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Monday, February 27, 2012

Women in cinema

Confidence entre jeunes femmes, by Auguste Renoir

Do you like movies? Do you like women? Do you like both?

Then this video should interest you.

Somewhere between commonly heard phrases like "Feminism has no reason to exist anymore" and "Women in Hollywood are still mostly valued for their appearance", there is a nice little concept that has emerged to measure the representation of women in cinema. Whatever your views are on the topic (and whether you have an opinion at all or not), please take a look at this video about the winning movies of the 84th Ceremony of the Oscars.

Sadly... yes, this is year 2012.

If you're also interested in the treatment of ethnic minorities in cinema, please watch the video to its end, and learn why The Help should really have been called White People Solve Racism.

For more on a related topic, please read about the Smurfette Trope.

Don't hesitate to share your thoughts!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Know Thyself

La dame à la licorne - la vue

As I was distractedly listening to the radio in the car, this ancient Greek aphorism came to mind: Know Thyself. The radio host was listing questions you should ask on a first date to get to know each other... and I thought that asking oneself the same questions could prove useful too.

I will come back with the specific questions, but first, an overview of what "Know Thyself" implies.

This aphorism enjoins us to gain knowledge about ourselves, and corresponds to the widely used term of introspection, a concept that's dear to my heart.

Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences (which has been criticized, but is nonetheless highly interesting) takes introspection into account: it is called "intrapersonal intelligence" (not to be confused with interpersonal intelligence).

(For those it may intrigue, other intelligence types, according to this theory, are the logical-mathematical, spatial, linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, naturalistic and existential intelligences. Each person has a combination of those intelligences, in different proportions. I, for example, am strongest on linguistic, existential, intrapersonal and musical intelligences. On the other hand, it seems like I was not present when spatial intelligence was distributed... and the same might be true about the fine motor skills part of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence! What about you?)

Despite its limitations (to which no theory of intelligence is immune to this day, including the ubiquitous IQ concept), this broader approach of intelligence has the merit of taking into account all kinds of talents, not only the scholarly ones (although those are undeniably very important). I believe that broadening our concept of intelligence and valuing diverse talents could benefit most people (especially children) and, in turn, the society as a whole: individuals would learn to embrace their unique gifts (even if those are not "mainstream"), would feel better about themselves, and by fully developing those talents would share the outcomes with everybody else. A lot of kids are pushed in directions that have nothing to do with their actual interests and talents, just because mom and dad think it's the best way to go. Fast forward a few years, they've become frustrated adults, or they've completely abandoned what their parents wanted them to excel at. Let's rethink that for a moment.

Now back to intrapersonal intelligence. No matter who you are and what talents you have been blessed with, acquiring a fine-tuned self-concept is one of the things you can do to ensure you live a happy, full, satisfying life in which you fully blossom.

Coming to recognize how you feel, and why, is the first step to ensure you feel good more often. In some cases, actively working at modifying the way you feel (yes! this is possible! Think, for example, of developing a sense of gratitude instead of focusing on the negative) will significantly increase you overall satisfaction. In other cases, the wisest thing to do will be to fully accept the way you feel... all the while making sure you keep it in perspective. For example, if you feel depressed, angry or sad but have clearly identified the reason (which could range anywhere from losing a loved one to PMS-ing or having an argument with someone), you can reflect with detachment on what's going on... in a more lucid and - hopefully - peaceful way.

In both cases, stepping back from yourself and observing what's happening to you makes it easier to deal with otherwise overwhelming emotions. You're also less at risk for compensating with unhealthy behaviors. (Eg. Why the hell am I eating so much chocolate? Let's investigate this more in depth...)

Knowing what you want (and its most sophisticated sidekick: knowing what you DON'T want) is the number one tool for making the right choices throughout your life. No situation, life partner, job, place of living, etc. will ever be perfect, but if you have a clear image of what you're looking for, and know how to prioritize, chances are you will chose wisely. When you look back, you'll know you made the right choice, the best one in the circumstances. You'll be content with what you've put in place, in the life you've created for yourself. Which is pretty darn close to being happy, isn't it?

In turn, knowing yourself and understanding your ins and outs will also enable you to better understand others and develop empathy. Proof that spending some time thinking about your own self is not an act of selfishness! As long as you find a good balance between meeting your own needs and wants and respecting those of others! An endeavour that, on some days, proves to be harder than climbing the Everest without oxygen bottles. Saying no and putting your own needs first can be as tough as sacrificing your own good for someone else's! I'm sure some examples are coming to mind. Especially if you're a parent! (Or a devoted employee, volunteer, friend, etc.)

If you've read this post all the way to here, you now deserve the list of questions. So here they are!

1) How was your first kiss?

The answer to this question shows the relationship the person has with his/her own emotions, past, intimacy, relationships, etc.

Personally, my first kiss was... very wet. I pretty much needed a beach towel to wipe my face afterwards!

2) What was a "big win" in your life?

This gives information about the way the person sees and deals with competition. A very humble person, for example, might express feelings of discomfort at a "big win".

The first anecdote that comes to my mind is the following: back in grade six, I won an arm-wrestling contest against the one who was known as "the strongest dude in school". I felt bad when all his friends laughed at him for losing to a girl... but I fully appreciated the respect they all (including him) showed me afterwards! Especially since that guy in particular had been a bully to me back in kindergarten! I learned that brutal force WILL take you places when used properly, and I gained lots of confidence. (Thanks mom and dad for the tennis lessons that made that arm so strong!)

3) What was the first big thing you bought with your own money?

This brings to the surface what the person values the most, where his/her priorities lie, and his/her relationship to money.

My first big purchase was a good quality mini-hifi. My second one was a 3-month trip to Europe. Music and travel. What a surprise!

To those 3 questions, I'd like to add one, which might seem simplistic (and materialistic) at first, but to which the answer is very enlightening:

4) What would you do if you won the lottery?

The first reaction to this question is usually to list a bunch of "stuff" you'd like to possess, if only you were rich enough. You will probably also list a bunch of activities you'd want to indulge in. But keep thinking. What would you really do if you won the lottery? Would you quit your job? Go back to school? Move to another house/city/region/country? Would you put some in the bank or on the stock market? Would you start a business? Would you give any money to family, friends, charity organizations? If so, how much, and to whom? Be precise! How would you make sure it's fair? How would you deal with the discrepancy between your means and other people's means (especially family and close friends)? How would you handle some people's envy, greediness, and your own sense of imposture? Do you think your important relationships would change? Etc. The one time I seriously pondered this, the conclusion I came to was the following: "Forget about it, this would be way too complicated. I'm better off NOT winning the lottery!" (Plus,studies have shown that it does NOT make you happier in the long term.)

Finally. Some people might look scornfully at them, but I think books from the self-help section, especially the "good ones", can be helpful for knowing yourself and putting your particularities in perspective. Whenever I finish one of those books, I feel - slightly - wiser than before and, more importantly, I find myself more accepting of who I am. It's worth a try! Have you read one lately?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The power of a kiss

(Warning: this post is filled with links to all kinds of sentimental songs, some suggested by friends, some my own pick... and at least some that will bring back memories. If there's a time to embrace schmaltzy music... it's now!)

Valentine's Day is around the corner and again this year, we can already hear the whining: "It's such a commercial holiday nowadays" and "It's so random to pick that one date in the year to suddenly behave romantically".

To which I'd respond: better on that day than not at all, don't you think?

'Cause let's be honest, life goes by fast, and we often fall behind when it comes to showing our partner love and affection. If one specific holiday reminds us to do it, I say why not? Of course, nobody needs an expensive jewel to feel loved. So the commercial side of it could be ditched if you want my opinion.

But think about it: there's at least one thing you and your partner love to do together, whether it's going out to a fancy restaurant or to the movies, simply playing a game of pool, or even some kinky sex... (or, why not, some kinky sex ON the pool table WHILE eating fancy foods! Woohoo!)... there has to be something! Otherwise you wouldn't be together, would you?

Which reminds me of a study I read a few years ago, which stated that when it comes to compromising within the couple, it's better to settle for something that both partners like at least a little bit than to alternate between something that each one loves. So instead of picking his/her favourite movie/dish/position (while we're at it!) one day, and his/her favourite movie/dish/position the next, it would be better to pick something that both will enjoy, even if it's not their first choice. Food for thought...

Another fascinating fact - and proof that psychology IS a science: The Gottman Relationship Institute, known as the Love Lab, is accurate at predicting the outcome of marriage (whether a couple will divorce or not) by observing their interactions for a few minutes only. Impressive, no? From what I remember, it is not the presence of conflict in the relationship that is problematic, but rather the way partners communicate about that conflict. There IS a good and a bad way to say things, it seems.

But my favourite science findings, when it comes to love, have to be the ones originating from the kissing studies. Yes, there is such a research area. It's called philematology. What a fun way to use your PhD, I say. Study the power of kissing!

What those findings tell us, basically, is that kissing is extremely powerful in igniting and keeping the flame alive between you and your partner. Obvious, you will say, to which I'll reply by a question:

Have you kissed your sweetheart today?

And when I say kiss, I mean Kiss. With a capital letter. Because what research is telling us is that for a kiss to "work", it has to last many seconds. A brief peck, even on the lips, is not enough.

Old couples feel disconnected? Overwhelmed by daily hassles? Disappointed by their sex lives? Here's why: they don't kiss properly anymore! So here's the panacea: ditch the marital counselor and start kissing!

To celebrate Valentine's Day and love, I encourage all couples out there to carry their own little research. Start kissing. Give it the attention it deserves. Be in the moment. Do not think about your grocery list. Close your eyes. Be sensual, too. And make it last. Take note of what happens after 20-30 seconds. If you're not sure, make it last some more.

Believe me. Something will happen. (My friendly advice: you might want to put the kids to bed and turn off the ringer on your phone before you try this long, sensual kiss.)

If you need more to be convinced of the power of kissing, please go ahead and read about all the health-related benefits kissing brings about.

And to finish up beautifully, here's a sweet song that's an ode to kissing (click here), including all kinds of poetic phrases like:

"I'm speaking your tongue on the tip of my own"; "Stay on my mouth, your words in my breath" and "Our smiles kissing each other with mouths wide open".

Here are the French original lyrics:

Collée sur tes papilles

Je parle ta langue
Sur le bout de la mienne
Avant que tu me manques
Je m'approvisionne
En petits bouts de toi que
Doucement je distille
Comme ça juste là, collée sur tes papilles

Tu m'as fait la peau
Et j'ai même pas eu la trouille
Tes mots doux en tricot
Qui s'émaillent et s'effilent
J'm'en ferais bien un manteau
Pour mes frissons de chair de poule
Dans les coulisses de ma peau
Là où tu déambules

Nous deux ça fait mouche
Reste encore sur ma bouche
Tes mots dans mon souffle
Reste encore sur ma bouche

Nos sourires qui s'embrassent
À bouches déployées
Paraît que le temps passe
Mais j'avais pas remarqué
Ton bus au coin de la rue
Je déteste les vitres teintées
J'sais pas si tu m'as vue
J't'ai fait signe
De n'pas t'en aller


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

And now about dying happy

What are your thoughts when you know you're dying? More specifically, what are your regrets? Wouldn't the answer to this question help us live more fully?

We're lucky. Someone has explored those issues for us. Her name is Bronnie Ware. She spent years working with palliative care patients and was generous enough to share her insights with the rest of us. Here are the most common regrets dying people express (the author's words in italics):

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.

It can be a challenge simply to untangle our own dreams, wishes, values, goals and priorities from other people's, especially when those people are our parents or our children. The line is usually quite blurry as parents naturally transpose their dreams onto their children, and children naturally endorse their parents' dreams (even if both parties are not fully aware of it). Not to mention the society as a whole, which further instills a certain set of accepted values in our minds without us realizing it. Those phenomena being at least partly unconscious, one really has to sit down and think hard. Is this really what I want for myself? What do I want for myself? What makes me happy? What feels right and good to ME? This applies to basically every single choice in our life, but the more important the choice, the more important the consequences. In short, you better pick your life partner and your main occupation wisely! (You'll also want to have the strength to make changes if you realize afterwards that it really isn't making you happy, after all.)

Moi-même, by le Douanier Rousseau

2. I wish I didn't work so hard.

This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence. By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.

Time is money. But time is priceless. What are we working for, we should ask ourselves. Is that much work really necessary? And if not, is it worth it? Sometimes, happiness comes with making less money and having more free time/a more relaxed pace of life. Then again, more money can also mean more freedom. It's all in the balance. If you absolutely love your job, if your job loves you back, and if nobody's upset at you for spending so much time at it, by all means indulge!

3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.

Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result. We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.

This is so absolutely true. Speaking my mind is something I have worked on a lot. It's really an art, because as much as you want to be heard, you do not want to startle/offend either. There is a way to speak your mind so that the message will be understood (being too subtle and indirect is still one of the challenges I have to work on) without being unnecessarily harsh or coming on too hard.

Speaking your mind, be it to say "I don't like the way you're acting" or to say "I love you" can be equally hard. You need a lot of courage. Saying that you don't like the way things are going can have a tremendous impact on a relationship, and not always for the better, especially if the person has a controlling, manipulative or narcissistic kind of personality. But in the end, what you're doing by speaking your mind is showing respect... to yourself. On the other hand, saying that you love someone can have no impact at all, at least no visible impact, which is just as difficult to handle. Loving someone who does not love you back, or who does not love you the way you'd want him/her to love you is one of the cruel things life has in store for us.

I do believe, however, that even if it leads to a clash or to disappointment, speaking your mind is always worth it. Because it's one of two things: either the person will not react the way you were hoping, which at least provides you with clear feedback on his/her intentions, respect and feelings (or lack thereof) for you... or the person WILL in fact respond in a satisfying way (even if it might not happen right away... be patient!), in which case you will be rewarded with an improved relationship... and that's worth all the gold in the world!

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying. It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.

It may sound a little bit cliché, but yes, at the end of the day (or, in this case, at the end of the life), all that really remains and matters is love and relationships. I have found that you can face pretty much anything in life when you are well-surrounded (ah! the legendary social network!) On the other hand, unhealthy or nonexistent relationships can ruin it all. The nicest life situation is worth nothing without fulfilling relationships. If being around certain people makes you feel good, try and frequent them often. If you feel lonely, go out and find ways to meet people. And if you already have long-lasting happy relationships, make sure to nurture them. I once heard an elderly man give the following advice: "marriage is like a plant; if you stop watering it regularly, it will not show right away, and you might think all is fine... but slowly and surely, it will fade away. So make sure you water the plant often." (I sometimes wonder if there was more than one interpretation to this advice... but let's not digress.)

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again. When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying. Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.

La balançoire, by Fragonard

Life is not only a choice. Life is a present. As the French author Bernard Pivot puts it, the years that we have remaining on earth should not be considered as capital, but as usufruct.

Life is long enough (and easy enough for the privileged) that we tend to forget it will be over some day. To help me remember that life is to be enjoyed now, I compare it to going on a holiday in a lovely destination: knowing it will have an end makes you appreciate it and helps you savour it fully.

Last but not least. The examples abound: some people who have an "easy" life are unhappy, whereas some people who have been through all kinds of predicaments are happy. What else is there to add? Happiness is a choice. Happiness comes from inside. Be happy. Make it happen. NOW.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Reflections on aging

The Voyage of Life: Childhood, by Thomas Cole

Some days these days, I feel old. It happens more and more as time passes. Normal. I AM getting older. As we all are.

Feeling old has nothing to do with your actual age or the signs of aging you might or might not show, depending on a variety of factors including genetics, avoidance of drugs and alcohol, and use of sunscreen.

Feeling old, just like happiness, is a state of mind.

On those days I feel old, it is because I am slowly realizing that all those lifelong dreams, plans, all this rat race to get the diploma, the job, the life partner, the house, the kids, the cat, the white picket fence... have reached their summit. We spend approximately the first thirty years of our life moving towards acquiring all the items on this "list". When we finally "have it all", instead of feeling content, satisfied... we get what I call the "What's next?" syndrome.

The Voyage of Life: Youth, by Thomas Cole

Yes, I am on top of the mountain right now. That's great, isn't it? Well, yes... as long as you don't look at what's awaiting you on the other side of the mountain: irremediable decline. In your thirties and forties, you can still hope to see some things improve: income, social status, maybe some physical endurance... and you can definitely count on acquiring more wisdom. But it is undeniable: the body is not what it used to be, and in at least some aspects, this is already tangible. Did you know, for example, that near vision starts declining as early as around the age of twenty? And that's certainly not the most disturbing example.

So! What's next? Letting yourself drift is not a viable option. You still want to feel youthful, full of energy and beauty, yes, but also full of marvel and enthusiasm for life. This is becoming a challenge, at least some of the time.

On those days, you feel like you've seen and heard it all. You feel like nothing has the power to surprise you anymore. You might not know everything about everything, but you know enough about the general functioning principles and systems of nature (including human nature) to feel slightly blasé. Sometimes even discouraged by life. The absurdity of it all.

The Voyage of Life: Manhood, by Thomas Cole

There is, however, something positive to draw from this observation. Getting this feeling is a good sign, in a way. It means that you've finally become a grown up. A real one. An adult in the strongest sense of the word: an individual that has acquired maturity, lucidity (which is a double-edged weapon - cabooseys might have it easier), an open and flexible mind, and lots of compassion, for self and others. No need to prove anything to anyone anymore. I am, and it suffices.

Feeling this way also means that you are ready to take on one of the most important challenges of life: share what you have gained with the youngest. Knowing when to watch them from a distance and let them learn, try, make mistakes. Knowing when to step in and play the role of a guide, of a mentor. Again, with generous amounts of compassion. For the mistakes they are making, we've made them all, and for their illusions and sense of wonder are precious gems that we don't want them to lose... not yet.

The Voyage of Life: Old Age, by Thomas Cole

Some days, when we feel old, I believe it's because we feel it's precisely our illusions and sense of wonder that are drifting away. We are now fully aware of our own mortality. We are aware of life's unfair and sometimes downright cruel ways. It's hard to remain bubbly with that knowledge. But instead of crying helplessly over the loss of our own illusions, we turn to the young and do all we can to help THEM keep theirs as long as possible.

Then, when we thought we had lost it for good, that sense of youth, it takes us by surprise, when we were least expecting it. We suddenly find ourselves getting excited and playful and impulsive and exuberant about something trivial... just like children. We find ourselves amazed at one of the simplest manifestations of nature: a bird's song, a sunset, a perfumed flower. Some of us will even find themselves diving head first in a new found passion, and for a moment, they will truly believe they are a teenager all over again.

Proof that nothing is ever acquired for good, that we can always keep growing, that deep down inside, we're still very young...

... and that in fact, aging itself is just an illusion.

(Please watch this video... happiness guaranteed!)