July 15, 2013
When the Clouds Ask You to Dance Under an Icelandic Sky
She picked me up from "the nautical hotel", the one that wooed me with the red balcony that faced the blue and abandoned ship in Reykjavik's Harbor. I could have written sad and happy things for days on end facing that crazy abandoned ship whose gaze continued to dazzle me outside my bedroom window.
Suddenly, she made a sharp right and headed east into the countryside, some 40 kilometers outside the city. There's a point when all pretenses fall loose and it was one of those moments. My first trip out of Reykjavik a few days into my trip, it was as I feared, rainy and drizzly as the weather report indicated. And yet, sometimes, blue sky and white clouds made their appearance because perhaps they wanted to dazzle an overworked brunette from a far away American land.
"Wow, this is pretty," I said and felt. It was such a meek and ridiculous attempt at what should have been, "this blows," or "this is outrageous"...Or perhaps nothing at all and just breathe into one aha and joyous moment after another had I been from somewhere in this world that didn't need a phrase to qualify such a beautiful existence.
It was as if I was witnessing a place where Ireland just married the Moon and then tossed with some magical dust from Scotland, Norway, Antarctica and New Zealand and I didn't know what to do with it.
The area is called Nesjavellir, a great launching pad for trips in the south of the country. I was on my way to new resort and was in a rare place of accepting the forthcoming indulgence.
Nesjavellir is set in the Icelandic countryside where there are very few frills - it's all about the air, the sights, the smells and the tastes from nearby lava fields, the thermal steam and vapor and an ever so stunning early summer Icelandic sky.
As a frequent solo traveler, I arrive somewhere I am reviewing, often a hotel, resort, activity, adventure, spa or tour and 95% of the time, people around me are couples, 4% are very young travelers and 1% are in that other category, the one I guess I would fall into -- the misfit category. And so from the category of the misfits, I hold a perspective which is unique and muddled and distinct and reflective and beautiful and blessed and pure and often....complex.
Holding that mindset, imagine my dinner, which started off mid-way to great until a fairly lame Chilean red arrived since the options by the glass were slim. Suddenly, a Viking who says he's a blend of bartender, waiter and fix it guy, showed up with a bottle of 1991 Bordeaux. Classy, I think as I watch the lame glass of red leave my table.
As I slowly sipped my Bordeaux, I dove into the Icelandic sky since it seemed to be so gracious with its time, energy and beauty in a way that the best food and wine can never begin to offer.
While the wait staff started out a little reserved and quiet, they slowly picked up steam. Liquors that solely belonged to Iceland suddenly began to appear. New to me, crowberries and einiberja soon graced me with their presence.
A local doctor who was out for dinner with his wife popped over to say hello and shared a few photos with me after I offered to take a shot of both of them at their table.
"It is usually a photo of just one of us," she said with a smile as I snapped away. My God, I thought as I looked them, they're whiter than the Irish. Later, when he approached my table as I was nearing my coffee, I realized that his eyelashes were whiter and lighter than blonde - I could barely see them as he stood to my side slightly bending over me, his 70 year old fingers sliding left and left again, so I could see all the shots he took on his phone over the previous two weeks.
It was an Iceland I had not yet seen since my days in the country were still so few. That moment in time was special if not rare...a retired doctor confiding in me even if it was for a few brief moments and showing his endearing and reflective self. The tenderness and vulnerability came through and it was a treasured and elegant memory to say the least. Iceland isn't just unique or pretty or inviting, it's dramatic, spiritual, intense, volatile and ever so engulfing. And, most importantly, the people are what make it so...
After the doctor leaves and a glass of Bordeaux has warmed my soul, a blonde Icelander returns to my table to inform me that they'll open up the 10 meter hot tub pool for me and me alone, half of which extends into the open air and half of which is covered. It is typically closed after ten, about the time my second wind is re-ignited and so, this news brought on a huge smile.
As I made my way into the shallow hot pool with temperature of 95 degrees or so, I realized there were no jets or chlorine and the bottom of the pool was both murky and slippery because it was coated with green algae...natural green algae. Surreal, peaceful and tranquil Eastern instrumental music played in the background and like I am so often these days, I was alone. It was just me and an Icelandic sky.
Gratitude won. Presence won. The hot natural waters won. The thermal steam won. The Midnight Sun won.
A couple hours later, I slowly removed myself from the pool, the one with the slimy green and black bottom. Ahhh, the pure naturalness of it all I thought.
As I made my way down the hallway, I listened to a group of Norweigans and Icelanders laughing in the lounge only two doors away from me...reserved but after much alcohol, no longer quiet. The women would frequently gasp under their breath when they spoke as if they lost their breath somehow for a moment and were fighting to get it back and in a so not so sensual way. A friend claims the women (and men) do this in Norway too. It was something I never did get to the bottom of or understand.
Two girls continued to drink and as they did, their boyfriends started to howl...once quiet reserved Nordic types now in a different place of mind.
I returned to my room and as I shut my door and turned the lock to the left, I could hear people's laughter, the same 20 or so who were in the resort restaurant some hour or two before. There was still plenty of Bordeaux left but I poured some Earl Grey tea instead and faced my open window which looked out onto a brightly lit 2 am sky.
Clear Blue sky turned to white fluffy clouds every twenty minutes or so, at times, turning into tenuous or threatening clouds. Just when they just seemed to be settling down, you suddenly felt them dancing in front of you asking you for a hand in a delicate or perhaps a not so delicate dance. You see, Iceland is this way - forever changing and you never can be sure where it's going to take you. In the midst of my volatile dancing clouds, there were rolling meadows and luscious hills.
To my left was a view of Icelandic tundra and flowing landscape and to my right was a painted white horse against a concrete wall, hazy at best against a later than midnight sky. A juxtaposition in time or was it really all one in the same?
I wanted to shut down my laptop, yet there were photos to process, more hot water for my tea to fetch, emails and tweets to respond to and a life size photo of a horse's head to say hello to. Breathing into my beautiful Icelandic horse on my wall...stage right, and the meadows to my left with the three shades of brown drapes covering a third of my view, I breathed deeper than I had in awhile, and as I did, I acknowledged it was okay that I didn't say hello to anyone else but me and that I didn't have to be someone else other than me for a moment or an hour or as Iceland would remind me, a lifetime.
In my white robe and bare feet, I "okayed" my wet bathing suit that lay on the concrete floor. I also acknowledged that it was okay not to pick it up, hang it up or dry it before my day's end. I let it be. I let me be. I let the Iceland sky be. I let the laughs of the all Nordic guests at the end of my wing just be. And then, and only then, did I hit save and toss my computer off my lap without packing it away. It fell into a bundle of pillows to my left and then I gently moved it to the floor as the pillows followed without rhythm, without choice and without a plan.
Suddenly, pure joy. With feet up in the air behind me, dangling as a ten year old would dangle them, I looked out into my Iceland sky and its draping, green luscious hills which stretched to my south and smiled. Thank you for that gift you Nesjavellir wonder I thought. Thank you for that gift!
July 12, 2013
Reflecting Under Iceland's Midnight Sun
It's a late June evening as I take another spoonful of my Blueberry Skyr, a creamy substance that looks and feels like yoghurt, only Icelanders make it better. While looking out my hotel window that faces Reykjavik's harbor, I can't imagine another place I'd rather be or anything else I'd rather be doing.
I had just come from an environment where they talked about start-ups and new business ventures at an event hosted at HARPA and was suddenly thrown into one where they talked about fish, thermal baths and spiritual retreats in the countryside and hikes in the north that would soon would leave me both speechless and breathless. Taking in the weathered ship in all its ancient glory, I smile in quiet knowingness and nothingness all in the same breath.
My Skyr cup is now empty and using an underhand maneuver, I toss it in the bin. Score! Slowly I lick the rest of what’s left on my spoon and put it on my sailor themed table eager for any action at all since I hadn’t yet given “it” or my laptop any attention. Iceland’s Midnight Sun is happy about this decision and so am I.
Hands empty, I grab my camera, hotel key and nothing else and head out the door.
Wandering through Reykjavik's streets on a not so warm summer night, you're quickly reminded that you're about as far from Kansas as you can be. And so, I take in the nautical-ness around me for a couple more hours. Midnight had long passed and yet the skies glowed above me, egged me to explore textures and colors. It was then that I realized my Icelandic journey had really begun and I knew there was something magical awaiting though I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time.
I walk and walk for what feels like hours and hours – is it 5 am yet? There's a truck clearly ready to head into far more rustic areas than Reykjavik's city center and yet, I haven't begun to dive deep into Iceland's nature wonderland, so in that moment in time, I only imagine what hills, valleys and rivers those wheels have crossed.
I still didn't know what Iceland had to offer you see, since I did no research before I left home. The good news about this fact is that I allowed locals to lead me by the hand and tell me where to go, what to do and often, who to meet. It's a small country and it's astonishing who knows who. Incestuous almost. That said, there's an endearing and magical quality to its intimate size, where an energy, spirit and energy I forgot existed. It was the same one I grew up with in the Adirondack Mountains.
But it was too early to know all of that. For now, Reykjavik at night was my playground and I "it." I wandered through the streets taking it all in and didn’t get back to my hotel room till after 5 am. Alone – all night long – was so the right way to "take her."
I retired to my bed to only see a similar view out my window from the one I left six or so hours ago. Welcome to an Icelandic night, the one which never sleeps and where the sun never sets.
Those first few nights were the start of something transformative, but I just didn't know it at the time. Soon, Iceland was about to bring me back home, not to the Adirondacks, but back to myself.
May 26, 2013
Embracing & Owning Your Imperfections Opens More Doors, Not Less...
People who know me well know that I'm a sucker for a new read. As long as there's not six other books in queue or the recommended book is so uncompelling I can't get through it, it's mine for the taking. When I was beating up on myself recently, a friend recommended I look into the work of Brene Brown.
I started with her TED talk and then moved to her book: The Gifts of Imperfection -- oh such a compelling title in a country that deems itself more perfect than any other. Some may call it a personal self help book, and while aspects of that may be true, the category has gotten such a bad rap lately that I'd prefer to call content what it is designed to do: help you get from A to B through whatever wisdom the author shares through their vantage point and skillset. If that's self help, fine.
Is it self help when you need to learn a specific management skill and an expert who has the wisdom shares it through a book to get you unstuck? We look down upon wisdom that might help elevate ourselves and our sense of humanity but praise things that help our skills and ability to accomplish and succeed. You get my point.
Frankly if you dive deep enough into most things we do of "external value," there's always an underlining emotional issue that gets in the way. Take money. While clearly there's a skillset in trading, investing and allotting the right money to the right buckets, selling too quickly or making the wrong decision often comes from a place of emotional fear rather than following a code of what works and what doesn't. The best guys on Wall Street keep their emotions out of it but not all of us can. The same applies to raising kids, keeping a marriage together, staying healthy or running a company.
While most of Brown's references are personal ones, the gift that this "read" gave me was largely professional. Here's why. While clearly we all have moments where we're afraid to be honest with ourselves and others, throwing our vulnerabilities out there with a friend or group of friends tends to be easier, at least for me. I'm more likely to lift the shield in a personal environment than in a professional one. The former can expel me from their group while the latter can fire me, impact my revenue, reputation and most importantly, self esteem.
When I read that Brown was a "shame researcher," my immediate reaction was: how much is there to research about shame? Really? It's so specific that I couldn't imagine a professor dedicating her entire career to something that specific and yet, there are professors who dedicate themselves to ants and write lengthy scientific papers on the latest Melanesian ant fauna which end up as a TED talk, so why not?
Little did I know. Shame is not as specific as you might think. Through reading her book and doing some additional digging on my own, I can see how prolific it is in our lives, weaving its way into all aspects, from how we interact with family, peers, and loved ones to the person who hands us our double latte in the morning.
To deny that "shame" shows up in my personal life would be to deny being human, for we've all experienced it, however the piece which most resonated with me is how it awkwardly plays into professional relationships and dynamics, a place that doesn't use the word "shame."
Getting beyond it requires courage and compassion daily in order to live what she refers to as a wholehearted life. It requires practice. Malcolm Gladwell said it best in his 10,000 rule analogy. How can you ever ace something you don't spend time practicing over and over and over again? The same applies to our personal lives. In other words, proactively practicing courage, compassion, connection and empathy is how we ultimately cultivate worthiness.
Time and time again, I have witnessed people not asking for what they're worth and "owning it" while they're at it. I've been there - we all have. Given that PR in general is often perceived as being useless, provides little or no value and can't be measured, I find that many practitioners and consultants undersell themselves or charge on a transaction basis to bring the cost down in order to get the business. It's an act of desperation when you do this - it not only commoditizes our business and our value but delivers an "action" rather than the "value of that action."
Women often have a harder time feeling worthiness and the moment we attempt to prove our worthiness is the moment we've lost the game. Often, we feel as if we have to prove ourselves particularly when a CEO or worse, a COO suggests that what we do didn't move the needle today. The problem at least in my industry, is that branding, communications and marketing doesn't move a needle in a day, or a week or even a month, although sometimes it can. It's a process, just like building relationships is a process. We cannot and must not ever measure our worthiness based on that formula and model.
Because of the nature of my industry, it's even easier to undercut our worthiness than say a doctor, who performs a surgery and suddenly a limb is working again. At the heart of what we do as communications pros is storytelling. Aren't the best stories the ones which are authentic, intimate and vulnerable at their core?
I often feel that when I begin to go there with a client, fear gets in the way...not just on my side but on the client's side as well. The more I rely on emotion, intuition and creativity which is the essence of what makes me thrive at what I do, the more the client throws up roadblocks or devalues the deed because it's so untangible. Beauty, art and yes, even moving the needle often comes from untangible.
Is a brand that you buy again and again always tangible? Sometimes it is (it's faster, more durable) but more often, it's a feeling you have about the brand that brings you back again and again. This feeling is the result of years of storytelling and messaging, not six month's worth. And, consistency is key.
One of our inherent gifts as professionals is that we excel at not just creating that story, but delivering it consistently again and again. It's an art and our clients need to understand that it's an art, not a science. Own that art and you own your worthiness. We shouldn't have to 'sell or prove our worthiness' again and again as if somehow showing a stat suddenly proves that our "art" is worthy.
Brown talks about owning our story and I'd ask you to think about how what she says here shows up or doesn't show up in the workplace. Where she refers to love, belonging and joy, replace the words with self respect, connection and courage.
She writes: "Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love, belonging and joy -- the experiences that makes us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light."
She also quotes Pema Chodron, a Buddhist writer who is one of my favorite authors. "In cultivating compassion, we draw from the wholeness of our experience: our suffering, our empathy, as well as our cruelty and terror. It has to be this way. Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounder - it's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity."
Hear hear Pema.
Here's another little bit of wisdom for those who have a hard time with imperfection and asking for help. Depending on what circles you travel in, some have a tight network (let's not forget the old school boy network, which yes, does still exist, especially in Washington), they rely on and often, they don't even have to 'ask' for help. It shows up just because they're part of that network. Others have different networks who help them out from time-to-time and others try to do it themselves...all the time: parenting, managing, creating, producing and running with very little delegating along the way.
Asking for help is hard when we are conditioned to strive for perfection, even if its something we disguise as perfect. From that place, we often feel that if we ask for help, we're indebted to someone and that lays over us like a negative card. Within the confines of that negative card, it's as if we're always trying to figure out how to repay for that help, even if the help wasn't a financial one.
This is how it shows up in many of our lives. While the following statement may sound counter-intuitive, it's true and she's right. Brown writes, "until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help."
This is also true: "Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us....because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance."
While I know many a narcissist in my business circles and on the flip side, others who have gone through the hard journey to get to self-acceptance, many of us still struggle with pieces of it from time-to-time. When that piece shows up in our professional lives, we second guess our decisions when our intuition tells us its the right one or we don't ask for what we're worth because a client widdles us down or leads us to believe our value isn't worth a specific amount.
Suddenly we're in a place of proving that we matter when we matter for just showing up and sharing the gifts we can deliver better than that client or possibly anyone else. Bottom line, we should be paid well for it: the value of it, not the task of it even if some of that value can't be measured right away. I know people who have gone to psychologists for ten years - does the value of their work show up after a visit or does it take time to get results? What about a tennis coach? Does the value of a dentist's work show up after one time or let's put it another way, how would your teeth look and feel if you didn't have those bi-annual check ups and cleans?
Value shows up over time and if you believe in yourself, your client needs to believe in your value too or don't work with them. Walk away. I mean it - walk away. It's the biggest gift you can give yourself. When one door closes, another one opens. And if you're feeling fearful about that statement, think about Helen Keller's fabulous quote: "when one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we don't see the one opening before us."
Live from a place of true worthiness, self-respect and authentic living and as Brown puts it, a wholehearted life and things will blow open for you. While it may not happen overnight, it will happen as long as you trust in the process. As an old wise monk said to me on a hike in Nepal many years ago, Patience, grasshopper, patience.
Photo Credits: Original Impulse. Andrew S. Gibson. Tiny Buddha. Jenny's Endeavors.
May 26, 2013 in America The Free, Books, On People & Life, On Poems, Literature & Stuff, On Spirituality, On Women, PR & Marketing, Reflections, Social Media, WBTW | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
May 05, 2013
Reflections: A Walk Into a Past & Present Estonia...
I'm lost as I navigate my way through the outskirts of Tallinn, but purposely so, as I know that magic lies in the unknown and what a better way to discover that unknown than to get lost. I flash back to my grandfather who would never hold my hand as we walked through the woods in the dense Adirondack mountains when we embarked on our summer hikes.
I know now that I never left his vision although at the time, he made me believe I was on my own after he purposely disappeared out of sight and watched me from behind a tree as panic entered my small face, those youthful child-like eyes searching for his familiar red and blue flannel shirt. Bringing me out of my comfort zone again and again was something my grandfather sought and it was less of a 'thing' he did from time-to-time, and more the way he lived his life.
It wasn't until I had long passed my twenties that I realized what a gift he had given me so many years ago despite the fact that to this day, anxiety still swallows me when I lose my way.
That anxiety occasionally moves to a "fight or flight" place and yet there's an excitement in that kind of anxiety, for I know that in that unknown place, I'm bound to make some rare encounter or learn some bizarre lesson about some bizarre piece of life I never deemed important before.
I reflect in that memory as I turn another corner, realizing that I left no trace of where I had been nor did I have a clue about where I was going. Having moved beyond the boundaries of the old town at least thirty minutes before, I stopped looking for landmarks I may have read about in some brochure or guidebook, and began to notice what was around me.
It was one of those off-blueish colored moments, where I realized I was pretty far from Kansas, in a part of town where people lived and didn't deal with tourists as part of their day...not unlike the small town and world where I grew up, they too didn't fit the storybook culture up until know, I had only read about.
I was struggling with the notion that Eastern Europe could become as modern and western as the rest of Europe even after over 20 years of independence. The last time I had been this close to Russia was the mid-eighties when I didn't have permission to have free-flowing conversations with locals nor did they with me, there was a thriving black market, our hotel rooms were bugged, shops were stark and restaurant menu offerings were slim.
Even my return visit to Budapest and Prague a couple of summers ago didn't convince me that everything had transformed even though I could rent a segway, buy a t-shirt with the city plastered on it and order fine wine.
If that wasn't enough, every newspaper, history book and photograph proved that it was all very real and we were now living in very different times. And yet, like the abolishment of slavery didn't transform America's attitudes about how blacks should be treated after 20 years, you can't remove the impact of more than a century of tyrant rule and communist life in one generation.
Like many cultures in Eastern Europe, Estonians didn't always rule their own land. In fact, for over 800 years, the Swedes, the Poles, the Danes, the Germans and the Russians have all invaded the country and put down a stake.
I learned through my visits to Kolga and Sagadi Manors that the Scandinavians and Germans held fort for many years while Estonians served them tea and watered their gardens. While they've enjoyed stints of freedom -- for two short years in the 1200s -- and for 19 years in 1920, not ruling their own land has been more common than ruling it.
Not being given control of your own destiny time and time again must play a toll on one's attitudes, personality & outlook on life I thought as I wandered aimlessly down yet another street, one that didn't seem to have a visible street sign.
I also thought about what else I knew about Estonians aside from the factoid that my fellow travelers were most thrilled about: Estonia is the most connected country in Eastern Europe. Aside from connectivity, the other topic that came up again and again was the one that breaks up countries, marriages, families and cultures: Religion.
You can't go to many places in Europe and not be inundated with churches and people's fixation with them. Yet, Estonia is apparently the least religious country on the planet with Ireland, Poland and Greece being the most religious...at least in Europe. In talking to a few locals in the first few days, the proof was there.
Women in their twenties and thirties both told me they didn't go to church nor did they grow up believing in a God. 80% of the same group of women said that they didn't feel the need to marry their partner even if they wanted to have children.
Like we do when we want evidence of stereotypes to show up in our face, I looked for more irreligious types on my walk, as if they'd somehow show such a trait in their walk or attire.
I remembered the live strip show on Viru Street I had passed on my way out of town, red satin dots across fake diamond studded banners fell in and around the Golden Dolls Gentleman Club, where they hold shows every day from 10 to 6. It was next to a Veta clothing store, Restaurant Cru and a Baltic amber shop, one of the dozens you'll find on any street in Tallinn.
This wasn't quite the evidence I was looking for however, nor did it support my theory that more remnants from pre-Soviet days were still around moreso than tour guides would have you believe. I, for one, would have loved to sit down with an 80 something year old male Estonian and drill him on every decade of his life, from his job, the wars, his military duty, his experience with Russian soldiers, how he provided for his family then and now, what his daughters thought they would become at ten and who they are today, politics, the environment, education and every miniscule detail in between.
Lacking a victim born in 1924 to sip coffee with for the afternoon, I continued walking. Urban shops and signs gave way to more stark buildings, some white washed and gray with weathered textures that wove in soft pinks, oranges and yellows in that antiquated way that old stone buildings display after a century of wear and tear.
Olive green paneling is plastered across the top of a turn of the century stone building and graffiti in more than one language decorates the bottom half. Two smoke stacks protrude into the sky ahead of me, one with a red stripe I can barely make out in my hazy view, one which suddenly feels more surreal than what actually just met the eye.
A woman in a bubble gum pink coat wearing matted gray rubber shoes with furry tops, stands with her son at a bus stop. She has a faux leather bag with keys dangling from a worn-out fringe and she looks away from her son while she takes a puff from her cigarette, as if doing so, will ensure the 36 bus comes that much faster.
While in the country, they spoke of mushroom farms, Juniper forests and limestone gravestones, in Tallinn's greater urban-ness, I learn about relics from the past, savory dishes that are more meaty than not, amber and the the attitude dynamic that exists between a not-so-wide generation gap.
I chalk up a conversation with a man in his forties standing a few feet away from my pink-clad woman with the cigarette dangling from her mouth, now on her third and there are still no signs of the bus. His English isn't fluent, yet we can communicate and his blue sparkling eyes which exuded generosity and authenticity in double doses, were enough to make up for whatever word or phrase that might present a communications challenge.
Not knowing what bus he was waiting for if he was waiting for one at all, I figured that I didn't have much time to start the conversation with trivial chit chat and work my way up to what I was really wanting to know.
And so, rather than begin with "Is it always this cold in Estonia in April?" especially since I had already heard countless times that this was an unusually cold year, I dove right into a question about his life as a teenager and oh btw, what were your twenties like while we're heading down that path? Luckily, he didn't think I was some American stalker or loopy redhead hitting on him on a random Thursday afternoon.
Andrus used to drive a military truck and spent time as a night sniper, oddly not the first one I had met since I arrived in Estonia. The Soviet army brought him to Moscow for training when he was just 18 and as he drifted off into memory lane, I learn that he was brought to the "KGB House" twice during his 2 and a half year stint with the Russians.
Afterwards, he was given an offer to stay where he'd receive a one room apartment and a black Volga or return home to a small town an hour or so from Tallinn. He chose the latter wondering if that choice might land him in Siberia instead, for who knows how much was required to demonstrate one's loyalty to the Party way back when?
As he shares his stories with me, I take in the volume of graffiti adorned on two century-old buildings across the street, while the structure next to it meets me with a mixture of urban decay and remnants from a Soviet past. Signs in a language that look as unfamiliar as Klingon might; Mustikas, Karamika, Infoveva, Euro Vaistine line up next to brightly colored plastic bubbles, where I think locals might dump their recyclables.
I move on and lose myself for awhile until the word Turg presents itself, a sign that is next to or part of a long blocked off area with a plastic cover draped over its top.
The ceiling has ripples of sorts, a flimsy covering that barely seems as if it could give the people below it shelter if the sky should open up. I can see that it's a market of sorts.....flowers, fruit and vegetable stalls face me mostly in open air, yet the stall tellers don't flinch despite the beckoning of rain.
Cars lined up on sidewalks in front of the shops without any logical reason given the volume of open parking spots scattered nearby. Bright colored clothing with over the top costume jewelry is the fashion order of the day, their glitter too much for the eye to bear against its otherwise stark background...I can see the glare from the shine echoing through the windows. Most of the shops appear to be closed yet the cars linger....another mystery in a mysterious land.
In these near suburbs of Tallinn, I don't see architectural evidence of the Gothic, Baroque and Rococo styles that swept through the centuries and still remain in tact at some of the country manors and estates.
I see a Tallinn struggling with its past and its present, trying to figure out its future, one where East not just meets the West, but embraces it with fortitude.
I continually met welcoming hospitable people, inside the city and out, eager to protect their heritage and history even if that history didn't include a religion or two that mattered.
They are if anything resilient. Moving. Intriguing. Reserved and yet warm. Authentic. It was an Estonia I wanted to return to and as I decided it was time to navigate my way back to more familiar streets as the light began to fade, I bid farewell to the part of town where locals lived not worked, smiling into the distance and thinking: this was a trip worth taking.
Note: I didn't take many photos as I ventured out of the old town center, so these are selected shots taken in and around Tallinn's old town.
April 29, 2013
What a Trip to Helsinki Reminded Me About Life's Lessons...
It’s a funny thing in life in that quite often, the opposite paradigm of the same thing applies: when you ask for something, you usually get what you ask for and equally, when you least expect something to happen, it often does.
I find that I’m much more aware of both paradigms when I’m on the road.
The week I was due to fly to Eastern Europe, I found myself wondering why I was once again heading to a cold climate country when I had been dreaming of warm weather destinations for months.
I often visualize myself listening to Chopin’s Concerto in D (any of the minors really), on a beach in Chile, breathing in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, or dining with a Mr. Handsome in some scrumptious steak restaurant with award-winning Mendoza wine in Buenos Aires, an evening which ends with a dance that equally embraces artful precision with unbridled passion. So Argentina I think. Grace and beauty at its best.
As travelers, we all cherish such moments on our around the world adventures, as we check off magical moments and experiences we have on some bucket list. Many of these moments forever change who we are and ultimately who we become.
These are the magical moments of travel: cultural faux pas’ that end in laughter, culinary experiences when our tongue is awoken to a new taste we never knew existed, or a hug from a child who doesn’t speak our language. It’s not just the tender moments which forever change us but the painful and unpleasant ones as well. We know this, but we try to avoid them at whatever cost.
With little sleep from the previous week, my emotional energy was thin, worn down like a pencil which had been sharpened so many times it had lost its original form. In that state, with bags under my eyes, I boarded an American Airlines fight from SFO to JFK and climbed into a tight space with someone close to 250 pounds next to me, a seat I had paid an extra $50 for the privilege of this insufferable leg.
I tried to recall earlier moments in time before airlines nickeled and dimed you for blankets, pillows, headsets and more, shrunk your leg room and seat size, you know....the times before you were charged extra to sit closer to the front, regardless of whether it was a middle seat or not and before you were charged for each and every bag. This was a period of time in travel, if you’re old enough to remember, that the flight to your destination was as pleasurable as the destination itself.
After five hours of cramped flying, I boarded another overbooked flight, my first with Finn Air, tweeting that it was so, as I made my way down the ramp. It was the ‘whitest’ flight I had taken in years, perhaps at all, unless a puddle jumper in northern Canada counts.
The other observation was how structured and controlled the boarding process was, so much so that I made a mental note that I was heading to the Switzerland of the very north.
Rules were not meant to be broken under any circumstance I thought.
It wasn’t until I sat down in my seat and endured several hours of resistance and persistence, that my trip to Eastern Europe became clearer.
My Finnish neighbor was sadly one of the rudest women I had encountered since my Egypt trip so many moons ago, and even worse, her bitter attitude didn’t lift for the entire seven hour journey.
As she jabbed me in the side of my ribs, barking over and over again that the arm rest was her’s and her’s alone, not to be shared, I found my anger and resentment building. She then proceeded to include me in a bucket of “god awful Americans”, clearly the result of one negative encounter she experienced at some point in her life.
Trying to reason with her in any way that seemed logical failed again and again. After a very sexy Finnish airline steward with sparkling blue eyes also tried to reason with her and also failed, I spent more of the flight standing up than sitting down, chatting with him in the rear of the plane about her stubbornness, he assuring me that all Finns were not like this. His dreamy eyes gave me cause to believe that he must be right.
When I finally surrendered to the fact that sleep wasn’t in the cards, I tried to change my own attitude towards this difficult woman, the one whose arm and elbow continually dug harshly into my side as she proceeded to show me who was boss all the way to Helsinki.
Breathe deep, I told myself and followed with other mantras and incantations of positive energy hoping that this mental exercise alone would melt her stubbornness. Sadly, this didn't work as it had already become personal since it was clear she hated Americans. She verbally said so.
As I saw how tightly wound she was, I realized I had been as tightly wound over the last few months for my own personal reasons. My work schedule has been insane, with barely a break to do anything much at all except to handle the myriad of external and internal requests and the same cycle repeated again, day after day, even on weekends. Ever have the experience when you exceed all expectations, work over and above what is humanly possible and received less acknowledgement than if you simply played the soldier? Alas, the soldier, which Seth Godin refers to as the cog in the wheel...the obedient employee who delivers precisely what he or she was told, regardless of whether it was a savvy decision or best for the company's success.
Perhaps she had been experiencing something similar in her own life? Ambushed by some ill form of logic that defied her own odds and deflated her own sense of worth and being? By her employer, her husband, her child, her sister, her colleague?
Either way, I realized that before the plane landed in Helsinki, I had to rid myself of the notion that all Finns were as rude as this encounter so I didn’t leave the country thinking they were all a bunch of control freaks who needed the rules to be precisely as they were or else they'd torment you into submission.
The thing about cultural stereotypes is that so often many of them hold a "certain" truth. The danger of course is that there are always exceptions and over time, people can dramatically change as we saw over two generations in Japan...two groups who couldn’t be more different from one another. If you're not sure this is true, just talk to a friend of mine whose brother wears punk clothing and purple sneakers, has an earring and four shades of hair while his grandmother who doesn't speak a word of English, still wears a traditional Japanese kimono, bows and serves tea.
I know that Eastern Europe is slower to change since they are fixated on the past more than most regions of the world I’ve visited and I wondered how much of this had extended over its borders to nearby neighbors like Finland.
My first time to Helsinki was in 1980-something in one of those old-fashioned boxed vans hippies drove the decade before. We had driven north from mainland Europe, across Scandinavia, into Finland and finally into the Soviet Union – the old Russia -- the one that detained us at the border, strip searched everyone and literally dismantled the vehicle searching for everything they deemed propaganda or trade-able on the then thriving black market.
It was a very different time for European travel and nothing was exactly what it seemed. Just like the experience with my Finn Air flight companion, when you least expect something to happen, it often does and back then, it did more consistently than not.
The wall was still up in those days and tensions were fierce behind not just THE wall, but the invisible walls, the ones that led east that is – Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and the Czech Republic (the then Czechoslovakia).
Finland was the most foreign to me, even moreso than Russia and Poland in many ways, largely because I didn’t expect it to be as foreign. We knew about the Black Market, about the minimalistic hotels with dingy barren rooms that were bugged, the stark food supply, the weathered buildings and surreal lack of optimism...a place where women paraded around in unfashionable rubber boots and in-need-of-repair colorless coats. Finland never fell under that umbrella however despite its proximity to Soviet borders.
What I remember from my first trip to Helsinki was how clean the streets were and how distinctly organized everything was in that Switzerland kind of way...a little disconcerting at first, especially if you had just come from a country like Italy which embraces chaos and passion more than order and structure.
I visited a friend who was in my South African high school in Johannesburg, where we had spent our senior years. Not originally from Helsinki, he was either living there at the time or drove in just to see me. We were but 'babes' and that innocent and youthful naivety was floating in the air. Combine that with the fact that Helsinki streets ooze playful energy all night long in the summer since the sun never sets: drinking, walking dogs, sipping coffee and eating ice cream is how you spent your time on open air streets at 3 in the morning.
Mika and I had a magical time walking through the city, lounging on park benches discussing our life's dreams and aspirations as youthful warriors in-the-making so often do. I think I may have been but just 19 at the time.
The lens at which I experienced Helsinki so many years ago was through his lens, a native of this strange land with a strange accent and language that differed so greatly to those on the European mainland. On my most recent trip, I talked to a French couple from Paris who stopped over in Helsinki on their way to the states. She said to me with a surly smile about her experience, "it's only a two hour flight and yet the culture is so different to our world, it's as if a solar system separates us not a thousand miles."
Structure is the word that comes to mind, something they wear on their sleeves, much more than their Scandinavian neighbors. The Swedish and Danish travelers I hooked up with for short jaunts of my first trip to Europe presented a free spirited energy to their walks and talks. While my Swedish friends all seemed to have summer homes with saunas they ventured to annually, there was an equal hunger to explore the world which I didn’t find from my conversations with the Finns at the time.
It was as if once we crossed the Swedish border, things and people had more rules and alignment and order reigned. It doesn’t mean I didn’t have a great time – after all, Mika’s eyes were dreamy, he was courteous and sweet, and won me over by swinging me under his arm next to a luscious hovering tree that took us into its breath, creating an aura of moonlight when the Northern Lights ensured there wouldn’t be a real one.
He treated me to dark roasted coffee in outside cafes and introduced me to other Finns who were intelligent, quirky and funny, as long as you could understand their dry off-beat humor. We drank beer well into the wee morning hours, at the time, the most expensive beer I had ever had. Everything seemed insanely expensive from my recollection….and insanely odd.
Remembering that it was the mid-eighties, Helsinki had price tags that made your jaw drop. An apple was $3 a pop, beers exceeded $7 and meals in restaurants were simply beyond my reach and so I lived on bread and cheese. Today, the same is true. A 50 Euro dinner for a starter and main course isn't that uncommon.
Within the confines of those beautiful summer walks under Helsinki's skies, I felt taken care of by Mika and his friends and it was this memory I brought to the forefront as my Finnish companion on this hellish long flight jabbed me once again.
While hot places like St. Maarten and Greece have been on my mind, and I’ve been puzzled by all the trips to cold countries I’ve taken in the past two years, I realized that on this sleep deprived flight all the way to Finland with an angry woman at my side, that we throw ourselves into the experiences the universe wants us to see, as if they are in fact, a mirror of ourselves, showing us exactly what is happening in our lives.
It is that visual representation and that insight that allows us to change the course of our lives....that is, if we are paying attention to the signs and can admit the truths we see in the mirror's reflection.
Relinquishing control is not inherently a natural trait of northern Europeans or the Baltic states and if you think that is a broad statement, compare the relationship with control and structure of those regions to cultures like Jamaica, Italy, Spain, Kenya, Fiji…..need I go on? You get the idea.
Upon this reflection, the plane makes a harsh landing at Helsinki’s International Airport and I remind myself that so much of the flight felt like “torture” because I allowed myself to be drawn into “her” tortured state. She clearly lived in that place all the time and because I was so out of balance and overworked myself, her torture became my own. I hadn't taken time to look in the mirror - the internal or external one. In order for me to "see" again, it seemed to require a long haul to northern Europe and a flash back in time. I call this a "walkabout," where we venture far away from our everyday reality so we can get clear again about who we are, where we are and more importanty, where we want to go.
These are the lessons we learn on the road. And, for all those precious marvelous moments we share with new cultures that draw us into such delicious foreign experiences, we also run into people who are internally tortured or who inflict their pain on us for whatever reason and in most cases, we’ll never learn what they are. We wonder why were chosen to receive their torture until we realize it is us who chooses that the experience be one of torture or joy.
It happens on the road, whether it's in a third world country where someone steals your bag, or gives you the wrong directions because they’re not a fan of your nationality or overcharges you because they think you’re richer than they are and can afford it. The list goes on. Every day life is like this too.
In those moments, we learn about ourselves – what we’re showing of ourselves to the world in a mirror, the same one that reflects back to us if only we take the time to notice and acknowledge it. It’s in these moments – painful and precious – that we grow and move forward on our life’s journey.
My experience here in Finland and soon, Estonia and Lithuania, will be far from warm sandy beaches with pineapple trees and the blissful sound of waves that could put me to sleep every night. I won’t be sleeping in a hammock nor will I be eating fresh fish from a warm salty sea.
But now, I know why I’m here. And with my winter coat, mittens and toasty wooly hat packed in my bag, I will venture into yet another cold country experience paying close attention to what I can learn from countries that need to be more in control than not, taking in the gift I learn from it and from them. New cultures to learn from, to play with...to be grateful for and most importantly, to remember what's real and truly matters along the way.
Photo credit: The Telegraph
April 03, 2013
Kundera's Immortality: A Person is Nothing But His Image, But a Woman is Nothing But Her Truth
I just finished yet another Milan Kundera novel: Immortality. He is, as always intense. I happen to be one of his fans, one who patiently understands the flow of his meandering style, knowing the poetic philosopher in him who needs us to read each and every line.
It's as if I'm in his head when I really listen to his meanders, and can even sense where and how he is sitting as he writes a passage, can feel the women he has known and not known and all the intricate details which make up his life, or least the bit which give it meaning.
The first meander centered around image and the premise was that a person is nothing but his image. "Philosophers can tell us that it doesn't matter what they world thinks of us, that nothing matters but what we really are. But philosophers don't understand anything. As long as we live with other people, we are only what other people consider us to be. Thinking about how others see us and trying to make our image as attractive as possible is considered a kind of dissembling or cheating." (I'd add, dying).But does there exist another kind of direct contact between my self and their selves except through the mediation of the eyes? Can we possibly imagine love without anxiously following our image in the mind of the beloved? When we are no longer interested in how we are seen by the person we love, it means we no longer love."
I thought about a kind of love which isn't whole, one which leaves behind fragments...mere fragments, as if flashes in time like two ships passing in the night, a long weary night. Or the kind of love that leaves behind the violent yet exciting sound of a thunderbolt on a stormy night, one which will never be repeated in precisely the same way again.
These are loves we never fully understand just as Kundera's characters never fully understand theirs. As humans, we ache to understand love and what went wrong in love. We grasp for that understanding and repeat the story in our heads as if its a mathmatical equation we must analyze, even if only in our mind's eye. In that analysis, which we continue to play over and over again like a broken record, we must have an answer, a truth of some kind, for surely it can't possibly just be about an image, of an image...hers, his, your own.
We look for the truth amidst that analysis as a way to better understand ourselves and perhaps to better understand humanity; in that understanding, we think we will find a love which is whole, the kind that is rich in color and texture and full of so much vitality and connection, there is no space for fragments.
If we speak of image and of love, we must of course speak of and to the feminine voice, which brings me to my second favorite meander. It couldn't be a Kundera novel without women, who are brought in as almost subcategories into bigger themes of existence, like Chance, the Dial of Life, Image and of course Immortality itself.
From painters Rubens and Goethe to author Hemingway and a radio host, lawyer and professor in Paris, we hear about their desire of women, their inability to escape from women and their adventures with women.
He asks, isn't the story of Ruben's life nothing but a story of physical love? For the artist who looked at women as "life itself?" We hear from Rubens as Kundera's character, an acute observation when one day he can't remember anything substantial about any of the women he bedded. The details, their names, their parents, their childhood, any anecdote other than a flash of an instance.
Rather than continue to conquer a future of a string of women, he decides to revert to the past, as told to him by the hand on the dial (of life), of which Kundera dedicates an entire chapter to.
Rubens reflects, "but how is one to be obsessed with the past when one sees it only a desert over which the wind blows a few fragments of memories?" He decides that yes, one can in fact be obsessed even with a few fragments.
But then, Rubens discovered a peculiar thing. In those fragments, they are not moving. In other words, memory does not make films, it makes photographs. What he recalled at most were a few mental photographs. He didn't recall their coherent motions, but only short gestures, but only in the rigidy of a single second."
One day, a lover he saw over many years decides not to see him again, an incident he he becomes fixated on trying to understand, certain that something must be wrong, something he could somehow resolve. Then, he thinks of an Australian woman he decided never to see again and she too, was rejected for reasons she couldn't understand. He wonders if he can understand them himself.
Throughout our lives, don't we all have stories or chapters of stories which have ended yet we didn't understand the reasons why? Maybe later, at some future time, we begin to understand those reasons and other times, we don't and perhaps never will. Time marches forward, each of us never understanding why her or his story ended with yet another person, another association, another encounter.
He quotes Aragon's "Woman is the future of man." One of the main male characters in the book explains what he thinks Aragon must have meant.
"This means," he says, "that the world that was once formed in man's image will now be transformed into the image of woman. The more technical and mechanical, cold and metallic it becomes, the more it will need the kind of warmth that only a woman can give it. If we want to save the world, we must adapt to the woman, let ourselves be led by the woman, let ourselves be penetrated by the Ewigweibliche, the eternally feminine!"
Later he goes on to say: "Either woman will become man's future or mankind will perish, because only woman is capable of nourishing within her an unsubstantiated hope and inviting us to a doubtful future, which we would have long ceased to believe in were it not for women. All my life, I've been willing to follow their voice, even though that voice is mad. But nothing is more beautiful than when someone who isn't mad goes into the unknown, led by a mad voice....The eternal feminine draws us in."
It reminded me of how important it is for us as women to go to our source of strength through that eternal feminine, each and every time we need an answer...the real truth.
It is that source that will guide us out of muddy complicated waters which are led by masculine ego, give us the power to say no when the world forces us to say yes, provide us with the clarity when it is being fogged up by mindless chatter aimed at sinking the very core of who we are and most importantly, ensuring we return to a place of authenticity, love and purpose so we won't look back years from now as we pass along meaning to a child and not be able to say: I embraced and lived a true life.
Yes. To be able to say I lived a true life, one which I painted on a bright white clean canvas, one which was virgin before I myself lay down the paint brush.
To be able to say I decided what was me and what wasn't me and along the way, returned to that eternal feminine strength for the truth. In this truth, I'd be my own character and not a facade of another in a novel I didn't write, nor would I dance to another's drums I didn't subscribe to or respect.
Oh, such a noble way to live, I can hear my great grandmother saying. And yet, it has less to do with noble, and more to do with truth. Men have this instinct too, even if it shows up with a different voice, a louder thunder and in an external embrace.
When we become lost, which will happen often on this long life journey, we mustn't forget our truth, that for which we will accept and not accept as a definition of who we are. We must never ever forget that.
It's ironic that Kundera weaves Goethe in and out of his chapters because just then, at the moment I had turned the corner of the final page of the book, I thought about a quote that I return to often for a source of strength, one which rests on the front page of this blog and has since the very beginning. As I thought of the source of the quote, my heart began to race....it is nothing shy of a quote by Goethe himself...Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It may be only ten words of Johann's wisdom, but they are ten very powerful words: Just trust yourself, then you will know how to live.
Photo credits: hplusmagazine.com, templeton.org & artmarketblog.
December 06, 2012
Paris: Absorbing the Many Sides & Moods of Her
Paris has a funny way about her and yes, I'm sure she's a her. She's all the things a her can be: beautiful, moody, complex, dynamic, essential, turbulent, pensive, fashionable, delicious and vivacious.
I've been meandering through her alleys, eating her crepes and sipping her coffee every December for years now. I've never shied away from her nor have I ever rejected her....she has that way about her of pulling you in like gravity, the force of which is so powerful you find yourself agreeing with her even if she toys with your patience from time-to-time.
This year, as I thought about her brittle wet days and nights, as she is every December, I realized I was hesitant to go. She wasn't egging me on and part of me feared: Am I done with Paris? Is she done with me? I contemplated the thought but only briefly as I realized my dismissal of her was only because I was so preoccupied with the year 2012 and seeing it come to an end.
Far too many heady reflective messages this year....the ones that call you to challenge things you once believed were crystal clear only to discover they were muddier and murkier than a pond on Detroit's south side during a lightening storm.
It's not as if I needed a 'soulful' place to visit...not that Paris doesn't have its fair share of soul. More than a soulful city however, Paris is an invigorating one, one which re-ignites lost creativity and inspires the artist within. Who doesn't need a creative light and inspiration regardless of what stage in life they're in I thought? And yet, I reflected on one insightful early December night before I boarded the plane, I want silence, not noise, warm balmy nights, not icy windy ones, clear blue skies that hurt my eyes from their brightness, not gray cloudy ones, and warm brothy soups, not sizzling duck with a glass of Bordeaux.
But then I remembered all the drizzly rainy cold days and nights with Paris below my feet and how many of them I spent with her alone. Ahhh yes, Paris alone. Most people don't think about her that way - they head there when they want to propose to a loved one, take in a romantic weekend away, surprise someone with an anniversary present, or simply to experience the allure of her magnificence, the allure Hemingway and other greats have written novels about since anyone could.
Alone is when Paris really shines, I thought to myself and I've more often had her to myself than not, so why would this year be any different? She'll surprise me in a different way like she always does, I told myself. It will rain since she's rarely given me sunshine and I will hover under some broken umbrella on a corner somewhere savoring a piece of dark chocolate that was beautifully wrapped in 3 colored foil with a golden blue ribbon.
I knew the shop, the many shops I could go to for such a delight and marvel in its decadence the moment I stepped back out onto the wet pavement. I knew Paris would be good for that or for a plate of mussels near Saint Germain des Pres. Or for her lights. Her beauty. Her mystery. Her endless cafes where you could sit for hours over a dark roasted coffee in a cup the size of a thumb nail or one large enough to be a soup cup.
I wondered about the latest boot and shoe fashion and what St. Paul's window displays would bring me, or the beer I'd have with a journalist friend who always insists on meeting near the Republique and I always say yes even though I'd take grapes over hops any day. I considered a couple business colleagues who would roll their eyes when I pleaded for old world charm when they simply wanted to take in a modern brasserie or cafe. Then, there is my friend who has lived there for nearly thirty years, who remains as enthusiastic and endearing about life itself as he was when I first met him on that Eastern African island where we were stuck for weeks because there was no boat, rig or plane that could bring us back to the mainland.
I remembered one year where I had more time than most and walked ten miles of her wet cold streets every day for two weeks. At the end of each day after I had killed two or three of those $5 umbrellas because the wind blew them apart, I'd trek back to the apartment where I was staying, which had an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower from its kitchen. Every night, the Tower was magnificent and looked like it was close enough to touch from my balcony, the vibrancy of its lights rightfully overpowering anything else near it. Waiting for me was either a graceful or complex Bordeaux (I never knew which one I'd get) and some dark chocolate.
On the way, I'd stop at a corner near La Motte Picquet Grenelle's metro station and order a crepe with ham and mushrooms and because I was there so often, I didn't have to explain daily why I didn't want cheese, something that confuses anyone who lives in Paris, French or not. I wondered if the same man was there, the same man who'd smile every time I ordered the same thing night after night.
"Poivre?" he asked the first time. "Beaucoup, beaucoup," I responded. As he was about to fold the crepe from the piping hot skillet and scoop into a paper plate, I stopped him and said, "plus de poivre s'il vous plait." He looked at me in disbelief as if to say that any more pepper atop his perfectly crafted crepe would destroy the flavors inside. Perhaps he thought, "damn yank, she doesn't have a clue," on that one cold December night, the first time I bought a crepe from him. Over time, the smiles increased and he even helped me navigate a very long walking route one day on my crumpled damp paper map and although he kept reinforcing that it was too far to walk and why wouldn't I take the metro, he gave me advice anyway. And, we never had to talk about "poivre" again for he sprinkled the perfect amount on my ham and mushroom crepe with no cheese every day until I left.
Why was I fighting her I thought? Reflection time aside, doesn't Paris always take me in whether I am in a state of chaos, glory, beauty or solitude? Doesn't she always give back even if there are some cuts and bruises along the way? You know, the side that many foreigners complain about. The French "attitude," they receive because they aren't sophisticated enough, cultured enough, educated enough, polished enough, fashionable enough, French enough or French at all.
We've all been there and yet, a variation of it exists in many cultures, albeit more common in cosmopolitan cities. Yet, with the exception of Buenos Aires and Tokyo, I've been to all the other major cities around the world and truth be told, Paris does have more attitude. It's France's New York, posing the same directness and attitude but with more charm unless of course if you happen to be British or American.
New Yorkers feel the same way about their city, as if there is no other city greater in the world and why would you go anywhere else, even for a weekend for crying out loud?
I was no longer worried about why I brushed Paris aside this year. Once my flight was booked, the hesitation went away and even after looking at the 70% rain weather report, I moved forward packing warm socks, waterproof boots, mittens, hats and scarves and one of those many mini $5 umbrellas I was due to destroy in the coming days ahead. I wondered as I thought about the cloudy gray skies that would meet my gaze when I landed at Charles De Gaulle, what she had in store for me at the end of this very long year.
November 25, 2012
The American Thanksgiving Tradition: Where Did It Go?
Thanksgiving has always been one of those holidays I never took lightly, mainly because it was the one holiday above all other holidays, where we sat down at a table together as a family...one massive large table. While this was also the plan at Christmas and attempts were made and often fulfilled, it wasn't quite the same as the tradition that we forced upon ourselves on Thanksgiving.
My family wasn't exactly "sitters." They didn't like to sit or really know how to sit, at least not for long, so it was remarkable that people showed up, did as they were told and handled hours of conversation on end.
I was born in the sixties, so after dinner, women did the dishes and men drank gin martinis and manhattans in a separate room far away from the kitchen.
Alternatively, the men headed to "the gazable" to smoke as it was famously called at my Uncle Edgar's house which was perched on a slope along a country road, one that had its fair share of pitfalls getting in and out of the driveway after a heavy snowfall.
While we weren't a family that piled on the dinner "grace" at the table, nor did we go around the table and share what we were grateful for, we were expected to talk about what we were "doing." I wasn't aware of how uncommon it was at the time, but my grandfather, father, and nearly all of my uncles and cousins ran their own businesses as did a couple aunts, so everyone was born with an instinctive entrepreneurial spirit.
In the 60s and 70s, that meant something a little different than it does today and all the men regardless of how many hours they put in during the day, also mowed, cleaned, scraped, painted, hammered and plastered during any other spare window they had.
With military men at the table who had toughened and roughened from far too many wars, the gatherings were full of far more alpha testosterone influenced flannel shirts than dresses with flowers and pearls. The men were men, the kind who wouldn't settle for anything but strong women who could conquer the world in case they couldn't one day.
One thing that bonded us during these holiday functions was games and we played plenty of them late into the night -- from cards to board games to charades. And, rest assured, no one believed that children would be messed up for life if they weren't tucked in by 8 pm every night.
Like all families, there was always a Great Aunt Hilda or Great Uncle Alton snoring in some remote room while another had a TV on that no one was watching.
Great Grandma Bert lived through at least four husbands (we lost count) and would always insist on an extra shot in her eggnog and that was after she yelled at any son who would listen to something in the world she wasn't happy about, which grew with age.
While every woman in the family baked something to contribute to the massive pile of food, there always seemed to be at least one white box of Russell Stover Chocolates on the table, the kind that cost about $3 from a nearby drug store and was brought be some lame man in the family who couldn't be bothered to spring for anything else. He figured because he could buy the box with a bow on it (they all included one around holiday time), he was safe from being completely embarrassed. Great Grandma Bert used to take a bite out of one of these highly sugared milk chocolate concoctions and if she didn't like it, she simply put it back in the box, not bothering to hide the indentation her false teeth made in the process.
As kids, our mouths would drop as she proceeded to do this to several pieces of chocolate. As a woman who was born in the 1800s, had thrown one husband out of the house and ran for some political office over the years, she didn't hold back any punches. Catching the glares from her great grandchildren, she'd pipe up and say to us laughing, "if you end up living close to a century old, you can do whatever the hell you want too."
She was always a source of amusement for her grandchildren and great grandchildren although her sons seemed to endure more than laugh, yet they all seemed to respect her strength and persistence despite how difficult she was to manage at times.
Thanksgiving memories included her boldness and directness, a symbolic force in all of our lives proving that even a woman born in the 1800s who was barely 5 feet tall could hold court and utilize her power.
I never got to ask her what the source of her strength was through it all because I was never old enough to understand that a woman had such a thing as a "source" until years later.
I sometimes wonder if she's not flitting around my garden disguised as a bird or perhaps the snarly cat in my neighbor's garden who while gets into night fights from time-to-time, seems to protect the houses in the neighborhood.
From her place of strength came confidence and the gift of the gab, not quiet Gandhi-like solitude. No one in the family seemed to be short on words and not unlike an old fashioned Italian family even though our heritage came from elsewhere, everyone talked and if there was a shy member of the family, I never met them.
If someone became aggravated, annoyed or bored, they'd simply get up from the table and go bark at someone else.
In between all of this chaos was a serious meal: turkey, mashed potatoes with gobs of butter (Aunt Jo made the best of the lot), stuffing, squash, homemade cranberry sauce, pearled onions, glazed carrots, and some thick casserole dish that was loaded with ingredients bound to destroy your arteries, but between the eggnog, chocolate, whiskey and cheese at the onslaught, no one was counting.
And somewhere, somehow between the bickering and the games, we sang. Music was always part of anything we did, whether that meant a family member playing the piano or an old fashioned record we played on a turntable that someone thought was grand enough to warrant repeating every year. Dancing often followed. All of it became a tradition even if it is a blurry mess of one that is hard to piece together it was so long ago.
This concept of tradition was something I took with me as I made my way out into the world even after nearly every family member died, decreasing the pool of gatherings over the years to the fragmented unrecognizable particles they are today.
For those who are still living, they don't unite as one, but as an independent separate families in their own homes. Small and isolated but familiar and safe, forever clinging to something fuzzy off in the distance that may bring them one smile from such a far away time that it now seems like its someone else's dream.
It's one of the experiences in my life that made me appreciate other people's cultures as I made my way around the world. When the Swedes would gather around a Christmas Tree at midnight the day before, and held hands as they circled the large fur, it was merely a Nordic replica of my own family's strangeness of playing particular songs as the tree went up, while men took on one role and woman another.
Children and children's children are often the catalysts that keep traditions alive and when fewer families have them or the great aunts who insisted on keeping traditional gatherings alive have passed, the tradition becomes a mere memory, one that shares little snippets and pieces to someone else in a weird, but sweet kind of way.
Since my family has become a smattering of black and white prints on a refrigerator door, rather than guests at a dinner table, I didn't want the concept of Thanksgiving as I once experienced it to become so blurry that I would forget the taste of that insanely thick casserole dish I can never remember the name of, or the smells of my Aunt Betty's kitchen before we polished off loaves of sweet breads freshly pulled from her 1930's stove.
OR, the wet smell of the orange and red leaves that were days away from being covered by snow. Then there was the taste of the icicle that hung from my Uncle Dick's house, the smell of our car as we drove home with leftovers after a long succulent day and the smell of my aunt's basement as we crawled our way through the dusty and dark nooks and crannies waiting for appetizers to be served.
Later, other marvelous things were added like the pumpkin and blueberry pies I baked, one of which won top prize in the New York State Fair, and my grandmother's unforgettable rice pudding with cloves and cinnamon. Food mattered. Conversation mattered. Games mattered. Bickering mattered. Being real mattered. And, most importantly, showing up mattered.
I'm astounded how many people don't bother with Thanksgiving at all. In the growing melting pot that we live in, it's not surprising. This year, I ended up having a late dinner with six non-Americans kind of by accident.
Family gatherings start early for most traditional American families and dinner is often served between 2 and 6 depending on the culture and part of the country, but rarely later. It was clear that it wasn't a yank who organized the dinner since the dinner reservation was at 7 at an Italian restaurant, one which oddly had a Turkey dinner special in honor of Thanksgiving.
The dressing of course was made with Italian sausage, the cranberry sauce wasn't homemade and there was no squash. My heart stopped a beat when I realized there wouldn't be squash at the table, but it wasn't quite as bad as the stuffed cream puffs that showed up for dessert. I looked around the room and sited families having dinner, and many tables had several looking down at their cell phones rather than talking to the people in front of them. I looked behind me and the cell phones were there too. To my left? Yup. To my right. Heads buried in cell phones everywhere all in lieu of a physical conversation.
The flow of that human connection is suddenly lost and the magic moments that you used to have thousands of are now diminished to perhaps one if you're lucky in an hour sitting.
Later on the train, I checked the news and was sadly reminded of another new American Thanksgiving "tradition": Black Friday, where Americans stand in long lines bundled in warm jackets waiting for a store to open.
This isn't to say that there were not plenty of American families eating dessert at the dinner table together at the same time, but it does mean that millions (not hundreds) forego that experience because "getting a deal before anyone else" has become a higher priority.
With Target and Walmart offering Black Friday deals earlier than ever this year, things got ugly: one man threatened fellow shoppers by pulling a gun while in line, another threatened to stab others waiting in a Kmart line and there was a scuffle that broke out over a cell phone deal at a Walmart.
Let's put this into perspective. Sometime in the 1960s, some brilliant marketing genuis (aka idiot), decided that Black Friday should fall on the day after Thanksgiving, a holiday dedicated to thanks, family and gratitude. Somehow along the way, we traded family reunion for retail, and togetherness and gratitude for spending money.
The term “Black Friday” was originally coined to mark the kickoff to the Christmas shopping season and somehow it has migrated into a kind of madness that derails people away from the core things that Thanksgiving represents, a far cry from how our ancestors celebrated this ancient November feast.
Local boosters in Virginia, Florida, and Texas like others who came off the boat in the 1600's, gave thanks for setting foot again on dry land. Others tout it as the annual celebration to give thanks at the close of the harvest season. How and why did retail take over a holiday focused on family, gratitude and giving?
Traditions are often there to serve as a reminder of what's real and sacred in a culture...in a nation. How did this country become SO far disconnected to what's real and sacred?
While I declined the cream puff whatever they were at the end of my Thanksgiving meal and quietly reflected how foreign the whole evening felt, I realized that 'of course' it would and should feel foreign when I was the only born and bred yank there.
I then smiled at how natural such an occurrence would be in my life having been a global traveler for so many years. It made sense that while the non-Americans at my table now lived in this country, they didn't grow up with a tradition I hold so dear. To them, they didn't know that squash should be on the table, that 7 pm is an odd time for a Thanksgiving meal, and that even if technology could be part of a conversation, that sharing was a very important part of the dinner.
They didn't grow up with this inherent tradition that houses so many beautiful and tragic memories for so many yanks across so many generations. How could they know I thought quietly.
Then I thought about so many Thanksgivings gone right and all the ones that went wrong over the years. What was constant was a bond that brought us closer together year after year.
There's a reason the words "thanks" and "giving" are in the word Thanksgiving. In fact, it's the only holiday we have as Americans that has such precious words, two words that depict the most sacred things we have: humanity.
And yet, the dismissal of this tradition was prevalent in so many ways this year, from the activities the night before, to the barrage of media coverage of Black Friday on the day of, to the next two days with a friend who spent more time on his laptop and cell phone than in a physical conversation, even during a visit from other friends while in the same room. Did we even make eye contact five times in two days?
My point here is not to beat up on my friend's connection to technology - I have my moments...we all do, especially for those of us who live in Silicon Valley. My point is how increasingly common this is becoming among friends and family and more importantly, how little we recognize the fact that this choice values a machine connection over a human connection. It has become so common that we no longer see it as "odd" or "sad" or "disrespectful" or "rude" or "distracted". What this pattern is not is present.
What followed was a failed attempt to share an old fashioned story with my friend. The story is from a record I have from the 1960s, a moment in time so lost that it is hard to find on eBay or other collectable sites today. The tale is told by a little fir tree who is looking for his true purpose in life, a story I carry with me into board rooms and other areas of my life to this day. It is a story that gives me strength.
The gift was lost: not separating from "a machine" for just a few moments in time is in fact a decision to separate from "a human" during those same few moments.
I lived in Amsterdam many years ago, a place I still hold dear to my heart. When I was about to leave the country, my closest friend who was a local, announced that he wanted to throw me a small farewell party at his house. The time of year was between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Before the evening was over, he said it was time for my gift. What followed is one of the most precious gifts I have received to this day.
Hans was a doctor and while he was not a religious man in the 'traditional' sense, he did attend a Russian Orthodox Church where he sang in a choir. He had asked his group to join him in writing lyrics and music dedicated to me and my departure from Holland.
The song was written, the group had rehearsed and then, the voices sang out in four languages while a harp played, and then...the girl cried. She cried from a place of gratitude and "thanks." She cried because it was one of the most "giving" moments she had received in her life. It was a true Thanksgiving moment, one this girl will never forget.
I had wanted to give my friend "a gift of sorts" on that sunny Thanksgiving weekend day. It saddens me to think that technology can control our life so much that we can forego tradition, a childhood memory or the true essence of what a holiday means because of addictive distractions that remove us far away from our center.
I failed to communicate why this Thanksgiving tradition should mean something to all of us and why we should take the time to embrace humanity in honor of it. And so here I am attempting to do so in a blog window while the sound of cat fights echo outside my bedroom window.
As random people were starring down at their cell phones for most of their Thanksgiving dinner the day before, rather into their friend's and family's eyes, I couldn't help but think of all the gifts....all the magical moments they were losing because of it.
What we lose by glazing over tradition and its true meaning is thousands of potential magic moments that bond humans together and form friendships that last a lifetime. By not being present with each other whether its because of Black Friday, laptops and cell phones, the inability to share what is meaningful to us and what we appreciate about each other most, or simply not showing up, we stand to lose the very core of what makes us human.
Photo Credits: Hands: Human Connection Institute, Family shots: Renee Blodgett, Human Circle shot - Theadhikaris and Turkey photo: Stockbyte.
November 07, 2012
Science & Nonduality: Where Data & Consciousness Meet Puppets and Tea
After a few days filling my head for ten hours a day at the Singularity Summit, to then spend a few days filling my head with discussions on nonduality had a weird rewiring effect on my brain. This happens often however given I'm such a sponge for all things 'possible' and both groups believe that all things are possible. One believes that technology will make all possibilities happen and the other is a bridge to "it," but with spirituality leading the way. Sort of.
Nonduality is the philosophical, spiritual, and scientific understanding of non-separation and fundamental intrinsic oneness.
I recently had the opportunity to attend an event that integrates both worlds: the SAND Conference or its longer known name: Science & Nonduality Conference. It's tagline: The Nature of the Self of course.
An annual event stateside and in Europe, it is held in San Rafael California in October and in the Netherlands in May. Nonduality is the main thread throughout however within that eye's view, people from all walks of life come together to discuss 'its' meaning and explore what is emerging in consciousness.
From scientists, philosphers, physicists, spiritual healers, sufi and zen teachers, yogis, and anthropologists, to musicians, artists, film producers, academics and psychotherapists, the conversation is a rich and rewarding one.
I spent ten days or so in Fiji a few years back learning the 'ins and outs' of the "oneness movement" (some people see it as a cult) and in the process, I became certified as an official Deeksha Blessing giver.
What does that mean exactly?
A Deeksha Blessing is a direct transfer of intelligent sacred energy and in this "transfer," people may cry or laugh as their heart opens in small or big ways. Inside this opening, everything from small shifts that can modify the dynamics of a relationship to transformations that can alter lives forever, erupt.
It can also bring about clarity or quiet a busy mind in a similar way that meditation achieves. What it doesn't promise to do, but can do, is open the door to higher states of awareness and initiate awakening...an awakening where there's a feeling of oneness and not a sense of separateness.
Their goal is to raise the level of consciousness globally through a "ripple effect that goes out to all of mankind." My personal experience with it was mixed.
In both giving and receiving a Deeksha Blessing, I did experience higher levels of awareness and it was evident to me at least, that a powerful energy exchange is not only possible, but it can move you into a different state.
In most cases, it's a purer stage of being where your awareness is elevated and your heart is more open. I saw some powerful things happen as a result of this energy exchange over time...in Fiji, and later in the states.
That said, I believe most of our spiritual growth comes from within ourselves, deeksha blessing or not, as powerful as it may be. It happens when we let go of our fears.
A feeling of oneness in its truest sense comes from a place of unconditional love for everyone around us, not just our immediate family. This includes self love, which more people have a hard time with than loving others.
It's also about getting out of our own way and most importantly, letting go. Letting go, silenting the mind and being present is when I go to a higher level of consciousness and the beauty about it, is that its consistent.
When I truly turn off the brain and stop my over processing which I do often (aka a state of being paralyzed by "thought"), then magic begins. This is hard work or so we think it is. That's the paradox. Once we stop fighting our mind's paralyzed state, then things move as smoothly as a light airy tube flows down a river.
Once we are transformed ourselves, we can transform people around us, including the planet.
The cool thing is that while spiritual teachers and philosophers have been writing about the concept of oneness and higher consciousness (and living it) for centuries, western scientists are now arriving at the same conclusion:
"The universe does indeed comprise of a single substance, presumably created during the Big Bang, and all sense of being - consciousness - subsequently arises from it. This realization has ontological implications for humanity: fundamentally we are individual expressions of a single entity, inextricably connected to one another, we are all drops of the same ocean."
Eastern Mysticism is now meeting Quantum Mechanics. If both the left brains and right brains are starting to agree that we're all drops of the same ocean, why is it that we beat ourselves up and continue to live our lives from a place of fear rather than love and acceptance?
Like so many, I'm often hard on myself (note: that's "thought" speaking) and so it was no surprise that I was hard on myself several times throughout the weekend. This was the kind of conference where you 'shouldn't be' hard on yourself, I thought. (there's "thought" speaking again).
Ever have one of those "be damned" conversations inside your head that goes nowhere?
Ginu Yu writes in a blog post on nonduality: "nondualists often resort to the metaphor of a movie that's being projected on an infinite screen. Even though the characters and the scenery appear to be separate and interactive, the only thing that's really real is the white, seamless screen that's accepting the melodramatic and illusory story that's being projected upon it. Nondualists claim that, instead of you being just a small and limited character playing a part in your life's story, that, in truth, you're actually the entire infinite screen itself. From their point of view, you are the very context in which ALL of life itself is showing up in."
There are obviously people playing and working at various levels of consciousness and when you find yourself face-to-face with a really quiet soul, you become even more aware of the chatter going on in your head. This happened to me on a number of occasions at the SAND event including the brief exchange I had with Francis Lucille, an Advaita Vedanta (non-duality) teacher, who was respected by pretty much everyone I spoke to.
Even when we know its absurd to compare our states of being with others around us, it happens. For a moment in time, we return to a high school mentality and create a reality that may or may not be true.
Most of the time, the reality is in our heads and when we create that reality, the world mirrors that reality back to us. And so, suddenly what is a perceived illusion does in fact become a reality of sorts, something we have the power to change instantly...in the moment of "decision."
Rather than be effected by the noise, become the noise, let it diffuse around you as you become 'it' and suddenly the voices of that unremarkable high school playground will eventually disappear.
One of the things I loved about the event was the diversity of minds at the table...when science gets a seat at the spiritual table and both sides can respect each other and move mountains together, then oneness starts to take on a new meaning. It becomes Global. Cultural. Intellectual. Spiritual. Psychological. Scientific. And all of it ends at the same place: nonduality. We are one.
On the path to a so called golden age for humanity like everyone else there, I found beauty, purpose and deeper understanding in the simplest of things.
Although the sessions were led by respected speakers who flew in from around the world, it was the conversations in the hallways that moved me the most, sitting down in a circle, listening, asking questions and then just not doing anything at all. Well, maybe nothing at all over a cuppa tea.
I was taken in on more than one occasion with welcoming smiles by two guys obsessed with tea more than life itself. Almost. There were two round tables set up with short backless chairs surrounding them.
They led tea ceremonies all day, every day and to participate, all you had to do was take a seat at the table. It was called the OmShanTea Lounge.
Sitting was always a treasure because it meant meeting a new soul every time; sometimes it was someone at the middle of his or her journey who was struggling with one thing or another and sometimes it was someone you felt never had to struggle at all. Miraculously, they had arrived on this planet inherently and quietly knowing all the answers by the age of ten.
When we let go of our stories, I find that just when I think I'm the teacher, I'm actually the student and vice versa. More often than not, we are both in every encounter. Awareness of that exchange even if we don't necessarily understand it, is such a beautiful thing. And, the whole conference was a bit like that.
There were too many sessions and speakers to list since the event is four days (and nights) long but you can get a glimpse of this year's schedule here. Topics I expected to see included sessions such as: The Practice of Selflessness, The Self and Non-Duality in Sufism, Closing the Gap Between "I" and my "Self", The Art of Being Present and the Poetry of Infinite Belonging.
But, there were also sessions on health and disease, spiritual ecology and a response to our present ecological crisis, getting the same result through magic mushrooms and meditation, psychedelic research, revealing the self through Kabbalah & Alchemy, theta consciousness and the heart of quantum phsyics. John Hagelin gave an inspiring talk on Higher States: The Neurophysiology of Enlightenment.
A few sessions I missed but would have loved to be sitting front row center for, included the Yin-Yang Theory for Transformation: Applying Feminine and Masculine Principles for Awakening by Mukti, An Integral Approach to Dreams by Fariba Bogzaran & Daniel Deslauriers, Unmani's Unravelling the great pretence of who you think you are and Adyashanti's Mystery of Being.
Since I am so physical and being in a creative state through my body is at my core, my favorite sessions were those which involved elevating 'self' through movement and music. They had daily activities in a space they referred to as the Experiential Room.
Other opportunities included the energy of sound and Shamanic Practice, African drums, TransDance with Heather Munroe Pierce and a very cool session called the Fusion of Opposites in the Circular Portal, a hoop-dance exploration with Stefana Serafina.
I also had a lot of fun meeting (and then kissing) Puppetji, a puppet who enlightens you through simple reminders of what's real, and Meriel Gold's drawing class.
Muriel's drawing class seemed to be popular since it was sold out when I arrived. Graciously, a man gave me his seat and announced he was off to carve pumpkins with a two year old. I didn't know anything about her except that she had an English accent, was from Scottish descent and had that dry sense of humor that only someone who was born there or who has lived there can truly appreciate. I loved her energy immediately.
Scrolls of large paper hung off long wide tables and next to each sitting space was a round block of brown clay, a feather, and a couple utensils that could be used to scatter wet clay or ink on the paper.
Since I had no idea what I was getting myself into, I didn't realize until after I soaked my hands in water and bathed them with clay, that I'd be drawing nudes, but without my eyes. Well, sort of.
Her intention was for us to draw with our hands while feeling what we saw rather than putting 'thought' into what we saw. As my creative busy brain started to take over, Muriel came straight for me, grabbed my hands and softened them over the paper as they were but an airbrush and the paper was but a cloud.
Alas, I "get it" Muriel, I "get it." Pure, simple, musical and divine, my hands don't want to think as much as my brain doesn't want to really think. "Thought" so often gets in the way of us doing our best work....our most divine work.
I didn't want to leave the room but eventually afternoon turned into evening and I found myself covered in wet clay from head to toe. Little did I know that I'd still find clay stains on my body and clothes days later even after showers and laundry.
Senegalese musician Youssoupha Sidibe is a Kora player who performed for us. His music fuses traditional West African sounds on the Kora, with the Sufi devotional chanting of the Senegalese Baay Faal community. (see video)
Films also played throughout the conference including Kumare, Neti Neti, Nataraja (The Dance of Life), The Unknowable Reality of Things, and others.
Maurizio and Zaya Benazzo produce and run the conference and being around them is pure joy. If you have an opportunity to attend one of their events, I'd strongly recommend it.
If you want to transform your life, engage with some of the world's leading thinkers and nondoers in the world of consciousness and join a community that bridges the best of the spiritual world with the best of the scientific world, SAND is an incredible journey.
Besides, where else do you have an opportunity to sip transformative tea, kiss a puppet guru, meditate, do yoga, and African dance in the same morning? OR, watch spiritual films, finger paint and grow from some of the most respected spiritual and scientific leaders today in the same afternoon?
Thank you to Maurizio and Zaya for an opportunity to spend time with so many beautiful souls, Ginu Yu who introduced me to their world and Nick Day for his patience and support while I went off target, back on target and then off target again.
We are all on our own journey. It's important to recognize this and move the needle forward one step at a time until we are free from the thought (and thoughts) that bind us from living a remarkable life every minute of the day.
Photo credits in order of apperance, IAwakeBlog, HolyBooks, BeforeGlow, Unknown, Unknown, Renee Blodgett (Francis shot), Lands of Wisdom and Renee Blodgett. For more on spirituality on WBTW, go here. Read my latest tweets @magicsaucemedia and @weblogtheworld.
August 06, 2012
The Geek 'Fashion' Culture of Silicon Valley Hurts My Eyes
When I first moved to Silicon Valley, I found myself overdressed most of the time, and my New England meets Europe and New York style of dressing just didn't float well with the very youthful techies who showed up to parties in torn jeans, t-shirts and sneakers.
While I fought it at first, I have always taken a 'become your target audience' approach to marketing and PR and since that's my biz, I turned geek for awhile.
After a year or so, I found myself dressing down nearly all the time, even at industry events. I'd wear sleeveless shirts, jeans and sweater wraps which was probably a tad too young for me but then again I was surrounded by engineers who were barely out of puberty. It was about as 'down' as I could dress and still look at myself in the mirror.
Dressing 'down' may have made me assimilate a bit better into geek culture, which was a culture I needed to wrap my head around, but it never made me 'feel good.' I always felt that 'dressing down' was 'dumbing down' who I was even though we only have to look at how many of the geek powerhouses dress who are running fat multi-million companies to know that they don't go hand-in-hand.
That said, dressing 'up' makes me feel 'up', behave 'up' and think 'up,' most of the time. It doesn't mean that I don't get brilliant ideas at 3 in the morning when I'm at my computer in shorts and a t-shirt, because that happens often. Or in the shower, like it does for most of us, when our brain has a few moments to get away from the always-on overcharged place it has been operating for hours at a time.
Those who are close to me know that the fashion sense or lack thereof in Silicon Valley makes me crazy and is one of the things I hate about living here. I miss the fashion sense and energy of New York and most of Europe. And, even though Boston was far too conservative for my taste, at least women wore dresses, jackets and jewelry that you marveled at from time-to-time or wanted to touch. New England men may not win any top prizes for fashion, but they know how to throw on a well-cut jacket and the right shoes for an occasion when they need to.
Many women are tactile, we love touching and that doesn't just mean our significant other, it means materials too. The first thing I do when I'm in a shop and see something I like is walk up to it to 'feel' the material so I'd know immediately whether I'd 'feel' great wearing it.
I remember being at an opera once with my ex and we were in the second row. He was an opera guru and could never understand why I had to sit so close to the front of the stage. When the lead opera star came out wearing a vibrant eggplant Asian silk dress with a mustard and turquoise sash that was so decadently beautiful I nearly cried, I informed him that I was close enough to nearly feel what it was must have felt like on. You don't get that from the balcony or even from the 20th row.
When I first started blogging and was part of the early blogging trendsetters, there weren't many women in the scene, so the fashion culture of those RSS-education days was sadly lacking. In the early BlogHer years, when it was all bloggers and no brands, the style was eclectic and all over the map, but one thing that was consistent was the use of vibrant colors. See my photo blog post from 2005 that showed some of the styles of women bloggers at the time and my 2007 post when Project Runway designer Chloe Dao inspired female bloggers to cut up materials and create their own designer t-shirt in a variety of bright, fun colors.
That 'offering' couldn't have been more enticing for someone like me who craves a whole lotta art, fashion, style, craft and creativity in my life. I don't get enough of great art, design and fashion in the start-up world although frankly if there were more women founders, then perhaps we'd have more creative 'offerings' for the world to play with and the UIs would look like a mixture of Vogue and Apple rather than Evernote and Delicious.
The New York Times just ran a piece entitled "Techies Break a Fashion Taboo" and with a title like that, how can you not be drawn in? As they rightfully point out, "Silicon Valley has long been known for semiconductors and social networks, not stilettos and socialites. But in a place where the most highly prized style is to appear to ignore style altogether and the hottest accessory is the newest phone, a growing group of women is bucking convention not only by being women in a male-dominated industry, but also by unabashedly embracing fashion."
Ahhh, beautiful MUSIC TO MY EARS. I'm thinking, breathing and saying all at the same time: GO GIRLS! How can I help?
I had an idea awhile back about throwing a Geek Fashion Show, a bit in 'New York runway' format in someone's home. The idea is that geeks would be forced into fabulous designer clothes, women would whistle and ooh and ahh, and perhaps a little female attention might turn things around.
Somehow I think that if the woman didn't have a device dangling from her body he could play with, she may not be that interesting to him. Okay, I'm being harsh here, but as someone who has been in the Bay Area for 7 years now, I feel less feminine in San Francisco and Silicon Valley than I've felt anywhere else I've lived (and that's 10 countries and 5 states folks).
This energy comes from increased polarity between sexes (or masculine and feminine energies if the same sex). The stronger the polarity, the stronger the chemistry. Polarity is when a woman assumes her femininity in a relationship and a man assumes his masculinity. Since I moved west, I feel as if everyone and everything is equal, everyone and everything is a community, everything and everyone are partners and there's no difference in energy when I'm talking to a man or a woman. There are plenty of people who will disagree with me but I wonder if those who will have ever lived in South America, Italy, the South, Paris or the Caribbean. And god no, I'm not advocating for a return to a 1940s housewife culture, and if you think I am, then you're missing the point.
Polarity plays into dress and fashion too. What I find attractive in a man (clothing, walk, voice) is not necessarily what three of my closest girlfriends will find attractive, but when we dig into attraction at its deepest level in our conversations, what rises to the surface is that "Je ne sais quoi" that creates that feeling of 'want and desire' -- a polar opposite reaction if you like, the trigger that makes a woman feel like a woman around him. When that reaction is the strongest, it is when he's tapped into his (or her) masculine side, whatever that happens to be.
So I guess its no secret by now that I find a man who knows how to dress attractive. And, while I'm heterosexual, I'm drawn to women who know how to dress well too. Sure, dressing well is a matter of personal taste, but regardless of what your taste is, one thing is certain: when a woman dresses well, there's 'care and thought' into matching clothes, shoes, accessories and colors into a creation of sorts she feels best represents her personality. To me, that's powerful, confident and sexy. The same applies to men, at least for this East Coast-born chica who has spent many years living in Europe.
This photo from geeksdreamgirl.com in a post called Geek Fashion Does it Matter reminded me of how I often feel in Silicon Valley.
She writes: "geeks are made up of all kinds, but a frat-looking dude in an Abercrombie or Ed Hardy shirt is going to look more out of place at a con than a chick dressed as Hermoine after she drank the cat Polyjuice Potion."
Outside of Silicon Valley, it all looks out of place, yet geek 'fashion' has hit parts of Europe and just when I was about to guess they were from Silicon Valley, a Dutch, Irish, German or Israeli accent came out of his mouth. Frightening.
Take this photo found on Laughing Squid, where Bill Nye the Science Guy Teaches Chris Hardwick How To Tie a Bowtie. They both look like the whole process is just a tad too painful.
Even if nerdy checked shirts aren't to your liking, it's a helluva lot better than this:
Photo credit: Randy Stewart
The above shot of Ben Huh is more along the lines of the every day fashion I deal with everyday living in Silicon Valley and it hurts. I've been so reluctant of saying so this publicly for so many years because of the backlash that I've kept my moans to close circles. But for crying out loud, it hurts all of my senses and I can no longer not say so.
Says GQ of the the Ben shot: "we can tell you just rolled out of your 1,000-thread count bed sheets and picked out the nearest T-shirt in or around the laundry basket." What's really sad is that most of these guys are actually proud of a statement like that.
Then there's this eyesore. An invitation to the White House and this is the best that Faceook's Mark Zuckerberg can pull together?
Something tells me this was a PR decision or a defiance "this is who I am so f-you" attitude decision. Above photo taken from Hollywood Reporter in an article entitled Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg Named Worst Dressed in Silicon Valley. Just attend any of the countless events on the geek events list and you'll definitely find worst nearly any night of the week.
Or dare I suggest crossing the bridge and hanging out in Berkeley for awhile. (Apologies to all of my Berkeley friends who will never speak to me after that comment, but c'mon aready - can't we just call a spade a spade? Just because you're not great at fashion, it doesn't mean you don't ace a million other things in life).
Foursquare's Dennis Crowley just made #5th worst dressed men of Silicon Valley by GQ (although he actually lives in New York, but just dresses like he lives on the other coast).
Photo credit: Getty Images
They're a little harsh in their write-up especially since I personally adore Dennis, but I have to admit, its incredibly accurate: "Unless Crowley is making a social statement about the threat of student loan debt, it's time to graduate past the junior section."
I feel that way about 90% of the men who can't make an effort to graduate past high school.
Remember the way Bill Gates used to dress? Even if you think this shot looks like he's graduated to the Connecticut suburbs and the colors so don't work with his skin tone, you have to admit, he's at least graduated past high school. Enfin!!
Photo credit: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg
I'm surprised that GQ put Craig Newmark on the list, who I also personally adore. Here's the thing: Craig makes an effort whether you think its fashion perfect or not. He's not in a t-shirt he grabbed from his laundry basket, he gets the 'shoe' thing (the man is never seen wearing tacky neon sneakers that don't match anything else), he wears great scarves and the hat just suits him. Of all the men they could have chosen in Silicon Valley, really? I can give you 50 other men who should have made the GQ list. Personally, I think "it" works for him, wrinkled shirt and all. How many men do you know who have wrinkled shirts who aren't geeks?
Photo credit: Getty Images.
From a post in Blog.stylert.com, they ask: "Are you a real geek? Are you proud of being a geek? You can be cute (or sexy), yet embrace your geeky style. Geek fashion refers to the embracing of stereotypically unpopular “geek” characteristics such as glasses. They dress almost identical to hipsters but verge more towards being into comic books, pop culture, technology, etc. rather than hipsters who are more into poetry, brooding, and generally being pretentious.
The definition: Well, basically, you take key pieces of a typically geeky wardrobe and wear them with purpose and aplomb, to make a point. Not because you’re clueless and out of the fashion loop, not because you can’t afford Ralph Lauren — because you want to. Think thick black glasses, pinstriped suits with skinny ties, sweater vests, and pocket protectors — a hipster vibe with a nerdy edge."
This doesn't mean a TechCrunch t-shirt with jeans and sneakers. They write: "many elements that arguably define “geekiness”, such as varying degrees of social awkwardness, mathematical ability, strong interest in science and/or science fiction and fantasy, and varying degrees of disinterest in one’s personal appearance, remain unfashionable."
The point? Get creative. Care at least a little. Mix geek with other styles. For example:
Photo credit: Blog.stylert.com
Says the NY Times piece, "despite the geek stereotypes of hoodie sweatshirts, flip-flops and thick glasses, it makes perfect sense, these women say, for people interested in technology to be intrigued by fashion. They quote Marissa Mayer pictured above left, who said in February: “Like components of software,” she said, “fashion designers learned how to do this shoulder, put pleats on the skirt that way.” Apparently she once paid $60,000 at an auction for lunch with Oscar de la Renta. I wonder if she'll use her elevated salary at Yahoo for luxury wanna-haves like this one?
Thinking like 'software components,' she asked Naeem Khan to make the dress for her wedding to Zachary Bogue, a financier, in 2009. "She gave the designer a spec (a set of requirements that engineers write for new products) for the gown, including scalloped trim, an A-line skirt and lace, preferably with snowflakes." Too funny, but if its the way her brain works, it's the way her brain works.
Compare the above set of four men to the below set of three women. What draws you in more regardless of your sex? Great style is great style is it not?
From left: Theresia Gouw Ranzetta, an investor at Accel Partners in Palo Alto, Calif., Sukhinder Singh Cassidy runs the video shopping site Joyus in San Francisco; Ruzwana Bashir is a founder of Peek, a Web travel start-up in San Francisco.
Well done ladies and don't ever stop wearing great color and great design regardless of how much push back you get.
Keep the trend going so we can add just a little bit of sex appeal to the Bay Area. Silicon Valley is starving for and in need of a whole lot more sex (appeal :-) and while the geeks may not admit it, if they go there, and get the benefits and rewards that it might bring, they may just never look back.
Photo Credits: above triage photo: Heidi Schumann for NY Times, Marissa Mayer, left, head of Yahoo, with the jewelry designer Monique Pean in 2010): Jemel Countless Getty Images and photo upper right: Peter DaSilva for The New York Times.