Friday, July 26, 2019

AT HOME


Review of AT HOME: A SHORT HISTORY OF PRIVATE LIFE by BILL BRYSON

Known for writing compelling nonfiction, Bryson delivers again with eclectic content. While AT HOME focuses around our private space, taking us room by room, the topics explored are so variable as to make the theme seem somewhat arbitrary. The chapter on the dining room touches on everything from nutrition to a brief history of the salt and coffee trades. The chapter on the bedroom, which was often used as a sickroom, includes discussion of historical medical practices. In truth, AT HOME is a treasure trove of fascinating trivia convincingly sorted around the concept of “home.”

My favorite aspect of Bryson’s writing is its accessibility. That really makes or breaks a good nonfiction piece, as plenty of experts don’t know how to condense or organize their knowledge into something compelling and logical to a layman. Despite Bryson’s varied content, he leads us naturally from one topic to another. Reading this book feels a bit like sitting down for a cup of tea with a chatty friend (whom you’re happy to let go on and on, and do all the talking, because, boy, can they ever spin a yarn). The color photos also add to the book’s appeal, breaking up the chunks of text with relevant and interesting images.

AT HOME is a traveler of a book. In regaling his readers with the history of each room, Bryson takes us from Ancient Rome to the Victorian Era to modern day and at times theorizing into the future. In terms of geography, Bryson mostly bounces us across the pond between the United States and England. However, topic is where we see the most distance from one stop to another. In one book, Bryson weaves in mentions of: the Crystal Palace, Skara Brae, slavery, Mrs. Beeton, whaling, scurvy, the Eiffel Tower, patent politics, stair statistics, humorous chamber pots, mouches, and natural selection.

If you find that list hard to believe, you’re just going to have to read this book for yourself.

Friday, July 19, 2019

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ANIMAL ENCYCLOPEDIA


Review of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ANIMAL ENCYCLOPEDIA by DR. LUCY SPELMAN

I’ve recently read several animal encyclopedias for research. I doubt many people want to read more than one, but I picked out a couple worthy of reviews. This one in particular is great for kids: with colorful topic coding, referenceable icons, and plenty of photos. That said, interested adults will appreciate the fascinating content, too.

I particularly liked the “from the field” spreads that focus on researchers studying a specific animal. Especially for younger readers, I feel this presents and encourages the option of a career in science.

With about a half dozen different animals on most of the pages, this encyclopedia is truly packed with absorbing information. The “fun” vibe makes it more kid-friendly, with color-coded maps and “animal records” that list some of the ways specific animals are uniquely impressive. For those eager to know more, the book features shorter descriptions of many more remarkable animals in the back.

Friday, July 12, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 2


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 2, Recovering a Sense of Identity

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 2 of The Artist’s Way program focuses on “recovering a sense of identity.” I very much related to Cameron’s insistence that the fear of being selfish often keeps us blocked. However, she mostly discusses people who are not doing what they want, because they don’t want to be selfish. I am a slightly slanted case. I am doing what I want, but I nevertheless battle the same fears that I am selfish for living my life this way.

In this chapter, Cameron urges that you surround yourself with the right people while you do this program. She warns that most of us know other people in our life who may be “blocked,” by which she means those who observe life from a cynic’s bench seat without taking any active creative risks themselves. “Blocked friends may find your recovery disturbing,” Cameron says, a warning that might be more familiar simply phrased as “misery loves company.” She urges protecting yourself from “well-meaning doubts” and “subtle sabotage.” This program is about exploration and shaking off those negative voices; the last thing you need is people teasing and mocking you for doing any kind of self-therapy.

I want to make mention of some of the exercises from this week. First, there was the life pie. You draw a circle with six wedges each labeled for a different aspect of life. Then put a dot in each wedge: closer to the edge the more fulfilled you feel, closer to the center the less. Then connect the dots. In a balanced life, you’ll have a nice, symmetrical shape, in a less balanced life you see what Cameron calls a “tarantula.” This exercise made me laugh. My shape was not at all a surprise, but a visual reinforcement of what I already know: elongated depictions of work and exercise with a rather dented in wedge for friends. I often convince myself that too many friends or social plans will only interrupt my productivity. My expectations also lined up with another assignment: where you list the five biggest draws on your time and actually track how many hours you spend on each one. Interesting actually writing it out, but I knew the gist.

I didn’t gain much from reading the Basic Principles every morning and night. I considered them a kind of saccharine gibberish, having only as much meaning as you infer into them. I suppose the same could be said of any quote, but I found these especially convoluted and meaningless. Two examples include: “There is an underlying, in-dwelling creative force infusing all life—including ourselves.” and “We are, ourselves, creations. And we, in turn, are meant to continue creativity by being creative ourselves.” On the other hand, I really enjoyed picking five of my own affirmations and writing them a full five times every day this week. Naturally, my affirmations are more tailored to me than Cameron’s Basic Principles. Plus it was interesting to see how writing them so many times really drilled them in far more than reading something nice once and promptly forgetting it. Repeating them made the affirmations more into mantras, and all the more powerful.

My attitude about the morning pages might be shifting. Last week I was adamant that I would not continue them after the program. Now I am at least open to the slim possibility that I might. (At the very least, I’m no longer dead set against it.) Last week’s pages were mostly obsessive stewing, which I am now blaming on an allergy medication that caused extreme agitation. Off that medication now, my pages are more random, disconnected thoughts. And I really do like the routine of waking up and doing the same thing every day, especially since it’s something that doesn’t require too much from me. I normally wake up at five am and immediately stumble to my writing desk and start writing. While initially I felt frustrated to have the “real work” put off for the approximate half hour my morning pages take me, this definitely is a much gentler way to ease into the day. At this point, I expect I will stop morning pages for a week after the program and just see if I miss them. I also loved my artist date again this week; I have absolutely no doubt that I will continue that weekly habit. They’re extremely rewarding.

The second week of the program definitely found me getting more “into it.” The assignments are striking me more and more as self-therapy and I’m gaining a lot from the reflection. Last week triggered my return to aerial silks after two years. This week, I started sketching again after, well, a lot more than two years! I still sometimes find Cameron’s prose a little cheesy, but I’m also understanding what in myself makes me view it that way and accepting that I have a lot to gain by giving this program my sincere effort.
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Friday, July 5, 2019

THE MIRACLE OF MINDFULNESS


Review of THE MIRACLE OF MINDFULNESS: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE PRACTICE OF MEDITATION by THICH NHAT HANH
(translated by MOBI HO)

I waffled on whether or not to review this book, because it reads so spiritual that reducing it to a review feels somewhat sacrilegious. That disclaimer aside, while mindfulness and Buddhism are higher concepts, books are still products. A book is not special simply for being about mindfulness; a good book requires more from the author than topic selection.

THE MIRACLE OF MINDFULNESS is an excellent-ish starting place for someone new to mindfulness. I add “ish,” because the tone is definitely that of someone immersed in the concept for years, and some of the techniques, such as specific meditation approaches, strike me as closer to the deep end than a true beginner might want. However, this book is a slim, easy read that introduces mindfulness staples.

As someone already actively exploring and practicing mindfulness, a lot of this content was familiar. Perhaps more than anything else, what appeals to me about mindfulness the most (as well as what I struggle with the most) is living in the moment. That very phase “living in the moment” has become such a cliché that, for me at least, it’s lost its meaning and wisdom. However, broken down I find the concept life-changing. THE MIRACLE OF MINDFULNESS encourages approaching “being present in the moment” with simple tasks like dish washing.

Myself, I first encountered mindfulness in terms of mindful eating. Slow and savor are key elements. Focus on your food. Do not eat with the TV on or (be ready to gasp, readers) a book in your hand. Pay close attention to your senses: look, smell, taste, touch. Anecdotal and scientific research alike suggest mindless eating, caused by our busy lives, plays a major role in weight struggles. I also promptly realized that slowing down and really paying attention to the current moment was a skill useful in far more than developing healthy eating habits.

As someone raised among scientists, I scoffed a little at mindfulness at first. The self-compassionate, supportive lingo struck my ear as cheesy and trite. However, as I’ve opened myself up to mindfulness and actually given the techniques a try, I feel more and more besotted with the mindset. Increasingly, I tell people that mindfulness is my religion. For anyone unfamiliar with exactly what mindfulness is, THE MIRACLE OF MINDFULNESS is a good place to start.