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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Free will

Frida Kahlo, self-portrait

You think your actions reflect your deep values. 

You think your deep values reflect who you are.


Are you sure?

How many unwritten rules do you follow without even realizing it? 

How many things do you do a certain way because it's how people like you (of your gender, ethnicity, age, religion) are "supposed to" do them?

How many of your values have you inherited from your family and/or social group without ever questioning them?

How many of your behaviors arise from from a need that you haven't acknowledged?

How many of your needs and wants and hopes are really YOUR needs and wants and hopes?

Are you sure you are going in the right direction?

Are you acting or merely reacting?

Are you acting in a way that fits your OWN core values and objectives?


Then why are you buying things and then regretting it?

Then why are you eating/drinking/consuming things when you know you shouldn't?

Then why don't you like your job?

Then why do you maintain relationships that make you unhappy?

Then why do you say yes when you mean no?

Then why do you hurt others?

Then why do you hurt YOURSELF?

Then why do you feel that frustration, or that void, or that impression of being incomplete?

Then why are you unhappy, stressed, scared, or angry?

And why do you want to make changes in your life yet rarely manage to?


Throughout your life you have made (and will make) choices based on your needs, values and goals. But are those really YOUR needs, values and goals?

And when you are acting according to those needs, values and goals, is it really true that you can achieve anything you want when you put your mind to it... as our Western society wants us to believe... or do you face innumerable obstacles?

And finally: if status (socio-economic, for example) and what other people think had no importance to you, no importance at all... would you live the life you are living right now? Would you act the way you act? Would you talk the way you talk? Would you make the choices you're making?

I am currently reading Status Anxiety, by Alain de Botton. It is a book I highly recommend.

This excerpt made me pause and think:

"We may feel envy [...] over a condition or possession that would in fact make us unhappy if we secured it. Likewise, we may experience ambitions unconnected to our real needs. Left to their own devices, our emotions are just as apt to push us towards indulgence, uncontrolled anger and self-destruction as they are towards health and virtue."

Whatever makes you pause and think in this post... please write it in the comments below!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Canadian weather: Feeding conversations since the 1490's

(Or even earlier... After all, don't the Inuit have an endless list of words to describe snow?)

March 27th and we're shoveling away... again.Today, kids don't have school for a second day in a row. This winter, every other Wednesday or so has been a "snow day". Even the universities closed a few times, which is rather unusual.

We thought we were getting there... not yet, apparently!

It is now early spring in the Maritimes, which are certainly NOT the coldest part of Canada (proximity with ocean helps temperate). Still, this morning we have a nice temperature of -15 Celsius including the windchill. Welcome to our beautiful country!

Unfortunately, we get this error message too often

Pretty much sums it up...

Poor wildlife...
This translates to: "Don't lose hope... spring is coming!
We are beginning to see the deer!"

As some of you might know, I lived in Sub-Saharian Africa as a child, and in the process did not get to see snow for 4 years (from the age of 6½ to the age of 10½). That was enough to wean me from winter and the cold in general. I won't lie, wearing a sundress on Christmas Day and riding my bike on New Year's Eve  is not something I ever thought of complaining about!

But reality has a way of catching up with you. One fateful day, my parents announced we were going back to Canada. Mind you, I love Canada, but I had also fallen in love with Sénégal!

On our first winter back, since I was so young the last time I had seen snow, I didn't quite remember how it "worked": I walked out in my PJs, barefoot, the first morning I saw some white powder on the ground.

Brrrr!!! Memories came back quickly.

I also remember the first time I realized cold temperature doesn't solely make you chilly. It can also hurt. It was around -10 Celsius (colder with windchill) when I started feeling the pain on my cheeks and on the tip of my nose. But the worst was to come. Twice in my "silly-teenager-who-won't-dress-according-to -weather" life I got mild frostbite. Once on my toes, once on my left ear. Frostbite isn't so bad while it's happening. It stings a little, but soon enough you don't feel anything (of course! The body part is frozen!) However, when you go inside and the tissues are allowed to defrost... !"/$%?&* the pain! Two lessons learned: 1) dress for the weather; 2) if you do freeze a body part, allow it to defrost gradually. If you're inside and it hurts too bad, go back outside for a minute or so. That will slow down the process.

Anyways, some 20 years later, whenever it's really cold my left ear still bothers me. Ouch.

Another thing I noticed when we moved back to Canada is how much people talk about the weather here. In Sénégal, apart from the summer months, it doesn't even ever rain (which is a different kind of problem of course)! You can expect the temperature to be warm and dry every single day from November to May. Ah, happiness... In any case, apart from the aforementioned rain season, nobody ever mentions the weather!

What about Canada? Well, it's a little bit different. Between scorching summer days and freezing winter days, not to mention spring allergies and fall hurricanes, we don't run the risk of becoming bored!

This week we got our usual "Wednesday Snow Storm", but on top of it we were blessed with strong winds that were gusting over 100 km/h in some areas. Lovely, I know. Everyone braced for impact, which means stocking up on food and water (in this neighborhood, we are on a well and lose water as soon as we lose power), making sure there's enough candles, batteries and warm blankets, charging or filling the generator if you're lucky enough to have one, etc. (And hoping for the best: losing power in the winter, the house wouldn't remain warm for very long. Been there, felt that.)

When THIS is coming your way, you don't fool around!

This is something I take seriously: in 1998, I lived right in the middle of the "Black Triangle" when we experienced the Great Ice Storm. We had no power for weeks. In January. It was bad. I might have mild PTSD from it. (To read about the traumatizing events, click here.)

Who likes winter, anyways?

In any case, that and my Girl Guide and camping experience have prepared me for the worst! So much that I was almost disappointed when we did NOT lose power yesterday! I had planned board games wrapped in blankets by candlelight, but we ended up cleaning the house, making chicken vegetable stew and watching movies. Mind you, there was also the shoveling. The nice part: our workout is done! (Even the dog... Vizslas turn into kangaroos when playing in the snow!)

What it looked like yesterday afternoon.
Normally, there would be a street and a house straight ahead...

And this is what it felt like later on in the day...

Pretty much the whole province shut down

With the exception of those who offer "essential services".
Those of my friends who are doctors and nurses
were NOT happy about this!

Any fun, scary or unusual experiences with the weather?

Thank you to my cousin, S, for sharing her video of the storm!

I would have loved to be outdoors... NOT!!!

Rick Mercer totally gets it!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Gender stereotypes: hurting us all

I have been told time and again that this blog has a way of stimulating reflection.

Always dedicated to what I guess is one of my goals on this Earth, today I am endorsing my subversive role and sharing a picture that I believe to be thought provoking. (It should be, anyways.)

(Warning: some rant involved.)

What's wrong with the following picture?

If you're like most people, your first reaction might be to find this picture endearing: a depiction of sibling love and solidarity involving very cute protagonists. You might also notice the picture's aesthetic qualities.

If you think all those things, you would be right (at least partly). And you would certainly not be alone in thinking that way.

But as some social media commenters have remarked, this picture also paints the portrait of gender stereotypes, and those stereotypes have the potential to do more harm than good. The main stereotype depicted here is the following: based solely on their gender, some of the children on this picture are expected to be protectors, whereas another one is a potential victim (who is furthermore unable to defend herself without the help of the males in her family). Although some individuals and societies think this segregation of roles is just fine, it doesn't come without problems.

First, this role distribution disempowers girls by letting them think that they need to be protected by boys.

Second, it puts a lot of pressure and responsibility on the boys.

Third, it implies that the potential "predator", the one who will "mess with her" (see text in the picture) is a male from outside the family, as if all males outside the family were a threat. In a way this picture "demonizes" all males except for the ones within one's family, as if they could only have bad intentions toward this girl.

Fourth, it implies that the males that do belong to one's family are safe. The ones in my family were, and I really wish that it was true for all families. But if you've seen any statistics on abuse lately, it is unfortunately not the case. In fact, a girl or a woman's main threat often is a man within her family.

For all those reasons, this picture bothers me.

Don't get me wrong; I am totally for siblings standing for each other and even protecting each other if needed. But why does it have to be genderized?

As a girl myself, I would have been highly annoyed if my brother (I have one, not four) had considered his role in my life to be one of protection. I love my brother to death, and we would BOTH drop everything to assist each other if needed, but I am very grateful that he's never intervened in my interactions with young men! It would have been embarrassing for all of us! And if a young man was ever disrespectful to me, I'm glad I had the confidence to tackle it right away (without any male coming to the rescue).

Sander van Dijk, Flickr

In that vein, I am also very grateful that my father never told me that I "threw like a girl" or "whined like a girl", or that I would have to wait until I'm 30 before I could have a boyfriend. If I'm giving those examples it's because I've heard them coming from young fathers my age. I wonder if they realize the negative impact those seemingly innocent remarks can have even when they say them jokingly. Should all males be depicted as "big bad wolves", and should all females be depicted as delicate, relatively helpless creatures?

Just a reminder that this is 2014, folks.

One thing I was told by an ex-boyfriend was that if I ever cheated on him, he would be very mad at "the other guy". I asked, innocently "You wouldn't be mad at me?" That seemed to elude him. The potential enemy was the other male. They would resolve this together. I had nothing to do with it. I guess I was barely the "merchandise" they would fight over.

Don't you see that makes no sense at all?

Not only do I fully believe in empowering girls and women to make them feel like they have full control over their own destiny, I also want to give some slack to the boys: just like girls, they should feel like they are "good people", and they should be permitted to like whatever they like. That includes:

1) Letting them dress up as a princess if this is something they want (you would be surprised at how many parents "panic" when they find their 3 year-old boy has put on a princess dress for fun);

2) Being okay with them not liking sports (you would be surprised at how many parents "fight" this "unnatural" dislike by forcing their son to play team sports not matter what).

How about letting kids of both genders follow their own interests and not trying to make them fit into a tight mould? Wouldn't everyone benefit from that? Wouldn't you want girls and women to feel independent and to be able to put their true needs first? Wouldn't you want boys and men to see themselves as kind and to have the freedom to explore whatever they like without being judged?

Many, many women have self-confidence issues, put their needs second and think that they "need men" to simply get by in life.

Many, many men are estranged from their own family and lack the close-knit social circle that is said to be a necessary condition for a long, fulfilling life.

Both boys and girls, both men and women, can (and should) be both strong and self-assured, AND caring and nurturing. Simple enough I say!

In theory, maybe. In practice... not so much. Here is an example I recently read in a men's magazine: On his first date with a girl, this guy started crossing the street without looking both ways. Luckily, said girl quickly pulled him from the road and saved his life. Cute story, hey? But wait. How did that make the young man feel? Grateful? Nah. From his own words: he felt "EMASCULATED"!

I had to read it twice it made so little sense to me. In any case, I guess feeling emasculated is still better than being killed on the spot by a car coming at full speed?!?

Speaking of dangerous things, I think we are making a big mistake whenever we justify unwanted behavior based on gender. I already gave an example relating to girls above (whining). Here's one relating to boys: "He's being disruptive or disrespectful? He's breaking things? He's hurting people? Oh well, boys will be boys..." As if disrespect, destruction and aggression were ever okay!

Notice that I am not talking about playful wrestling, or competitiveness in sports, which are perfectly acceptable (for both genders, by the way). Let me add that I am all for providing acceptable outlets to kids' energy and/or frustration, and for helping them channel their outbursts (e.g. by providing plenty of opportunity for physical activity, among others).

But we have to be careful to not trivialize behaviors that are unacceptable in society at large. When we use the "boys will be boys" argument to justify any unwanted behavior, we are doing a disservice to all boys by implying that boys by nature have many unwanted behaviors. What kind of self-image do boys gather from that you think?

If you still think there is nothing wrong with the picture at the top of this post, please remember that this kind of approach to gender and family ties is the one that, in other cultures, underlines and justifies "crimes of honor" (for more on this, click here).

For a TED talk on a similar topic, click here.

Let's get our things in check before we utterly and collectively lose our minds.

As usual, whether you agree or not, your comments are welcome below!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Spring into action

Spring is in the air!
Halifax, 2014

(Rather proud of that pic I have to say!)

Spring is in the air! The snow is melting, the sun is shining, the birds are chirping... even hormones are heating up: the last time I went to the library (of all places!!!) I was approached by a man my age who proceeded to flirt with me very conspicuously. That is a more reliable sign of an imminent spring than any groundhog, I'll tell you!

Why not use this promising atmosphere to hop on the health and fitness bandwagon?

Nobody should try and tackle everything at the same time, so here are a few options:


Eat less. We all want to believe there is some sort of magical formula, but the problem with magical formulas is that they are complicated. Stop counting calories or points or grams of nutrients and just cut your normal portions in half. Seriously. Try it. I'll be damned if you don't lose weight!

The only exception is fruit and vegetables, because studies show that simply increasing the amount of produce we consume, even if we change nothing else, will do wonders for our health. As read somewhere on the Web this week: include 2 cups of fruit and vegetables with every meal, every day, and tell me how you feel in 2 weeks!


According to recent studies for which I am too lazy to find a link (just Google it), sitting for many hours a day is extremely bad for your health, and that, even if you do exercise at some point during the day. But how to sit less? Especially if you have a sedentary job? Well, you could make sure you don't sit when you're not working! Yes, I know, that might mean less screen time (unless you are willing to watch TV in a standing position). But is that really a bad thing?

Some things are way more interesting to look at than a screen!
Halifax, 2014


Most of us despise certain forms of exercise. I certainly wouldn't recommend you practice a physical activity you highly dislike! By trying different things, I promise you will end up loving something. The ideal is to mix a little bit of cardio, strength training and flexibility training to ensure a variety of health benefits, but there are different ways to reach that goal.

In my case, and even if I do practice other types of activities, running is the panacea. Since I've started running I have felt the same kind of effect I imagine I would get if I took anxiolytics, antidepressants and the women's version of Viagra! All that without the side effects, and with the addition of heightened levels of energy and confidence. Ain't it wonderful? If I could put running in a bottle and sell it, believe me, I would!

After running, this morning, I still had some fuel left (or maybe I was just on my runner's high), so I put the whole family in the car and off we drove to a hiking trail. Apart from the fact that said trail was still mostly a sheet of ice, it was a very pleasant walking (skating?) experience, listening to the birds chirping and the water cascading, and smelling the smells of an impending spring!

Keeping a Vizsla still long enough for a photo? Good luck!
Halifax, 2014

Now for you beloved readers, here are two songs about the Spring by two beloved French (well partly Greek and mostly Belgian) singers! One of the songs has pictures, the other has subtitles, so that you can follow the lyrics. :-)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

First kiss

Plot58, Flickr

Kiss me a paragraph, and I'll reply with a novel. (author unknown)

The world is a mess. Watching the news always carries the potential side effect of a panic attack. We're on the verge of a war? The planet is decaying so fast that we won't have any oxygen to breathe, let alone any food to eat, by 2050? An asteroid is about to hit us?

Unpleasant. Scary. And guilt-producing. Because most of us don't even know what to do about it. So we stay put and wait for someone else to fix it. I have deep admiration for those who "act" and try to make the world better, in a tangible way. Despite my humble attempts, through daily actions, to "be the change I want to see in the world"..., more often than not I feel like I'm choking on the dust those go-getters lift. (I blame myself only - if I don't like the dust all I have to do is become an activist myself!)

I have two big flaws when it comes to try and change the world.

1) First, and this is not bragging, (it actually is quite the opposite of bragging in our day and time)... I'm a thinker. Not an doer. I like to think. To analyze. To ponder. I like to read and to write and to discuss. To debate, even. But to act? Not so much.

Even when I write, I don't even have the courage to write in my first language! I have to take refuge behind the "protection" of my second language, in which I don't feel as exposed. Gives you an idea of the extent of my bravery - or lack thereof...

Hopefully by reading, writing and discussing I can still make a - little - difference in the world. That might be my biggest aspiration.

2) Second, even when it comes to read, write and discuss... more often than not I avoid "the big topics". I circumvent them. I redirect them. I'm not sure why. But what I know is that I often find myself tackling some "lighter topic". Maybe that's because light topics are the best antidote to all our worries. Even when I do approach "big topics", I do it from a philosophical perspective, as if I'd rather go around shoveling clouds than actually do something about this world.

My secret hope is that those light topics can actually make a difference. In fact, thinking of today's topic, one might argue that if there was a little bit more of it in the world, then the world might be a better place. Let's ponder that (or act on it? I'll leave it up to you.)

Today's topic is


Is there anything as deliciously exhilarating as a first kiss? A kiss is a wonderful thing, all the more if it's a first kiss. (But not necessarily; subsequent kisses are just as important. You can read about it here.)

A friend once told me her husband "isn't into kissing that much" and I thought, "How sad". In my humble opinion, kissing (plus other physical encounters obviously) is the glue that seals a couple (along with good communication and common goals and values).

This week I was delighted to discover that I'm not the only one out there with a fascination for kissing. Someone had the wonderful idea to put - good looking - strangers together, ask them to kiss, and make a short movie out of it. Take a look:

In addition to being incredibly cute, this movie teaches us a lot about human connection.

It shows us that human connection is a necessary condition for physical contact, even in situations where there's no reason not to go straight for physical contact. Nothing happens in a total void! In this movie, dyads knowing nothing about each other were simply asked to kiss in front of the camera, never to see each other again (unless...)

What struck me is that none of the couples limited themselves to "just kissing". Many of them found it necessary to "set the stage" by shaking hands and/or saying things such as:

"Nice to meet you"
"What's your name again?"
"You have nice eyes"
"Let's look at each other for a second"

... And the fantastic "Shall we make out?"

After the kiss, they could have simply parted and called it a day. Yet most participants lingered briefly. They seemed to feel, even if it was ephemeral, some level of attachment to the stranger they had just kissed. Once the kiss was over, they kept holding hands, they hugged each other, they commented on how good the kiss had been. One even asked "Do we make out more?"

It all sounds very promising. If you pay attention to the body language in the movie, you might even start picturing some of the couples taking it "to the next level" once away from the camera!

This raises once again the question of what precedes what: physical attraction or mutual interest? What comes first? Or do they build up simultaneously? You can meet people but fail to "notice" them until after you get to know each other. You can meet people that blow you away with their attractiveness, yet fail to fall in love at all. How does it all work? I don't know. Maybe we're better off not knowing!

Thinking of that, I began to wonder how awkward it would be, after such an already awkward first kiss, if the couples decided to see each other again. Let's say you really enjoyed the "artificial first kiss" and feel like exchanging phone numbers for a date. How would the date go? Wouldn't it be a little bit sad to have had that for a first kiss? - Not that first kisses are never awkward - they sometimes are (remind me to tell you the story of my very first kiss! haha!) - but because if your first kiss happens in front of a camera after only briefly being introduced, you're missing on the best part: the build-up that leads to the kiss! I mean, those kisses were cute aplenty, but they did not stem from the long and gradual dance of seduction, and in my opinion, that is a huge loss! The best part, in a first kiss (and in the beginning of a relationship), not unlike salivating as you're reading the menu in a restaurant, is the anticipation!

Is it really a good idea to rush the first kiss?
Sure it must help with digestion, but...

The best part of the first kiss is that it's the climax of a build-up. That build-up can last anything from a couple hours to a couple months (some people are just very slow on the switch - remind me to tell you another story!), but what doesn't change is the fact that you have been discreetly observing each other, acting in a certain way in front of each other, saying certain things, moving in a certain direction, ultimately waiting for this to happen. You've been "dancing" around each other the whole time. Making your moves, matching them to the other person's moves, hoping that what you perceived was indeed going on and not solely the product of your imagination (and wishful thinking! How can one be unbiased when butterflies have invaded one's stomach?) You've been feeling uneasy and excited at the same time, both hesitant and eager, walking on the tight rope of mutual discovery. You've felt a - good - nervousness every time the other gets closer, looks at you for a little bit longer, say something that could be ambiguous. And this is all delectable.

After all, if we wanted to go straight for it, why would we beat around the bushes so much? Why would we all try not to be "too obvious" about our interest and attraction? Part of it stems from a fear of rejection, but part of it comes from our genuine enjoyment of the process.


What's the point of this post, other than celebrating the wondrousness of kissing? Well, maybe I'm trying to make the world a better place by encouraging everyone to engage in more kissing. Yes, that sounds about right.

If you're in love, whether it's a new love or an old one... please go ahead and kiss. A real, anticipated with excitement, good kiss. Not in front of a camera.

... because, as Soko reminds us in her song We Might be Dead by Tomorrow... life is too short to delay such pleasures. I personally know someone who "lost her lover without saying goodbye 'cause she didn't have time". And once that's done, there's no going back.

Give me all your love now

'Cause for all we know

We might be dead by tomorrow

I count

Going wasting my time

Adding scars to my heart
'Cause all I hear is
"I'm not ready now"
And I can tell
That you didn't have
To face your mother
losing her lover
Without saying goodbye
Without saying goodbye
'Cause she didn't have time
I don't want to judge
What's in your heart
But if you're not ready for love
How can you be ready for life?
How can you be ready for life?
So let's love fully
And let's love loud
Let's love now
'Cause soon enough we'll die

Le baiser, by Rodin

Monday, March 10, 2014

Jazz it up

Kata Rokkar, Flickr

Some things get better with age. The sempiternal example is wine. Good wines, as they age, achieve more balance, letting go of their early "green-ness" and deploying the full extent of their aromas. Likewise, some musical genres get better with age, but in that case, not the age of the musical piece so much as the age of the listener. Advancing in age, it seems, makes you available to appreciating music that you would have turned a deaf ear to only a few years ago.

One example is jazz.

Jazz has become a new cherished companion in the past few years. When I tried to share my new found passion with my kids, however, it was met with skepticism if not plain old disinterest. When we took them to the Jazz Festival in Montréal, the girls enjoyed playing in the children's area, but that was pretty much it.

They still have time

The nice thing, with jazz, is that it accompanies wine really well. In fact, simply listening to jazz sometimes is enough to put me in the mood for wine. It happened this weekend. I grabbed a bottle of Côtes du Rhône that proved to be just right, paired it with "an ole piece of cheese", sat down and relaxed while listening to the music. I must be getting old indeed because to me, that's as good as a Friday night can get.

It had also been a while since I hadn't drank anything, my focus being on hydration while I was sick (i.e. pretty much the whole month of February). The only bottle I had opened in the past month was a Médoc, in a desperate attempt to cure myself, because as connoisseurs will tell you, "Médoc cures anything".

That time, unfortunately, whatever I had proved to be "Médoc-resistant". Maybe the healthiest way to approach Médoc, nowadays, is in the form of a marathon:

The Medoc is home to "the longest marathon in the world", the Marathon du Médoc. This tour through the vineyards and chateaux of Pauillac, St-Julien, St-Estephe, Medoc and Haut-Medoc, starts and finishes in Pauillac. Along the course are various pit-stops with food, wine tastings and music. (source: http://www.wine-searcher.com/regions-medoc)

The only downside of pairing jazz with good wine, especially if you dim the lights and sit comfortably in front of a fireplace, is that it will stimulate your brain's pleasure center so much that you might not be able to refrain from also indulging in chocolate or sex, depending on what is available at the moment. For some, this might prove to be too much vice for one evening!

For now, let's indulge in the music, and for the rest, I leave it up to you ladies and gentlemen. (But consider yourselves warned!)

(Please do not feel the need to tell us that such and such song is not really a jazz song... we're not talking strict musical genre here, more of a "spirit".)

In no particular order:

Nat King Cole - There was a boy

Amy Winehouse - Someone to watch over me

Ella Fitzgerald - Let's fall in love

Norah Jones - Don't know why

Joe Pass - Insensiblement

Etta James - At last

Louis Armstrong - What a wonderful world

Diana Krall - S'wonderful

Nina Simone - I put a spell on you

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong - Summertime

Norah Jones - Sinkin' soon

Van Morrison - Moondance

Pink Martini - Sympathique

Steve Martin & Bernadette Peters - Tonight you belong to me

Jazz Manouche - Le miroir de Narcisse

Do you have a favorite one, in or out of that list?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Superwoman is dead

Brett Jordan, Flicrk

Happy International Women's Day!

Some of us are in for a treat today: flowers, breakfast in bed and what not.

Many more of us are in for yet another miserable day of womanhood - I'm not talking about my friends and myself here, but about all those girls and women in the world who live a life of poverty and/or violence; it might feel like it's far from us, but I never forget that it exists - and that it's widespread.

For most of us, however, nothing special will happen today. We'll just go our normal way with a normal day of hard work, a little bit of play, a lot of love, and way too much responsibilities on our shoulders.

For the privileged Western, 21st century woman, the reality can be summarized as follows:

A lot of fish to fry.

Way too many of those fishes. Fishes that come in all shapes and sizes and with different cooking instructions; yet in many cases we have no choice but to fry them all at the same time, with the risk of overcooking some while others end up undercooked. To increase efficiency, we try to go fast with the frying; more often than not, we end up with small burns on our hands and arms. It can hurt a little bit. But mostly, it's stressful. Juggling it all takes its toll on women's physical and mental health. The numbers don't lie: turn your head left, turn your head right, and you've seen a woman with either anxiety, depression, or both... and I'm not even mentioning insomnia.

Where the heck do we think we're going like that?

Some days I wish I was a man from the 1950s: you go to work, you make money, you come home and you put your feet up. Supper's ready! Children come to you once fed and cleaned, for a cuddle and a story time (or a little game of baseball on the weekend), then they are taken to bed. The house is always clean, the groceries done, and your shirts are ironed. All you have to do is bring back some dough to pay for it all. Ah! the life...

Nowadays I don't know anyone with that kind of life... not even the men, who pitch in more and more with household and child-related chores.

However, when it comes to taking initiative and responsibilities, it often falls on women's shoulders. Things will be done if we ask... but we have to ask.

I know there are exceptions. I frequently witness it in my house. Love to come home to find that something has "magically" been done. The point is still valid nonetheless - the load of remembering what has to be done usually falls on women's shoulders. Most men I know will readily admit that.

Each and every one of those little responsibilities is far from overwhelming, but when you add it all up, and especially if you have a career, and if you are delusional enough to wish for a pastime or two... well, good luck!

On this International Women's Day, what I want to say is, let's stop putting so much on our own plate. Choices are difficult, sometimes cruel, always frustrating, but they have to be made. There is no way we can do it all.

Plus, the world keeps on going when women slow down. Hard to believe, I know, but I promise it's true!

A lot of our stress comes from trying to accomplish more than is humanly possible. There is a difference between what we wish we could get done and what we can actually get done. If only we were more realistic about it. If only we lowered our standards. If only we reminded ourselves that we are human, and that our needs are just as important as those of our loved ones: a good night's sleep, 3 sit-down, healthy meals a day, regular exercise, regular breaks. And respect. We deserve it.

Let's stop valuing ourselves solely for what we do for others, and let's take care of ourselves. Sounds revolutionary? I wish it didn't.

Let's not wait for someone else to give it to us. Let's just go and get it!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Let the children play

Wilmette Library History

A few weeks ago, I read the following comment on a social media, published by a Guide leader :

"We took our Guides to the local playground with no plans except to just play outdoors. I was shocked at how long it took them to figure out what to do, and how many asked us for direction."

I echoed the stance taken by Carl Honoré in his book In Praise of Slow, and my own experience with children: many of them don't know how to entertain themselves anymore... probably because they are being entertained too much!

One of my friends has admitted to this herself. She says that part of the reason her kids need her so much is that she doesn't "leave them alone". In fact, another friend, whose kids are among the most independent I know, does just the opposite: she gives them a lot of space and free time, and does not intervene too much. Not only are they able to figure out something to keep busy on their own, they are also very well-mannered by 21st century standards (they are pretty young, too).

In light of this, it shouldn't be surprising that one of the first pieces of advice Kevin Leman offers in his book Have a New Kid by Friday is to cut down on extracurricular activities. According to him, taking that simple step can do wonders. He's not the only one to observe this: dozens of parents are deciding to put their kids on the "slow track" - and discovering all the benefits that can have for a child... and for the family: less behavior problems, less stress, less time and money pressure (seems like we all work like crazy just to be able to afford the latest sports camp or equipment for our little monkeys!), more enjoyment and better performance at the activities that are maintained. A non-negligible bonus: more quality time as a family. Instead of driving each kid to their innumerable activities, some families are learning to stay home, turning off the TV and video games (more on that later), and play/chat together.

An excess of extracurricular activities and other forms of entertainment and parental overinvolvement will impede not only children's independence and behavior, but also, according to some studies, essential skills such as:

  • language skills
  • social skills
  • conflict resolution skills
  • motor skills
  • spatial skills
  • focus/concentration
  • ability to find their calm on their own
  • ability to entertain themselves on their own
  • creativity
  • imagination

Who would want to impede the development of such skills in their child? No one! In fact, the reason we entertain our kids so much is precisely because we think it will help them develop useful skills (and also because we feel guilty for working so much, but that's another topic)!

Unfortunately, we are mistaken. All those sources of entertainment do not do the job they are supposed to do, especially when we resort to them too much. We think we are doing this for our children, but we are in fact shortchanging them. More and more children are experiencing burnout. In early years that can translate into unwelcome behavior. As teenage years approach, the young athlete or prodigy might also drop out of his/her sport or musical practice altogether despite promising results, because s/he is so tired of it. Some of those "dropouts" were kids who did enjoy their activity in the beginning, but with time, it's become too much. (As a coach, I've seen talented young swimmers follow that path.) Adulthood, for those kids, is not an easy ride either.

Consider the following questions:

  • Is my child cranky?
  • Is my child whiny?
  • Is my child needy?
  • Is my child defiant?
  • Is my child showing signs of fatigue or stress? (e.g. frequent tummy aches, headaches)?
  • Do I have to bribe my child regularly?

Even if the possible causes are multiple, being overstimulated is one to consider. But what exactly qualifies as overstimulation? The following questions might help us figure it out:

  • How many hours a day does my child spend in front of a screen (TV, computer, video game, DS, etc.)? 
  • Does my child "need" a screen to remain entertained and well-behaved? (i.e. what happens if we do not use any screen for a full week (or even a full day) - including in the car and waiting rooms or while we're fixing supper... do we face a potential melt-down? What does that tell us about our child? I have one word: addiction).
  • How many hours a week does my child attend organized activities and classes? Or, put differently, how many days a week does my child have NO organized activity outside of school?
  • How often do I buy something new for my child (regardless of the amount it costs)?
  • How often do we have to rush a meal (including making unhealthy choices for the sake of speed) in order to get to an extracurricular activity in time?
  • How often does my child not sleep enough because of activities that end too late or start too early?
  • If we do have a couple of free hours ahead of us, and if all the screens are turned off, how often do I refrain from organizing an activity (such as making a craft or baking cupcakes together) in order to let my child have real free time?
  • Considering all the different sources of entertainment listed above (screens, activities, classes, new toys/objects, organized activities at home), if I was going to do an experiment and avoid them all, how long do I think my child and I would last, and what does it mean?)
  • How many hours a day does my child spend at home?
  • How many hours a day does my child have of true free time without "drugs" (screens)?
  • Does all that seriously make any sense?!?

Our children need (and deserve) to be left alone. They also need to experience "plain old boring life". They need to know what silence is. They need to be able to hear the sound of their own thoughts.

This is not a praise of doing nothing at all. It's an invitation to look for balance. Sometimes, the kids themselves are better than us at finding it. During the weekend, since nothing was planned, and since I had to work on a big translation project, D asked the girls what they felt like doing. "Let's just stay home and do nothing!" is what they replied enthusiastically. No screens were turned on, either. What did they end up doing? They played outside in the snow. They played inside with Legos and Playmobils. They read books. They drew. Left to their own devices, they were happy. And I promise they were still learning something!

I believe what makes it possible for them to spontaneously engage in those activities is the fact that we give them the opportunity, by "leaving them alone", on a daily basis. I know other kids who can do that, some of which are much younger. They have been allowed to develop it, and that is a true gift (for both the child and the parent).

As a parent, I did not always think that way. I used to fill my children's days to the fullest. I had good intentions. Luckily, however, I know better now.

Which reminds me of my own childhood. Despite a certain number of activities and the occasional use of a screen (very occasional back then), I cannot count the number of hours I sat in my room or in the grass or on a tree branch or on a snow bank, chatting with my brother or with a friend... I also spent a very healthy amount of time alone, simply "thinking about life". I have wonderful memories of those quiet moments.

Why don't we parents offer that to our kids? The younger the better, but it's never too late to start giving our kids some slack. Let's start right now!