Letter to my boys (2)

In 1911, the Egyptian-Greek poet (Constantine Petrou) Cavafy wrote:

“As you set out for Ithaca

Hope the voyage is a long one,

Full of adventure, full of discovery.

[…]

Keep Ithaca always on your mind.

Arriving there is what you are destined for.

But do not hurry the journey at all.”

As so eloquently put by Cavafy, we are all on a journey.

If we are lucky, we are accompanied on our journey by twin sisters Synchronicity and Serendipity.

And if we are meticulous, if we complete our journey with an open mind, we shed our heavy baggage. We arrive lighter, transformed, energized.

Today is a pit stop on the journey that we are on.It is an opportunityto reflect on our past and consider our future.

Today is the day we share our stories. And then we pack up and continue on our way. Forward bound. Always.

Ithaca. Are we there yet?

As we enter, truly and undeniably, the era of Industry 4.0, it feels as if time has sped up. The lines between the physical, biological and digital are blurred. The merger of man and machine has begun. And it is all happening so fast.

When everyone is running, it is normal to start running too. The faster they run, the faster we must run too. But as we transition into warp speed, it is more imperative than ever for us to stop and reflect. Not only where do we come from, where are we going? But also, why are we going there? What do we hope to achieve on the way? What do we want out of our journey? What impact do we want to make?

Which road do we want to take? It is not the road less taken, as Robert Frostsaid, that makes all the difference, it is knowing which road to take and when. Sometimes what is needed is to stay on the main road, and sometimes it is better to get off the beaten path. Sometimes we have to forge our own path. And sometimes, as the Wright brothers rightly thought, please excuse the pun, it may be better to get off the ground altogether and fly.

In a previous article I wrote, I mentioned that we are lucky to be living in the age of revolutions. We are lucky because we are being challenged, and challenges ultimately make for a richer life. In this accelerating world, what does it take to survive? What does it take to lead? Well to lead first you have to survive. (That’s a bit of a no-brainer). And to survive you need to adapt. You need to be agile.

I used to have a red sticker on the kitchen wall that read “think different.” To survive in this new economy I thought, it was no longer about working hard, it was about working intelligently, it was about thinking what no one else was thinking. But when I see the effects that technology is having on our daily and social interactions, when I see how we are subsumed by technology, how we are constantly staring at a screen, I thought we needn’t worry about thinking differently anymore, we just had to think full stop.

But life is not about just surviving, it is about leading.

When I talk about leadership, I want to make a distinction between people in power and people who lead. There is a big difference. People in power rule. And leaders inspire.

So with this in mind, what is the difference between those who lead and those who simply survive?

Courage.

But not necessarily the courage you are thinking of. I am not talking about the courage to stand up for yourself or the courage to speak your mind. Sometimes that is not enough. If I am standing in front of a six-foot bear right now, I’m going to need something a lot more than just courage. I am also going to need the athletic ability to run really, really fast.

The courage I am talking about is the courage to be human. The courage to be vulnerable, to risk being wrong and to admit it, to get rid of perfection. The courage I am talking about is the courage to recognize success and failure, and to rejoice in both.

And belief.

And that is not a belief that you talk about or justify, a belief that you need to show. It is a belief that radiates out of you. It is a belief in your authenticity, in your reality.

It is a belief in your ability to leave a positive impact.

So are we there yet?

In 2012, Alex Honnold, a professional rock climber, achieved a great feat. He ascended the 600m vertical wall of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park unaided by rope or harnesses, using only his bare hands, in an exercise known as free soloing. But Honnold was unhappy.

He hadn’t prepared adequately beforehand. He had decided he said “to skip the preparations and just go up there and have an adventure.” He felt, he said, like he had been lucky, like he had gotten away with something. He wanted to be a great climber, not a lucky one. In fact, he took the next year off from free soloing so he does not make a habit of relying on luck.

What mattered to Honnold was not the result, it was the process. He wanted to master the mountain.

Honnold admitted his shortcomings, and by doing so, could address them adequately. His humility and self-examination paid off. Five years later in June 2017, at the age of 31, he climbed the much harder 900 metre-long granite face of El Capitan, also in Yosemite, the crown jewel of free soloing. And despite the climb being much harder, Honnold said it felt much easier due to his diligent preparation. This time, he said, it felt like mastery.

Getting to Ithaca is not about the destination. It is about how we get there. It is about getting to know ourselves, who we are and what we stand for. The journey to Ithaca is about what needs to be done, today, to get there. By concentrating on the process, the journey, and not the outcome, Ithaca, we will not feel that we have arrived to Ithaca but rather, that Ithaca has come to us.

 

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Of boys and data-driven questions

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Disclaimer: what I am about to say is controversial.

Do not let your boys read books.

Here’s why: because books awaken their brain. It makes them think. And then it makes them ask questions. 

Now, asking questions, in esse, is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it is to be encouraged. The problem arises when boys confuse where facts and babies come from. Sometimes they think it is the same source: their mother. And if you are a mother of boys, that means you.

Be careful, go and hide your books.

On a recent trip away from home, my youngest found himself wi-fi-less, 3G-less and, horror of all horrors, Fortnite-less. Not knowing what to do with himself, he found a book and a bicycle and, after careful investigation, decided to try both.

Little did I know, while smirking in my little corner and congratulating myself on being the best mother ever by offering my son the opportunity to leave his technological lair and experience the fresh air, that I was creating a monster. A data-driven, question-mongering monster.

“What is the fastest sports car?” He asked on a recent car excursion. It was hot, humid, with a hint of traffic. I was tired and nursing the beginnings of a headache. 

“I don’t know,” I said and politely suggested he ask his older brother, not a book reader by any means, but a bit of a data friend—a scourer of facts and figures.

Dissatisfied, he asked me, “What is the most fattening fast food?” 

I was happy to be able to answer that one, remembering when my husband brought back the menu of a certain cheesecake restaurant so that I may ogle the gazillions of calories on offer. 

“But that’s a restaurant,” he said, “that’s not fast food.” In that case, I ventured, I didn’t know. I was praying for a fast arrival to our destination.

Two minutes later he asked me which I thought was the biggest shopping mall in the country.

“Please leave me alone,” I pleaded.

“What?! You don’t want to make conversation?” He was incensed.

And that’s when I lost it.

“But that’s not conversation,” I screamed, “that is you expecting me to know the brand of every sports car currently being manufactured and its maximal speed, the brand of every fast food, its menu and the calories of every item on that menu; in addition to me knowing the floor size of every mall, the number of shops it has, its daily footprint and the amount of money it generates, depending on WHAT YOU MEAN BY BIGGEST!!”

He was disappointed in me, I could tell. So in an effort of appeasement, I told him how proud I was of him being so curious and that that was a sure sign of a bright and successful future. I then suggested that Google would have all the answers he was looking for. Also his brother.

His own efforts at appeasement sounded more like this: “so what’s your favorite Ferrari?”

We drove the rest of the way in silence.

Upon my arrival home, I promptly renewed his data bundle and made sure the television and Fortnite were connected. I then snuck into his room and removed all the reading material there was.

All is now back to normal and happiness, once again, reigns on us all.

You have been warned.

Letter to my nieces

As blessed as I am to live with boys, I am equally blessed to have nieces, five of them. Fierce, beautiful, bright young warriors forging their way to womanhood. And, having surmised that boys do not listen—or at least do so only sideways—I figured I would dedicate this post to the girls in my life.

Without intending to preach, here is what I wish I was told in my late teens and early twenties, and spent the next 20 years learning:

Love, but stay emotionally independent. Do not be scared to love. Love with all your heart, with all the fire in your core, unconditionally and unreservedly, but walk away when you need to and leave no strings behind you. Do not be subsumed. And yes, someone out there does deserve you.

Manage your money.  No one, and nothing, will give you the self-worth that making and managing your own money will give you. Start saving early, start investing now, and before you know it you will be on your way to financial freedom.

Do what you love…When you work at what you love, you live. When you don’t live what you love, you work. Cultivate your interests, develop them. Be curious, only this way can you tell what it is you really love to do and what makes you happy and fulfilled.

…And become really good at it. When you discover what you love, be the best at it. Become an authority on the subject. Let no one be better than you. And even if you feel you’ll never be the best, keep trying. After all, someone has to occupy the top spot, why not you?

Shut out the noise. Do not let people’s fears and insecurities derail you. Live your life, they can live theirs. We are all looking for a purpose, find yours, do not take someone else’s. And when you do find it, take it, hold it high and run out of town like a bear on fire was chasing you. And scream your lungs out on your way.

Be productive, not busy. Set goals.Measure the steps you need to get there. And when you’re done for the day, put your feet up. Why run on a hamster wheel when you can run on the road and actually get somewhere? Measure your productivity by your achievements, not by how many hours you are putting in a day.

Focus. It is the only sure-fire way to get anywhere. Focus on your goal, focus on the road. Don’t let insignificant events hinder or block you.

Practice a sport. Preferably outdoors. Practicing a sport gives you a sense of purpose and a goal to work towards when nothing else is working (and believe me there will be such a time). A sport is the faithful friend who will never leave you, stick with you through thick and thin and never ever tell you you look fat. It will move with you wherever you go and see you through the sad and the happy times. And the kicker? It forces you to breathe.

Never stop learning, never stop growing. When you stop growing, you start dying. The world is constantly changing and at exponential speed, be a part of it, engage in it, change and grow with it. Don’t be left on the sidelines. Do not die while you live.

Follow your gut. And when in doubt, say no. Don’t overthink it. If that niggling feeling in the pit of your stomach is telling you something, listen to it no matter what anybody else says.

If you think you hate your body now, wait 20 years. Appreciate your body, your face, your hair, your little toenail even. Now. You will never look this good again.

Be as kind to yourself as to an orphaned puppy. You deserve it. Nothing good can ever come out of chastising yourself, except feeling bad.

Why wait? This one is from my sister, your other aunt. The future is now. Don’t wait for when you have more money, more time, more energy. Chances are it won’t happen. Take what you can. Seize the day.

Admit your mistakes, say sorry, move on. We. All. Make. Mistakes. Leave the perfectionism behind and wallow in the mud. You’ll be a better person for it. And if the person does not accept your apology, leave them with their anger and move on. It’s them, it’s not you.

You are special. You are unique. But so is everyone else. Take yourself seriously. But not too much.

Do not be sad about losing or breaking anything that money can replace. Don’t get attached to things but cherish the memories behind them. You can fix the item or buy it again but you cannot recreate lost moments.

Everyone needs a helping hand, and everyone loves to help, just ask nicely. Whatever you do, do not walk solo. There is no glory in braving it alone. There are people out there who know more things than you, use them, learn from them. People love to help, so make them feel useful.

Be kind. Generosity is not about giving money. Give your time and attention, they are more precious than objects. Go out of your way sometimes if it tells someone you care about them, even at a minor discomfort to you.

All things can be taken away from you, except your dignity, and your word: don’t give them away for free. Stand by your word. Say what you mean and more importantly, mean what you say. Your word should be your strongest bond. Spoken words cannot be erased.

Be stubborn, but only where it matters. If it won’t make a difference in ten years, drop it. Fight the battles that are worth fighting and know when it is time to lay down your sword. Some things are just not worth it.

Raising kids is the loneliest, scariest thing you will ever do, which is why you should do it. A child will challenge you, make you doubt yourself, leave you traipsing dark, lonely corridors at night, make you question and second-guess yourself, over and over. But they will also bring out the best in you.

Do what scares you, get lost on purpose. True character shows in adversity and grows only when challenged. See how you behave when things are not going your way, when you are not in control, when you do not know where you are or where you are going. You will learn a lot about yourself.

Find your truth, and live it. Be authentic. Be true. Engage in what makes you happy regularly. We all want to please, we all want to belong but in the end, we are born and we die alone. Be your own best company. Stick to your values.

And music. Always music.

Of motherhood and self-awareness

Oh mother, know thyself.

I never liked children. They’re noisy, they move too much, their hands are either up their nose, or up their butt or in their mouth, they eat sloppily, their breath always reeks of chocolate, they touch themselves in public and they kick the back of your chair in an airplane. There really is very little to like. And I really am not sold on this innocence shit,  I believe that children are, essentially, at their very core, deviant creatures who are out to make you regret you ever thought, in your selfish egotism, to procreate, whether willfully or by accident.

And then I had my own. I know you’re probably thinking that is where I say that I changed my mind and started thinking that children are the best thing that could ever happen to anybody, but you’re wrong. As a non-drug user, I would say that orgasms are probably the best thing that could happen to anybody, up there with a good plate of pasta, or a great glass of wine, or a cigarette, or best yet, an evening that encompasses all of these things…the downside being that you may end up fat, with a hangover, and probably pregnant.

Now, children are not for the faint-hearted. You have to be physically and mentally strong enough to withstand not sleeping for days on end, not faint from the sight and smell of poop, and not get embarrassed by the endless puke on your clothes. And I am pretty certain that I am not the only woman who has walked confidently down the street, reveling in the appreciative stares of passers-by only to discover that their smiles were not directed at her dazzling beauty but rather, at the muslin cloth still hanging on her shoulder or the two circles of wetness on her boobs that mirror the shape of her round sunglasses, now conveniently used to hide her shame.

No, there is nothing to like.

Yet despite all the indignity, discomfort and embarrassment of motherhood, I loved my babies. All of them. I couldn’t resist holding them all the time, hugging them, kissing them, just generally coddling and being close to them. I fed them, bathed them, changed them and lulled them to sleep happily and without complaint but I didn’t think this was anything special. Mother cats feed their young and groom them, birds look for food for their kids and even teach them to fly! Elephants stay with their young, lions teach their cubs to hunt. I didn’t think myself too different from any cow or pig out there. In fact, as mothers, I think we would do well by learning from animals to let our children free once they are autonomous.

For most of their childhood, I set out to distance myself from the role of mother to my children. I set out to define myself as anything but. Yes, I had offspring, but so did my neighboring dog. I was first and foremost a writer, an editor, a blogger, I even described myself as an athlete in order not to be brandished as simply “a parent.” Any free time I had was spent reading, doing crosswords, exercising, all in the pursuit of eternal progress, endless advancement, fighting against the inevitable corporal and cerebral decline that escorted parenthood.

I ran a marathon, did a triathlon, wrote a book, started a blog, even got myself a very boisterous dog and became a failed quasi-dog trainer, all in the pursuit of new challenges. Children are what stood between me and greatness. Now all I had to do was wait for them to leave home and resume my path.

And then one summer they started leaving. One by one they started going out, traveling to summer camps and taking summer jobs. And I realized that instead of slowly resuming my life, I was on hiatus. Paused. Waiting for them to come back. I rarely wrote, exercised less and was generally unable to take a difficult argument from A to Z because I could not focus much. Even books lost their appeal. Candy Crush became my friend until my kids came back home.

The moment I had dreamt of, fantasized about, played over in my head time and again while changing, feeding, running after, nursing and lulling to sleep had come. And I had no idea what to do with it.

That is when I realized that in the long, arduous journey during which I was to become a writer, a reader, a thinker, an athlete, a dog trainer (I even tried Bridge), I had in fact, become a mother.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m having tea with the neighbor’s dog.

Of boys and empowerment

“It takes a life to build a life,” the old Arab adage goes, meaning, essentially, that kids take a lot out of you. Quite a few years in fact. As any mother knows, that life feels shorter when you have boys. But don’t take my word for it. In 2013, an article re-published on the Scientific American website said that a study had concluded that having sons may indeed shorten a woman’s life-span (all caveats included). But we knew that already.

Here’s the thing though: it’s not them, it’s us. We tend to limit our children because we are afraid, not because they are afraid. Every ounce of fear that our child feels, if not planted by us, is certainly fostered by us. The more control we need, the more we foster this fear. The children stay close, tied, bound to us for fear that…for fear that what? If something happens to the children, are they the ones who suffer or are we?

On a recent trip abroad my three boys and I rented bicycles to go around town despite the fact that we already had a car. As soon as we got them my middle child disappeared and he has yet to return. The older one followed him soon thereafter and my youngest, the 11-year old, stuck with me when he was unable to keep up with them.

The only problem there was that I stuck to the car.

I didn’t stick to the car because I preferred the car. Quite the contrary, I love to cycle and renting the bicycles was my idea. No, I stuck to the car because as a 46-year old mother of three flirting with Alzheimer’s, I forgot that I had rented a bike.

And so it happened that later that afternoon when my older children called me to confirm that they could not pick up their younger brother and his bike from the local nautical club and that I had to do it, I picked up the car keys and went.

“Why didn’t you come by bike?” asked my youngest, proving that he had already built more intelligence and common sense than I ever hope to have.

Like any self-respecting idiot, I owned up.

“Because I’m an idiot,” I said.

“So what do I do with my bike now? How do I get home? You know I’m afraid to go on the road, especially by myself.” He was calm and articulate considering the situation he had to face. I offered him his choices: he could put the bike in the back of the car and we could drive home, he could ride on the road and I would try to stay as close as possible or he could ride on the opposite pavement and I would keep an eye on him from the other side as far as possible.

He asked me which option I thought he should choose.

“I think you should do what makes you feel com…uncomfortable.”

Un-comfortable?” he sneered, “why would I do that?”.

“Because then you will grow bigger and stronger,” I said, idiot that I am.

He chose the growth option. I followed as much as possible from the other side and, thinking that I saw him stop at the bike shop on the way back (he had been complaining about his helmet), parked and waited for him to come out. He didn’t.

At that point I figured that he had not, in fact, stopped at the shop and had continued home. So I went home. But he wasn’t there either. I waited. Maybe I had missed him on the way.

Nothing.

My sanity and insanity competed for dominance.

“He did stop at the bike shop and he’s still there,” said one.

“No he’s not! He’s been hit by a car,” screamed the other, “he’s been kidnapped! He’s fallen and hurt himself!”

Three years down.

I realized that I wasn’t ready for my son’s growth. I wasn’t ready for his empowerment. It didn’t matter what he felt. I couldn’t care less! I cannot handle this! I got back in the car to look for him, throw his bicycle in the car and throw him back inside of me, never letting him go. I wished I was a kangaroo.

I found him safe and sound at the bike shop. He thought he was lost and had stopped to ask for directions. “I have a problem,” he had told them apparently, “I lost my mother.” If only he knew the problems his mother was having at having lost him! They sagely told him to sit tight, that if he thought of stopping there, his mother would probably also think to go there. Clever guys.

“Where did you go?” he shouted at me with a grin from ear to ear, “I thought you said you were going to watch me! You went the other way!”

I explained that as a car, I couldn’t go against traffic and I had to u-turn. His eyes were gleaming with self-assurance. The distance from the nautical club to the bike shop was one mile and I could tell he already felt bigger and stronger.

“So what do we do now?” I asked, hoping he would wisely ask to stow the bike in the car and be done for the day. Growth be damned!

He got on his bike. “I know the way now,” he said, “I’ll meet you at home.”

I had empowered my son. I had made him a tad more independent. I had left him space to grow bigger and stronger. And it had cost me ten years of my life.

Ten years in the till. Ka-ching!

When my middle son was still nursing, I asked my pediatrician’s advice about leaving him for a few days because of a trip I wanted to take.

“I’m not sure about leaving this one,” I said, “he’s more attached to me than his older brother.”

He smiled. “Are you sure it’s not the other way around?”

I didn’t agree.

Fourteen years later, when my youngest told me: “I felt proud of myself today,” I knew exactly what my pediatrician meant.

Me too, I thought.

Open letter to my three boys

Notwithstanding that you are a miracle from heaven and that there is nothing in this world I care about more than your health and safety and happiness, notwithstanding that I would rather die than see any of you in misery, I feel it is nevertheless necessary that I share with you these few tips that should make for smoother relations in the years to come.

Tip #1

You will not ask the same question twice. Ever. Listen to the answer the first time.

Tip #2

“But why Mom?” is now officially banned lexicon.

Tip #3

You will not, ever, complain about the food on the table. You may choose to eat it or to leave it, but you will not complain about it. You will not play with it either.

Tip #4

You will finish your homework, it is a favor to yourselves, not to me.

Tip #5

“In a sec” will, from now on, be replaced by “yes sure.” Preferably “yes ma’am.”

Tip #6

I have a face and it can make expressions, so please address all talk to me and not to your screen. It doesn’t love you as much as I do.

Tip #7

Trips abroad are a luxury and not a given. So is eating out.

Tip #8

Yes you will have to work, save up, and buy your own car.

Tip #9

You will stop using my plugs, wires, pens and everything else that belongs to me. Should you need something urgently, you will ask me. More importantly, you will put it back.

Tip #10

You will learn to rely on yourselves and take care of your own affairs so you can become able, confident, young men.

For the night is dark and full of terrors.

Tip #11

I will tend to your issue as soon as I possibly can. I am ignoring you only because I am trying to focus on something else right now.

Tip #12

I am able to carry two conversations, talk and listen to two people at the same time, but I choose not to.

Tip #13

You will go after what you want, you will not wait for it to come to you.

Tip #14

The answer to “Why Mom?” is “Because.” The answer to “But why Mom?” is still “Because.” But anyway if you go back to tip no.2 you will see that “but why mom?” is banned anyway.

With love,

Mom.

P.S. No I will not be writing a similar letter to the dog because the dog cannot read!

On raising dogs…and boys

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who like dogs and those who don’t. Some would claim that they are indifferent, or ambivalent, but that is not true. They just haven’t bothered to really sort through their feelings on the subject yet. I used to think that I was indifferent to dogs until I had my own—not too different from my boys actually–and then I realized that I liked them. I like them a lot.

Then there is a small splinter group: those who say they like dogs in general, just not my dog. My dog, apparently, is too boisterous, too big, too brown, too friendly, too intrusive, too jumpy and too talkative. They would rather, they claim, that my dog kept a safe distance from them, better yet, ignore them.

I had even had the occasional claim that I let my dog, a female chocolate Labrador, get away with things I would never let my kids get away with. That is true. Naturally, I would rather my boys not chew bones, eat dead rats, rub themselves against slugs or sniff other people’s butts in greeting.

My point is this: a person is a person and a dog is a dog. It would be better and easier for both species if hey were not equated. Yet if you were to read Karen Pryor’s excellent book Reaching the Animal Mind, you would understand that there are many similarities when it comes to communicating with animals and people.

And yet so many people still do not know how to communicate or interact with dogs. They either fear them, causing their heart rates to rise and the dog to run to them in aid, which further raises their heart rate, or they run away from them, prompting the dog into a much-loved game of tag. Or they keep looking at the dog and telling it to go away, engaging the dog in conversation—dogs, as you know, cannot talk. They bark.

One thing that people, in my environment at least, do not seem to understand is that you simply have to ignore the dog—not engage with it in any way. Keep going about your business and it will understand. Believe me.

Because when dogs are communicated to properly, they understand. They understand faster than people do. They certainly understand faster than my kids do! For over ten years now I have been trying to teach my boys to say please when they want something, to eat properly and to raise the toilet seat when they need to pee and lower it back down again of course. Ten years and they still have not learned these basic skills. My dog, on the other hand, who is only three, knew from the age of six months to sit for her food. She slurps her whole plate clean without making a mess and knows not to pee except in certain places!

But there is another secret to dogs. Dogs have no shame, no pride and no ego. That makes dealing with then a lot easier than dealing with people. And most of the time they are more fun.

The problem my dog seems to have is that she is too friendly. She believes that everyone she meets either wants to be her friend or they need rescuing because they are in distress. Her only fault, it seems, is that she is being herself. An ideal that, according, to Caroline McHugh, founder and CEO of IDology, a movement dedicated to helping individuals and organizations be fully deployed, original versions of themselves, we should all be striving for. You can watch Caroline’s excellent TED talk here.

My dog, it seems, is not as well trained as my kids. Therefore she has not yet learned to think, and judge, and be critical and cynical. She is still primitive, asking for, and giving in return, love, companionship and comfort. My dog lets me be (except when I’m on my home trainer, in which case she runs to help!), accepts me for who I am and I, indeed, plan on returning the favor.

Although I will concede that her habit of snatching scarves and jackets is very annoying. We are working on that.