MICHAELA FENGSTAD

Writing about life as it happens, trends in career development and new inspiration

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Honey, We Are Riding to California!

One of the first stories I remember is the story of the Bear that lost his tail. Well, one day, Mama Bear asked the Little Bear to go with her and try some honey from their neighbours, the bees. Little Bear refused and started crying: honey was not something he ever craved for or had any desire to try. No matter how much Mama Bear tried to appease him with stories about the sweet taste of the golden liquid, Little Bear wanted to have nothing to do with it. But Mama Bear never gave up. She kept on trying to convince him, until one day, tired of hearing the same stories over and over again and tired of Mama’s nagging, Little Bear gave up and said: fine, I will come with you to taste the honey. Mama Bear was thrilled and lost no time: grabbed his little paw and they both hurried to the bees’ heave to try the miraculous honey. Little Bear closed his eyes, and preparing himself for the worst, took a tiny little bit of honey on his paw and quickly licked it. Then he took another one, and another one, and soon enough he was biting off the honey comb! Honey was delicious! Mama Bear tried to take him away  but could not so she called Papa Bear to help her and both were pulling Little Bear by his tail until the tail broke! And that is why, up until nowadays, all Bears have no tail to be pulled by and they all love honey! I am just like Little Bear, but instead of honey, I got hooked to riding.

When my husband first told me that he would like to ride to San Francisco, I threw another one of my many temper tantrums. Yes, I am predictable: every time I feel I have no voice or I have a too weak of a voice, I throw a fit. And I hope my husband will listen. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And this time it didn’t. He pushed along and with his amazing organizing skills and patience, researched roads and hotels, points of interest and history of the places, gas stations and coffee shops. Because a ride, just like a trip, is better with company, he invited some other riding friends to join us in this trip. Soon enough,  his vision for a vacation was not a vision anymore, but a very well planned and researched commitment to ten people on eight motorbikes.  At the start line, there were only five bikes, seven people and one “service” car.

I was hardly thinking about taking the training when he already was planning this trip. We all know that at the time, riding was really not my priority nor my passion or Bucket list item or prefferred means of transportation, ore my dream. It was just a frightening sport that I wanted to have little or nothing to do with.  Fast forward a bit over six months, and here I am, riding my own bike and embarking on an adventure like no other: a 10 day riding trip Vancouver to San Francisco and back. No, I am not riding my own bike yet: it is a little too much, too soon but I am a passenger on my husband’s bike which allows me to experience the riding excitement without the work. A bit of a cutting corners, if you want but nonetheless, daring for a middle aged woman who really has no adventurous bone in her body and still thinks that riding is not for the faint hearted.

In a matter of a year I not only learned how to ride a motorbike but I came to enjoy the wind in my face, the twisties and the hair pins along the way, the brotherhood of the bikers (the real ones not “the wanna be bad ass,  look at me in awe and fear” kind), and a new found connection with the roads and the nature. I still have my moments when I go in panic mood, and go through all the reasons and dangers why I should not ride but somewhere along the way, I lost my tail and now, I can not have enough.

 

 

Why We Shouldn’t Always Get Along

I can’t stand the idea of all people getting along every minute, every hour, every second. I can’t stand the idea of living in a country, city, community, circle of friends or family in which we all are echo-chambers for each other’s ideas, feelings or beliefs. I don’t believe in the commercial-like partnerships: all smiling, holding hands and hugging all day long. I believe in conflict and opposite ideas, I believe in challenging ourselves and each other. I believe in the power of Why? when we are asked to do or to feel something.

1979_congresul-al-xii-lea-al-pcr-aspect-din-salaIn communism, we were taught to follow and never challenge or question. If the direction came from above it was to be followed, no questions asked. It did not come naturally to a very vibrant and intelligent people but after jail time and years of hard work  in salt mines for the more outspoken, resentfully, we all obeyed. I remember my father coming home from two or three days of meetings exhausted physically and mentally. They never had a voice. All they had to do was to sit for hours in huge halls, listen to the most idiotic speeches and from time to time, at the signal of the security services people strategically seated among the participants, jump on their feet, applaud vigorously and chant the name of the leader. The less you yelled and applauded, the  less chances you and your family would survive in the respective jobs for another month, and the more chances you’d  meet with the “friendly” security service personnel assigned to watch over you. And this is how an entire nation was apparently fascinated by the speeches filled with grammatical errors and demented ideas of a shoe maker with little school.

While every communist institution and mass media outlet was teaching us to follow and not to question, my father was doing quite the opposite within the walls of our house.  I have never been a follower. I always had my own way of doing things and dealing with things and a stubbornness that the educator in my father had to mould somehow. As we could not discuss the regime inside because of the listening devices planted here and there in the house, we were talking about anything else: life,dating, school, people and characters, relationships, you name it. To me, the best part was not  the subject discussed but the fact that my father, a very strict person whose word we all, including my mom, were supposed to obey, was allowing me to challenge his ideas. You can imagine that I embraced this opportunity with open arms! I would stay up as long as was necessary to wait for him coming back from work and while he was having his late dinners and the usual glass of wine, start the most animated debates on the most random issues. Sometimes it wasn’t pretty, sometimes I would end up in tears, unable to argue my point of view. In the end, I learnt so much about life, trust, people, characters, family, relations, and so much more. The most important things I learnt were :

  1. The way we handle the smallest conflict says a lot more about the person than a long time of happy times
  2. We all should have people in our lives to challenge us as only through challenges we evolve and progress

The story of Alice Stewart  should be told in schools. A scientist in the 50’s who made a connection between the S_-_portrait.Alice_Stewart_2higher number of cancers among children of affluent women as opposed to lower numbers for those of not so wealthy women. The culprit: the easier access to X-rays while pregnant for the women in the first category. To prove her point she enlisted an epidemiologist whose only job was to find ways to challenge and dismantle any of her findings. Although he miserably failed to proving her wrong, it would take 20 more years until X-rays were forbidden on pregnant women. The part that really impressed me was the possibility of making a successful team with somebody who never accepted her truth. It is also true that it would have probably taken humanity way longer to ban X-rays if Alice, would have broken down in tears, crying “you hurt my feelings” at the first sign of disagreement or challenge.

A poignant similarity between my two worlds, is basically the same way conflict is handled: by avoidance. Back while I was growing up, conflict was not permitted. Questions were out of question because they generated ideas. The communism did not like people with ideas. In the first world countries, conflict is avoided because it makes us uncomfortable and brings feelings of unhappiness.  For  a short period of time, it also creates an environment that cannot be controlled and in a world that has learnt to behave and do things only through guidelines and best practices, uncontrolled is not the way to go. But what to do when human nature takes its tall on us and we find ourselves in the middle of a conflict?

Leave it on TV to teach us how to deal with everything. Do you want conflict? Turn on any of the Real Housewives franchises and you’ll find conflict galore! There is no episode that goes by without at least one fight. Unfortunately, this is the worst example ever of handling conflict, and as it is the only one accessible to everybody, it is the only one that is learnt and propagated. But about them, in another post…

I like to believe that I taught my son to ask the question “Why?” as frequently as possible, as it is the only way we can create better ways of living and become better people. As dr. Linda Brodsky was saying in her article Conflict Creates Progress–Don’t Let the Unpleasant Get in the Way of “Better” : “We have been lured into believing that behavior that “goes along” is better than behaviour that challenges. I do not agree. If we don’t challenge ourselves and others to question what we do, why we do it and how we do it, then we are stuck in the mistakes of today without the hope of a better tomorrow.”

About Books

 

Growing up in a communist Eastern European country there was not much to do as a teenager: no drugs to get high and cry what a tough life I have, no crazy parties with dozens of kids and flowing alcohol, no Playstation or Computer games to play for days and thus avoid the reality of unhappy or uncomfortable feelings. Yet we all had to face the same problems as other teenagers around the world did: body issues, mood swings, peer pressure, bullying, and so on. The only things that we did were small stuff: going out on bicycle trips to the outskirts of the city to get a juice at a rundown bistro, play soccer or tennis or basketball (some of us but I was not too much of an athlete), skip a class or two just to listen to Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Marley or Beethoven and Chopin while enjoying a forbidden cigarette and sometimes a glass of home made wine, or just spend time in the park, talking, laughing, socializing. I mostly liked to spend my time reading. For all the issues I would encounter there was a character I could identify with and find solutions for my real life. Or this is what I thought. Sometimes it would work, most of the times it would fail and I had to move on to the next problem as life was not going to wait for me to solve everything!

My parents had quite a library at home and my grandmother who was watching over us during the day had this rule: never touch any books that are on the upper shelves. Those were the forbidden books, books that she used to say that were too difficult for us to understand at that age. Well, the tactic was super efficient: I read only the ones on the upper shelves but strangely enough I could never finish them as new ones kept on showing up. Being the smart woman she was, she never over encouraged me to read. There were no balloons, cakes or clapping, no “atta girl” and let’s throw her a party every time I would finish a book. She kept a very good balance between praising and nagging me about reading too much. Thus I always saw reading not as a chore nor as a bragging right: it was just a normal daily activity, more like washing your face or  sitting down at dinner table.

After I landed in Canada, I stopped reading. There was no time, no money or state of mind for books. Basically over night I went from being surrounded by family, friends, books and a highly stimulating intellectual environment in a culture I knew so well to being a single mother with one maybe two friends, no material possessions, a crappy job and my own drama unfolding in front of my eyes in a foreign culture and language. Life was getting complicated and I had to get rid of a few of my habits if I wanted to stay afloat; I had no more time to myself and even when I could steal a few minutes, I was too exhausted, mentally and physically to be able to concentrate on reading. My personal life was providing me with way too much excitement to allow my brain any time or strength to analyze and understand some or any fictional characters. The television seemed to be a better mind tranquilizer.

For the first few years I had the feeling my brain was wasting one cell at a time. Back home, reading, researching and debating ideas used to be a daily occurrence. Life used to happen at a faster pace and you had to stay relevant. Working with teenagers and also in the radio industry forced me to stay on top of trends not only in fashion and music but literature, lifestyle, and the economy as well. All these on top of the most debated subjects ever: soccer and politics. My personal struggles to fit and succeed in the new country were not the only cause of my habit change.

Choice back home was limited. After communism fell, the variety of any products or services had increased but not to the scale I was faced with here, in Canada. From food to clothes to bread and beverages, they all come in a one hundred thousand varieties. To choose the best product you need is a daunting time consuming exercise. I still have a tough time going to Subway for example to get a sandwich. The first hurdle and the most difficult step is to choose the bread!  I usually go for the Italian Herbs and Cheese for no other reason other than the fact that I like the way the name sounds. But I could select Italian bread, or Rosemary and Sea Salt, or Hearty Italian, Jalapeño Cheese, Monterey Cheddar, Parmesan Oregano, Roasted Garlic, 9-Grain Wheat, 9-Grain Honey Oat, Italian, Italian Herbs & Cheese or Flatbread. Wow! Did I get them all? And yet, they have no bread with olives or nuts, things that I really like! I think my feelings have just been hurt!  🙂

It was 2001 and I knew I had no budget for books at all but I really wanted to step into a Chapters or Indigo as they were the Cathedrals of my imagination. I missed touching the crisp pages of the new books, I wanted to inhale the scent of the newly printed novels, I just wanted to lose myself for one hour into my favourite playroom. I took advantage of a birthday party my son was invited to, dropped him there half an hour earlier just to be sure and drove to the nearest Chapters. The first five minutes or so I walked aimlessly around the store trying to understand the layout. Nothing made sense to me. So many faces and names that I had never heard of were smiling glamorously at me from glossy covers taking the best spots in the huge store. Big Best Seller, Oprah’s Book Club or Heather’s Pick stamps and signs were demanding your attention. Where should I go first? Who was this Heather and why I had never heard of her? Is it that long ago that I stopped following any news in the literary world? And why is Who Moved My Cheese a best seller?  The selection was overwhelming! I had no criteria to sort through the madness! I felt hopelessly lost.

I wanted to visit the book store not only for the books but hoping to find a safe place where I could shut off my brain and let my senses take control and  through smell and touch of books and sight of familiar faces and printed names connect the old life with the new life. After two stressful years I needed that common denominator to help me start growing roots and find a reason to pull through that period of my life that was not happy, stable or fulfilling on any level: professional or personal.  It seemed that it was not meant to be. I could not recognize any names, the titles were absolutely hilarious and most of the books were dealing with self help – a subject that I have never been a big fan of but it seemed to be a big hit here. It looked like my only hope of finding a familiar place inhabited by familiar characters was impossible to find.

Feeling down and still having some time before I needed to pick my son up, I moved towards the back of the library. It was quieter and I thought I could just grab a book, no matter which and read for a few minutes. I thought I also saw a sale sign and I had developed a real attraction for it  that I am still fighting to get over! I got closer and my eyes lit with happiness: all  Penguin Classics were on sale. Familiar names on small, unattractive covers ( from a commercial perspective) were waiting patiently for somebody, anybody to take them home. I did not have money to spare but, I had to find a way to take a few of these with me. Shoplifting crossed my mind for a second or two, but the thought I was the only “responsible” adult in my son’s life killed that thought. I took a quick executive decision and decided to splurge and not think about consequences! I picked up John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Aristotle’s The Politics and Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, Caesar and Cleopatra and Captain Brassbound’s Conversion . All for the huge amount for me at that time of CAD $16.90.

It was one of the first moments I felt good in my new country.  I was impressed and I admired a lot of things here but at the time I had little or no reason to feel good about me or my decision to emigrate. But now, holding tightly to the books I felt like I was getting back some of the old Michaela and I liked that one so much better.

In time I learnt how to filter through all the best sellers that pop up almost on a monthly basis; I learnt that best sellers are not necessarily  the best read, quite the opposite. I learnt that Heather is the CEO of Chapters and quite a good book critic on whose opinion I have based some of my purchases before the Internet and Amazon and Google took over. I learnt to deal with choice although at times I still feel overwhelmed. I feel better about my decisions and about myself but I still fight the occasional mood swings when I miss my old self and my old friends.

In the meantime, I managed to cover some of my walls with books and I feel the happiest when the house is quiet and warm, I am curled on a couch with a book in my hand and a hot tea at my side. That is when I finally feel at home.

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”  Jorge Luis Borges

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First World Problems…

A few years after the 1989 fall of the communist regime, I was contacted by an American College and asked if I would be interested in teaching Romanian culture and language to groups of college students. Groups of 10 to 15 late teens and young adults were to spend three months in the area. It was a unique opportunity for a young  teacher that had read a lot about the world outside of the communist walls but had never come into direct contact with anybody from the western world. To be fair, I had tasted a couple of the western beverages – Teacher’s whiskey and Bacardi rum were my favourites and managed to acquire a few clothing items that I was quite proud of but that was all. It was a new perspective that  I was so eager to explore. What I thought would be a short 3 months, turned out to be a collaboration that would extend over the years up to the very last week of my leaving the country for good. It was a fun time but also a tremendous learning experience for me.

Part of their assignment in Romania was to help with orphanages and the newly created Street Kids program. The orphanage experience was horrendous. In their attempt to maintain a facade of a healthy, happy nation, the directions from the party leaders were clear: all newborns with any kind of disability or HIV were taken from their parents at birth and locked into this orphanages where they were barely kept alive in sub human conditions. Psychologically, emotionally, and physically abused, they were never taught anything and never knew human touch or caress. To say that I was shocked by what I saw  is underestimated. Enough to mention that those images still visit me in the odd nightmares. There were small children in straight jackets or tied to beds and chairs, and toddlers sitting in their own feces, banging their heads on the steel gates of their cribs. Scared, starving and sick. My students were heartbroken. Crying and trying to give hugs to terrified kids that thought we were there for more punishment was hard to watch.

The Street Kids program, provided some heart break as well, but on a different level. Orphans that eluded the system and found refuge in the underground sewage system or kids that ran away from abusive poor families and were living on the streets were a different kind of challenge. Trust was never in their vocabulary and all they knew was how to steal and rob to survive. The mission of the program was to teach them basic skills, hygiene and how to read and write. It was titanic work with a very low rate of success. We were all amateurs in dealing with these high risk kids but tried our best. The excitement and satisfaction I felt when these kids were accomplishing the simplest tasks have yet to be matched. And when the first kid asked if he could help us teach others, we all teared up with joy for a change!

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Conditions have slightly improved since then or this is what I read. I am posting the link to a story that I have been following since 2000. It is the story of Izidor Ruckel, one of the orphans that was adopted by an American family when he was 8. His challenges growing up, his inability to understand love and also why he was abandoned and his continuous struggle to have more and more orphans adopted as early as possible.

Tears? Compassion? Sadness? Yes, for people like him and issues like these I have time, I have lots of tears and tons of compassion. The rest to me is first world problems and I rarely have time, compassion or tears for them.

Photo: Andrei Pandele

If you want to get involved, check out similar programs: Projects Abroad or Global  Volunteers .

Playing Catch…

 

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It was within my first month in Canada when I had to take the bus. I was used to public transit and although it was not my favourite means of transportation, I was happy to let the bus driver navigate the very new environment and deliver me safely to wherever I needed to be. A bus ride should be the same: you go to the bus stop, buy a ticket, get on the bus, get off the bus, end of the story. And yet, to say that I was completely cool and composed is an overstatement. On one hand, it is not in my DNA to be composed and so much more at that moment in time, when even stepping outside of the building was a daunting task. On the other hand, getting on a bus anywhere in my new country, meant to be locked and in possible close contact with Canadians, who , at that time in my head were all either murderers with a common desire to kill me and abandon my remains in the ocean, or they were all super intelligent neuroscientists with above the normal human intelligence. Either options scared the crap out of me.

Almost every immigrant has had at least one psychotic episode. In the article When Immigration is Trauma: Guidelines for the Individual and Family Clinician, RoseMarie Perez Foster Ph D notes: “The migration process is unquestionably linked to major adjustment stressors. The impact of these stressors on mental health are variable and complex. As has been described in excellent reviews of the literature in these areas  […] anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and higher prevalence of serious psychiatric disorders have all been associated with multiple immigrant populations both in and outside of the United States.” I was lucky I developed only some anxiety linked to PTSD but I know of cases that required more than just a paper bag and developing coping skills.

As I was approaching the bus stop, trying to play both scenarios in my head, control the panic that was growing exponentially with every step closer to the sign, I was also trying to come up with reasons why I should just turn, go back home and try another day when one of my friends with a few more years of Canadian experience could accompany me. Unfortunately, before I could solve my dilemma, I was almost falling on the steps of the bus: who knew the bloody buses in Canada accommodate people with disabilities and old age by lowering those steps? Finally in, I offered my ticket to the bus driver but he kept pointing to an odd machine. All I could do was to stare back at him, trying to buy time. Slightly frustrated, he took my ticket, slided it in the machine to be time stamped and handed it back. That is when I found out that a transit ticket, regardless of where it was bought, will be valid for two hours on any public transit service. I moved then quickly towards the back of the bus, trying to find a seat with nobody behind me – just in case a murderer would want to sit there. By the time I sat down, my heart was pounding, my palms were sweaty and I felt like I was ready to burst into tears any second. But I was also patting myself on the back for being so brave and getting on a bus.

The happy feeling did not last long as soon enough I realized the bus did not stop where I needed to get off. Which proved my theory that the driver was one of those murderers out to get me! With a newly found courage and defiance, I swiftly moved towards the front of the bus to confront him. In an English with a heavy accent I yelled at the poor bus driver asking why he did not stop and demanding to turn the bus and take me to MY stop. It is safe to assume it was not his first encounter with people like me. Calmly, he pointed to a big sign on the side of the bus that read: Pull the cord if you need to get off the bus. In 1999 Google was only a new born and the sources of information were usually fellow immigrants with a few more years of living in Canada. With a clear focus on what bus I should take and where I should get off, all my friends forgot to mention that in Canada, buses don’t stop at each bus stop regardless if they have people waiting or not, or if there are people getting off or not. Travellers are responsible for letting the driver know where they need to get off. I felt embarrassed, I felt stupid, I felt I suddenly regressed about 20 years.

It sounds funny now and quite silly. A nice story I tell to break the ice when meeting new people or just another story. In time I got over the embarrassment, I got over the fear of transit, I learnt that Canadians are  mostly decent people and unlikely to kill me with or without cause. One feeling I cannot shake off though is the feeling I am constantly playing catch up. Once you stepped into the new world, as a mature immigrant, everything you once knew changes: the landscape, the climate, the people and their way of thinking, the customs, the language, the time. Unlike the new borns, you are not a white slate ready for all these to mark you and determine the person you will become. You now, have to constantly translate and remodel all the concepts that once were second nature to you.  At first it is only normal not to want to replace anything because you are not ready to let go of any little thing that still reminds you of home. It is and will be for a while the only normal that you can understand, refer to and hold onto tight when nothing makes sense and you feel that life is spinning out of control. On the other hand you need to keep on translating and trying to grasp new concepts, to understand new customs and people and build new connections. But all this constant tribulation between the two lives requires time and time is what you don’t have. Time is what you are trying to catch up to as a whole lot of history happened before you ever set foot in this country and all these happenings have wired the people around in a different way. If I ever want to call Canada home, I have to keep on asking questions and asking for clarifications and making sure I am catching up.

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I have days when I am tired feeling awkward and insecure when I don’t really understand words, people, actions, modus operandi, or just simple tasks that are second nature to everybody around. I get tired of explaining one life through the other life. It would be so much simpler if I could shed one life just as you do with an old sweater. Take it off, put it aside and pick it up on a need basis. But human mind does not work like that. My past or my other life will always pop up hindering my efforts of ever catching up with this present life.

They say being different is a blessing and a curse at the same time. I think I can deal with being different but I struggle with always having to catch up.

Will It Pay Off?

Emigration comes with a long list of aches. Nobody leaves their family and country because of too much happiness and accomplishment. At least I haven’t met anybody that was living a blissful life and one morning, they woke up and said: we are moving to a different country, and new culture. This process is always associated with some level of unhappiness and disillusionment. When the unhappiness and the disillusionment become greater than the ache of leaving behind parents, friends and everything and everybody else that helped you become the person you are right at that moment, you dare to leave. There is one hope that keeps you pulling through the hard times and the low moments: one day, all this effort will pay off.

I have never thought that I would leave my country. I always wanted to move away from my family but to a different city, not country and definitely never fantasized about putting an ocean between us. And yet, here I am, approximately 14 hours of flying plus 4 to 5 hours of driving away from my family. Don’t get me wrong, my family is awesome and I love them with all my heart but I felt that there was no room for me to make any mistakes in my city without affecting my entire family or without my entire family taking full control over my life in an attempt to save me from the perils of modern society. Ok, it sounds almost like I grew up in a religious compound but I did not. It was just a typical patriarchal family, very much supported by the ruling class of the time mainly because it has been proven to produce the most submissive subjects. I just wasn’t the one to submit to my father’s wishes, to my family’s wishes or to any form of authority. I needed to make my own mistakes and to live my life the only way it was acceptable to me: My way. I chose a different city but I ended up on a different continent.

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Fast forward fifteen years and I have checked a long list of pains and aches and another one of gains and joys. To get the answer if my emigration paid off, theoretically I should put the two lists side by side and for every pain, cross out a gain and see which way the balance tips. If only it would work this way! If I could neutralize the “Your degree after years of hard work means nothing to Canada” with “I can pay my bills through Internet and don’t have to stand in line for hours” or ” You have no Canadian experience therefore you can not be employed at this time” with “I am confident the health system will take care of me” or “It costs me an arm, a leg and a kidney to buy a plane ticket to hug my parents once every three to five years” with ” I have a wonderful husband that loves me and my family”… As much as I try, I can not do the math… at least not yet…

This week I lost my aunt. She was 83 and you might say it was her time. And probably it was. I knew she was not well and we were somehow expecting it to happen. I thought the geographical distance between us will soften the pain and work as a tranquillizer, the same kind the dentist uses. I thought I would be the strength my dad will need to burry his sister. I thought that I am only remotely connected to people in my past after so many years of living abroad. I was wrong.

Mama Shela, as I used to call her, was always there for whoever needed help, a good word or just a good talk. She lived 10 minutes away and I don’t really remember any celebration, anniversary, wedding or funeral or any Sunday without her. She was always bringing treats and wooing over all the new babies in the family. Actually, she was notorious for spoiling us all. Last time I went home, I happened to mention one dessert she used to make and the next day she called for us to come and get it, as it was too heavy for her to carry it but it was not too much for her to make it. She probably knew more than half of the city and their family history and could talk to you forever about every member of our family for the last three or four generations. Her last twenty years were not a walk in the park… She lost her husband, she lost her house, then her only daughter, but lived to see, love and spoil her great grand daughter.

This week it’s been one of the times when I hated the physical distance I put between me and my family. I could not neutralize with anything the pain of not being able to attend her funeral, to say my good bye, to hug my dad and my mom and to help my brother organize everything. With a bit of luck and good connections I might have been able to get there in the morning of the funeral, tired and of no help for anybody else.  So, once again, I found myself wondering if emigration with all its pains and aches, will ever pay off? And then, I remembered my dad’s eyes tearing up and his face lightening with relief learning that we are helping him with the costs for the funeral. And I remembered my husband holding me tight and asking me not if but when I need to fly out.

And I finally realized that adding and subtracting, comparing and dividing is not important in life. Physical distance does not destroy emotional connections and does not numb feelings but it forces your mind to recreate old places and dear people. Over time nostalgia takes over and like a good mother, keeps us focused on the good and the beautiful, strengthening the old bonds.

 

The Art of Being a Brother … or Sister

trabant-601-04If you are asking me, a novice motorbike rider that has not yet caught a taste for twists and wind in your face, the best part of a ride is greeting other fellow bikers, or giving the (in)famous Riders’ Wave. Now seriously, how many other owners of vehicles do you know that will take the time to salute a fellow Saturn owner, for example? None! We, the bikers, don’t discriminate: whatever make or kind, whatever colour or art, we will always wave at each other. With a few exceptions: if you ride a Harley Davidson, we say Hello, you most often give us the nod! Or this is what we think as nobody likes to be ignored! Just to be clear, scooters and mopeds are NOT motorbikes, therefore acknowledging their presence on the road will definitely bring an uproar of dissatisfaction with possible grave repercussions from the bikers community! On the Can-Am’s and other 3 wheeled motorcycles, the jury is still out there! I wave anyway… just because I am friendly!

But how do you wave? Actually, I am quite confused why it is called a wave when all you do is extend your arm out. My kind of a wave is extending your arm out upwards and shaking it violently from the elbow, right to left or left to right . But I will not debate now the anatomy of a wave. Let’s discuss the multiple ways the riders wave! It turns out that the number of fingers one extends will tell the other rider how many cylinders his bike has: 2 fingers out – 2 cylinders, 4 fingers out – 4 cylinders. Now, to make things even more complicated, watch for which fingers you are extending. No, the middle finger is never a good choice when meeting a biker – you never know which one you just offended: the nice guy, that will laugh it off or the bad guy that will make sure you will not be able to move any fingers for an undetermined period of time! So, if you want to really tell the others that you are riding on top of 2 cylinders, extend your thumb and your index.  What if your bike is a 6 cylinder beast? I could not find a perfect answer on all the forums I researched but I would go with either one of my 2 favourites: the peace sign with the fingers pointing to the road or the low Hi five.

Unclear to me is who has the time to check out your wave and count the number of cylinders. Just imagine: let’s say I meet you on the road, riding at a comfortable (probably for you only at this moment) 70 km/hour. We wave at each other but I just could not be sure – did you wave 2 fingers or 4 fingers at me? 2 or 4 cylinders?  Exactly: I really don’t care! The fact that you waved is the important part! Remember Shakespeare? Remember Juliet’s famous quote: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.” Allow me to trivialize a bit the lines: what’s in a wave? That which we call a wave/By any other name would mean as much! Two fingers or 4 fingers, Hi fives or Peace wave, they all used to mean the same: if you ever are in need, we will be there to help you out! I don’t know and I hope I will never find out if the meaning behind the wave is still there. What I know is that the group of friends we are riding with will do just that: always stop and make sure you and/or your bike are ok.

There is another personal reason why I wave:it brings back memories from back home where I used to be the proud owner of a Trabant. Some of you might have heard about this corky East German car. I call it corky but most of the conoisseurs call it junk. Although the name is related to the Russian word Sputnik (satellite)  the little Trabi had nothing to do with speed, safety, scientific or technological development. Designed first as a 3 wheeled motorcycle, somehow it ended as an air-cooled two cylinder 500 cc, (later 600cc) two-stroke engine encased in a steel cage, draped in a plastic shell made out of recycled cotton or paper.

Small, light, grossly inefficient and extremely pollutant, owning a Trabant was good mainly for the ego: in a communist country where cars were scarce, to own a car meant that you somehow made it. The selection was quite limited: you could buy only a Dacia or an Oltcit, both Trabi and usRomanian made cars, a Wartburg or a Trabant, both East German cars. But there was something special about the Trabant and its owners besides the fact that the pre-owned cars were cheaper than the other makes and quit well taken care of: once you bought one, it was like going under a spell. The car came with an imaginary membership to a unique community: supportive, helpful and proud.

On a highway, country road or side road, wherever the car broke, you would always see more than one person working to fix the car. It did not really matter how busy or rushed you were, if a fellow Trabant owner was having mechanical issues, you stopped. If drivers like me, with little to no mechanical understanding or inclination, would happen to drive by, they would still stop and offer a coffee, a sandwich or just moral support. And as there were not that many cars in the country we were a very tight community; failing to stop (even if your wife was almost delivering your baby on the passenger seat) was considered the biggest snub ever and we all lived with the fear that next time when it happens our Trabi to let us down in the middle of the street nobody will stop!

In a country where the Secret Police’s job was to make sure nobody trusted anybody, it was the camaraderie that we all treasured. It had a subtle subversive note to it. The meetings were random and unplanned but between a couple pieces of advice on how to fix the engine, we would always slip something against the government, the communist leader and against the poor life we all were living. And it felt good. The blink of the headlights every time we would meet in traffic was more than just hello, I have your back! It was one of the few things that the government had no control over, could not censor or strangle.

So, wave on fellow riders! And smile, and nod and stop by for a coffee and a story! There is no better feeling than knowing I am now part of a great family.

 

How to Keep Momentum Going

Iona ParkWe all watched the Olympics in Sochi this year and rooted for our athletes. I will admit that other than figure skating, sport that I simply adore, I am not a big fan of the winter sports. I will sometimes watch ski jumping  and cross country skiing but with the same interest I would sometimes watch curling. Read here: no interest whatsoever! As they have no one competing in figure skating, I never watched the Paralympic games, therefore I am not familiar with the names of our Paralympic athletes. So, the other day when the Global News Crew had Josh Dueck as a guest I really did not get that excited. I remained in front of the TV just because I had 2 more lives in my Fruit Splash game and it was necessary to move up a level for my and everybody else’s mood for the rest of the day. I found out that Josh became a Paralympic athlete after a work accident on the ski slopes and, he brought back home a gold and a silver medal. What actually caught my attention was what he said about how he felt after the competition: coming back home after reaching his goal, he sank into depression. So, I was confused. I would have probably still be on the phone, trying to  contact almost every human being on the planet just to inform them of my success while obviously continuing to celebrate! After all, it was only last month that it happened.

It must feel terrible when you have this great momentum working for you and reaching your goals just to have to stop and reset your life. I have never thought about success in this way. I am usually happy to put a check mark in front of a particular accomplishment and I quickly move to another project, most often unrelated to the previous one. But great accomplishments don’t work like that. Great accomplishments are more like snowballs: it is tough to start them and even harder to make them roll down the hill without breaking apart, but once you have them rolling, they will become bigger and stronger with every small or bigger task mastered.

My passing the MSA although it meant a lot to me and infused a new kind of poise into my old self was only the beginning of a momentum! I have to keep on building on my success and grow my skills and my confidence. Contrary to what I felt in my heart, by only graduating to a higher level in my training it does not mean I now am a motorcycle rider.  But how do you keep that momentum without giving into distraction? There are so many other things that either I should do or I want to do!  And what do I do with my other mind that keeps whispering into my ear that I will never be as good as my other friends and I should just give up an be happy with that I have accomplished so far?

I turned to books again and this time it was Sir Isaac Newton, the father of physics that talked to me through his First Law of Motion: the tendency of a body in motion is to keep moving; the tendency of a body at rest is to sit still. The way I understand this is that between the frequency and the duration of an action, the more important is the frequency.  The more I go out on the street and ride, the more confident and skilled I become.

When my husband asked if I were up for a longer ride than around the house as we had done so far, he thought the chances I would say yes were fifty/fifty . But I said Yes, before he finished asking. Mainly because I was scared my Other brain will start talking to my (somehow) Working brain and I will end up doubting my aptitudes and capabilities again. By the time I started realizing what was happening, I was all geared up, on my motorcycle, getting out of the garage. Too late to turn back! It was a Sunday morning with few cars on the streets so for the first part of the ride I kept on building on my confidence.  The more I advanced into the busier intersections, the less anxious I felt.  We got to Iona Park, our destination, without any incidents. I was happy but I became ecstatic when I saw how proud and happy my husband was! These days I don’t have many things to make him feel proud of me. Everything I have starts with “I used to be this and do that… ”

On our way back we stopped for a coffee in the Village. I managed to park my bike facing the street and I definitely took my time taking my helmet off, checking the oil again, cleaning a couple of imaginary spots on the seat and making sure the entire street saw me getting off that beautiful Honda. I proudly strutted towards the coffee shop where we had a coffee and let all our Facebook friends know what we were up to. For the first time, I did not feel like a fraud wearing all the gear! I was proud and happy but a bit on the verge of becoming arrogant and annoying!

All my training the phrase that kept being repeated every 5 minutes was: build your muscle memory! Well, I did build some but coming back to the bikes I realized that there was one memory that I need to work on: taking the key out of the engine when going for coffee! To my husband’s horror and my total embarrassment, I forgot to take the key with my awesome self after I parked!  Oops!

It took us another week or so until I got back into the saddle and the momentum was gone. I was shaky and unsure and made quite a few mistakes. Maybe my head was not in the game or maybe my Other mind had enough time to start questioning my abilities… I knew I know better than that! So, I put together a plan and I officially (in my head) put together a team made up of Myself and My husband as he is the most reliable person in my life. And this is the plan:

  • There will be no rides the same or on the same roads! My husband is in charge with re-setting greater goals for each ride.
  • My effort is the only one that will take me a step higher so, I will not wait for anybody to drag me out of the house but I will put the effort in blocking time for us to go riding
  • Set a date for the Road Test and work towards passing it the first time! I get distracted so easily that I am afraid that without a set date I will find something else that will sound more interesting to pursue. Scheduling my road test will feel more like a commitment not only to ICBC but to everybody around me that has been so supportive.

In Seth Godin’s words, “Momentum is incredibly useful to someone who has to overcome fear, dig in deep and ship. Momentum gives you a reason to overcome your fear and do your art ” It is easy to lose or fear momentum, he says, but when you have commitments and appointments you have to start doing the work and usually this acts like a jump start to get you into the zone.

So, for now, I will try to hang on to the momentum and see where it takes me!

 

 

From Scared Mouse to Feared Rider…

Mark Twain once said that “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” We are all afraid of something: spiders, heights, speed, deep water, birds, darkness, public speech, failure, you name it… and we all handle our fears differently. Some of us better than others… but if not mastered, fear is a debilitating ailment that will take over your mind and cripple your body to the point where you cannot see the way out, even if you are standing right in front of it. On the flip side, once kept in check, it will allow you to experience amazing places, people and feelings but most importantly, will take you one step closer to enjoying life.

According to the scientists, everything starts with the part of the brain called Thalamus, in charge with receiving and sending the sensory data that our mouth, eyes, ears, and skin collect and ends with the Hypothalamus, the part of brain that either activates the “Oh shit I’m gonna die” response known as “flight”or the “OK, I will deal with it” aka “Fight” kind. My hypothalamus was once brave but in time, has slowly given up on me and most often than not it sends the “Oh shit I’m gonna die” signals.

The chrome and metal, the flames and all exquisite artwork on the motorbikes are meant to intimidate. Sure, if you talk to a rider, they will be quick to point out that this is just a small factor they considered the main being safety: the shinier the bike, the more visible. The first time I saw my silver Shadow, I fell in love. I fell in love with the classic look, with the extra comfortable Corbin seat, and with a vision.  With the vision that a conservative and princessy girl like me will potentially be able to control the silver beast. Wearing a cool motorcycle suit.

The sound of the double pipes, was another thing that sent shivers down my spine. No, they were not of pleasure but of fear. I remember looking up to my husband in utter panic, just to see his whole face inundated with glowing pleasure and pure ecstasy. I forced a smile and, as I did not have anything else, gave him a thumbs up while taking a couple of steps back. All I could hang on to was the vision of a very slender and younger looking me in a cool motorcycle suit.

The rest is history. I kept on freaking out and allowed the sounds and looks of the motorcycles to access the drawer where I keep all my biases and stereotypes. It seemed like I could never get over them or reclaim my confidence. I failed my first MSA test and it did not look like I would ever be able to ride. Shocking? Not quite as I could not see myself in any of the predetermined categories my mind was associating the motorcycle riders with.

Then I took my Shadow out. Going from a 250 cc to a 600 cc was a bit of a stretch at the time but I was able to ride it. After a bit of practice in a deserted parking lot I could even make eights, I could stop the right way, and I could shift. Then, we went out on the street. Sure I held the traffic back and 30 km/hr was all I could do but I rode a real bike on a real street. The next time we rode, I managed to take a corner in the 2nd gear and even leaned a bit. My heart was racing, but the disappointment that nobody on the street would stop and cheer on my accomplishment changed my mood from excitement to anger. My husband’s voice in the intercom brought me back to planet earth and I joined his excitement. It was a great day. I was ready for another shot at the MSA.

Going back to a 250 cc motorcycle boosted my confidence and took away the fear of power. I was now able to listen to instructions and follow them without worrying about how powerful and loud the engine was. I was now listening and feeling the engine, I was having a dialogue with my bike and I hoped I would win it. My shock came during the lunch break when the instructor looked at me and said: “you are doing a fantastic job!” I looked back at him, looked around and back at him. Yes, he was talking to me. I mumbled a feeble Thank you and parked my bike. At that moment I knew I was winning. Actually, I did win: I passed my MSA test.

My next challenge was the traffic qualifier. A combination of shifting up and down 1st to 3rd gear, emergency braking at higher speed (30 km/hr) with a slow controlled riding on a tight S-like portion. I knew the course. I tried it before and after 3 unsuccessful attempts I gave up thinking I will first have to make a pact with the devil and then try again. Well, this time, as the devil was busy with some other business, I had to try it again, by myself. And I did it! And I did it so well! All I had to do was to concentrate, apply all the things I learned and … enjoy! My excitement was so big at the end, that I almost dropped the bike in an attempt to jump off it into my husband’s arms! 🙂

Have I magically lost all my fears of riding? Definitely not! But I learned once again that fear in itself is illogical and thrives when you stay within a well-beaten path in your comfort zone. I also learned that being adventurous does not mean being stupid but rather being open to learning new skills with safety always on your mind.  I would often recite this out loud with that superior smugness whenever I felt it was fit, but I never really understood it. Riding a bicycle was as far as my adventurous spirit would stretch.

Now, I stand a bit taller, a lot more confident and I enjoy every moment a pedestrian stops to watch me  riding by in my pink jacket and on my silver beauty. I am now looking forward to the times I will be skilled enough to ride with our friends, enjoy the thrills of a twisty road and bask in the warmth of the many friendships we have made.

Parking Lot Training

After taking my knowledge test and sitting in 2 days of theory classes, I started  my 2 days of parking lot training. It was painful, frustrating, maddening, exhausting, difficult, tough, fun and even more difficult. At the end of the two days I was exhausted, physically and mentally and painfully aware of all the skills a motorcycle rider has to have in order to keep herself / himself and all the other traffic participants around safe. Unfortunately I also became painfully aware of  my own mental blocks that kept getting in my way.

One of the first things I had to figure out was why I want to ride: am I doing it for myself or to please my husband and to prove something to my friends? I needed time to understand myself and my reasons. Eventually I had one of the many  AHA moments: it was my desire to become part of the riders community which I was already exposed to, when riding on the back of my husband’s Valkyrie. I just wanted a bit more than being a member by association only.

I did not think it would be easy to learn. I have never rode a dirt bike, I don’t necessarily like to drive – it is more something that I need to do and I have barely ridden a bicycle. The first day of training was an absolute disaster. I was scared to even turn on the engine. There were a couple of times when I got so confused and overwhelmed that I could not tell you which was the clutch and which was the front brake. I was revving the engine so high because my right hand kept on leaning on the throttle. The noise of the revved up engine is a devil in itself. Our brain is wired in such a way that we associate the noise with power and speed. It took me a while to understand that as long as I know where the clutch is the noise is just … noise.

By the end of day one I was miserable and mad, so incredibly mad. I also realized that I had started this process with a wrong attitude: I had no confidence in my ability to learn therefore I projected all my fears onto my instructors who, in turn, in a “life imitating textbook” scenario attached all the stereotypes to my persona. I was facing now a double challenge: get over my mental blocks while fighting to change his biased opinion and his subsequent approach when dealing with me. Thus I became a real life example of Merton’s self fulfilling prophecy.

Although more and more women take up riding, the industry is not changing fast enough. According to a 2012 statistics from the Motorcycle Industry Council, the industry trade group that tracks the number of women in motorcycling in USA, cited by Genevieve Schmitt, the founder of Women Riders Now Magazine, almost 25% ( 1 in 4) of the riders are females and from 2003 to 2012, the estimated number of female motorcycle operators increased 35 percent.  And yet, there is little to no regard to accommodating the needs of the female riders. I definitely needed a different approach in getting over my mental blocks that was not there yet. As a man, when you announce that you will take up riding a motorcycle, unless you talk to your mother, you usually get the thumbs up, attaboy kind of a reply. When I announced the virtual and real world that I will take a shot at riding a motorbike, I mostly got the “are you crazy/suicidal?’ kind of replies from the people outside of the riding community.

Day 2 came with a new instructor and a new found attitude: I could start the motorcycle, take sharp turns, managed a couple of tight circles too. My position on the bike changed, stopped riding on the foot brake and had a new found confidence that I could do it.

I started developing the skills and there were a few times when I even impressed myself. Unfortunately, I was not confident enough and failed my MST (motorcycle skills test).  Sure, part of it is my inability  to develop the necessary level of confidence to let my newly acquired skills take over and not to over analyze and double guess myself. But part of me is frustrated: if I had had a qualified instructor to understand that not all people’s brains are wired the same and would have not given up on me before the course even started, I might have had a different outcome.

We were 4 women in the group among which 2 mothers. The 2 mothers faired the worse. Generally speaking, women are extremely safety conscious; becoming mothers, safety becomes an even more important issue for mothers and, at times can be crippling. Motorcycling is a dangerous sport. Therefore, no matter how much you want to learn, I feel that with women, instructors need to address first their fear of danger, of taking unnecessary risks.

All these being said, I am still happy I chose Open Road . There are not that many motorcycle schools to begin with, and they mostly cater to the needs of men. I have heard first hand stories about  instructors that refuse to sign up women unless somebody else helped them get over the fear and on the bike and showed them the basic controls prior to the course. With Open Road at least  I got the basics even if in a rush format, and now it is up to me to practise and get where I want to be. I wish I would not have been told that I was too scared or not confident enough. Although their intentions were good, all I heard was: we can not teach you anything…

For the last few days I have been reading a lot about other women’s riding experiences and one thing that surprised me is the difference in hours offered by training schools and actual hours needed to build up the basic skills. In BC, schools offer 2 days of parking lot training which translates into approximately 10 hours. Because of the poor start we had, as a group we were offered another half of a day, about 4 more hours to bring us up to speed. Well, from what I have read and my own experience, to really feel confident you got the basics covered, one might need approximately 50 hours.  Do I think all of them should be covered through schools? No, but everybody would benefit of an extra day of parking lot training.

There is no such thing as “fear of riding” but there is fear of leaning in curves, fear of too much throttle, fear of braking, fear of  falling, fear of slow speed manoeuvres, fear of riding on wet surfaces, or at night, or in a group or by yourself, and the list can go on. I’ve learnt that it is important to tackle each and every one of these fears. Avoiding them will never cure your fears. Only by doing you can overcome every obstacle. The key though is one at a time. One new concept at a time, one fear conquered at a time.  If not, you will do nothing else but add another obstacle to your list: becoming overwhelmed and unable to process or follow the simplest tasks.

 

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