mercredi 6 novembre 2013

The Kid's Menu

      I was recently walking down a Paris street at a brisk pace and happened to glance at a sign etched on a restaurant window: Menu Enfant, - 12 ans, 8 euros 50. This was no extraordinary sight, but it brought me back to a decisive moment in my childhood: the day I stopped choosing from the kids menu to delve into the uncertain world of à la carte options.

      We were at a big family dinner in a restaurant on the East Coast. I want to say it was a steak house in the DC suburbs, but those are purely speculative details. I was between 10 and 12 years old, still allowed to order a children's meal but verging on independence and free choice. We had been seated, icy water had been poured in our red plastic glasses and we were all armed with the literature we needed to make informed decisions. The conversation about what to eat had begun among the adults. My uncle was recommending a dish he had previously tasted while my aunt warned the other guests on the generous sizes of portions in this particular establishment. My mother was voicing her hesitation between two appetizing alternatives. I felt close to each family member as they gave their opinion and disclosed what would please them to eat that day.
      I turned to the kids menu. It stared back at me, inevitably proving to be what it had always been : mind-numbingly boring. What, exactly, was listed in that miserable corner of the oversized menu, I can't recall. It might have been a plain hamburger with no fancy toppings or, worst, the monochrome chicken-tenders-and-fries. Since we were in the 1990s, I doubt that a vegetarian option was listed;  if there was one, I'd bank on either mac n cheese or a grilled cheese sandwich.

      Besides, the finality of the kids menu was an insult to my creativity. I wanted to engage in that colorful discussion around food and moods, combining the right cuisine with my current emotional state. Was I feeling adventurous or needing reassurance? Would I venture towards the uncharted territory of baked clams or the satisfying earthiness of steak and a baked potato? I wanted a chance to know what it felt like to have a "memorable meal", and picking from the kid's section wasn't going to cut it.
      When I voiced my wish to dive in the deep end, my mother fully supported my decision and suggested items I would enjoy. At that moment, I was overwhelmed with the satisfaction that came with opportunity: I could, if I so desired, taste the house crab-cakes instead of the chicken! I looked back at my menu, this time with great curiosity, ready to embrace the diversity of what was offered.

      That's when I noticed something, which I had largely managed to ignore until then: distracting numeric symbols following each dish name. I tried avoiding looking at them and focused instead on the delicious sounding words like "pie à la mode", "sirloin steak" or "blackened cod". But, eventually, the numbers caught up with me and I could no longer fool myself. Granted, I wasn't the one footing the bill, but there was a significant difference between a 10$ all-inclusive deal and a 20$ entrée. Could I decently justify costing so much more to the table? I was just a lanky kid compared to the robust family members surrounding me, and even compared to my sister, who was 3 years older and already a teenager. Was I being a spoiled brat, going beyond my condition and demanding fancier food? No one at the table seemed to think so. And,  if I had voiced such a concern, I would have been greeted with words of encouragement to "try anything you like" or "whatever you want on the menu is fine". But I remained silent, quietly determining which plate had the best value, aside from the dreaded kid's section.
     I've been compensating like that ever since, dinner after dinner, searching for the perfect balance between quality and thrift. I decode the labels, I see which ingredient has been chosen, I decide which dish really is the tastiest and which one is mainly for show. Thanks to this tried and true method,  I've been complimented many times on my savvy choices.

       But maybe, just once, I could throw all caution to the wind and decide to eat what I truly, really want at that time, in that place. And on that day, a little girl who looks very familiar would be sitting right next to me, eyes narrowed.  She'd study the menu purposefully and then she'd look up and ask: "are you sure we can?" And I'd say: "don't worry, just this time, we're going for it".  She'd smile and I'd hear her belly gently rumble in anticipation. 

jeudi 3 octobre 2013

A week-end in Paris

Every once in a while, I feel overtaken by a stronger emotion, one that decides to leave the warm confines of my dormant subconscious and tickle the surface of my psyche. This happened recently.  I felt a rush of sentimentality and tenderness mixed with a lucid flash of understanding:  "this might be what it's all about".

I didn't think that my great aunt's visit would trigger such feelings, but it did, as I watched her rediscover Paris at 85 years old. She had left her cozy Breton town, Douarnenez, to meet us in the hustle and bustle of the capital for a long week-end to celebrate my sister's thirtieth birthday.

I've visited my great aunt regularly over the last few years, so I know that she still has a lot of stamina and physical endurance. Yet she herself wasn't fully confident that she could keep up the rhythm for a week-end away. She finally decided to try it and see what would happen. I'm so glad she did. Seeing her in Paris going about her days with such grace and poise was dazzling. Spending time with her was a revitalizing break, an opportunity to see the every-day in a renewed light.

On the evening of her first day,  she got caught in a big traffic jam with my mom and had to sit in the car for two hours. But it didn't make much of a dent on her enthusiasm. Listening to her talk about Paris, it seemed like dense traffic and crowds had graduated from being annoying nuisances to convenient conversation topics, just like the weather is in Brittany. These were parts of the Paris reality and there was no need to fight them - simply acknowledge them, avoid them whenever possible and carry on. 

I had been used to fretting over older family members and worrying about their well-being. As much as my great aunt appreciated our thoughtfulness, she didn't need us to make huge efforts. If she felt like she couldn't walk up a hill, she said it and we found a way around the hill. But there was no complaining, which was very refreshing and encouraged us to simply enjoy the ride with her. She accepted her vulnerability, she fully acknowledged her age and her constraints but used none of those things as excuses.

What was most enchanting was that she didn't hide her joy of being there. Through her smile and some of her expressions, we knew she was having a great time. It's amazing how good that feels: seeing someone else being happy. How does that even work?  We often heard her say things like "c'est vraiment formidable", or "c'est magnifique", as we dined on a river boat and admired the lit monuments from the Seine.

I feel very fortunate to have walked the streets of Montmartre with one arm hooked to hers. It gave me a chance to vividly perceive the incline of those streets, to walk at a different pace and to savor the moment in a novel way. I was genuinely excited for her grandkids when she bought two Eiffel Tower key chains and some Eiffel tower shaped candy. I was very touched when she bought two boxes of chocolates at the airport and handed me one with a big smile, saying it was for me to share with my boyfriend.

The stronger feeling I mentioned earlier took a hold of me when I saw her walk towards the security gate at the airport. She had her back at me; her trendy bag was hanging from her shoulder and she was pulling her small suitcase with one hand while holding her ticket and ID in the other. She looked small but a lot younger than her age, perhaps because she hadn't lost her confident gait. Every part of her - the way she walked, the way she looked at people around her - seemed to say that it was time to go after a good time spent.

She arrived at the security check point, smiled at the guard and showed him her card identifying her as carrying a pacemaker. For some reason, they opened her suitcase. She cooperated, they made her pass through the door next to the metal detector. Like everyone else, she was patted down by a female officer. She gathered her bags, went towards her terminal and was out of sight.

 I stood there, taking in the reality of the moment, letting the emotion build up because it seemed wrong to suppress it. And then I made my way back to the heart of the city.

mardi 3 septembre 2013

My Thoughts on the Show "Girls"

I have been watching episodes of Girls, a series airing on HBO about 20-something girls in New York. It's edgy and raw, but the second season has been annoying me a bit - actually, a lot. In the first season, it was easy to think that all these sweet, privileged, middle-class white kids were a little lost and needed some time to adjust both to New York and to adult life. But, at this point, it simply appears that they're self-involved, whiny and tediously self-destructive.
Anything good happens to them? They discount the experience as trivial.
Screwed up people enter their lives? They welcome them with open arms.

The main character, Hannah, is a would-be writer. You'd think that she'd be able to reflect on her life through her writing, and yet, she demonstrates very little self-awareness. The world devours her without her taking any responsibility, having any control or the least bit of clairvoyance.  What makes it irritating is that, I, as the viewer, am convinced that she could be happy, that she could succeed, if she stopped being so annoyingly self-conscious for one second. Because, really, Hannah is not a victim. She could stop the bullshit in her life, if she chose to (but then, there would be no show).

I do wonder, as a 20-something myself... are these people supposed to be my peers? I'll fully admit that I'm privileged and that there are many things that I take for granted. But watching these people abandon themselves in deceit is disturbing. Does the show imply that all these characters will "turn out okay" by the time they're 30? Strangely, I don't think that being a dramatic egotist in your 20s bodes well for the rest of your life. We've got to stop collectively treating this decade as a giant self-destructive/ let-me-be-an-asshole time frame where people can feel legitimate in being selfish. Although I fully support experimentation and making mistakes, it seems like these characters believe it's their duty to do all these screwed-up actions, just to feel like they're living an alternative lifestyle. But there's nothing revolutionary about snorting cocaine or having sex with a bunch of men, for that matter. And is it really necessary to do these things to feel like you have valuable life experience?

Maybe I'm getting older and - I don't know... more sour? bitter? Not "hip" anymore? But I don't have a lot of patience for those girls' antics, not because of my moral beliefs over something specific (the casual sex, for instance, doesn't offend me) but because of the utter lack of generosity between the characters. Ok, so you're "learning how to live" and that's fine. But where's your sense of solidarity? You're all in this together and you're all hurting. It might be beneficial - just throwing an idea out there - for all of you to help each other out! 
I'm aware that I'm yelling at characters from a sitcom. And this sitcom is possibly trying to say something more profound by depicting the behavior of these said characters. But I'm still at the annoyed stage, where I throw my pillow at the screen and I yell profanities because most of these kids on that show are being so silly and stupid, and it hurts to watch.

So Girls is getting a reaction from me. I'm the show's target audience and I'm hooked. But I'm also really frustrated. I don't like seeing my generation portrayed that way, but I know that some of it is true. But I also know that there are so many people my age doing very interesting, truly innovative, fulfilling things. They're often insecure, uncertain, they make mistakes but they're trying to go beyond the cliché and lay the foundation for their lives.
Maybe these girls (and guys) are, too. I'll have to keep on watching, finish season 2 and tell you what I think about season 3...

lundi 26 août 2013

Writing more and being less complacent

I need to start writing again. I've felt the urge for a while, but, of course, I've been fighting it. Why do we (read - I) tend to fight off things that are good for us?

It's been a summer full of changes and heavy lifting. The beginning of the school year bodes well, with exciting prospects and renewed energy. Just as long as I keep my anxiety levels in check... just as long as I act on the things I wish to do... which brings me back to writing.

It calms me down. It gets me to think without stressing out. It makes me feel like time has a consistency. When I write, I never feel like I'm wasting my time.

At this point, it may not even be about writing anything relevant. It may simply be about renewing with the practice. After all, I can't expect to write astonishingly well when I've been  neglecting the art.

I went rollerblading a few days ago, and I was surprised by two things: I was happy to find that I still knew how to roll, but I had lost my elegant stride and I didn't know how to stop neatly at crosswalks anymore. It had been 10 years since I hadn't rollerbladed - loss of elegance and clumsiness to be expected.

I'll take it one step at a time. I'll try to re-engage with my creative side. I need to do it now - before I forget that I even ever had the desire to create things. Before I let myself be convinced by society at large that working to make a living is really only what matters. Before life gets away from me and becomes something I don't recognize as my own.

These aren't very cheery thoughts, and I'm not even saying that I'm close to forgetting who I am. But there is always the risk of complacency:  feeling a bit too comfortable in a life where creative expectations are low. That's one of the challenges when you end up working in a different field - time and energy are split, so there's more to balance.

I've recently started sharing ideas for theatre projects with a friend and colleague. It's such a pleasure to jam on projects and create proposals. It's also nice to work with someone else instead of being alone thinking about an idea. It doesn't harm that we both enjoy each other's company.

In order to collaborate well together, we needed time to know each other. I needed to get settled and figure myself out in Paris. So there is something to be said about taking one's time, too. But there's a difference between taking one's time and stopping altogether to think creatively. Although, sometimes, those two things look very much the same.  So I'll watch out, I'll be vigilent. And if I stray, I hope that there will be some people out there to keep me on the right track by suggesting new ideas and collaborations.

mercredi 27 février 2013

Life is a gift

If our lives are gifts to begin with, however, in some sense they are not "ours" even when we become adults. Or perhaps they are, but only until such time as we find a way to bestow them. The belief that life is a gift carries with it the corollary feeling that the gift should not be hoarded. As we mature, and particularly as we come into the isolation of being "on our own", we begin to feel the desire to give ourselves away - in love, in marriage, to our work, to the gods, to politics, to our children. And adolescence is marked by that restless, erotic, disturbing inquisition: Is this person, this nation, this work, worthy of the life I have to give?
 Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, p.126

Every time I open Lewis Hyde's book and read a few pages, a few chapters, I let out a sigh of relief. He gets it. He articulates what so many of us feel: that life is a gift. He explains what a gift is: something that grows by the mere act of being shared. He reminds us that  the gift transaction is different from the market exchange, and that both ways of interacting are just as real and just as worthy.

 But, given the state of our society and the values that shape it, we as artists and inventors and researchers and lovers... we don't always find our place in this world, because the very idea of the Gift is neglected, cast to the periphery. And with it, a whole array of artwork, ideas, theories and feelings are left aside and dubbed "unnecessary" because they don't appear profitable in the merchant's sense. 

So we need to be reminded of our own power and ability to give. Not out of charity, not out of duty - those aren't postures that are conducive to giving; those are obligations laced with guilt, to justify the fact that we take so much from the world and from others, and to aleviate the discomfort that comes with such a realization. 

No - the gift is not calculated in any way, although it can be conscious. It's a smile. It's the expression of a feeling, it's a form of letting go. We have no idea what a smile does to the person who witnesses it, who receives it. And yet, we know that it has its own kind of power, that it is evocative and that the simple act of smiling might set something in motion. 

Because life is finite and uncertain, we may sometimes feel the need to cling to the life we have. But there's also what Hyde talks about: " the [...] feeling that the gift should not be hoarded". By letting go, by sharing our talents and our humanity with the rest of the world, we are enriched. In that typical gift-giving way, our life doesn't loose its value because it is spent. Rather, it augments in values, in strenght and in scope. 

I feel like my "life is a gift and that the gift shouldn't be hoarded". I'm convinced of the truth of those statements. But I'm also petrified of doing the wrong thing, of opening myself up to the wrong people, of loosing myself, of being vulnerable. I also listen too much to the murmur of the world and the media - what we should be doing, who's in, who's out. I'm influenced by that discourse, and it stabs at the gift; it belittles it, it casts it aside, away from the heart of who I am and how I want to act. 

I need to be reminded that rekindling the gift is not selfish and that sharing moments of happiness and joy with others is not a waste of time. I need to apply myself to my art in the same way - or more - than I apply myself to the work that makes me earn money. My art is a gift of expression that will benefit no one if it is unfinished and neglected. It needs to be let out, and who knows what it will do, who it will touch. I want to become an adult, if being an adult means being liberated enough to give away parts of ourselves because we know it's the only thing really worth doing.