Featured in

Featured in: Tiny Buddha, Halifax Media Coop, Fine Fit Day, Simplify the Season, La Presse, Filles, Le Canada-Français

Monday, December 30, 2013

I can do anything! (kinda...)

Luxorium, Flickr
Time to drink Champagne!
A bottle of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin is what I had to buy my mom
the one time I took a bet with her (and lost).
The nice part: she allowed me to drink it with her.

2013 is about to end! As a New Year's present, I feel like offering a few pieces of wisdom that I managed to glean here and there this year. If you feel like adding some more in the comments, please do so! After all:

“The miracle is this - the more we share, the more we have.”

  Leonard Nimoy (better known as Spock)

The Holidays as a life lesson

I hope everyone's holidays were pleasant! They were pretty good on our side of the planet.

We unfortunately did not get to see any family (bad weather, terrible road conditions), but we did get to party with loads of friends, and I feel very grateful for that. We did have a flood in the basement, but we did resolve it rather quickly (with the help of 2 of the aforementioned friends); I feel very grateful for that as well. We did not go to the swimming pool, but we did go ice skating (superb cross-training activity for runners by the way), and to watch a basketball game. Guess what? I feel very grateful for that too!

In short, the holidays were just a concentrate of real life: some disappointments/frustrations/sources of stress, and some joy/pleasure/meaningful connections. I did as usual: I chose to focus on the positive. 

Speaking of which...

Tout vient à point à qui sait attendre: All things come to him who waits
(French origin, generally attributed to François Rabelais)

Those thirty-something years of life have taught me that nothing is ever completely over, or final, and that there is always room for hope. The most extreme example of this is that I still occasionally have "conversations" with my deceased father. If you find that esoteric, that is perfectly fine. There are other, more down-to-earth cases. Many a time we will be convinced that all hope is lost to obtain something (or someone, for that matter)... but nice surprises happen. I promise. They do! Just don't hold your breath. Patience truly is a virtue. Keep hope!

In a similar vein, I really want to share a comment I read somewhere in the blogosphere:

Bloom where you are planted

Yes, bloom where you are planted. So simple. So wise. So true. We can pursue dreams and goals, but we also have to learn to deal and make the best of what we have and where we are at the moment. (Great wines could teach us a few lessons about that!)

But what if that place is the workplace, and you'd rather be somewhere else?

Work-life balance: let's have fun in the process

I had to work a lot in the days that preceded the holidays, and again right after. I granted myself a full week of rest, but the everlasting supply of translation/copy editing assignments could not wait any longer. I never thought my profession belonged to what they call "essential services", but apparently, it does!

Faced with a long day of work (while the rest of the family had fun), I was sitting at my home office desk trying to gather my enthusiasm and focus. To do so, I declared out loud, to myself, arms up and fists closed in triumph: "I can do ANYTHING!" I really needed the boost, and no one else was gonna give it to me (in those extreme cases I have concluded that it's acceptable to talk to oneself).

However, my seven year-old, who was walking by at that precise moment, judged adequate to reply. "No you can't", she said with her candid voice. "What do you mean?", I asked, kind of deflated in my delusions of grandeur. "Well, she said, you can't lick your elbow..."

She was right, the little monkey.

I shooed her out of my office, and as soon as she had disappeared...

Well I tried to lick my elbow! What do you think!

(It didn't work. On the bright side, I guess it means my tongue is of reasonable proportions.)

I'm sure HE can lick his elbow!!! (Scott Cromwell, Flickr)

Speaking of balance...

Fellow blogger Roy, from Contemplative Fitness, recently shared his lovely and comprehensive definition of fitness. He says: "The term fitness to me, means the sum of balance, flexibility, strength, stamina, aesthetics, independence, and prevention.  As these values have evolved, one other term has framed them, sustainability" .

When I read those wise words, my first thought was that they also apply to psychological fitness. Every day I try to cultivate my mental and emotional balance, flexibility, strength, stamina, independence, sustainability... and apply preventive measures so that "the machine" remains well-oiled. I also keep providing my kids with tools and skills that will last them a lifetime. Recently I directed my "prone to anger outbursts" little angel to the following child-friendly anger-management website: http://kidshealth.org/kid/feeling/emotion/anger.html# 

Are you making the right choice right now?

This question has become very popular among those who work with children: Are you making the right choice? Instead of scolding, we try to bring the child's attention to his/her behavior, emphasizing the fact that it is always a choice, and that another choice might be a better one.

Well, this theory of choice applies to grown-ups as well. I know I constantly remind myself to just make the right choice. Because, come to think of it, everything is a choice in the course of one day. It's important to look at the big picture, but it's also easy to get lost in it. How often have you told yourself "Okay, as of tomorrow, I'm doing this differently"... only to keep the bad habit in place yet another day? I know it's happened to me plenty of times. Nowadays I really try to ask myself "What are you doing RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW", that will help you reach your goal? Tomorrow is too far, and yesterday is already gone. Right here and right now is the place and time to make that right decision. Depending on your personal "temptations", it could be to have an apple instead of a candy bar, to go for a walk instead of lighting a cigarette, to take a bubble bath instead of another glass of wine (moderation, always!)

Which brings me to resolutions.

One month, one resolution

Resolutions are nice as long as they are realistic and as long as we implement them one at a time. We all tend to do the same: we make a list of a dozen resolutions on December 31st. Well, that would be okay... if we devoted 1 month of the year to each of those resolutions! There is just no way we can implement all the changes at the same time. No way. So let's start with one. A small one, ideally. Like: "I will have a glass of lemon water as soon as I get up in the morning" or "I will go to the gym at least 3 times a week, no excuses allowed". Once January is done, and that we have mastered that goal, we can add a second one for February, and so on.

My new habit, that I have already started to implement, to help reach my fitness goals: at the end of the day, I give myself a green light, a yellow light or a red light for each of the two: food and exercise. I know I can only hope to achieve improved fitness if I accumulate green lights!

Bethany Wears, Flickr

Behavior is always there for a reason

The one thing to keep in mind as we are trying to change (or trying to help someone else change, like a child) is that every single behavior has a reason to exist. Before we attack the behavior, we need to know its cause and function! We do things because we get something from them! Once the root cause is identified, we need to replace the undesirable behavior with another, more desirable one.

I know, it's a lot of work! But so worth it.

Some resolution ideas

My suggestion for your new year resolutions: getting rid of a phobia. I see too many people go through life with an unresolved fear. I think the main reason is that, counter intuitive as it may be, the best way to deal with our fears is to face them (slowly and gradually, of course). Most people understandably do just the opposite: they avoid the source of anxiety/fear. Maybe you'll want to explore that this year? Expose yourself to something that scares you? It is so empowering to get rid of a fear!

One of my personal resolutions this year is to stop misinterpreting English expressions that I don't know (my first language is French). I have, for example, been very perplexed by salespeople who ask me "How are you making out?" I always want to answer "But I'm not making out!" "Do I look like I'm making out?" "And with who, anyways?" Another example that left me speechless was when a woman I had just met proudly shared the following rather personal information: "I'm anal". This is not something we say in French, so I was speechless to say the least. I'm not gonna lie, my first thought was to wonder why she wanted to exchange about such personal preferences so early after meeting me. Luckily I said nothing, and later asked a friend what she had possibly meant.

New Year resolutions... they do work apparently! Watch the video:

Happy New Year everyone!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Case study: Chablis (and its food friends)

On Monday, December 23, I decided to launch the holidays with a special supper, and a special wine.

The supper was a fish and shellfish stew that I made with some leeks (one of my favorite vegetables!), onion, garlic, celery, herbs and olive oil. Unfortunately, I was out of saffron - which I know would have enhanced its pleasantness, so we will have to re-try the recipe after a trip to the grocery store.

For dessert, we did as the French people do, and had some greens, some bread, some black grapes and an assortment of French cheeses: Chaumes, Brie de Meaux and Pavé d'Affinois with truffles. I also had an old (aged) Canadian cheddar lying around, which I put on the plate as well.

(In the following mornings, I would have leftover cheese on a toast with some wild crabapple jelly my mother made... a delicious way to start the day!)

I was thinking it had been a rather healthy meal (I had small pieces of cheese) until D produced a plate full of profiteroles ("choux à la crème"). Oh well. It's not Christmas every day.

But wait! It's not even Christmas yet! I thought.

Oh well.

Too bad.

Too late.

The holidays are the time to eat and drink whatever you don't usually eat and drink. I'm not talking about stuffing your face and working on your cirrhosis; overeating and overdrinking is not my thing. But there is a way to indulge in a couple favorite treats within reasonable boundaries. Which is why I also plan to have (or have already had) beef Stroganoff, "tourtière" (meatpie) that D made with minced beef, pork and lamb... and of course the traditional Christmas dinner, complete with turkey and stuffing.

Not one to neglect vegetables, I have (or will) also enjoy "vichyssoise" (French leek-potato soup, served hot or cold), mashed potatoes with taro (a hairy root vegetable that is toxic until cooked - careful!), never forgetting my usual steamed bok choy/swiss chard, and loads of salad (mixed greens... yum). On Christmas' Eve, D carefully crafted those:

Green olives, oranges, prosciutto, fresh basil, cherry tomato

How I love light but colorful and tasty appetizers. I could live on them. But back to Monday's delicacies.

To accompany the "ocean stew", I had purchased a Chablis. As I was drinking, equipped with my "Atelier du Vin" wine discovery kit (see here), I set about to "analyze" the robe, aromas, taste and texture. To do that properly, one has to be dedicated and meticulous. Which does not stop me: I love to spend half an hour examining half a glass of wine with all my 5 senses.

As I was progressing in my evaluation, it occurred to me that it would be fun to share my findings with you, readers. So, here they are.

First, some background: Chablis is a French white wine from the Burgundy region, and is made with Chardonnay grapes. The nice thing about Chardonnay in this region is that it is usually not overoaked like it can be elsewhere, which in turns means less vanilla and caramel-like aromas. I really appreciate it that way, "unoaked".

Because it grows on a soil characterized by limestone, clay and fossilized oyster shells, the vine gives a special taste to Chablis; the latter will often be reminiscent of wet or crushed rocks, or even chalk. This is called a mineral taste. As I said previously, for some reason I really like that in a white wine. Maybe I'm low on minerals; I should get it checked. Anyways, I find it pretty amazing that you can actually taste the soil in the wine!

A good Chablis (not to be confused with the ersatz sometimes found in the States, and which is a pale copy) will also be dry (as opposed to sweet), with a nice acidity. That was very obvious in the one I drank.

When examining the color, I could see it was a pale yellow, which is indicative a young wine. (I could also simply have looked at the label for the vintage, but I guess I like to go the complicated way.) Because this was a young white wine, it had little fruit apart from some apple and a touch of lemon. As the wine ages, it could become more fruity. When Chardonnay grape is grown in warmer climates than Burgundy, the fruit can be of the tropical kind. There was none of that in my Chablis.

Other aromas I perceived were tea (indicative of a "vin de garde", a wine to be kept a couple years before drinking it), and something floral (but I have no idea what flower! Something light and delicate. Any idea?)

Because of its weak aftertaste, I would conclude this Chablis would have benefited from aging a little bit more. I know I have a Chassagne-Montrachet 2009 (Chardonnay, from the same region) that is supposed to be at its optimum in 2015-2016. By then it should be peachy. Literally.

In the same vein, I drank a great Pouilly-Fuissé a couple months ago, which would be another wonderful Burgundy Chardonnay option.

Not to forget Meursault, with which I have had great experiences as well. Be warned that this one could have a more buttery or nutty personality. Which is a quality in its case.

Those wines are nice paired with fish and shellfish (which I love), including raw oysters (which I adore). Oh, and please don't put anything on your oysters. Okay, maybe a droplet of lemon juice. That's all. Don't go ruining the taste of "heaven in a shell"!

For more on white wine, read this (click here).

For more on Chardonnay in particular, click here.

Of course, if you like dry whites in general, there would be tons of other wines worth a mention. In another post, surely!

To learn about wine in general, as well as about some of human nature's weaknesses - plus an apology of pinot noir, watch Sideways.

I also recommend an informative - and fun - book on wine written by Nova Scotian Natalie MacLean (click here).

For a fascinating study linking wine tasting and music, look no further. It's here. Classical music is great as an accompaniment to food and wine indeed, including opera:

Jazz is also a wonderful option. What kind of music do you like to drink to?

Any wines you would like me to analyze? I am more than willing to sacrifice myself!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas was better in the olden days... or was it?

s_herman, Flickr

For many, the end of year celebrations are a mixed blessing.

For the most part, those who are either alone or very old do not enjoy it quite as much, as made apparent by some interviews performed in a Quebec nursing home recently. For many of its elderly residents, Christmas was so much better in the "good ol' days".

When you pay attention to their sentiments, however, you realize that the problem does not lie in the fact that Christmas is celebrated differently nowadays (smaller families, less emphasis on religion - in Quebec anyways), but rather in the fact that their old age makes it difficult for them to appreciate the celebrations.

Many of the interviewees mentioned that Christmas was so much better back when they would get together with their parents and 12 brothers and sisters, plus the extended family, to celebrate. They say that it's hard now that more than half of the family is "gone". I don't blame them. It must be painful to be reminded that you are one of the few to still be alive. One of the ladies, on top of losing most of her siblings, has also lost a daughter in December, and is reminded of it each year as other people are getting ready to party. She also suffers from chronic pain, accompanied with difficulties walking. When she mentioned "not enjoying much in life anymore, and just waiting for God to come and get me", I wondered if she does not even suffer from old age depression, which has been said to be under diagnosed.

Seems like Beethoven was depressed too.
Not even a smile for the camera!

In brief, it's not so much that Christmas was better before, but maybe more that aging is not easy. No one will argue that Christmas is much more exciting when you're a child. Not far behind on the continuum of "funness" is Christmas with children of your own. They bring back the magic you might have lost over the years, and seeing the sparkle in their eyes is often sufficient to make you happy.

When discussing this with D, he said "well, of course Christmas was more exciting when I was a little boy!" What keeps it enjoyable now is to see our daughters get all excited over it. I don't know what it will be like when they're grown-ups. Hopefully there will be grandchildren. D added "The only thing we had to do as children was to come when we were called; we were fed and entertained and given presents. The rest of it was all about play. Now wonder it was more fun!"

I think he has a point. Each generation has been saying how much better it was when they were younger, but I wonder if it's not simply a manifestation of nostalgia that hits all of us as we get older. It has been shown that our memory is selective, and that we tend to idealize the past. Add to it the losses (either family members and friends deceasing, or oneself being mentally/physically diminished), and we can easily see that younger years Christmases will look way more glittery.

Childhood Christmases were much more magical!
My kids used to think this was a reindeer
straight from the North Pole.
(They also thought their own footsteps in the snow
were from elves... I never contradicted them.)
Backyard, 2011.

A word about big gatherings and big families in general: in those idealized recounts, many forget that big families and animated holidays do NOT equate happiness and balance. How many families have issues? A lot I'm afraid: some individuals, even if you're from the same family tree, are an annoyance: the alcoholic one who exasperates everyone, the perv one who touches some in places they shouldn't be touched. The self-centered one. The neurotic one. The reproachful one. The rigid, controlling one.

Plus, spending more time together serves as a reminder of the old conflicts that prevent some to even talk to each other even if they share 50% of their DNA. All families have their issues, and gatherings, joyful as they may be, often bring all that to the surface.

Even in the absence of problematic issues, there often is a gap between what each member wants from the holidays. Some want to party all night long. Some just want to relax. Some want to get up early and do all kinds of activities. Some want to cook, eat and drink. How do you reconcile it all?

I advocate for a fine balance: end of year celebrations are about being together and having fun, about doing things to make others happy (as a friend recently recounted: please don't wait until Christmas morning to wrap your presents and make everyone wait because you failed at planning adequately; that is just wrong!) But end of year celebrations are just as much about resting and taking time for yourself.

Don't we all wish we had a nice angel like this to help us?
Drawn by A in 2010 (age 4 - I can't even draw that well!)
She has since then become
a nice little helper herself.

I recently read and really liked  this post by fellow blogger Beth Berry at Revolution from Home (click here): it is entitled Dear Friends and Family, Please don't Stress on Account of Me.

Speaking of which, it has come to my attention that in some families, there is one family member who "does it all" while the others put their feet up and relax. Unless you are a domestic goddess and truly enjoy all the preparation (which is not my case), there is no reason you should be working to your last bit of exhaustion during the Holidays. Resting shouldn't be a male prerogative, just as staying warm shouldn't be a female prerogative. I encourage all families to revisit the chore load to make it fair; after all, this is the celebration of Love with a capital L, isn't it? Show your love by lightening a loved one's load. If you don't know where to start, this could give you a few hints (click here).

The Holidays will be stressful no matter what, from the sheer amount of things to be done (I feel like I've been shopping and cleaning non-stop, and D was no less busy with the cooking and decorating); but I'm sure there is a way to enjoy them no matter what.

For us, it will mostly be with friends, since our family is far away, and since every attempt from us to visit them or from them to visit us in the winter ends up being cancelled because of poor road conditions (ice storm and ice rink-like roads right now). We nonetheless find a way to make the most of it. We take the time to exist and be with each other, D, I and the kids, which is wonderful on its own. End of year holidays is the only time we don't work AND don't go anywhere (not anywhere far anyways). We might watch more movies than usual (or TED talks... some are really cool), read more books, eat more chocolate and drink more wine. We will go ice skating once or twice, maybe splash around at the local swimming pool (it has two huge, amazing slides), and visit one of the local museums, on top of sledding if snow makes a much awaited comeback; we will take bubble baths and play games. More importantly we will cuddle, and cuddle some more.

We will also spend a lot of time on the phone with our geographically distant loved ones. That's okay too.

Of course we will not forget to run and to go to the gym. We never wait for January 1st to take care of our health.

If, for a reason or another, you are feeling kind of down this time of year, why don't you treat yourself with some simple pleasures? Beginning with this one:

How do you make the most of the Holidays?

Friday, December 20, 2013

In vino veritas

Joe Shlabotnik, Flickr

In vino veritas is a Latin phrase that translates “in wine [there is the] truth". The expression, together with its counterpart in Greek, “Ἐν οἴνῳ ἀλήθεια” (En oinōi alētheia), is found in ErasmusAdagia. Pliny the Elder's Naturalis historia contains an early allusion to the phrase. The Greek expression is traced back to a poem by Alcaeus. (source: Wikipedia)

I learned very early on from observing my parents and their friends that wine drinking is a pleasure not to be rushed.

Around our family and friends, alcohol had nothing to do with inebriation - or so infrequently that it's not even worth mentioning (and then of course nobody would drive - not-so-subtle reminder here, everyone!)

If this is what you see, I hope you have handed
your keys to someone else long ago!

No, among us, wine was a great pleasure to be savored, honored even, one sip at a time.

When you make love to a wine (because, really, that's what it amounts to), you want to be a patient, attentive, delicate and respectful lover. You want to delight in every little wonderful bit of it.

First, you have to pick a bottle.

Not just any one will do!
Annapolis Valley, 2008.

Just like picking a lover, picking a bottle is a paramount decision: failing to choose the right one could end in a disappointing experience, and in love or in wine drinking, that has to be avoided at all costs.

So first, choose a bottle.

At this point I have to mention that the price, if sometimes indicative of quality, does not equate it, and cannot be used as a guarantee. A comparison would be the handsome and jovial person you met and who seemed full of promises, but who ended up being flimsy in bed; similarly, an expensive bottle with a pretty label and an enthralling description might very well slip on your tongue, leaving you with a "I felt nothing" kind of sensation.

It will be better in other seasons.Annapolis Valley, 2010.

Choose wisely, my friend.

The advantage is that with wine, you can Google names and ask around for information without it looking like neurotic stalking or excessive pickiness. So go ahead, read, read some more... and ask questions. Better yet, state your criteria (in wine, it is acceptable to start equipped with a precise list of what you're looking for. In love... not so much. Not openly anyways). 

You could approach "the expert" (whoever in the vicinity who seems to know wine), and say something along those lines: I am looking for a white wine, lean, dry, mineral, but fruity, to accompany raw oysters. 


I had my first French meal and I never got over it. It was just marvelous. We had oysters and a lovely dry white wine. And then we had one of those lovely scalloped dishes and the lovely, creamery buttery sauce. Then we had a roast duck and I don't know what else. Julia Child 

Which brings me to my next point: when asked what wine they prefer, the experts, and even the dedicated amateurs, will declare "It depends".

Annapolis Valley, 2013.

It depends on the season, it depends on your mood, it depends on what you'll be eating with it. A wine wrong for the circumstances, as interesting as it may be, will either fall flat or scream too loud. The right wine in the right circumstances (and at the right temperature), on the other hand, could leave you with a "special smile" and an overall feeling of well-being that is reminiscent of another kind of "afterglow" that has nothing to do with drunkenness. 

If you can have your good wine it with good food, good friends, and good music, even better.

Music is the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunken. Ludwig van Beethoven

Once you have the right wine and the right circumstances figured out, I have only 3 words:


Wine deserves time.

Wine deserves your full attention.

Maybe it's because I'm getting older, I'm finding enjoyment in things that stop time. Just the simple act of tasting a glass of wine is its own event. You're not downing a glass of wine in the midst of doing something else. David Hyde Pierce 

And remember: drinking the wine is just the cherry on top. Because first, you have to get to know your "lover". Not unlike the dance of seduction, this requires a careful, progressive approach, that involves all five senses. You will pour the wine, not much, maybe a third or a fourth of the glass. Admire the color. The color can tell you a lot about a wine: the grape, the age. Then swirl it. Observe how it covers the inside of the glass, and how the droplets run down. Smell it. Try to figure out some of the aromas (you will get better at this with experience). Swirl the wine some more. Smell it again. If you really appreciate wine, the whole experience could almost stop there: you would already be entranced.

If the wine is really good, like this Saint-Emilion 
Grand Cru Virginie de Valandraud 2000, you might end up with your nose in the bottle once it's empty. No worries: this is perfectly normal.

When you are ready, when you know precisely what your wine looks and smells like, you can, slowly, go for what I will call "the first kiss". The first kiss is the small amount of wine you will take into your mouth, not to be swallowed right away, but rather to hold, and to put in contact will all parts of your tongue and palate; you are still discovering that wine, remember? Not only the taste, but also the texture.

Finally, you will swallow that little sip of wine. Now is the time to pay attention to the "aftertaste", or what impression you are left with once the wine isn't in your mouth anymore. To really be able to tell, you will have to take a few sips, but soon enough you will know: this is either a good wine, a so-so wine, or a wine that you don't really look forward to drink again.

Remember that swallowing the wine is almost optional: don't they provide spitting buckets for serious wine tasting sessions? What you want to keep in mind is that when it comes to wine (and love, for that matter), quality wins over quantity. Always.

In the meantime, you will - gradually - have learned to "talk wine" just like some talk love: with a precise yet poetic and fluid choice of words that will take your own personal experience and make it available to all those who hear you retell it. 

Just read this description of a wine I tried recently at a party, the Rex Goliath Shiraz Giant 47 Pound Rooster (which was "okay", not much more):

"It takes a good day of aeration for the sweet to march away in shame to let the wine's backbone to come blinking out of hiding." (From www.cellartracker.com)

Annapolis Valley, 2013.

Which wines will end up on your "good list" and which ones will end up on your "naughty list" concerns only one person: you. As the French saying goes: "Des goûts et des couleurs, on ne discute pas" (There is no accounting for taste). I know I like my red wines dry, old, with a hint of truffle, mushroom, tobacco, leather, prune and/or fig. My white wines I like dry as well, with a mineral personality, plus some fruit depending on the grape. My lovers, well, I like them... er... 

Let's just change the topic.

If you are interested in learning how to taste wine, may I redirect you to this website (click here).

And for another tasty post about wine, click here.

Now if you will excuse me... I have a pinot noir to open.

Happy tasting!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Pace yourself

One step at at time
Great Wall of China, 2010

If there's one thing long distance running has taught me, it's to pace myself.

So many things in this existence are a long term endeavor, filled with obstacles and exhausting just to think about:

  • Staying fit.
  • Keeping your finances in check.
  • Sharing your life with one partner, day in, day out.
  • Raising kids that will turn into - reasonably - balanced adults.
  • Shoveling a 120-foot long driveway by hand because you are ideologically opposed to snowblowers.

You cannot focus on the whole picture too often, or you would just collapse mentally. Getting up at 5 am to go for a run, 4-5 mornings a week, throughout the cold and dark winter, on top of going to the gym in the evenings? The sole idea is already making me feel like crawling back into bed. But I have no choice if I want to run that friggin' race and finish it in one piece. That regimen worked last year, it will work this year. As long as I take it one day at a time.

Race about to start, nervousness builds.
Focus and stay calm.
(A supportive fan helps.)

Yet it IS necessary to look at your overall planning once in a while, to keep an eye on where you're aiming. Which is why I have a "half-marathon training" calendar, as well as a "translation projects" calendar (and, this time of year, a "woohoo, party!" calendar), that I keep at hand in my office to stay on track. I use those as tools, but I don't obsess over them. More importantly, when I'm on task, I'm on task, and I don't let my mind wander to other tasks. Running races or running a business, it's all the same: each baby step counts.

One step at a time.
This pic is from my first race, 4½ years ago.
I had no idea how far (and how fit) I would get.

I have learned long ago that big goals and crazy schedules are manageable when you handle them one small chunk at a time. This is what I will focus on, especially this week, which is among the craziest of the year for most and especially for me, with all the Holiday preparation on top of an extra load of work: year in, year out, translation projects just multiply in December.

My workout schedule will probably be disrupted this week, and I won't get to write the longer post I really wanted to write about wine, but hey, there will be time later. For the time being, I will have to fit in series of burpees, jumping lunges, jumping squats, push-ups and the like in between bouts of translation. Or try my daughter's gymnastics routine for a couple minutes. Did yesterday, will likely be sore for 3-4 days.

This morning, I will gather my energies, rejoice over the fact that the Internet is back to normal and that the kids do have school despite the snow storm (how else would I get any work done?), and listen to energizing music.

Now enough blogging, and off to do some translation.

What are YOUR strategies to get it done?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

To cope or not to cope, that is the question

Simplebitsdan, Flickr

Coping... this might be one of the most difficult, yet one of the most important, life skills to acquire.

Once you know how to cope, life could pretty much throw anything at you. You will be able to handle it (albeit not necessarily with pleasure). We've all heard of incredible resilience stories, of people who have seen the dreadfulest of dreadful, and who came out of it rather unharmed. How do they do it? 

Here's my little two cents on it.

Fact no 1: Life is full of difficulties. Better accept it or you'll waste your precious time fighting "unfairness" and "absurdity".

You might know the opening paragraph of Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled:

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

I read that book in my early teens, appreciated it greatly, but did not understand it fully. I re-read it many years later, after experiencing a couple difficulties of my own, and this time I was able to grasp the truth behind those lines. Life is difficult, yet we expect it to be easy, and that might be the root cause of our unhappiness. We refuse the fact that we all have a burden - or many burdens - to carry.

Fanz, Flickr

Fact no 2: Once you've accepted that life is full of difficulties, you have the choice of learning to cope... or you can always become a victim.

(Disclaimer: there IS such a thing as being a victim. If you are a victim of something, you are absolutely entitled to consider yourself as such, without guilt, and you are also entitled help. However, there is a point when you will have to decide whether to wallow in your own misery... or take action and move on.)

Nowadays, since I expect difficulty to occur in life, I am not surprised nor fazed by it. I do allow myself a "reactive emotion", of course. I am no Stoic, and denial leads nowhere. Sometimes, I even take the time to stop and ask myself "How are you really feeling about this, and why?" If tears have to come out, they do. But soon enough after the blow, I get into "pragmatic mode": "What can I do about it?" And more importantly: "Will I let this make me unhappy?" The answer is invariably no. So I pick myself up.

Capt madd matt, Flickr

Helping others cope

This morning, a young girl I know had an emotional and rather explosive reaction to what I considered a minor annoyance. As much as I respect (and validate) her feelings, and although I understand this might have been a manifestation of the "preteen years" phenomenon, her reaction upset me. What she said especially, to rationalize the situation, did not go down well with me.

There were 2 problems with her analysis. Here is what she said:

1) "This has been going on for too long, and it happens EVERY DAY."

Instead of focusing on each problem individually, she was opting to blend them all together. Looking at it from that point of view, no wonder she was feeling overwhelmed. Inspired by the recent weather, this is what I said to her:

"Each of your problems is like a little snowball. Everyday brings one or a few such snowballs, and if you take them as such, they are manageable. But when you focus on the fact that it happens every day, you might as well be putting all your little snow balls together; it becomes a huge snow ball, like the one you were making yesterday to build a snowman. Tell me, when a snow ball is that big, can you pick it up and carry it?" (She said no.) "And how about each individual smaller snow ball? Can you pick up an carry those ones?" (She said yes.) I added "This is how you need to deal with your problems: one at a time, while it's still of a reasonable size."

2) "THEY are ruining my life". 

She was speaking of the other kids. I knew how she felt. But because of some recent events, and because I have read Richard Bach's Illusions ( “If your happiness depends on what somebody else does, I guess you do have a problem.”), I really was adamant that she does NOT attribute her unhappiness to other people (or external circumstances, for that matter). This is what I said to her (in slightly different terms): 

"It will happen. People will hurt you. Most of them for a lack of interpersonal skills. A few out of bad intentions (but I think those are a minority). In any case, what happens next is what YOU decide to do with it. If people do something annoying, or even painful, that belongs to them. But your reaction to it belongs to you. You, and only you, have control over your life. When you say things like "They are ruining my life", you are relinquishing your control, you are letting them have control of your life. Is that what you want?"

I left her with that. A couple hours later, when I saw her again, she was in a radiant mood.

Lend a hand

Someone else in my life is unhappy these days. Someone I love with deep, unconditional love, even though I don't get to see him very often. When I heard about his struggles, I was worried, then sad, then more worried, then more sad. To relieve him of some of the suffering - and myself from those feelings - I longed to do something. But what? There are situations, unfortunately, where very little can be done. I thought about it for a little bit. What to say? What if it didn't sound like what I was trying to convey? How would it be interpreted? I really did not want to make the situation worse from a lack of an appropriate approach.

In the end, this is what I came up with. I called him, and I offered him... my ear:

"My ear, I said, is yours. I might not understand what you are going through, and I certainly don't know what to say that will be useful, but if there's one thing I know, it's that finding someone who will listen, really listen, is not easy. So if you need to talk... I'm here."

We ended up talking for more than an hour. It was an early Christmas gift... for both of us.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The joys of December

paparutzi, Flickr

Despite being a full-blown and irreducible summer lover, I have to admit December is fun. Today, in a laid-back, "don't feel like making an effort" mood, I decided to put together a list of reasons:

The aesthetics and the festive atmosphere

Colorful lights and decorations, Christmas carols, Christmas markets, and the first "real snow" that stays on the ground... all that puts me in a joyful mood. We don't go crazy with thematic decor, but the little bit we put, I really do enjoy. Isn't it nice to lounge in a living room solely lit by the Christmas tree? I love it. In December I also, for once, indulge in wearing more makeup, sparkly nail polish, jewelry and cute dresses (the rest of the year I'm content as a tomboy).

The beliefs and traditions... whether commercial, spiritual, or both

Some people spend a little for Christmas, some spend a lot. Some people tie it with religious ceremonies, some don't. Each family has its own beliefs and traditions, but what's for sure is that December provides plenty of reasons to reconnect and rejoice together. It starts on December 1st with the Advent calendar. I have friends who build their own, complete with actual presents for each day. We just buy the ones with the tiny chocolates. Everyone is happy. I have one child and a half who still believes in Santa (I say a half because my oldest is asking a lot of questions but not yet ready to let go of the magic). We write to him, and he writes back. On the 24th, we all love following him on NORAD tracks Santa, using it as an excuse to learn about geography. We also follow "reindeer" tracks in the backyard (it's a deer haven here). And this year, after much pondering, we gave in to the Elf on the Shelf. You know what? It's fun! D and I have a blast figuring out what the elf will be up to each night, and the kids have a blast discovering it in the morning. It's not even about a "behavior watch"; we do it for the sole pleasure of it.

As for buying, we do buy, but reasonably. And honestly, since we are so frugal the rest of the year, it's nice to have an excuse to do a little bit of shopping!

The food

December is THE time of the year I let myself indulge in those little treats I don't really allow myself the rest of the year. Real champagne. Real chocolate truffles. All in moderation, but still. I also love those "pot-luck" parties where everyone brings their "specialty". I don't use December as an excuse to go completely off-track with my clean eating, but I do allow myself a bite of everything. I used to dive head-first into desserts, but since I was diagnosed with a tree nut allergy, that has tempered my enthusiasm. Luckily or unluckily, there are many treats I cannot have anymore. In any case, there are many things I eat (or drink) in December and no other time.

The parties

Life is so busy that December sometimes is the only moment we get to see some people. I appreciate that. There are a lot of parties, and it could seem exhausting, but I take them one at a time, and savor each moment. Yesterday was D's work party, which is always a blast, especially because the people there have such fascinating things to say about their job when I ask about it: "I've been slicing lots of brains" and "I've been extracting lots of cerebrospinal fluid" are common answers. Ain't it fun. I try to sound as cool when I say "I've been reading and writing a lot about brains and cerebrospinal fluid". Nah. Not quite as cool.

The music

I said it, I love Christmas music. Yesterday, we went to the Nutcracker with the girls. The last (and only) time I had seen it, it was in Montreal (huge production), and I was about twelve. Notwithstanding the fact that I'm "slightly" older and that the Halifax production is more modest, it was just as magic. The girls were on the edge of their seats and did not blink once!

The Nuctracker: shivers inducing

The rest

For me, it's sacred: I don't work between Christmas and the New Year. In my thirty-something years of life I think I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times I worked the last week of December (I coached Christmas swimming camps). It was fun, but I'd rather be home doing the things I never have time to do: put my feet up and read by the fire, have endless conversations with D while sipping on an afternoon tea, or play Legos with the kids.

What do you think of December? What are your favorites?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Where is your happiness?

madlyinlovewithlife, Flickr

It was "Human Body and Health" time with my French students. Between the games, songs and role plays I had prepared, we were having a blast.

That's when I decided to take our "health talk" a tidbit further, and added the following "mental health" questions to our lesson on "the French names of body parts". I asked the kids whether their happiness was located inside or outside of them. When we reached a consensus for "inside" (i.e, we choose to be happy, as opposed to waiting for others to make us happy), I asked them to specify: where exactly do you feel your happiness?

Some said "Mon bonheur est dans mon coeur" (My happiness is in my heart). Some said "Mon bonheur est dans ma tête" (My happiness is in my head). Some said "Mon bonheur est dans mon sourire" (My happiness is in my smile). But then one of my youngest pupils added "Mon bonheur est dans mon aisselle" (My happiness is in my armpit). Not quite sure what to make of it, I smiled (part of my happiness is in that smile for sure), and asked her what she meant. She explained "When people tickle my armpits, it makes me laugh, and laughing is happiness".

Awww. Youthful insight. How I love it.

I was really into this reflection on the origin of happiness, especially because of two reactions I had recently witnessed in children I know well.

One kid got very upset because another kid had received more "I speak French" stars than him. The upset kid, however, had a lot of stars himself as he usually participates actively to my lessons. I couldn't help but ask him why he was focusing on this other kid's stars instead of focusing on his own, which were numerous. I also talked briefly about "rejoicing over other people's successes".

Another kid got upset after hearing a peer mention her Advent calendar. The upset kid said it was mean to mention the Advent calendar in front of her, who does not have any. Since there had been no bragging, I asked what about it was "mean". I also reminded the upset kid that she might not have an Advent calendar with tiny chocolates in it, she still has something: someone gave her 24 actual presents to open, 1 for each day leading to Christmas. Why was she adamant that this other girl was luckier than herself remains a mystery.

I thought it was a little bit sad that those kids would focus on what they don't have instead of focusing on what they do have. Hopefully, their point of view will change by hanging out with positive people!

paperladyinvites, Flickr

Those two events were a good reminder that the angle of focus is often all that it takes to either make us happy... or miserable. In children just as in adults, it seems, some see the glass half-empty, and some see the glass half-full.The good news is that we can each work on our outlook, to make it more positive. The idea is simple: we have to cultivate gratitude.

Gratitude has been shown to bring about a plethora of good things, including lower blood pressure, less pains and aches, better sleep... as well as less food cravings (for more on this, click here).

The problem, some of you might say, is that there are few things to be grateful about. Well... think again: the reasons to be grateful are right in front of you! I stumbled upon a wonderful reminder of that today. It made it clear that we each have a list of things to be grateful for... if only we stopped taking them for granted. Here are some examples of the "19 signs you're doing better than you think"  (article from marcandangel.com - click here for the whole thing):

  1. You are alive.
  2. You are able to see the sunrise and the sunset.
  3. You are able to hear birds sing and waves crash.
  4. You can walk outside and feel the breeze through your hair and the sun’s warmth on your skin.
  5. You have tasted the sweetness of chocolate cake.
  6. You didn’t go to sleep hungry last night.
  7. You awoke this morning with a roof over your head.
  8. You have overcome some considerable obstacles, and you have learned and survived.
  9. You have a friend or relative who misses you and looks forward to your next visit.
  10. You have access to clean drinking water.

And when this doesn't seem to be enough... well you still have a choice. Go and create your own happiness. Make some changes in your life, if you dare! I, for example, like to come up with new goals and challenges, because they make me feel more alive. My latest one, following D's suggestion, is to train for a "Spartan Race". Now that's exciting!

Gratitude - and in turn happiness - is a choice. What do you choose to focus on?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Sisyphus was a working mom

Sisyphus, by Titian

Do you know about the myth of Sisyphus? In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned to push a boulder up a mountain over and over again, as the boulder would roll down as soon as it was all the way up. Symbolically, this meaningless and repetitive (and probably painful and depressing) task could refer to the absurdity of life (there are other possible interpretations).

I have to say, most days of my life, I feel like my middle name should be Sisyphus. So, so many boring and meaningless and repetitive tasks fill my days, it's hard to see anything else to life than pure absurdity sometimes. And from talking to other working moms, my observation is that this is widespread.

I am not mentioning working dads for 2 reasons: first, I don't chat with men as much as I chat with women, and so I cannot extrapolate to their situation without knowing for sure; second, from what I hear, dads do not have such a heavy load, simply because they do much less at home. I'm not making this up; just ask around and let me know if you disagree... keeping in mind that there ARE exceptions, fathers who do as much childminding and household chores as their female counterparts.

In any case, working mothers are overloaded, to the point that many (very many!) frequently feel pressure on their chest or take anxiety pills to cope. There is so much to think about. One friend's husband recently asked her: "Why are you so stressed?" Her list was endless. To begin with "What shoes are the kids gonna wear with their Christmas outfit?" He hadn't even thought of that one.

On its own, none of the "little stresses" is enough to make someone panic, but together, they just add up to a mountain of things to think about and get done! Especially this time of year! The presents are just one example. Presents for the children, presents for the parents, presents for gift exchanges, presents for the hostesses, presents for the teachers, presents for the bus drivers... it just never ends! And what about getting the house and the pantry ready for the Holidays? And what about the cards to send? And what about the babysitters to find for all those "adult only" parties? And what about all of the other, regular chores, that won't disappear just because it's December!

Not only do the chores have to be done...
We also have to look pretty
girl_onthe_les, Flickr

As I was asking D recently, is it normal to be so exhausted and yet feel like you're still not doing enough? I'm not even a neat freak, and I almost never bake! How do those women get it all done?

This weekend, between one chore and the next, I felt like I was seriously lagging behind in terms of quality time with both the kids and the dog, so I decided to take them all for a run while D went to the grocery store. Alone. (Lucky man. In his defense, he did offer to take the girls, but they opted for the run with mama.)

The run was awful. One kid whined. The dog pulled and/or stopped to sniff anything in sight (or out of sight). Thanks to the cold and my allergic rhinitis, my nose was running as much as my legs. I had a hard time convincing myself that I was gaining anything at all from this run. I kept telling myself: "This is good for you, this is good for you, this is good for you".

The first thing I said as I walked in the house, to D who was putting the groceries away, was "Well, I certainly did not do this for myself!"

Notwithstanding the run, December is only beginning and I'm already out of breath. I feel bad complaining because I'm actually lucky: D is super-duper involved with the endless list of things to accomplish. I can only imagine what it's like to live with a man who thinks once he's back home from work, his job is done. Unfortunately, those men seem to abound. And yes ladies and gentlemen, this is 2013.

Some of you will advise tired moms out there to just let go of some. I will respond with a question: what exactly should we stop doing? Should we forgo cleaning the bathrooms? Yuck. Should we forgo making healthy meals? Me think not. Should we forgo shaving our armpits? Watch them all scream "Ewww..."

As a comedian I admire once wisely said, "I want to take a break, but when I get back, my chores have not disappeared... they have tripled!"

Camus, the existentialist/absurdist French author, wrote "One must imagine Sisyphus happy". He stated that "The struggle itself is enough to fill a man's heart". Maybe I should rejoice in mopping the floors and waiting in line to pay my holiday purchases.

Uh... no.

Wow... seriously?!?
napudollworld, Flickr

What's the solution, then? How can one still enjoy life while getting it all accomplished? How can one be happy despite the constant burden? This is what we need: frequent breaks. To rest. To have fun. To do something we like.

But a break only is possible with a little bit of help.

Trading help with another lady who's in a similar situation is great. I do it often. But even better is to enlist children and spouse to participate more. There's no reason they should all rest and/or have fun while mama's going crazy over the Holidays prep. There's no reason why mama's breaks should be shorter and less frequent. I know this will be hard to swallow, but... moms are human beings!

Too often, what I see is a well-rested, well-fed and well-entertained family... with the exception of the mom, who chases her tail constantly. It breaks my heart: true love, it turns out, might be your willingness to work hard so that your life partner won't collapse in exhaustion. Who would have thought?

As I said, I already have a very hard-working partner, so there is little to improve in those matters. (By the way, being involved in the work includes taking initiative. Waiting for and obeying orders just won't do. It does not lighten the load enough!)

What we try to do more, in our family, is to get the kids to help out more, based on their age and abilities. A family is a community, and in a community, everyone who is capable should pitch in. My daughters are 7½ and almost 10. Here's a sample of what they do on a regular basis (with occasional help if needed):

  • Make their own breakfast
  • Make their own lunch
  • Pack their schoolbag, making sure they have everything they need
  • Unpack their bag and lunch at the end of the day
  • Clean their room and put away anything they use in other areas of the house
  • Set the table
  • Clean up the table after supper
  • Empty and fill the dishwasher
  • Put their clean laundry away
  • Fold part of the laundry
  • Vacuum the main floor
  • Mop the main floor
  • Dust the furniture
  • Take the dog out
  • Feed the pets (1 dog, 2 cats)
  • Empty the litter box
  • Change the garbage bags
  • Take the garbage (and the green bin) to the curb (and bring them back after)
  • Help out with any "seasonal" chores: for example, yesterday they helped decorate for the Holidays

Does that seem like a long list? Believe me, there is still A LOT of stuff to be done by D and me. Between the numerous other chores and driving our sweethearts to their innumerable activities (they have less than most kids... still a lot), there is no time to be bored! And don't worry, my kids still have plenty of time to play. Children were not made to sit on a couch in front of a screen. Children in most cultures play a little bit, help out a little bit, play a little bit, help out a little bit, repeat. They grow up to have reasonable expectations about life (which in turn brings about a healthier mental life).

But the nicest thing about the kids pitching in, apart from the fact that it makes them hard-working, independent and resourceful people, is that mom and dad end up with more free time. And guess who we end up spending a lot of our free time with? The kids, of course. I have told my kids "If we all work on this together, we will all be free earlier, and we will all be able to spend some time together".

Plus, I won't stay up late to clean up. Call me crazy, but I am adamant at getting my 7½ hours of sleep every night. I might be self-indulgent, but I feel like I deserve to sleep sufficiently.

Having the kids help also frees time for D and I to spend with each other, which is so important, and which still benefits the kids indirectly: a happy couple makes a happy family.

When all family members work hard, guess what... everyone is happy. Even mama! Isn't that fantastic?

What about your family?

Taking the kids to see Santa: done
Only 124 other things left on the December to-do list!