In Pursuit of Happiness, #3: Games, Sightseeing, and Home Cooking

With it being the holidays, as well as first Christmas I’ve spent with more than two other members of my family under one roof, I’ve had a lot to be happy about this past week – but I haven’t had much time to write about any of it, because…well, it’s our first family Christmas since 2009!

While this week’s edition of In Pursuit of Happiness will be short but sweet (like everyone in my family, with the exception of my six-footer brother-in-law whose extra height just means more space for total awesomeness), the rest of the good things that I’ve experienced during this holiday will provide more than enough material for the next few posts I’m working on.

Have a great and happy week!

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Playing games with my family: All of the adults are over twenty-five and the child among us is eleven-almost-twelve-but-really-going-on-forty, but in this family age has never been an acceptable reason to stop playing. My nephew taught my oldest sister and me how to play Ticket to Ride this afternoon, and as I’m writing this he’s reading through the instructions for Risk in preparation for a family showdown. My brother, nephew, and I have been packing Nerf heat all around the house to defend ourselves against ambushes from one another.

As an adult, I think play is a refreshing and integral part of my vacation routine – especially when my version of a vacation is hauling off to the middle of “flyover country” to spend time in suburban Ohio with my nephew, middle sister, and brother-in-law. Good, clean, wholesome family fun that makes memories for when we’re old and grey is always an excellent way to pass the time on vacation, especially if it’s been raining buckets all day.

City tours with my brother-in-law: Ever since our first family trip to Montréal in 2001, my brother-in-law’s skills as a tour guide have been indispensable to our family fun time on any trip we’ve taken.   This guy is an excellent tour guide, and even during today’s bout of rain he managed to make a car-bound tour of downtown Cincinnati and Hyde Park pretty interesting. What makes his tours so special is that he knows exactly what to say about the city that will interest the passengers in his car, which means nobody has a chance to doze off to some long litany of census information.

Home-cooking, sister style: My favourite second sister is a complete and utter magical genius fairy in the kitchen. Those of you who follow me on FaceTwitGram will be well aware of this fact by now, but I can’t resist tipping my hat off to her here.

Eating while on vacation is something that tends to affect most people by causing either complete abandon or paralyzing fear, especially when it comes to going on holiday to the United States. But whenever I come to Cincy to see my sister and her family I know that, with the exception of literally only a couple of restaurant options, the food I’m going to be eating under her roof will be wholesome, homemade, and perfectly aligned with my diet. I never have to worry about sacrificing exceptional food for the sake of my food plan, and I never have to worry if my annoying food photographs will turn out, either.

The Art of Moving On 

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  When we fall, we have to get up at some point – especially when we fall for somebody who belongs to someone else.

It hasn’t been an easy year for my heart.  In all honesty, this year I’ve probably cried more than I ever have before and I’m ready for a fresh start.  But I don’t want to wait until the New Year — it falls in the same category as Valentine’s Day for me, in that I don’t understand why we have to set aside one day in particular to do something that we can do any day of the year.  Whether it be showing our significant others that we truly love them or making resolutions to truly change ourselves, do big things really have to wait for one designated day of the year for us to actually buckle down and do what needs to be done?  After all, there’s no time like the present.

Moving on with life after any kind of rejection is hard, especially when the person in question is a good friend and there’s no other reason for you to walk the other way for a while.  It’s especially hard when the rejection happens not because of dislike or spite but for the well-being of both parties in question, and when walking away from what could have been entails also walking away from what was already there —  a confidant you could trust with more than you ever thought you’d tell another person; a friend who was always there when you needed them to get you through anything; a person you connected with on so many different levels that it’ll be hard to find somebody else who gets you so easily and speaks so fluently to your truest self.

Moving on and getting over somebody is no small task and is a form of art unto itself, because getting up the next day after losing so much and functioning properly in the world without letting anyone see what’s wrong is one of the greatest performances we can ever put on.  We orate to our friends over drinks and soliloquize to ourselves in front of our mirrors about how we’re okay and doing just fine when the truth is, we’re barely able to keep ourselves from falling apart all over again. We craft an outward image that’s polished and immaculately put together to disguise the broken mess we really are, and hope that the smiles we put on reach our eyes and fool everyone into thinking they’re not just a mask we’ve put on for the day.  We rehearse our lines in the dark and quiet stillness of the night after we’re done crying until we can almost convince even ourselves that we’re doing just fine.

But we can’t keep this up all day long, let alone forever, and so in time we find others to confide in.  There has to be at least one person  who knows what’s going on behind the scenes, and eventually they help us pare down our costumes and our lines until we’re playing our true selves and saying what we really think again, and truly able to smile and say we’re okay.

It’s one of the greatest performances any of us can ever put on.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single person in possession of a good but broken heart must find a way to mend it and move on, and what better way to do it than remembering that the world is a stage and we, merely players?  It’s okay to hide behind a carefully-crafted dramatis persona until you’re put back together again, and it’s okay to find something new to love when an old love fails.  It’s okay to walk away to get over a friend you’ve fallen for if your friendship stands a better chance of surviving past a separation instead of a constant one-way stream of feelings.  It’s okay to do whatever it takes for you to be happy again and to be whole again.

That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.

In Pursuit of Happiness, #2: Parody, Comedy, and Sisterhood

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and Monday saw me dashing through the rain from one job to the other with no time in between for anything but a granola bar – a thankfully rare occurrence – which means this week’s dose of happy is a day late.

I’ll have to work on sticking to my self-imposed writing schedules in the new year.

 

1. Yelping with Cormac: After two years of having The Road by Cormac McCarthy recommended to me by a friend, I finally bought it a few months ago. A few weeks ago, I finally got around to reading it. The recommendation came with a disclaimer – “Don’t read it if you’re even just remotely moody; it’s so bleak and you’ll be depressed” – that went largely ignored when I sat down with a cup of tea to read it.

This friend will tell you that my catchphrase is, “Trust me, I know things,” and I would have probably listened to his disclaimer if he had quoted me at the end of it. And yes, this is me trying to shift the blame a bit because it’s rare that I’m challenged so much by the atmosphere of a novel that I can’t read it in a straightforward and timely manner.

About halfway through The Road, I stumbled upon an unexpected trove of humor that made getting through the second half of the novel so much easier: Yelping with Cormac.

Those of you who are familiar with any of McCarthy’s works will know that “hilarious” and “light” are not adjectives found anywhere near this writer’s name, but as a spoof-homage to him Yelping with Cormac is a hilarious and light parody of Cormac McCarthy’s distinctive style. It’s a fantastically accurate mirror of his particular way with words, and yet when the Cormac Touch is applied to a review of Urban Outfitters or the Apple Store it becomes a new kind of magic altogether.

Don’t believe me? Check it out for yourself.

2. Brooklyn Nine-Nine: I’m really picky with my television shows, especially when it comes to comedy, and I don’t own a television – which is why I’m always rather late to the party for any show that started its run in the last five years. However, thanks to Netflix, I’m fully on board (and caught up) with Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

I pay close attention to the credits that roll over the opening scenes of an episode, and when I saw Phil Lord and Christopher Miller right there in the pilot I knew I would enjoy Brooklyn Nine-Nine. They’re the guys behind Clone High and The Lego Movie, to name my two particular favourite Lord Miller projects.

But it’s not just the Lord Miller touch that makes this series highly enjoyable. In a knee-deep morass of New York cop shows that are heavy on the dark drama of big city crimes, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a much-needed step up onto the dry ground of fresh perspective and new storytelling. If you were to find a Venn diagram of cop shows, ensemble comedies, and real-world farce, you’d see Brooklyn Nine-Nine right at the middle where all the best bits of each genre come together.

3. The Following Quote and My Oldest Sister:

“From the earliest times, the custom of breaking bread together has been symbolic of sharing and accepting and loving one another. A ‘companion’ is one with whom we eat bead…to eat together is to love. The Noche Buena feast, after going to Midnight Mass, ought to be one of the most beautiful Christmas symbols. We pray together and then we eat together…because we love each other.”
– Father Galdon, SJ

Of course there’s a story here. Because of my work schedule and company policies regarding vacation time during peak periods, I’m actually stuck in Montreal until Christmas morning. It was rather upsetting at first because this will be the first Christmas in many years that most of my family will be under one roof for the holidays, and I was faced with the prospect of spending a very quiet and very lonely Christmas Eve on my own.

With our mother away since American Thanksgiving and our schedules taking us all over the place in the weeks leading up to Christmas, my oldest sister and I haven’t had the opportunity this year to decorate the family nest or even come together over our beloved Advent wreath once a week. Add that to the fact that Montreal is still waiting for a proper holiday snowfall, and you can probably see why Christmas Eve this year was starting to look like a scene out of The Road.

That is, until my favourite oldest sister told me she would fly out with me on Christmas morning.

So, while I might not get the magic of Christmas Eve with my nephew and the rest of my family, I won’t be alone during Christmas Mass and I won’t be sipping a lonely cup of hot instant coco in a strange hotel room at the airport. I’ll be welcoming the Holy Child at Mass and then sitting down at our old, worn dining table to toast His arrival with my sister.

The 15-minute book club, #3: The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock

The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock:

Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence
Sabine’s Notebook: In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin and Sabine Continues
T
he Golden Mean:   In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin and Sabine Concludes

 

Last night I had a rare opportunity to get to bed at a reasonable hour.

And I squandered it on the rediscovery of a book.

Though I’ve always been a scribbler, once upon a time I was also a reasonably talented visual artist who dabbled extensively in creating artwork in mixed media, black-and-white film photography, and digital manipulation. Writing and visual art collaborated frequently in my adolescent life, but one day they collided headlong with curiosity and a need for a psychological thrill when I first discovered Griffin and Sabine.

Written, illustrated, and constructed by Nick Bantock, this trilogy is comprised of the unusual correspondence between the broodingly lonely London artist Griffin Moss and the vivaciously mysterious Sabine Strohem, an artist from a chain of tiny islands in the South Pacific. Letters, postcards, and notecards – all exquisitely illustrated and handwritten, some in made-to-match envelopes that you can actually open and rifle through – document this mind-bending tale.

Part love story and part psychological thriller, Griffin and Sabine takes storytelling to another level by telling a story that requires its reader to do more than just turn to the next page. There’s a certain excitement to looking through the private correspondences of other people, and although I’d outgrown trying to break into my sister’s diary by my late teens the act of reading somebody else’s letters was still appealing. And it’s not just reading these intimate pieces of mail: each is a self-contained work of art that simply demands closer scrutiny from the reader, which in turns brings about a deeper appreciation for the concept and plot as well as a greater emotional investment in its outcome.

One of the reasons why I started “The 15-minute Book Club” section of this blog is to discuss the literature that inspired my own creative processes, changed or enhanced my perception, or otherwise impacted my life in a moving and profound fashion. Since closing the final book of the trilogy late last night I’ve been reflecting on what exactly this book means to me, I realized that Griffin and Sabine trilogy did all of these things for me.

As an artistic adolescent, upon the first reading of Griffin and Sabine I learned that art does not have to be perfect or conventional to be beautiful and meaningful: as long as it makes us think critically and opens our minds to a broader understanding of the world then art, to paraphrase Picasso, will always somehow enable us through is lies to comprehend the greater truths. It’s because of Griffin and Sabine that while I might not like or prefer certain kinds of art, I’m still able to appreciate them. For example, it might be hard to believe but you have to trust me when I say that Bantock’s image of a goldfish shattering a wineglass helped me get past my dislike of Warhol just enough to appreciate what a can of Campbell’s did for modern art.

Nick Bantock’s eccentric and raw approach to storytelling in the Griffin and Sabine books influenced my own writing style as well when I first read it in my late teens. Up until this point, my early attempts at writing always crashed and burned, ground to a screeching halt, or otherwise simply stopped because I was constantly getting bogged down in revealing everything all at once in desperate attempts to give my stories some kind of foundation. What Bantock’s style revealed was that the foundations of characters are just the back story – that the present story is what truly matters, and that a writer’s job is to allow the characters to tell the present story instead of trying to take over the main narrative by establishing off the bat what’s already happened to them. Reading the story of Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem in literal bits and pieces taught me, as both a writer and a reader, to be patient with characters and let them reveal what they will, when they will.

It’s also worthwhile to mention that as far as my actual letter writing is concerned, anyone who’s ever received a letter or card from me will tell you that it’s always meticulously handwritten (and, in the case of the latter, usually handmade), includes hand-drawn illustrations and calligraphy-style quotes, and comes from the heart. While other books most certainly did contribute to my writing style regarding personal correspondence (not to mention my father’s insistence that we write often to our paternal grandmother in the Philippines), Griffin and Sabine definitely taught me a considerable amount about how to turn letter-writing into a true art.

Finally, this unconventional love story between these two artistic souls first came into my life at the end of an overseas long-distance relationship. While the letter-based narrative struck a few raw nerves at the time (this was before international texting was a “thing,” let alone me having my own cellphone, so snail mail was actually a big part of this first relationship) this latest reading of Griffin and Sabine reminded me that deep, intimate connections can and will come up in all kinds of sudden and unexpected ways, and that being open to these kinds of surprises leaves you open to experiencing the rest of life to its fullest.

The best love stories are all different, but they all share a common thread of relentlessly pursuing the most abstract concepts and sorting through the most befuddling emotions, and finding out who you really are in the process. Opening yourself up to another person and to the world, and then reflecting upon those experiences when you’re alone, is how you come into the most complete form of self-understanding and self-awareness. While this might not really be what these books are really about, this is how they spoke to me last night and at this point in my life that’s the main reason why I treasure this story.

So maybe in the end I didn’t totally squander a few preciously rare extra hours of sleep by diving back into the strangely beautiful world of Griffin and Sabine, and maybe in the end I wasn’t just curling up alone in bed with a book. I was diving back into the most confusing, lovely, engrossing, and riveting archive of a relationship that I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and enjoying every unsettlingly bizarre and lovely morsel of it as I discovered more about myself through the extraordinary correspondence of Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem.

In Pursuit of Happiness, #1: Fitness, Aunties, and Podcasts

One of my current favourite podcasts, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, finishes with a segment called “What’s making us happy this week.” The presenters go around the table to share the little things in today’s culture and society that, as the segment title suggests, make them happy.

Inspired yet again by NPR and in another attempt to keep my writing somewhat on track, I’m getting a bit of a jumpstart on my blog resolutions (‘tis the season!) by adding a new ongoing series: In Pursuit of Happiness. I’m aiming to have it be a Monday post, just to add a little bit of love and cheer to the day of the week that inarguably has the worst rep ever.

So, here’s what’s making me happy this week:

Early-morning workouts:  Every Monday morning since September, I’ve been getting up at 5:00AM to make it to the gym in time for a one-hour circuit training course that starts at 6:15. It’s a combination of strength and cardio training, usually done in two half-hour segments of a Tabata-style warmup followed by a CrossFit-style workout. I actually do this twice a week, the second round being on Wednesdays, but there are a few reasons why I’ve learned to love my (brutal and ridiculously) early morning workout.

Those of you who know me are well-aware that I’m so not a morning person, but my crazy work schedule means that 6:15AM at the very beginning of the work week is the only time I’m going to get in an hour of gym time on Mondays. However, nobody else seems to be driven by this particular circumstance, so I’m the only one who shows up. I essentially get an extra hour per week with my personal trainer, which means the Monday session is usually tailored to complement my regular training program (and she even works out with me sometimes to help keep my motivation up).  This blast of intense physical activity right at the beginning of my work week energizes me and gets me into the right mindset to keep up my fitness journey through the rest of the week.

And, oh my goodness, all the “body gains” that I’m starting to see from this are all so freakin’ worth it. I’ll be making a separate post about this entirely, but for now all I’ll say is that until last week I had never in my entire life experienced the utter joy of trying on a fitted dress and having it zip all the way up the back.

My “aunties” in Montreal:  It’s easier to refer to my brother-in-law’s mother, my brother-in-law’s aunt, and the neighbor lady in my mom’s building as my “aunties.” They’re all women of respectable age who have lived fascinating lives, and I’ve found that one of the simplest but most fulfilling little pleasures of my life is spending some time with them. Two Sundays ago, Auntie S (my mother’s neighbor) and I spent an afternoon looking around the arts centre where I do pottery, followed by exploring a new gourmet grocery in Griffintown called Le Richmond and then a quick coffee-and-croissant at Mamie Clafoutis on Notre-Dame. This weekend, my oldest sister and I had lunch with Auntie N and Auntie K at our family’s favourite Greek restaurant, Nostos (where they serve best fried calamari ever).

Most Millennials I know find it weird that I would willingly spend some of my few precious free hours with “old people,” but if you spent even just an hour with any one of these three women I think you’d see why I do it. Their lives are rich and full to bursting with stories – stories of another time and another world, and of women born between the World Wars who defied convention to establish successful careers, live independently, and see the world.  Having lived and grown in the midst of social upheavals and cultural revolutions, and in spite of gender-based barriers, these women are living examples of the advice found in one of my favourite TED quotes:

“Forge meaning, build identity, and then invite the world to share your joy.”
– Andrew Solomon

Welcome to Night ValeIt’s a known fact by now that I don’t listen to music at my desk job – audiobooks and podcasts are my aural entertainment of choice when I’m working for The Man. I thoroughly enjoy soaking up knowledge and culture through NPR’s many projects (TED Radio Hour, TED Talks, Pop Culture Happy Hour, Ask Me Another) and I always discover something new when I listen to any given episode of any given podcast. In fact, Ask Me Another led me to Welcome to Night Vale a couple of weeks ago, and I simply cannot get enough of it.

It’s difficult to explain Welcome to Night Vale in so many words. The premise of the show is that it’s the community news bulletin for a desert-bound town – but it’s a town where the outrageous, paranormal, and unconventional are, in fact, completely normal. When something out of Night Vale’s version of ordinary happens, however, listeners will discover that the weird, odd, and quirky people of Night Vale are strangely just like us in many ways. They live, laugh, love, and learn; they come together as a community in the face of threats and adversity; they adopt cats and go on dates and deal with family dramas and live in barely-masked fear and wariness of all levels of governmental authority.

You kind of have to experience it for yourself to understand the extent of its awesomeness.

As a plus, the “Weather” segment of each podcast episode is a song from an indie or underground musician, and I’ve discovered some pretty cool tunes as a result. And, as an even bigger plus, there’s also a Welcome to Night Vale novel out now.

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So, there you have it – the things making me happy this week! I hope you all have a lovely one ahead, and I’ll see you back here next Monday to share more small steps taken in the pursuit of happiness.

Unmasked, unguarded – and somehow, still safe

We all have secrets and guilty pleasures. It’s a broad spectrum, but we all fall somewhere on it. We think that keeping secrets is a way of holding on to the things that make us authentically individual – truly ourselves – but of course there are secrets we never tell because we’re afraid of them taking over our lives by permanently altering the way others perceive us.

But regardless of what our secrets are and why we choose to keep them, we do so to the point where we hide a huge part of who we are from even the people who know us best.

In my particular case, my nature is so introverted and then further encased in a shell that it’s inherently difficult for me to open up to anyone. This means that when I do confide in somebody it’s because I feel safe with them, and I don’t expect to be hurt by the person in whom I confide the secrets that hurt enough already.

People constantly surprise us and the ritual of confiding in others is a prime opportunity for us to be reminded of this fact. Exhibit A: you tell the same thing to two different people in more or less the same fashion, but they’re both going to react differently – and that will tell you a lot about who they are and maybe even what you are to them.

I once told an ex about the particularly harrowing nature of one of my previous relationships. I trusted him, loved him more than any other person I knew, and wanted him to really know me, and I wanted to demonstrate all that by opening up and telling him things I had never told anyone else. Eventually, instead of bringing us closer together it pushed us apart. My story – and some of the most defining moments of my life that it included – of who I was before him became, I think, fodder for his insecurity, jealousy, and minor prejudices. It got to a point where I did not feel whole standing in front of him; instead, I felt torn apart, over and over again whenever he asked me for reassurances on the subject, and eventually felt incomplete – like I was less of a person for having made mistakes in my past, and now had to tilt at windmills to prove I was worthy.

A couple of weeks ago, I told the same story again to another person – a good friend this time – during a particularly rough and emotional day. It was one of those situations where things just came out and I realized at the end of it that I had pretty much emotionally exploded all over somebody and told them a secret that I had sworn to never tell anyone ever again. It had cost me one close connection and for a few minutes I was utterly terrified that my unintentional and unfiltered blurting had just cost me another one. (Oh, and did I mention I did this over text? Way to go, right…)

“And now I have the horrible feeling that if I was standing in front of you right now, you’d be looking at me in an entirely different way, and I’m hating myself for that,” I said quickly, as it had been a minute or two of text-silence.

“I don’t see you differently. We’re two friends who are telling each other things and being open. It would take a lot to change my opinion of you,” came the response.

I suppose my friend really meant that, as we’re still talking as we’ve always done, and maybe even perhaps on slightly more familiar terms now.

One story, two different people – and two different reactions whose juxtaposition made me realize that I’m too hard on myself and think too much about what people might be thinking.  And that realization caused me to see that not letting anyone in might protect my heart from pain, but it also prevents my heart from experiencing joy.

Anyone who’s had this kind of experience – this unexpected acceptance by one person when the same situation resulted in rejection by another – will tell you that it’s difficult to say how it feels to know that despite revealing something so deeply hidden, you are still cared for and still seen as a whole person worthy of time and attention.  You feel a kind of unexpected joy at the equally unexpected relief of not being the only one who knows something that weighs so heavily on you.  You feel like a person again because another human has accepted you, warts and all, and will still be there for you.

I’ll probably always be guarded. I’ll probably always need my shell, and I’ll probably always be very cautious about opening myself up to another person. But it’s nice to know that I don’t always have to hide – that I can be safe enough in somebody else’s presence so as to be vulnerably open and totally myself with them. It’s nice to know that in at least one friendship I don’t have to wear masks or pretend I’m a little less flawed, that I am accepted entirely and can therefore be exactly who I am and express exactly how I feel.

After all, while the truth sets you free – “this above all: to thine own self be true.”  And by being open and honest, I am being more of who I really am, and I have once again been surprised by joy.