Sunday, January 29, 2012

Making the most of our down time

Fritjof Nansen

 Opportunity often comes disguised in the form of misfortune, or temporary defeat.

 People don’t like waiting. Lines, waiting rooms, oven timers, traffic jams are generally not things we look forward to. Least of all when your life is put on hold; when we have to wait to move forward. Few like their plans halted for any amount of time. My plans aren’t even that important, but I still hate it.

It’s easy to get mired down with a sense of self-pity during wait times. If only I could land this job, then…THEN my life could really get started. Or, Gee, I know I’d really be a great artist, but I don’t have the connections. If we allow ourselves to be paralyzed until “some day,” growth can easily be stunted.

I was very inspired to learn about Norwegian explorer and zoologist, Fritjof Nansen, who in March 1895, embarked on an unprecedented expedition across Greenland [made all the more complicated because the unconventional mode of transport he chose was skiing]. What had been slated as a 5-month trek, actually turned out to be much longer than he had counted on. Perhaps explorers got used to waiting and unexpected changes in plans, but I’m sure they sill got old.

The traveling conditions were bad. They had only what they could carry. They were close to starvation. If they didn’t speed up a little, they were sure to run out of food. While Nansen admitted some doubt to his journal, his guiding philosophy was, “a line of retreat from proposed action is a snare and that one should burn his boats behind him so there is no choice but to go forward. “  

The whole time he was traveling, he had his eyes on the prize, as they say. I’m sure it would be hard to be so forward focused that the day-to- day frustrations don’t get to you. At least that’s how it would be for me. Oh my GOSH!! we are out of food AGAIN!!!

So, after 78 days of skiing across Greenland amid grueling temperatures and dangerous conditions, Nansen’s crew reached the settled west coast only to realize that the last boat left 2 months earlier. Talk about your heart sinking. They were stranded for a winter in Greenland.

Undaunted, they created a hut with stone and moss. With a steady supply of bear, walrus and seal, they never went hungry. Nansen made the most of his time. He spent the winter hunting, sketching, taking pictures, studying, writing, and fishing. He explored, made new friends and learned to kayak. When he got home, he had enough notes and information for 2 books. 

He didn’t make it home until May 1896. If he had spent the time fretting and moping [like I would have done, no doubt], he wouldn’t have been able to have the mindset to be creative. In fact, he even writes as they are leaving, "It was not without sorrow that we left this place and these people, among whom we had enjoyed ourselves so well.”

Talk about making the most of a plan gone awry…


Saturday, January 14, 2012

An Empress under pressure

 Elisabeth “Sisi,” Empress of Austria

Unattainable body standards are nothing new. In the 1800s, way before Lindsay Lohan and Mary Kate ever graced the public with their teeny frames, there was Elizabeth, the Empress of Austria.

Elisabeth, or Sisi, as she was known, is said to have had an obsession with a 19-inch waist. I can’t help but think of the scene in Gone With the Wind, where Scarlett instructs Mamie to tighten her corset to 18 inches. 

Scarlett had nothing on Sisi, who maintained her 110 lb frame even after 4 pregnancies. She would fast, exercise and tighten her corset until she couldn’t breathe.

That was only the tip of the iceberg. She suffered stress-related symptoms from the anxiety of being constantly in the spotlight as Empress. Royal life didn’t agree with her. She was a free spirit. The freedom she was used to was replaced by rigid rules and expectations. She started to exhibit health problems. She had fits of coughing and anxiety.

Sisi was a shy, quiet girl; not at all, the perfect candidate for royalty, it would seem. She grew up in an eccentric home. Her father loved circuses and eschewed duty. Sisi’s unstructured childhood allowed her to roam about, frequently missing her classes. This freedom didn’t prepare her for the stifling demands of being an Empress.

Her husband, Francis Joseph had originally been intended to marry her dowdy sister Helene. But upon their meeting, he fell in love with Sisi. He declared if he couldn’t have Sisi, he wouldn’t marry at all.

Francis’s mother, Archduchess Sophie, turned out to be the sort of mother-in-law all new brides dread. She was overbearing and obnoxious. When Elisabeth had her first child, a girl, not the male heir everyone wanted, the new mother was made to feel like a huge disappointment in the household. Sophie called her a “silly young mother.” In fact, Sophie snatched the baby from the new mother right after birth, refusing to allow Elisabeth to feed her, and named the newborn, Sophie, after herself.

If this wasn’t enough to drive anyone mad, one day Elisabeth found a pamphlet on her desk with the following underlined.

...The natural destiny of a Queen is to give an heir to the throne. If the Queen is so fortunate as to provide the State with a Crown-Prince this should be the end of her ambition - she should by no means meddle with the government of an Empire, the care of which is not a task for women... If the Queen bears no sons, she is merely a foreigner in the State, and a very dangerous foreigner, too. For as she can never hope to be looked on kindly here, and must always expect to be sent back whence she came, so will she always seek to win the King by other than natural means; she will struggle for position and power by intrigue and the sowing of discord, to the mischief of the King, the nation, and the Empire…

Three guesses who this was from. Talk about toxic!

Sophie opposed Elisabeth’s slimming tactics. But only because she thought the Empress should always look pregnant.

Elisabeth found solace in, and fell in love with the country of Hungary. She would find respite from her anxieties by taking frequent trips there. Interestingly enough, all of the physical effects of her stress disappeared when she was there. She was relaxed and didn’t have to worry about her toxic family.

c. 2011

Thursday, January 5, 2012

No one likes a bossy britches


Everyone was bossy today.  Everyone. No please, no thank you.

“Small coffee,”  thrusting money or a card in my direction. Often, no hello. Sometimes I like to stop their order just to say ‘hi,” but that’s a little catty.

Manners are a tricky thing. I don’t imagine most of them intend to be so demanding. Southern culture can be misinterpreted as demanding. I also think that they try to do it because they think they’re being funny. That’s a tough one, because very few can pull that off, and certainly none of the people I encountered today.

After work, I come home to a fully lit apartment. For some reason, my boyfriend needed all the lights on and has left without turning off a single one. He calls me “bossy britches,” when I mention it.  I said please, though.

Sometimes we get so driven, so focused, that we often forget niceties, everyone does that at some point. Sometimes we think, I shouldn’t have to thank them, that’s their job. I’m telling you it goes a long way.

For instance, a German man I just met the other day came up to the register, yelling “I need coffee!” [Probably half-joking, half serious]. I had my back turned, which made his statement and tone more alarming than perhaps otherwise. I think we all looked so surprised that he quickly softened his mood.

Thankless jobs abound in our society. I’m sure this has affected everyone at some point. I think this should be cause to make us more aware of how we treat people, if only because we know how it makes us feel.

At the same time, and I’m speaking to myself as well, a kind word and mild manner can change someone’s frenzied, toxic mood immensely. I’ve seen it happen more than once, even experienced it myself.  It is not my first instinct.

c. 2011