For example - what if I got pregnant? It would be risk of a different kind. More risk to the baby than to myself which is the opposite of what would happen if my daughter got pregnant as a teenager. Her risks would be mostly mental. Mine physical. Both of us - unsupported. A poor consequence for her, so full of potential, and not being able to fully explore it. On the other hand, despite the physical risks,  I would see it as a gift of potential - and I would know what to do with it.

It makes one wonder though, if the brain does not mature until the age of 25, then why is it possible for girls to "make babies" as early as the age of 10? Would you not think menstruation would be delayed until the brain could make better, less risky decisions that would help protect offspring? 

And if biology did not make a mistake, and part of the teenage brain is about being comfortable with blind risks, then how can I apply that to better parenting when I no longer possess the teenage brain? Some of the research cited in the link above talks about teaching teenagers how to understand the "gist" of a consequence and how not to over or underestimate actual risk - a little lesson in statistics and outcomes. But if one were to apply the opposite thinking, what is it that I need to do to also show them that the unknown is not something to be afraid of, if that is something I don't practice myself and I am potentially no longer capable of thinking like that?

I think from early on, the monster hiding in the closet or under the bed is really a version of the unknown for our children. We either say "don't be scared - monsters don't exist" or we put a night light on for them. How that even makes sense, escapes me, because all that does is allow you to see the monster! So, do the monsters go away when your teenage brain comes into power? And if so, why do we need to teach them about risk and quantifying the unknown? Not all things can be quantified. You can't see the monster in the dark.

The researchers talk about why teenagers take risks like unprotected sex, etc. which they mistake for unknown or incorrect probabilities when those risks are actually quantifiable. But, for me, as a parent, it's the emotional risks that are much more difficult to teach. A condom will protect you from STDs and pregnancy, but it won't protect you from the hurt that may come from being "dumped" after you gave away your virginity to someone you thought "loved you" in that most awesome, dramatic, dreamy teenage version of it.

So what can I do to help them survive the emotional unknown? Well, on small scale I can show them how to try. I have started painting. I have an idea how it might turnout, but for the most part it's an unknown. And it may turn out to be a piece of ugly crap. What I am showing them is that I am not afraid of the good or bad consequences in this case - it's a small risk that really won't hurt anything other than potentially my ego.

It really goes back to my earlier blog: The Heart Chain and the risks and benefits of being vulnerable. I have also shown my children the consequences of vulnerability on a larger scale, and I have been criticized by friends, parents, and therapists for doing so. For example, I let my children see me upset and crying after a relationship ended. I wanted them to see me like that, to show that I took the risk, that recovery was possible, and that emotions are acceptable. And, to let them know that eventually I would try again - adventuring into another unknown, another potential for failure, but also a potential for success. I think and I hope that this will be one of the most important lessons I teach them to keep that part of their teenage brain active throughout their adult lives.

And I will end with quotes from the thoroughly enjoyable teenage read of the Twilight series, which brought me back to the lovely state of teenage everything:

Edward Cullen: I only said it would be better if we weren't friends, not that I didn't want to be.
Isabella Swan: What does that mean?
Edward Cullen: It means if you're smart... you'll stay away from me.
Isabella Swan: Okay, let's say for argument's sake that I'm not smart.

"Edward had drawn many careful lines for our physical relationship, with the intent being to keep me alive. Though I respected the need for maintaining a safe distance between my skin and his razor-sharp, venom-coated teeth, I tended to forget about trivial things like that when he was kissing me".
-Bella Swan, New Moon, Chapter 1, p.16

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

My Own Private Italy

Last Saturday I went to see a movie with my mom and very obviously some other seniors from the hood.  Not that she acknowledges the fact that she is a senior and not that we knew these other seniors per se, but here I was stuck in a tiny, but neat retro theatre where I am sure the majority of the audience had grandchildren in university.

The movie we went to see was Love is All You Need. A "romance" film in both English and Danish about a woman who is recovering from cancer whose husband leaves her for a younger woman. She then meets the curmudgeonly father of her daughter's fiancée on the way their children's wedding by crashing into his car at the airport. But of course - how else would they meet? During the course of their stay, they fall in love, in Italy, where the wedding is to take place.

Now, at first I thought I would go on about the plethora of movies at the moment that involve retirees or empty nesters searching for love and sex (ew). But based on a conversation with my mum after the movie, about how we decided to change the plan from buying a farmhouse outside of Belleville to Italy (no offense to Eastern Ontario), I realized many of the romance movies that I have seen, and liked, brandish the realization of love or self discovery in the settings of Italy or Greece or some other southern European paradise. On the list of the some cheesy, some not, romantic films and/or books that do this, include:

Enchanted April
Under the Tuscan Sun
Part of Love, Actually
Mamma Mia and
Room with A View

I realize this is a short list, but these are the ones I can speak to since I have seen them more than once (how embarrassing). But why is it that Enchanted April is one of my favourite films? If art imitates life, why is it that we need to go away to find love? or ourselves? or find ourselves so that we can love? Why is it that my sister's "happy place" is in Provence where she and her husband went to yes, you guessed it - a wedding. What if I can't get away, can I create my own private Italy?

One of the obvious joys of these films and books is the Wordsworthian contrast of the romantic setting to the stuffy, boxed-in, devoid of nature settings so beautifully displayed both in the visual and literary mediums. Symbolic of the mind and heart, it is only when the characters travel to the sun, the crumbling facades, the ocean-side, the orchards and the vineyards that we see them blossom as they lose themselves in the beauty of their surroundings.

One of my favourite parts in Room with a View is when they stop to picnic in the middle of nowhere Italian countryside, where it is wild and lovely and fresh. Lucy, the main character, a young woman under the care of her fussy cousin finds herself face to face with a young man named George who has been raised to view the world from what would have been at the time the equivalent to a "hippy" perspective: “It is fate that I am here,' George persisted, 'but you can call it Italy if it makes you less unhappy.”   

It is here that Lucy and George fall in love - but Lucy refuses to accept it at the time, having been courted by the rather stuffy Cecil who is waiting for her back in England. I think I have seen the movie about ten times. And I confess I have been to Italy about five times, albeit I don't remember much from the time I was less than one year old. I do however concur with the following quote:

One doesn't come to Italy for comes for life. Buon giorno! Buon giorno!”  

In Enchanted April, four women who previously had no relationship to each other embark on their own to rent an Italian Villa: two unhappily married women, an elderly, old-fashioned woman and a young and beautiful but sad looking Lady (the capital is not a typo). The friendship they develop and the rediscovery of youth, the beauty of nature and love are again very Wordsworthian but also very inspiring:

“...She had heard of dried staffs, pieces of mere dead wood, suddenly putting forth fresh leaves, but only in legend. She was not in legend. She knew perfectly what was due to herself. Dignity demanded that she should have nothing to do with fresh leaves at her age; and yet there it was--the feeling that presently, that at any moment now, she might crop out all green.”  

A short synopsis of Under the Tuscan Sun: a middle-age divorced woman whose ex-husband cheated on her and is now having a baby with his mistress, decides to go on a tour in Italy and ends up buying a house there. Again, the exploration of both her surroundings, her struggle to bring the old house to life and her consequential bringing of herself to life are both genuine and beautiful to watch. There is a great quote from the book:

Where you are is who you are. The further inside you the place moves, the more your identity is intertwined with it. Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave.”  

So where does that leave us, reader? And back to my original question - can I create the zest for life, the passion, the abandonment; can I see the beauty in nature, re-sprout youth and satisfy my cravings right here in Toronto?

I think I can if I follow an "if you build it, they will come" mentality. I have wine, olives, sundried tomatoes, a French stick and some Brie (ok that's not Italian, but France counts too). I have fresh flowers in every room.  I've started my sketches of a south of France scene. I've turned the air off and I've brought some of the stuff I was saving for the farmhouse out of the closet. I'm breathing. I'm wandering. I will try a new restaurant. I will picnic in the park. I will cook a simple but fabulous meal for my friends. I will experience passion. I will feel beauty. I will do one thing that is full of youthful abandonment. And I will still find some time to catch some Mediterranean films I haven't seen:

Journey to Italy (1954)
To Catch a Thief (1954)
Sex and Lucía (2001)
Bonjour tristesse (1958)

Ciao Bellos, Bellas! Salute Estate! (Salooteh Ehstateh...I think)