Saturday, July 31, 2010

L'Expatrié, c'est moi

Over lunch with my French co-worker and his Swedish wife, the three of us agreed that the expatriate life renders us unusual by definition. Not only do we constantly evaluate the countries we choose to live in, but also our own countries of birth. The expatriate observes the world in a semi-detached state that non-expatriates don't even consider. We have eaten good food and bad, sometimes learnt strange languages and, most importantly, befriended other globetrotters.

I have often wondered if one can identify the expatriate by his mannerisms or hybrid styles. Australians know immediately that I come from somewhere in North America, but they can never quite place my accent. I say 'zed' and 'lift' and bit by bit my pronunciation is taking on slight local characteristics. Additionally, on return visits to the United States, I get the odd looks from my compatriots who think I sound Australian. I don't, but neither do I sound like the Milwaukee boy of my upbringing. I sound other.

Interestingly, my French co-worker was flummoxed to hear my full on Québécois accent in French. He knew I spoke French, but out of courtesy for other colleagues in the office, we normally speak English together. His surprise highlighted a theory of mine that it is easier to alter one's accent in a second language than it is in one's first language. I reckoned that the extra effort one makes in a second language forces the speaker to pay close attention to the nuance of accent and intonation. That is definitely true for me, as I originally learnt to speak French in Belgium when I was a teenager. After a year at university in Québec City, however, I had shifted completely to a French-Canadian accent.

Naturally, as globetrotters, the conversation turned to the bureaucracy of immigration in the various countries we'd lived in: the United States, Canada, France, Belgium, Sweden, Slovakia and now Australia. We mused at the friendliness - or its lack - amongst customs officials the world over. Australian customs moves quickly and the officials are nearly always friendly and efficient. Not so in the United States or Canada. Europe can be a mixed bag, depending on the nationality. My co-worker's wife noted that red tape in Sweden is cut and dried, whereas in France it can be horribly inconsistent and pedantic. In Sweden you get the stamp or you don't, whereas in France it depends on the mood or temperament of the official.

All these topics got me thinking about the principles of freedom and capitalism, though the conversations did not turn to political philosophy. As I have noted in previous articles, I avoid overt conversations about politics because the context of knowledge varies so much as to make such discussions either too emotional or too disconnected from reality.

As an observer of the world, I thought of politics because I notice that the degree of freedom in a given country will give one a clue about the ease of movement within it. The United States has been heading towards some kind of totalitarian state for many decades, so consequently the ability to migrate there has become byzantine and lacks coherence. Not surprisingly, immigration has become a bugbear in a country with an ever-growing state. Australia, whilst hardly a completely free country, proves nevertheless more hospitable to foreigners seeking to live here. The rules are clear cut and, though more restrictive than I advocate, relatively easy to grasp.

Many people in the West today struggle with the virtue of immigration. I call it a virtue because people who choose to uproot themselves to go make their way in a completely new country are among the most productive in the world. By and large, immigrants seek self-improvement, not free handouts. If I had my choice, when I become a permanent resident of Australia, I would happily forgo all the so-called state benefits in favour of a lower tax burden. Alas, that option does not exist. It should.

In the end, expatriates are the engine of dynamic countries like Australia. They remind native-born Australians by their very presence that the country is worth the long haul flights and the great distances from loved ones back home. If I had my druthers, I would create a special passport for people who have the pluck and courage to change countries like some people change clothes.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Loving Her Is Easy

Popular music these days is rarely compelling or even interesting. Most of what passes for music consists of retreads of old songs or scandalously dressed non-entities strutting their stuff for the paparazzi. Amid the dearth of singing talent arises once or twice in a decade the understated loveliness of Sarah McLachlan, whose grace and distinctive contralto welcome the listener like an old friend.

Whereas other singers make heartbreak feel like a dagger to the soul, Miss McLachlan takes the painful end to her marriage and adds hope for a happier future into the mix. The result is her new release Laws of Illusion. The album reminds the listener of her earlier songs whilst inviting us to experience a woman approaching middle age with the passion of her 25-year-old self.

Miss McLachlan's breakthrough album was Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, released in the early 1990s. On it she sang of fan obsession and the importance of holding onto hope even in the face of death. Critics correctly pointed out at the time that her singing was very good, but the lyrics had the ring of a teenage girl's scribbled poetry.

Now in her early 40s, McLachlan has acquired the subtlety of experience to avoid complex metaphor and state things simply. In the song 'Forgiveness', she sings 'Cause you don't know much about heaven, boy, if you have to hurt to feel'. No-one will give McLachlan writing awards, but she possesses a fine sense of phrasing that suits her understated singing style perfectly.

Critics of her new work complain that her pain strikes the listener as almost benign. Shouldn't she be spitting angry about the break-up of her 11-year marriage? Shouldn't she lash out at the man who disappointed her? Well, no. The point of Laws of Illusion is coming to terms with the heartache and then moving forward towards a new life with the possibility of loving still intact. McLachlan expresses this possibility in two songs on the album: 'Loving You Is Easy' and 'Love Come'. The former is bouncy and upbeat whereas the latter is more taciturn and cautious, almost a lament.

In a career now spanning two decades, Sarah McLachlan can still tease the listener into wanting more. She smartly avoids 75-minute albums crammed with content. Instead, she writes well crafted medium length songs. Her albums rarely extend beyond the 45-minute mark. Most of her songs are simply arranged - with piano, drums and guitar accompaniment and no fancy effects or overdubs. The result frees the listener to experience her pure and sweet voice unadorned by technology.

Laws of Illusion is a fine return to form for a singer who hasn't released a full length album of original songs in seven years. Welcome back, Sarah. Loving you is easy.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

I Still Eat Pasta

Early this year, I decided to undergo a little body transformation. No, I don't mean I'm going all Cher on people and forking over gobs of cash to fix my nose or belly or whatever. I decided that at age 43, though reasonably fit, I could stand to lose the customary 10 to 12 kilos that Australians talk about often enough. (As an aside, my American readers will simply have to accept that I live in a metric country and figure out the conversions all on their own.)

Upon making this decision, I did a bit of research on the proper methods of weight loss and what is achievable in a four- to six-month span of time. A decade ago I was gung ho about the Atkins diet, but in the intervening years have come to find these types of diets so restrictive as to be ridiculous. Its adherents appear to lose heaps of weight, and then like any other fad diet they gain the weight back over time.

On an online forum I read and post to regularly, I asked the resident fitness expert about the various types of diets out there and he came back with a common sense answer: eat what you want in smaller quantities, eat several small meals a day and stay hydrated. That's it. No self-deprivation, no starvation, no angry cravings that only annoy people, anyway. Oh, and a bit of good resistance training every week.

I decided to try the Lite n' Easy diet (somewhat the Australian equivalent of Weight Watchers), not because it's anything earth shattering, but because it trains you to be conscious of portion size and frequency of meals. So, for the first month of my experiment, I signed up to a 1200-calorie per day diet that included the three main meals of the day and snacks in between. The service conveniently delivers an esky to your door with the week's food. They provide clear directions on what to put in the fridge and freezer. For the breakfasts and lunches, they label each by day of the week. Dead simple.

The quality of the food is above average. They won't win any awards, but to their credit, Lite n' Easy keeps it simple and reasonably flavourful. They also provide a wide array of choices, so if pumpkin and beetroot are not your thing (as a newish resident of Australia, I am still not a huge fan of either), there are plenty of other meal options available.

After my first month or so, I began to wean myself off the Lite n' Easy food, starting with the breakfasts. Because I had trained myself to eat breakfast every day, I have merely replaced theirs with my own. Instead of three eggs and four rashers of bacon, I'll eat ONE egg and a bit of bacon, along with a bottle of water. Or I'll have a SMALL bowl of muesli and an apple. Again, nothing complex there, just some rational thought applied to what I ingest.

Throughout this time, I have continued my twice weekly sessions with my fantastic trainer Alison. In two month's time, I have lost approximately half the weight I want to AND I feel satisfied with my progress. I no longer feel hungry or full - ever. My clothes fit me better and by the end of my weight loss I will need to go shopping. That alone is an exciting prospect for this clothes horse.

The most important lesson I've learnt is vigilance. To remain fit, one must constantly heed one's own body warnings. I have lived in my own body for long enough to know what will cause me to gain weight again and what I must do to maintain the shape that I seek, however modest my own goals. Another lesson came from a cognitive therapist I am familiar with: don't beat myself up for the progress I HAVEN'T made, but do feel proud of the success I HAVE achieved.

I still eat pasta - because I love it - but in much smaller quantities. Life is grand. Now go eat, drink, be merry and lead a life of achievement.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Beyond the Lighted Stage

When a young boy is growing up he strives to find ideals in the world around him. He wants to drink in everything and try on several hats until he finds one that fits just right. Before the age of 10, a boy's primary adult male frame of reference is his father. He watches his dad like a hawk, hanging on every word, admiring the work he does and vowing to himself that someday he will be just like dad.

Then, as a boy reaches the age of about 12, something shifts in him. He begins to notice other adult men: teachers, shopkeepers, neighbours and others. He's no longer a small boy, nor is he a man. He thus begins a long journey of intellectual and artistic discovery, if he has retained his inquisitive nature he had as a younger child. A boy starts to look up to new ideals outside his immediate surroundings: television and movie actors, characters in his favourite stories or even musicians.

I was that boy and at the age of 14, I discovered a musical act that defined for me the standard for excellence to this day: Rush. Rush is a notoriously famous rock band in North America in particular, known early on for its conceptual hard rock albums like 2112 and Hemispheres, and then later its more sharply focused and complex songs from albums like Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures. In their nearly 40 years together, they have released scads of albums, played thousands of concerts the world over, and enjoyed enormous fan adoration, but the mainstream press always scorned or ignored them. I never understood why until I was in my 20s and figured out they were a band that didn't follow trends or suck up to the media elites. They wrote and played music that pleased them first and cared little for their critics.

Finally, in 2010, Rush not only got their stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame but a new documentary entitled Beyond the Lighted Stage, has been released. It chronicles their beginnings growing up in suburban Toronto playing gigs at high school dances, to their early fame in midwestern America, to their meteoric rise to become a 'Power Trio', to the current day. It showcases three men who refused to compromise their own standards and who were willing to work meaningless jobs if it meant they couldn't play the kind of music they wanted. Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart always struck me as true to life embodiments of Howard Roark, the famous character from Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead.

Rush was the band that to me represented integrity and sticking to one's highest ideals. Throughout the past 30 years of my own life, I've collected their albums and attended their concerts. Whenever I need a reminder that achievement is possible and that great men exist, I return to their music and am swept away all over again. If ever I had the chance to meet the three members of the band, the one thing I would say to them is: thank you.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Nurse Jackie is America

On a recent business trip to New Zealand, I had the opportunity to catch the entire first season of the hit Showtime series 'Nurse Jackie'. The show stars Edie Falco of Soprano's fame and focuses on her job as veteran nurse of a Catholic hospital in New York City. Each episode showcases her struggles to balance career and family life, and adds two twists: Jackie is addicted to prescription drugs and she is carrying on an affair with the hospital's pharmacist Eddie.

The show touts itself as a black comedy, but I find this qualification misleading. In essence Nurse Jackie is a drama with comedic touches. I found myself laughing at the absurdities that Falco's character imposes on herself. At the same time I realised the show is a commentary about modern America. I doubt the creators of the show set out to portray the Greco-Roman antipodes that comprise modern American culture, yet there they are on display in each episode.

Jackie is presented as morally conflicted, which explains on the one hand her rational devotion to her job whilst she simultaneously engages in self destructive behaviour. She purports to love her husband and two daughters, yet she still has a daily sexual affair with Eddie the pharmacist. As the season progresses, the conflict between her two sides intensifies, creating ever more absurd twists in the storyline. Will Eddie finally figure out that Jackie is married with children? Will her husband discover that Jackie abuses drugs and sleeps with her co-worker?

These are interesting enough reasons to watch the show, but the greater question nagged at me throughout the 12 30-minute episodes, which was: in a culture where rationality is ever diminishing, is it possible to return from the brink of collapse and right one's course? Nurse Jackie doesn't answer this question, but it does highlight in stark relief the conflict tugging at the soul of America.