The Stressful Search for Happiness

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When I was in my early twenties people kept telling me, “These are the best years of your life.” This platitude caused me significant stress because I started worrying about whether I’m enjoying myself enough. It was then that I realized how tiring a self-conscious search for “happiness” can be.

Every day on Twitter I notice at least a few articles that discuss how to achieve a lasting sense of inner peace, or realize your full potential, or find that ever-elusive state of happiness.  With the rise of the blogging culture, every Joe is taking to his computer to tell us the secret to an improved life. Self-help books line the walls of every bookstore – I hear they sell well.

“Meditate, do yoga, stretch, run, hum, chant, fast for 3 days, fast for 5 days, get a life coach, eat quinoa, eat kale, eat chia, quit dairy, quit gluten, get into this habit, drop that habit,” cry the experts and the gurus.

As a culture, we are in relentless and very self-aware pursuit of an improved outlook on life and a complete maximization of our potential.

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To say that this pursuit is caused by a somewhat toxic and overly-fast lifestyle we lead is an understatement. Yes, we live in a distracted, hectic, and somewhat alienated age, and we look for fixes in places that we might not have looked in our less stressed moments. Nor do I think it is bad for human beings to have ambitions and strive to improve.

However, I believe that the way in which our culture has embraced the Hollywood-styled concept of happiness (a combination of financial success and romantic and social fulfillment, resulting in, somewhat paradoxically, both a state of permanent, deep contentment and steady excitement) is making us just plain exhausted.

This is because happiness as per Hollywood is a stuff of sheer fantasy. To chase this phantom is to become chronically stressed and dwarfed by our own expectations.

This is why I was particularly refreshed by reading a recent BBC article by Manuela Saragosa entitled “How to Be Mediocre and Be Happy with Yourself.”  In discussing the contemporary “tyranny of excellence,” the article begs the question of whether it might not just be better to have ambition but to accept that a vast majority of us are average and lead perfectly average – and averagely stressed – lives.

Contrary to this popular tendency to run after the “happy,” I’ve spent a significant amount of time thinking about the fact that real self-enlightenment, if we are to be perfectly honest, results in the realization that life will always be somewhat stressful, that ambition is healthy but pursuit of excellence draining, and that moments of profound contentment can only occur if we also experience moments of anxiety, angst, anger, antipathy, or whatever other uncomfy “feel” you can think of (like when you eat Nutella with a spoon after a hard day at work).

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So here’s my miracle tip to an improved life: Stop trying so hard to be happy and you’ll likely end up more at ease with yourself and the rest of the world.

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Drinking and Sapphic Dating: or Ellen Got it Right

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Lately, I keep coming across various articles that discuss the role that alcohol plays in the sex and love lives of young North Americans. To make a long story short: If you drink more, you get laid more. Like Dorothy Parker said, “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.”

Thinking back on the several important and dozens of unimportant relationships in my life, I am quasi-ashamed to say that alcohol played a significant role in propelling even the most suitable and/or exciting (not the same thing) of these connections.

My straight friend who has recently decided to quit drinking has told me that her dates, born into half-life by the ever-befuddling world of internet dating, are becoming increasingly awkward. Her order for sparkling water or diet Coke is met by the guy sitting opposite her with an incredulous and somewhat pouty, “Seriously?! You don’t drink?”

Internet dating is hard because it is inorganic. A stranger, whom you’ve only been exposed to through a half dozen shamelessly photoshopped selfies and inane messages, appears before you, loaded with all the expectations you’ve happened to endow him or her with in that short period of time before the “online” and the real-life meeting. If alcohol is needed to grease the progress or lessen the misery of any social situation, this is it.

And yet, it’s worse for gay women. Much, much worse.  I try to stay away from broad generalizations, but from broad generalizations are trite blog posts made, so I will venture to indulge in a few for the sake of this short rumination.

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Heterosexual culture is steeped in well-established conventions, in which the male has traditionally been the aggressor – the one who makes the first move and who is more used to the ever-terrifying art of “putting it out there.” On an all-woman date, it’s a significantly more difficult situation, although there are, of course, exceptions to the rule.

I always remember a scene in Ellen, the sitcom. Ellen has recently come out and she likes a woman, with whom she has exchanged phone numbers. She is eager for a date, but still insecure and hesitant. She asks her cousin/buddy what to do.

“You know,” he begins wisely, “My thought has always been that the woman should never be the first one to call.”

And therein lies the most complicated aspect of lesbian culture.

We are all individuals with our unique traits and all that crap, but the reality is that we’ve been conditioned to some degree by our culture, which is still informed by codes of traditional masculinity and femininity. Over time, most of us, as women, have absorbed at least some of those teachings that tell us to be pursued rather than to pursue.

Thus, NOT drinking on these sapphic dates is nearly impossible because neither of the women is likely to make a move without having at least some lubrication of the alcoholic kind. In lesbian bars, which I have ventured into quite frequently and enthusiastically in my 20s, and only occasionally and with increasing boredom in my 30s, no frisson is likely to happen before everyone has been well-greased by inordinate amounts of  beer, mixed rail drinks and shots, shots, shots. Once enough alcohol has been consumed, they do occasionally stumble into each other: friends find out that they have liked each other for 4 years and strangers that have been staring at each other for 4 years find out that they are into a potential date (maybe). (You should see what a gay female bathhouse event looks like. I’ve only ventured once for shits n’ giggles purposes with my ex, but I’ll leave that for another blog.)

I have no solution to this problem, except to say that if you are a gay woman and you run into someone you like with whom you can spend the whole day without drinking, you should really hang on to them, whether platonically or romantically. I’ve managed to find this and my liver is bloody grateful.

Empathy and the Importance of Reading Fiction

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My favorite author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, wrote in The Great Gatsby: “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one…just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

I think of that quote whenever someone tells me nowadays that they’ve stopped reading fiction or when I realize that I’ve been neglecting the ever-increasing stack of novels on my bedside table.

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I think one of the best ways we can learn to empathize with others is by reading fiction. Many social justice campaigns nowadays – think “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” – hail us by appealing to our innate human ability to empathize. We can all do it – we just forget to.

Living in a world in which most of our time is taken up by fast-paced jobs and onslaught of technological distractions, most of us have relegated reading, and especially the reading of fiction, to rare vacation hours. We have grown out of the habit of regularly taking time to sink into another world, another mind, another place and another time, in a contemplative manner. And thus, we have grown out of the habit of living not only as ourselves but as others, of getting at least a partial sense, through the power of literature, of what it is like to be of a different gender, race, class, age, or experience.

I read Mordechai Richler’s Barney’s Version and I learned a bit of the utter disorientation and impotence one feels as Alzheimer’s disease begins to steal one’s mind. I read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and caught a glimpse of the hardships that a poor, African-American, queer woman could face in the southern United States in the 1930s. I read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and could imagine the havoc that war wrecks on one’s life and sense of identity.

These forays into other minds and other times have made me into a more empathetic person. When you have spent many an hour traveling through fictions, you become flexible and more willing to see the world through another’s eyes for the sake of understanding or compromise.

In a world that is becoming ever smaller due to the powers of globalization, we are coming more and more into contact with people who have had different life experiences than us. This can be a wonderful thing and especially so if we are brought together by the power of literature.

So if you need a good excuse to make time for that novel by your bed, here it is: reading fiction can make us into better pals, spouses, employees and citizens.

Smartphones, Addiction and Loneliness: the Curse of the Superficially Overconnected

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I was one of those people who held out on buying a smartphone. For years I was devoted to an ancient flip phone that my more technology-savvy friends would frequently remark on. The teasing didn’t bother me – I’ve never thought of tech gadgets as being “coolness capital” – and the only reason I eventually caved was because my loved dinosaur of a phone went extinct with a whimper rather than a bang and I wanted a somewhat better camera to take photos with during my long summer walks.

Mind you, I’m talking about 2013 here – not long ago. I remember I was in the middle of a move, a middle of a love affair, a middle of an existential crisis. And my fucking phone broke down.

So I went to the Rogers store near Palmerston and Bloor and contracted my soul off for an iPhone4s. I remember walking out of the store, my new phone set up, and realizing how much easier it was to text with this new gadget in my hands. The girl I was seeing was a heavy texter and it was only my inability to respond quickly on my old phone that had moderated the frequency of our daily text-based “conversation.”

And then, as I was walking back home from Rogers, the dam broke. I was excited by how easily I could type, by how easily we could talk, by how many emojis I could send. We started to gab and to gush in a fast-paced manner from that moment on – it was like the technology in my hands could finally keep up with the rush of my insane infatuation.

It was the most exciting thing ever for the first two hours.

And then, I started to feel oppressed by how often my hand reached for the phone and how often the phone beeped. I had opened the gates and there was no stopping this communication. I was addicted and even if I wasn’t, the very fact that I now had a smartphone meant that not answering right away (through FB messanger, texting, etc.) would be considered an insult. I felt trapped, exhausted, and could see, even within that first few hours, that this little device would be an ultimate way of distracting an already distracted person – I could see down the tunnel of my frustration to the end of my love affair, end of friendships, end of peaceful walks and technology-free Sunday afternoons with family and card games.

This may seem a bit melodramatic. If you dislike bursts of melodrama, cease reading now.

Let me fast forward a bit. The affair ended, painfully as all hell, partly because I said something bad or insensitive over text. I’ve managed to fuck up a few other friendship and relationships through text as well, either because my sarcasm could not translate or because constant texting and ceaseless contact (which ultimately leads to the most mundane conversations you can have) brought me to a point of irritability and desire to run away.

Most of us are in the same boat. I see people sitting in restaurants with friends, each of them on their smartphone. I see people texting while walking. I reach for my phone the first thing in the morning and it is usually the last thing I interact with before going to sleep. I hate it. Passionately. And I’m helpless against it.

The problem, as many studies have shown, is that this being a cultural malaise, we are all too busy with our phones and virtual connections to actually connect in real life. Even when we do the latter, our moments with friends are punctured by our incessant phone checking. I go on Facebook all the time to trade witticisms with numerous friends that I clearly have things in common with, but that I rarely see. We are so overconnected online that we have no time to spare for a coffee with just one person. We’ve learnt to juggle too well – we are addicted to it.

I used to love one-on-one conversations. Now, I get fidgety, uncomfy, unsure of whether I am capable of keeping my interest on just one individual and, worse, scared that they will not be able to give me their full attention. Why talk to one, when you can talk to twenty? We are millennials bred on the culture of internet dating, Facebook, Twitter, and news apps….we’re losing our ability to sit down and develop a more challenging, but deeper and ultimately more meaningful connection with an individual across from us. Our friends cannot make us budge from home, but Pokeman GO will.

I want to re-learn the art of the real-life one-on-one and the art of sitting still without my phone beside me. I want to go to bed one night with my phone in a whole other room.

While it might be an overstatement to say that the demise of my flip phone shifted the course of my lifestory in a momentous way, I think it did push me towards an engagement with a form of communication that has done more harm than good. It would have happened sooner or later. I just wish the flip phone had lasted a bit longer. All hail, flip phone!

I Hate Mornings

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“Early bird gets the worm.” It can go ahead.

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During my elementary school days, it quickly became apparent to my mother that she did not produce offspring who were bound to greet the morning with Disney-like enthusiasm.

At her gentle reminders that it’s time to go to school, I’d grumble, whine, and occasionally curse (I wasn’t a well-behaved child). Nowadays, an alarm clock, rather than my mother, is on the receiving end of the abuse that inevitably accompanies the task of waking me up. This is a relief  – because  I really like my mom.

Which brings me to my point: I have become convinced that some people, including myself, cannot constitutionally get used to the process of getting up early. Being an “early bird” or a “night owl” has less to do with habit or lifestyle, and more to do with our genetic makeup.

Before 10 a.m., I mentally and physically resemble a virus-infected character in the Walking Dead. I hit the snooze button 17 times; negotiate with myself that I will wash my hair tomorrow and just sleep in another 15 minutes today; put on clothing that I don’t even like just because it’s close to the bed; and storm out of the house with a piece of toast still in my mouth.

Regardless of when I had gone to bed the night before (midnight, 11 p.m., sometimes even 9:30 p.m.), I wake up to the sound of my alarm clock feeling tired, muddled, and slightly angry.

So what can one do, when one lives in a world in which regular working hours do not suit one’s stubborn biological clock?

I’ve read up on the topic and found some tips to be useful in lessening the effects of my morning woes.

For instance, I’ve turned my bedroom into an electronics-free zone. Except for my phone, which I need because of the alarm, there is no technology in that room that can stimulate me visually. This means I simply read, get tired sooner and sleep a bit better in a quiet, darkened room –  and don’t have to compensate for bad sleep by staying in bed longer in the morning.

I still lose my battle with the ever-seductive snooze button more often than not, but on those days when I manage to resist its lure and get up as soon as I wake up, I feel fresher and more energetic. There is science behind this phenomenon. Apparently, by drifting off to sleep for those extra 5, 10, 20 minutes, we tell our body to begin another sleep cycle, and breaking this rhythm off a few minutes later delivers a shock to our system, leaving us disoriented.

Finally, I’ve found that drinking a tall glass of cold water the first thing in the morning knocks some life into me.  Part of our morning “blah-ness” is caused by dehydration, so giving the body a kick start through some much-needed H2O is an easy way to move back towards sanity.

These above tips might or might not work for you. I should, however, say that I think nothing will ultimately make me – or you, if you are anything like me – a morning person. I could swear off the snooze button for the rest of my life, go to bed at an unreasonably early hour, even duck my head in ice cold water every morning – and I will still feel like the absolutely worst version of myself when that evil alarm rings at 7:30 a.m. I will always dislike that gross moisture that I find on the grass in the morning (dew, is it?), the annoyingly perky birds right outside my window, and the sounds of the world waking up with enthusiasm.

Because I belong to the night owls. And the night owls are a special breed.  As we squeeze our coffee mugs in the office halls in the mornings, let us nod to each other like proud members of a secret club. We will recognize each other by our bedheads, by our lead-heavy gaits, and by the fact that we forgot to iron the other pant leg.

We are the glorious ancestors of that long-gone caveperson who was nudged awake by his or her tribe at dawn and who would go for a nap as soon as he or she was done with that unnecessarily-early mammoth or bison hunting.

I salute you all!

Meditation: It’s NOT for Everyone

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I hate being still.

As an avid yoga practitioner this is a bit of a problem.

After a lengthy workout that involves copious sun salutations and attempts at body contortions that border on the comic, the instructor always tells us to lie down, close our eyes, and focus on our breath. The pose is called shavasana. Most people welcome it with tranquil smiles on their faces – I, on the other hand, get into a mild panic.

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Why, I wonder, does our culture equate stillness with mindfulness or inner peace?

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard a person discuss their meditation practice as though it is a barometer of their general well-being. “The longer you can sit still with your breath, the closer you come to understanding who you really are,” and all that jazz. It is advice that is bestowed upon everyone by enthusiastic practitioners and Zen doctors, an ostensibly universal antidote for every problem our mortal selves can possibly encounter.

So I tried it. I tried meditating at home (with meditation apps, without meditation apps, with annoying cricket or rainforest or waterfall soundtracks) and I tried focusing on being very, very still and mindful at the end of yoga sessions. I found it to be one of the most uncomfortable experiences I’ve ever had.

I don’t need people to tell me that perhaps I was not doing it right or that it requires practice, because the instructions are not hard to follow and I gave it a shot again and again. A few minutes into this mindfulness, I would always feel like every inch of my skin was crawling and like I was denying myself the very thing that makes me feel most alive and healthy: movement.

What I’m trying to say is that we all have our intricate relationships with the spectrum of stillness and movement, a rhythm that is made up of the two impulses, through which we can find a peaceful moment or two, like a surfer mastering and riding a perfect wave.  In our fast-paced society it is not only stillness that can allow us to psychologically slow down – it can be physical movement as well, a rush in one or many directions that can bring the mind to a perfect standstill.

Spare me the wisdom of the Zen doctors who think that the only way a human being can find a slice of tranquility is by imitating, at least physically, a coma patient. It’s not for everyone and by trying to force myself to fit this mould, I’ve been doing the opposite of relaxing.

So excuse me if I roll up my mat the moment that the downward dogs and sun salutations are over and the shavasana (which, by the way, translates into death pose) looms large. I have to hurry away.

The 6 Lesbians You Will Meet Online: It’s Not You, It’s Them.

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After a few years of sporadically dabbling in online dating, I’ve decided it is time to break it all down for all of those Sapphically-inclined women who are thinking it may be time to hop on the Tinder, Plenty of Fish or Ok Cupid wagon.

Don’t.

Well actually, you may have to.

If you are over 27 or so, and think that meeting women during random girl events that happen once in a blue moon is no longer an option – because the music is too loud, it’s too dark to see, you’re tired by midnight (the time when people actually start arriving), and everyone is awkward and playing hard to get – then yes, you may have to.

So let me tell you about the ever-seductive mind fuckery you will encounter, based on my own experiences and the experiences of many many many women who have sought to meet a female cuddle- and Netflix marathon- mate over the internet.

1.The Missing Conversationalist:

She thought you were cute. Or sexy… Or whatever other word she used in one of her initial messages to you. You thought she was the cat’s meow. You started exchanging long messages, filled with details about your hobbies, favorite books, the long-gone pet, real estate in Toronto… You even discovered a mutual love of Absolutely Fabulous and Victorian crime fiction.

After a few of these messages, you’ve finally decided to ask her if she’d be inclined to have a non-alcoholic or few alcoholic beverages with you – but, lo and behold, she has disappeared! Well, more like – she has just stopped responding.

Did you write something strange in your last message? You check. Nope. Did she close her account? You check. No. Maybe she has just been super busy during the last week? Probably not – she seems to be online constantly.

Oy. All those wasted words.

  1. The Non-Curious “Bi-Curious” Girl.

She matched with you on Tinder. You thought that was awesome because she is hot and, judging by the few sentences she has written in her self-description, she can spell. She can spell!

You message her and she responds. You ask questions and she answers, but never really asks you anything about your life. Hm.

Soon, it occurs to you that she likely only included women in her search to feel edgy or because she likes attention. Maybe she got a better look at your photos and doesn’t think you’re as cute as you were on first glance. You shrug your shoulders and don’t bother writing again.

Except she writes the next day: “Happy Friday!”

You answer, politely inquiring about her day.

She responds, but doesn’t ask you about yours.

You stop writing again.

She writes again in a few days, wishing you a Happy Tuesday and hoping your day was awesome!

After about a week of this you learn how to ignore the world’s least curious person, even though they are hotter than pretty much any individual you’ve ever met in a lesbian bar.

Next!

  1. The Hey.

 She will write: “Hey” or “Hey, your beautiful” or “You’re lips are sexy.”

Ignore these. Seriously. Because if you don’t, you will have the world’s most boring conversation, made up of messages that are never longer than 5 words (also…the grammar freak in you will be screaming). If you are curious and pursue this just to see how long it will take her to write more than that, you’ll probably reach message 30, after which she’ll say:

“Seems like we have a lot in common. Wanna meet for a drink?”

I strongly recommend that you don’t go on this date. You’ll die of boredom. Or drink yourself under the table trying to find her interesting.

Expect this person to message you 60 more times in the course of the next month, with “Hey”  or “How are you?

4, The New-Beginner

You’ll meet a lot of these.

This person will make the first contact. It will be a long message. She will mention the things you have in common and compliment you on your choice of vocab in the profile.

Since you’ve just received about five “Hey” messages, you will be particularly happy about the intellectual stimulation this message provides and complimented by the interest this person exhibits. You will, obviously, respond with an equally long message, asking her about her life, and crossing your fingers that she will continue to be interesting.

She does….in the first 3 paragraphs of her next message. In the last two, however…well, that’s when she goes on a long tangent about how horrible men are and how she never wants to see one again. A woman is just what she needs right now. Wait, what?

Or she starts immediately sharing details of her experience with abusive relationships, alcoholism and drugs. She’s “done with that because she deserves better than that.”

Slowly back away….

5. The Flake

She will contact you on Tinder. You will chat briefly and then she’ll stop writing.

Then you’ll get a message from her on Plenty of Fish. You’ll have lost interest by now, but she’ll write a longer paragraph or two, so you’ll figure why not give a cute girl a chance for a convo again. You will respond and then again never hear from her.

A few months later, she will find you on Ok Cupid and write again.

If, somehow, you actually end up making drink plans – and that probably means you are hitting a major nadir in your life – she’ll probably cancel them about an hour after the date has started.

She’ll always remain a  mystery….

6. The Many-Faced Playmate

On your profile, you will write NO COUPLES. Nevertheless, you are going to get some interesting messages.

There are two types of these:

a) The Trendy, Fetish-Friendly Downtowner: Her photos showcase a beautiful body and stylish clothes; however, long hair or weird camera angles usually obscure her face. She will message you with copious compliments and straightforwardly ask if you’d like to play with her and her boyfriend. While she understands that you are not really into men or couples, she just wanted to check….because you are really something.

If you respond with a “not interested in that,” she’ll be polite and wish you good luck. Overall, her attention will be pleasant and you will feel great about yourself – until you realize that she has contacted every lesbian on the site who looks like she showers once a day (that’s only about 40% of them, by the way).

b) The Suburban Adventurers: She is middle-aged and from suburbia. In one of her photos, she poses in lingerie, usually bending over either towards or facing away from the camera. Really bending. Almost to the floor.

She will message you with something like: “Want to join me and my man for a night of fun?” You think: “Seriously…not even a ‘Hey’ at the beginning?????” before you remember how much you’ve come to hate the word “Hey.”

It’s possible she will attach a photo of her husband, shirtless and with copious chest hair, to this message. When you see this attachment, you will probably want to take a shower right away and shut down your account for a while.

Look, it’s not all bad. Honestly. Sometimes you’ll meet a lovely person and they will become a friend or a lover. You’ll laugh over the fact that you met online and probably decide to lie about how you actually met. Often, you’ll talk about how much you hate online dating and feel sorry for your recently single friend who had her ego slightly bruised by a “Flake” or “The Missing Conversationalist.”

So my one piece of advice is to simply remember that if it’s all going to be funny one day, you might as well treat it as comic right away. It’s frustrating, but try to put a positive spin on it: so many suburban couples want you, and so many women wanted to say “Hey.”