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Sunday, April 27, 2014

A little bit of this and a little bit of that

Lance Shields, Flickr

If an alien was about to land on this planet and asked you whether life on Earth is good or bad, what would you reply?

You might have a good life, or you might have a difficult one. If you're like most people, you might have gone through periods of both.

If you have a difficult life, you might still have a positive outlook and find reasons to smile and even laugh every day.

If you have an easier life, you might feel sad or guilty that not all human beings were born as lucky.

In either case, you probably have moments of elation in alternance with moments when you feel completely overwhelmed.

Take my most recent translation assignment, a long, complicated, highly technical, somewhat stressful, sometimes interesting but mostly tedious one that involved 4 full days of scratching my head and digging into the most specialized of dictionaries to make sense of the electrical engineering gibberish.

The topic was a challenge (as I usually stick to translations in the field of health), but I was up for it. However, a series of obstacles made it all the more difficult!

On the first day, my main computer kept crashing.

On the second day, after uploading the translation software on my second computer, I lost my Internet connection (which I need to use my online specialized dictionaries and to upload my work onto the main server).

On the third day, I woke up with a terrible migraine (probably from all the computer induced stress).

On the fourth day, I just threw everything out the window and started crying...

... NOT! Instead I took a few deep breaths and kept going.

If I was to answer that alien's question about life on Earth, I would simply make a list of things that make the fabric of a «normal» life (based on my past few days or so):

  • A wonderful and useful tool that unfortunately cannot be trusted to be reliable (aka my computer)

  • A job that allows me to work from my couch, in my PJs

  • A naughty cat scratching said couch

  • My oldest scoring for her basketball team

R, 2014

  • A debilitating headache that even the strongest meds can't keep under control

  • My youngest also scoring for her basketball team

  • A mischievous dog that won't calm down

  • A cat sleeping in the sun, very peaceful (scratching is over, it seems)

  • A saucy preteen playing with everybody's nerves

  • A sinfully good chocolate cake for my youngest's eight birthday

  • A whiny 8 year old also playing on everybody's nerves (turning 8 doesn't solve everything, apparently...)

  • A pleasant visit from relatives who live far away

  • A bad cut on the finger while prepping vegetables (still tender a few days later)

  • A great night's sleep

  • Snow and strong winds on April 24 (You read that right! SNOW!)

  • A bottle of delectable Chinon rosé, dry, mineral, citrusy (my attempt at convincing Mother Nature that it's time for Spring!)

  • Noticing that I forgot to water one of my favorite plants and that it might be dead

  • My youngest playing Minuet in G major by Bach on the piano

  • An injured knee that makes running almost impossible

  • A fruitful phone conversation with a like-minded person

  • Existential thoughts that leave me slightly depressed

  • Existential thoughts that leave me slightly euphoric

  • Favorite sneakers now good for the trash

  • Wonderful things that take place in the world

  • Horrible things that take place in the world

  • Great friends spontaneously offering to take my kids, which allows me to work peacefully...

  • ...if it wasn't for the computer crashing!

  • A nice hug from both my little monsters

  • All the while D is running all kinds of errands and doing all kinds of chores that I won't have to worry about

  • And the meds finally working their magic...

  • ... reminding me that not much is life «tastes» as good as the absence of a migraine!!!

In retrospect, my problems seem rather small.

  • So, what do you think? Is life good or bad?
  • Any examples?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Video games: for or against?

RebeccaPollard, Flickr

I've been wanting to write about video games for the longest time. I have a love-hate relationship with them. The love stems from the fact that some video games have enlivened my days ever since I got my first one, a small portable screen on which bananas fell from the sky, waiting to be caught by monkeys. I must have been around 10 when I got it as a birthday present. It proved to be a wonderful pastime on the long flights that took us back from Sénégal to Canada.

Things quickly escalated back in North America, when we acquired the first version of Nintendo, and with it the ever entertaining game, Super Mario Bros. Not that I want to brag, but I was unbeatable at that game. Once when I was home from school because of an umpteenth tonsillitis, I played each and every level in a row until I saved the last princess, which was really cool because one of the "upgrades" that came with achieving that was that you could then pick any "world" and play it out of the blue, without having to go through the prerequisite levels anymore.

walknboston, Flickr

Another Nintendo game that I highly appreciated (for its repetitive and addictive properties it seems) was Tetris. Anytime I could steal my brother's Gameboy, I would play for hours on end.

I aslo played the Legend of Zelda and I don't know what else.

But nothing had prepared me for the next generation of addictive games, beginning with the legendary Sim City. Sim City was the first game I actively questioned when I finally acknowledged that I was preferring it to my homework. Not only did I forget to eat and sleep when I was playing that game, I also used it as an excuse not to study. Eventually, I realized I was truly addicted. It had to stop. It took me a while but I managed to detangle myself from this unhealthy relationship with Sim City.

It's a wonder I did not become a urbanist, 
given the time I spent designing cities!!!
haljackey, Flickr

That was until I discovered its even more addictive sequel, The Sims! That game might not be to everybody's taste, but with my legendary obsession with house plans (that I will explain in another post), it came as a gift from above! I could now design the houses of my dreams in a user-friendly system and even put people into them! It was great. Until it got bad. Once again I was "forgetting" to study, eat, sleep (and use the washroom - I probably got a bladder infection from that). It got so out of control, I had to ask D to hide the CD-roms in a place where I would not find them. That worked. But clearly, my habit was out of control.

lucykemnitzer, Flickr

Ever since then I have been very cautious with video games. In fact, I haven't really played any for years now. To be honest, I just don't have time for that anymore (let's just say that I've put my priorities in order). What I have learned from my personal experiences, and from looking at other people's kids, is that video games, as appealing as they might be, are truly dangerous for the young brain. I was not their only victim. I keep hearing about kids who spend most of their free time in front of a screen, big or small, and who obsess over it even when they are not playing. It worries me. First, because some games truly are inappropriate for the kids who play them. Second, because while kids play video games, they are not doing other things that could prove so much healthier (mentally AND physically) for them: playing outside, playing board games, playing imaginative games, building things, having real interactions with real people, reading, and last but not least, listening to their own thoughts. For all those reasons, my own kids' access to video games is VERY limited. What am I saying. EXTREMELY limited. It does them good to NOT play those games. I know that for a fact.

We do have a Wii, but we mostly use it for "physical" games, and we are aware that it does not replace actual physical activity. We turn it on maybe... once a month?

Video games did teach me a thing or two, apart from shooting ducks with precision (Duck Hunt), and apart from flying and landing a variety of airplanes (any flight simulator). They taught me that there CAN be too much of a good thing.

The Sims in particular taught me that it's important to attend all your needs, namely: Hunger, Bladder, Hygiene, Energy, Social, Comfort, Environment, and Fun. Forget to balance those and you will certainly end up feeling crappy. I apply that to my real life now.

What is your attitude toward video games?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Happy non winter!

Le printemps, by James Tissot
Oh! How I long to wallow in the grass!

Yes, happy non winter.

Celebrating spring would be a little precipitous at this point; that is, if you consider that spring should normally look something like this:

Effet de printemps à Giverny, by Claude Monet
The light in that painting. The light!
We haven't seen that kind of light in months!

Granted, we have been able, this weekend, to get the bicycles and the basketball hoop out. The kids were ecstatic!

But as far as the awakening of nature is concerned, we need to be patient: the grass is still yellow, there are still some patches of snow, and there is no clear sign of any new buds or flowers, apart from the very beginning stage of crocuses.

(This is in Nova Scotia. My mom, who lives in Québec, was telling me this morning that she still needs to put on her snow shoes to go fill the bird feeders; on the bright side, she will shortly be attending a wedding in North Yorkshire, which, despite its name, should be warmer than Canada.)

With a little luck, we will soon be able to walk around barefoot in the grass wearing a diaphane dress, and pick flowers as we go?

Well, I couldn't care less when and where and what will happen, because this morning, when I opened the door to let the dog out, this is what I heard:

And that, my friends, was enough for me to get into a trance. Not unlike the trance I got when I saw the original of this aptly named painting at the Uffizi in Florence:

Allegoria della Primavera, by Sandro Botticelli
Mercury, The Graces, Cupid, Venus, Flora, Chloris and Zephyrus... we are ready! Come!

Is it spring in your corner of the world? What are the signs? How do you feel?

Friday, April 4, 2014

The fate of the middle class - or why it's never enough

Shubenacadie Wildlife Park

In the 1930s, an economist named John Maynard Keynes predicted that in a few decades, we would live in a leisure society and would only have to work a few hours a week, the rest of our time being dedicated to the pursuit of hobbies. Those few hours a week would suffice to provide for a comfortable life, he said.

I do not need to tell you that this hasn't happened. Not only do we still have to work what certainly feels like long hours, we also never seem to have enough time... and most people would not hesitate to add that to simply get by, one income is not enough anymore.

What's more, to afford the goods and services we are constantly bombarded with by the media (e.g. the $200+ a piece clothes, accessories and what not depicted in most women's magazines), and to own the house and cars and have the lifestyle that we see depicted in most Hollywood movies, you need to belong to the upper middle class at least, ideally a dual-income upper middle class family (e.g. a dentist and a lawyer). (For more on what constitutes upper middle class, click here.)

Problem is, the upper middle class encompasses a small portion of the population. What's more, as much envy as it can arouse, the upper middle class still does not have it all. Everyone (except the filthy rich maybe) has to make choices and sacrifices. Everyone looks at what's above and feels a certain degree of envy. Meanwhile, everyone is also aware that so many people have much less.

Having access to running water, electricity, enough food for the whole family and all the other things we take for granted is still a privilege considering the astonishing numbers of our fellow human beings who live in poverty, some of them in our own developed country.

We feel envy because we don't have quite enough, and we experience guilt because we kind of have too much at the same time. How does one reconcile the two?

Over the past 15 years I have gone from living in a studio apartment that was about the size of my current living room, to a 2 bedroom apartment, to a 3 bedroom apartment, and finally to a house that is probably at least equivalent to those 3 apartments put together, in total square feet. I asked my 10 year-old, "is our house too big or too small?" (in my opinion it could go either way, depending on how you look at things). She said "it's big". But then added "well, I think it's perfect". In all honesty, it is too big when you focus on how much space we really need.

Other than our living quarters, the furniture has improved both in quality and quantity, and so have most of our possessions and general lifestyle.

Normal trajectory of 2 students who have become 2 professionals.

Despite being happy with what we have, however, we are also very aware, thanks to the ones who have more, that we don't have everything. By the same token, we cannot ignore the ones who have less. We try not to look too much at the former, and we try to help the latter as much as we can. But what strikes me when I think about my life is that there is no specific period of more intense happiness. It seems that being content with one's life has very little to do with how much you can afford. Also, despite the significant improvement in their material life, and despite belonging to the upper socioeconomic stratums, most people do not feel rich. They still have to budget (albeit differently, I concede). They still cannot afford everything they want.

One phenomenon that could explain all this at least partly, but that Keynes had underestimated, is the relative  nature of wealth, and of what we call needs. The reason why we fail to become happier as we get richer, and the reason why we don't ever think we have enough, is that we get used to to any improvement in our material situation, by a process called habituation. We feel we need more. Especially when we compare ourselves to those who do have more - and there will always be such a thing. You have a luxury car? You dream of a yacht. You have a yacht? You dream of a private jet. You have a private jet? You dream of a space shuttle. It never stops! And it's frustrating, because we feel, for all the hard work we put in life, that we deserve all those things.

Theoretically, we all deserve to live in such a palace.
Austria, 2009.

This is because our needs are yesterday's wants. Our wants are tomorrow's bare essentials. We definitely do not need what we think we need in order to be comfortable and happy. Yet we are convinced that we do, because we've gotten used to it, and because everybody else has it.

What is essential, materially, in life? Really essential? When I think of that I realize it's almost indecent the amount of stuff we have.

If it was just me I might ditch everything: sell some, donate some, recycle some... and go live in a small trailer with the bare minimum. Or some monastery in the Himalaya. Or some ashram in India. I never thought that the result of acquiring more would be that I now long to have less. I'm not sure what draws me to that kind of lifestyle. At the same time I do still dream of (and appreciate, when I have access to it) luxury. Big dilemma. I will figure it out eventually.

For now I will keep hesitating between the ideals of bourgeoisie and bohemia.

Bourgeoisie because status and money are important in our world. I will never demonize them. To take money as an example, it opens the door to freedom and comfort, and it allows one to surround oneself with beautiful things. There is nothing wrong with that. But push it too far, and it comes to a cost.

Focusing mostly on status and money is a passport for dissatisfaction. Not only because it fails to ever content us, but also because, as Charles Bukowski would say, we run the risk of becoming the "men who stand in front of windows thirty feet wide and see nothing".

Even within the realm of materialistic happiness, it usually pays to - artificially - instill some longing and appreciation. Sometimes it is worth it to wait a little bit longer before acquiring something, even if you already have the money, just so you will appreciate it more.

Not to forget that getting rid of stuff can often provide a high just as good as acquiring stuff.

Turning to bohemia, for those who are willing, might mean more time for contemplation and for artistic pursuits (appreciation and/or creation). It might also mean the luxury of not feeling controlled by the material sphere. That does have its appeal. I know my business(es) could be even more dynamic and lucrative... if only I was willing to work even harder. But the appeal of nature observation, music listening and leisurely reading is still very strong. I try to keep balance between that and hard work.

No matter what your level of status and wealth is, I guess the best option is to keep all things balanced... no matter what the media and your surroundings throw at you.

What do you think?

Edit: based on the first comment I got below, I went and looked up the book Wanderer, by Sterling Hayden. Here is an excerpt: "What does a man need - really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in - and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That's all - in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade."

Food for thought!