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Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Moderation. Small helpings. Sample a little bit of everything. These are the secrets of happiness and good health. (Julia Child)

Abundance. Either you have it, or you don't. But this time of the year, it's hard not to think about it.

Gifts piled up high, lots of glitter and bling bling, spending large amounts of money, it is dazzling and exhilarating. But is it really what we want? The more and the flashier, the better?

I vividly remember some footage of Michael Jackson shopping. You can see him rush through the store, pointing to huge vases and other decorative items to signify he's going to buy them, one after the other, without even taking the time to admire them, desire them, get himself all excited over the fact that he's going to acquire them. Despite all the purchases, he doesn't look happy at all. I'd much rather take my time, hesitate, wonder if I really want something and if it's too expensive, ponder if there's something else I'd rather use my cash for. From that perspective, having less money than a pop music superstar might be a blessing in disguise! Half of the pleasure lies in the wait and anticipation!

I am a strong adept of spoiling myself and others... in moderation.

Did you ever notice how quickly we adapt to things that initially seemed so wonderful and exciting?

When my family and I moved to Nova Scotia, I was amazed at the size of our new house and at the forest in our backyard. Two years later, by some mysterious process, our house had shrinked. It was not longer big! I also realized I hardly noticed the forest anymore. Unless I made the conscious effort.

This happens to people all the time. They buy a pet and spend the first few days (weeks if the pet is lucky) playing with kitty and taking puppy for walks. Then, slowly, gradually, insidiously, the furry friend becomes part of the decor, and has to complain to get fed.

I experienced this "adaptation-to-fun" phenomenon yet again while my mother was visiting from Quebec, in October. Over the course of a few days, we played 4 games of Scrabble. As one could expect, the first and second games were much more enjoyable than the fourth. By then I was getting kind of blasé, and ready to do something else. (It might also have something to do with the fact that she beat me by about a hundred points during that fourth game. Just saying.)

Truth is, we often fail to appreciate what's readily available.

I might have discovered this during my first semester in university. Studying days, evenings and weekends was a completely new reality for me, and not necessarily a pleasant one. But there was a good side to it: it made me appreciate what I had so little of, namely, free time. I had never realized how precious free time is, and that's probably because I had good amounts of it. But not in university! When the last term paper was finally handed, and the last exam finally over, I ran to the video store to rent the movie I had been wanting to watch for weeks. It was so exciting to finally have the time to sit down and relax in front of the TV screen! (Unfortunately, I was so exhausted from a few late nights of last minute studying that I fell asleep on the couch within the first 15 minutes of the movie. Oh well.)

It's a real challenge to appreciate what we have when we have it in abundance. It is such a challenge that we keep trying to gain more - more possessions, more money, more space, more friends, more excitement... instead of appreciating what's already there.

I know for a fact that one of the reasons I love lobster so much is because it's always been scarce. On my plate once or twice a year, and that was it. Now that I live in a region where it's readily available, fresh and affordable... I still eat it only occasionally. Having it often would be sure to kill part of my joy. So I let myself linger a little. I let the craving grow. Then when I finally have it, it's sooooooo good!

When there is less of something, we savour it so much more intensely! There's a scene in the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where a square of chocolate is smelled at length before the first (small) bite is taken. This is because for Charlie's family, chocolate is an expensive luxury that does not enter the house often (and when it does, the 7 family members have to share the one chocolate bar). Now if buying a chocolate bar is easy for you, you can recreate the feeling by buying expensive chocolate (or any other delicacy) only once a year or so. You can even ask Santa to bring you some. As opposed to what you would do with something more affordable, available in large quantities, you find yourself eating it very slowly, savouring it, letting all your senses absorb it.

Moderation does not mean frugality and asceticism at all times, hell no! If you're able to indulge, by all means do so! Life is short, you know! But keep in mind that small and occasional (and truly savoured) are important ingredients for happiness. Another trick: if you share what you have (either with friends and family or with people who really need a little help), you'll feel even better!

My friend N, whom I had just asked if she drinks/appreciates wine, answered "No, not really. I do, however, like Champagne." Now that's a wise woman! Know what you truly enjoy, and concentrate on that!

As for me, I try to live up to the title of an oenology column I read monthly, that would translate to something like "Drink less, drink better". Once in a while, I'll open a great bottle, and it's well worth the money, if you consider the pleasure - visual, olfactory and social as much as gustatory - it gives my drinking partners and I! The rest of the time, I drink very little. I like to see it this way: all the money I have saved from not buying all those other bottles, I use it for this one very special bottle. Which makes it all the more special!

What are your luxurious pleasures, and how do you keep yourself lingering a little?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Baby blog's first Christmas

Now this is what you do with a couple eggs, old toilet paper rolls and some cotton balls!

And I thought I wasn't crafty. Children definitely bring out the best in us!

Not only did we "craft", we even baked and decorated cupcakes. What's happening to me???

But before this post becomes too Martha-Stewart-ey, what I really want to do is to wish everybody, all around the world, whatever their religion (or absence of religion), political allegiances, language, skin color, sexual orientation, size of shoes, favourite food, sleeping habits...


Oh, and my 5 year-old wanted to add her own wishes (her own spelling...):

Ho Ho Ho! Mare Crasmas! A's ban a prete god grl so she shod hav los av toys. Love, A.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Blissful moment: Holiday music essentials

Every year, in December, I can finally do what I've been craving all year without becoming a disgrace (or at least an annoyance) to everyone around me: listen to Christmas music!

Is it because I sang the songs in a choir at a very young age (5th grade and on to be accurate)? I have a very special attachment to Christmas carols.

Of course, as I've grown, my repertoire has expanded dramatically. (The one I listen to! Not the one I sing!) Today, I'm going to share some of the essentials. Note that number 1 and 2 are perfectly acceptable any time of the year, but December makes it all more special and appropriate.

Number 1: Handel's Messiah

About 8 years ago (easy to remember since I was pregnant with my oldest, R), I attended "the Messiah" at the basilique Notre-Dame in Montreal's old port. It was beautiful. Magical. I'm sure it contributed to the fact that R has become a music lover, can be heard singing opera in the shower (in tune!) and has already surpassed her mother (that's me) in playing the piano. (To be completely honest, I never got very far in the latter.)

Our daughters have accompanied us to Christmas concerts since they were babies, and have always behaved wonderfully (as opposed to the behavior they keep just for us, at home). That is, if you except the one time R, who was then about 2 or 3 years old, decided to join in and very loudly started singing "Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluiaaaaaaaaaaa!" during a very quiet pause in the music...

Number 2: Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker

I must have been a young teenager when my parents took us to see Nutcracker (the ballet) by Les grands ballets canadiens. Enchanting! I already loved Tchaikovsky's music in general (this piece is also a favourite of mine), but seing it enacted by talented and graceful dancers was one of the best Christmas gifts I ever got.

Number 3: last but not least, your local school's Christmas concert! (or Hanukkah's, or Kwanza's, in all and total respect... whatever concert happening this time of the year!)

(Some schools are considering renaming it a Holidays concert, or a December concert, to make sure nobody's offended... but that's another debate altogether.)

Two years ago, I reluctantly drove to R's school to attend her first Christmas concert. Don't get me wrong, I love children, just as much as I love Christmas concerts (my mom is in a choir and I've happily attended their concerts for years). But the thought of listening to a bunch of 5-6 year olds massacring my favourite tunes was not very enticing. How wrong was I. As soon as they appeared on stage, everyone (including me) was whispering Ohhhs and Ahhhs at the cuteness of their "Sunday best attire". Then, as soon as the sweethearts stroke up the first song, I was conquered. I even caught myself tearing up a little bit (which does NOT happen often! Well, if you exclude music, that is). I had never been so moved by a Christmas concert.

I must not be the only one feeling that way, because that concert is always "sold out". (Either that or the fact that we live in a small community where nothing cultural ever happens; a school concert is all we'll get!)

Now, this year, our little A became part of the concert as well. Not only did she sing beautifully, she also delivered her few lines (one or two kids per class had to speak in the microphone) with great confidence. Which might seem like a small accomplishement, but coming from a little girl who, about a year ago, used to scream and hang on to my pants whenever we tried putting her into a class (dance, swimming, soccer, you name it), this was truly amazing. She even told the other kids what to do and where to go! Her father and I looked at each other in awe, and quietly congratulated ourselves for that theatre camp we signed her for, last summer. Watch out, world! A has come out of her shell!

To finish up beautifully, I don't see why I wouldn't share with you the song that's been stuck in my mind for the past few days.

Good luck with this!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday fun: lost in translation

The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Most of the time, I love my translating job, for all sorts of reasons. The act of translation per se is very pleasant to me, as I genuinely enjoy playing with words. Plus, I get to read about all kinds of fascinating topics. And my conditions as a freelance, home-based translator, are wonderful: the single fact that I can roll my chair back about 6 feet to get to the fridge is just one example. The view from my window onto the Canadian forest is another one, especially on those days the deer family or the pheasant family decide to pay me a little visit (which is often). And I'm not even mentioning the opportunity to wear jeans and a ponytail on a daily basis, listen to all kinds of loud music, do yoga or go for a run anytime I feel like it, and eat freshly popped corn off my desk. Did I say there is no commute, too? Like NONE? (Unless you think walking from the bedroom to the home office qualifies as commuting!)

But once in a while, I get this assignment that really, I am doing for the money, and for the money only.

You know, for example, that it's not gonna be good when you see the words microorganism and gastrointestinal in the same sentence.

I am also very wary when I receive dermatology documents to translate, especially when they involve illustrations. I don't mind translating the words, but do I really need to see those pictures of pus producing infections/parasites? Could we keep the visual to a minimum? Please?

Yes, this is what I've had to translate this week.

And I thought medical translation sounded like an uneventful, "clean and quiet" kind of career. Um.

What do you love about your job? And is there anything you could do without?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It's not what I think it is!

My new acquaintance, J, with whom I've been having fascinating conversations (about death denial among other things), has wisely pointed out that attributing death anxiety to fear of the last judgement is yet another form of death denial.

(Think about that for a minute!)

Yes, the superpowers of the human mind, when it comes to denial, are nothing less than amazing.

(If you're still debating whether you should give credit to J's claim or not, denial might be at play in you, this right moment!)

In fact, denial might be one of the most sophisticated processes of the human mind. Oftentimes, when we feel confused... I believe denial is at play. You cannot see things clearly when there are good reasons to keep your eyes closed. Is there any situation in your life right now where you feel very confused? Watch out for denial! It's probably hiding in the wings!

But rather than writing an erudite essay on the topic (which would imply me researching the literature for hours... blah...), I thought I could come up with some examples of the unquestionable power of denial.

(Please note that some of the following examples are mine, whereas some were recounted to me by good friends.)

1) The denial of impossible love

You've known her for years. You've spent so much time together. Alone, in a canoe, in the middle of a quiet lake. Alone, hiking, in the middle of a quiet forest. Alone, in your room, chatting the night away. You've taken her out to dinner. You've danced with her. You've given her massages. You wrote her long flowery letters. You composed poetic love songs and sang them to her. But still, after all that time, no kiss. She calls you her best friend. A few times, when you tried to get physically closer, she nicely (but firmly) asked you to please move out of her personal space. And now, well now, she just got engaged to a man she doesn't stop saying wonderful things about. But you still have that little hope, deep in your heart, that some day she'll see the extent of your love, and will fall in your arms helplessly. You tell her that in yet another lengthy letter. And wonder why she looks discouraged.

2) The denial of health problems

You go into labor 31 weeks into your pregnancy. The birth is inevitable, declares the ob-gyn in a concerned voice. All kinds of staff assemble in the room : pediatricians, extra nurses, etc. They bring along tons of equipment for eventual resuscitation purposes. Everybody is calm but vigilant and very serious. No smiles. No excitement. When the baby's out and crying lightly (it sounds like a whisper), the doc looks slightly relieved, but still tells you he's gonna have to take her to the NICU right away. You complain. This is supposed to be bonding time! Skin to skin first contact! Don't ruin our first moments, you protest! Then as the baby's taken away from you before you even had time to take a good look at her (daddy's going with her, at least), you enthusiastically start calling people to announce the birth... and become very annoyed when they fail to share the excitement. Oh, it's so early, they say. Is she gonna be OK? Of course she will! What's the big fuss? Can't you just be happy for us?

It's only a good 24 hours later, after seeing your tiny baby in her incubator, connected to a bunch of beeping machines, and learning that she'll be staying in the hospital for at least a month, that it hits you: no, she's not OK.

(I feel compelled to add, at this point, that some 8 years later, my little precious has proven that she is absolutely OK, and so much more than OK! R is a perfectly healthy and super smart kid, and we're so grateful!)

3) The denial of a crush

You've met someone and quickly developed a fascination for her. Everything she says is the most intelligent thing you've ever heard. Everything she does is awesome. You find yourself admiring her least movement, the way she moves her hair out of her face, the way she wrinkles her nose when she laughs. You notice her lovely scent. Her voice is a song to your ears, especially when she says your name. You enjoy her company so much you'd like to be with her 24/7. When you're talking with her, you feel compelled to touch her. When you're not with her and the phone rings, you jump out of your seat, with the hope that it's a call from her. You check your email every 10 minutes, and feel deep disappointment when there's no message from her. You pay particular attention to your looks when you know you're gonna see her. You find yourself daydreaming about her. Then she's in your dreams at night. You get butterflies in the stomach thinking about her, and even more when she's around. But since she's a woman, and you're also a woman (a straight one!), this can only be intense friendship, right? RIGHT?!?

4) The denial of death

Your dad just passed away a few weeks ago, and when you go to your parents' place, even though nobody's using his office anymore, you could swear you can hear, when the house is otherwise silent, the sound of his chair rolling, of his file cabinet opening and closing, of his steps on the floor. You don't believe in ghosts, yet the sounds are very convincing. Could your brain be playing such a trick on you?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Laughing matters: fossil fun OR Why it's important to listen in class

Ideal landscape of the eocene period

I'm not sure if today's post belongs to the Laughing Matters category, or if Crying Matters would be better suited. I'll let you judge by yourself.

The blog has now reached more than 2000 page views (thank you readers!), and that brought back to my memory an anecdote that I thought I could share.

I have, at home, a plaque with a fish fossil that my mom gave us a few years ago. The name of the fish is Diplomystus Dentatus. It looks like this:

Once while I was chatting with a guy (who does not read English, so don't you be worried), the conversation branched off to fossils. I can't remember why and how. Perhaps we had mentioned, in the list of Nova Scotia's touristic must-sees, the fossil site of Parrsboro. Anyways. I thought it would be cool to show him our fish fossil.

He admired it for a while, then turned it to read what was written in the back. Apart from its name, the little sticker said "Green River Formation, Wyoming" and "Eocene (36 to 58 million years ago)".

I personally think it's pretty awesome to hold a fish fossil dating from millions of years.

But apparently, my interlocutor thought differently. With a skeptical look on his face, he turned to me and said "But how could it be 36 to 58 million years old? This is only year 2011!"

I was so NOT expecting to hear those words, I almost fell from my chair. But I quickly reminded myself of the Number One rule of interpersonal relationships: never let anyone lose face. I wiped my startled look as fast as I could, and I rapidly changed the subject.

Some conversational pieces hold dangerous powers!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A useful reminder as Christmas approaches

My ever-increasing workload prevents me from writing a lengthy post today, but I could not resist indulging a little bit, and showing you an informative diagram my colleague M just shared with me (and incidentally with all her other Facebook friends).

Thanks to this picture, never again will you feel confused about who you should look up to as the ultimate power holder:

Ha! I knew he was the awesomest.

If you need any additional proof of that, note that HE, and only HE, is followed by the NORAD (in his annual circumnavigation):


My kids love to watch where HE's at on the 24th of December, and it's a breeze to send them to bed by actually showing them he's about to arrive (since, as we all know, he will not leave presents to any kid who's not asleep!) As soon as Santa hits the Azores, you can hear 4 little feet rush upstairs. "Santa's on his way to cross the Atlantic! Quick! To bed!"

(Plus, what a better way to introduce geography notions?)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Children on happiness

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post entitled Children and happiness.

This time it will be Children ON happiness.

Which means I am giving a voice to children, for them to tell us about happiness.

More specifically, I asked my neighbour L, who is already a very interesting interlocutor at 11 years of age, to make a list of things that make her happy (and to say why they make her happy).

After all, L seems to have a talent for happiness. She's always smiling, laughing, talking enthusiastically about the people and the things that she likes. We have loads of fun together. One of our latest crazy moments happened when we decided to give a name to my Halloween decorations. For the bat, she came up with Strawberry, to be pronounced with a "transylvanian" accent: "Shtrrrowberrrrrrrrrry" (bats belong with vampires, after all). For the skull, we decided to play on contradictions and give that symbol of death a name that screams life. So the skull was baptised Fleurette, which in French means "little flower". We then went on to lengthily describe Strawberry's and Fleurette's personalities. Fleurette, in particular, has some interesting traits. According to L, she is a very vain little skull, who's always admiring herself in the mirror, and very concerned about looking feminine enough. One time, as she was leaving my house, L looked at Fleurette in the eye (or, should I say, in the eye-socket) and said "OK Fleurette, I have to go now. Take care! And remember: easy on the makeup!"

This kid will never cease to make me laugh.

Now here's L's list of things that make her happy:

- being the oldest of the kids: I get special rights
- friends: they always like my ideas
- pets: they don't argue with me, and they like to cuddle
- someone smiling: it makes me wanna smile too
- basketball and tae kwon do: it helps me get the anger out, and when I do good, my team mates cheer and give me high fives
- marshmallows: they're soft and sweet
- art class: I get to create and do beautiful things
- designing the house of my dreams: I like to imagine what my future will be like
- jumping in a pile of leaves: the colours, the smell, the fresh air
- riding a bike: I enjoy feeling the wind through my hair; it makes me feel clean
- parties, bonfires: I like staying up late; I feel like I'm a grown up
- sunglasses: they make me look "professional"

Such a simple list, and yet so full of wisdom. (Notice she didn't mention much material stuff!)
Everything L said can fit into one or more of the following categories: 

- feeling important
- a sense of belonging and connection
- projecting yourself in the future
- creativity
- contact with nature
- catharsis (through exercise, for example)
- love and affection
- immediate pleasure of the senses

Then that sweetheart added - and insisted that I write down - "I love being with J (that's me) because:

- she's funny and a little bit crazy like me; we make each other laugh
- we have picnics in the middle of nowhere: "Let's just put the blanket right here guys!... Ooops! An ants nest!"
- she shows me silly dance moves
- she gives us the best snacks, for eg: the "marshmallow test" (take a look at that video... too cute... and apparently a very accurate predictor of future success in life!)
- we watch hilarious clips on YouTube
- she explains to me the secret language of cats (watch the whole video for the translation!)
- she's the protector of all wild life, even slugs!
- she's the only grown up I know who's willing to hang upside down on the monkey bars."

Well, L, I love being with you too! You're smart, kind, funny, creative, and you certainly know how to pay compliments! ;-)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Simon Cowell is a bully

Bullying is making the headlines again, and not for a good reason. A 15-year old girl from Québec recently committed suicide after years of being bullied.

At the school my daughters attend, there is an active anti-bullying program, and the B word resonates in the classrooms and the hallways on a regular basis. Bullying is certainly not a taboo there. Kids get to verbalize about it. They draw pictures of it. They are encouraged to come up with ideas of how to fight it. At some point I even thought it was excessive. As soon as a friend disagreed with my kids or did something annoying, they would call him/her a bully. I had to sit them down and explain the subtle nuances.

Problem is, bullying itself is often subtle. As a part of some Girl Guide leader training, I once watched a documentary on bullying, and it made all of us grown-ups realize how discreet it can be to the adult eye. We had to pay very close attention to the video footage of the school playground to notice what was going on. In girls especially, bullying can happen in the way someone looks (or does not look) at you. It is very insidious. Then, watching the interviews with the bullies and their parents, we couldn't believe the denial that was going on. Plus, the bullies themselves presented a misleading image: they were lovely, balanced little girls. Not cruel monsters. That is, until you listened to how their victims felt about the whole thing.

Another reason why bullying is hard to identify and to react to is that it's often committed by people who, a day ago, were your best friends. Not only is it painful, it's very confusing. A form of psychological torture, really.

For having very unfortunately played both roles (the victim and the bully) when I was in middle school, I am too aware of its complexities. I know from a fact that being bullied hurts. Big time. I also know from a fact that being a bully, most of the time, feels like a joke; you're not really aware of the wrong you're causing. It's just funny. (Not!)

Everybody has theories on why bullying exists, and on why it is so prevalent. Please keep in mind that I am not a specialist of the topic, nor have I extensively read the research. I am nonetheless going to share my views, most of them stemming from my own personal experience.

To begin with, I do not think bullying is a recent phenomenon (my own experience goes back to 25 years ago, and I'm pretty sure my parents' generation had to deal with it too). Aggressing your peers to feel better about yourself is just one of those ugly human tendencies (oh! maybe I do see ugliness sometimes!)

Granted, today's context may have an impact on bullying. Contributing factors could include the media: there is a lot of bullying going on in reality TV, and some pretty popular adults resort to it (Simon Cowell is one example). The social media is in cause too. It is pretty damn easy to bit** people anonymously through Facebook and other web platforms. Even university professors are a target, as made obvious by some of the comments left by students on the Rate my Professors website; one of D's colleagues painfully discovered it, and he was deeply affected by it. (D does not have any ratings yet; is that good or bad?)

But the contemporary context does not explain it all.

Why do people adopt a seemingly unexplainable behavior? Because they gain something from it. Bullying makes you feel powerful, in control, important. In my case, as a 12-ish year old, bullying was the way to ensure I was still accepted in the "cool gang"; that I could hang out with the most popular kids. If you didn't bully, you were out. You had to hang out with the "not so cool" kids. Worse: you could end up being bullied yourself. Which is exactly what happened. When I realized how insane bullying actually was, I said "goodbye, gang", and made new, "uncool" friends (who proved to be pretty cool after all). I completely stopped bullying. I started behaving nicely with the scapegoats. It felt great. I made even more friends! BUT: the popular kids, my "ex-friends", they did not appreciate. And so I became another one of the victims. Which was tough in more than one way. Really tough.

(I am NOT proud of having played the bully part, but I AM proud of having - relatively quickly - come to my senses and found the courage to say "No, I'm not gonna be a bully, I'm not gonna hang out with bullies, and I'm gonna stand for the bullied". Kids, if you're a bully, or even if you're a silent witness, it is not too late to put your foot down and change your attitude!)

Now for the tangible actions. I believe bullying has to be attacked from two fronts: the bully, and the bullied.

The bullies need to be showed what bullying actually does. I believe that in many cases they just have no idea (which does not excuse their behavior, obviously). I certainly did not know how hard it was on the victims.

Of course, we have to keep in mind that a certain proportion of the bullies are probably bullied at home, by their parents or older siblings. In which cases the challenge is multiplied by 10: how do you monitor what a kid is exposed to at home, and how do you erase one of the most influential things of all: modelling after your parents!

Speaking of what happens at home, the way some kids talk to their parents borders on bullying, too. If kids do not learn to respect others within the family nucleus, how can we ensure they do outside of it?

The bullied, on the other hand, need to be given tools. They need to be reminded that when you're bullied, the causes are external to you. Kids have that tendency (probably because of their natural egocentrism) to look within themselves when the cause of something is not obvious. (Eg: kids of divorced parents often blame themselves for the divorce.) We have to make sure that every kid knows and understands that being bullied is NOT your fault; there's nothing wrong with you, even if the bullies are usually pretty good at making you think otherwise.

Every kid has to know their own value and feel confident about himself/herself, so that even the worst bullying on earth, as unpleasant as it is, is not gonna impact on his/her self-esteem. I am convinced that one of the main reasons I survived being bullied relatively intact (despite a lot of tears) was that at home, I was accepted, respected, loved and valued. I had a safe haven to go back to every afternoon. I knew my own worth, thanks to my devoted parents. The bullies had some grip on me, but I was still able to slip out of their hands.

I did have to work, though, on my shyness (which I call "the silent handicap"). There might be absolutely nothing wrong with you, shyness is not gonna help. Bullies have a gift for identifying targets who will not retaliate (usually the soft-spoken kids). In my opinion, being assertive is one of the tools that helps keeping the bullies at bay. Assertive in a respectful way: respecting of others, and self-respecting as well. As a swimming instructor trainer (student job I held for many years), part of my responsibility was to teach the kids leadership skills. There's nothing more beautiful than seeing a shy, unsure teenager blossom into a self-confident, respectful, influential, positive role model. We need to do more of that.

What are YOUR strategies?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Experiments in relativity

Christ Carrying the Cross, by Hieronymus Bosch

No, this post is not about physics!

Well, maybe about optics.

You see, I have vision problems.

Some people don't see well from afar. Some people don't see well when it's close.

What I don't see is ugliness.

Which has led me to coin the phrase "Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder".

I don't clearly recall when was the first time I realized I was ugliness-blind.

Maybe it was when I read an interview with the French novelist Amélie Nothomb, who insisted she was ugly.

I looked at pictures of her. At videos of her. I looked and I looked. From all angles. I could not see ugliness.

Yes, I noticed her features were not the most delicate. Yes, I noticed her face did not have the sought-after symmetry.

No, she probably would not succeed as a fashion model.

But ugly? I did not see that.

When I look at people, it's as if my eyes ignore the imperfections and focus on the beauty. In some people it's their hair. In some it's their eyes. Some people have a flawless skin. Well-aligned teeth. A wonderful, luminous smile. Some people's beauty resides in their voice. In their laughter. In their quiet confidence. Their humour. Their energy. In the way they look at you. In the things they say.

Everyone is beautiful in their own way. And I think we're happier when we focus on that.

I am actually not the only one to see things that way. Serge Gainsbourg, the French singer famous for claiming that "ugliness is superior to beauty in that it never fades", was certainly not a Chippendale, and yet he was constantly surrounded by pretty women.

He had them sing salacious songs with him:

Les sucettes (The lollipops)

Je t'aime moi non plus (I love you, me neither)

He had them merrily climb into his bed.

They even made babies with him.

I am guessing those women all had the same vision problems as me.

Another example of relativity in physical appearance matters is the way I recently reacted to a bunch of 18 year old men whistling me as I was running in the neighborhood. Other than being tempted to laugh and tell them to "cool it off, guys, I'm probably twice your age", what I felt was pride. Back when I was 18, I would have felt disrespected, maybe even threatened. Not anymore. This time, I liked it. When I shared this anecdote with my friends, they all had an extremely positive reaction. "Way to go, girl!" kind of  thing. They all thought it was great!

So the rules of thumb, guys, is to 1) never consider a woman too pretty for you (well, unless she shows signs of NOT being interested, of course! Respect is a capital R word!), and 2) only whistle women who are at least 15-20 years older than you!!!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Cute crushes

La liberté guidant le peuple, par Eugène Delacroix

Mother (that's M in the comments) has teased me about my love for classical music from the romantic era, so this post is a reply to her. ;-)

Yes, just for you, mom, here is an ancient tale of a cute teenage crush (that you might remember... do you?)

Back in the time I was a freshman in college, I became profoundly infatuated with my philosophy professor. Not my fault: not only was he cute, he was also knowledgeable and witty. What's an 18 year old girl to do?

One minor detail: he was 24 years older than me (precisely; I checked), and since he was so well-preserved, I had a little bit of a shock when I found out. But he was still younger than my own father (barely!), and his kids were much younger than me, so I figured it was still OK to fall for him.

As Nancy Huston explains it in her book "Âmes et corps : textes choisis", student crushes on a teacher are not necessarily pathetic; in fact, they can be a very powerful intellectual motivator. Especially when half of the attraction is of intellectual nature (and this was indeed the case with my philosophy professor). I was so motivated to do good in his class (probably from a remote and partly unconscious desire to impress him) that I studied and worked like I had never done before. And sure enough, it showed in my grades (I still remember that 98% term paper!) (and the smile on his face when he handed it to me!)

Before you go on to imagine things, let me be clear: nothing ever happened between us (other than fascinating discussions about philosophy). He never did or said anything that would have even bordered on inappropriateness. I remained silent on my attraction as well. The only thing I did was to insert subliminal messages in my essays. For an example of irrational decisions, I wrote "If a middle-aged man was to fall in love with a younger woman and decide to leave everything behind for her..."

(OMG. Makes me laugh so much now that I think about it!!!)

That teacher was also a recreational swimmer, and he often came for a little workout in the pool I was supervising. I never tired of admiring his body glide in the water (I swear I was watching every other swimmer with as much attention... albeit with much less pleasure, understandably). The first time he saw me in the lifeguard chair, he said hi, and then added "I'm glad you're the one watching the pool today. I know I'm in good hands". Which, on an enamoured 18-year old, had the effect you can imagine. I simply smiled, but I spent the next hour repeating in my mind "Please drown, oh, please drown, so that I can save you!"

I will never know if he knew. I will never know if he even noticed that the music I played at the pool was all the favourites he'd told us about in class. But I had a wonderful semester, a wonderful report card, and a renewed love for philosophy.

School of Athens, by Raphael

(For those of you fascinated, like me, by music and neuroscience, here is an astonishing video of Bobby McFerrin demonstrating the power of the pentatonic scale at the event Notes & Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus)

Monday, November 28, 2011

The joys of bilingualism, part II

As I was watching this beautiful French movie from the forties, Les enfants du paradis, I was once again confronted to the challenges of translation. The version I watched was French with English subtitles; hence I could hear the original version while reading the translation. What quickly became apparent is that the translator had not succeeded at capturing the beauty of Prévert's original lines (in some parts; some are not that bad). A lot of the marvellousness was lost somewhere between French and English, to my great dismay.

That being said, I am sure the movie's still worth a viewing by English monolinguals.

Reading and watching masterpieces is ideally done in the original language, of course... but learning a language is not a piece of cake! For having painfully gone through it myself, and from observing my students and acquaintances in their own struggle, I have come up with three conditions (not tested scientifically, but observed empirically!) where it is made possible. If one of those conditions is present long enough, the language will be acquired. If none of these conditions is there, well, it will take an awful amount of work... and I can't promise the results.

What are those conditions?

1) Exposing a very young brain (that's still highly malleable) to a new language. I am always amazed at how quickly young children can become functional bilinguals, without any sign of effort. This is a period parents should take advantage of: acquiring a language later in life is so much more work! In the bilingual environment we are lucky enough to live in, my children and many of my friends' children were (or will be) perfectly bilingual by the age of 6 (if not earlier).

2) Coercing someone to use a foreign language by putting them in a situation where they have no choice. One summer when I was a teenager, my parents sent me on a student exchange. The small town I landed in contained no French speaker. Not one. I was stuck there, and I had to survive. When the father of the girl I was paired with made it clear that if I wanted ice cream, I would have to order it myself, let me tell you that I managed to get some English out of me! Motivation is a powerful thing. Then of course I already had some notions of English. It was a little bit different when I visited China, last year. Yes, I did manage to eat... but I have no idea what.

3)  Which brings me to the next condition: falling in love with something/someone that we associate to the language. I've had students who wanted to visit Québec or France, and who were determined to learn the language first, in order to fully enjoy their trip. I know people who learned a language strictly by dating someone who spoke it. It works wonders. I personally decided to learn Italian because I desperately wanted to understand what Verdi's characters were getting so excited about (and what Puccini's ones were lamenting about). My love for Italian opera was the starting point of a fascinating journey with la bella lingua. Later on, when I visited Italy, it was wonderful to be able to communicate (albeit slowly) with the locals. It boosted my confidence so much that I went on to try and read Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose) in Italian... but that turned out to be presumptuous on my part.

(Next step: learning German to understand Mozart's Die Zauberflöte!)

Ah! but learning a language is never truly over, and we keep eliciting startled looks and giggles.

My daughters keep telling me I don't pronounce things right. As much as I try, I haven't been able to say, for example, the name of that store: Mark's Work Wearhouse. I get jaw cramps.

A few years ago, in a first aid class, the trainer reminded us that we had to inform our "victim" of whatever we were about to do. That's when I unflinchingly informed my partner that I was about to engage in sexual fondling with her. From the look on her face, I immediately knew my wording was not quite right.

(As my kids would say... "Awkward!")

It also appears that my friend A (a woman) would have said, during a squash game: "I'm all right! I've got balls!"

(Yep, there's at least two different reasons why you need balls to play squash!)

Friday, November 25, 2011

Einstein and the violin

Albert Einstein once pronounced those wise words on happiness: "A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?"

Wouldn't it be nice if we indeed only needed about four things to be happy? But wait a minute... we do!

Yours might not be the same as Einstein's, but the right four things, if picked carefully, can do the job.

I would say computer (with Internet access), running shoes, chocolate ice cream, and a good bottle of wine.

(A comfy armchair and a fireplace could be nice too... oh, and my bathing suit. That's still only 7 items!)

What would you say? What are your happy objects?

To honor Einstein and his violin, I put together a list of pieces in which beautiful violin can be heard.

(Please bear in mind that this list is FAR from exhaustive - I might come back with more in another post - and that unfortunately, YouTube does not always offer the best acoustic quality... if you love a piece, go buy it!) (And sorry for the advertisements... nothing I can do I'm afraid.)

Listen to these and tell me why would anyone need drugs.

I mean.


Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (Can't you picture the sheep frolicking?)

Dvorak's Humoreske (Puts me in a good mood) (And... is it me or is Yo Yo Ma about to orgasm?!?) (I don't blame him, of course.)

Grieg's Peer Gynt (This part and so many more!)

Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (Intermezzo) (This is another one that makes me forget I am mortal... or makes me think I have already arrived in paradise: even the harp is there!)

Paganini's Caprice 24 (And most of Paganini)

Prokofiev's Montagues and Capulets (Tragic... as it should)

Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini (Romanticism at its best!) 

Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the bumblebee (You can totally hear the bumblebee...)

Strauss II's Klipp Klapp Galop (... and see the horses)

Verdi's La Traviata's (Overture) (I had the chance to listen to this in person at the Montreal's Place des Arts... and I shivered in delightment. In this link's case, the sight of the conductor itself is worth it!)

Monday, November 21, 2011

What are you good at?

As a Girl Guide leader, I often have to look for guest speakers who will have a positive influence/who will inspire the little girls.

The last time I asked around to see if anybody had a hobby or a talent that they would want to share with the Sparks (5-6 year old branch of GG), I got the following answer from two different people: "Oh, but I don't have any special talent".

I was highly dubious.

A few weeks later, I was filled with skepticism again when my friend B wrote on her Facebook wall about her parents being so handy/crafty... whereas she herself has not talent at all.

I did not buy this for a second (and nor did the other friends who read her).

I truly believe that each and everyone of us has at least a few talents. Including children. As role models, we're not doing them any service by depreciating ourselves (and failing to notice what they are good at, whatever it is).

As it turned out, one of the ladies I had tried to get as a guest speaker is an origami expert. 

As for my friend B, as anyone who knows her would tell you, she has an indubitable talent for making people feel good, at ease, and happy.

So why were they denigrating themselves?

I think this follows the same logic as failing to receive compliments. Did you ever notice how quickly we minimize a compliment? We are told our clothes look good, and instead of proudly answering thank you, we insist they were on sale. Why can't we just gladly accept the compliment?

We need to shake this bad habit. What better way than to proudly list our unique talents? To make it easier, I thought we could start with talents that don't make us feel like we're bragging. I tried the exercise with a couple of friends.

They came up with interesting answers.

M said she's awesome at procrastinating.

L, not quite ready to declare she excelled at drawing in general, said "I'm good at drawing Medusa".

R said she has an unusual gift for banging into walls, tripping on stuff, and generally getting herself hurt.

S said she never fails at ruining recipes. (Hmm... that reminds me of someone...)

I got inspired too, and this is what I asserted. Here's a few things I am absolutely phenomenal at:

- Being cold. I don't think anybody masters the art of being cold quite as well as I do. It will be 21 degrees in the house and I will be walking around with a scarf on. I can be seen shivering at some point, day in, day out, and my teeth are no strangers to chattering, either.
- Eating chocolate and ice cream. I rock at that. There seems to be no limit to how much chocolate and ice cream (or, even better: chocolate ice cream) I can ingest. With ice cream, it's usually the shivering and teeth chattering that stops me.

- Falling asleep. I can fall asleep within 2 minutes of my head hitting the pillow. In fact, I can fall asleep anywhere, anytime. I fall asleep in the car (when someone else is driving! Don't go panicking here!) I fall asleep in public transportation (eg. a 15 minute bus ride). I fall asleep in class. In libraries. In bookstores. At yoga. This falling asleep talent runs in the family; we always have someone snoring on the couch after big family meals. (And no, our gatherings are not THAT boring!) During my pregnancies, this talent was taken to new heights with me becoming more or less narcoleptic, and having to splash my face with cold water every 20 minutes in order to avoid dozing off on my desk. This tendency to fall asleep is made particularly interesting by the fact that I generally feel full of energy. I guess my on and off button is just very sensitive: give me a little bit of half-light, a slightly overheated room, or the constant repetitive rocking movement of transportation, and poof, I'm gone.

What are YOUR fabulous talents?

(Forgive me if I temporarily disappear while you compile your list... I suddenly feel a little bit drowsy...)

Friday, November 18, 2011

This post is about death

Why a post about death on a happiness blog, you might be wondering.

I have 3 words for you: Know Your Enemy.

Death (in all its forms: floating fear of death, incurable disease, grief) can be a threat to happiness. Which is why we should get ourselves educated. As we will see later, bringing our - often mostly unconscious - fear of death to the conscious level can actually be helpful.

Fall* is always a period of reflexion for me; a reflexion about death, among other things.

It all begins on September 11th, when the media is focusing on the 9-11 events. Then, on October 1st, I always have a thought for my deceased father, whose birthday it was. On October 24th, the date he passed away, I am still thinking about him. Then comes Halloween, All Saints' Day, and Remembrance Day. All this time, even mother nature is reminding us of death by preparing for a shut down. The tone is set: death is on my mind.

I do not dismiss this preoccupation. Thinking about death is OK as long as it doesn't prevent you from functioning, and as long as it doesn't make you depressed. (In which unfortunate case you should run like hell in the opposite direction; depression is such an insidious mess!)

As most young people, for the longest time I considered death as a faraway thing, blurry in the horizon. I could easily take it off my mind. But sooner or later, you are reminded that death is in fact part of life, and that no one - not even yourself - will be spared. For me, the first blow was my father's sudden death. I still feel the aftershock whenever an event reminds me of my father's absence: my wedding, my children's birth, important milestones, etc.

I first realized how closely birth and death are interconnected when my first daughter was born, 9 weeks early (and barely 3 pounds). All the time spent in the NICU, surrounded by tiny and/or extremely fragile babies connected to beeping machines, with the constant threat of cardiac arrest or damaging brain hemorrhage, kind of took the magic out of the early moments of life. Right from the moment one is born, death is around, a menacing shadow. You don't always realize it until your child, someone else you know, or even yourself, is clearly in danger.

Allégorie de la mort

It can start on somebody else's plate. Most of us will witness a loved one's death before our own. You might have known all along that death is there, waiting to take each and all of us... you don't really understand what it means until it happens for real. When you lose someone, the ceiling might as well have fallen on your head. You're in disbelief. You knew about death... but so close? And so early?

It's always too early to die.

In the midst of all these reflexions on death, I recently found, at my local video store, a documentary entitled Flight from Death. The Quest for Immortality (by Patrick Shen and Greg Benick). Contrary to what the title might convey, this is NOT a collage of esoteric approaches to death, but rather a very interesting presentation of what research has discovered about the way people deal with the knowledge that they will eventually die, along with mentions of the book which might have been a catalyst to a lot of this research: The Denial of Death (by Ernest Becker).

This documentary begins by showing children playing outside, and a voice saying this in the background:

"To have emerged from nothing. To have a name. Consciousness of self. Deep inner feelings. An excruciating inner yearning for life and self expression. Yet to die."

I am going to try and write down some of the important conclusions the authors came to (relying on extensive research in the field of social psychology). Of course, for a deeper understanding, it is best to watch the documentary in its entirety.

- Human beings are aware (consciously or not) of their own finiteness/mortality, and this in turn generates feelings and behaviors, among which anxiety. It is hard to live with the knowledge that you will eventually die. To soothe those unpleasant feelings, people try to forget, deny and overcome their fear of death.

- Culture is instrumental to this. Culture provides meaning and security even when unspoken. It leads us to believe that part of ourselves will live on, will transcend our individual death. Instead of trying to survive physically, we try to survive symbolically, through our culture. All kinds of customs serve the purpose of relieving our death anxiety. For example: remembrance of the dead, idea of eternal soul, beliefs of immortality (literal or symbolic), accounts of the origins of the universe, religion/spirituality in general, flags, monuments, laws, architecture, consumerism. Heroism would also originate from our fear of death: writing a book, creating a masterpiece, becoming a known athlete, politician, singer, actor... in brief, doing more or better than the average human being distances ourselves from the others, whom we consider merely mortal.

- Human beings rely so much on culture for helping them deal with the knowledge of their mortality that if their culture is threatened, it is a symbolic death, and they cannot tolerate it; it leads to depression or aggression.

- It has been shown that when reminded (even at the unconscious level) of their own death, human beings develop affection toward similar people and hostility toward dissimilar people. Not only do they feel more positive toward people who are similar and more negative toward people who are different, this also affects their actual behavior (eg: they will become more punitive with dissimilar people). This has huge implications, and we see them at play every day, all around the world.

Napoléon sur le champ de bataille d'Eylau, by Antoine-Jean Gros

- When people encounter other, different cultures, those can be a threat to their belief system and claims of immortality. People diffuse the threat by dismissing those cultures or by assimilating them. That feels validating. Sometimes, this annihilation is done by means of violence. The survival greed is such that in order to feel immortal, people need to conquer someone else. This can be done in a socially acceptable way (work promotions, competitive sports), but too often it is done through violence. For some sarcastic depiction of this, read Candide, by Voltaire.

- When you look at it closely, wars might have political and economical pretexts, but it all comes down to ideological reasons. We don't share the same death denying illusion, thus we fight.

- When the real aggressor is not accessible, human beings resort to scapegoating and generalization. They "torment, humiliate, hurt and destroy". They escape death by inflicting it on other people.

Not the most rejoicing findings, I know! But the authors and contributors of this documentary have more in store for us, including some hope and constructive advice:

- We need a way to soothe the reality of life and death, but we also need a way that does not use oppression or violence. Our actions and constructs have to include tolerance and kindness; "A good culture provides opportunities for people to feel good about themselves [...] without harming others".

- Instead of repressing our fear of death, we should bring it to consciousness, and use it to do something positive, to live more fully.

- Affirmations of life help transcend death. Integrity, belonging, growth, improvement, challenges, producing, reproducing, raising and nurturing children, creating (especially when the creation is enjoyed by others) make life meaningful.

Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci

The documentary ends with those words of wisdom:

"I didn't come here by my own will, and I won't leave here by my own will."

"You don't conquer the anxiety, then die. You meet it with courage."

I will come back with more on death, and specifically on grieving, in another post. But until then, we will focus on some lighter, funner discussions.

* I strongly recommend Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà's virtuoso rendition of Glazunov's Autumn, for some blissful listening.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A taste of the Maritimes

My family and I moved to the Maritimes four years ago. I knew I would be happy here. Mostly because I highly trust my ability to be happy anywhere. But the Maritimes have proved to be even more than what I expected. Today I want to pay tribute to them.

Here are the reasons why I love the Maritimes:

The people

People in the Maritimes are the nicest ever. Gossips say it's because Maritimers have nothing else to do (but to be nice). Whatever the reason. It's lovely. Pure strangers call you "honey", "sweetheart", "darling". And they really mean it. Salespeople are attentive and nice, and not because they want to sell you something. They are nice because they feel like it. Nova Scotia can actually boast its people in touristic advertising. This is miles away from the common saying I've heard about France, which "would be so wonderful... if it wasn't for the French people!"

People here in the Maritimes have so much trust in each other not only do they not lock their doors, they will also write you blank cheques in a heartbeat (Yes, that has happened to me!)

But my favourite thing about the Maritimes has to be the ocean.

The food

I love the Maritimes for the fresh (and inexpensive) seafood. We get lobster for 5-6$ a pound pretty much year round. It was explained to me that in some areas, lobster was actually the poor people' food. They were so tired of eating it every single day as kids, they tell me, they can barely stand it now. Duh? I grew up eating lobster once a year, at my birthday, because my mom knew it was my favourite (and such an expensive) dish. I would pretty much have killed for lobster. Now I have it delivered free, right to my door, by neighbors who know how much I love it, and somehow always buy one too many for their family. Other delicacies generously offered by my new local friends include some moose meat (that the friend hunted himself) and some clams (that the friend digged himself... and ended up cleaning and preparing for us). Told you how nice the people were!

I cannot go without thanking the ocean for this.

The scenery

I've spent a lot of time visiting Europe, always flabbergasted by all its beauties, wishing my own country had as much to offer. Then, after moving to Nova Scotia, I heard three different European people say that the most beautiful place they had ever visited was Cape Breton.

Cape Breton is indeed breathtaking. No words could describe the Cabot Trail, really. I'll let you see for yourself. Drop everything right now, and come to Cape Breton!

(This is where Tourism Nova Scotia hands me my commission. Technically.)

(For having tested it twice, Cape Breton has another awesome feature: there, you can drink anything in whatever quantity you wish... you'll never get a hangover. I am living proof!)

I hear it has something to do with the ocean breeze.

The weather

I have experienced, year after year, the scorching hot summers/biting cold winters of the Montreal area. I have lived in tropical sub-saharian Africa, extremely dry almost year-round, then drenched by constant rain in the summer. What I have to say about the Maritimes weather is that it is just like its people: nice and kind. Soft. Pleasant. Temperate.

Winters are mild. I have discussed this with neighbours who respectively come from Winnipeg, Ottawa and everywhere in Quebec, and we are unanimous: winters in Halifax are a breeze.

Summers are cool. Who needs air conditioning in the Maritimes? Simply keep your windows open when you go to bed... and you might even need to pull up the blankets in the middle of the night.

Falls can be windy at times, I will concede. But it makes for a good conversational piece, and strengthens neighbourly relationships (you help so and so cut the tree that's fallen on his truck; he, in return, lets you boil water using his generator). But seriously, falls are generally glorious and warm in the Maritimes.

Springs are...

(Errr... ah, let's leave Springs aside for now.)

It goes without saying that all this would be nothing without the ocean.

The music

(Note: this musical list is not exhaustive!)

Oh yeah, the music. Music is everywhere in the Maritimes. Mind you, it often involves a bagpipe, which has been described by some as a torture device. The Maritimes are nonetheless the birthplace of quite a few good tunes!

I was introduced to music from Nova Scotia (Cape Breton to be precise) while on a trip to Newfoundland, back in the early nineties, and the Rankin Family automatically found its way to my heart. When, fifteen years later, I learned I was gonna move to Halifax, the Rankins were the soundtrack that prepared me to this new life.

Of course, we can't go without listening to the big names of Nova Scotian music: Sarah McLachlan, April Wine, Ashley McIsaac, and so many more!

On a more modern note, we could mention Classified and The Trews, which both have some pretty darn good tunes! And what about Wintersleep?

Of course, one cannot live in the Maritimes without learning to like (ok, maybe tolerate) country music. I have gone as far as to appreciate - genuinely, I swear! - Blue Rodeo (not from the Maritimes per se, but still Canadian). Now don't tell me they're not truly a country group. I'm trying hard here! I need some acknowledgement!

While we're at it (country music), why don't you pay yourself a quick and free trip to happy land with this hilarious video by
Rodney Carrington... but make sure nobody's watching! (DO NOT watch at work!!!)

Oh, and before I forget... did I mention the ocean?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Kitchen accidents

Every year, when the December magazines are released, full of complicated recipes that everybody seems eager to try, it makes me realize how "not a cook" I am.

This year I decided to stop living with my shameful secret. I am finally ready to make a full coming out. Yes, I will admit it today: I don't enjoy cooking.

I'd rather mop the floors. Iron the shirts. Clean the toilets. Shovel the snow on a windy, minus fifteen morning.

Cooking is not my thing.

I so don't get it when I see women shopping for a new house (on TV) and getting all excited about what they call "my favourite room in the house". The kitchen? Your favourite room in the house? The one that always ends up messy, with piles of dirty dishes, crumbs all over the counters, sticky patches on the floor? Come on! Give me the living room, the master bedroom, the home office even, for a favourite room. Not the kitchen!

The irony is that I LOVE eating. I can even be a real gourmet at times. I genuinely appreciate high quality ingredients, fancy dishes that take hours to prepare. There's nothing like a sophisticated, never ending, six-course meal full of delicacies, served with the six thoughtfully paired wines. Yum. But don't ask me to prepare it.

(This might explain why, when I have friends over, it's usually for tea and biscuits, or wine and cheese, but rarely for a meal.)

(And thanks whoever for inventing fondue!)

Luckily, I grew up with a mom who cooked like a pro, and I went on to marry someone who's pretty competent in the kitchen. The few "in-between" years when I had to fend for myself, I was content with soups, sandwiches and "breakfast-like suppers".

It's not that I completely suck at cooking. It's just that I don't think it's fun. It takes way too long for the time it will last in the plate. There's too many opportunities to completely ruin what you're trying to make. Proportions have to be exact, timing has to be perfect... and don't even tell me about beautiful presentation. It's all gonna end mashed up in the belly in less than a minute!

In my teens, I once decided to impress my friends by inviting them over and making supper for them, all on my own. The salad was delicious: as long as it involves no cooking at all, I am pretty good at assembling ingredients in the right proportions. I even made the vinaigrette myself. Then I slid a pizza (frozen) in the oven. When what had been mouthwatering pizza smells turned into smoky exhalations, my good friend M asked me: "What time did you put that pizza in?" I had no idea. She gave me another chance: "What temperature did you put it at?" "Huh?" was my answer.

Another time, I had to babysit for a whole day, and upon my arrival, I was told I would have to make lunch for the children. "Not complicated", the mother said. I only had to put nuggets and fries in the oven, and cook broccoli on the stove. For the most part, I did good, but the broccoli was kind of undercooked, and my hand got kind of overcooked. Twenty years later, however, you can't really see the scar anymore.

Not only can't I pay attention in the kitchen, I never seem to be able to follow the recipes obediently. My rebel side always wants to modify part of the ingredients - usually to make it healthier. It generally ends up making it drier, harder and chunkier, for the most part.

Mind you, my kitchen clumsiness has led to a few successes over the course of the years.

My best spaghetti sauce happened when I dropped (by mistake) a huge amount of basil in it.

Another time, I mistakenly poured a mountain of turmeric in the banana-pineapple-bran muffins... and they turned out absolutely delicious (and absolutely orange).

I even managed to make fudge (sucre à la crème) one day... it was awesome, really. I never told anyone I had actually been trying to make icing for a cake.

I occasionally manage to put on the table a dish that will prompt enthusiastic exclamations from the guests; it never fails to make me feel like a kid who's just produced her first drawing that actually resembles something.

And I can start a campfire and roast marshmallows like it's a second nature.

All hope is not lost!