Monday, December 28, 2009

The Year that Was

It is customary at the close of the year to reflect on the events of the past 12 months. The purpose, for me, is to see where I was 12 months ago and where I'm headed in the upcoming year.

2009 began with my first trip to India and ended with a new friend's first trip to Sydney. In between, I experienced a host of interesting events, which I will attempt to sum up briefly here.

3rd January 2009: I return home from a Christmas trip to Phoenix.

4th January 2009: I depart for New Dehli, India for a week long business trip. I know what you're thinking: how does one survive a 15-hour flight from the United States to Australia, only to turn around and take another 13-hour flight to India from Australia? The answer: business class upgrade on my LAX to Sydney flight!

My week in India was fascinating and grueling at the same time. I had a class with 20 students, but also managed to get in the sights of the city with some fellow co-workers, as well as a day trip to see the Taj Mahal. As impressive as the structure is, it is still a tomb. I prefer monuments to the living, which is why skyscrapers have always fascinated me.

Over the several months after the trip, I began settling into my new life in Sydney more and more. I made some new friends and attended my very first Australian Football League game. I am not much for sport, but I found the AFL game fast moving and exciting.

Throughout the year I had several out of country visitors, starting with my old friend Daniel who flew down from Montréal en route to Bali and then back to Sydney again to spend several days with me. In August I welcomed my parents to Australia for an entire month and practically exhausted them, I think, with escapades all over Sydney, as well as to the Hunter Valley, Melbourne, and Port Douglas in North Queensland. Finally in December my friends Randy and John came down for several weeks to experience summer in winter, so to speak. It was John's first trip down, so I was amused to see his reaction to Sydney and to my eclectic mix of friends and neighbours. We even attended a number of parties and partook in Janets Pies, which are about the best I've had in the area. John is now a huge fan of the meat pie!

If my first year in Sydney was a little solitary, then the second has turned out to be much less so. After careful thought and planning (is there any other way?) I decided to move to a larger apartment away from the centre of the city. I found a lovely little townhouse apartment in Alexandria, which is an inner city suburb not too far from the Sydney Airport. At the same time, it is still only minutes away from my office, so it was no compromise for me. I fell in love with it the minute I walked in. Two full bedrooms and bathrooms. The guest bedroom downstairs even has its own bathroom, so my guests needn't bother coming upstairs. It also has a decent sized balcony with doors that open all the way. Perfect for entertaining!

The nicest surprise of the new neighbourhood is the Love Grub cafe, just downstairs from me. The staff and patrons alike are friendly and full of life. Within weeks, I'd met several new people, many of whom I call friends now. Thanks to the Love Grub, I met Wendy and Daniel, a lovely couple who run a photography studio up the street from me. I was even able to take their beginner's course at the end of 2009. In October, Jacqui and Justin - who run the Love Grub - moved into the unit next to mine. And to round things out, Jacqui's sister Domonique lives in the one-bedroom apartment just above the cafe. Domi quipped that we've become Melrose Place, and I tend to agree!

2009 was not without its sorrows, too. In September my dear friend's mother passed away after many years of battling cancer. The loss of Marilyn was a terrible blow to the family and to me, too. I even dedicated my first blog post to her. It was my way of ensuring that her memory lives on. She is sorely missed.

I have deliberately skipped discussing politics in this article, for the obvious reason that I do not wish to engage in topics of little value to me these days. Until a man of integrity and principle rises to steer my home country back towards its proper founding ideals, I will have little to say on the matter.

In closing, I'd like to recommend my two favourite films of the year: Up and Julie & Julia, which I have discussed in greater detail in previous articles. Both appealed to my childlike sense of wonder at the world I live in, as well as my admiration for great achievements in life. And yes, two of my goals in 2010 are to perfect Julia's Boeuf à la bourguignonne AND to de-bone a duck. Take that, Julie Powell!

Here is to a fruitful and value-laden 2010!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Who Should I Be?

What kind of man do I want to be? When I was a boy, I frequently asked myself that question. In the mind of a small boy, the question is too abstract, so it frequently takes the form of 'what do I want to be when I grow up?' A child understands what people are based on the adults he observes around him: my father worked for a newspaper, Mr Casey next door worked in the food business, still another neighbour was an architect who designed the new swimming pool complex at my local high school. All three men were productive in one way or another, so I thought it perfectly normal to aspire to the same.

As I grew older, I began to grasp the specifics of the work these men did. My father was an editor for a city newspaper and contributed to the quality of the end product. Mr Casey was a food broker who bought and sold products not for direct consumption by everyday people, but for bridging the gap between producers and sellers. Mr Kahler had to know an enormous amount about structural engineering and aesthetics to produce sound, elegant and practical buildings. I never once thought there were other types of men - men who existed to seek advancement in life not by their skills, but by their ability to seek influence.

Today, of course, as a fully-grown man, I understand all too well the type of men who exist not for the sake of their own abilities, but who stand in the way of those who do. This brings me back to my initial question, which I can now state in the present tense: what kind of man am I? People who know me well can answer easily: I am a man who seeks out achievements, wherever they may be. When I get an idea in my head about a future project, I observe, think, plan and act. It never occurs to me to consider the opinions of others, nor does it worry me. I may get an idea for some new achievement based on a conversation I've had, but the work itself is its own motivation for me.

As a teenager, I decided I was going to become fluent in French. A worthy goal, right? Some expressed doubt that I was capable of mastering a second language well after the muscles to produce the sounds of French had atrophied in my mouth. As it turns out, for me they hadn't, and so I was able to mimic the sounds of French effortlessly. The looking in the mirror exercises that the teacher had recommended were unnecessary, so I didn't do them. The teacher was never the wiser for it. It was easy for me and I loved it. I always got the best marks in French class and happily continued acquiring vocabulary and more complex verbal constructions.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, there were a number of fellow students who resented me for my skills. They thought I was haughty and a show-off. They thought I was the teacher's pet. This attitude became clearer to me years later as a student at the Université Laval in Québec City. I recall one afternoon sitting in the student coffee lounge, overhearing a conversation two English Canadians were having with one another. Apparently I was an offensive jerk for refusing to speak English and becoming part of the Anglophone community. I thought: how odd that these women I didn't even know would concern themselves with my life. What was it to them really? I had neither harmed nor maligned these two strangers. I simply went about my business.

I began to formulate the idea that some people do not live their lives to seek out achievement, but rather to malign those who do - or worse, attempt to stop them from attaining success in life. These are men and women whose driving force in their lives is envy of others. Envy is that emotion that moves people not to admire ability - as I do - but to denigrate it.

Why, I wondered. Why do people care what others do? What do they hope to gain? Why the focus on others when they could be expending that same energy achieving for themselves? As I moved into the work world, the same ugly emotions manifested themselves in the men and women who took pleasure in playing office politics. Another concept emerged for me: the notion that some people prefer to curry favour rather than do their jobs. They want desperately to be liked, but do everything in their power to sabotage legitimate business relationships. Time and again I have seen this play out in my current job, but because I have a rational and high achieving boss, every attempt at treachery in the office is thwarted. The schemers are always cut off at the pass and wonder why they never succeed at their task.

I could become a cynic. I could conclude that men are rotten to the core. I could proclaim that these creatures seeking to suck the lifeblood out of others are the rule, not the exception. Human history is rife with examples of envy destroying good people: Socrates, Galileo and even Bill Gates who did nothing so odious as to produce software that others wanted at prices they were willing to pay. And yet, I pay these examples no heed. I know that, despite the evil intentions of some men, vast achievements are all around us to admire. When I walk down the gleaming streets of Sydney and Melbourne, I see high achievement in the skyscrapers and shop windows. When I enter the Apple Store in Sydney, I see employees and patrons alike marvelling at the array of fantastic products available to the public at large. When I order my strong flat white coffee in the morning from my local cafe, I watch admiringly as the barista prepares my delicious beverage for me.

In all my years of living, I have never worried what other people thought of me. I have only concerned myself with my own goals. I realise that I am the kind of man who exists to live fully, and even though there are bumps in the road and occasional set-backs, nothing stops me from that singular focus.

What kind of man are you?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Holiday Interlude

Hello friends and followers,

As you can see, my blogging of late has been non-existent. Fear not! Due to a busy work schedule and visiting friends from the US, my writing has been on the back burner. I fully intend to continue with the momentum very shortly. I have heaps of new topics and here's a shocker: I may weigh in on the nonsense that is 'climate change'.

Stay tuned and Christmas wishes to all!


Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Life of an Immigrant - Part II

In the few months leading up to my arrival in Czechoslovakia, I travelled around Western Europe, ending up in Vienna with little money at the end of August 1992, and therefore not much to pay for a decent hotel. I spent those last days in the West holed up in a cheap backpackers style hotel, with little to do but read and ruminate about my upcoming adventure or folly, depending on my mood. It must be said that embarking on the utter unknown is daunting to say the least, but it also provided an adrenaline rush like none other I had experienced. What in the hell had I agreed to and what sinkhole of a country had I committed to living in for the next year?

Finally the day arrived to meet my group of eager future English instructors at the Vienna airport, where a hired coach would take us over the border of the Slovak Republic and into the unknown. I encountered a friendly lot of traveller types, some in their 20s, but some older and seeking a new kind of life, too. There were married couples and hippie types. There were staunch leftists and conservative Republicans. In other words, all of the teachers came from varied backgrounds and viewpoints. To this 26-year-old the volleying of ideas over the several days of our orientation in a dusty little Slovak town called Piešťany invigorated me. It made me realise I had made the right decision to seek out this opportunity.

On the final day of our orientation, nominated representatives from our assigned towns and schools arrived to escort us to our new homes for the next year. My placement was in the eastern Slovak city of Prešov, which had the distinction of being home to a university, but not much else. Like most small cities of Eastern Europe, it was grey and dingy, with a main street resembling a fairy tale village, replete with faded taffy coloured 18th century buildings, but ringed with the 'housing estates' most Western nations relegate to those unfortunate souls subsisting on government largesse.

My home was a student dormitory close to the town centre, referred to in Slovak as a 'študensky domov'. It had the distinction of resembling all the other aforementioned greying housing estates. It had a front desk where the 'vrátnik' kept watch on all the comers and goers. In the socialist era, the vrátnik surely filled the role of informant, but I was never able to receive clarification on this point. My assigned room had two twin beds with a modest desk and wardrobe, a bathroom and a balcony overlooking a soccer field. My colleagues informed me I had a prime location on the second floor as the upper rooms never got any hot water, due to the poor plumbing system. I believed them.

My year in Slovakia consisted of teaching both teenagers and adults conversational English, taking weekend trips to various other dusty towns with fellow Westerners, and gradually learning to communicate in Slovak. The greatest lesson I learnt, however, was how to value my freedom as an American and the breathtaking gift the Founding Fathers of the United States had bestowed upon the world. I often thought Slovaks would benefit greatly from discovering the ideas that lead to the vibrancy of America, but I also realised that the older Slovak generations had been so steeped in the propaganda of socialism that for them to contemplate a system that revered the individual was beyond their capabilities.

I left Slovakia in May of 1993 having experienced a culture that I disliked, but which also gave me much fuel for seeking out a career and a life that suited me. For the next 15 years I acquired a career in the software industry in both Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Phoenix, Arizona. Those skills prepared me for the next big adventure in my life: a permanent relocation to Australia in June of 2008.

Throughout this piece on the life of an immigrant, I have only discussed my life as a world traveller and expatriate American. When one goes abroad for extended periods of time, as in my year in Belgium or my four years in Québec, there is a built-in expectation of a return to one's home country. An immigrant, on the other hand, has left his home country permanently with the expectation of achieving his fortunes elsewhere. He sees his home country with a degree of nostalgia, but looks to his new country as where he will live out the rest of his days. There is a psychological element in operation here, too. Without a time limit, the immigrant must learn to adapt to his new culture without reference to his own.

It is true the United States and Australia are similar cultures. Both are relatively young cultures. Both are constantly reinventing themselves and quick to embrace those changes. To become an Australian has nothing at all to do with skin colour or national origin, just as the same applies to becoming American. Australian culture is a fantastic repository of some of the best and brightest the world has to offer. It attracts talented and adventurous people from the world over, and it has its own distinctive style. In short, it is a particularly easy culture for an American to adapt to.

And yet, I am an immigrant. I hold ideas foreign to many Australians. When I express my horror over compulsory voting, for example, most Australians I've met are befuddled by my objection. They see it as a citizen's responsibility to elect their representatives, not the violation of rights I ascribe to it. This highlights a vitally important role an immigrant can play, though it is necessarily a secondary role, which is: the injection of new ideas into a culture. My objection to mandatory voting, while unusual to Australians I know, has the effect of challenging received wisdom. I may never persuade a single Australian directly, but I have expressed a notion previously unheard by a great number of Australians.

I will make clear that I do not see myself as an official or unofficial American ambassador. I am an individual with clear ideas about who I am and what I stand for. It is for that reason alone that I never seek to 'evangelise' about the virtues of the original American system. In fact, I consider that presumptuous because Australians are perfectly capable of forming their own opinions. They don't need a foreigner wagging his finger at them, proclaiming they should think this or that. (See my article on you-shoulders for clarification on this point.)

What I do think is I must also remain true to my own hard won convictions, neither preaching to others nor succumbing to ideas I disagree with because I fear rebuke. As a man happy to call Australia my home country, I owe my new friends and associates the integrity that I espouse every day, while accepting that differing opinions are the reward of living in a dynamic and modern culture.

Thank you, Australia, for welcoming this immigrant with open arms.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Life of an Immigrant - Part I

'Immigrants built this nation'. This oft-repeated expression has been common currency in America for a long time. I find it a particularly important saying because now that I am an immigrant, it has given me much to contemplate as I navigate my new home country. In keeping with my views, I think it's vital to examine the nature of the immigrant experience and the people who choose to move to completely different countries permanently. In so doing, I think we can arrive at a few important notions that make immigrants the 'ultimate resource' in the countries that welcome them.

Let's step back in history a bit, first. In the early 1980s, I approached my parents, insisting I wanted to spend a year abroad as an exchange student. My father, ever the realist, explained that I needed to improve my marks in school and did I understand the risks of what I was proposing. I thought I grasped what was at stake - after all I had befriended all the foreign students who attended my high school and was deeply involved in the AFS organisation. And yet, for a 15-year-old precocious boy, all the details of coping with living in a foreign land and learning to speak another language were more romantic than real.

After a few setbacks and false starts, I was accepted to a year programme in French-speaking Belgium. Off I went on my adventure in July of 1984, excited but nervous, too. I had studied French for several years and found it easy and fun. I thought that was the most difficult challenge. Boy was I wrong! I quickly realised that acquiring a second language was the easiest of the struggles I faced in Belgium. The most difficult were adjusting to life with a family completely different from my own AND realising that not all people were alike, as many Americans still believe. I came to see Belgians had a different historical and philosophical context. Without pointing out what I liked and disliked about Belgian culture, I quickly learnt that the people didn't merely speak another language. They held different views about nearly everything! Jason the young naïf got a crash course in cultural differences on site!

Having survived my first international foray with another language under my belt, I then plotted to attend a university in French. It was a logical next step for me. Once again my father the realist suggested that a four-year degree in a European university might pose difficult challenges. I therefore set my sights on Québec, which had the virtue of being French-speaking but still North American. Off I went in August of 1986 to attend Laval University in Québec City.

Four years later and with a degree in French and Secondary Education under my belt, I returned to my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin to start a job with a translation firm. It didn't go so well. I was ill suited to the position and I hadn't yet learnt good work skills. Six months into the job, I got sacked and humbly had to look for any kind of work a 24-year-old with little experience could do. After working as a temp for a while, I secured an entry level position as a technical support representative. It sparked in me an interest in the computer world, but still I had my wanderlust to satisfy.

These were the very early days of online services like Prodigy and AOL. One day whilst browsing the travel section on Prodigy, I cottoned to postings about teaching English in Czechoslovakia. I thought 'Hmmm, now THERE is something I could do! I can teach, I've lived abroad and this silly tech support job is dull.' After a bit of research, I found a non-profit organisation that placed qualified people in schools throughout the Slovak Republic to teach conversational English. The fall of communism had generated a strong interest in the people of the former Eastern Bloc countries to learn English. What better way to learn than to send young university graduates from the US and Canada to teach them!

Part II to be completed in the next post.

Friday, October 30, 2009


'You should eat healthier foods'. 'You should recycle'. 'You should forgive your friend for her transgressions'. Have you encountered what I call 'you-should' people? Are you one yourself? In other words, the kind of person who offers unsolicited advice, regardless of the other person's values or interests. What are they after and why are they so insistent on what they think you should do? Because I reach my conclusions by induction - observing first and evaluating second - I don't assume anything about the people who engage in 'you should' behaviour. In some situations, the advice can be perfectly benign, such as when someone loves a particular movie and declares: 'You SHOULD see The Lives of Others! It is the best movie I've seen in years!' The goal in this piece, however, is to examine the nature of those who offer unsolicited advice, not calls to share a value.

Earlier this year, an old friend of mine came to Sydney to visit me. We hadn't seen each other in nearly a year and so it was a great opportunity to catch up and show him around my beloved new home city. Over breakfast on his last day in Sydney, he did the one thing I dislike most in other people. He intoned that I should recycle, offering apparently valid reasons for doing so, including the oft heard 'saving the planet' we get in the media every day. I replied that there may be good reasons not to recycle, which he rejected out of hand. I wasn't going to argue with him about the merits of recycling - and that is not the point of this article - but I did say that it was my choice to make if I deemed it worthy of my time.

I think this example highlights the issue quite nicely: moral superiority. The you-should person assumes his advice is appropriate, regardless of the situation. Uh oh! There's that word 'assume' again. It's a sneaky devil, despite the age old view that one ought never assume. We all know the rest of the expression. This problem extends much further than assumption, though. The you-should person is not assuming anything. He knows his views are correct, and therefore his advice is not advice at all. It is self-evident truth.

Here's another more recent example: another friend of mine ended a long time friendship with someone he'd known since high school. He described to me his reasons and I was aghast at the transgressions of the other friend. I told him he was right to end the friendship, under the circumstances. Along comes another friend who says to my friend: 'You should forgive Mary!' (not the real name). What has the you-should person done here? Aside from the matter being up to my friend to decide, the you-should-er has failed to grasp the context.

Aha! Now we're getting somewhere. People who offer unsolicited advice are dropping the context. They are so wrapped up in their meddlesome ways that they don't see others may disagree with them. Did you-should ask my friend why he broke with Mary? Did my old friend ask me if I thought recycling was worthwhile and why? In 1972, when Richard Nixon was elected to a second term of the Presidency in America, Pauline Kael, a famous movie critic for the The New Yorker, was incredulous because no-one she knew voted for him. That alone speaks volumes about Ms Kael - and about all the you-should people out there.

What's the answer to this annoying problem? In keeping with my blog theme, I can easily say that it is far better to remain positive whenever possible. Also, the context of the advice giving is vital. Is the you-should-er engaging in moral ultimatums? Or is the advice gentler, even if unwelcome? In the former case, I simply tell the you-should-er that I prefer to make my own decisions. If he insists, then I tell him the conversation is over. I don't raise my voice - ever. If the advice is something I might do anyway, then I'll gently tell the other person I appreciate the concern, but I will consider the matter on my own.

What if you are a you-should-er? If so, my gentle suggestion is that you examine why you engage in that behaviour. Perhaps you do have good advice to offer. Fair enough, but the manner in which you advise others is worthy of a make-over. If I were my friend, I would have suggested reading materials or evidence that recycling is a worthy activity. If I were indignant about someone I know dropping a friend, I would ask what Mary did to deserve it. In other words, I would engage the other person or, where necessary, just leave him alone.

Recalling my first post: your life is your own. So is your mind. When others intrude, it's annoying, but your reaction to unwanted advice speaks volumes about you, too. We would all do well to consider the context and act accordingly.

But really, you should see The Lives of Others. It is that good.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Up and Away

When one loses a top value, how does one cope with that loss? How does one close a chapter in that book and embrace future possibilities? The easy thing to do is hunker down and wallow in the sadness of losing a loved one or the end of a romantic relationship. This is a serious issue in one's life - and one should accord it the appropriate amount of reflection.

I am, of course, no expert on overcoming serious losses. I do not come to the table with ready made solutions or pat answers. I do know from personal experience in the past couple years that that sadness frequently feels like dying inside. Some days it is so all consuming that finding a way out feels impossible. And yet, as an advocate of achieving one's goals and persevering in the face of any and all adversity, I would be remiss in my duties if I didn't offer my own reflections on the matter.

In the touching recent Pixar animated film 'Up,' we are presented with an unlikely hero: an elderly gentleman who has lost his beloved wife of several decades. As kids, Carl and Ellie became fast friends because they both shared a passion for a life of grand adventure. This shared value eventually blossomed into a deep and enduring love that spanned many years. As a happily married couple, they planned to make their dreams of travel to the fictitious 'Paradise Falls' a reality by saving their change. Alas, daily life intruded on their plans: a flat tyre, a tree falling on their house, among other minor mishaps that cost them their savings. In the final minutes of the initial sequence of the movie, Carl's cherished Ellie dies, leaving him alone for the first time in a long long time.

Because 'Up,' is an animated film, one can expect whimsy and cheerful action, not a lament of love's loss. We get it in spades. Instead of being carted off to a nursing home, elderly Carl takes to the skies - literally. His sole career in life had been that of a balloon salesman, so he affixes balloons to his house and sets off on an adventure to find Paradise Falls, with a small neighbourhood boy in tow. The house represented for Carl his dear departed Ellie.

Without revealing the entire story, one realises at the end of the movie, after Carl has lived his final great adventure that he didn't need the house at all. His wife Ellie wanted him to go on without her and Carl finally finds her note telling him to do so.

Ordinarily, I do not seek wisdom from animated movies, but in its own gentle way, 'Up' reminds the viewer that to move forward in life, one must discard old baggage. Reflecting upon the past two-and-a-half years of my life, I take this message to heart. In the middle of 2007, two things made life for me difficult to the point of wondering how I would go on. A relationship of several years ended and my career was coasting. The passion I once held for life and its myriad adventures flickered out. It was an emotionally crippling time for me.

In true Jason fashion, though, I soon began to devise ways in which I could re-emerge from my doldrums. During a training session for work, a gentleman from New Zealand who was also attending suggested that I would be a shoo-in for a position in Australia. Whilst his idea was for me to become an independent consultant, the germ of this idea eventually morphed into a full blown sales position within my company. By late June of 2008, I had moved to Sydney and started my new job and life in my favourite place on the planet. In the time since I arrived in Australia, I've become accustomed to my new home country and have slowly made friends and built a new life for myself.

Do I sometimes feel the occasional pang of sadness over my previous loss? Of course I do. I have not yet fulfilled the goal of finding a new soul mate, and so the large amount of time I spend on my own can sometimes turn to thoughts of what I once had. Despite this fact, I have friends and loved ones who fill the void of my single life and for that I am eternally grateful. I even made a new friend during a recent trip who has become a real confidante to me, and that is something a valuing person like me is delighted to have found.

In the end, though, when I think about all the adventures I've experienced and all the risks I've taken that have paid off, an elderly gentleman named Carl reminds me to keep looking Up.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


To those who read my posts, and to those who comment: I appreciate the interest. For the most part, I will not comment on my own posts. Nor will I reply to others' comments. Because I prefer to focus my energy on the quality of the writing itself, I would find the activity of commenting too distracting for me.

For the record, I may sometimes use comments from others in subsequent posts, if I find that they illustrate a point I'm making. In those cases, I will attribute the quote to the person who made it. Predominantly, however, my posts will consist entirely of my own words. Because a blog is a different medium from others, I will keep my regular posts to between 500 and 1,000 words. If I find that I'm running long, I'll edit the piece down to its essentials before publishing it. I will rarely, if ever, use photos in my posts.

A few words about the topics I will cover. Under very rare circumstances will I write overtly about politics or current events. There are a great many blogs out there that do this already, and I personally am more interested in the realm of personal values. That said, when one holds a particular world view - as I do - you can expect some political notions to crop into my pieces. As a man who values independence above all else, you can expect that I will not be praising modern politicians who pander to the very lowest common denominator among men. This applies as much in my adopted land of Australia as it does to my country of birth.

Thank you all for the good comments and support so far! In the near future, look for my views on the life of a new immigrant, on why I am an unabashed Francophile and on how one becomes classy - among many many other topics.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sex on the Brain

Sex. There, I've said it. A little word everyone thinks about occasionally or constantly. We all have an opinion about it. The major world religions have deemed sex only appropriate for procreation, but it is otherwise a base desire that one ought to avoid. Hedonists proclaim that as the most intense form of physical gratification, men and women should enjoy sex wantonly. It's a 'natural urge,' after all. What about the third view - rarely expressed but nevertheless worthy of examination? I am referring here to sex as a rational pursuit.

Before we can delve into that other view, let's look at human values in general. By values, I mean those things that enhance our lives or further our experience of being human. A man who loves his career and excels in his chosen field has spent many years thinking about the type of productive work that invigorates him. A close friend of mine is a professional opera singer. When I hear her sing live, her passion for the art shines through unmistakably. I have had many conversations with her over the years about her chosen work. It's a tough life. Opera is a hard sell in America, and she must constantly struggle to get good gigs. And yet, my friend cannot think of another career that would fulfil her the way singing opera does.

Everything man does to advance his life requires thinking. So why is it so many people view sex as merely physical gratification? I sometimes ask people to tell me with whom they have had their best sexual experiences. Of course, I don't ask for the prurient details - that is an entirely private matter. Surprising to some of the people I ask is that they can recall exactly their best sex. More often than not it was with someone with whom they shared an intense emotional connection.

How fascinating, then, that when asked to reflect on the matter, people begin to realise there is more to sex than 'getting off.' Without my prompting, some give details about the person in question, and not just the physical attributes of that man or woman. Some recall the infectious laughter, others the intensity of the dinner conversation, still others the way the person carried himself with confidence.

If sex were purely a physical act, why would we spend so much time seeking out the partner we find most attractive to us? I have been on first dates, for example, where I found the other person enormously attractive, but uninteresting to me. Couldn't I just blot out my mind and jump into the sack? In a word, no. In keeping with the theme of this blog, I would be betraying my own values if I sought out mindless pleasures. If living well means living the examined life, then could I not be accused of sullying the very thing I espouse every day? Absolutely!

What about all those men and women who do engage in promiscuous sex? Are they happy people? To borrow from the Greek, do they experience eudaimonia - that highest state of human fulfilment for which there is no good English word? My answer to that question: ask them!

When I think of my ideal partner, I list personality traits that I find attractive first, followed by the physical types that get my blood pumping. What about you? Do you use sex as an escape from your mind or as the greatest reward for a life of rational pursuit? I welcome your comments.

Monday, October 19, 2009

His and Hers

He likes CSI. She likes BBC costume dramas. He watches her TV shows with her because he loves her and values her mind. Even though her shows don't energise and engage him the way CSI does, over time he has grown to enjoy the subtlety and erudition of the British programmes. She, on the other hand, cannot stand CSI. She finds it slick and empty. She cannot fathom why anyone in his right mind would enjoy such a thing! It's dark and violent and showcases an underbelly of American society she doesn't care to contemplate.

When he explains to her that the dark and seamy elements of the show are mere backdrop to the profound rationality of the crime solving, she is unmoved. When the CSI crew pieces together the clues that lead to the successful incarceration of a criminal, he feels a profound joy in man's ability to use his mind successfully. He gets such a lift from the weekly drama that his work and mood improve dramatically afterward. His co-workers sometimes roll their eyes over his 'obsession,' but nonetheless find it charming he gets such a charge from the show. Meanwhile, his partner just rolls her eyes in contempt.

This scenario, while fictitious, underscores a common problem in romantic relationships: differing values. Is she wrong to condemn his enjoyment of CSI? Should he even bother to watch the British dramas, knowing they don't move him the way they do her? What is the solution to this seeming conundrum? One thing is for sure: neither party should ever relinquish cherished values for the sake of the other partner. To do so would be to introduce an element of resentment between the two. In giving up CSI, he would begin to entertain thoughts such as: 'Who is she to tell me what I can and can't like?! After all, I have made every effort to enjoy her shows. The least she could do is give mine a chance.'

I side with the man in this story. I support his attempt to be a loving partner and try something she values so much. He may not get the same enjoyment she does, but he values her so much - and her reasons for liking the costume dramas - that it is worth the effort for him to share those programmes with her.

The woman, on the other hand, has failed to ask key questions about her partner's values. In being dismissive instead of inquisitive, she has committed the error of assuming no one should like a show like CSI. By declaring that no one 'in his right mind' would like such a thing, she is insulting her partner's values, and more deeply, his value judgements. She may not intend to insult him. They are, after all, a loving couple committed in every other way.

The issue at state is one's chosen values. I find that a relative handful of people today can articulate what their values are and why. The typical response I hear is: 'I just like this song.' When pressed to elaborate, the same person often turns huffy or indignant. In my forty odd years of living, I have made it my personal policy to examine everything I value. I can name reasons for liking Dolly Parton and Dostoevsky. I can wax eloquently about the superior quality of coffee served in Australia. I can stand in awe in front of the Sydney Opera House and know exactly why it moves me, even after seeing it practically every day since moving to the city.

To me, this is a key ingredient to living well. It isn't enough to slog about our daily lives without taking the time to appreciate the things that make up our world, both natural and man made. In short, the key to fine living is living the examined life. When I encounter people who have differing values, but who are essentially rational, I get excited to find out why they appreciate Rembrandt, even though his paintings don't move me personally. When someone announces that Pretty Woman is a top favourite movie, I want to find out what they love so much about it.

Returning to our fictitious couple, we can see that he wants to know why she likes the costume dramas. He wants to examine his partner's values. Conversely, she has shut herself down to examining his values just because they are not her own. No, she is not morally obligated to like everything her partner does. In a romantic relationship, however, love grows more when both parties value each other enough to examine what makes one love CSI, while the other is moved by Pride and Prejudice.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Marilyn & Julia

Marilyn Ehlers and Julia Child. The first name is unknown to the world. The second needs no description. They are two women who existed in this glorious world of ours and are no longer. Marilyn was a wife, mother, friend and utterly lovely lady. I knew her in the last years of her life, during the time that her youngest son and I became close, had an intense relationship of nearly four years and parted company as friendly soul mates.

Julia Child was of course the world renowned wife of a diplomat who needed something 'to do' whilst living in Paris with her husband during the mid 20th century. As chronicled in the new film Julie & Julia, Mrs Child serves as an inspiration for fine living and never giving up, whatever obstacles may be thrown in our path.

Marilyn, on the other hand, did not achieve great things - she neither lived the life of a diplomat's wife in far flung locales nor contributed to the popularity of good cooking. But I knew Marilyn, and I always enjoyed her company intensely. Here is a woman who battled cancer for nearly two decades and never complained - not to me, not in public, not in private. Lesser souls succumb to sadness or even depression. Marilyn never succumbed. She lived her life as if it would continue forever, happily married to her husband Don of more than four decades. Marilyn always sported a winsome smile and had this laugh I can still hear in my head. She embraced me wholeheartedly when I came into the family, and I can proudly say I was able to say goodbye on her last day on planet earth.

The intense sadness of losing someone as special as Marilyn cannot be explained away or underestimated. She left this world on 21st September 2009 at the age of 71 years young. She went out as I remembered her in life: gracefully and peacefully.

This blog is not about loss, however. It is about valuing life. It is about charging forth in this world with the knowledge that one's most personally held values matter. Those things we pursue to attain happiness are what keep us going even in the saddest or most trying of times. Politicians and intellectuals of our current era ceaselessly remind us that we ought to live for others, be they starving kids in war ravaged nations or our neighbours who are less fortunate than we are. For my entire life I have challenged the poisonous notion that other people's lives matter, but not our own. I am living proof that the pursuit of my own highest values is the reason I get up in the morning. It is the reason I have sought out adventures across the world, finally settling nearly a year-and-a-half ago in Sydney, Australia.

And so, dear reader, wherever you may be, whatever the circumstances of your life, I offer this blog as a regular reminder that your life is your own. You have every right to live it. Marilyn Ehlers knew this. So did Julia Child.