“Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Perspectives on Family Travel”

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Like most Canadians, my memories of travel date back to early childhood. I was raised by the kind of mother that had itchy feet. Mom is what I affectionately refer to as a ‘Valley Girl”. To be brief, she’s a country girl from the Ottawa Valley born and raised in Brockville.  As a teenager, Mom used to dream of a day when [like all the movie stars she watched or classic heroines she read about] she, too, would get out of her small town and finally see foreign places and people. Well, one day it was her turn and she embraced it with gusto. She met my father, this tall, dark and handsome exotic Arab and now had someone who wanted to see the world just as much as she did. That desire only grew when us three girls came along. My parents weren’t the kind who liked to drop their cubs off at the sitter’s. When I asked Mom why, she said she found it fun to be with us. We were funny and interesting…(!) On that note, my parents proceeded to plan all sorts of holiday travel in Canada, the USA and abroad. Needless to say, the moments spent with my family à la Planes. Trains and Automobiles (1987) remain quite memorable.  Here are a few.

 

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I. Travelling with your Family

When it came to holiday travel, our family never came up short on fun or exotic destinations to go to. We did everything from drive to Daytona Beach during Spring Break to spend Christmas together in Cuba. For better or for worse, these holiday jaunts were always marked by some kind of mishap or misadventure; the kind you might possibly find in a movie like National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983). The image you see here is of the Griswolds happily starting their holiday trip together. I’m here to tell you this portrait is deceiving. In my family’s case, “D-DAY” [as I like to refer to it] often bared little resemblance to the idyllic portrayal here. For starters, we [and by that I mean my two sisters and I] were never ready to leave on time, and I mean… N-E-V-E-R, especially as teenagers or young adults. I rarely [if ever] had all my laundry done ahead like Mom asked, so on the day of departure I was inevitably scrambling around looking for stuff to replace the dirty clothes I couldn’t bring or sometimes desperately washing stuff by hand and throwing it in the dryer.  Us three daughters consistently overpacked and spent an extra hour repeatedly weighing our suitcases and triaging our belongings to decide what to keep or leave at home under Mom’s irate glare. Danish author Peter Hoeg once stated “travelling tends to magnify all human emotions”. He wasn’t kidding. Our endless delays and petty squabbles over God knows what lead to the kinds of fights more suitable for Madison Square Garden or Caesar’s Palace. Of course, our parents were right and they furiously berated our lack of prep and disregard for the concept of time from the bottom of the stairs or driveway.

The majority of their pre-departure time was spent reminding us ingrates that we were within a hair of either missing our plane or being stuck driving all night. According to Dad, neither was an option. We weren’t about to get new tickets  and he wasn’t about to pull an all nighter on American highways. Why? because if we were driving, he wanted to avoid stopping for the night. When he was inexorably forced to it was not good times. His notion of “suitable accommodations” was radically different from ours, especially his price point. I cannot begin to tell you the questionable lodging we’ve endured under his leadership.  No, we didn’t have a vibrating bed like in the classic scene in Vacation depicted in the link above.  But, we also didn’t have our own room like Russ and Audrey did. My father categorically refused to shell out the extra coin for separate rooms. Instead, one of us [ME] always ended up taking the rickety prison-issued  metal cot because my two younger sisters preferred to bunk together. Truth be told, that was actually fine with me. The thing is, my options were limited: share a bed with a sister who talks in her sleep non-stop or with one who runs her own version of the Boston Marathon. Given the alternatives available… how bad can crashing in this cot or stamp-size motel room with your fam jam be? Well, let’s see….that depends if we’re talking about the running monologue my middle sister started on crocodiles around 1 AM or the soothing sound of my father’s chainsaw-like snoring. Take your pick or wait for the person who got no rest to be yelled at for her tardiness early the next morning by the causes of her own sleep deprivation…(!). Watch her passively-aggressively pretend to sleep in just to annoy her cheery, well-rested siblings and parents and succeed at doing so. Listen while her mother threatens to throw her crap out the door and into the parking lot if the eldest fruit of her womb isn’t ready to go by the time she gets back with her morning coffee. Watch that friendly chat degenerate into a  screaming match that sucks all of them in and leaves at least 1 or 2 family members in tears or ready to hitchhike home. Imagine that mess getting sorted out and making it as far as some Southern state like [in one instance] Georgia. Speculate if you will, about the decision to stop for lunch in say a place like Decatur. It’s hot as Hades in the South and your Dad has been driving for hours. He’s starving [everyone is] and all he wants to do is grab a bite and sip on a  cold one. Picture the look of unadulterated disgust on our waitresses face when he tries to order a beer and is told Decatur is 1 of 200 dry counties left in the Union that prohibits the sale of alcohol, sir. Finally, heave a sigh of relief when we shovel the rest of our meals down and bolt out of there before we get accosted by some of the unofficial cast of Deliverance (1972).

Cuba [on the other hand], was far more welcoming. Our first family vacation there was a Christmas time affair. I remember thinking Varadero was a lovely place filled with even lovelier people. Even the guests at our resort were congenial, including a heavily intoxicated wealthy German lady who took a shine to my 18-year-old self and insisted on giving me her watch 2 hours after meeting me. I tried to politely decline her gift, but she would have none of it. At one point, Mom walked by and caught the whole scene. I tried to introduce her, but my new German Santa was so drunk and unilingual Mom ended up taking her leave of us quite quickly, all the while looking back at me over her shoulder disapprovingly. After she left, I tried once more to give the watch back. This time she made such a scene…(!) her equally inebriated German lover came to the table and basically ordered me to stop looking a gift horse in the mouth and be grateful for her girlfriend’s trademark generosity. Unfortunately, that trip was tragically cut short when we discovered my grandfather passed away in our absence. But, I’m glad to report that such sad circumstances have been the exception, not the rule for our family vacations. Either way,  I could rhyme off a dozen more crazy stories like the ones I’ve already mentioned, but I think you get the picture. The truth is I’ve been travelling with my family since I was six-months old [my earliest passport stamp] and I love it. I loved it even more after my sisters came into the frame and have countless fun and fabulous memories of adventures we had together.  In our case. the good times outweigh the bad by far. For every dismal Decatur moment,  there’s 3 wonderful ones of us at the sensational Sandbanks, beautiful Myrtle Beach, or  magical Marrakesh that outshines it. And that [my friends]…is why I’m always ready and willing to get back on the road, again with my fam jam.

II. On the Road, Again…

Legend has it that Willie Nelson wrote the lyrics to “On the Road, Again”on the back of a barf bag on a flight to L.A. Willie was asked by the executive producer of Honeysuckle Rose (1980) ; the film he just signed on to star in, to whip up a song about life on the road for musicians. Willie grabbed the bag and dashed off  the lines to a catchy tune that remains a part of country music history. Willie loves to be on the move and gets a thrill out of seeing new places and faces. I gotta admit that sounds pretty great, too, except I feel it’s even better when you do it with your family. Now, in my previous blog [ see “We Are F-A-M-I-L-Y: Finding Your Tribe Then and Now”] I describe the many different types of family units there are out there. Though I only covered travel here in terms of one’s biological family, [mine] I still stand by what I said before. I believe it can be just as exciting and rewarding an experience with them as with any of the loved ones you choose to bring along for the ride. They say friends are the family you choose, but you’re doubly blessed when you feel that way about those who share your DNA. I can tell you this much…I look forward to getting on the road, again with mine someday… and hope you do, too.

Do you love travelling with your fam jam? Do you avoid it? If so, why? Please feel free to share your story!

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“Dazed and Confused: An Animal ‘Liker’s View of Our Pet-Lovin’ World”

cutekittypuppypicSo, I recently discovered that Jerry Seinfeld  and I used to share one thing in common: we’re both animal ‘likers’. What does that mean? It means we like animals; would never harm one or allow one to be harmed. Over the years, we have had pets and cared for them. But, we’ve never been cuckoo- gaga over one or felt they were as important as actual people. No, there’s no special reason for it. I can’t speak for Seinfeld, but I don’t have any childhood trauma to report or any particular incident that contributed to this mindset. I’m just not hard-wired to get mushy inside when I watch the Discovery Channel or see baby pandas. I also don’t feel an overwhelming need to take pics of every groundhog and bunny I see. I find the cat vids on YouTube freakin’ hilarious and let our cat sleep on my bed a lot, but don’t feel horribly guilty about kicking him off, either. Why? Because I like pets, but I’m not obsessed with them. I may love our cat or my friend’s pets; may enjoy spending time with them, and [yes] sometimes miss their company. But, having grown up with many “animal lovers”, I intuitively know I’m still not one of them. I admit this freely knowing that I’m less likely to find a mate in places like the UK, should I decide to go on the hunt for one there. According to a survey done by UK insurance company Direct Line, 46% of Brits think being an animal lover makes a potential partner more attractive. All good. I’m not a fan of umbrellas or beef Wellington, so I’m ok with selecting a potential mate from the billions that aren’t in that dating pool. Seinfeld used to feel that way, too. Back in the 90s, before he was ever featured in People begging Cesar Millan for training tips for his unruly pooch, he wrote a best-seller called SeinLanguage . In the book, he notes that New York dog owners are proof positive that the human race is an epic fail. Why? Because if aliens are watching and they see “two life forms, one of them’s making a poop, the other’s carrying it for him, who would you assume is in charge?” You gotta admit: he has a point.Once upon  a time, our pets  [and by that I primarily mean cats and dogs] were our labourers and servants, now the tables have turned and we collectively spend not millions, but billions on their comfort and care and the pet care industry couldn’t be happier.

 

I. $hopping for Shih Tzus

do-you-like-my-sweater-photo-u2The numbers don’t lie. In 2013, there were 25.5 million pets in Canada. As of this past April, there are a little over 36 million people living here. Basically, almost three-quarters of the country[ rich or poor] owns a pet. According to the latest survey done by the American Pet Products Association (APPA), 65% of Americans or rather 79.7 million American households have a pet of some sort.  These kinds of statistics can easily leave one dazed and confused. After all, one would assume that if a person is struggling to pay their bills than logically they would forgo the additional financial burden that caring for a pet entails, right? Not so. In 2012, Forbes reported that the pet care industry was one of the few American businesses that was recession-proof. Despite the economic downturn, pet ownership did not slow down and pet care expenditures actually went up. That’s right….you heard me.In this case, they increased from $43.2 billion in 2008 to almost $53 billion by the end of 2012. In other words, Americans will tolerate losing their jobs or homes, but not their spot at doggie day-care. Now, what’s unfathomable to me isn’t that someone wouldn’t give up their pet after they lost their home. After all [as a close friend of mine explained], they are erzatz family members that love you unconditionally, which becomes an even greater blessing when dealing with the anxiety that stems from of an increasingly uncertain future. What I find baffling is how someone can decide to take on more financial responsibility when they are barely able to provide for themselves and/or their family. The reality is the odds of me getting a satisfying answer to that are slim to none. Recession or not, shopping for Shih Tzus, snakes or Siamese or any other house pet is big business and it shows no signs of slowing down. According to the figures released by the APPA, the pet products and care industry made $60.2 billion dollars last year and is on schedule to make an estimated $62.7 billion by the end of this fiscal year. To put it another way, kitty litter and puppy pizzle sales alone generate more revenue than…well…Luxembourg did last year, apparently. The biggest area of growth in the industry? Pet services; a sector that includes everything from pet grooming chains to [wait for it…] spas and hotels. The main consumers of these services? Millennials. They are the biggest patrons of pet spas and buyers of expensive organic pet food. According to research done by Petco, one of America’s largest pet products retailers, millennials spend more than boomers do on their pets. 76% of millennials feel no way about splurging on certain items for their pets, while only 50% of boomers would do the same for their’s. Why? Because the newest generation of pet lovers is coming of age in a time when pampering puppies is less taxing on the whole than having a baby or a bad boyfriend.

 

II. Cuddling with Kitties

Christmas-Cat-02-1280x960Ask around and you will find out that cuddling with kitties is where it’s at for millennials. Personal space is at a premium for them and making a happy home for yourself is much easier with a cute kitten than with an actual person and all their baggage and idiosyncracies. Arguably, house pets can fill that void beautifully by acting as emotional substitutes you can lavish all your attention and affection on, minus the hefty financial and emotional price tag loved ones usually entail. The power dynamic is central to all that. First and foremost, they are not your equal. As my animal-loving friend patiently explained, “pets don’t disagree or talk back much. You control the narrative in a hyper complex world.” Than you have to consider the unconditional love factor. You’re the big kahuna to your dog or cat. They don’t know or care about your prison record, your employment status, your education level or your weight. They are totally dependent on you win, lose or draw, so none of that matters.In a downsized economy where loyalty is in very short supply, the faith pets place in their owners is edifying for the more jaded out there. Incidentally, the emotional connection dog and cat owners talk about having is not just hyperbole. Research indicates when you hold someone’s gaze for a period of time, everything dissipates and you feel a strong connection to them. Dogs and cats are way more comfortable than we are with prolonged eye contact and so it’s easier to bond with them than with actual people. That bonding process is also facilitated by a spike in our oxytocin which is akin to the jump mothers experience when they look at their babies.When Decima did a survey on Canadian pet owners back in 2010, it found that 53% of those interviewed felt animals are more reliable than human beings. Now, think about that for just a moment. Creatures with no ability to differentiate between right or wrong; with no capacity to think critically or reason were deemed more reliable than sentient beings able to do all of that and more. Needless to say, there are those who find this state of affairs rather troubling. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is a popular figure in American media; famous for his unique brand of insight into human behaviour. He’s written 30 books on modern love, marriage, spirituality and relationships and finds the present North American pet obsession worrisome for the following reasons. On the one hand, it’s a “healthy manifestation of affection for all G-d’s creatures.” But, on the other hand, he ‘s concerned it’s a “sign of a lonely generation of men and women, desperate to nurture a creature that gives them the love that is not forthcoming from more traditional sources“. He says the greatest impact pets have on their owners is that they make them feel special. I agree with the good rabbi. At the end of the day, we all just want to feel like we matter to someone: don’t we? But in this narcissistic age,very few people feel they truly do. Why? Because we don’t seem to like ourselves much and we’re all so focused on trying to feel special ourselves that we can’t get past it long enough to try to make someone else feel that way. That produces an awful lot of loneliness for both singles and couples and into that breach step in our pets. The up side of this is that maybe we can finally learn to love and make each other feel special through our pets. At the very least, that’s the best we can hope for.

III. From Animal ‘Liker’ to Animal Lover

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Question: how does one make the leap from animal ‘liker’ to animal lover? To tell you the truth…I’m not quite sure. Here’s what I do know. The internet and YouTube are [to my mind] better animal rights advocates than PETA. How’s that? Well, let’s see…I must have combed through hundreds of cute kitty and puppy photos while I prepared this piece and [I have to admit] more than half of them got an “omg…trop cute” out of me. The fact of the matter is, the more I’m exposed to this kind of material, the closer to ‘squishy’ I get. I can assure you that this would suit my friends and family just fine. They’ve been avidly campaigning for my conversion for years now and each has done their part to move me in that direction. I can’t say I’ve been particularly resistant to any of it, except perhaps poop n scoop duty. I just cannot seem to wrap my head around the concept that I’m obligated to walk around and then dispose of doggie doo. Same thing for cats. I’d rather have babies projectile vomit on me repeatedly [and they have] than change the kitty litter or clean up the hairball our cat just coughed up. Don’t ask me why: it’s just this way. But, with every passing year, with every new Kitty Vine or new puppy my friends buy, the line between ‘liking’ and ‘loving’ these funny furry creatures gets more and more blurred. Eventually…I suspect it may well disappear altogether. That would be all right with me. I can think of worse things to love…like SPAM or Donald Trump’s hair…or even Herr Drumpf himself…[shudders]. Well, you get the picture.

So how do you feel about pets? Are you an animal ‘liker’ or animal lover? Tell me all about it!

“We Are F-A-M-I-L-Y: Finding Your Own Tribe Then and Now”

family guyI was never what they used to call a “latchkey kid”.  Mom wasn’t a fan of that sort of thing and didn’t trust her three ‘lively’ girls to not rum amok in her house while her and Dad were not around. After  I turned 12,  I got my first of many, many, (sigh)…many house keys. I unfortunately had a propensity for losing them constantly which drove my parents nuts, especially my father who had a terrible vision of delinquents of all stripes trying to break into his house while all his girls were fast asleep. Suffice it to say I was pretty happy the day I got my first key and quickly fell into a pretty typical after-school routine thereafter. Basically, my routine consisted of getting in the door, throwing my stuff on the kitchen table and making a beeline for the fridge to grab some juice and maybe a clementine or open up the cupboard to grab a Pop Tart [yes, you heard me…it was the 80s and they were delish]. I’d toss the Pop Tart in the toaster and head to the living room to watch TV until I heard the familiar pop which let me know it was good to go. Back then, having “basic cable” meant just that.  We’re talking the pre-Rogers era, people… when all we had was MacLean Hunter. We didn’t have a gazillion channels, just a few and most featured some TV talk show, soap or re-runs of old shows from the 60s and 70s, like “The Honeymooners“, “Mary Tyler Moore” and [yes] America’s favourite nuclear fam jam, “Leave it to, Beaver“.

I. The Nuclear Family

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I admit it: I loved “Leave it to, Beaver”. Seriously… I did. I was fascinated by the Cleavers squeaky clean image: the perfectly manicured lawn,  impossibly immaculate home, weirdly well-behaved kids, Mrs. Cleaver’s frighteningly cheery countenance and the placid nature of her hubby Ward. Everyone was …really…NICE…to each other…and I mean like “nicey nice”…not just regular nice. The kind of “nice” that [if I watch the show now] sets my teeth on edge. Even at 12, I found the show surreal. I mean…who bakes THAT much?  How can those kids eat cookies and apple pie 24/7 and be the size they are? It never made sense to me…but [then, again]: why should it? It was American family television. Despite my young age, I understood they were largely fictitious. Not because they were a TV show, but because they didn’t depict how families really are. I had the intelligence and awareness to see they were some kind of caricature…a distortion of what family life in America is or maybe even was then. I was quite sure the Cleavers were what Alice saw when she peered through the looking -glass, but I couldn’t stop watching them. Why? Because they represented  a social unit and a kind of life style that differed greatly from my own. In terms of the show’s own socio-cultural context, it depicted a shiny booming post-WW2 era long gone by then. A time when single income, nuclear families were the norm and when you said he word family a mother, father and children came to mind.When the suburbs were mainly for white, middle-class families with stay-at-home Moms. When people dated within their own race, ethnicity, religious denomination and never outside their gender. Mixed marriages were a rarity and divorce was taboo , so single parent families were not your every day thing. Sure, they existed, but they were the exception not the rule. Cities were much smaller back then, too. More like what we call towns today. If someone’s marriage fell apart or a woman had a child out of wedlock on her own…there would be ‘talk’. Unless she was a widow, she would be known as ‘that girl’. Now, long-term nuclear family units are singular. Following the advent of no-fault divorce legislation in Canada and the United States in the late 60s, second marriages or unions of sorts eventually became the new normal for both societies and blended families soon picked up where nuclear families left off.

II. The Blended Family

The 1970s were really the dawn of the blended family as we know it today. The family depicted in the famous “Brady Bunch” television seriCast of Brady Bunch (front row) Susan Olsen, Mike Lookinland (middle row) Eve Plumb, Florence Henderson, Robert Reed, Maureen McCormick (back row) Chistopher Knight, Barry Williams, Ann B. Davises was Caucasian and middle to upper-class and for the majority of that period was more or less the dominant blended model, statistically-speaking. But, as we got closer to the 1980s and divorce and mixed marriages became more socially acceptable, we began to see more blended mixed families come together. My family is the product of a mixed marriage and when I was a kid there weren’t many kids in my class who came from one, even fewer who came from blended families, much less blended mixed ones. Both mixed and blended families were considered “non-traditional” and rather uncommon. Shows like the “Brady Bunch” were actually a real departure from what I saw everyday, especially their size. There was a time when Canadian and American families were quite large and that was primarily a function of the Church, lack of birth control and rural life. Farms required lots of labour to manage them and so it was common for farmers to have larger families. My Mom came from a relatively small rural family from the Ottawa Valley, but my grandparents came from much larger ones. I come from a typical Canadian household of 5, least typical for the 1980s. At the time, most of my friends and classmates lived in a basic nuclear family unit. They had siblings, maybe a pet and [for the most part] lived in houses like mine in the suburbs. It wasn’t until the 1990s that I noticed the change. By the time I was 16,  three out of six of my closest friends had watched their families disintegrate and some of their parents were doing so poorly, they might have been better off biting the bullet. By the time I graduated high school, all 3 of their Moms and/or Dads had either remarried or found new partners. I remember being shocked by that. You have to remember this was before the age of social media; before online dating, mobile dating apps and the “dawn of the dating apocalypse” where hooking up is as easy as changing your socks. Ah… but there is the rub…these newly single Moms and Dads hadn’t just hooked up: they had paired off with someone and had either remarried or were on the verge of it. Marriage was still the endpoint of the average Canadian relationship cycle. But, not for long. By the time I got to university,  we were being rocked by monumental political and social change. ‘Globalization’ was the buzz word of the day, third wave feminism was in full swing, and gay rights were taking the world by storm. It is out of this intense period of re-examination and re-invention that emerged the concept for today’s modern family.

III. Modern Family

modernfam2The first episode of “Modern Family” aired September 23, 2009. Although I didn’t watch it and didn’t get into the show until years later, it’s a date worth remembering because it marks the first time American television really recognized the diversity inherent in our current concept of the modern family. It also took square aim at the absurdly saccharine sanitized image of the American family that American and Canadian households had been flooded with for decades. For me, “Modern Family” debunked the idea that family life is simple and linear; that all problems can be solved within 30 min or an hour and always to everyone’s satisfaction. I love how novel the characters are, and how distinctive their flaws can be. I relish the cynical and darkly humorous children; the hilarious antics of the openly goldigging younger Latina second wife; the deliciously witty gay married parents and so on and so forth. I like how their selfishness and callousness can be so well showcased, how obsessed with technology they are, or how endearingly vulnerable and fiercely loyal they can be to each other. It’s hilarious, absurd and messy and rarely ends with a “a happily ever after” and that’s what makes it more true to life then most of the programming I’ve ever seen. The characters constantly mess up and though there is often a lesson to be learned, they [like most regular people]often ignore it. Why? Because human beings rarely learn anything on the first go. Maybe in Hollywood movies or on HBO, but not in real life. In real life, people need to face plant more then once to get things because they are so busy going after what they want they are too consumed to notice its not the right thing or way to go until they hit that brick wall,…again. For better or for worse, that is what makes us gloriously human: our frailty. Another thing that does is our capacity to re-invent ourselves, including the way we can perceive the notion of family. According to educator Angie Blackwell, “today’s families come in hundreds of shapes and sizes“. There are all kinds of variables and they can include : sexual orientation, proximity, marital status, culture even generation.  The reality is we are free today to create the tribe we need and want. We are free to make it as large or small as we like and there’s great comfort in that. Our families can be multi-generational, blended, mixed, include parents who are unmarried or of the same-sex or all the above and more. They can include friends and neighbours or simply people we have shared life-changing moments with, for better or for worse. They say “blood is thicker than water” and for many of us that rings true. But, there are also those who increasingly believe that “friends really are the family you choose“. Personally, I feel there is room for both these concepts. I strongly believe love is freedom and we must always be free to find our own tribe and surround ourselves with individuals who truly know and love us; have our complete trust; steadfastly have our best interest at heart and want to see us grow and shine in our own time. As an Arab, I’m a big believer in la smala,; a large tribal network that includes biological or relational ties, friends and neighbours. I’m fiercely loving, loyal and understanding of my smala. Sure, I make mistakes; big ones. But, I also take steps to rectify things in due course and am very self-aware and capable of admitting when I’m wrong. Am I the perfect daughter, sister, Tata or friend? Nope. Far from it. But, no one who truly knows me can say over the length of time [and some of these friendships have lasted over two decades] they’ve known me that I don’t try hard to give them the best of myself.  The fact of the matter is, its taken me decades to build this tribe. Those chosen to be part of it mean the world to me and it’s no accident they are in my life. That can make for some rather intense moments, passionate exchanges and arguments, mad/sad periods and hilariously crazy times: but, it’s all worth it. Why? Because [when it’s all said and done]: we are F-A-M-I-L-Y .

So, what’s your notion of family? Do you l♥ve and value your own tribe or smala? Do you agree with the concept of mine? Feel free to let me know!

 

 

“Where is the Love?: Welcome to the New Millennium’s Marital Matrix”

I was five years old the year that Kramer vs. Kramer swept the Oscars. Since I was too young to see it, it would be about two decades before  I would realise how prescient the film Divorce Word Cloud Concept with great terms such as , loveless, marriage, end, laws, infidelity, split, children, and more.was or how pervasive the term “irreconcilable differences” would soon become. However, I was old enough to sit at the grown-up table when my parents had dinner parties and perceptive enough to pick up on the sidelong glances guests gave each other or the hushed tones adopted when referring to couples who were  having a ‘tough time’ or considering ‘parting ways’. The gravity and discretion they deployed made me feel….uneasy…like there was something slightly taboo about all this.

My “kidar” was on point because in the early 1980s there was a significant amount of stigma associated with divorce. Presently, that shame has not so much been eradicated as co-opted by an aggressively cheerful self-help culture that has [to quote New York Times columnist Heather Havrilesky] “little tolerance for slow recoveries.”  We talk a good game about “giving space” and “doing you”, but feel no way about micro-managing the mourning process of the emotionally shattered and utterly betrayed. In this waning age of moral relativism  where personal freedom supposedly [still] trumps all, the parameters for grieving heart-wrenching partings or marital failure are surprisingly rigid. Now, that’s understandable if you’ve got kids in the mix. But, what about DINKs  [Duel Income, No Kids]? Think a 30-something female financial analyst can quietly crawl into a bottle of vodka and not emerge until she’s obliterated all memory of the pretty girl her ex-hubby knocked up at work? Think, again. Fully wallowing is a no-no. After all, there are grief schedules to keep and break-up blowouts to book; buddhic platitudes to mouth and cathartic change to oh so gratefully embrace and accept. All that’s required from you is a change in your perspective. Once you make that paradigm shift, you will see the soul-crushing loss of the ONLY ONE you banked on growing old and dying with is nothing more then a “triumphant rite of passage…a wake-up call or breakthrough on the road to self-fulfillment“. Uh-huh. Right. Truth be told, I’ve always hated such euphemisms. They’re the psychological equivalent of nails on a chalkboard and [these days] there seems to be no shortage of them or reasons to end a marriage.That wasn’t always the case, though. Before no-fault divorce was legislated in Canada and the United States, obtaining a divorce was uncommon, onerous and there were very few grounds under which you could file for one, especially for women. In order to secure one, couples needed to prove one or the other had either committed some kind of sin [e.g. adultery] or crime [e.g. domestic violence]. By 1970, the new law was in full effect and couples no longer needed to be beaten or abandoned to dissolve a partnership, just unhappy and in agreement on their “irreconcilable differences” . This change revolutionized marital relations by not only redressing the existing power imbalance, but facilitating the move from an institutional  model of marriage to a “soulmate model”of marriage.

 

I. Pandora’s Box

largemodernpandoraToday, modern marriage is being challenged by yet another ground-breaking development: social media. Like Pandora’s box, social media can yield a real mixed bag. While some couples find that digital tools facilitate communication and support, others report being  quite hurt, frustrated or even betrayed by them. Now, there are those who argue that social  media is a new field; that it hasn’t been around long enough to conduct the kind of  studies necessary to explore it in great depth. That may be true, but the reality is you don’t need a think tank to tell you that technology complicates the marital matrix. You also don’t need a subject matter expert to explain to you how social media [much like drugs and alcohol] lowers inhibitions, making it easier to do certain things or reach out to certain people you normally wouldn’t. . The reality is millennial matrimony already labours under a set of unique societal conditions; ones far more permissive and complex then those your Mom or Grandma had to maneuver within. If you’re a Gen X-er or a Millennial you’re personal network is probably like an onion with  multiple layers. There’s your inner sanctum of besties, but there’s also layer after layer of ‘friends’  [male or female] of all stripes:  you’ve got high school acquaintances and gym buddies you know well, co-workers you’ve befriended, even the odd “work spouse,” exs you’re in touch with and people you’ve casually dated who are in your periphery or closer etc. You would think that only you or the members of your circle has the power to shift or change how close or important the relationship you share is.  Not so. As I noted in my previous blogs on dating and friendship, social media has a vital influence on the way we meet and keep people in our lives, especially our mates. Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels that way. CEO of DivorceHotel Mediators Jim Halfens does, too. Jim argues that the temptations that abound in the digital world make partnership a much riskier venture; one that requires more work and investment. Countless apps allow disenchanted partners to manage multiple relationships, be they virtual or otherwise. According to him, “emotional and physical affairs are now delivered on demand thanks to social media and technology.”   In 2014, the Italian Association of Matrimonial Lawyers declared that 40% of Italian divorce cases cite Whats App as a factor in adultery and a joint study conducted by the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile and Boston University published in the July 2014 edition of Computers in Human Behaviour concluded that people who use Facebook are 32% more likely to leave their spouse”. Although there’s still no conclusive evidence that social media is exclusively to blame for the demise of about half the couples we know, it’s still managing to mess with marriages in a serious way and this is how.

 

II. The Facebook Factor 

fbdivAhhhh…Facebook. Launched in 2004,  this social network has singled-handedly flipped twenty-first century dating and mating on its head. It’s transformed every aspect of inter-personal relationships from making friends to managing partners. It’s shifted our notions of self-worth and how we value the people we do and why. It’s a double-edged sword that allows us to ‘build our own tribe’ online professionally, but can undermine everything we personally cherish or invested time to painstakingly build in a swipe or two. Facebookcheating.com is the case point. The website was started by Ken Savage in 2009 after he found out his wife was having an affair with an old flame she had reconnected on Facebook with. The site claims 1 in 3 divorces is caused by FB.  When CNN interviewed them back in 2010, Facebook denied it was responsible for breaking up millions of couples world wide and rightfully so. Its ludicrous to blame an app for the destruction of 5, 10 or 30 year- old partnerships when the only person who should shoulder that burden are the philanderers themselves. Blaming Mark Zuckerberg for every Facebook-fuelled hook up and bootie call won’t change a thing. It’s not his job or that of any social media platform to police partnerships or provide the means to insulate users from being potentially tempted. Needless to say, the topic is a controversial one that has caught the attention of not only FB aficionados, but scientists as well.  Although they have yet to establish a causal relationship between Facebook and negative marital outcomes, data collected in the last few years does indicate a noteworthy correlation between the two, particularly when you factor in certain demographics like marital seniority and age.A 2013 study done by the University of Missouri School of Journalism  generated quite a bit of ink when it found that excessive Facebook use significantly predicted conflict between romantic partners, which then predicted negative relationship outcomes  such as emotional and physical cheating, break ups and divorce. Not surprisingly, the biggest issue they stumbled across was creeping. The more a partner used Facebook, the more likely they were to stalk their S.O’s page. What they found often produced  feelings of jealousy and insecurity and those feelings could induce arguments, particularly about previous partners. Facebook users are also more likely to connect or reconnect with other users , including their exs, which may lead to emotional or physical cheating. Curiously enough, the findings of the University of Missouri hold only for couples who have been in relationships of three years or less. This suggests that digital tools like Facebook mainly threaten newer relationships as opposed to longer, well-established ones. Family law firm McKinley Irvin makes no such distinction. According to its 2015 study, 1 in 5 people have found something on FB regarding their partner that made them feel “uneasy” in their relationship and at least 25% of the couples surveyed fight about Facebook at least once a week, whether that be because of their mate’s activity on it or the amount of time spent using it

 

III. The Twitter Effect

Heartbroken-TwitterThan there’s the Twitter effect. Russel Clayton, a doctoral student involved in the previously referenced 2013 study conducted by the University of Missouri found that active Twitter users are far more likely to experience Twitter-related conflicts with their romantic partners. Moreover, these conflicts can lead to emotional and physical cheating, even break-ups and divorce. According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 81% of  lawyers have used tweets as evidence in divorce cases to prove: a party’s state of mind while being on social media; the existence of certain types of communications; and to confirm the time and place certain events took place. Another point of contention among married couples is social media access.  About one-third of married couples keep their Twitter account locked and their password private. This practice is most prevalent among younger users age 18-29 who were using social media well before they met their partners.According to a 2013 study conducted by the Pew Research Centre, age playes a key role in how social media platforms like Twitter, FB or Whats App influence the quality of relationships. 45% of the couples 18-29 surveyed said that the internet had an impact on their relationship; only 10% of adults 65 and older reported the same. I gotta say, that’s quite a difference and indicative of a significant generation gap when it comes to value respective users attach to technology.

 

IV. Where is the Love?

” Marriage is counter-cultural act in a throwaway society.” – Dr. William H. Doherty

whereistheloveSo…where is the love? If all the of the above is true…and its all just doom and gloom: is there any hope for modern matrimony? If you go by these stats, there barely seems to be any hope for monogamists much less those who aspire to happily ever after. But, I suppose that’s the beauty of living in what is easily the most creative era of human history. Why? Because we are free to choose the kind of life we want for ourselves and to create our own reality. We have a choice: we can choose to work at our relationships or not. Thus far, the  truth is technology can make short work of relationships that are either too fresh or already weak. But, if we value our partnerships, we can make a commitment to strengthen them and invest the time required to create the rock solid foundation they will need to survive. We can talk to our mates and hash things things out, instead of settling for easy answers and external validation from illicit third parties. How is it we can spend months shopping for a car or weeks combing through website after website looking for the perfect pair of boots or bikini, but we can’t set aside time to talk about how much we love our partner or figure out how to get on the same page as them? The CEO of DivorceHotel Mediators Jim Halpens doesn’t feel social media is to blame for killing marriages. He sees it more as a litmus test for marital  communication, trust and longevity. Unfortunately, it appears to be one many are failing, even though they don’t have to. Ultimately, the choice is ours. We can succumb to the present throwaway mentality and treat our partners like Kleenex or we can listen to them with R.E.S.P.E.C.T, maybe even meet half way with a lil’ TLC. Above all,  if we can find our way from thinking in terms of just “me” and make the leap to “we”, we might just find the loving partner in crime waiting for us on the other side is way better then any third-rate digital fantasy.

How do you feel about love and romance in the new millennium? Are you a mater or a dater? Do you still believe in love and commitment despite the depressing stats? Please share!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“What About Your Friends?: The Challenge of Keeping Besties in the Age of Social Media”

colourtlc

Picture this….

The year is 1992. It’s a sizzling hot summer day in Ottawa; the kind that makes you wanna hop on your bike and head down to the local pool to go swimming with your friends and eat Freezies all day. In a non- air-conditioned  apartment on Fifth Avenue, a group of seventeen-year-old girls are lounging about in the living room in tank tops and Daisy Dukes giving themselves French manicures in front of a large fan gossiping about the latest break-up in their circle and debating the merits of a friendly U.S presidential hopeful from Arkansas that got lots of buzz lately. In the background, the dulcet tones of R&B girl group sensation, TLC, comes drifting through a pair of large Sony speakers. The song playing is “ What About Your Friends?“…

” What about your friends? Will they stand their ground? Will they let you down, again? What about your friends? Are they gonna be low down? Will they ever be around or will they turn their backs on you?”

The hook is a catchy one… and within a minute or two …all five girls are singing along and exchanging knowing glances about the pitfalls of female friendship their favourite Atlanta trio is referring to.  Yes, …female. I could write chapter and verse on the male side of the bff equation. But, for the purposes of brevity I’m limiting this discussion to that ‘sister from another mister‘ or the beautiful besties that bring something special to your world. If someone had asked any of the five girls at that moment how they felt about each other, their response would have reflected the closeness of the bond they share. Why?Because, even though  all of them had [by that time] already been hurt or rejected by a trusted gal pal , they remained open and trusting of each other. How do I know this? I was one of them and I’m still besties with one of them, too.

Suffice it to say…there are many reasons a friendship can fail or succeed. That was true in 1992 and is still true today. What’s changed is the criteria people use to gauge how mediocre or marvelous their friends are and how social media is re-shaping our respective lists of does and don’ts. Social media has not only transformed our traditional notion of friendship, it has also shifted what we value in these close relationships and  [linguistically-speaking] upended the terminology used to communicate that . While I recognize that the concept of sisterhood explored here is by no means universal, research indicates there is quite a bit cross-cultural consensus around this issue. According to what I’ve seen and read, women form the strongest bonds with women they can trust, rely on, feel close to and understood by. In other words, the basic metrics for assessing the quality of the relationship you have with your best friend are: trust, reliability, intimacy and acceptance. Don’t believe me? Check out what Alex Lickerman, M.D wrote about kenzokuthe Japanese concept of friendship and you’ll see there’s very little difference between the love and trust exchanged between besties the world over. However, there is a growing chasm between what certain aspects of friendship once meant to us and their significance within the current social media context.

I. Trust

Last February, a British poll found that almost half of the Britons surveyed preferred to keep in touch with friends virtually, rather than in person. The survey also found that 79% of those polled maintain friendships that would “wither” without the help of social media. In other words, these individuals retain connections to human beings that wouldn’t survive offline. Since women still make-up the lion’s share of social media users, you can be sure there’s a significant amount of them depending on the likes of Facebook and Instagram to massage their female friendships. Needless to say, I find these figures more than a little disturbing. The fact that these women feel the connections they have invested in would “wither” without some form technological oxygen shows how little trust they actually have in the people they are connected to. Of course, that doesn’t apply to long distance friendships. It’s not like you can hit Starbucks together for a chat every other week if one lives in Manchester and the other in Mumbai. But, if your bestie lives within 30 minutes of you and she consistently cancels on you for a quick bite around the corner, but always seems to find time to rate Jimmy Kimmel’s Celebrity Mean Tweets: how much trust can one put in such a relationship?

II. Reliabilityfriendsrachelmonicaphoebe

On May 6th, 2004, NBC aired the final episode of Friends. For girls like me, it was the end of an era. My first year at Carleton, I watched the show  religiously every Monday at Roosters along with God only knows how many other girls and guys. Yeah, you heard me : GUYS. Laugh if you will, but they loved it …(!) ; we all did. I rarely missed out on watching the antics of Rachel, Chandler, Ross, Joey, Monica and Phoebe. Why? Because I liked how they could rely on each other, especially the girls. The show’s theme song  “I’ll Be There For You” only served to reiterate that fact. Fast forward to 2016 and we find ourselves faced with a very different proposition…, least most Gen X-ers do. Those of us who were in school or just graduating back in 2004 related easily to the sisterhood Rachel, Monica and Phoebe shared. It’s one based on marathon phone conversations about crappy bosses and boyfriends and years [not hours, not days] years…spent in each other’s company through good times and bad. I’ve both supported my besties in their time of need and thanked God they exist when I needed them most. As a result, I have an exact idea of who I can count on when the chips are down and the security that affords me is worth its weight in gold. Not all girls are as lucky, though. Blogger Lindsay Williams wasn’t. Last year, she discovered the hard way that “lasting friendships are built on far more than a Facebook history. They’re forged in the fire of life’s peaks and valleys“. Determined to figure out where she went wrong, she decided to examine the reasons why she was so unsuccessful at winning and keeping friends in 2015.  Her assessment revealed “six areas where social media is wreaking havoc on our friendships.” Not surprisingly, intimacy topped her list.

III. Intimacy

Intimacy…is one those  Oprahfied terms I grew up hearing that [to this day] still seems to make people incredibly uncomfortable,especially married folk. Yet, it remains the base of any true bestie bond. My own interpretation of the term is rather raw… and not likely to show up in the latest edition of Psychology Today . My definition of intimacy is… when you feel close enough to let your best friend hold your hair back while you barf in the Cancun hotel bathroom you’re both sharing because you got yourself ‘white girl wasted‘ your first night of Spring Break. It also includes spending the next hour pathetically reminding her how A-M-A-Z-I-N-G she is for turning down more tequila, taking you home and [above all], making the driver pull over so she could buy you  ginger ale for tomorrow’s killer hangover. Is this a true story? Not exactly. However, the image of mutual trust and bonding it conveys is one most women my age can relate to.  But, what happens when the closeness you thought you shared with someone…is [more or less] an illusion? Social media is known to create a false sense of intimacy. In other words, it makes you feel like you know people better than you actually do. As Lindsey Williams remarked, “liking someone’s photos on Instagram does not a friendship make.”The fact of the matter is you can only really get to know someone by spending time with them and being part of their lives; not just observing it through a screen.

IV. AcceptanceBFF

So, what does it mean to be ‘accepted’ by your bestie? For me, it means you feel free to be who you are and share that with them …win, lose or draw. When you feel accepted by your best friend you feel supported and understood. You feel like whatever makes you unique in this world is respected and valued. Unfortunately, the shame culture that is thriving on social media militates against such an outcome. Intimacy and acceptance are based on emotional safety or a calculated emotional risk, if you will. The idea of not being scared to show who you truly are is one that goes to the heart of any burgeoning or seasoned friendship or sisterhood. Ironically, social media actually hinders that kind of sharing by punishing those who dare to air their dirty laundry online and rewarding those who present the most blemish-free image of themselves literally and figuratively. Members of the ‘community’ carefully scrutinize all shows of human frailty and hand down their verdict via a battery of likes, ratings and positive or negative feedback. The end result? Virtual exchanges are conducted in a sterile space where no real emotional spillage can take place and where everyone hides behind what photographer Tanja Hollander referred to as the “staged façade“of their lives.

Social media can impact female friendships negatively when it comes to markers such as trust, reliability, intimacy and acceptance. But, the reality is that it’s here to stay, so users must develop better ways of navigating the inevitable pitfalls of managing one’s online friendships or “social capital”. Writer Scott Alexander once famously noted “all good is hard”. If you look at your closest human relationships through that lense, than it becomes evident that anything worthwhile is worth investing the appropriate time and energy in. The bottom line is there are no shortcuts and if you truly value your besties… and are grateful for all they do and bring to your life… you’ll do what it takes to prove that to them. That means doing stuff like taking em’ out for some spicy Mexican and margaritas on their birthday instead of dramatically promising to do so beneath the bday Minions vid you posted on their Wall.  At the end of the day, though…you’re the only one who can decide whether they deserve your reciprocity or not. For your sake and theirs…here’s hoping they do.

Do you find it hard to keep your besties close in the age of social media? How valuable are your friendships to you? Please let me know!

 

 

“Plenty of Fish…or Not?: Confessions of an Online Dating Refusenik”

round cupidAccording to Merriam-Webster, a refusenik is a ” 1: Soviet citizen and especially a Jew refused permission to emigrate. 2: a person who refuses or declines something.” I guess you could say I fall under the second part of this definition, since I’m what my friends and family lovingly refer to as a “hater”. I’m not sure if it’s a function of my age [I’m a Gen Xer], my ethnicity [I’m half Arab], or my religion [I’m a non-practicing Muslim], but I’ve yet to dip my toe into the shark-infested waters of the online dating pool. Now, there are those who would argue therein lies the greatest weakness of my position, but I beg to differ. As a writer, I spend a great deal of time observing people, analyzing my environment, absorbing the effects of different social and cultural phenomenon and then assessing their overall impact on our society. Like most any sentient moderately intelligent and self-aware person living in the twenty-first century, I’ve watched technology transform everything of import in both the public and private sphere. To my mind, the greatest metamorphosis has taken place in the way we communicate, relate and seek mates and [from what I’ve seen and heard] this change is way more then we bargained for.

Although some online dating sites like match.com have been around a few decades now, it’s the crop that sprung up after 2000 like Plenty of Fish,eHarmony, and the advent of mobile dating via TinderHinge , Happn and [for say the male gay community] Grindr that has basically decimated the traditional dating rules of engagement, especially for millennials. The impact of the change technology has precipitated shouldn’t be underestimated. In her piece for Vanity Fair,  journalist Nancy Jo Sales interviewed Justin Garcia, a research scientist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. This is his historic perspective on a millennium plus worth of dating and mating:

“…We are in uncharted territory when it comes to Tinder et al. … there have been two major transitions in the last four million years. The first was around 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, in the agricultural revolution, when we became less migratory and more settled. And the second major transition is with the rise of the Internet.”

What makes these 2 transitions major? The first lead to the establishment of marriage as a cultural contract and the second has cemented the appeal of a hook up culture that has been percolating since around the time Coco Chanel designed and sold the first pair of women’s trousers. For the record, it’s not casual sex I find actively repellent. Commitment-free sexual encounters are a normal part of the dating and mating cycle for almost any man or woman living in the first world or in an economically developing society that has made space for the personal and professional growth and development of its citizens. There are times in our lives where professional or educational pursuits, personal goals, interests and [above all] timing...trump our need to partner up. I don’t see an issue with connecting with others in a healthy way that doesn’t involve courting or exclusivity. What’s repulsive to me is how love and sex have been commodified. Moreover, when it comes to romance, I don’t really subscribe to the ever popular mantra that “the Universe helps those who help themselves.”  As an Arab, the concept of mektoub or fate; the notion that destiny has a vital role to play in the enfolding of one’s life is a core belief that has shaped my own philosophy of love, sex and commitment. Both my own experience and observations have left me a times confused…but mostly in awe of that intangible and unpredictable X-factor that can lead you to that specific encounter or that makes or breaks the potential for the intimacy and commitment that followed. As an idealist and old-school romantic , the prospect of creating an online dating  profile makes me both yawn and cringe. I’m bored by the bio I must carefully craft; the one that will strike just the right note with that ‘special someone’. I also dread the phony baloney, perfectly airbrushed,over-filtered pic I must post along with it. Finally, I resent the copious amount of time I’ll be devoting to triaging potential candidates just so I can [à la Fiddler on the Roof] “find me a find, catch me a catch!”

But POF is a veritable Shangri-la compared to the horror that awaits the denizens of the mobile dating arena. For starters, [as CNN commentator Mel Robbins aptly noted] “the game is rigged for guys. ” The battle of the sexes is one thing in the boardroom; quite another in the boudoir. A fair amount of research indicates that [biologically-speaking] men are hard-wired to play the field and spread their seed, while woman are programmed to be genetically discriminating and select the best of it available. When it comes to mobile dating apps like Tinder and company the odds are definitely stacked in favour of the

tinder hingehappngrindr

Tinder hero on the prowl and not the Tinderellas he’s seeking.  Incidentally, the idea of being selected by some random guy who just ‘swiped right’and ordered me the same way he ordered his Bose speakers makes me want to hurl and then bathe in Lysol overnight. The numbers game being played by some users is equally unsettling, especially when you consider STIs are on the rise, again. Finally, the fact that [unlike most online dating sites] only a tiny percentage of the connections [2,000 out of 13 million matches per day] made on Tinder added up to real commitments in 2014 is legit food for thought.

The reality is millennials don’t know what it’s like not to date or mate in such a shallow, degrading and bizarre environment. They don’t know what it’s like the transact with others in an arena where technology can’t really mitigate the quantity and quality of human interaction. They’ve come of age in a time where social awkwardness and an Orwellian lack of privacy is the norm. It’s a generation that increasingly depends on a collection of swipes, clicks and likes for personal validation and lacks the confidence to turn to themselves or their true loved ones for something so essential. Ask around and you will hear how vigilant most are when it comes to their online presence ; how they fret over their Facebook profile pics, not clogging their friend’s feeds, how many followers they have and why one person might like or ignore the stuff they post or share.

In the aggregate, the fixation on such superficial concerns doesn’t bode well for the future of commitment and matrimony in the new millennium. Barely 16 years into it…and were already dealing with the kind of game-changing societal change whose implications we’ve only just begun to understand. However, just because technology  and our increasingly codep relationship with social media are transforming the mating game, doesn’t mean we abdicate all personal responsibility for the way we choose to meet and treat potential lovers or partners. Do strange responses from over eager male POF candidates mean chivalry is dead? Not, necessarily. Will Tinder sound the death knell for true romance and intimacy? It doesn’t have to. We can choose to keep it ‘real’ and remain authentic even when faced with a dating environment that promotes the contrary, especially if we’ve taken that online plunge. I may be a ‘hater’, but my mantra has always been ‘live and let live’. Focus on doing you; no one else can …(!)and if you’re lucky enough to encounter a fair number of individuals who respect and value that, you just might find there really is ‘plenty of fish in the sea’.

How do you feel about online dating? Do you agree that mobile dating apps are a factor in the current “dating apocalypse’? Share your story!