Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Are You an Open Book?

I asked this question to a friend at lunch recently -- not a close friend, but a longstanding and deeply admired one.

"An open book?  Absolutely not," he said.  "Closed up and held shut with an elastic band."

I already knew the answer, but I wanted to open the question, pry around the edges of the lid, see what would happen.

He made some excuses, like life is so long and full and he's so old -- but you can have a very full book and leave it open.  Being an open book doesn't mean that you need to say much - you will, however, reveal if someone asks.  He must have sensed my interest in knowing more because, just before leaving, he said cryptically, "Some of it has been published in other formats."

Am I an open book?  I think mostly.  But no one reads much anymore.
Are you an open book?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Have You Had Any Good Dates?

I recently wrote about my last worst date.  People have been writing and asking, "Have you had any good dates?"

Indeed I have.

Long before the internet, I answered his print ad which began, "Available, Bearded, Charismatic, Dynamic, Energetic" and continued alphabetically all the way to zed.  For the letter "p" he said, "Professorish," which made him sound employed.  His ad also said, "Children welcome," and I had one of those.  If nothing else, the ad told me he had a big vocabulary.  As for all the other self-descriptions, I would soon find out if he was lying or merely hallucinating.

I suggested the Sultan's Tent in Toronto where I knew we would sit close together on low cushions.  A week later, there he was at the entrance to the Sultan's Tent - bearded, as promised, and enthusiastic.  We made our way in.

We sat at low, candle-lit tables, chatting, and watching the belly dancer who approached our table continuously trying to distract my date and make him dance with her.  Luckily, he was focussed on me and our tableful of Middle-Eastern appetizers.  I had dated another professor who was Buddhist and vegan.  I was always hungry around him  This one would not leave me hungry.

Just before the end of our meal, an attractive, fully-clothed woman came over to our table and said, "I want to speak to my professor."  We looked twice and realized it was the belly dancer.  She was a computer science student and had been in a class taught by my date.  It seemed he really was a professor.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Are Plants Safe?

There are no stupid questions, they say.  I try to remember this, since I am asked many questions.  I know that the question gives me information about the mind and life experience of the asker.  For example, a seemingly bright engineering student once asked me, "Why do Jews boycott Christmas?"

(I explained that in Judaism there are holidays for non-human birthdays, such as Tu B'Shevat, the birthday of the trees, and Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of creation, but that the religion doesn't normally commemorate human birthdays.)

I had a tenant some years ago, a medical student at McMaster University.  She had an undergraduate degree - probably in the sciences, probably in biology.  It was late fall and I told her I'd be moving some of the flowering outdoor plants into the house.  She asked, "Is it safe?"

At first I thought this was a very stupid question.  Was she so disconnected from nature that she imagined houseplants might kill us?

Yet, she probably DID have a science degree and would soon be a doctor - and there was that time a few years back when trees were taking out celebrity skiers.  She might have feared the mutant killer geraniums, or merely figured that plants had a reason to be angry.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

What Is Your Heartbreak Recovery Time?

Long ago, in a province far away, I had a big passion for a philosophy teaching assistant, Charles Z, at Simon Fraser University where I was an undergrad.  He was Jewish, from NYC, and only slightly older than me, someone I thought I could actually introduce to my mother.  My relationship with Chuck lasted one month.  Then he dropped me to date one of his students.
It seemed that the lights didn't come on in my life again for 12 months, so I deduced that, for a first major heartbreak, there's a 1:12 ratio for length of relationship to recovery time.

As one becomes more experienced in heartbreak, the ratio may be inverted.  For example, after a mature 12-year relationship, it might take only one year to recover.  Of course, if your heart is broken daily during most of those 12 years, then the recovery is immediate (except for the post-traumatic stress).

How long was your first recovery?  Did you ever recover?  Is there any correlation at all between relationship length and first heartbreak?  What do you think?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Have You Had One Big Passion?

My friend, Sergio, teaches drama in Brazil.  He sent me this quote:

“I shall have poetry in my life. And adventure. And love, love, love, above all. Love as there has never been in a play. Unbiddable, ungovernable, like a riot in the heart and nothing to be done, come ruin or rapture."
— Tom Stoppard

How scary and challenging is that -- especially for those of us who have learned to love selectively and self-protectively?  I figure if you've had at least one big, crazy, wrong-headed passion in your life (that doesn't end in broken glass or broken bones) then you can say it's been a good run.

I'd even say that "crazy" and "wrong-headed" are not a requirement for the Tom Stoppard love effort - but when you've had at least one "riot in the heart," it helps you appreciate the many other ways of experiencing affection. 

What about you?  Has it been a good run?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What Happened on Your Last Bad Date?

It's been about 20 years, and I think I'm finally over my last bad date.

Our first date was interesting enough for him to call me a few days later and invite me to his apartment for dinner.  He was going to cook.  I met him through an ad he placed in The Globe and Mail, "National Personals" column -- yes, that's how we found discord before eHarmony.  His parents were from Scandinavia and Brooklyn, he was named for a Norse God, and he worked on Bay Street.  He had recently experienced the end of a long relationship and did not want to rush anything with anyone.  I assumed that he placed the ad because he wanted something with someone, and he seemed enthusiastic about getting together again.

I went up to his 15th-story Toronto apartment and he greeted me cautiously.  I recall the small kitchen with an opening to the living room/dining room.  He didn't want me in the kitchen while he cooked, so after chatting briefly, I settled on the sofa.

The window in the living room looked south over the city, the CN Tower in the distance.  The sofa was surrounded by overflowing bookshelves.  A racing bike was in one corner with other sports gear.  On the living room wall, opposite the kitchen were two doors, one to the bathroom and one to his bedroom, both closed.  While I wanted more intimacy, it seemed he now wanted less.  He wanted to concentrate on his swordfish.

I was cold, so I looked around for a blanket.  Not seeing one, I opened the door to his room and grabbed one from his bed.

A few minutes later, he noticed I was reading on the sofa under a blanket.

     "Where'd you get that?"
     "From the bedroom."
     "You went into my bedroom?"
     "I was cold.  I couldn't find a blanket."
     "You went into my bedroom!!  You're not f**king allowed in my bedroom!!"

After that exchange, I couldn't get to the elevator fast enough.  I never tasted the swordfish, and eschewed that unkind cut of fish for the next 20 years.

-- until a couple of weeks ago when my current husband, ignored my anti-swordfish stance and grilled some swordfish steaks.  They were delicious.  I was finally over my last worst date.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Is the Universe Indifferent? Part 1

Is the universe indifferent, or does it participate benevolently or malevolently in our lives?  I've asked this question already in a variety of ways (see July 29, August 11, August 30 posts).  I've encountered many people who received messages from the universe that changed their lives.  My mother, for example.  After ten years of widowhood, my mother received a proposal of marriage from Berko Devor.  She was deeply conflicted about remarrying and what that would mean to her life.  Walking home from the synagogue one Shabbat morning, she was turning the question of marriage over and over in her head.  She looked up and saw D E V O spray painted in giant letters on a wall.  DEVO must stand for Devor.  Clearly it was a message from God.  They were married soon after and had a wonderful relationship.

Was it a coincidence that the month my mother was wondering about marriage, the punk-rock band, Devo, released their album Freedom of Choice?  - or an intervention?

Friday, September 16, 2011

How Can I Stop a Train Wreck?

I've been asked this numerous times by friends and relatives concerned about their loved ones.

My friend, R., in Halifax told me that he spent his summers during university working on the cross-Canada train.  One year there was a bad train crash.  Keeping his mind clear and focussed, he rushed to the front where the collision had occurred, got people to safety, and even rescued their luggage.

I was in a train crash a few years back.  Buses were sent from Toronto to rescue us, but workcrews had to first build a wooden pathway across a wetlands to the highway.  I sat in the passenger car for hours singing train songs to the fearful travellers.

Sometimes we can see a train wreck about to happen.  We know there's a large obstacle ahead, or the bridge has collapsed.  Maybe there's an oncoming train.  We don't know exactly when it will happen, but it will, and it will be sad.  There they are, on the journey of a lifetime, left lying by the side of the tracks.

Mostly, we can't stop a train wreck - only the train can do that - but if they let us, we might be able to get them to safety and store their luggage, or hold their hand and sing to them, until they hop on their next train.

Monday, September 12, 2011

What Do You Remember from Your Schooldays? Part I

We certainly learn a great deal in our 15-20 years of schooling, but how many specific moments do we remember?

Back in the late 80s, just this time of year, I was getting ready to teach the first class of the semester to 40 electrical engineering students at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario.  I was watching my round, red kitchen wall clock -- but the hour hand had slipped and it was later than I thought.  By the time I showed up for class, the students had left.  This was not going to help build a relationship of trust.

I held my first class with them two days later.  I apologized for my earlier absence and promised it wouldn't happen again.  I then pulled out the old clock and a hammer, and smashed the clock into tiny pieces in front of them.

Many years later, I ran into one of my former students.  He said, "Hey, I know you.  You're the teacher that smashed the clock."  Then, "Yeah, that's about all I remember from my college days."

What do you remember?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Is It OK to Be Wrong?

"No persons are more frequently wrong, than those who will not admit they are wrong."

This quote by François de La Rochefoucauld showed up in my quote-of-the-day email from  It reminded me of the stress I endured living with someone who could not admit he was wrong -- and how everything changed when he finally learned to say, "You were right and I was wrong."  He says it all the time now.  So do I.

When you say, "You were right and I was wrong," the conflict is over.  If you don't say it, the conflict -- which might have been trivial -- stays alive taking up precious mental real estate.  So if it is obvious that you were wrong, learn to say the seven magic words.  Need a lesson?  Click here for a nine-second video of a man admitting he was wrong.

Having ended one conflict, we can move on to the new disagreements that are waiting for us just beyond the next cup of coffee.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Should I Lend My Boyfriend Money?

I'd like to make something very clear here:

If you feel so uncomfortable about lending your boyfriend money that you are asking Google, you probably have a good reason for your discomfort.  Chances are you feel uncomfortable about other things as well.  First read this blog (Should I let my boyfriend move in with me?)

Here is how to say "NO":
The next time he asks to borrow money, say any of these things:

  • "It's not the right thing for me."  If he keeps asking, keep saying that as firmly as you can.  You can vary it occasionally with "It just doesn't feel right for me right now."
  • "It would make me happy if your plans included living within your means."
  • "Does your love for me depend on me loaning you money?"  (May as well put your deepest fears on the table. If the answer is "yes," that could be useful information for you.)
  • "I will lend you more money, as soon as you pay back the $1500 you currently owe me."
You don't need to give an excuse.  It's your money, you earned it, and you are saving it for whatever you want to save it for.  It's your money.  You might need it for your education, your future, your children's education, a home, a vacation, food, clothes, a new computer -- it doesn't matter.  

On the other hand, if you feel you have to lend him money for some reason, add this:  "I will lend you money if you agree that first we will look at your total financial situation together and agree to a budget that includes paying me back."

If you'd like to read more on this topic, please visit here.

If you are still wondering, I like what this website has to say on this topic.  

Is that answer helpful to you?  I'd very much like to know because this post seems to receive many more visits than any other question in this blog of questions.   Do you just want permission to say no?  Well you have permission.  Say no, and see what happens.  Venture outside your safety zone.

Note:  I'm not saying nobody should lend their boyfriend money ever.  I'm just saying that if you are asking Google for permission to say no, you have it.

You are not alone.  At least 50 people a week find this blog by asking Google about lending money to boyfriends.  Originally, my answer was pretty light, but when I saw that people were genuinely troubled by pressure to lend money, I thought it might be useful to give a more serious answer.  Here is my original blog:

Women often ask me, "Should I lend my boyfriend money?"  (Men also puzzle about loans to lovers.)

Shakespeare, via Polonius said "no":  "Neither a borrower nor a lender be/For loan oft loses both itself and friend/And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry" (Hamlet, I, iii, 75-77).  Polonius is saying if you lend money you will lose both the money and the friend and if you have to borrow money, you are not being thrifty.

Loni Anderson in WKRP in Cincinnati said "no."  When Dr. Johnny Fever asks her for a loan, she says, "I never lend money to a man.  It makes me lose respect for him."

My girlfriend V.F. said, "yes."  Her friend, a boy named for a blind underground rodent, paid her back.  But he was a "friend" (with occasional benefits) but not a "boyfriend."  I imagine she'd lend money again. 

My mother said, "absolutely not."  She lent money to a male friend for laser eye surgery.   She saw him occasionally for companionship, but he was not a "boyfriend." The surgery was unsuccessful and, when he paid her back, his cheque bounced.  His eye surgery and bounced cheque helped her to see him more clearly.

I tend to agree with Polonius.  When I am capable and motivated to lend money to someone in need, I don't expect it back.  If I needed it back, I probably would not lend it in the first place.  Every relationship is a deal, even our relationship to money.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What Can Dreams Tell Us?

From the time I was 18 till I was about 28, I had a recurring nightmare in which my teeth were falling out.  The nightmare would take a variety of forms:  often I'd be frantically calling a dentist but be unable to get through, sometimes it would be one tooth, sometimes many.  I mentioned this to my dentist and he said, not helpfully, "All my patients have that dream."

Dream dictionaries were equally unhelpful:  fear of death, fear of change, fear of embarrassment.  None of that felt right.

Discussing dreams with a biofeedback therapist, I was told to focus on an object in my dream - "as everything in the dream is a part of you."  She said to get into a deep relaxation state and go back into the dream.  Become the object, then ask yourself, as the object, "What do you need?"

A few weeks after this discussion, I had the nightmare again.  The following day, I went back into the dream and became my tooth, experiencing the world from the tooth's point of view.  I asked my toothy self, "What do you need?"

My tooth said, "I need to have deeper roots."

I never had that nightmare again.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Do You Feel Held Back by Something in Your Past?

Today, I heard this story from my friend J.

J was feeling stuck, blocked, stagnating - like she couldn't grow or move forward in her life.  She knew she had to connect with her mother somehow -- but her mother had been dead for several years.  While they had become close in the months before her death, J and her mother had had a stormy relationship.  That past relationship had J in its grip.  She decided to write.

Her journal entry took the form of a letter to her mother.  One of their issues had been  J's relationship with her father as an adult -- many years after her parents' marriage ended.  During J's childhood, her father had been violent and dangerous, but later in life he had changed, sought help, and become supportive and loving.

J's mother could never forgive her husband for his actions towards her and the children and she was angry that J had reconciled with him.  The more J developed a relationship with her father, the more she felt that she was betraying her mother.  Rather than accept her mother's justifiable feelings and separate them from her own, she needed her mother to approve of her relationship with her father.  

She wrote and wrote, travelling the roads of anger, fear, sadness, and frustration arriving, finally, at forgiveness.  Not of her mother or father, but of herself.  She needed to forgive herself for her anger at her mother.  This search and rescue operation of writing released her from regret.  It was time to move forward.

How powerful is that?

"You can let go of the past, but the past won't let go of you." - says Tom Cruise's character in the film, Magnolia.  But as I've discussed here before ("Are We Doomed?" August 1), the past will release us when we accept it and understand its message.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Are You Full of Restless Longing?

Restless longing seems to come up often in my conversations - probably because I've been asking people, "Are you full of restless longing?"  One friend says he wants to travel more and more every year.  I said, "Are you full of restless longing?"  He replied, "Yes, at my back I always hear/Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near."

My sister said we have less restless longing as we get older.  But those irritating bucket list books full of things to do before you die suggest more.  I wonder if restless longing is a gender thing, with the Y-gene carrying more restless longing than the X - but probably not.  Restless longing is a state of dissatisfaction.  It's nice to feel more satisfied and peaceful, but restless longing keeps us from becoming complacent and smug.

There's even a colour called "restless longing".  It's a fresh, bright green - suggesting a touch of envy.  You can see it here:

Mostly, I figure longing is just lounging without "u"

I move up and down the continuum between restless longing and contentment.  Sometimes I lean more towards Andrew Marvell:

"Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:"

But not often enough.  Maybe I am full of restless longing.  Are you?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Can a Question Change Your Life?

A question changed mine.  I used to be involved in community radio.  After a show one night in the 1980s, the guests - a gang of artists - and the producers and hosts of the show went for a drink in the student pub.  One of the artists sat next to me, looked me squarely in the eyes, and asked me this question:  "Is there any passion in your life?"  I believe he meant outside of radio.  He had tapped into my carefully concealed Restless Longing.  My life changed at that moment.  It started with a question.

I've heard this from others - that the right question at the right time has changed lives.

Warsaw, 1898:  My grandfather, a teenager, was considered a genius in his studies of Torah and Talmud.  He met a man who engaged him in conversation.  The man asked him this question:  "Can you prove the existence of God?"  This question led him to give up the religious life and become engaged with the secular world.  He traveled to Berlin where he lived and studied with a philosopher.  He participated in the 1905 Russian Revolution, was sent to Siberia, escaped, travelled to England and Africa, and eventually joined Trotsky in Zurich shortly before the 1917 Russian Revolution.  It started with a question.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Why Should We Read Poetry?

There's a million reasons to read poetry.  Here's just one by Tom Wayman.  This poem makes me laugh, even though it's sad. 

OFFICIAL ERRATA            by Tom Wayman

Where it says welfare read suffering
"The seasonally-adjusted rate of suffering
 fell one per cent last month."
Where it says defense read suffering
"The Department of Suffering confirmed Friday
the shipment of $1 billion in new tanks and helicopters
to friendly governments in Latin America."
Where it says productivity read suffering
"Canadian industry must increase the suffering of its employees at least 12 per cent this year."
Where it says co-operation read suffering
"The administration requires the suffering of every citizen to see us through these difficult times."
 Where it says efficiency read suffering
 Where it says management read suffering
Where it says suffering read defeat

Tom Wayman is the writer of the wonderful poem, "Did I Miss Anything?"  - a poem read by teachers to their students at the beginning of every year.  It's available all over the web.  He gave me permission to post this poem which was first printed in a 1989 collection, In a Small House on the Outskirts of Heaven (Harbour), and is reprinted in a book of new and selected poems, called I'll Be Right Back, Ontario Review Press (1997).

Note:  regardless of my feelings about optimism (see previous posts), I can occasionally appreciate a bit of ironic bitterness.

Friday, September 2, 2011

What Is Our Deal?

I teach a workshop called Communicating Nondefensively.  During the workshop, participants identify a statement that made them feel defensive.  It's a corporate workshop, so people usually use examples from their bosses, clients, or co-workers; but they might also quote their friends or parents.  At a recent workshop, one young woman said that this statement from her mother makes her feel defensive.

"When are you going to get a real job?"

She was doing an unpaid internship with a nonprofit company.  I asked her if she had a "deal" with her mother - an agreement in which her mother supports her during this phase of her career.  She said she did.  I asked her whether the deal had been articulated.  Were they both subscribing to the same deal?  She wasn't sure.

My aunt told me this:  "Every relationship is a deal.  The problem is you don't always know what the deal is.  I was once in the hospital getting surgery and my husband told me he had to fly to South America for his work.  That's when I understood our deal."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

What Did You Sign Up For?

One of my best friends Liam, is in a long-term relationship with his lover Paul.  Twenty-five years ago, Liam moved in with Paul's family which included Paul's wife and daughter Sarah, who was 13 at the time.  Ten year's later, Sarah developed MS with progressively worsening symptoms.  The whole family cares for her and for one another in their home.  As various family members travel for work, Liam might be home alone for a week providing personal care to their daughter as required.

Someone said to Liam sympathetically, "This isn't what you signed up for."
He replied, "I choose my family very carefully.  There are no givens.  When you sign up, you take what comes your way."

What will you sign up for?
What will keep you from signing off?