In Praise of Human Drama

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Sometimes I simply stop to ponder the myriad of human dramas playing out at this moment.  All the people around the world hurting and healing, arguing and making love, feeling lonely and enjoying friends, loving on their children or ignoring them.  So many dramas…and each one of those dramas feels “real” and central and undeniably important to the players.

 

I know this because the dramas that I have experienced in my life seemed so real and sometimes insurmountable or unrecoverable.  Yet, here I am, years later, and I can’t recall all those dramas and crises that I felt would never end.   I do recall once, in the midst of what seemed like a horrible conflict with a lover, that he turned to me and said “What if I told you that a year from now all the good in our relationship will dwarf this moment?  Would it change our tone of voice? Our interaction?”  And he was right.  I don’t remember the details of the conflict, but I do remember the moment that we let go of our “real” anger and shifted into a less combative tone.  His words gave us a chance to see the difficulties of the moment in a much bigger perspective.  The relationship ended and, as he predicted, and the difficult moments are really dwarfed by the beautiful memories.

 

But we are human, which means that we cling to our version of “reality,” our version of “good” or “bad,” regardless of how ephemeral.  My pondering of dramas was prompted by a conversation with a childhood friend who recently divorced.  I could hear the deep pain in her voice as she grappled to explain the end of her twenty-plus-year marriage.   She was clearly struggling with re-writing her narrative now that the story had an unanticipated ending.   Sitting in the pew at her wedding, I, too, had joined her in the belief that the end would be “death do us part.”  Over the years since that wedding we lost touch.  Now, through the wonders of social media, I was re-entering her life at the moment when she had to craft an alternate ending.  I could be a witness to the beginning and end.

 

When we reconnected, I didn’t realize that the marriage was troubled.  Marital conflict is not the first thing that you reveal to a long-lost friend.   Sitting at dinner with the still-together couple, I remember marveling at the photos of the happy times and even feeling a little tug of jealousy.  If you put the length of both my marriages together, I wasn’t even close to their shared marital experience.  But, of course, longevity is not an indicator of happiness.  Within months of that meeting, I received the tearful phone call explaining that their divorce was almost finalized.

 

My friend was devastated, hurt, angry, in shock.  Her former spouse was already building a life with a woman that he was having affairs with off and on for decades.   Social media confirmed the union with pictures from his wedding only months later.  Everything that she believed to be “real” was now shattered.  So here is the drama…and the hurt…and the pain…and all the hard lessons that may be learned or not learned…a suffering that gets amplified in the moment.

I don’t want to diminish the pain.  Lost relationships must be mourned.  But I had to wonder how much of the pain comes from our inability to let go? Our simple desire for things to be other than what they are?  We rehash all those moments of hurt.  We cling to our sense of the other person being “wrong.”  With infidelity and deceit, it is easy to get caught up in our self-righteous anger.  So I listened to my friend, comforting her the best that I could.

 

Yet, I couldn’t quite despise her philandering former spouse in the way that she might have liked at the height of her fury.  The deceit for so many years had to eat him up.  His face in his post-divorce pictures looked relieved, relaxed.  Maybe he was relieved not to live a lie?  I understand that after so many years that he might be anxious to get on with his life.  If he had asked me, I would have suggested that there was a great deal to be gained by taking time to feel the loss and pain that comes with the unraveling of a collective life.  But he didn’t ask and I can’t know his story.  Glancing at the photos of his new marriage doesn’t tell the “real” story any more than the photos of his last marriage did.

 

I listened to my friend explain how she thought things were so perfect.  Her perfect was obviously not his.  And it reminded me of a teaching by Pema Chödrön.  “We think that if we just meditated enough, or jogged enough, or ate perfect food, everything would be perfect.  But from the point of view of someone who is awake,” she wrote, “that’s death.  Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole and self contained and comfortable, is some kind of death.  It doesn’t have any fresh air.”  Maybe he experienced her version of security and perfection as a kind of death?  Whatever happened, it seemed very clear that there wasn’t much room for change.  For her, this was stability.  For him, it was stagnation.  For the marriage, it would appear that it meant a closing off of the flow of fresh air.

 

How many times have I gasped for that fresh air after so carefully crafting a version of perfection?  The pain that it caused…along with the recovery…are a part of the wonder and miracle of human existence.  Will there be other dramas?  Of course.  Who is immune?  But right now there seems like a pause and a bit of peace for the former couple, for me.  Or maybe not…I don’t know, in fact, what is playing out at this moment.  But I agree with Pema that there needs to be room for “something to come in and interrupt all that” otherwise we will kill “the moment by controlling our experience.”  Struggling against this inevitable ebb and flow of life only sets us up for failure because sooner or later we have an experience that we simply can’t control.  As Pema reminds us, we just can’t  “flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice, smooth ride.”

Rules for Dignity When You Are Dumped

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Last week I posted my break up advice.  As several readers noted, my advice was designed for the person initiating the break up.  But what about advice for those whose hearts are being crushed by good-bye?  What “rules” do they follow?

 

I realized that my advice is oddly similar.  Break-ups are rarely easy or mutual.  Usually, there are signs that all is not well.  All of us are, from time to time, a little like Dorothea in George Elliot’s Middlemarch.  We miss the clues that something is amiss and fail to hear the warnings of those who love us dearly.  And we can’t see in the moment that sometimes a break-up might be for the best. If only stuffy Mr. Casaubon had called the whole thing off! But then, of course, George Elliot would have had a much different novel.

 

And this is my point. We can change the story. Break-ups are opportunities to think about your own self-worth and your own well-being.  What do you deserve?  What do you desire?  The space created by the exit of a beloved can be an opening.  My strategy was to try to balance the sadness/pity/anger with doing things that gave me pleasure.  So perhaps I drank my sorrows away complaining to a friend one night…and got dressed up and went to a beautiful symphony performance the next… Having a good life (or at least appearing to have a good life) is the best strategy forward.  This is a good time to fake it until you make it.

 

In the interests of fairness, why don’t we turn my Seven Rules of Breakups into the Seven Rules of Being Dumped?  To my way of thinking, being dumped requires a focused effort to retain your dignity while you feel like your heart is being yanked out with a pitch fork.

 

Seven Rules for Dignity When Dumped

  1. Whether or not you want to end things, remember that endings are rarely pleasant or completed cleanly on the first try. If you did not initiate the break, accept that you will feel wronged by the former beloved (and you no doubt are!) Keep in mind, however, that the former beloved is rarely a relative of Satan in spite of how awful he/she made you feel.
  2. You can’t control the break-up conversation or how it is delivered.  Rarely are these conversations satisfying.  Whatever reason this person will give, it is not going to be acceptable if you don’t want the break-up.  So keep it simple regardless of the complexity.  The former beloved wants out of the relationship.  What more do you really need to know?
  3. Talk to friends… journal… call a dozen more friends…talk to your dog…but don’t call your ex.  I REPEAT: DON’T CONTACT YOUR EX.  There is no point contacting him/her for comfort or a re-hashing of the ending.  It is never helpful.  It always seems like a tangle and trap that prolongs the hurt or even refuels it.  Love and emotions are not rational or reasonable.  You wanted to be in relationship with this person and now they want out.  It is that simple.
  4. Be kind and gentle with yourself. This is a time for extreme self-care.  Care is an ACTIVITY.  Catch up with friends that you have missed.  Watch films that you wanted to see (and he did not).  Hit the gym.  Do not wallow. Honestly, I never understand the desire to curl up in sweats with a carton of ice cream and be sad.  Self-care means actively avoiding self-loathing or self-defeating behaviors.
  5. Try to keep some distance from your ex. Keep in mind that by the time that he or she broke up with you, they have already made up their mind about the ending.  This means they are probably ahead of you in processing the ending.  They may appear to be “moving on” quickly and in ways that might feel hurtful.  Avoid it.  Knowing or watching will only make you feel worse (and that is unkind…see point 4).
  6. Want to call/text/cyberstalk the former beloved? Give it three days.  (This seems to be quite tricky for people, in my experience.)  Let things settle for three days.  Don’t have more discussions.  Don’t try to tie up loose ends.  Don’t say I miss you.  At the end of three days…see how you feel…and maybe give it another three days…and another…until it doesn’t feel quite so fraught.  Trust me, details (like returning clothes or books, etc.) take care of themselves over time.  Right now the most important thing is to end the discussion and take care of yourself.
  7. Point seven is the same whether you wanted out or not…understand that, in spite of everything, the notion of “closure” is an ideal that few of us truly achieve.  It is possible to wonder about this person or regret the ending.  You may, indeed, think about this person for the rest of your life.  No ending is ever quite as final as it will seem in the moment.  Contradictory feelings are normal.  Yet, it doesn’t change the fact that it is over.  And the best “revenge” when you have been dumped is to move forward and have a fabulous life…because you deserve it.

Seven Rules for Breaking Up

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People often ask me for break up advice.  Given how open I am about the many relationship endings in my life, I suppose that this is to be expected.  I get it.  In these moments, we all want guidelines or assistance or re-assurance.  Reading through my journals and correspondence, I can’t help but notice that my advice for the person initiating the break remains fairly consistent over the years.

 

My advice comes down to seven basic rules.  I suspect that these were picked up along the way from writers or thinkers or friends…whose good counsel is now lost to me (my apologies).  You may agree or disagree with my rules since there really is no one formula for success in endings or beginnings.  Below is simply the set of rules that has served me well over the years with ending many types of relationships (romantic, family, friends, etc.).  Sometimes life brings endings.  Our task is to make them as clean and gentle as possible.

 

Seven Rules for Breaking Up/Endings

  1. Endings are rarely pleasant or completed cleanly on the first try. If you are initiating the break, accept that you will be the “bad guy” in someone else’s story…and you may have to play that role beyond the initial conversation.
  2. And, yes, you will need to have a conversation.  How you leave one relationship is how you go into the next…so try to make a clean break.  It helps to get your story clear in your mind.   All you need to know is that you want and need to end the relationship.  Now.  Keep it simple regardless of the complexity.
  3. And, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO GIVE ANY REASONS.  (I always highlight this point multiple times.)   Trying to provide a reason that will satisfy the other person, particularly if that person does not want a break, will only set a tangle and trap where you search and search for some reason that he/she will deem valid.  Don’t do this.   Love and emotions are not rational or reasonable.  You wanted to be in relationship with this person and now you don’t.  It is that simple.
  4. Yet, try to be kind and gentle. No reason to be harsh.  Remember that being kind does not preclude being firm and clear.  Do not create false hopes to soften the news.  Clear, firm, and gentle can go together.
  5. Because this is the best way to be honest.  By the time you have your conversation, you have already ended it in your mind.  Have the conversation and let it go.
  6. Then, give it three days. (This seems to be quite tricky for people, in my experience.)  Let things settle for three days.  Don’t have more discussions.  Don’t try to tie up loose ends.  At the end of three days…see how you feel…and maybe give it another three days…and another…until it doesn’t feel quite so fraught.  Trust me, details (like returning clothes or books, etc.) take care of themselves over time.  Right now the most important thing is to end the discussion.
  7. Finally, give yourself a break. Understand that, in spite of everything, the notion of “closure” is an ideal that few of us truly achieve.  It is possible to wonder about this person or regret the ending.  You may, indeed, think about this person for the rest of your life.  No ending is ever quite as final as it will seem in the moment.  Contradictory feelings are normal.  Yet, it doesn’t change the fact that you needed an ending…and that is what you achieved.

Saving the Planet: One Home at a Time

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This week the world received the news that, in many ways, we could have anticipated.  The United States would no longer participate in the Paris Accord on controlling climate change.  The Paris Agreement had flaws, of course.  This is something to be expected of any international agreement with hundreds of signatories and thousands of interests at play.  Yet, it was a step in the right direction in the estimates of all but the most ardent climate skeptics.  Now, the second largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions joins the other hold out—Syria–in refusing to participate.  The jumble of justifications have little to do with science or long-term collective interests.  This is what the new American leadership said it would do.  No surprise.

 

What may have come as a surprise is the extent to which the American public is already thinking in terms of sustainability and the need for lifestyle changes.  The “sustainability movement” has already had a substantial impact on the practices of energy companies and governments.  Cities and states have already stated their commitment to adherence to the Paris Accord regardless of federal policy.  College campuses are full of students and organizations who are interested in creating a sustainable future.  There is no reason not to expect this movement to continue growing, regardless of whether some national governments backpedal from the Paris Accord.

 

While we need to continue to demand action by government, we also need to assure that our own actions are consistent with a sustainable future.  I often hear people denigrate individual efforts as futile given the enormity of the problem or simply unnecessary.  Trust me, I hear it from my neighbors more often than I like—the Prius is a poor investment (from my neighbor with the gas guzzling S.U.V.), the xeriscape yard was a waste now that the drought is over (from my neighbor with the automatic sprinklers running in the rain), the clothes line in the yard is an eye-sore (from the neighbor with the plastic deer on the lawn), etc.  Perhaps they are right that my efforts are futile or even silly.  But I care a lot…about my future and my children’s future. All I can do is take care of the small piece of the planet that I inhabit.

 

So I have started in my home and my life by changing what I can consume and the emissions that my life and life-style produce.  There are incredible resources on line for making changes both large and small.  Many of the ones that I adopt quickly, I admit, are self-serving in that they reduce my monthly expenditures.  Switching to only using the clothes dryer once a week for towels or other thick cottons, for example, resulted in a sizeable drop in my electric bill that feels good each month.  Save the planet and save money?  Why not?  Other changes, such as reducing plastic waste for example, I have found much harder to incorporate and sustain.  Yet, I keep trying and find regular on-line communities (such as Plastic Free July) to jump-start me when my efforts flag.

The bottom-line is I make an effort…like many other citizens are making an effort in a country bitten by the populist, climate skeptic bug.  And we will continue those efforts and renew those efforts and expand those efforts regardless of what is proclaimed at the national level…because, in the end, change will happen one home at a time.

The Weight of Family History

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“Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.”—Jonatan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

 

I am haunted by all the lives that I am not living, all the roads that I have not traveled.  It isn’t that I am not living fully in the here and now.  I am not indecisive or risk avoidant.  My problem is historical contingency.  I constantly go over the past examining the could-of-would-of-should-of.  Decisions are contingent on a range of complex factors.  As a historian, I know that there are many possibilities in any historical moment.  Thinking of contingency makes history fascinating, but it makes my own life course problematic.  It is exhausting to think of all the lives I am not living because of the trajectory I started decades ago.

 

It is an odd obsession.  I think of all that contingency, and I am occasionally filled with regret.  It isn’t that I am not content with the road taken.  It is simply a wish to know what that other life, that other possibility might have led to over the years.  Yet, I realize that this other life did not happen for a variety reasons that were often beyond my control.  A lack of support, for example, emotional or financial, impacted many of these decisions.  Given those circumstances, I can’t see that version of me being able to rise above the limitations.

 

With all of this reflection, I am acutely aware of how my decisions might change the trajectory of my children.  I obsess about their other lives contingent on my other lives.  Children have choices that are shaped and constrained by their parents.  My decision to, say, get a divorce had a direct impact on how their lives unfolded.  And while I included them in the decision to go to Italy for part of their education, it was ultimately my job, my finances, and my sense of adventure that shaped where we lived and what we did.  Their historical contingency was directly linked to my contingency and my decisions.  From my own childhood, I understand very well that what the parents desire or choose is not always in the best interest of the children.  Knowing this has made it feel like I can, indeed, “hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living”…and, subsequently, my children are not living.  My responsibility for those unlived lives of my children has troubled me.

 

Both of my children, for example, are quite accomplished in French.  All things French—the language, the food, the culture—have been my obsession since childhood.  Blame it on those nights watching Jacques Cousteau aboard the Calypso and swooning over his accent.  I am not a seafaring lass, born and raised in the Midwest, and, yet, I wanted to strap on an Aqua-lung and explore the ocean with his speedo-clad crew.  French and France and a magical francophone world were my dreamscapes that I worked to integrate into my adult reality. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that my French reality became my children’s reality through language study, trips, music, literature, and food.

 

There is nothing wrong with this shared world.  Indeed, they have both excelled in French and won national awards in high school.  My son has studied in France and, from what I can tell, had a wonderful experience.  But would they have chosen another path without my preferences?  Perhaps Spanish would have been their language of choice…or German…or Chinese?  Did my obsession over determine their choices and pathways?

I wonder how much of our lives are determined by choices that are truly free from the weight of family history.

On the Joys of Sleeping Alone

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One of my favorite things about being single is having a huge, queen-sized bed all to myself.  All of that real estate is available for stretching out and luxuriating.  I snuggle into the middle of that bed with piles of pillows around me and my warm duvet on top and drift into blissful sleep.  Last night as I snuggled with the cat watching that 1967 classic Belle de Jour, I was struck by the opening bedroom scene with the couple in separate beds.  It was supposed to symbolize the main characters frigidity.  For me, it looked like bliss.  Sleeping alone is pure pleasure.

 

And I have spent the majority of life sleeping alone.   Even when I was married, I rarely spent an entire night in the same bed as my husband.  There was always the “guest room” where I would retreat.  My excuses were many: his snoring, my wanting to read, an unequal weight distribution.  You name it.  I always had an excuse to sleep alone.  With lovers, it is easier to navigate since they always have their own beds waiting for them somewhere.  I can always return to that wonderful sweet spot in the middle of the bed.  Alone.

 

I have thought a lot about my attitudes toward being alone in the bed.   It would seem that in our culture my desire to sleep alone marks me as outside of the norm.  While science backs me up when I say that the quality of sleep is better, most scientists who work on this say that suggesting separate beds to couples is like throwing a social grenade.   Avoiding the nightly spooning is seen as sacrilege.

 

In my own life with my partners, my preference for sleeping separately has been a source of conflict, read as a sign of rejection or fear of intimacy.  And, yes, sometimes I didn’t like my partners sleep habits.  But how do you tell them that it isn’t about them?  It is me who is the light sleeper (even more so since I had children) and every noise, movement, shift disrupts my sleep pattern.   Sleeping seems to me to be an inherently selfish act.   Fear of intimacy?  To me, sleeping with someone is an intimate act, but it doesn’t, in and of itself, create a deep connectedness.  My grandparents slept together every night for over 40 years and still seemed to hate each other during their waking hours.  Yet, I have read so many widows’ stories of a deep, aching loneliness in the bed alone after the death of a spouse that I understand that sleeping together does mean a great deal to couples.   I wish that I missed another warm body in the bed, but the reality is that I don’t.

 

I mentioned casually my blissful sleep in the middle of the bed to a group of friends at dinner.  Many of them were, like me, sleeping alone.  All of them were stunned that I slept in the center of the bed.  They had never thought about it.  Everyone had their “side” of the bed, regardless of whether they were with someone or alone.  And they all kept in their “territory,” regardless of the size of the bed, as if an invisible fence marked the boundary of permissible sleep.  Perhaps we are simply a generation so steeped in the notion of being “coupled” that we preserve a space in our beds?

 

Norms or habits may shape our sleeping patterns.  All I can say is that I am happy that I made a choice to claim the full real estate of my bed.  Every night of refreshing sleep makes me grateful for that space in the middle of my bed…alone.

 

Liberation from Perfection

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Decisions need to be made.  Plans need to be finalized. Confirmations need to be, well, confirmed.  My own life is hard enough to coordinate and plan let alone the lives of my two children.  And there is, of course, a career to attend, students who count on me, a house to upkeep… you get the picture.  Future plans befuddle me when I have barely a handle on the here and now.   So I defer those moments and sit down to write.

 

I realize that it would be easy enough to blame my overwhelm on modern motherhood or single-parenthood or simply the state of modern American culture.  All of this is true.  These realities surely play a determinant role in my levels of stress as I run the daily race against the clock of our lives.  But I suspect that if we looked at what goes on underneath the exterior that we might be able to discern a heavy dose of perfectionism in my life that trips me up.

 

Perfectionism comes in many forms: trying to get things “right”—whatever that means—for my children; attempting to perfectly match time and money with desires; seeking to find that elusive balance self-care, career ambition, and family happiness.  Plans are hard for me to make because I am burdened with a slew of preconceptions about a “right” choice.  The perfectionist in me is never quite satisfied, and all I need is a less than happy child or trip itinerary that doesn’t work as planned to bring out a brutal self-critique.  It is the self-critique that buries me in an avalanche of doubts that makes it hard climb out and evaluate the next series of choices.  Perfectionism, contrary to popular belief, is not a quest for the best.  It is the endless struggle to avoid negative outcomes by, ironically, energizing one’s own negativity.  Wed perfectionism to chronic and impossible cultural expectations for mothers and you have the unhappy marriage of perpetual deficit.

 

All of this came to mind last night as I devoured another chapter of a book by Kristin Kimball.  It was the edgy title– The Dirty Life—that made me give it a second look at the book store.  Kristin hints at a life of hot, steamy sex with a sensual, unusual man who courts her with succulent dishes of meats, cheeses, and vegetables that he has grown, harvested, and produced.  The dirt that she refers to in her dirty life is linked to the farmer or, more accurately, the farm that they ultimately cultivate together.  This is a story of a committed urbanite with a love of great food who falls in love with a man and an entire way of life.  It is a dirty life—filled with cows and crops and a composting toilet (you have to read the book).

 

What I found relevant for my life is an exchange between Kristin and her beloved about success and failure.  They are at the very early stages of their relationship and their farming project.  They have a farm that is beyond dilapidated with little capital.  They have next to no one who believes that they can realize their vision for an organic, sustainable, low-tech farm.  What they have is a vision or, I should say, his vision.  Bombarded by constant negativity from family, friends, and outsiders, she has moments when she questions whether his open, receptive cast of mind might possibly be a form of insanity.  The enormity of it all creates stresses and strains and overwhelms her.

 

Kirsten regularly turns to her partner in need of reassurance that the project has some chance of success.  His answer is, of course, they had a chance.  But, more importantly, it didn’t matter if they failed.  In his world view, they were already a success because they had tried something very hard and believed in the core values behind the project.  “You don’t measure things like that,” he explained,”with words like success or failure.”   It was a vision whereby satisfaction came from trying something difficult and then going on to the next challenge, regardless of the outcome.   “What mattered,” she later elaborated, “was whether or not you were moving in a direction your thought was right.”

 

Moving in a direction that you thought was right …I found this idea liberating.  Perhaps what mattered was the process of making choices or plans or efforts that were keeping with cherished core values?  Perhaps what mattered was a receptive cast of mind that opened to the possibility of what is rather than what might be or could be or should be?  Process mattered much more than some elusive notion of progress.  It was possible to welcome room for change along the way, change that would come from experience. What mattered was not the pursuit of the, singular right direction but of a direction that you thought was right.

 

Kirsten admits that this world view sounded extremely fishy to her.  As a former ambitious, over-worked New York journalist, she had accepted a paradigm of success and failure where much of the balance sheet was taken up with measures of wealth and external markers of accumulation whether on the resume or the 401K balance sheet.   It was a model that emphasized results over process.  It certainly was not a model that encouraged risks or innovations or living outside of a narrow set of norms (although, no doubt, the hipster crowd she hung with would have seen themselves as rebels).   Her success had made her afraid.  Perfect outcomes, as defined by a narrow version of success, had left her paralyzed.

 

Me too.   I may not be ready to buy the farm, but I am ready to liberate myself from that fear-inducing paradigm for success.

Why do I lose weight in France?

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Why does it seem so much easier to stay thin in France?  Go to France for 10 days and eat wonderful food…and my weight drops.  While I realize that Frenchwomen-don’t-get-fat is a cliché, it is also true that there are far fewer adults in France (16.9%) than the United States (33.9%) who are obese.  There is something about the food and the lifestyle that lends itself to a svelte physique.

 

Magazines, books, and blogs are full of advice on the French diet, but I am often skeptical of indulging in generalizations about a Gallic way of life.   For years, I had a very close French friend with a horrible eating disorder.  Yet, I thought about the French way of eating a lot during my recent ten-day sojourn in France.  It wasn’t simply that I was there to conduct research on French regional foods.  I was also eating rich, pleasurable food without feeling bloated and sluggish afterward.  And I couldn’t help but notice that my son, after many months in France, has a much trimmer physique.  It had me carefully looking for some tweaks that I might take with me and adapt to what I consider a fairly healthy diet back home in San Antonio (ranked as one of the fattest cities in the United States).

 

My conclusions? The life-style differences are the most obvious.  Walking.  Stairs. Biking. Carrying groceries.  Movement and exercise is built into daily life.  Cities, such as Paris and Lyon, are made for pedestrians and communal transport not cars.  Even when faced with a moving sidewalk or escalator, more often than not the French still move on them, treating them, well, like a sidewalk or stairs.  Municipal bikes are readily available and dedicated bike lanes provide an element of safety and a quick route from point A to B.  People in Texas go to the gym to do activities that are a banal part of daily life in France.

 

Could I make more movement part of my day-to-day life here in San Antonio?  This part is tricky.  While we have bike lanes in Texas, I would never risk my life taking my bike on anything but a designated off-street path or perhaps along the slower streets of the downtown area.  And, given the distances, the heat, and the massive multi-lane intersections I would need to traverse, walking or biking to the store or work or the library does not seem realistic. I already take the stairs whenever possible.  Yet, there are a few tweaks that are feasible, such as taking time for a short walk with my daughter after meals or strolling local parks on a Sunday afternoon rather than only going to the gym for a workout.

 

It is at mealtime, it seems to me, that the most progress might be made.  One of the things that really struck me during this visit was portion size.  Of course, I was well aware of how portion sizes have ballooned in the American restaurant.  Even in Lyon—a city known for its culinary excellence and enthusiasm for all things pork—the meals were always varied, filling, and satisfying without mounds of food or a meat serving as large as a toilet seat.  I ate well without ever feeling “stuffed.”

 

Most of my meals in San Antonio, however, are consumed at home.  And, here, too, I had to notice that my portion sizes have also gradually, imperceptibly expanded.   Eating dinner with my son’s French host family reaffirmed my sense that that portion-size-creep had invaded my dinner table.  By portion size, I am not referring to anything on a package but on the standards adhered to by most nutritional scientists.  Measuring out my normal “serving” of cottage cheese, for example, I realized that it double what was considered a reasonable serving of dairy.  My pasta portion was even more excessive.

 

In this, I suspect that I am a fairly average American.  I have read that when health gurus in the U.S. started emphasizing more vegetables and protein, most Americans simply added more portions of both to what they were already piling on their plate. We ended up collectively less healthy.  It was clear to me that if I wanted to restructure my meals à la française to assure variety (more on a future post), I needed to avoid this mistake by getting control of portion size.

 

This led, ironically, to a return to Mireille Guiliano’s book Frenchwomen Don’t Get Fat (2004).  Her advice is a mix of portion-control and what experts now call intermittent fasting.  Both are less “diet” strategies and more life-style choices.  Only home for one week, it is hard to say how  difficult this will be to implement.  But in keeping with my New Year’s resolution to reconnect to France, it seems like starting with the dinner table is not at all a bad idea.

Lyon: Treasuring the City

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It feels good to be back.  My week before departure was stressful (to say the least).  With each mile that I traveled, I could feel all that stress and care fall away…like a heavy overcoat that I no longer needed.  Sometimes when a situation is tense, I feel myself in, what I call, “lock-n-load mode” where I can be almost obsessive about the conflict or situation.  It is not healthy for sure.  When it comes to fight-or-flight responses, I tend toward the fight.

 

So imagine how delightful it felt to breeze through the Charles de Gaulle airport, find my train without event, and settle down with a pain au chocolat, a coffee, and my favorite French magazine for the two hour journey to Lyon.  Trains comfort me with the steady sway and white noise.  I read.  I lightly slept. I felt my shoulders relax.

 

Lyon has not been a disappointment.  It may now rank with my top cities in Europe.  I lived here decades ago when it was a bit shabby and worn.  The economic boom of the late 90s is evident everywhere with tidy streets, renovated buildings, vibrant pedestrian areas, and glorious well-groomed parks like the Parc de la Tête d’Or.  It is the largest municipal park in France and a glorious space of tranquility.  It is easily accessible from anywhere in the city by bikeways and a tram.  And the city itself is easily navigable.  Intersected by two rivers, it is connected through a series of pedestrian bridges and riverbank bike/walkways.   While there are trams, buses, and a metro to move you quickly, it is the readily available bike kiosks that makes the commute across town a joy.

 

The glorious spring weather no doubt colors my impressions.  But Lyon feels like a city of optimism in a pessimistic time.  And optimism is just what I needed…

In Praise of the Uncomfortable

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Old Shoes, Vincent Van Gogh

“The Old Fools” by Philip Larkin

What do they think has happened, the old fools
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there’s really been no change,
And they’ve always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching the light move? If they don’t (and they can’t), it’s strange;
Why aren’t they screaming?

 

I wonder sometimes, as I age, if I shouldn’t be screaming.  Should I smash it all apart when it starts feeling a little too comfortable?  When it starts feeling all too familiar?  Is it the regular change and the edge of comfort that keeps us flexible and nimble in mind?

 

One of the things that I dislike about aging is how comfortable life begins to feel.  After years of building a career, you reach a plateau and it feels comfortable.  Years of accumulating stuff turn into a moment when your house or kitchen or library feels “right” or “settled” or complete.  You fall into patterns in your marriage or, in my case, in your single-dom and it is comfortable if not entirely satisfying.

 

And this place of comfort, for me, begins to feel too constraining and I start looking around for something new, something challenging.  Give me change before I start feeling “crippled and tight.”  It is as if I need a new pair of shoes even if they appear to not quite fit right, even if the old ones were worn and comfortable.

 

Change is like buying new shoes.  With new shoes you may hesitate…not sure if you should keep trying to break them in or simply go back to the old, comfortable ones.   Going back to the old, comfortable ones is tempting—things that are familiar are enticing, easy.  Slip right back into them.  But you also know that you bought those new shoes for a reason.  Maybe the old ones can’t hold up forever?  Maybe they have gotten worn to the point of not feeling entirely satisfying?  Maybe you were seduced by the new?  Whatever the reason for the new shoes, they force you to rethink something as familiar and banal as your own feet.

 

The great thing about mid-life is you also have enough experience to know that all old shoes were once new shoes.  Those new shoes had to be broken in, too, until they became your favorites.  You might have moved into that comfort zone quickly; you might have had a much longer adjustment time.  Sometimes it is hard to remember since the discomfort of the present blurs that which is distant now.  And, of course, there are occasionally shoes that never quite become old companions, never quite feel right.  How to know if the new shoes on your feet will become comfortable?  How long do you want to keep trying?

 

And staying flexible and nimble and engaged in this life means we continue to try—new things, new friendships, new ideas, and even new shoes—even if it means letting go of what is comfortable. Keeping all of this in mind as I head off to France this week.