THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

Bojana, are you ready to go on? Alright.

I want you to focus again and try to remember everything, even things you forgot, wanted to forget and think you don’t remember. You limbs are getting heavy…heavier. It feels as if your hands and fingers were made of lead…You are sinking into perfect relaxation. I’ll count backwards now. 10, 9, 8…Inhale. Exhale.7….deeper still…6…let it all go now…5. Still drifting down…4, 3, 2…You feel this heavy relaxation in all parts of your body…deep and misty…Allow yourself to relax. Open your mind and your heart. Unburden…1.

Tell me what is going on.

 

It’s Sunday afternoon, May 4, 1980 and we’re enjoying our weekend. The TV screen goes black for a few seconds. A statement is read live on national TV:

Comrade Tito has died. His great heart stopped beating at 3:05 PM.’

I’m 3. ‘Mom, why are you crying? Mom, don’t be sad. Is it me? Did I do something wrong?’ I’m too little to understand, too little to remember. Scenes of mass crying in the streets and during the live broadcast of a soccer match. The whole country is mourning Tito’s demise, expressing numbed disbelief and promising to remain loyal to his policy. He is buried in Belgrade, Serbia, in the House of Flowers a few days later, in the presence of 209 delegations from 127 countries, 700,000 people and a direct television broadcast of the funeral procession in 58 states. Tito’s funeral is noted as the most attended presidential funeral in the history of mankind to that time. To date, 17.5 million people have visited the Mausoleum.

Tito’s regime outlives him by as many as 10 years. An average Yugoslav lives in blissful ignorance throughout the 80s, that is the one who has a job. Life is comfortable. My family travels a lot: France, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, Greece, Egypt. Little do we know that in a few years from now everything will fall apart. No one sees an economic collapse and civil unrest on the horizon. Nobody could have predicted such a downfall, really.

The mid 80s are challenging time for a country poising precariously between economic welfare and social catastrophe. Yugoslavia is falling into heavy IMF debt due to the large number of loans taken out by the regime. Another concern is the unemployment rate, severely aggravating in the second half of the decade.  Self-management ultimately drops the ball by the end of the 80s because of its bureaucratic degeneration and authoritarian political structure, where the seemingly autonomous working class has always played second fiddle to strong leaders, accepting their decisions uncritically. Basically, CEOs have been responsible to higher CEOs, instead of workers’ councils, and have as a rule had strong political ties. Knowing that the party has been god of all gods there, I’m sure you get the picture. What is more, after Tito’s death, political elites promote the idea of republican or ethnic working classes, as opposed to the united Yugoslav working class advocated by the late president. In other words, republics and autonomous provinces favorize their own working class by for example giving their workers inordinate wage increases, which creates even a bigger gap between the more developed and underdeveloped republics. The regional inequalities result in an economic crisis which further leads to a deterioration of the living standard. Let me put it into perspective for you. The scope of work is decreasing, companies are becoming insolvent, low wages, unsteady paychecks, lower wages, minimum wages, no paychecks AT ALL, millions are behind on bills, workers’ motivation is non-existent, work discipline zero, efficiency fictional. The outcome: the end of the movie for self-management. It was nice while it lasted. Two thumbs up for workers’ councils that survived for 40 years. Wow. Honestly. No kidding. I guess it would have been too much to ask…

However, there’s another problem. Besides the financial crisis, there’s also the crisis of system legitimacy after Tito’s death, with the long-simmering revival of nationalism coming to a boil by the end of the 80s. The introduction of self-management and decentralization was meant to encourage the liberalization and democratization of the mutual space. However, market competition turned the companies and republics into competitors, which then made republics’ party oligarchies act first as the guardians of republic interests and then the nationalist ones in the 80s.

With Tito’s death, Yugoslavia’s 6 constituent republics gain more autonomy, with a rotating presidency. The main issues troubling the elites in the post-Tito era turn primarily into a Serbian-Slovenian debate, marked by a growing divergence in the ‘national question.’ Confusing time. Before long, the fragile union he held together starts to unravel. The forces of nationalism he kept under control are unleashed, culminating in a brutal three-sided civil war hard to imagine in 20th century Europe. The outbreak of nationalism is followed by the awakening of patriarchal values, as is often the case. Surely there are civil initiatives, organizations and groups in all republics warning of the rapid militarization of society, nationalist mobilization and consequences they might have. Unfortunately, none of these anti-war movements is strong enough to prevent or stop the war. The end result: over 100,000 people killed (and God knows how many missing), 2 million driven from their homes, and Yugoslavia disintegrated.

The Croats and Slovenes, always reserved about Yugoslav unity, decide to secede. The latter try to avoid warfare, suggesting a plan for a loosely united country, based on the Swiss model of independent yet confederated cantons. The proposal is however turned down by other parties wanting full autonomy. Slovenia is the first Yugoslav republic to hold multi-party elections in the spring of 1990, which comes as no surprise. It is the most western-oriented, prosperous and ethnically homogeneous. Tensions are growing. The future of the country is at stake. We are cool…or just pretending. I’m an 8th grader about to take the grammar school entrance exam in Serbian (easy peasy) and math (ouch). My parents are panic-stricken and worried about my future. She’ll never make it. She sucks. Yeah, I know. But I’m cool (for real, not pretending). I rarely study.

Croatia is next to request more autonomy. First armed incidents begin, with open hostilities escalating in the majority-Serb populated areas in March/April 1991. Practice questions and tests, exam registration information, FAQs, tips, prep books, workbooks, study guides…not for me though, for my sister. She’s ready (read: if she’s ready, I’m ready too). I walk into the big room full of students and teachers, cool as ice. A kick-ass cheater, Tito’s school. Slovenia declares independence on June 25, 1991. Belgrade sends the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) to take control of its borders with Italy and Austria. Fighting breaks out on June 27, which will last 10 days. A total of 47 JNA soldiers are killed, aged between 18 and 22 from all the ethnic groups of Yugoslavia. The whole nation is shocked. I pass the exam with honors by applying the infamous partner (sister)-cheating method, that is copying down the answers sissy wrote on a ruler, and disposing of the evidence without getting caught. I’m shocked. I knew I’d pass but never thought my test scores would show such brilliant performance. I’m 14 and happy. I’ve got a crush on an out-of-towner. In September, the Republic of Macedonia gains its independence from Yugoslavia. My freshman year in high school may officially begin.

As violence erupts in Slovenia and Croatia, predominately Muslim Bosnia and Herzegovina (43% of the population) is ominously quiet until the fall of ‘91, when President Izetbegović starts to pursue independence. Bosnian Serbs (31%) oppose, creating their own ‘state’ and enjoying military support of Serbian President Milošević and JNA. The stage for a bloody secession is set. On the first school day, I sit down at a random empty desk in the third row by the window, where I remain till the end of high school. By the time I become a senior, it’ll be full of scribbles, hard to decipher by anyone but me.

The methods used by Croatian President Tuđman are extreme, invoking the spirit of the fascist and ultra-nationalist past. Its more than half-million Serb residents see the writing on the wall and begin to rise up, declaring independence from Croatia. JNA, now dominated by Serbs, sweeps in to put down the Croat rebellion and keep the nation together. The standoff lasts from 1991 to 1995, throughout my high school, and is full of scribbles, hard to decipher by anyone to date, let alone me. The now well-equipped Croatian army retakes the Serb-occupied areas in two offensives, retaliating for earlier ethnic cleansing by doing pretty much the same: torturing and murdering people, and destroying their homes. Scenes of warplanes opening fire on refugees. An eye for an eye. Most of remaining 300,000 Croatian Serbs, many of whom have been killed, are forced into Serbia. Up to now, few have returned. Croatia immediately establishes the borders that exist today.

In spring 1992, the Serb take control of a strip of Muslim-majority towns, also invading numerous mixed-ethnicity towns and villages, executing, and arresting thousands of Bosniaks and Croats (17% of the population), many of whom are taken to concentration or rape camps, while the remaining ones are forced to leave their homes. Bosnia, with its gruesome attacks and unthinkable atrocities, is torn apart, along with many families forced to choose sides. Absurd time. I now live in the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, created from the two remaining federal republics of Yugoslavia after its breakup in ‘92. Cut-off phone lines between post-Yugoslav republics become an everyday reality. The best is yet to come. In the beginning, Bosniaks and Croats fight together against Serbs but, once tensions increase, the former allies engage in open conflict. There’s the so-called Croat–Bosniak war, or ‘war within a war,’ part of the larger Bosnian war, lasting from Oct 1992 to Feb 1994. Bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all). Violent time.

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My generation is coming of age, watching the war live in neighboring Croatia and Bosnia, with its unspeakable cruelties, monstrosities, sieges, shelling, mass murders, mass rapes, mass graves, attacks and counter-attacks, led by regular and paramilitary armies, with thousands of soldiers and civilians killed, displaced and disappeared on all three sides. The world loathes it, the world is disgusted, the world is watching in discomfort, the world condemns it. The world is sending over ‘the Smurfs’ (UN Protection Force). They have the best seats in the theater, sitting in the first row. They are watching. The world pays no mind.

We’re boisterous, feisty and tough, my friends and me, or just play tough. We don’t suck up to upperclassmen. We’re no underdogs. We’re the intolerant and contemptuous ones. There are no cuties to crush on either so we might as well hate their guts. Eventually, we decide to pursue a middle way. We’re sort of on speaking terms, but I can’t say we’re friends either. Befriending refugees with a suitcase full of memories. We hate rules and being told what to do. We hate things that are compulsory. We defy authority. The principal’s a jerk. Teachers too (with a couple of exceptions). Many look down on us, so how can we look up to them?! We are smartasses with superior intellect, perception and wit, beating them so easily that it hurts.

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No one gets suspended or expelled. It’s not that kind of school. There’s nothing much they can do, which annoys the hell out of them. We’re unbearable. When a teacher starts asking too many questions, we sneak off for a quick grope in one of the empty classrooms on the 3rd floor. Experimental time sharing. The remains of soldiers are shipped like parcels back home on a daily basis. When we’re bored or restless, we play hooky. We hate kissasses. Currying favor with teachers is a big no-no, inconsistency, reluctance and fear being punished in not so subtle ways. Truancy is always intentional, though unjustified, and unauthorized. So, we show up every now and then, which in our world means attending school but not going to class that often. Skipping. Yes, we stay away from school without explanation (or with a lousy one), we are absent without permission, we shirk work, and evade duty. I study only the things I’m interested it, in which case I’m enthusiastic, pro-active, resourceful, detailed, alert, studious, meticulous and nerdy. I dodge the stuff I find utterly unappealing and pointless for that matter, in which case I’m idle, lazy, sluggish, passive and neglectful. I’m pretty good at it. Packed orphanages and shabby refugee centers wherever you turn. I don’t move in a girl pack only nor do I need at least two besties with me at all times when entering the school, going to the bathroom, or walking to class. We attend funerals, walk behind coffins and listen to funerals speeches, saying a last goodbye to those killed in war, ‘too young to reason and too grown up to dream.’ I shave my head, and have different-colored socks on, along with my grandpa’s funky ties which I love cutting off. I wear a Sex Pistols sweatshirt/T-shirt, cuffed pants or worn out jeans with frayed edges and big holes at the knee and black boots that I never ever take off.

Ethnic hatred grows as various incidents fuel the powerful propaganda machines on all three sides. We’re told who to love, and who to hate. We live in a black and white world in which we’re the good guys fighting the bad ones, that is evil incarnate. Our religion is better than theirs. ‘Our flag is the embodiment of history,’ and OUR leaders the epitome of courage, determination, commitment, principle and vigor. By contrast, THEY are the personification of omnimalevolence: their politicians, their soldiers, their citizens, their males and females, their children, their dogs. Confusing time. 18-year-olds are drafted into the army in the middle of the night and transported to war zones like cattle in trucks to fight for ‘our cause.’ On our way to school and back, my girlfriends and I touch each other’s breasts and send them kisses, waving hello and goodbye, and we can’t help but wonder if that’s the first and last time we’ve seen them. Mixed feelings of desire, lust, sadness, rage, fear and impotence.

 

We’ll call it a day now, alright? In a few moments, I will awaken you. This time much quicker than the last one….more relaxed. I’ll count from 1 to 5. At the count of 5, you will open your eyes. You’re relaxed…1, 2…You’ll feel wonderfully refreshed when you wake up…3, 4…so relaxed, so calm…whole day…5.

How are you feeling?

Like shit.

THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL

Some time ago, a fellow blogger, a remarkable person and an intellectual par excellence (hi Paul) responded to my challenge to unravel a piece of his history through the portrayal of his rebellions youth, fight against the authority and ways of expressing his civil disobedience, which he did marvelously. In the comment section, both he and equally striking Wulf asked me to share my story of ‘good old times’ in Yugoslavia/Serbia, as well as what prompted hubby’s and my decision to permanently leave the country. We have a long journey ahead, so bear with me.

All set?

(head nodding)

Bojana, how about you? You think you can pull this through?

(head nodding) I’ll try. I’ll try my best.

I want you to focus and try to remember everything. Focus your attention on your body parts. Your limbs are getting numb and heavy. They feel like logs…You are drifting down now. I’ll start counting backwards from 10 to 1 so that you can go on drifting even deeper…You are not thinking of anything now. 10…deeper…9….deeper with each breath…8…7…6. Too relaxed to think. 5…4… This heavy relaxation in your mind is flowing into your eyes and face. 3…You feel it in your chest, your back, it goes down your spine, it’s in your legs, your toes. You feel it in your arms and hands, your fingertips…2…deep and dreamy, heavy and relaxed…1.

Let us start with the late 70s and early 80s. What is it like?

 

It’s nice and cozy. It feels right. Life is uncomplicated. Nothing is missing. People are smiling. They are relaxed and unburdened. Their fridges and tummies are full. Prosperous time. Everybody has enough, some more than enough. Not a single person I know has nothing or not enough. I am not sure what homelessness is. I saw it in a movie once.

We are in southeastern Europe, in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), made up of 6 socialist republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia, each with its own parliament and president. I live in southern Serbia where I was born. Yugoslavia is not part of the Eastern Bloc. It has pursued a policy of neutrality since the Tito-Stalin split in 1948 and is a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement. It is way more open to Western popular culture, unlike other communist states. There is an easy access to commodities from the West that people can afford. They have money. They buy. SFRY is a relatively small country with an international reputation that far exceeds its size. It’s a role model, a dream come true for countries under the Soviet influence, where things like Western magazines, books, records, cassette tapes, chocolate, chewing gums or Levi’s jeans are only a pipe dream. Yugoslavia is ‘something in between’—neither East nor West. President Tito ingeniously balances between Washington and Moscow, refusing to ally with either, and ‘saying to both: If you don’t pay me off, I’ll let the other guy build a base here. Everyone pays up.’

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Time of a great ethnic diversity. Time of equality. Civil rights are respected. Freedom of religion. Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Muslims live harmoniously under the same roof. Mixed marriages. Nobody cares. Nobody questions. An average of two children per family. Certain future.

We live in a social state. Free education for all. Time of literacy. There’s overall state ownership. Small and big businesses are flourishing. We are producing loads of food. The land of abundance. Investments in infrastructure. Urbanization, and industrialization. Import. Export. Faster productivity growth leads to an increasingly better standard of living. The employment rate is very high. The middle class is thriving. The whole country is working. Jobs after graduation. Agricultural subsidies to thousands of farmers and landowners. Yugoslavia’s socialism is based on worker self-management, enabling the worker to become the dominant figure in the economy and society in general. It ‘provides job security and workplace participation unknown anywhere else in the world, giving them a much better social and working position than workers in the East or the West. Workers’ councils decide on wages.’ The working class is thriving. Workers are respected. They go on collective holidays. Freedom of travel. We go shopping in neighboring Italy and Greece. Life is simple here, says an American woman in the movie ‘Something in Between’ upon coming to Serbia in the early 80s; when Serbs want fresh fish, they board a plane to the Croatian coast. ‘Yugoslavs travel hassle-free in both East and West; their red passports are worth even more on the black market than American ones.’ Regular salaries. People earn, spend and save money in banks. Free health care for all.

Everybody owns a house or an apartment which rarely anybody locks. Assaults and armed robberies are extremely rare. A negligible crime rate. Apartments are given by the state, NOT to be paid for, simply given, as a gift. A token of appreciation. You don’t believe me? I’m in elementary school. I’m 12, I think. We spend more time in the neighboring town at our grandparents’ than at home, my sister and me. Carefree weekends and holidays. Happy time. My parents come to pick us up and take us home. We’ve lived in a huge downtown apartment given to us by the state for as long as I can remember. However, dad doesn’t drive us there but to a newly built, ready-to-move-in house. SURPRISE!!! Lots of rooms. Spacious and fully furnished. Closets big enough for all our stuff. A piano in a corner of the living room and a table-tennis table under a large balcony. There’s a big front yard and a vegetable garden behind. Different-colored roses have already been planted. Mom thought of everything. We see a puppy barking already. So, we stay there, leaving our 3-bedroom apartment with 2 balconies on the 4th floor for good. We don’t sell it, though we have every right to. It’s ours. We own it. Mom thinks we have enough so we pass it like a saltshaker during dinner to needy ones. Time of solidarity and social responsibility. Mom mends our socks and pants when she sees a hole before buying new ones. My friends and I wear our cousins’ or older sibling’s clothes. There is nothing to be ashamed of. We are taught modesty and responsibility towards resources, despite the riches we enjoy. Old school. Better time. I don’t mend my son’s socks. I buy him a new pair instead. Lesson learned, lesson forgotten. Different time.

It’s getting chilly.

Would you like me to get you a blanket? We don’t need to do this if you don’t want to.

No, it’s alright. A blanket, yes.

Tell me, what else do you see?

Time of enormous creativity. Investments in culture and science. Art is flourishing. The best movies in the history of our cinematography are shot, even subversive ones. Rich pop and rock music scene, punk rock and the new wave. Yugoslavia has, according to a historian, two faces. Politically, it is both in the East and in the West. In terms of everyday life and freedom, it’s not only a land of Hollywood and Cold War films, but also a land which prohibits the movies of the so-called Black Wave, with their dark humor and critical examination of the Yugoslav society at the time. On the one hand, it’s a land of the avant-garde theater, on the other, a land banning subversive theatrical plays. President Tito loves movies, being a frequent guest at movie theaters and festivals. He has a reputation of a great hedonist with a soft spot for beautiful women, tobacco, Chivas Regal whisky, wine, celebrations, hunting, horses, luxury cars, yachts, travel, navy blue uniforms, antique weapons, medals, jewelry, white suits, gloves and hats. A charismatic leader with a style. A ‘magician of self-promotion.’ A joker whose lousy jokes everyone laughs at. A demagogue whose silly speeches everyone nods at. A ‘soft dictator.’ A world-class manipulator.

The whole nation knows his birthday. The whole nation celebrates it. A relay race, known as the Relay of Youth, is held every year. A baton is carried through the whole country with a birthday pledge to El Presidente ostensibly from all youths of Yugoslavia. I’ll be among the kids running the relay, but I drop the stupid thing, cameras are shooting, I panic and forget my lines. It’s embarrassing. I’m disappointed. The race ends with a huge celebration in the capital of Belgrade on May 25, Tito’s birthday and Day of Youth. It’s a national holiday. The school is closed. Nobody’s working. Festive atmosphere. Lots of holidays and time off throughout the year. The government-driven cult of personality created around Tito equals divinization. The pictures of president for life hang on the walls. There is no opposition. One party to rule them all. A mild autocrat.

We are taught to believe in Tito’s motto of ‘brotherhood and unity’ years after his death. We sing the National Anthem and wave national flags on every occasion. I belong to the Pioneer Alliance of SFRY, ‘honoring the children and youth who fought as part of the Yugoslav Partisans of the World War II.’ It consists of kids aged 7 and older, attending numerous educational, cultural and leisure activities. A few times a year, on state holidays, and anniversaries, we wear our pioneer uniforms: white shirts and dark blue pants/ skirts. We have red scarves around our necks and navy blue hats with a red star on them (), associated with communist ideology and commonly used in flags and state emblems often in combination with the hammer and sickle. I still remember the text of a Yugoslav Pioneer pledge at the induction ceremony:

‘Today, as I become a Pioneer, I give my Pioneer’s word of honor that I shall study and work diligently, respect my parents and seniors, and be a loyal and honest comrade/friend, that I shall love our homeland, self-managed Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, that I shall spread brotherhood and unity and the principles for which comrade Tito fought, and that I shall value all peoples of the world who respect freedom and peace.’ A time to remember.

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We are leading carefree lives, we who do not stir up, we who play by the rules. The strategies for dealing with political opponents have become much more subtle than in the Eastern Bloc, dissidents and critics of the regime being rarely stalked by the secret police, or suffering intimidation, and terror, which was previously the case. The once hard-labor detention camp for political prisoners and anticommunists, serving as a punitive measure against the unloyal in the past, has become a regular jail for criminals. Dissident lecturers rarely face stern measures like serving long prison sentences; however, they may suffer social isolation or relocation. You’re not obliged to become a member of the Party but those who do are privileged. Besides, if you want to move ahead in the political hierarchy, you have to be a member of the League of Communists.

Brave New World: a benevolent dictatorship, an efficient soft-repressive welfare state with no war, poverty and crime. History has not been abolished altogether; it’s just been slightly rewritten because it is always written by the winners. Its inhabitants find a new god to worship, this time a real one.

I think we’ve had enough for one day. You need to relax. I will start to awaken you in a few seconds. Next time we meet, you will begin to relax much quicker. Every time quicker than the previous one. Every time deeper and deeper…You will feel alert and alive when you wake up…Relaxed. Full of energy…I am going to count from 5 to 1. At the count of 1, you’ll wake up, feeling relaxed and wonderful. 5, 4…coming up slowly…3…relaxed and lively…2…(finger snapping) 1.

JOURNAL OF A MOM – WILD IS THE WIND

It’s almost 9 AM and my son B. is still in bed (read: we’ll be late for our fruit smoothie, we’ll have late breakfast, we’ll drink milk later than usual, we’ll go for a shorter walk so as not to be too late with the afternoon nap, we’ll have late lunch, a late afternoon milkshake, late dinner and finally we’ll all go to bed late). Once a proper routine is set, everything’s easier. I’m waking him up, whether he likes it or not. I’m tickling his feet, touching his fingers, his knees and tummy (he’s rolling over onto his stomach), kneading his calves and shins, massaging his arms and his back, blowing air into his ear, whispering, and calling out his name in a low voice. No reaction whatsoever. A change of tactics—reducing the comfort. I’m shaking him gently, asking him to wake up. I’m uncovering him. B. is anything but pleased. He’s yawning and rubbing his eyes. He opens them briefly (they look fatigued), then closes them again. Step two—making some noise: opening and closing the drawers, drumming my fingers on the window sill (rat-a-tat), moving the closet door and rustling the laundry basket. I’m tapping on the window, touching the big dry leaves hanging along the bamboo roll up blinds, making a soft crackling sound. Ring, ring, ring. Honeybun (slightly raising my voice), it’s for you! Didn’t you hear the phone? Pick it up. Mom wants to talk to you.

Still nothing?! Next step—removing the key from the keyhole, putting the key in the keyhole, turning the key. Shake, rattle and bang. Rise and shine, baby! Mmmmmm. He’s pissed off. I see him move his limbs and stretch out. Mmmmmm. More sleep distractions?! Singing. Love me, love me, love me, say you do…Singing on a high tone. Let me fly away with you. He’s on his back. I’m rubbing my nose against his and touching his face with my hair. It tickles him. Love me, love me, love me…He’s smiling, his eyes closed. Still yawning. I’m removing the blanket. May I have your attention please? (talking though my nose) Will the real Slim Shady please stand up? I repeat, will the real Slim Shady please stand up? We’re going to have a problem here.

He’s looking at me and blinking. I stand up, turning my back as if to leave. Several seconds later, B. is up and about. What a remarkable turnaround. He’s staring at the world through a conveniently low window, smiling at the birds, and the trees, pointing at the passersby, mommies and daddies taking their kids to kindergarten, cyclists, postmen doing their rounds on yellow bicycles, cars being parked, cars driving past. While he’s busy watching in amazement, I’m putting on his sleepers and sweatshirt.

B. slips off my lap nervously, heads for the door and dashes into the kitchen. There’s nobody there. He’s used to having his daddy wait for him with the bottle. He’s looking for him everywhere, in the living room, the bathroom, the bedroom. But, daddy’s not there. He throws himself on the floor with a sob of despair. I kneel down, take him in my arms and hold him tight. Daddy’s gone to work, but look what he made us (I’m shaking his bottle). The smoothie is impatiently waiting to be drunk and in a split second, B. forgets about all the sorrows of the world, living joyfully in the moment.

Without further ado, he leaves the kitchen once he’s done and heads for the living room. I turn on the radio: A new cyclone is approaching northwestern Europe; it will cause gale to storm force winds in parts of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium over the next 24 hours. After looking around for a few seconds, B. notices the balcony door is ajar. He pulls the door toward himself, and steps out. It smells of rain. He immediately spots his Mickey Mouse pinwheel, a gift from my mom, stuck in a flower pot. He knows it spins when blown by the wind or when you move the wheel so he wants me to lift him up so that he can touch the curls, that is bang them. He gets a kick out of it. What he seems to have forgotten is that Mickey is hurt. The wind came and took the pin away, so he can’t move his hands now.

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B. wants to come closer. He sees something is not right. He’s confusedly staring at me, expecting me to fix it. I’m holding him tight, saying Mickey got a bit tired of spinning in the wind, and thought he might chill out for a change. I let him take him, making sure he doesn’t grab the stick to which the curls are attached. I slowly put him down. Normally, he’d continue his pursuit for a solution (read: my pursuit for his solution) but not this time. With Mickey in one hand, he walks around, touching the tiles, the flower pots, the mat, my flip-flops, the parasol, the drain, the wall, the table and the chairs.

B. is inside again. I step in too and close the door behind me. He’s not thrilled but doesn’t object much. He’s rubbing his eyes. How come? It’s not nap time yet. He grabs my hand and drags me to the kitchen, pointing at his pot. I warm up some milk. We enter the bedroom holding hands. I sit down, putting him in my arms. He drinks it up in the blink of an eye and next thing you know he’s fast asleep. I lay him in his bed and listen to him breathe for a few seconds. I go back to the living room, plop into the armchair, and take a deep breath as I close my eyes. The wind pushes the balcony door open. I get up to shut it for real this time. It’s pouring with rain.

THE ENIGMA OF THE CHATTY INTROVERT, Part 2

When Carl Jung coined the terms ‘extrovert’ and ‘introvert’ in the early 20th century, he explained that the distinction between the two lies mainly in the fact that ‘introverts get exhausted by social interaction, while extroverts get anxious when left alone. Introverts need solitude in order to recharge, while extroverts draw energy from socializing.’ This means that I’m neither a typical extrovert, nor a typical introvert since I like socializing as much as alone time.

Let’s scan my life in the past few months to prove why I don’t see eye to eye with a Swiss to the core. You see, I have been taking more pleasure in solitary than social activities lately (which wasn’t really voluntary. I’m a mom, remember?) However, if I were given a chance to engage in any kind of social gathering, I would accept it unquestioningly. By this, I did not mean going out with my girlfriends for a coffee in broad daylight, where everything is familiar and safe. I meant more like hitting a bar or a disco totally alone after midnight, mingling, drinking gin & tonics, sparking up a conversation with bartenders and bouncers, dancing and chatting with total strangers (I didn’t say chatting them up, so stop moralizing! Even if I had, don’t look so shocked, Nigel!) No, I don’t feel guilty for saying this, which makes me an atypical mom, I guess. I just wanted to show you that I’m not afraid of social encounters nor am I insecure or shy. (Then I’m more extroverted, right?) Yes, I would surely be energized by being surrounded by lots of people for a change. But then, once the battery was depleted, I would rush back home to tuck myself in next to my boys. On the following day, well, I’d need a piece of my solitude back. In the days and weeks to follow, I’d be restoring my strength by turning inward. As a result, I’d be the happiest when alone, with my family or surrounded by a teeny-tiny, carefully chosen group of like-minded individuals. At the weekend, you’d see us having a coffee downtown, hubby and me (and our little prince). In the evening, we’d read something, watch a movie, or hold each other’s hands and keep silent.

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When he’s chatty in the morning, which can be terribly annoying, he’ll respect my need (not my wish) to remain mute until after my first coffee. So, when I’m cranky or seem distant, don’t jump to conclusions, honey. It might just mean I’m not in a mood and need some time by myself in order to recharge, as all introverts do.

I have always been interested in having a talk with my own inner being, nurturing my mental space and maintaining unity with the self. When I get stressed out, this connection often breaks or gets lost and I can’t seem to find it, nor do I know where it’s gone. Sometimes it is only later that I notice it’s not where it should be. Luckily, I manage to get it back sooner or later, though it sometimes takes ages. I think it is essential we learn the value of talking to ourselves. However, I’m susceptible to engaging in deep, transcendental conversations with myself between 2 and 4 AM, the downside of these late chitchats being that once my night’s sleep is broken, instead of snoring like the rest, I’ll end up blinking while staring at the stars on the ceiling.

I’m generally outgoing. But not all the time. I love people. But not all the time. These days, I’ve been talking only when necessary, not because I want to draw attention to myself. I don’t talk for the sake of talking, as some extroverts frequently do. Remember a joke about the pet dog that, to his owner’s surprise, starts speaking one day? When asked why now, the dog replies he didn’t have anything interesting to say. Now, what does this have to do with our topic? Well, lots of people are prone to thinking that introversion is nothing but shyness or a lack of confidence. WRONG. Pensive introverts act pretty much like the dog, speaking only when there’s something worth the mention. Therefore, we shouldn’t confuse introversion with shyness. Interestingly, extroverts can be somewhat shy or insecure, which is not the first word you would normally associate with them, right? The thing is, shyness is all about fear. Even though extroverts talk all the time, they often times use their extroversion to hide what they’re afraid of or insecure about. Paradoxically, this might be precisely the thing they are apparently good at, such as fear of social encounters. Some of the fears many extroverts are facing are: fear of being misunderstood, fear of being misjudged, fear of not being liked, fear of not being accepted, fear of being rejected, fear of being shallow, fear of being perceived as shallow, fear of being seen as shy, fear of not being funny after all, fear of not being fun to be around, fear of confiding, fear of not being smart or well-read enough. So they talk and talk often about total crap because it’s expected of them and because our society loves outgoingness and cheap entertainment. Deep down, they want to belong and since human nature is based on interaction with one another, it’s kind of inevitable not to talk. So they do, sadly for the most part to hide their insecurity. It’s like with extreme sports. Giving boost to risk appetite is a way to overcome your fears. For example, people who are afraid of heights might engage in skydiving. A direct confrontation with what one dreads has proved to be an efficient way to come to grips with one’s anxiety and nervousness. Extroverts can indeed be shy and bound by their fears, often pretending to be what they are not. I also put an act every now and then when I want to hide some flaws but, unlike some chatty extroverts, I’ll withdraw afterwards to be alone and reconsider.

Alrighty then, so I’m definitely both extroverted and introverted and I believe the two could be quite complementary. In my case, this is not necessarily an either/or sort of thing. I like both and need both to recharge.

Finally, if you’re ‘only’ an extrovert and can’t stop talking, you generally lead a pretty varied lifestyle, using networking opportunities smartly and having more doors opened.

If, by contrast, you’re ‘only’ introverted, do not despair. It means you’re probably a clever clogs, deep and contemplative. Haven’t you heard? Introversion is the current meme du jour.

THE ENIGMA OF THE CHATTY INTROVERT, Part 1

Two main personality types, extroverts and introverts, have unique ways of being energized and stimulated, as well as quite a different manner in which they interact with the outside world. Interestingly, 50-74% of the population is estimated to be extroverted. However, there’s more to this than meets the eye.

According to an online dictionary, an introvert is someone who ‘tends to shrink from social contacts and become preoccupied with their own thoughts,’ while an extrovert is ‘a person concerned more with practical realities than with inner thoughts and feelings,’ that is ‘someone interested primarily in the physical and social environment rather than the self.’ Bull. I know quite a few extroverts, none of whom fits the description entirely. Just because you’re big-mouthed, forthcoming and laid-back, it does not mean you’re an emotional cripple, incapable of introspection. In other words, our outward expressiveness and social cooperation do not make us skin-deep, one-dimensional pricks lacking intellectual depth and thoroughness.

Now, before I go any further, I’d like to share with you the result of a 2012 study by a Harvard psychologist that I recently came across, according to which ‘people who identify as introverts tend to have larger and thicker gray matter in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex, a highly complex brain region associated with abstract thought and decision-making. People who identify as strongly extroverted, on the other hand, tend to have thinner gray matter in those same prefrontal areas—which hints that introverts tend to devote more neural resources to abstract pondering, while extroverts tend to live in the moment.’

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Alright, let’s start from scratch. In the course of my self-analysis, I came to discover I am an extroverted introvert, even though my talkativeness and outgoingness subsided with time as I learned to value the intimacy of close-knit relationships. Still, regardless of the fact that I haven’t been in the mood for people lately and opening my mouth like I used to, I am certainly not a loner in the long run. I don’t mind being alone, though. Quite the contrary. I desperately need alone time. I don’t need people around me all the time to validate my own existence. Anyhow, today I’m presenting you with a seeming paradox of a talkative introvert, which was the case of my research in the past couple of weeks.

You see, I used to be a real chatterbox; in fact, I rarely knew how to shut up. In my youth, I was a very gregarious and candid person who enjoyed living in a flock (or a herd). If you want to make friends, you can’t keep to yourself, right? I was open, enthusiastic, carefree and naive and believed that all animals were equal. Little did I know that ‘some animals are more equal than others.’ Anyway, before I got a baby at the age of 39, I was a real party animal. I enjoyed going out, hanging out with my friends, getting to know new people and attending social gatherings such as music festivals, dance floors, concerts, movie theaters etc. I was no stranger to the club scene and would often hit buzzing bars, kicking on until dawn (and beyond). Nevertheless, although I took enormous pleasure in being surrounded by people and talking to them and about them for hours, I would be quite selective about what secrets to share, and seldom confided about things which had been bothering me, which made an apparent extrovert actually introverted. Mystery solved. Or not that easily?!

The thing is, even though I have throughout my life more often than not thrived on being around other people, and enjoyed social events, I have never found time spent alone less rewarding, nor have I ever been bored when by myself, unlike typical extroverts. They usually reach out for their phones to text or call someone as soon as they are alone. Not me. I’d rather reach for a book or the computer. Besides, I get worn out by extensive small-talk, which might have to do with age, though. If I don’t feel like talking, I will even physically step away from the chatter and seek a quiet place for myself, preferably another room. This is precisely what my late granddad used to do, being a classic introvert. Back then, I found it out of the ordinary, to say the least, now, however, absolutely necessary. If we happen to be outside though, what I’ll most probably do is shut off entirely or simply be myself (read: put on an act), nodding and smiling, pretending I’m actually there and having tons of fun. So, while I obviously won’t be able to pull out, I’ll make sure I change into a sleep or hibernate mode after a few minutes of inactivity. My sensitive generator has a sensor which will, once I start to get bored and wish to spend some time alone (but can’t), shut off by itself so as not to overheat. I know it’s hypocritical but I’m pretty sure you do it too, choosing not to waste energy that easily but rather save it for the things which require your undivided attention, right?

Now, typical introverts are generally thought of as reserved and reflective people whose energy tends to dwindle during interaction. Like most introverts, I don’t confide easily (reserved is too strong a word to fit the description). I am reflective and often derive happiness and enjoyment from rather solitary activities, everything but fishing. I know it’s a way of life and all that crap and I bet it’s a gratifying experience when you take an active part in supplying food for the table, but those who know me also know that when I get hungry I have to fricking eat NOW. Not later, not in an hour, not in 10. N.O.W. If not, you’d better stay out of my way or I’ll bite your head off. And I mean it. I know it’s not your fault, but since you’re in my way, somebody needs to take the blame…So, you go fishing to eat that fish you have caught eventually (that is, if you’re skilled and/or lucky), and in spite of the fact that it took you 5 hours to catch your lunch, it’s still rewarding in the end, I guess. By contrast, fishing for recreational purposes is really dumb since you’ll end up eating canned fish in nature. Just swell! Long story short, NO, I don’t consider fishing a challenge or a getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city. It does not and cannot make me more focused, relaxed and patient. When I feel like eating fish, I go to the supermarket/fishmonger’s to buy fish. Dead. Okay, enough with the fish already. I got carried away, which is BTW another common trait of mine, getting worked up over irrelevant matter. But, at least I acknowledged it (this time). My point with the whole fish thing is: I do not like such pastime when time seems to have stopped. I think I’m too much of an extrovert for that.

However, like most introverts, I delight in reading, writing, working on the computer (everything but games), or hiking for example. Speaking of which, I’ve always loved individual more than group sports. Tennis over basketball. Or take cooking. I guess the majority of extroverts consider preparing food with other people a nice way to catch up with their friends prior to eating. It is wonderful, I agree. You’re sipping wine, listening to music, laughing, and telling stories. Not for me, I’m afraid. I’m not the type. You see, I’m very confident in the kitchen. I love cooking and enjoy eating. But, I don’t like when it takes forever. An hour tops is the time I can and will dedicate to it. So, while I’m preparing food, so as not to be bothered and distracted, that is to get over with it quicker than I would with people around, I prefer it to be me and me alone in the kitchen. Trust me, this has nothing to do with not wanting to share granny’s secrets. It means what it says: don’t help me out, don’t offer to help me out, don’t pass me the salt, don’t fetch me a drink, don’t ask me where I keep the cutlery, don’t ask me questions. DON’T. I’ll talk to you later. Is that so hard to understand? So, I’d appreciate it if you could get out of the kitchen while I’m in it. I’ll come and get you when it’s ready. Pretty much as you’ll get me when you’re the chef. Didn’t I just say I love individual sports more? I don’t mind you doing the dishes afterwards, though. It’s actually expected of you. Because if you don’t, I’ll get grumpy again.

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For more proof why I’m not a typical extrovert, why I’m not a typical introvert either and why introverts rarely talk, JOIN ME NEXT TIME. You’ll also get the chance to find out why we shouldn’t mistake introversion for shyness and how come many extroverts are actually shy. In the meantime, talk to me (I’m not cooking).

ODE TO WISDOM, Waltz No. 2

Remember our last chat? Dentists, last molars, wisdom. Does it ring a bell? In case you’re interested, I had my wisdom tooth examined, in the meantime. The pain has subsided somewhat, though I still feel minor irritation which I’ve been told can be relieved by rinsing with warm salt water (1/2 teaspoon of salt in 200 grams of water (7 ounces )). However, having medical doctors as parents has obviously marked me for life so I just prefer good old over-the-counter pain meds to alternative medicine. Anyway, we leave my tooth for now (does it mean I’ll be wiser?) and if it keeps causing lots of pain, gets infected or interferes with nearby teeth, the usual treatment is no treatment. We basically take it out. Please note that I have to be in great pain. If not, we don’t have a deal.

Now, the million dollar question was: Does age equal wisdom?

When I was younger, I looked up to the elderly. Like all youths, I was often at odds with my parents in my teens and since they were not what I’d call my real role models, my grandparents, uncles, and some teachers certainly were. Back then, I thought that when I came of age, I would, like all adults, magically know all the answers to life and that everything would suddenly start making sense. What a worrying and sad realization when it didn’t. Naturally, I didn’t automatically learn how to handle problems and conflicts nor was there a moment of clarity where everything turned intelligible. Although I had a few tricks up my sleeve, truth be told, I wished I had more.

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During a Pentagon news briefing in 2002, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talked about the lack of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. So let’s put aside my subjectivity and what I really think about the guy and concentrate on what he stated on this occasion:

‘As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.’ I would add that this could be applied to both our professional and personal life. The only thing I know for sure is that I really know nothing.

I watch my son grow, I teach him, he learns but the real question is: Who is the teacher here? I like to think I don’t teach him but, as Einstein put it nicely, provide the conditions in which he can learn. While he learns understanding of concepts, all the activities he engages in, whether self-motivated or not, whether goal-oriented or not, are done with sheer pleasure and enjoyment. At this age level, even when he uses gestures such as pointing rather than naming things, his language is clear and comprehensible. By contrast, adults frequently fail to deliver an accurate message and are unable to express opinions precisely or verbalize real feelings. Additionally, while we enable children to be more active participants in life, we often turn into passive observers ourselves. It seems we still have a lot to learn. Sometimes I feel I know so little, despite formal and continuing education and the books read. I know for sure I should have more money coming in than going out and that I shouldn’t wear flip-flops and tank tops showing my cleavage and belly to a job interview and that’s about it. So many known unknowns, and God knows how many unknown unknowns there are.

Now, back to folks in later life. I mean later. Over 70 (i.e. septuagenarians, octogenarians, and nonagenarians and centenarians if they are still around). Science has proven that older people develop greater insight and are less likely to be hot-headed although their brain slows down with age (source: Daily Mail). According to a study, as opposed to young people’s brain which is driven by the chemicals fueling emotion and impulse, the aging brain is less dopamine-dependent. Therefore, slower responses of the elderly result in thoughtfulness and wiser judgments.

Since I hate generalizations, I’d say some of them because others are equally stubborn at a late age and not so perceptive as expected. Negative feelings and relationships, when nourished for a long time, harden our hearts, which is why some people continue holding a grudge or engaging in fiery quarrels till death do them part. Yes, the gray-haired might too pull a boner as if their experience hasn’t taught them a thing.

The point I’m trying to make is that we can’t and shouldn’t discredit someone just because they’re young but we cannot call them wise either. Their understanding of the world simply shows a different level of understanding. The bottom line is we can grasp some things only at a certain age. Wisdom comes (should come) in the maturity of old age when the immense experience and knowledge acquired throughout life leads (mostly…hm…sometimes) to good judgment. I’d like to think positively for once in my life and this is the most positive you’ll get from me. I retain the right to remain skeptical though.

I believe that people of different age groups could and should learn from one another. I am constantly learning from both my two-year old son, things I’ve forgotten or haven’t known I possess, and the elderly, things I have yet to learn. I need both in my life. Maybe that’s why I have friends from different walks of life and of different age groups. Without them I am like asentencewithoutspaces.

ODE TO WISDOM, Waltz No. 1

Toothaches. Painful, unpleasant, boring, irritating toothaches. Over the course of my life, I’ve changed dozens of dentists, all of whom were pretty moody, now that I think of it. Imagine looking down in people’s mouth all day long. Who wouldn’t be? My teeth have seen many a dentist maturing, getting divorced, sending their kids to college, marrying them, becoming grandparents, growing old, retiring and all they could say to the departing ones was: ‘Fill me in when you get back.’ I brush, floss, have my teeth checked and cleaned on a regular basis but it’s no use. I’ve had it all: dental infection, cavity, gum disease, braces, plaque, cracked teeth, poorly placed fillings, loss of a tooth, tooth extraction and, last but not least, a crown, though I need to have it replaced. I surely know what’s it like to be a queen. The only thing I haven’t had is tooth problems during pregnancy, which left me wondering to this day why the hell not. Due to fluctuating hormone levels, pregnant women are prone to gingivitis and tooth decay. Naturally, I got a bit paranoid and had my teeth checked more often than I usually do only to be told everything seemed to be in perfect order. Given my dental history, I would greet such statements with great dismay each and every time.

Anyhow, I’ve been having a toothache for a few weeks now. It’s the irksome wisdom tooth again. The gum in the back of my mouth is swollen and I have difficulty opening my jaw. I can’t even eat properly since I’m in pain when chewing and biting. But, don’t you worry about me. I’m a tough cookie. As for my tooth, same old, same old. The condition is probably (not) critical but, whatever the case, I’m not expecting it to pull through.

 

Let us sneak a peek at my next follow-up appointment with the dentist seasoned with a likely resolution of the crisis:

Dentist: I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. You need to leave.

Wisdom Tooth: Why?

Dentist: I’m not quite sure why you’re there in the first place. There’s no way to say this nicely. You’re good-for-nothing, an unnecessary evil.

Wisdom Tooth: (sobbing) I used to be wanted and loved once, you know. You wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for me. My three best friends and me were lifesavers.

Dentist: That’s only an assumption. Our great great great great great-grandfathers used to eat difficult-to-chew food and were rather susceptible to tooth decay.

Wisdom Tooth: I did learn the importance of oral hygiene in the meantime. I brush myself every day.

Dentist: I bet you do. If we ignore our teeth, they might go away. However, this has nothing to do with To brush or not to brush. You can prevent cavities by brushing and flossing, which isn’t the case here. You got run over by evolution. You’re not contributing much, not any more. There’s no longer enough room in the jaw to accommodate you.

Wisdom Tooth: I’ve been trying to move into a new position but it doesn’t work.

Dentist: Of course it doesn’t. Other teeth are in the way.

Wisdom Tooth: I’m having an identity crisis here. I don’t know who I am any more.

Dentist: Listen, you’re bad. You have to go. It’s nothing personal. It’s something we have to do, like putting the toilet down. You may know history, but I know dentistry. I’m telling you, it has pretty advanced.

Wisdom Tooth: A dentist always gets to the root of the problem.

Dentist: Don’t get smart with me.

Wisdom Tooth: Will I get to see the tooth fairy?

Dentist: I don’t know. The money she leaves is pathetic anyway.

Wisdom Tooth: Can I at least have a hug?

Dentist: No! No offense.

Wisdom Tooth: None taken. I get the point. When you gotta leave, you gotta leave.

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I honestly thought I’ve got rid of all four by now. Just when your least expect it, the third molars strike back. As far as I recall from my biology classes, the bastards usually appear in our late teens, that is early twenties, which is basically the whole point of having such a weird name, since their eruption coincides with entering adulthood. This is depressing. It means I could practically be a mom to this wisdom tooth so why the heck is it coming in so late?

Now, what is the point of my talking about my wisdom teeth? It’s to try to answer a question that has been going through my head for some time: Do we get wiser with age?

Being almost 41, I don’t consider myself old. 40s are the new 20s (thanks George), which makes 50s the new 30s (right, Tom?) But then again, I’m ancient for the jerks to be bugging me now. So, I’m not old, yet a peer called me wise recently, which isn’t really like being told you’re intelligent or well-read. Wisdom comes with age and consequently experience, as we become more educated, knowledgeable, accomplished, adept, rational, pondering, even cautious, if you will. Proper education is important, but we shouldn’t neglect the lessons one receives through informal education obtained by learning from one’s experiences, both good and bad, rather than a formal educational institution. Quite a few people didn’t have papers marked 100 and tacked to the wall or A’s on report cards; some might not have made it past grade school, but still they could have learned more from the school of life than some of our professors. Their shrewdness, sharp-wittedness, and farsightedness coming with age is what makes them wise.

In a nutshell, I wouldn’t call myself wise yet since I’m not old enough to meet the criterion. On the other hand, when compared to an 18-year old, I am definitely more experienced. I’m not sure about being wiser though. Does it mean that my tips have more weight than those of a person half my age or not really?

Are we supposed to measure wisdom with the scale of age and why do we give age so much credit? I’d like you to think it over and I’ll meet you same place to discuss more. Soon (I promise).