Monday, January 23, 2012

Looking Everywhere But At Each Other

Today's post will be a short one. I just wanted to share an observation I've been thinking about lately.

It was late night in a local pub, we were the last ones in the bar, empty beer glasses around the table, and conversation was winding down following heavy political debate. Then, however, the topic of relationships came up. Some of us new, and some of us old friends, everyone "told their story" about the state of their heart.

Sadly, every single person (either in relationships or not) was in love with someone they were not with.

The first one, still longed for a relationship he had to leave because of timing. He now found himself in place where she'd moved on with someone else, and he could do nothing about it. He's currently in a relationship with someone else but unable to let go of the hope of this other woman.

Another, longed for the woman he dated only recently that, he claimed, was the first time he'd really been in love with. He too had to end things because of timing.  Now in a place of regret, however, he emailed her to see if they could rekindle things, and was rejected. He has resorted to online dating, as a means to get over her. Sadly, his focus is still on her and he hasn't met anyone.

These stories are not one-offs like you might think. In fact, I would have to say that it's pretty common lately that people I know are either not in relationships and still in love with someone else, or people are in relationships but in love with someone else. The worst part is that most of them seem helpless to doing anything about it.

So, how does this manifest in relationships? In many ways it almost seems like many of us are consistently looking at someone other than the one who looks back at us.

As an example, a friend of mine started a relationship recently. They'd met and instantly hit it off. They started texting like crazy from the day the met. He was unreliable in his communication and time with her though, and it triggered her. "How come he doesn't see how great I am" she said... and the more we talked about it, it became apparent that he wasn't actually "seeing" her. He had no idea who she really was. Is it coincidence he just got out of a long term relationship lately?

If this is truly the state of affairs, it's sad really. When we are constantly looking at someone else do we feel like no one ever sees us? Not an easy head space to overcome. If this is the case, it seems to me that if we don't act on these feelings in one way or another we will all remain too busy looking away from one another, and in turn never truly see each other.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Teaching the Barfly a Lesson in Picking Up

So it’s a Friday night out with a few girls and we find ourselves at this little alternative bar in discussion around a candle lit table. Looking around the room there is an unusual proportion of men, and reading the body language of some of them, they appear to be mobilizing to approach us. Two men in particular looked particularly hungry.

A tall, average build, clean cut brown hair, average looking man, pulls his friend over and interrupts our conversation “Hey Ladies” he says, “My friend here is a really good kisser.” My friends and I look at each other unimpressed. He continues to say “ahh, you’re probably going to ask me how I know… well, I may have tried in high school…” We said very little. He then explains how he promised his friend he wouldn't leave alone tonight and proceeds to try and sell us on his friend. We respond indirectly expressing our disinterest and then return to our conversation. They continue to stand there, for a while.

As time passes, they are still standing there. A few of the girls leave, and it's myself and a friend remaining. The man pipes in again, and raising his eyebrows in attempt to entice us he says "You know, making out between four people is pretty gross huh." He makes a circle motion with his finger grouping us together. My friend and I looked at eachother in disgust and shook our head out of embarrassment for him. Then he said "I would happily make out with either of you though... " again with the raised eyebrows. "No thanks" we both said. And again, we returned to our conversation. His friend left shortly after, but like a bee around honey he continued to stand there.

The night went on, he finally left as the girls in my group came and went, discussions with different men infiltrated the table, and lack of attention was paid to this guy. I thought he was gone for good.

It was until a bit later, however, where seemingly all the girls I was with had paired off with a guy around the bar that I was temporarily alone at the table. Guess who shows up. He comes over and says "I bet you want to go home with me don't you" and I said "Sorry, no. And I don't do that sort of thing. I'm not a pickup / one night stand type person." He took a step back, furrowed his brow and said "Ppppft! Yeah, whatever. You want to go home with me." I responded a bit more assertively this time. "Actually, no, NO, I don't. Like I said, I'm not interested and I'm not into that." It was like the wheels in his brain had temporarily jammed and I'd just said something that did not align with the way he understood the world. Silenced, only temporarily I'm afraid, he responded eventually with "Well, I'm not going to let you go home with me" I responded "I don't want to go home with you" he responded "yes, you do" I responded "No, I don't" he responded "Yes, you do." 

Gah! I was so exasperated I said "you know, you gotta work on your game dude" He responded and said "You? You are telling me I need to work on my game?" I responded "YES! You know you're not a bad looking guy, you're going about it totally the wrong way!" He responded "I can't believe you're telling me how I should operate" I said "Look, if you want to meet women you need to come up and talk to them about real stuff... Jesus! I should go around with you and show you how to do it" I almost ate my shoe when his eyes perked up after my saying that "Really? You'd go around and help me pickup a chick tonight? Oh man, I'm so in for that" I tried to eat my shoe. 

I revoked my offer and said "Ok, I'm not going to do that.. but ok... let's try. Ok, tell me something I don't know" He stepped back, slightly, actually very uncomfortable about my request and said "wow, I can't believe you're telling me how to meet women..." and then said "I don't know you, there are heaps of things you don't know." I responded and said "Ok, well tell me something then!" He shook his head, looked down deep in thought, and then hesitantly said "I like football. How about football? Do you like football?" Completely unimpressed that THIS is what he pulled out I responded "Football! Gah! No! I don't like football. Try something else!" 

Frustrated still at the fact that he was being coached by this random girl in a bar on how to speak to women, he stood up and stepped back again out of frustration. "I don't have to do this... I don't have to listen to you." I responded with "that's totally fine" And then he returned to the table, placed his head in his hands and struggled with this task like he was trying to solve the problem of world peace. After a short moment, he raised his head and said "Ok, I like The Smiths. Do you like The Smiths?" This time my eyebrows raised. "Progress!" I thought. "Yes, I like The Smiths" I said with a smile, "Good, now that's good! Why do you like The Smiths?" He returned to frustration mode, shook his head at having to answer me, and returned his head to his heads to think again. "I guess I like them because of the contrast between the dark lyrics and upbeat melody" Very excited about this progress, I said "Wow! That's great! Keep going... tell me more..."

It was at this point, that one of the girls interrupted my conversation with him to talk about a man she'd just been talking to. While this conversation went on, the man I'd been speaking with eventually left.  I didn't see him for the rest of the night.

Although, we never got to finish our conversation, I chuckled about it when I left the bar as it reminded me over other times I'd had similar conversations with men. The first time in particular was a guy that was so clueless that he failed to realize women actively turned the other way if they saw him, and made fun of him in their whispers to his face. Admittedly, he made me feel very uncomfortable, and I didn't care too much for him. Eventually, however, I spoke to him about his impact on women as I couldn't tolerate how uncomfortable he was making both myself and my friends feel, and how he seemingly didn't seem aware of it. As it turns out? He was complete shocked to learn that he had this impact on women, and felt terrible about it! He sincerely had no idea. The more we talked it came out that he just didn't know how to act around women. He was just incredibly sad and lonely, had a lot of love to give, and desperately wanted to have a woman in his life. His coping mechanism was to overcompensate and try too hard. I think I learned more from him than he learned from me that night, and I took a lot from that conversation. I vowed that if I see a similar situation emerge in the future, I would do the same thing and try to help instead of avoid that person.

I have had many of these conversations since, and much like Friday night, the men I have spoken with have been very receptive to hearing about how their actions affect how they are perceived ...especially when it comes to trying to form relationships. Perhaps I'll be proven wrong one of these times, but until then, it's actually pretty cool to transform a situation that is incredible uncomfortable to incredibly intimate within a few sentences. It's incredibly fulfilling to be able to step outside a situation with someone, be honest about their impact on you, and enter a space for discussion where you can look to help them make a change even in the smallest form. Each time, I think they have changed a small part of me too.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

2011: Looking Back, Forward & In Between

- spent new years day hungover and unable to keep anything down until mid afternoon
- new years day, learned the magical cure to a horrendous hangover, the big mac



Argh! As I sit here staring at the flashing cursor on the blank white of my word document, I decided to write.

If asked to recall 20 major things that happened in your life in 2011 could you do it? In 5 minutes do you think you could come up with the list? Would it be an accurate depiction of your year? It may seem like a mighty question to ask, but really out of 365 days, and over 500, 000 minutes in a year, it should be a simple task, no? Well, if you're like me, it's not easy. Every year, I struggle with these questions, and every year, I fail miserably to not only recall the key moments of my life over the one year time span, but also to create an accurate depiction of the year. Often times as I spend time reflecting I will realize that my perception of the year that has just passed is actually very different from the reality  when I dig down to the details.

It is my tradition every New Years day to lock myself away from the world and spend the day with time, both past, present and future, documenting this experience with my computer and a word document. Yes, it's isolating and cerebral. That being said, however, I generally find this day to be one of my most productive, cathartic, painful and yet enlightening days of the year. On this day I write, and write, and write, about everything that has happened in the past year, my lessons learned, and the goals and insight I wish to bring along with me as I traverse through the new year.

In the past I have written with the aim to keep it to a few pages. I've created different frameworks and filled them in...

2008 - Happy Moments, Sad Moments, Scary Moments, etc..
2009 - Successes, Failures, Oddities & Funny Stories
2010 - The three pillars of life: Love, Health, Career

And every, EVERY, single year what happens? What starts out small ends up snowballing to the point I could write a three part trilogy. And thus, sadly, I have yet to actually finish a full year review. This year, however, I decided to do it a little differently. I decided to do a timeline - so at least I would have the year documented. And depending on time, I could then write a summary section - Lessons Learned, Highlights, Love. Either way I'd have something documented before the next year seems to distract me.

Although this strategy seemed great, sitting down to a blank word document containing only the months and white space seemed daunting. I slowly started filling in things in my life that happened over the year into their corresponding month as I could think of them. But the more I tried to remember the more I realized I had forgotten. The task was easy for the recent months, and the list seemed endless, but as I moved further and further into the previous year, things became more fuzzy. After a while, I had some things about January, and absolutely nothing NOTHING from February to September! How, how could this happen? Every moment seems so vivid when we live it, so how is it that we can not only forget days, or weeks, but months? and spans of months? I actually find this realization rather horrific personally. And I bet you I'm not alone on this. Just try it! Can you remember 5 things that happened last April? How about February? May?

Ashamed at the poor performance of my memory, I decided to resort to my email for guidance. Now for those of you whom have adopted an effective email management strategy, this is one of the rare occasions where the email pack rat wins. In looking back at the 27000+ emails in my inbox, I realized these emails were the script to my life in 2011 and for once was thankful that I wasn't more proactive at prioritizing email deletion. What was even better about this was that I was not only reflecting on my past year by going through my emails but also cleaning out my inbox. A rather cathartic process really.

As I went through this process, I couldn't believe how much HOW MUCH we forget, and looking back at these moments I remembered at the time being so convinced this state of being was never going to change. Take my dogs passing for example. Those moments where my brother and I had to put our dog down, where we held her in our arms and watched in tears as she went limp from the injection - I forgot? I was hurt for weeks! I could barely get out of bed the next day, I had headaches, could barely eat, had nothing to say for quite a while... this pain, this heartache, it felt so real, so big and overwhelming, and SO permanent! Yet, that blank cursor under the month of July did not trigger me to remember. I forgot! How HOW could I forget?

As another example, when I looked at February, I remembered the cold, work, and routine. But what did the emails remind me? That was the month I moved apartments, I got accepted to my PhD and decided to embark on the PhD. The move was a huge ordeal, and the PhD was on my mind all the time for weeks. And, again, I forgot?

Pretty scary isn't it? That we can be so consumed in something at the time and complete COMPLETELY forget about it mere months later?

Eventually, I had sorted a years worth of emails, and simplified one year of my life down to 4 pages. Imagine a whole year summarized in bullet form, odd in some ways. And in line with my comment earlier, this list was very different than my original perception of the year. In fact it was much more textured and colourful than I could have come up with if left alone with the recesses of my mind.

Unlike the past years, I finished this list feeling slightly uneasy. Triggered most likely because I'd taken a different approach this year, I was floored at how much we forget, and also at the chaotic things we remember. Why did I forget my dog passing but remember I had a big mac on New Years day last year? Sure it was a moment of bliss, but in the big picture it was nothing in comparison to Izzy. And I had other big macs last year... so why did I remember this one.. oh, actually, I do remember the other ones... delicious (every vegetarian has their weakness, and mine just so happens to be big macs and hot dogs, neither of which are real meat).

Anyway, I suppose I now come out of this experience... with mixed emotion. I watched a TED talk earlier this year by Daniel Kehnman, the author of recently published book "Thinking, Fast and Slow" The talk was titled "The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory" and talks a lot about this very issue. He addresses the sensation of a 2 week vacation feeling just as long as 1 week and explains it's due to the way our memory stores experience. He talks about the idea of recency and the way an event ends often tends to influence the way we remember the whole experience. In many ways this talk explains exactly what I'm talking about, the inability to remember the experiences that construct our lives. And he poses a very important question,  would you take a two week vacation if you knew at the end of it all your memories would be erased? Well funny enough, our memories actually do sort of get erased.

Thus begs the question, if we don't remember the things we do, why do we do them? or not do them? Is it laziness or fear? But what are we so afraid of? In thinking of fear alone, it's rather funny to think that fear holds us back from doing so many things, but once we surpass that fear we forget it existed in the first place. Just thinking back at my experiences this year, embarking on this PhD was a choice I found simply terrifying. I was faced with picking up my life and leaving behind some amazing friends, a band with undoubtable potential, and a job that many would die for. And the result of this choice meant I had to move to a city where I new hardly anyone, live below the poverty line, and attempt to test the validity of something I don't only value most but also possess the most insecurity about, my intelligence. I'd be faced with me (my perceived capacity of what I can do) with me (my actual capacity of what I can do). I know I was terrified for months, about every thing I was leaving behind, and the potential failure and isolation I was potentially about to be faced with. But I chose to do it. And now? Now that I am here,  that fear seems like I read about it in a book, or watched in a movie; it's like I never lived it. And in fact, it was within a week that I began to forget the reasons that would have held me back in the first place.

I don't know about you, but when I really think about these moments or slices in time... even like the time I'm consuming to write this.. it's hard to believe, it's almost unfathomable in fact, to truly grasp how that the things that feel so immediately important and just minor details mere days later sometimes... and also how so many moments are gone forever in the blink of an eye, and many never to resurface. This, I guess is why it's so important that we live not to collect memories but live to live.

It is at this point I'm reminded of the talk by Steve Jobs that went viral earlier this year after his passing. It's funny isn't it? That so often people get recognized and appreciated more when they're no longer around to witness these outcomes in their honour? Anyway, Steve's Commencement Speech, in my opinion, really sheds some light on my concept of "living to live." If you haven't seen it, I definitely recommend watching it, and if you've seen it, I recommend watching it again. A very inspiring talk with some inspiring quotes:

"The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do" 

"I've always asked myself: If today was the last day of my life, would I want to do what I'm about to do today... and whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something" 

"Remembering that you are going to die, is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose"

"You are already naked, there is no reason why not to follow your heart"

"Death is, very likely, the single best invention of life"

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone elses life" "Don't lose faith" "Don't settle" "Stay hungry and stay foolish"

There is actually a song by AzR that was made using this speech. Made only with apple sounds and this speech, it's quite well done I think. Reminds me a bit of Baz Luhrmans, Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)

So, what can we take from all of this? The fact that we'll remember the things we thought we never would.. and forget the things we thought we never would. And what can be taken from Steve's talk? In my personal reflection, I suppose the desire to live without regret seems more important than anything. Why did I choose regret of all things? It was through the following story where all these questions I've expressed in this post dissipated the second the idea of living with regret seemed so vivid. It was a story told to me by my grandfather this past Christmas.

Standing in front of the fireplace, my back absorbing the warmth, I stood there alone looking at the gentle glow of Christmas tree. Lost in the ambience of the music, the smells of christmas baking, and the bustle in the background, I found myself, for once, in the moment. 

My grandfather entered the room and sat down on the couch. It was this year, over others, that he seemed particularly quiet. He asked me a few questions about school, and I gave him my generalist versus specialist dilemma, we talked a bit about his new religion, and then, we got to the reason for his melancholy... this Christmas he was missing his wife. She passed away recently. 

I indulged him and asked him a bit about how he's doing, and despite his efforts, he revealed a very deep sadness but also regret. A regret that spanned his whole life. This was the first time he really told me the story.

She passed away almost two years ago, and she was the love of his life. She was not, however, the mother of his children in his first marriage, nor the second, she was the girl he dated before both of his wives, the girl he dated in university.

Deeply fond of each other,  I understand them to have been together for a while and have an idyllic relationship. As they started to get more serious, however, so did the state of the relationship; and eventually she was ready for marriage. My grandfather, on the other hand, was not. In the meantime, she had another fellow that had been pursuing her diligently for quite some time, and the day finally came the he asked her to marry her. Still in love with my grandfather, she returned to him and told him that this other man had asked her to marry her. She then asked him if he was willing to commit to her in the same way. My grandfather, just beginning school, refused. He said the timing wasn't right and that he had to focus on school. At that point she accepted his words, turned away, and married the other man.

They both went on to live their lives, separately. She remained married to this man his whole life, and had many wonderful children. They had a happy family (from what I gather) but he was away a lot and she spent a lot of time alone. She did great things with that independence mind you, but she was alone. My grandfather, on the other hand, married my grandmother after he finished school. They had four beautiful girls, and a solid marriage that ended by the time my mother was pregnant with me. He later remarried again, had two more wonderful children, girls, and had another great marriage. 

Beneath these marriages and families, and their careers, my grandfather and his first love never forgot each other. Although they did not keep in touch, they both knew where each other were at all points of life, where they were living, how many children they had, and so forth. He even dragged my grandmother to see a play of the same name as this woman he was in love with. In love, in love, for their entire life but not together. 

It was 50 years later, after her husband died and my grandfathers second marriage had ended, that he decided to phone her. When she picked up the phone, the first words that came out of her mouth were "I almost fell over when the phone rang... as I knew it was you."

From that point on, they began this next phase of their life together again; and physically and mentally made each other feel like they were both in their 20s again. They had many wonderful years together, I think I saw my grandfather that happiest I've ever seen him, and a mutual love I'd never seen in his previous marriages. It was truly like they just fit. 

She died eventually after a courageous struggle with cancer, with a smile on her face and a positive spirit that lifted those around her. He is now alone and lost in his thoughts of her.

We returned to talking about their youths again, and he told me that he'd gone to the trouble of finding out where and when her wedding was back when he was young. He wanted to stop the wedding but in the end, he didn't have the guts. He muttered under his breath "I wish I stopped the wedding"

It was at this point, I asked him... "do you regret not spending your life with her?" He went on to explain he'd married some amazing women, and had beautiful children... and that she'd had a successful life... and I cut him off "Yes, grandpa, but you would have had great children no matter whom you married... so, the question is, do you regret it?"  The look in his eyes said everything. A quiet "yes" escaped his lips.

We got called for dinner shortly after, and our talk came to an abrupt ending.

This story made a huge impact on me this Christmas, imagine a whole life wishing you'd missed out on something that you cannot change. What held him back? The mindset that he "had to" place his priorities on school... when really the only person that was telling him he "had to" do that was himself. He had a choice and the control, and yet he opted to leave his fate in the hands of time instead of his own. Also, he eventually made the realization that he'd made a mistake. But what held him back then? Fear and probably perception. And sadly, these trivial emotion led to decisions that left consequences that spanned the rest of his life.

I feel many things from this story. Primarily, I am incredibly sad about this story. Still of the mindset I'm at the start of my life, I find it daunting to imagine an entire life longing for something you could have had. Second, I feel grateful to have heard this story. I feel I have a more intimate perspective of regret, and think the key to living without regret is to achieve a mindset where the fear of regret exceeds the fears that lead to regret. Looking at this story if he'd done so, he'd probably have stopped that wedding; or maybe taken an extra year at school or experienced a slight drop in his marks and said "yes" in the first place. All potential hindrances that would have seemed huge at the time, look so trivial when you look back at the big picture of life and the repercussions of this decision. Third, I feel a sense of immediacy. People say "life is short," a good friend of mine says "life is the longest thing you'll ever know"...whatever way you look at it, it's never too late to take control.

This New Years day, I did manage to document my year in the past, but obligations pulled me away (yet again) from being able to identify and transfer my lessons to this upcoming year. In writing this article, however, I think I came to that realization naturally.  If living life is not about collecting memories or experience even, it's about living. Surrounding yourself with positivity, doing the things you always put off to tomorrow and doing them today... and striving to never miss out on the things you'll regret. Regrets, for some reason, are the things that do stick in the memory banks.. and sadly, they're the memories we try hardest to forget.

I declare this the year of no regrets (or at least an attempt).