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Monday, October 24, 2011

Show me your neurosis, I'll show you mine

Today's post will be about mental health, and the neuroses that we all have in one way or another. (Yes, you too!)

Before we go any further, let me clarify something. Mental diseases are a real thing. They're as real as physical diseases. You can NOT simply shake them off. It is NOT my intention to undermine or ridicule any of them.

(If you understand French, please take a look at these humoristic videos which do a great job giving back to depression the attention it deserves and telling us that no one should be ashamed of mental illness.)

Good. Now that we know depression cannot be peeled off like a skidoo suit, and that there's worst things in life than admitting you have a mental disorder (such as stucking your male parts in your car door), we have to admit it wouldn't be very rigorous to claim that we all suffer from a mental illness.

You see, mental health is a continuum. You can have "tendencies" without justifying a full-blown diagnosis. The ultimate psychiatric disorders bible, the DSM-IV, has been created to help distinguishing between a big problem and a small annoyance. What I remember from my psychology major is that the DSM-IV will not only compile symptoms, but also take into account how long you have been exhibiting them, and/or how often, and/or in what intensity...then give you an overall score, in an attempt to precisely qualify and quantify what "you have". Only with all that precise information in hand will you know if you actually "qualify" for a certain disorder. Generally, you will deserve a specific tag if your symptoms prevent you from functioning normally.

Fair enough.

But for most of us who simply have one or two bolts missing, what is there? When you know you're slightly cuckoo, but still manage to project an image of normalcy? Wouldn't it be useful to put a name on your specific "tendency", one that does not warrant therapy nor treatment, but can nonetheless become a pain in the a** at times?

Today I want to claim my own unhealthy habit. My hope is that this will prompt you to try and identify yours. In my case, apart from perfectionism, anxiety and the occasional mild depression, here's what I would certainly qualify for if it was a little more intense:

ADD (or Attention Deficit Disorder)

Sometimes I wonder if I'm even able to concentrate for more than 5 min in a row. I constantly get distracted. Interrupting myself to do something else is the norm rather than the exception. I multitask so much it almost makes me dizzy. For example, I have been seen pausing halfway through emptying the dishwasher to go on the computer and google Existentialism. (What about clean dishes made me feel existentialist-ey, that's another debate. For now, just think Sisyphus.) What was so urgent that I just couldn't resist reading about Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Camus and Sartre's take on life's absurdity, right NOW?

I first noticed the extent of my problem when D and I both studied for end-of-semester exams. One of us could literally sit and read for hours without any break... and it wasn't me! I, on the other hand, would get up every 20 minutes or so to use the washroom, make myself a cup of tea, start a laundry, check my email, do 10 push-ups, iron a few shirts, and what not. In the midst of memorizing parts of the nervous system, I would suddenly realize the garbage can needed a scrub. Etc.

Some people would call this procrastinating: you avoid doing something you don't really feel like by convincing yourself you need to do all kinds of unimportant stuff instead. This is at least partly true, and I have to admit I had an epiphany when I saw Spongebob Squarepants' episode on the topic.

One of the downsides of having a hamster wheel in your head is that you sometimes end up loosing track of your thoughts. Entirely. Completely. Poof. All gone. I'm not kidding! Take this morning, for example. I decide to go for a run. I put on my running clothes. I attach my iPod to my arm, put my ear buds in, get my play list ready. I grab my house key. Then I suddenly remember it's close to freezing point outdoors, and that I should probably take at least one puff of my inhaler (for cold-induced asthma reasons). So I run upstairs to take a puff, come back downstairs, open the door... and that's when I realize my key's not in my hand anymore. I probably forgot it in the bedroom. I run back upstairs. Look everywhere. Key's not there. Run back downstairs. Look everywhere. No key. Run upstairs again (by now my workout is well under way) to scan the room in a more systematic way. In vain. Do the same downstairs. Where's my key? Where. is. my. key? Where the hell is my "$/%?&* key!!!

As frustration builds up, so does worry. 'Cause I have absolutely NO recollection of what I might have done with the key. No memory. Nothing. My brain is completely blank. I start to wonder if my real problem is not a very early onset of dementia.

(In fact, no, because apparently, a person with dementia would forget they misplaced the key altogether, and about the running intention as well. Which obviously is not my case. I still want to go for a run! If only I can find the key!)

(In the end I did find my key, and it was NOT in the sugar bowl. Pfiew!)

The fact that my brain jumps from one thought to the other, and from one stimulus to the next, can actually have its good sides. Paying attention to many things at a time has no secrets for me. It comes in handy when you're looking after a bunch of children, for sure. It also served me well when I was a lifeguard. Another consequence of multiple ideas rushing through my mind relentlessly is that I write (to get rid of them). Not a bad thing per se, I guess.

Bottom line is, that's who I am, I embrace it, and I am happy.

What's YOUR neurosis, and how do you deal with it?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Running tunes

Sometimes I wonder if the pleasure in physical activity is not 50% actual working out and 50% listening to music.

In any case, it's good for you.

(Sometimes I also wonder if the best part of the workout is not the post-workout shower and snack. But I digress.)

So with no further presentations, here's a sample of tunes to get your legs going.

To start the race

The classic: Survivor: Eye of the Tiger
Retro alternative: Marvin Gaye: Ain't No Mountain High Enough

To pick up speed or get extra pep

Andrew W.K.: Party Hard (Features an environmentally friendly way of drying your hair!)
Blink-182: First Date (Let's not be afraid of ridicule!) and Dammit
Sum 41: Makes No Difference
Joan Jett: Bad Reputation (Bad ass female at its best!)
The Romantics: What I Like About You (Notice how the drummer is also the singer!)
The Rascals: Good Lovin' (Retro alternative!)

To climb a hill

(Warning: some of those video links could be offensive to some viewers; please watch them at your own discretion, and please bear in mind that our main goal here is to raise our adrenalin levels for running purposes... especially when facing a bad ass hill! Those tunes need to convey aggressivity and make you feel fierce! Grrrrrrrrrrooooooooooaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!)

U2: Elevation (This one is soft, but it works. I've tried it while crossing the bridge bet. Halifax and Dartmouth)
Rob Zombie (Hot Rod Herman remix): Dragula
Limp Bizkit: Nookie
Nine Inch Nails: Closer
The Prodigy: Breathe (With the extra benefit that it tells you when to inhale and exhale!)
Anything else by The Prodigy

When you hit the wall, feel like you're about to collapse

(Those are two very different tunes; depending on your personality and mood when you hit the wall, at least one of them will do.)
Elton John: I'm Still Standing
Eminem: 'Till I Collapse (Warning: not for the faint of heart. Extreme athleticism depicted.)

Towards the end (ideally with the finish line in sight, although that's hard to plan precisely!)
Leif Garrett or Europe: Final Countdown

The rest of your play list could be any kind of music, really. As long as you like it. Intersperse the tougher, "pick us speed" and "climb bad ass hill" tunes with other, softer ones, and it should do the trick. Happy running!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The year of the zucchini

By Martine Brault

(Note from your usual blogger: We are using this harvesting time as a pretext to welcome a guest writer on Happiness is a dish best savoured hot. Martine will be touching on a compelling source of happiness: earning the fruits of your labour - to be taken literally in this case. Happy reading! And happy harvesting!)

If there were a zodiac for veggies, this would be it.                       

I guess by now everybody will agree that, despite the September rains, this has been a great summer for gardening. Everyone knows, and so did I, that whether you are blessed with a good or a bad year, zucchini are always up to the challenge. You plant 2 or 3 small seeds and harvest enough cucurbitacaea for as many families.

Take an avid gardener who suffered her first Bury summer in 2009 (hardly any crops at all), add our great summer of 2010, and you get a sure-fire recipe for overproduction. Not only did I sow 3 seeds of the long yellow type, but some round green ones (Eightball), and seeds I had kept from a spaghetti squash eaten last fall, not realizing that it was a hybrid. And they started growing.

By early August, all the signs were there. The yellow zucchini proved to be the earliest and highest producers of all, and we were already picking 2 or 3 fruit every other day. Meanwhile, the “spaghetti squash” endeavoured to do what all seeds from hybrid plants do, which is to return to their original state. Surprise! They were the offspring of zucchini-like plants: green ones, long and short, and pretty cream ones with a light green tip. But spaghetti squash is not a “compact plant” like zucchini; it started invading the golf course, and I regularly had to bring back the young invasive tendrils to our garden. Slower starters, the Eightballs caught up with the long yellows and began producing on a regular basis as well. And they kept growing.

By mid-August, we were already saturated. Ever the optimist, I figured that I could bake zucchini bread and freeze it for winter. I had been baking 3 breads a day for a week when Hervé delicately pointed out that even if his tastes were simple, a little variety in food was always pleasant. I also planned on canning “ratatouille” but my tomatoes were far from ripe. So I had to buy 20 lbs of ripe ones to process and can about 30 half-litre jars of the delicious mix. I made soup, sautés, fried them with garlic, broiled them and served them with sweet balsamic vinegar, ate them raw with a dip, chopped, diced, grated, blanched them and froze them for winter soups, and stuffed them. But they kept growing.

By late August the spaghetti relatives, having given up trying to make it to the putting green, were climbing our rose bushes and aiming for the hydrangea, now in full bloom. Fortunately, some friends and neighbours did not have our luck and I managed to give some away. Giving away Zucchini is one of the best ways to lose friends. They will not offend you by refusing your fruit, but will secretly go out at night and bury them at the back of their own garden. Or, as Barbara Kingsolver mentions in her book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”, quietly lock their gates so you will shy away from leaving a bag full of the lovely veggies on their doorstep while they are out shopping. By mid-September, when a friend politely refused my fruit to feed her pigs, I knew I had pushed it enough and began composting the squash for the benefit of next year’s garden. And they still keep growing.

Thanks to the absence of deep frost to date, our zucchini are still flowering. Zucchini anyone?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Story time: The philosopher and his friends

Anselm Feuerbach, The Symposium

A group of friends assembled around a table. They were of diverse origins and areas of specialization. There was, to name but a few: a psychologist, a writer, a teacher, a musician, a biologist, a historian, a physicist, a film director, a mathematician, an artist... and, of course, a philosopher.

They had gathered to try and answer two of the most fundamental questions of all:

Is the human being intrinsically good or bad?


Is life worth living?

Each of them, relying on their widely acknowledged erudition, would evoke data, texts and observations from their specific field to shed some unique light on those two questions.

They would all take turns talking throughout the night.

It was agreed that by morning, before the sun rose completely, they would have to reach a consensus.

The philosopher, who had gathered all those friends together, announced:

"If we are to be honest in this process, we will have to pursue it to the end."

He went on to produce two bottles: one bottle of nectar, and one bottle of poison hemlock.

"If we agree that life is worth living, he said, in the morning we will savour this nectar* together, my friends. If, on the other hand, we agree that life's absurdity makes it unworthy of living, then we will, following the example of Socrates, have to drink the hemlock*."

Jacques-Lous David, The Death of Socrates

And with no time for tergiversation, they began.

To be continued...

* Songs a courtesy of the Musician, who was trying to demonstrate how difficult it would be to reach a consensus.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Thanksgiving and traditions

Jean-Louis Gérôme Ferris, Le premier Thanksgiving

This afternoon, as I was merrily grocery shopping for fondue meats, I noticed a teenage girl wearing the Muslim headscarf along with a deep cleavage, skinny jeans and stilettos. Needless to say, I was stopped in my tracks.

My goal today is not to start a debate on Islamic customs, but to raise the question of traditions.

Traditions are great in that they give us a sense of belonging, of continuity, of repetition. They ground us. They connect us to each other. They provide meaning. Boundaries. Oftentimes, they also provide a pretext for celebration, and who would complain about celebrating?

But it never fails to amaze me how people will endorse traditions without even understanding them. Rituals and beliefs are passed on without a question, even when they fail to make any sense at all anymore. Worse, sometimes we hold on to them even if they go against our core values... or do harm to others.

And then you end up with the teenager being sexy from the neck down, but completely covering her hair. Let's allow for a moment of puzzlement here.

I don't know for you, but as much as I appreciate the good that traditions bring, I like to feel I have a hold on my life. To feel I am the one with the hands the steering wheel. To feel I am making informed choices that are in line with what I believe and don't believe in. Call me rebellious, but I don't like to follow a tradition without a good reason, just because. Last time I checked, I wasn't a sheep!

The fondue is a good example: we used to have turkey for Thanksgiving. That was until we realized that no one in the family really cared for turkey. Why did we keep serving it, then? What else we were doing that didn't make sense to us, that didn't even make us happy? What does Thanksgiving mean to us? What do we want to make of it?

That question is worth being asked for each tradition, and each family, each individual, will obviously come up with their own answer. Isn't that precisely the beauty of the thing?

Of course, any tradition that fits our beliefs and preferences can happily be kept alive. Which is why we will be enjoying family gatherings and good food this weekend... and which certainly justifies stuffing ourselves with delicious pie! ;-)

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Happy rain

Compiling music for the previous post has been so much fun I think I will indulge on a regular basis.

(Which is exactly what we should do with things that make us happy, right? Indulge!)

Today's theme will be weather related: RAIN!

They say "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade". Well, I say "If life gives you rain, listen to music that talks about rain"!

Yes, if we're gonna soak the bottom of our pants, turn our umbrellas inside out, and completely mess our hairdos, let's make the most of it!

(Or simply listen to the rain. Who ever takes the time to do that? Yet it's so pleasant, so peaceful!)

Here's a sample of - very different - songs revolving around the semantic field of rain (or pluie, in French).

1) What everybody is probably thinking right now: Supertramp: It's Raining Again

2 ) Maybe we wouldn't be complaining so much if it was raining... something else: Weather Girls: It's Raining Men


... While we're at it, let's treat ourselves to this exhilarating scene from Bridget Jones' Diary, just because.

3) Who said rain was sad? (Apparently, back in the fifties, people actually appreciated rain!)

Gene Kelly: I'm Singing in the Rain (caution: do NOT show this video to young children unless you're ready to deal with completely soaked clothes, shoes and hair!)

Jacques Brel: Il Peut Pleuvoir

4) Another sweet one from the fifties (yes, yes, I know, sometimes my musical tastes have me mistaken for an old lady):

The Cascades: Rhythm of the Falling Rain

5) To finish up beautifully, here's one tune that has the perfect tempo to remind us of the best thing to do when the rain won't stop... hehehe... :

Prince: Purple Rain (plus, this version is almost long enough for... ahem!...)

I said ALMOST!!! lol

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Blissful Moment: Music

Musical awakening starts early; for many, it happens in the first months of life, as they are exposed to the radio, to adults singing around them, to instruments being played; for some, it starts even earlier: in the womb, with headphones placed on mommy's tummy, in the hope baby will benefit from it.

Whichever way, music plays an immeasurable role in the life of every hearing being (I once had a cat who rolled and purred whenever he heard opera). Music is powerful enough to fill us with emotion (I've had to explain to my worried daughters that tears do not necessarily mean sadness - beautiful music can also have that effect). Music helps us deal with good and bad moments: sentimental music for falling in love AND surviving breakups, energetic music for working out, happy music for our moments of intense joy, angry music as an outlet to our frustrations, calm music to relax... I have even used sad music to help me in the process of grieving a loved one (release the tears, feel a little bit better).

I was probably in my mid-teens when I connected the dots and realized that a lot of "oldie" songs I liked had been playing in the house when I was a baby/toddler. I could not remember them consciously, but I nonetheless had a special relationship with those songs; they felt like an old friend, a member of the family. For a taste of some of those songs of the late seventies (English and French), take a look a this link.

My first conscious discovery of music happened around the age of 7-8. By that age, the memories are not fading away as quickly as they form; I am able to remember pretty clearly the songs I heard during those childhood years and after. Specifically, I remember songs from the summer of 1984, when I was hospitalized for a bad case of pneumonia. With nothing else to do but read Le petit prince (which I understood only partly - some books are meant to be reread in adult years) and listen to my roommate's radio, I began to enjoy the hits quite a lot. It was the eighties in all their might. I discovered (or rediscovered, for some of them had already been making the top 10s), those names and some more (in alphabetical order - no jealousy!): Bananarama, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie, Duran Duran, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, Tina Turner, etc.

1984 was also the year the following songs became hits (just a sample of different styles of tunes from other singers/composers, taken from the 100 top hits of the year):
- John Waite's Missing you
- Laura Branigan's Self Control
- Pointed Sisters' Jump
- Genesis' That's All
- Elton John's I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues
- Corey Hart's Sunglasses at Night
- ... And so many more cool tunes!

Those songs, singers and groups still make up a good part of my music collection. Even after so many years, it seems that you cannot part with your first musical memories. Even if younger people comment on them being tacky.

I also associate important moments of my life to that music of the eighties.

First of all, rock and pop music (or more specifically the lyrics) played a big part in me learning my first English words. I would sing along with "pretend words" I thought I heard, having no idea what the song really was about. Gradually, as the sounds became familiar, and with the help of my bilingual parents, I was able to figure out the main theme of the songs.

Boy George (Culture Club) was my first encounter with gender ambiguity. I remember asking my mom if "this person" was a man or a woman. She simply replied "He's a man who likes to dress and wear makeup like a woman". I spent some time looking at the picture, intrigued, and wondering to myself "does he have a girlfriend or a boyfriend?" But I was not traumatized. Proof that sometimes, instead of trying to shield children against everything, an honest answer does the job. What WAS traumatizing in that era was Michael Jackson's Thriller video; my brother and I called it the "horror movie".

Another intriguing one was David Bowie. I used to secretly listen to my mom's record when she was not there (I was not supposed to touch it), and particularly enjoyed Blue Jean. My favorite Bowie song, however, was already playing shortly before the seventies, in line with the space exploration zeitgeist: Space Oddity. Meanwhile, I had to wait 'til 1993 for my favorite Duran Duran song to be released: Come Undone.

What about you? What memories do you associate with music? What were your first musical experiences? Did any kind of music follow you for the rest of your life, getting a little old, but still much loved?

While you think about this, I'll be busy compiling my favorite musical pieces from other eras and styles!