Friday, 24 April 2015

Happy Place

It's a well-known rule amongst bloggers that requests for a specific topic should never be fulfilled -- allegedly it robs the writer of his or her authenticity and voice and ends up looking staged. That is why thus far I haven't subscribed to any ads or other monetization avenues. With a blog name such as “Friend Like Me”, I can only imagine what kind of businesses it would attract – possibly an escort service? Ouch!
However I do have two particular fans who, whenever they see me on my Mac, ask in unison: "Are you writing a blog?" I know they are not reading this blog let alone even really know what a blog is, but they still keep asking. Every photo I've recently taken, especially ones of the two of them, is followed by: "Are you going to put us in your blog?"

Recently, as we lazed away our days in sunny Florida and I kept snapping photos with my phone, my two devoted fans approached me: "Mama, you need to write a blog about how much we love Florida! And put our picture in it! Here!" and they posed for yet another photo on a beautiful balmy afternoon (see the photo AFTER below!).

So I am ready to break the blogging rule and also to put aside paranoia for a second and neglect all that advice that we parents get about limiting the on-line exposure of our offspring. Here and now, for my two most avid fans I call Thing 1 and Thing 2 aka DaDa and JoJo (what they call each other) I will tell the world why South-West Florida is our literal and proverbial HAPPY PLACE. Here you go, "midgets"!

The concept of a Happy Place has always been a part of my life. My parents were big on planning our family vacations: Serbian mountains, Slovenian lakes, Bosnian villages, Croatian coast. Greek islands. 
I became painfully aware of the importance of having a Happy Place in my life one afternoon while in high school. The funniest yet the fiercest of all our professors - Biljana, our physics teacher – had just called my name. This involved me dragging myself from the third row to go stand in front of the blackboard while she dictated a problem I had to solve and would be marked on, in front of some 30+ students. "Multiple choice" has never been a part of my schooling and the 45-year-old me is grateful today: stuff I know - I know. But the 17-year-old me dreaded it. The problem had to do with fluid dynamics - there was a fountain of sorts with various diameters of pipes and water pressures and I was supposed to calculate how high the middle stream of the fountain would reach -- something I have never even attempted to understand. As much I try now to forget the profound discomfort of struggling in front of our otherwise charming teacher and my classmates - most of them hoping I take my sweet time so she wouldn’t have a chance to pick anyone else before the bell rang - I remember standing there, knowing only the first few moves, like in beginners' chess. I wrote some formula I knew kind of applied to a question like this. Then, while my hand was shakily scribbling with a chalk on the dry green painted board (I still get shivers thinking of that scratchy sound!) my mind suddenly jumped a track and I started calculating: it's April 20th... May 20th, June 20th, July 6th... in 77 days I would be in Parga! Double digits! Way under 100! Whoa!
Parga - a little village off the coast of Greece's Ionian Sea had been my personal first and favourite happy place. My parents prepared months in advance both financially and logistically for a 1400km road-trip from Belgrade, via Macedonia, through Thessaloniki (the quick gyros and shopping-laced sleepover) only to continue early the next day over the mighty Pindus mountains, testing the best homemade cheeses in the high altitude village of Metsovo (the memory of one with whole pepper seeds in it still makes my palate tingle) in hope that by 4 pm we would be rolling down the hills towards Ioannina and then pleading with our dad, the second he finished the famous cold Café Frappé, to go full throttle in that non-fancy yet durable LADA Samara so we could get to Parga just in time for a quick shower and a stroll on the boardwalk and an exciting first glimpse of who was there.  Oh, the sweet teenage memories!

The bell rang, jolting me out of my happy place and straight back to the front of the blackboard. Our teacher Biljana looked at me with disappointment yet also with a touch of humour: "I have no clue where you were, but you managed to finish 2/3 of this problem. You can't earn more than a skinny B minus for this work. Do you want to stay in at recess and complete it or take the mark as is?"

"I will take the skinny B minus!!!" - I sounded way too enthusiastic for a very mediocre mark as I shook my head in disbelief that I even got that far!
Welcome to SW Florida!

That is the definition of my happy place. The spot on the map where it is always sunny. Always fun. Always no physics. Or math. Or tests. The place where I get to be the best version of me – and in 1987, that meant me + make-up + getting to go out with her older and very popular sister every night to a disco club! Careless Whispers. Eighties rocked!!!

Growing our brand-new roots in Canada, for the first few years I forgot about the importance of my happy place. Life has been way too intense for me to remember the sweet afternoon siesta time when my only task was to put enough sunscreen on and slurp a Coca-Cola with all its 33g of sugar without a care in the world, and chill out with a group of internationally-assembled friends in the bamboo shade of the Tropicana Bar on the Valtos Beach. 

DaDa @1
With the arrival of Thing 1 and Thing 2, life became much gentler and time stretched more generously. Amazingly, when I least expected it, the happy place ended up finding me.

It all started with spending big chunks of my maternity leave in the sunny state. When every street has either a coconut or a flamingo in it, life undoubtedly gets happier.
JoJo @2

Bird lines!
Seagulls on a popcorn hi-jacking mission
Kids learnt how to walk and then swim while living the Florida life. They also experienced the gift of their parents and grandparents being around and enjoying everyone's undivided attention as they got to be kids the way nature intended it - free and naked and occupied with sand and shells and sticks. No fancy toy, electronic gadget or a smartphone app can replace what life in its organic form has to offer. 
We build castles and airports and train stations in the sand. We sing silly songs while jumping on waves. We pretend to be speaking 'dolphin' (just like Dori spoke whale in Finding Nemo) as we attempt to attract our favourite mammals. Whether the noble ones understand our calling or dolphins simply feel the purity of two little hearts beating intently, incredibly they almost always come!

Coincidentally, we get to attract  other animals too, so we have seen our fair share of turtles.There are protected nests along the beach from April through October and I love how careful my little boys are around them,
Dolphin-calling works!
understanding the importance of not disturbing the nature's ritual of the past 110 million years! We have seen angry ospreys protecting their nests; manatees travelling in a herd; pelicans' spectacular nosedives and seagulls' feeding frenzies.
Back at home, we found a snake at our doorstep and after nudging her to move away into the garden with a water gun, we named her Bella. Both Bella and Gerry provided their fair share of adrenaline rush, so forgive me for not having the photos to share. Gerry is our lizard, dark in colour and neurotic in behaviour, who managed to hitch a ride into our home in a croc-shoe one of the kids had recklessly left outside, only to send me - the responsible parent – into  combat mode with a wooden blood orange crate in one hand and a Swiffer wet jet in another.
As tall as JoJo!
It took a while, but Gerry finally obliged, darting out the front door a few seconds before I slammed it shut, sliding exhausted onto the cool tile floor. Then while power-walking my favourite trail in order to relax, I met a 4-foot alligator that moved in to our deep lakes full of fish in search of a buffet-style meal. The thing with alligators that I tend to remember is that I am 'on their turf', not vice versa - so I feel privileged that I can witness their jaw-dropping presence and feel close with nature while watching my every step. And it is much the same with many animal sightings: they simply take your breath away, like the one time a whole flock of white pelicans invaded our lake.
Albino Pelicans - photo credit P.Watkin
But animals are not the only gem. Just as Elizabeth Gilbert managed to portray the passionate love of botanics in her novel The Signature of All Things, I am in love with Florida's flora.
Ferns, moss' and palm trees
From species effortlessly coexisting to the alluring swamp habitats that are both mesmerizing and intimidating. There is something intrinsically frightening in the very aspect of swamp life.
Babcock Wildernes Park
Just try to imagine what it might look and sound like after the sun goes down should the water-bus break and one is forced to stay the night. Our favourite swamp has been featured in Hollywood - Sean Connery's thriller Just Cause was filmed where these photos were taken. Bone chilling.

Florida's spectacular sunsets are the perfect backdrop for the awe we feel for nature, and the gratitude for everything (other than the mosquitos who start their carnage about a second after the sun disappears behind the horizon!)
Naples Beach

Meditation space

The sunny state is also the only place on earth where I will by-pass my teenage propensity for sleeping in late in order to capture the rare opportunity for an early morning quiet time. My spiritual practice. Intention setting. And exercise!

And no matter how many times I witnessed the same miracle of the sunrise or the brief morning fog lifting off the ground or the dew caught on perfect spider webs, the flawless symmetry of unspoiled nature -- I feel inspired and somehow wealthy in an extraordinarily profound way.
Daily reflection time

Above all, I love what Florida is for my family. A giant playground - no matter the age!
Toddler to Teen
A welcome home-made clown parade even at meal-times and no matter the age! 
Yup, that's Grandma'!

Where we have time for fun dates...

... and romantic walks

Where kids are unaware these are their "childhood memories"

But we are aware of their BEFORE

And their AFTER

And that we are very lucky indeed
Lastly I feel relieved to have finally figured out the correct answer for that wretched fluid dynamics' question I sweated over in Grade 11. How tall is the middle stream of the water fountain?

Tall enough!

Thursday, 9 April 2015

50 Shades of Purple

A confession from well before the time I was this angelic (wink!). It connects a pharmacist, a former Secretary of State and a beloved actress – spill da beans!

I love when I change my mind about someone - for the better of course. This is exactly what happened in the case of Monica Lewinsky. While lazing away my days in sunny Florida, I got to catch up on a mounting list of saved articles to read and videos to view and cartoons to laugh at. Along the way an interesting TED talk I had in queue finally got its turn.

For anyone who holds an opinion about her affair - funny how all references to certain Oval office events of '96 - '98 calling it "Monicagate" or the "Lewinsky Scandal" fail to acknowledge there actually was a he, the owner of the infamous pair of unzipped pants - or for those of us who have had similar calamities of our own to work through, it is 22 minutes well worth your time.

So as not to spoil your viewing experience, I will only say that what I loved about it is not necessarily how brave Monica Lewinsky is today to openly talk about her affair or how poised her presentation skills are (although I did enjoy seeing the wise and vulnerable woman who grew into her strength right in front of our eyes. Despite of all of our eyes. And our clicks.) What I actually loved the most is that she gave a blueprint for earning/deserving forgiveness. A simple two step process that can be used as a bounce-back from any mistake.

Step 1: I'm truly sorry.
Step 2: How may I serve others?

But then Monica is "lucky" - despite the fact she was the "index case of the news going viral" which resulted in years of cruelty, cyber-bullying and subsequent depression. She is lucky because her redemption at age 41 can be heard and her bounce-back witnessed. And although it's far from smooth sailing - apparently, the admin of the TED page still has to deal with an avalanche of hatred as a backlash of her appearance - there are many people, perhaps just like myself, who will decide to let her tell them about her struggle and recognize something positive in it. And it was worth it - Monica is now serving a purpose far greater than her grief as a result of a mistake she made at age 22.

But what happens to mistresses who are not Monicas should they decide to apologize and redeem themselves through serving others? Is anyone even listening? Do they matter?
Furthermore, what happens to those mistresses who decide to hold on to their sense of righteousness for going after a douche who was clearly infidelity-ready?

Welcome to Serbia of the '90s
While I was still living in Belgrade, freshly suffering with the wrecked emotions from my own infidelity-ready douche and our mistress, a glamorous-looking woman entered the pharmacy where I worked. She wasn't looking for any medications but rather for an extremely high-end and expensive line of face creams that we just managed to import from Germany. We had it standing in the well-lit locked glass cabinet at the top of the counter to prevent theft yet to attract the more sophisticated buyers if there were any. This was 1996, the year of the 95.6% inflation rate... not many people coming to my pharmacy bought anything that wasn't a bare necessity.

So when a heavily-perfumed fur coat with that dazzling woman in it walked in, I took notice. She wanted only what was in the well-lit locked glass cabinet. She didn't ask for the price. And she took it all: day cream, night cream, anti-wrinkle, neck cream, serum and toner. I was familiar with the high-quality ingredients we had in our own lab and so I managed to convince her to also try our matching store-made products which cost just a fraction of the prestigious brand. She was sceptical, but I was so sure of how I had made it only a day earlier that she stood no chance - she shelled out a credit card that covered a bill that was almost equal to everything else we sold that day. All of that happened while I, as the only employee in the store, was still serving other patients - answering questions and not skipping the small talk my local community heavily relied on. Courtesy and kindness matter more when all else is lacking, especially health and money. When the last patient left, she turned around to face me, her fur coat swirling, while my brain subliminally registered she looked like a pretty version of Cruella Del Vil. In a confident and convincing voice she said:

"You have to come work for me. I am opening a new store on the Slavija Square early next year. The carpenters are now working on state-of-the-art shelving and counters. The marble floors are already in. You have to say yes. I've been watching you work. You are so good with patients and boy, you can sell! I need you! C'mon, it will be fun! We will do this together - two single moms!"

Her big spiel was unnecessary. The owner of the pharmacy I worked for had already started to neglect giving us our salaries. What that meant was that only a fraction of our salaries went into our accounts, the legitimate way. The rest was paid to us in cash so as to save on taxes and future pension obligations. Given the messy Civil War/Bosnian refugee situation, we all agreed to whatever we had been offered. There was zero room for negotiation. That cash portion arrived at first, on the 1st of the month. Then it was more like the 4th or 5th and then the 9th and then the 15th. The last salary I received at that time was over 3 weeks late and it was only handed to me begrudgingly after I timidly asked for it, blushing with discomfort as I justified that I needed it to buy Pampers for my son in their very store - at the full retail price, of course. The Slavija location was also only one bus line away, cutting my commute by a good 45 minutes in each direction. Hell yes - I was IN! 

Cruella Del Vil
Things changed for me the very first week in that new and posh looking pharmacy - when she walked in late one day, just before the closing, with an older looking gentleman in a trench coat. He looked unattractive to me - kind of tired, with a grey stubble and an air of a smoker around him. Her otherwise composed and confident demeanour was now unusually girly and flirty and overly cheerful. It was cheap. It was sad. And it was infuriating.

"She is a mistress" - the thought lodged in my mind and would never leave me, no matter how hard I tried to re-muster respect for her. Even though I was in dire financial circumstances and I absolutely needed this work I could not look at her the same way. Every comment and conversation from that moment on went down as a piece of a puzzle that sealed and confirmed my opinion. She was a mistress - he was paying for all this. Somewhere in this city there was a wife and perhaps kids whose lives were collapsing because of this woman who was nothing like the single mother I was - she was a Cruella indeed. And of course - there was an infidelity-ready douche of a man.

Never receiving an explanation let alone a confession, I dealt those years with the gnawing suspicion of who my own mistress might be as my ex-husband had already physically and legally disappeared from our lives. I would discover the truth two years later in the funniest way possible (I promise a blog post!) right at the time Bill Clinton's impeachment trial was about to start. Hillary and I, who would have thought?!

Either she sensed that I knew and fiercely protested of her behaviour or I have zero actress material, nonetheless my work-life quickly turned into a nightmare. Cruella was changing my hours; prolonging them daily. Scheduling me in each Saturday doubling my weekend shift. Never paying me overtime. Cancelling on the cleaner that used to come every second day, making me mop the floors after 10h of standing at the counter. I took great pride in my work so I accepted all chores - my patients followed me from the other location, I couldn't let them enter the sacred space and see smudged marble floors. Then the verbal abuse and screaming started. Then my salary - again - failed to come on time.

I feverishly looked through the newspapers searching for another job. Hopefully closer to home. The day after I got a verbal confirmation that a pharmacist was leaving a dark and dingy store neighbouring a graveyard, Cruella walked into the store and lashed out at me:

"You are nothing I thought you were going to be! Why do you look at me like that every day? I don't have to tolerate this behaviour! Guess what - You're fired! Today is your last day! And even better - I will not pay you this month, so you can learn the lesson of how not to treat the hand that feeds you!"

Sadly, I learned much later that only deeply unhappy people spill hostility when feeling pressured. Dr.Wayne Dyer gives a wonderful example of orange juice always coming out of the orange whichever way we squeeze it. Trouble in "mistress-land" is the only thing I can divulge when seeing hate-mail my Mr.&Mrs. Ex send on occasion. But I didn't know that then.

What I did know however was chemistry. So just as I shut all but a few lights, ready to leave this pharmacy for the last time, I got an idea. I took a several 10g boxes of potassium permanganate out of a 50 I had just measured, packed and labeled myself in the absence of a hired pharmacy tech. I left a few dinars on the counter with a  note to Olga - a lovely senior pharmacist who had come out of retirement so that she and her sick husband could survive - telling her to ring them through the cash register when she arrived in the morning. Then, as seen in spy movies, I opened the Condy's crystals, box by box, gently "salting" the pale grey marble floors as I walked backwards towards the door. I have to admit, I was shaking - my hands trembled in frustration and anger. I felt overwhelmed with a suffocating helplessness. Granted, this also helped to spread the shiny little dark crystals perfectly and unevenly. Then I left, locking the door and sliding the key underneath it.

"I lived long enough to see that all those who did wrong got wrong done to them" - were words of wisdom my great-grandmother used to say to my mom and my aunt when they were young and protesting why some injustice happened with no fairness in sight. Perhaps I am still 'young' if I feel that sometimes we can help that karma get to the right place a bit sooner?

My favourite Serbian author Mirjana Bobic Mojsilovic recently visited Toronto with the theatre play she wrote the screenplay for: Свлачење (Stripping). One word describes both the plot and the cast: delicious! A theatrical version of my KMnO4. A fun and funny reminder to mistresses that mistress business is monkey business. Eventually everyone will know everything. Plays, memoirs, songs and blogs will be written about it. The only wise way is the Lewinsky way.

I suppose it took ten days for the pharmacy floor to get real messy and for the Magistra Cruella to order an elderly woman to clean it at the end of her shift. It was way past 10 pm when darling Olga called - she was whispering, apologizing she might be waking up my baby, but she needed to tell me:

"I usually don't believe in miracles. Cruella just fired me -- she said that if I didn't clean the floors not to return tomorrow. Child, I am 69 years old and very tired. It is hard to stand all day. So I apologized and said no. She screamed at me - the worst insults I ever heard. She grabbed the mop and kicked the bucket of water spilling it just as I was leaving, holding back my tears. Child, the moment I stepped out all the marble turned purple - big blotches of many different shades. I have never seen that! I was out on the street and at the corner and I could still hear her screaming. Tell me if you don't believe in miracles after this??!!!"

OMG, OMG, OMG, OMG, OMG, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA!!!!! Deep breath. Calm down. 

"Olga, I do believe in miracles!" Mistress Miracles.