Friday, September 13, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 5


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 5, Recovering a Sense of Possibility

This is a series of blog posts following my experiences doing Julia Cameron’s 12-week Artist’s Way program. If this series is new to you, feel free to read the original book review first.

Week 5 focuses on “recovering a sense of possibility.” Cameron discusses this concept of “being blocked” repeatedly, which I interpret as holding yourself back from what you really want out of some type of fear. This week has us examining those fears. For the first four weeks, we spent a lot of time exploring our interests: activities we miss, activities we would like to try. Week 5 starts asking hard questions about why we aren’t doing those things then. From there, Cameron pushes you to assess whether or not yours reasons are valid. Tying into mindfulness again, she also urges against all-or-nothing thinking. So you won’t be an Olympic gymnast. Doesn’t mean you can’t take a few beginner gymnastics classes (or yoga or Pilates if you need something gentler). Find small ways you can introduce ambitious activities or interests. For that matter, think of it as exploration, not mastery.

Cameron also introduces what she calls the “virtue trap,” to which I could relate. To paraphrase her description, the virtue trap is the sense that we become noble martyrs by sacrificing our creative yearnings for the more practical responsibilities in life. We feel virtuous for this sacrifice, but Cameron argues it is entirely unnecessary. By allowing ourselves to pursue our creative yearnings, especially in small, manageable increments, we will likely become happier and more relaxed, which makes practical responsibilities easier to handle, anyway. There can be an up-front cost: telling your partner/children/friends you need some time for yourself. However, I subscribe to the old adage that you can’t take care of others until you take care of yourself.

I also resonated with Cameron’s discussion of belief. She claims most of us are suspicious of belief, more specifically hope. It’s too out of our control. Hope feels scary and dangerous. What if we let ourselves hope and dream and believe, only to be massively disappointed? Cameron argues that hope can be empowering. That it’s a strength, rather than the naïve weakness it’s sometimes labelled.

This week had more fill-in-the-blank exercises and I always enjoy those. I find surprises sometimes pop up in my answers. I liked the virtue trap quiz that encourages analysis of how you might fall into this trap’s fallacy as well as the “I wish” list that simply has you finish that sentence about twenty times.  

I'm starting to like the morning pages a little. I’m not a total convert, but I don’t dislike them anymore. On the other hand, I love my artist date every week and have no doubt that will be a continuing tradition for me. This week I organized my recipes. That may not sound like creative fun to most, but I’m one of those oddballs who loves organizing, listing, tidying, planning. Since discovering I’m Celiac, I’ve been exploring gluten-free cooking and baking and I wanted to consolidate my recipes in one place, especially because I often make my own adjustments to the original. So now, after trying a new recipe and deciding I like it, I type it up using the same format for all, make my own adjustments and list where the original is from, note any variations I want to try, add a photo from when I made it if I took one, and add approximate nutrition facts from a helpful calculation tool I found online. All the information I want how I want it and consolidated in one place!

As I mentioned in my original review, one of my biggest doubts about trying this program is that it’s pitched as a program to help “unblock blocked creatives” and I never considered myself blocked in the first place. This week has you ask yourself what the “payoff” is in staying blocked. That felt less relevant to me, but I do think I’ve been “blocked” in other non-writing areas, convinced I only had enough time in the day to pursue that one creative thing. The payoff for me has mostly been staying in my comfort zone. I’m very much a creature of habit and will often opt for same over new even if new is clearly better. Trying anything new involves taking a risk and possibly failing at something. Since the program is very much about mindful self-reflection, I’ve been working on internalizing the mantra that failure is merely an integral part of success. Sometimes failure is proof of trying.
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Friday, September 6, 2019

THE FIRST YEAR: CELIAC DISEASE


Review of THE FIRST YEAR: CELIAC DISEASE AND LIVING GLUTEN-FREE: AN ESSENTIAL GUIDE FOR THE NEWLY DIAGNOSED by JULES E. DOWLER SHEPARD

Back in May 2018, I discovered I have Celiac disease. This was huge. I could do posts and posts about my experience; I could fill another entire blog about it. I may at some point start blogging about that experience, but for now I want to stick to book reviews and author interviews. However, don’t be surprised when some reviews of gluten-free cookbooks and the odd Celiac experience memoir start popping in among my already eclectic book reviews.

To share a brief summary of my experience, I have had health issues my entire life: inexplicable unresolvable health issues, the two biggest being a mysteriously ineffective immune system and a lifetime of nutrition deficiencies regardless of how well I ate or what supplements I took. Not counting a few outliers, most of my 30+ Celiac symptoms are really secondary symptoms of these two things: poor nutrient absorption and a terrible immune system. As for the “outliers,” from the moment I could talk I complained about stomach pain. My mother took me to every specialist she could find, they tested me for every food allergy they could (gluten wasn’t on people’s radar back then), and ultimately doctors started telling me the pain was in my head: the stomach aches are stress, I get sick all the time because of stress, just calm down. To make a long story short, in May 2018 I discovered that gluten is the source of all my issues. I went gluten-free—and while it has been intensely difficult and emotional in some ways—I feel better than I have my entire life, better than I knew human beings could feel.

That all said, I’m way late to reading this book! As the title implies, this book is designed for newly diagnosed Celiacs to help guide them through their first tough year and the often painful learning curve. The book breaks down topics by time frame—one month in, two months in, etc, —but I didn’t start this book until nine months after my diagnosis. I would love to say it’s because I didn’t know this book existed, but in truth it was some combination of lazy, busy, and underestimating how helpful the book would be for me. Once I started reading it, I definitely wanted to kick myself for not purchasing it the moment I came home from the doctor in May 2018.  

This book could have saved me a lot of trouble from learning things the hard way. Some of the issues Celiacs encounter include: concisely explaining the disease and your complicated individual-specific symptoms, eating out at restaurants or in other social settings, battling standard food allergy misconceptions and prejudice (and Celiac disease is technically an autoimmune disorder rather than a food allergy, but I and others are often taught to just say “food allergy” to help clarify that we cannot eat gluten), reading and researching labels, reacting to processed food labelled “gluten-free” either because of cross contamination or because some Celiacs can react to levels of gluten lower than what the US requires for products to be labelled “gluten-free,” learning to shop and cook and eat and entirely think about food differently, cross contamination in shared kitchens, secondary health issues, and then, of course, handling symptoms when you do “get glutened.”

Aside from specific advice or tips, the book is immensely valuable as emotional support for those newly diagnosed. Your struggle can feel very lonely and like those around you don’t understand. Reading about other people battling the same difficult-to-explain issues is extremely validating. Take the following quote: “The first few times I went grocery shopping were devasting. I remember standing in the aisles, crying.” It’s a quote from the book, but I could have written it myself. I didn’t actually cry, but I do recall halting my cart, welling up, and taking a moment to collect myself. It’s overwhelming going overnight from toss-anything-you-want-into-the-cart to read-every-single-label, research-products-on-phone, and can’t-eat-old-favorites. For the first few visits, grocery shopping took me 1-2 hours spent in the store, figuring out what I can and can’t eat now and growingly increasingly discouraged by the long list of “no.”  

If you’re a self-reliant person, it can be all too easy to think you don’t “need” a book like this, but I would highly recommend it to every newly diagnosed Celiac. In addition to the insight and advice about managing your condition, the emotional support is invaluable.  


Friday, August 30, 2019

ANIMAL EARTH


Review of ANIMAL EARTH: THE AMAZING DIVERSITY OF LIVING CREATURES by ROSS PIPER

I borrowed this book from the library to do some wide-net research into animals my own writing. I found some material relevant for my novel, but mostly I encountered a wealth of information that’s simply fascinating.

This book covers all animals, not merely what we tend to mean when we say “animal.” ANIMAL EARTH gives equal attention to every branch of known animal lineages, summarizing our current understanding of each. Especially when you get into all the microscopic beings hiding within our world, the mind marvels at the sheer number of complex and underappreciated creatures. 

Each section starts with a brief summary of that class, including diversity (approximate number of species) and size range. These statistical breakdowns are a very helpful and interesting snapshot. Then the section goes on to discuss each creature’s form, lifestyle (which focuses primarily on feeding and mating), and origin. The discussions of digestion and reproduction particularly intrigued me…and made me grateful I’m human.

Though learning towards text heavy, this book features some incredible photos. (The book tends to have photo pages and text pages. While there are plenty of photos, they don't really break up the large blocks of text that much.) That said, the full page close up of a jumping spider on page 8 will haunt me.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 4


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 4, Recovering a Sense of Integrity

This is a series of blog posts following my experiences doing Julia Cameron’s 12-week Artist’s Way program. If this series is new to you, feel free to read the original book review first.

Week 4’s theme is “recovering a sense of integrity.” I do find the themes pretty arbitrary, but this week’s a unique one for sure. Week 4 introduces the concept of media deprivation. Originally, Cameron pitched the concept as reading deprivation and the task was no reading for the entire week. Given our technology boom, she now suggests the term media deprivation, to include: no television, no computer games, no internet, etc. If you can, no phone. (I know: I heard some of you gasp.)

Contrary to Cameron’s suggestion in her introduction, I read the whole book before I even started the program. Uncertain about trying the program at all, I first wanted an idea of what to expect. Anyway, when I reached Week 4, I promptly decided, “Nope, not for me. No way can I go a whole week without reading. Is she insane? What kind of cruel person asks that of me?” and stopped reading. Of course, as these posts indicate, there’s more to the story. After a few weeks to mull on the idea, I warmed to it, or at least to trying it. Worst case scenario: I decide on first day of deprivation that I refuse to continue it and stop, but hopefully by attempting it I can learn about myself and really that’s the whole point here. However, I’m glad I knew to expect the media deprivation assignment ahead of time; otherwise, I would have thrown a big tantrum when I reached Week 4, maybe even given up on the program then and there in protest.

Part of getting the most out of anything is tailoring it to yourself. Cameron talks about how she always receives a lot of backlash to Week 4’s media deprivation, including lots of condescension about how impractical it is in this day and age, especially given the specific responsibilities most of us have. Cameron makes the point that she’s not asking anyone to get themselves fired; do whatever you need to do to keep your life functioning but honestly ask yourself what you can cut. For my part, I didn’t use my phone at all during this week, but I did decide to do a quick check in every evening, just in case someone had called or texted with anything urgent. I also let those closest to me know about my media deprivation week ahead of time, so they understood why I only responded once a day, in the evening. Avoiding television proved difficult in a shared house where others have it on a lot. I found I became less social in my efforts at avoiding the TV. By the end of the week, I made an exception for watching television with others, but still no watching it by myself for TV’s sake.

I struggled the most with not reading. To oversimplify things, I categorize television and computer games as “bad.” Even though I do enjoy them in reasonable moderation, I’ve very much internalized our society’s perception of those activities as lazy time wasters. So I can hop on board the idea of giving them up for a week. However, I’ve always considered reading “good,” associated with intellectual enlightenment, so I grumbled a lot to myself all week about the implication that we need breaks from it. Plus I’ve gone without television, etc. before, but I don’t think I’ve ever gone a week without reading. However, Cameron made some good points supporting her idea. She talks about how we spend much of our days inundated with other people’s words, and how, worthwhile though those words may be, that makes it difficult to find our own creative voices. Sometimes we need periods where we shut out the other chatter and listen primarily to ourselves. She convinced me enough to give this whole media deprivation thing an honest try.

To my own shock, at the end of the first day I loved media deprivation. It felt so freeing; I had a good chunk of time that normally goes to certain activities and it does encourage you to explore other interests that often get sidelined. I convinced myself I liked this concept enough to maybe even do a media deprivation week once every month! However, it all went downhill for me on the second day. To make a long story short, I discovered that I am Celiac in May 2018 and since then have been trying to teach myself gluten-free cooking, especially dishes I loved with gluten and now miss. Anyway, on day two I had a gluten-free cooking failure and this was my third failed attempt trying to make this dish gluten-free. Feeling very discouraged, I wanted to curl up on the couch and watch an episode or two of television before hopping into another task, and then I felt extremely frustrated that I wasn’t “allowed” to do that. From that point on, I spent the rest of the week in more of a withdrawal. Though I enjoyed doing other activities, I mostly felt cranky that I knew I was being denied others. Then the next week, Week 5, I had a bounce-back binge. I’ve often heard dieting doesn’t work well for most people, because it’s too restrictive, only multiplying cravings. Dieting works at first, until the dieter reaches a breaking point and then overeats instead. Media deprivation felt like that perception of dieting to me. After a week of denying myself these things, I had trouble being productive the next week; all I wanted to do was the things I missed the week before: read, watch TV, play games, clutch my phone to my chest and promise never to leave it again. However, I will say that the point of the assignment is to learn about yourself and that I did. I had no idea before this deprivation how much I rely on television as a comforting transition. I also didn’t realize how intensely reading ties into my sense of identity. If I’m not reading, who am I?

As for some of the other exercises, I wasn’t expecting to but I really liked writing our own artist prayer, a kind of poem encouraging your creativity. I write fantasy and I ended up pulling on references to the magic systems within my own books to write about yearning and empowerment. The process and end result were both very rewarding, especially because my prayer was so specifically individualized to me. On the other hand, I really didn’t get much from the time travel letter exercise, where you write a letter to your current self from the perspective of your 8-year-old self and then your 80-year-old self. I can be a literal person and didn’t like the level of imagination over fact required for writing from the perspective of my future self.

The morning pages no longer feel like stewing to me, but I do often struggle filling an entire three pages and still worry it’s a time waster. For my artist date this week, I did a puzzle. I love puzzles and think they’re one of the few mindful activities I enjoyed before ever “discovering” mindfulness. With puzzles, you work hard on something challenging only to promptly “undo” it once finished. It’s about the activity, the present moment, and not a practical or prestigious finished product.  

I may try to do a media deprivation day again here and there, but I think a week is far too much for me. However, this challenging week certainly helped me become more aware of my habits related to media as well as what other activities I miss doing, such as coloring. I also like baking and exercise, but found there’s a reasonable limit to how much I can do those in a week! All that said, I’m relieved to have the media deprivation week behind me!
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Friday, August 16, 2019

HOW TO BE A VICTORIAN


Review of HOW TO BE A VICTORIAN: A DAWN-TO-DUSK GUIDE TO VICTORIAN LIFE  by RUTH GOODMAN

In my Victorian era research for a short story, I’ve read dozens of books that would really only appeal to a researcher or extreme era enthusiast. However, this is the second one where I see some larger scale appeal for anyone interested in learning a bit more about this era.

The first book I reviewed regarding the Victorian era, INSIDE THE VICTORIAN HOME, organized its content by room, which makes sense given the shifting Victorian ideology that each room should have a specific purpose. However, Goodman’s organizational scheme also makes a lot of sense: she organizes her content by following a typical Victorian person through a typical day.

This will sound odd, but I loved that this book discussed sex. For all that I’ve read on the Victorian era, writers are suspiciously quiet on that topic. In conversation, I hear many people say, “Oh, well, that’s because Victorians were such prudes.” First, that’s a slight misstatement of complicated differences in attitudes. Second, the fact that there are still English people proves that Victorian English people had sex. Third, most of what I read simply doesn’t even mention sex at all. So it’s not that the author cites historical prudery as their explanation for not delving deeper; they omit the topic entirely. In my opinion, this says much more about our modern prudery than it does the Victorian era.

I’m reading all these works for my own fictional stories, so I want to know as much as possible about all aspects of life, including the intimate parts. Goodman addresses, with exceptional detail: periods, contraception, abortions, childbirth, and more. Oh, and she does clarify that supposed Victorian prudery limited talking about sex, not having it.

What makes HOW TO BE A VICTORIAN especially unique, though, is that Goodman doesn’t simply talk the talk; she walks the walk. In other words, she actually lives the Victorian life, so her knowledge is peppered with first-hand accounts. From clothing to cooking to household setup, Goodman not only details what she’s learned in her research, but how she fared abiding by Victorian norms.
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Friday, August 9, 2019

I'LL SCREAM LATER


Review of I’LL SCREAM LATER by MARLEE MATLIN
(with BETSY SHARKEY)

I find myself filled with curiosity, confusion, and admiration towards people who can lay their whole life out for examination by strangers, especially those who share intimate and/or traumatic details. Matlin definitely falls into this category, as she walks her readers through her life from childhood to present (well, publication), including the losses, heartaches, and nightmares.

At times the book did read a little too celebrity-biography for me. There’s a lot of name-dropping as Matlin recalls everything from little exchanges to long-term relationships with other stars. As a book nerd, I know authors, but am often far behind the curve in terms of actors, athletes, and musicians. I might have found these sections more interesting except for the fact that I often didn’t even recognize the names being mentioned like I should know.

That said, what I love and admire about Matlin’s book is how she bravely lays herself open. She’s blunt about her own insecurities, doubts, missteps, and shortcomings, and heartwarmingly giddy when she writes of her accomplishments and happier memories. Despite (or perhaps because of) specifically telling us that she’s keeping some stories for herself, it feels like Matlin doesn’t hold anything back. What I so admire about memoirs that do this is the selfless hope that others might gain something positive from the author’s vulnerable honesty.

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 3


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 3, Recovering a Sense of Power

This is a series of blog posts following my experiences doing Julia Cameron’s 12-week Artist’s Way program. If this series is new to you, feel free to read the original book review first.

Week 3 focuses on “recovering a sense of power.” I particularly loved what Cameron has to say in this chapter about anger, talking about how we push it down because it’s a “bad” emotion but anger is actually a very good navigator. Anger tells us when we’ve been wronged. Anger tells us what we want. Cameron also discusses shame as another major contributor to “being blocked.” She says, “Art exposes a society to itself.” and sometimes we shoot the messenger when we don’t like what we see. Cameron’s dissection of the difference between useful and useless criticism is very helpful as well. In short, useful focuses on improvement whereas useless just insults.

This chapter introduces synchronicity, which will be a major repeating concept throughout the rest of the program and, unfortunately, one I never quite understood. I know the definition of the word, but some of Cameron’s examples strike me as either coincidence or, less than that, plain logic. If you make more effort at something, more relevant opportunities crop up in that area. To me, that’s common sense, not magic. To be fair, I think Cameron is talking about related but seemingly unconnected events; one of her examples is a woman admitting to herself that she wants to be an actress and the next day finding herself seated next to an acting instructor at a dinner party. However, I don’t feel I experienced anything like that throughout the entire program. And I found it odd, cultish—for lack of a better word, how much Cameron carries on about synchronicity with the implication that we should expect to experience it. I didn’t.

As for the exercises, I really enjoy any that have you finish a sentence. I find my answers are sometimes quite surprising, so these make for good self-reflection. I’ll share two of mine from this week. First, “My favorite childhood game was…Operation.” I was quite obsessed with that game. I could tell you who among my friends owned it and even made an extra effort to go their houses. I think Operation tapped into my perfectionism. Close enough won’t stop that buzzer! Second, “My most cheer-me-up-music is…The Parent Trap and Princess Diaries soundtracks.” I think I bought these as a pre-teen and listened to them obsessively. Not only are they both upbeat collections, but I’ve listened to them so many times that all the songs now feel familiar and comforting. 

The exercise where you list your favorite childhood foods and then pick one to treat yourself felt mean to me! I learned over a year ago that I’m Celiac and therefore can’t eat gluten. Most of my childhood favorites are now off limits. However, I did use my disappointment over this task as a push to make gluten-free toad in the hole. It came out delicious and also triggered me listing all my favorite gluten foods in the hopes that one day I’ll master a homecooked, gluten-free version. My list includes: crab cheese wontons, bao, samosas, naan, tonkatsu, and okonomiyaki. And now my mouth is watering.

I really liked the exercise where you list several people you admire and then specify what traits you admire about them. The trends in traits show you what you value in other people as well as yourself. To mention some of the traits that repeated for me, I like honest and direct, down-to-earth, nontraditional, considerate listeners. The next part of the exercise threw me a little: listing people you secretly admire. I don’t secretly admire anyone; anyone I admire I do so openly. When an exercise stumps me, I try to be flexible in how I interpret it, so I ended up writing fictional characters for this set. My list includes Amy from Brooklyn-99 and Lesley Knope from Parks & Recreation: both overachievers with a silly streak.

My morning pages feel easy and natural now. Three weeks in and they’re a habit. For my artist date, I used some flying wish paper. It was fun and the exact type of thing I normally brush off as a “time waster.” (Case in point, someone gave me that flying wish paper perhaps eight years ago and then it only took me half an hour to finally use it.)

I’m starting to view The Artist’s Way program less as hard, sometimes cheesy work and more as fun play. I look forward to the reading, exercises, and artist date each week. I relish all the reflection and exploration; contrary to my first week impressions, I’m finding this program aligns nicely with my mindfulness efforts. Allowing myself to pursue whatever calls to me is making me feel much more relaxed and balanced.
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