Comforting books to (re)read

Since the start of 2021, the books that have appealed to me most are ones I haven’t read since childhood. In a time that still feels so uncertain, it’s been comforting to re-read ones from another time when I didn’t have much control over my life, to re-visit stories I loved full of magic, heroism, and mythical beasts.

Curl Up with a Good Book – Diamond Art Club

First, I started with a series I’ve had on my bookshelf for years: The Lord of the Rings.

I hadn’t read the books since 2003. My Dad’s beautiful paperbacks from the 60s are in a little box set that I have now. Those iconic covers were created by Barbara Remington, who passed away in early 2020 from breast cancer. I remember seeing them when I was very little and my dad telling me that I’d love those books someday.

The books were funnier than I remembered. The first one had some especially funny moments. (Elrond is surprisingly sassy.) While I know Tolkien was trying to create a mythology for England in a way, the way light skin is associated with goodness and dark skin is associated with evil is disturbing to read. With that said, there are some beautiful turns of phrase in here and there’s a reason these stories have endured. The entire focus of the stories is to do what we can, even when it’s difficult, and the importance of friendship and kindness.

Manjunaga on Twitter: "All we have to decide is what to do with the time  that is given us #coronavirus #coronavirusuk #Tolkien #Gandalf #Frodo…  https://t.co/ot5Fr84De6"

The quote above especially resonated with me in light of the Pandemic: “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us.”

Next, a trip to a library bookstore got me interested in another story I haven’t read in well over a decade: Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce.

It turned out some of my friends were also revisiting those stories. Again, these stories focused on friendship and were funnier than I remembered. (Alanna is hilariously suspicious of people who want to be her friend.) The lead becomes a knight of Tortall after pretending to be a boy throughout her training. While her great future is partially determined by the gods, I liked how she worked hard to become a strong fighter on her own and how her own internal moral compass determined her actions. She didn’t bow to the pressure to conform to societal expectations.

That’s pretty powerful for a growing girl to read. It was comforting for an adult to read too.

Pin by Waterford TWP Public Library on Literature & Library Quotes | Book  quotes, Author quotes, Quotes

My most recent stop on my nostalgic trip down memory lane was another series: the Harper Hall trilogy of books by Anne McCaffrey. (In order: Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, and Dragondrums.)

Technically, these books are Sci-Fi, but the dragons and fire lizards add a fun fantasy element to these novels. These are chronologically around the time of the first two Pern novels (Dragonflight and Dragonquest), which my mother gave me as a child and which are loosely connected to these stories. I haven’t read any of the Pern series in a long time.

The first two books in the Harper Hall trilogy focus on Menolly, a girl who runs away from home after being forbidden to do anything musically related, despite her prodigious talent. She ends up ‘impressing’ (basically imprinting) “only 9” fire lizards, which are essentially tiny wild dragons. The series continues through her journey to find where she belongs as well as her training at the Harper Hall to become a harper (which is pretty much a minstrel).

It’s nice to see Menolly find her way and people who believe in her, even if the bullying she experiences is frustrating to read at times. But it fits in with kids feeling misunderstood and seeing her come through the other side of it is rewarding. Besides, who wouldn’t want a dragon friend (or 9)?

Curl Up in a Good Book

So, if you’re also feeling in need of comfort, I recommend reaching for books you loved from childhood, whatever those might be. Or take a leaf out of my book and try some of the ones I discussed above!

Feel free to give your own recommendations below. 🙂

Best books from the year 2020 (and reading challenge: 2021)

I’ve written one of these the last few years in 2019  & 2018. The year 2020, of course, was one for the books. (Pardon the pun.) 

New Year Life GIF by Molang

In 2020, I read 105 books, with a high of 15 in July and a low of 5 in February. While I’ve already written posts about a few I enjoyed, like books by black authors and a nonfiction book I loved, I wanted to write the “year in review” list as well.

Challenge: read a book in a format you usually don’t/ a book that’s still being written

Wilde Life, by Pascalle Lepas

A friend (hi Nina!) told me about this online graphic novel that’s been going since 2014. It’s a beautiful blend of Native American folklore and horror, set in Oklahoma. I really enjoyed this and I keep checking back as new panels are added a few times a week.

Challenge: read a book set where you live

One to Watch, by Kate Stayman-London

A book about a plus-sized influencer living in L.A. who is cast in a Bachelorette-style show. While I don’t usually like books set in SoCal, I loved this book. It had surprising depth, was laugh-out-loud funny in places, and featured more LGBTQIA representation than I’d have expected (including asexuality, which was a very welcome addition).

Challenge: read a classic book

Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler

I read this book in one sitting as I was waiting for my car to get a recall item replaced. It’s about a woman who starts mysteriously jumping back in time to her ancestors’ plantation, meeting both slaveholding ancestors and her enslaved ancestors. The story was seriously unsettling, but beautiful too. I totally understand why Octavia E. Butler is so revered and I thought it was cool that she’s from the Pasadena area.

Challenge: read the end of a series

The Kingdom of Copper & The Empire of Gold, by S.A. Chakraborty

I read the first one of the trilogy (The City of Brass) in 2019 and was able to read the final two in 2020. These books, about a young woman in Egypt with special healing powers who is introduced to a magical and dangerous world full of djinns and other legendary beings. These are intricately plotted, feature plenty of twists, and full of multidimensional characters. I really enjoyed the last part of the trilogy.

Challenge: read a book about an activity you’ve never done

Happiness for Beginners, by Katherine Center

I love to hike, but I have never gone backpacking. This beautiful book is about a woman who signs up for an intense backcountry backpacking trip and all that she finds out along the way. Mostly, this is a story about starting over, which is a central theme to many books that I’ve loved. Katherine Center is wonderful; I also really enjoyed What You Wish For, which came out in July 2020.

Challenge: read a biography

Lucrezia Borgia, by Sarah Bradford

This book was fascinating. I picked it up after binging The Borgias on Netflix during the early part of lockdown. Bradford did a phenomenal amount of research to explain the, usually misunderstood, life of a powerful young woman who was part of a ruthless and powerful family (her father was the pope and her brother inspired quite a bit of Machiavelli’s The Prince). Honestly, the true story was much more interesting than the sensationalized (poisoning, incest, etc.) stuff in the show.

Challenge: Read a memoir

H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald

This book was a moving exploration of grief as Macdonald mourned her father while training a goshawk. She also worked in quite a bit about the story behind a book on goshawks she’d read and the life of its author, T.H. White (famous for writing The Once and Future King about King Arthur). It was very interesting and its treatment of grief and isolation felt fitting for the year 2020.

Challenge: read a book you always wanted to and never got around to before

A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is an author I’ve always heard about and have rarely ever read, for all that she’s a legend in the Fantasy genre. Her first Earthsea book is about a wizard named Ged and the adventures he has as he grows up and comes into his full power. It’s a quick read and an interesting one, although I would have enjoyed seeing some more female characters.

Challenge: read a book of poetry

Milk & Honey, Rupi Kaur

This is one of those books I’ve heard about for years. There were some beautiful turns of phrase in here and I read this in one sitting.

Challenge: read a book with a lead who has a medical condition

Get a life, Chloe Brown, by Talia Hibbert

The titular Chloe Brown has fibromyalgia (which my sister does too) and that made this resonate in a different way for me. Chloe Brown decides to seize the day after an accident, realizing that she’s played it safe ever since her condition developed and her fiance left. There was a lot of sex in this book, so be forewarned. I found the characters really likeable though, especially Chloe’s family (her grandma is fabulous).

Challenge: read a book that makes you laugh

Wraith Squadron, Aaron Allston

Okay, I’ve written about this series before…twice. I’ve loved it since childhood and read it every few years, especially whenever I’m in need of comfort. I last read the nine x-wing novels around the time my grandpa died in 2017. Wraith Squadron and the other three books written by Allston are hilarious. They’re all about a squadron of washouts with special insurgency skills (including a cyborg doctor, an unstable sniper, a former child star, a demolitions expert, a barely-force-sensitive ranger, and a genius-level Gamorrean). These are endlessly quotable.

Challenge: read a satirical novel

Feet of Clay, Terry Pratchett

Pratchett was the author I read most this year, by a lot. (I read 22 of his, 21 of the Discworld novels and 1 of his collected short fiction.) Feet of Clay is one of my favorites–I love the books featuring Vimes and the Watch–and has some lines that I always remember. “Words in the heart cannot be taken,” is a line that sticks with me. This is also the first book featuring Cheri Littlebottom, the first openly female dwarf.

Challenge: read a book set around the holidays

One Day in December, Josie Silver

A book about friendship, love, and missed connections, I really enjoyed this. It was sweet and would make for a cute mini-series. (Netflix, if you could get on that, I’d appreciate it.)

By the Numbers–authors I read more than once

22 by Terry Pratchett

5 each by Michael Stackpole and Mary Balogh

4 each by Katherine Center and Aaron Allston

3 each by Jenny Colgan and Sophie Kinsella

2 by Hester Browne, Julia Quinn, Susanna Kearsley, Octavia E. Butler, S.A. Chakraborty, and Jennifer Crusie

What to read in 2021

New Year Balloon GIF

As I wrap up my last semester in graduate school, I look forward to reading more books this year. I’ll continue to challenge myself to read books by authors who are different from me, books in genres I don’t usually pick up, nonfiction stories, ones that are recommended to me, and new stories by authors I love in addition to familiar books that I like to read again and again. I’m also going to keep working towards the day my own stories will be in print. 🙂

What do you hope to read this year?

Feeling festive? 2020 Christmas Movie Rundown

I have a confession to make: I un-ironically love those Christmas TV movies that Hallmark, Lifetime, Netflix, etc. churn out every year. They’re comforting in their predictability, festive (excessively so), and end happily.

But they are definitely not all equally good, so here is the rundown of some of the best/strangest/silliest of the 20+ I’ve watched so far this year. (I’ll even throw in an idea for a drinking game to be played with the alcoholic or nonalcoholic festive beverage of your choice.)

Creamy Coconut Hot Chocolate. - Half Baked Harvest
Snowman marshmallows optional

Drinking game: Drink whenever someone says a holiday-themed name (like Holly, Noelle, or some variant on Nick Claus…), says the phrase “the magic of Christmas,” realizes the love of their life was someone they’ve known for years/ already dated, says they’re in love with someone they barely know, is from a country that doesn’t exist, has an absurd number of holiday decorations, has a strangely holiday specific job, pretends to be engaged, falls off a ladder into the male lead’s arms, or is in a red/green dress during a climactic scene. I’d have added more options that show up in most movies, but I don’t want you to die of alcohol toxicity (or sugar shock depending on what you’re drinking).

Movies featuring Time Travel

A Timeless Christmas (Hallmark, 2020)

What it’s about: a man travels from 1903 to present day thanks to a magical clock…only to find his home is now a museum. He’s helped by the curator. Verdict: They have nice chemistry; this one was sweet. Just don’t think too hard about the logistics of staying in another time.

Christmas Comes Twice (Hallmark, 2020)

What it’s about: an unhappy executive in charge of grant funding with a science foundation takes a ride on a magical carousel and winds up five years in the past. Verdict: I’ve like Tamara Mowry ever since “Sister, Sister” and “Twitches,” so I wanted to see this one. The leads are cute together and this celebrates the power of science education; I loved her interactions with her old teacher.

A Nashville Christmas Carol (Hallmark, 2020)

What it’s about: a woman is visited by three spirits, encouraging her to take a look at her priorities and the falling out she had with her best friend years ago. Verdict: The leads were charming enough even if she wasn’t much of a Scrooge. This wasn’t one I’d go out of my way to watch again. The spirits were pretty funny, although it wasn’t very nice to do this to her while she was wandering around the city instead of asleep.

Silly ones I enjoyed

A Sugar & Spice Holiday (Lifetime, 2020)

What it’s about: a successful young architect visits her family for the holidays and joins a baking competition with the guy she’d liked in high school to honor her grandmother’s memory. Verdict: The lead, Jacky Lai, should get a lot more work because she was delightful. The mother in this had my whole family laughing, the conflict was somewhat realistic, and it was a very sweet movie overall. Definitely one I’d watch again.

Watch Christmas Contract | Prime Video

The Christmas Contract (available on Amazon Prime)

What it’s about: A woman doesn’t want to go home alone after learning her ex is bringing a new girlfriend; she takes her friend’s brother home for the holidays as a buffer after promising to make him a website. Verdict: most of this was really cute, except for a sappy speech at the end.

Five Star Christmas

Five Star Christmas (Hallmark, 2020)

What it’s about: three siblings return home for the holidays to learn their dad has turned the home into an inn that’s not doing so well. They try to get him a five star review from a travel writer they think is staying there. Verdict: I enjoyed this one and how most of the characters had motivation and at least a little depth. It was a little over the top at first as some of the family pretends to be guests, but got better from there.

Christmas Waltz

Christmas Waltz (Hallmark, 2020)

What it’s about: a woman books dance lessons and gets a lot more than she expected. Verdict: I love the dancing, thought the leads were great, and the precocious kid is actually pretty funny. The worst element here was the use of the “black best friend” trope where the best friend (one of the few black women in the movie) exists solely as a prop to the main character. It would have been so easy to fix the problem with quick exchanges where they talk about her friends’ career or social life! It’s a frustratingly common issue with Hallmark movies.

Lonestar Christmas (Lifetime, 2020)

What it’s about: a widowed young physical therapist takes her daughters to spend Christmas with her semi-estranged father and stepmother in Texas. She starts falling in love with the “Tamale King,” a good guy who owns a busy restaurant. Verdict: This one was cute. I liked the leads together and the dialogue sounded real. The worst part was that the conflict between the daughter and her dad was somewhat poorly explained.

Holiday Date (TV Movie 2019) - IMDb

Holiday Date (Hallmark, 2020)

What it’s about: a tailor gets broken up with right before she’s due to go home for Christmas. She can’t face going home alone again, so she agrees to have an actor pretend to be her boyfriend while he’s researching a role in a small town like hers. Verdict: aside from some clunky lines at the end, this one was funny and sweet. It worked in some Hanukkah info in a way that was a little uneven, but not overly bad.

One Royal Holiday

One Royal Holiday (Hallmark, 2020)

What it’s about: a prince and Queen from a fake country end up stuck at an inn in an idyllic small town in New England due to a snowstorm. Verdict: I’m not a huge fan of the fake country royalty movies, especially when they clearly mean it to be England. (Like when he insisted that he wasn’t used to driving on this side of the road, despite the fact Europe–outside of the U.K–drives the same direction we do in the U.S.) I burst out laughing at the absurdly fairytale castle and was more interested in the love story between the head of security and the mayor. Maybe it was because of all the silliness that I enjoyed this one overall.

LGBTQ+ Holiday fare

This is a newer category for Hallmark and Lifetime. Hulu got in on the action with their much-hyped “Happiest Season.”

Christmas GIF by HULU
Aubrey Plaza’s character was obviously a better choice.

What it’s about: A woman goes home with her girlfriend intending to propose only to learn that the girlfriend hasn’t come out to her family. Verdict: Happiest Season was actually kind of a bummer. The family at the center of it was AWFUL. There was physical fighting between grown siblings–one literally tried to garrote another with a garland–and I just kept telling KStew’s character to run, not walk, away. Sure, everyone was happy in the montage at the end, but problems like those don’t magically vanish.

Not happy with “Happiest Season”? Instead, try: A New York Christmas Wedding (Netflix)

What it’s about: a woman meets her guardian angel and visits an alternate reality where she’s engaged to her first love and her dad is still alive. Verdict: this one was very sweet and made me tear up a few times.

The Christmas House

The Christmas House (Hallmark, 2020)

What it’s about: two brothers return to decorate the family home for one final Christmas. Verdict: This one was pretty cute. Hallmark is barely tiptoeing into gay storylines, but one of the subplots here is about the brother and his husband going through the adoption process to start a family. I enjoyed the sibling dynamic here and tend to like Robert Buckley in general.

Movies I wanted to like a lot more than I did

Christmas Ever After (Lifetime, 2020).

What it’s about: a romance novelist with writer’s block goes to her favorite Christmas inn, only to find a man who looks just like the lead in her books. Verdict: While it was cool to see a romantic lead in a wheelchair, the writing and acting in this just weren’t great.

Love, Lights, Hanukkah! (TV Movie 2020) - IMDb

Love, Lights, Hanukkah (Hallmark, 2020)

What it’s about: a woman who was adopted gets her DNA results only to learn that she’s half-Jewish and that she has family in the same city where she grew up. Verdict: I’m glad Hallmark acknowledges other holidays exist, but this one didn’t do it for me. The acting was better than the writing.

Christmas in Vienna

Christmas in Vienna (Hallmark, 2020)

What it’s about: a violinist who has lost her passion for music is going to give one final performance in Vienna. Verdict: I really like Sarah Drew, the setting was beautiful, the b-plot love story was sweet, and the youngest daughter was adorable rather than annoyingly precocious, but the main love story left me cold.

A Little Christmas Magic - Life, Love and Dirty Dishes

Well, there you have it. I’m excited to see a few more of the Lifetime and Hallmark movies as well as rewatch a couple of my favorites (12 Dates of Christmas on Amazon and My Christmas Love on Hallmark). If you have any TV/ streaming service movie recommendations, please feel free to share 🙂

Wishing you a very happy and healthy holiday season!

The Case for Kindness

I don’t read nonfiction books very often (not since starting my graduate degree and having to read so many scientific papers for my classes). When I do read something nonfiction, I usually get so into it that I want to tell everyone I meet all about the book.

Case in point: Humankind (by Rutger Bregman).

Why did I love it? It changed the way I look at world…or perhaps just lent credence to the way I already did. I had a friend say recently that I’m an optimist. Instead, I’d argue that being realistic is not the same as being a fatalist. I don’t look at the world through rose-colored glasses; I am extremely aware that there are serious problems in the world that need addressing. But I also believe that people are more good than bad.

That’s what this book provides examples of and evidence for time and again: people are more kind than not. Civilization doesn’t crumble when the chips are down. We want to believe that people are bad to the bone, but most of the examples we trot out from literature (“Lord of the Flies”) or psychology (The Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram’s shock experiment, Robbers Cave, Broken Windows) or news reports (Kitty Genovese’s murder) or social theory (The Tragedy of the Commons) start to crumble when you look deeper.

tower satisfying GIF

A group of boys who were really shipwrecked on an island pulled together and didn’t behave at all like “The Lord of the Flies.” Those psychology studies were the result of gross manipulation and shoddy science; they have been debunked time and time again. Kitty Genovese’s neighbors actually did call the police and she died in the arms of her neighbor instead of alone on the street. A winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 (Elinor Ostrom), collected numerous examples of how “The Tragedy of the Commons” is wrong and how people all over the world manage resources for the collective good.

Bregman discusses psychology, war, Apartheid, Easter Island, our evolutionary roots, generosity, forgiveness, why compassion is better than empathy, and many other topics too. It was thought provoking and ultimately uplifting.

Nelson Mandela quote “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate; and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Harsh comments stick in our mind more than kind words. News reports focus on the sensational (murders, wars, riots) rather than positive, mundane moments. It’s easy to buy into a warped view of humanity when that’s what we see time and again on our shows and our social media feeds. This book was a welcome reminder that there is more to humanity than that.

One of my favorite quotes from the book was this one: “That’s how good overpowers evil–by outnumbering it.”

I hope you choose to read Humankind. Your life, and the lives of those around you, will be the better for it. As we enter into this holiday season during this ongoing pandemic, I also hope you choose to share your kindness (but not germs) with those around you and notice how much more good there is out there than evil.

Patriotism and the American Election

I love my country, but I cannot love it blindly.

Comic: Patriotism vs. Nationalism

The United States of America is the only home I’ve ever known, the only country my family has had ties to in generations. I grew up in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California; those mountains will be part of me forever, no matter how far I may roam.

It’s not exactly the same as this view, but this was the closest I could find online

Why do I love my country? I am profoundly grateful for my family, my childhood friends, the teachers who believed in me, the kind strangers I’ve met in every state I’ve visited, and all the opportunities I’ve had. I love celebrating our national holidays like the 4th of July and Thanksgiving with family and friends. I enjoy cheering for Team USA in the Olympics (like for Simone Biles, gymnast extraordinaire). I’m proud of advances Americans have made in science and technology and for daring to dream of a “more perfect union.”

Patriotism, however, should never be blind devotion. There are horrible pieces of our history. Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. We need to grapple with these events and their legacy in order to truly create that “More Perfect Union” we promise in the constitution and the country of “liberty and justice for all” we speak about in our pledge of allegiance.

Slavery

Slavery was legal between 1619 (when the first enslaved people were brought to Jamestown, Virginia) until the passage of the 13th amendment in 1865 after the Civil War. That’s 246 years!

Black History: A History of Permanent White Oppression, from 1619 to 2016 |  by Josh Tucker | Question the Answers | Medium

Slavery and the repercussions of it are still with us today. The Civil Rights Movement took place nearly a century after slavery was abolished because freedom is not the same as equality. Poverty, mass incarceration, disenfranchisement, police brutality…these disproportionately affect African Americans/ Black Americans and are a direct legacy of slavery, white supremacy, and segregation.

The way we learn about the horrible pieces of our collective past is patchy at best across the country. As a child, I remember reading this book from Yearling about Harriet Tubman:

And watching “Roots” in History Class in 8th grade.

Between Roots, Reading Rainbow, and Star Trek, LeVar Burton has had quite a legacy!

Fortunately, in high school, my classes went more in depth. We read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave in his own words, as well as fiction like Native Son and plays like A Raisin in the Sun. I’m grateful my teachers made a point to include poetry by Black authors, like the incomparable Maya Angelou and the Langston Hughes’ poem I’ve never forgotten: “Harlem.”

There is still a great deal of work to be done to build equality, to create the country Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of in his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. We cannot stand idly by in the face of injustice and just hope that it gets better. It’s work we have to do together, to be actively “anti-racist” instead of just “not racist.”

Other painful chapters in our history

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 oversaw the forcible removal of over 46,000 people (belonging to the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Muscogee, and Cherokee tribes) from their ancestral lands in the modern-day Southeastern states. Forced marches of the Cherokee from their lands to what is now Oklahoma between 1835 and 1838 became known as the Trail of Tears. Here in California, we also have the legacy of the Mission system. Across the Americas, the long history of genocidal incidents towards the indigenous/ First Nations peoples still has lasting repercussions.

Bigoted immigration policies also have a long history. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1822-1943) and other policies aimed at reducing rights in the name of “jobs” for whoever was deemed “white” at the time also put its mark on our history. Japanese Internment saw people of Japanese descent forcibly imprisoned in the western states during the second world war…the list goes on and on. (And this post is getting too long to read.)

Farewell to Manzanar (about a Japanese Internment camp in California during WWII) and other stories helped teach me about those awful parts of our history. Many authors, artists, and people from every walk of life are continually evaluating historical events like these and their legacy.

The Election

None of us truly know what the election today (Nov 3, 2020) will bring. It feels especially fraught this year considering the pandemic, the current president continually stoking tensions and questioning the entire process, and with the harsh realities of climate change looming ever larger.

I cast my vote. I also know I am just one voice among many. The electoral college and swing states are going to be the deciding factors in who sits in the Oval Office for the next four years.

With whatever happens, I have faith in the power of stories to encourage empathy, build bridges, and inspire change. No matter who becomes president or gains seats in our other government offices, I hope we can choose peace over violence and understanding over hate. This election matters, but we matter too. “We the People” can help make our country a safer, kinder, more welcoming place for all who call it home.

I love my country, but I do not love it blindly. I love my country for what it can be…for what we can choose to make it together.

Staying calm in stressful times

Anybody else feel like they’ve been staring at a screen all day, every day?

This moment in time is hard. Everybody is a little bit scared, all the time. Most of our jobs are radically different…or gone altogether. Many of the ways people choose to de-stress are harder to access: you might not be able to hug (or see) loved ones, gyms are closed, and indoor places to socialize with friends are still largely inaccessible. If you aren’t used to spending all your time online, digital ways to de-stress (like watching shows) may not hold the same appeal they once did.

So what can we do?

Before you react to the latest political post on your social media or scream in frustration into the void (or at some unsuspecting tech support person) when your technology stops working, take a breath.

There are lots of different breathing techniques. One simple one is in the graphic below.

Meditation Breathe GIF

If the gif isn’t working: Breathe in for four seconds, hold for four, and release for four seconds.

The case for mindfulness

Mindfulness has been defined as the “quality or state of being conscious or aware of something” (Oxford English Dictionary). As reported in a BBC article in 2018, mindfulness comes from Buddhist practices. That article defined it as “the meditative state of being both fully aware of the moment and of being self-conscious of and attentive to this awareness; a state of intense concentration on one’s own thought processes; self-awareness.”

Mindfulness has become very popular in the west in recent years. With pandemic-related isolation, some healthcare providers here in the U.S. have started providing free access to apps like Calm and Headspace. I’m a fan of Insight Timer (which is free). A lot of them are somewhat gamified–they offer targets or tell you how many days in a row you’ve done, but there are plenty of ways to try out some techniques.

More breathing techniques

I think breathing techniques are the most approachable, especially for people who are skeptical about meditation. My favorite is taking in a breath for 4-5 seconds and then breathing out for 8-9 seconds. Breathing out for longer than you breathed in is a quick way to calm down.

54 best images about Pranayama on Pinterest | Natural ...

Grounding exercises

Another helpful technique, grounding exercises are a good way to stop the mental hamster wheel and focus on something outside of yourself. These were recommended when I was in therapy to help with anxiety and depressive thoughts.

41 best Mindfulness for Kids images on Pinterest ...

If the image isn’t working: name three things you see, smell, hear, and feel. Then breathe in and out slowly three times.

The main character in Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner used a variation of a grounding technique throughout the book (naming five things she could see).

While these are for kids, I thought they were cute ideas for any age.

Self-compassion

Free Self Compassion Exercises | Mindfulness Exercises

Self-compassion is another one of those activities that I’ve found personally helpful. It’s more about noticing and naming what you’re feeling. Sometimes noticing your feelings and why you’re feeling that way is enough to help break unhealthy coping strategies (like drinking or eating too much).

Overall…

There is evidence that mindfulness can lead to greater well-being as well as improve things like stress, anxiety, and test performance. It isn’t a cure-all, merely another tool to help. I’m not the poster child for being calm and collected all the time (although I hold my own in a classroom full of 15 year olds every weekday, so I’m doing okay). These tools helped me and I hope they help you too.

So, take some time away from “doom-scrolling” your way through social media accounts and try one of the techniques I outlined above, go for a walk, do some jumping jacks, listen to a favorite song, hit a pillow, try to dance like a peacock spider (the link goes to Youtube)…the list is practically endless. Whatever you choose, know you aren’t alone if you’re feeling overwhelmed right now.

Also, if you’re over 18 and American, please vote in the upcoming election. Extend that compassion you practiced above to our fellow humans and the environment as you make your choices on candidates and props. The process is extra-polarized this year; I’m trying to be hopeful even though I’m terrified. So please vote.

Know Your Voting Rights | ACLU of Michigan

The words that can destroy a community

Teaching on Zoom is tough. So much of human communication is nonverbal–we’re watching each other constantly to gauge expressions and read body language. In Zoom, we’re missing most of those nonverbal cues. We’re also watching ourselves, can’t maintain eye contact, and might even be feeling like we’re in many rooms at once...all of which contribute to “Zoom fatigue.”

Also, this is a context where people can do what’s called “Zoom bombing” where they show up and post offensive words or content. While we do what we can to protect against it, that requires the whole community to actively prevent it. With teens, not everyone will think that’s important. (As my school has already learned.)

If people turn off their cameras, words are almost all we’re left with. So, what’s in a word? And which words can destroy the communities we’ve built?

Comedy Central Stand-Up on Twitter: "Not sure how offensive a word is? @ mulaney has a cheat sheet for you. https://t.co/p0cKgQNrCK… "

An excerpt from John Mulaney’s  “New in Town” where he shares how he knows the word ‘midget’ is not as bad as the N-word

Continue reading

Refresh Your Bookshelf: 7 Books by Black Authors to Try

There are many ways to fight for racial equality. Protest, write to representatives, support organizations fighting the good fight, challenge racist comments/ideas…the list goes on and on. Reading books is low on the list for behaviors that make an impact.

With that said, if you’re going to read anyway, why not pick up a book by a Black author?Reading builds empathy. It’s a good way to see the world from a different perspective and tear down prejudice and unconscious bias. No culture is a monolith; books by Black authors are as diverse as the lived experiences of the people who created them.

There are, quite obviously, many great authors/books that I’ve left off of this list. This post simply includes seven interesting books by Black authors I’ve read recently. There are genres and books in here for everyone.

If you are looking for something set outside the United States: 

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Paperback | Barnes ...

I was inspired to read this book after watching a TED talk by the author. Purple Hibiscus is set in Nigeria and told entirely through the eyes of Kambili, a teen girl who has grown up in the physically (and mentally) abusive household of her incredibly religious and powerful father. While a coup helps frame the narrative, there’s no question that this is Kambili’s story.

My take: I had a hard time putting this one down and a harder time getting it out of my head. I kept wanting to give Kambili a hug–she loves her father and wants to make him proud, but his standards are impossible to hit and dangerous to miss. All of the characters are complex and fully realized, the setting is evoked beautifully, and it makes for an emotional reading experience.

If you’re in the mood for Romance:

All Books — Jasmine Guillory

The Wedding Date starts with the rom-com setup of two people getting trapped in an elevator. Driven (Bay Area based) Alexa agrees to be (LA based) Dr. Drew’s date to his ex’s wedding. Shenanigans ensue. Frequent Flyer Miles are used. Love triumphs.

My take: I was a bit lukewarm on the B plots here, wasn’t wild about Drew, and felt there was more sex than story. The secondary characters were more likable than the leads in some ways. Since the next two books focus on the friends of the leads here, I’m game to give those a try. A lot of people love this novel, so maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood for it.

If you want to read non-fiction/ autobiography: 

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Book by Frederick ...

I read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself  in high school and re-read it once I had the idea for this post. Published in 1845 when he was in his mid-twenties, Frederick Douglass tells us about his own experience of slavery in unflinching detail. (His father was rumored to be his first master. Frederick Douglass, in the words of this beautifully written Op-Ed from the New York Times, had “rape-colored skin.”) His story starts with some of his earliest memories in Maryland. One heart-breaking detail was about how his mother was hired out to a farm 12 miles away; he only saw her a handful of times when she walked back after a day in the fields to stay with him at night before having to leave again to get to the fields at dawn. Douglass takes us through his various moves as he was traded from place to place, how he learned to read, and up to his eventual escape.

My take: Despite the time it was written, the language is as readable as the subject matter is horrible. He wrote about several murders of black men and women that resulted in no criminal charges filed; it’s disheartening to see how little progress we’ve made towards equitable justice in the ~175 years since he wrote. He didn’t give details about his flight to freedom via the Underground Railroad, explaining he didn’t want to make it so slaveowners and slave-catchers could stop anyone else using the same route. This personal account is an affecting look at a time in history that still impacts the present.

If you enjoy Fantasy/ Dystopian fiction: 

The Fifth Season (Novel) | Broken Earth Wiki | Fandom

The Fifth Season is set in a world with frequent “seasons”–cataclysmic events that can make regions uninhabitable for years. In this place, people called orogenes who can control parts of the earth are both feared and exploited for their talents. Taking place in three separate times, the story weaves the past and present together, introducing us to this world and the start of a new season.

My take: This is more hard-core fantasy/sci-fi than I usually read. (I tend to get a little frustrated when everything has to have a different name than what we’d call it and I don’t usually like reading dystopian fiction.) Still, this was absorbing and disturbing in equal measure. It felt a bit like The Witcher without the comedy relief. This is the first of a trilogy.

If you like Sci-Fi: 

Dawn by Octavia E. Butler, Paperback | Barnes & Noble®

Octavia E. Butler helped shake up the overly male-dominated Sci-Fi genre. Her book Kindred is reportedly amazing–I’ve requested it from the library–and she has a large body of work. I picked up this book since it was available at the time and it wasn’t extremely long. (The Fifth Season by Jemisin was huge and I got them at the same time.)

Dawn is about a woman named Lilith who wakes up on an alien ship orbiting Earth to find out that a) humans are virtually extinct and b) the aliens who saved her plan to create a race of human-Oankali hybrids with the humans who are left.

My take: This is fairly hard-core Science Fiction. After reading up on Butler more, it sounds like this novel wasn’t the best introduction to her work. The Oankali pseudo-sex made me uncomfortable. The setting definitely felt alien and Lilith was interesting, although she wasn’t an easy heroine to feel like you knew by the end.

If you want to read a mystery/thriller:

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

In The Cutting Season, a woman who manages the plantation where she spent a lot of her childhood (her mother worked as the cook) investigates a murder and uncovers long-buried secrets.

My take: This was well-written and interesting. It has elements of cozy mysteries, has suspenseful moments, and the setting was unfamiliar to me. (My sole experience in The South has been switching planes in Atlanta, Nashville, and Raleigh.)

If you are interested in something you could read and then watch:

Amazon.com: Queen Sugar (9780670026135): Baszile, Natalie: Books

I’ve written about Queen Sugar before. It’s about a woman who inherits a sugar cane farm in Louisiana and all of the trials and tribulations she faces while trying to build on her father’s legacy, connect with her family there, and find her own way.

My take: This is beautifully written, tragic, and ultimately hopeful. It’s also a show with an amazing cast!

 

 

Something to take ‘Pride’ in: LGBTQ relationships and characters on screen

While June may be winding down, I really wanted to write a post related to Pride month and LGBTQ relationships in TV and movies. I may not personally identify as part of the community, but I am a big fan of diverse storytelling and firmly believe that we should all care about and stand up for human rights.

Hopefully we can all agree that everyone–regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnic or racial background, religion, age, or net worth–deserves to be treated with respect and compassion.

First, here’s a quick graphic to help explain Pride Month:

LGBTQ Pride Month FAQs Sheet Template

Just in case you aren’t familiar with the acronym, LGBTQ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning. I’ve also seen LGBTQIA to include Intersex and Asexual or LGBTQ+ to include other categories as well. I decided to stick with the more frequently used acronym for this post.

It wasn’t so long ago that gay relationships were incredibly rare to see portrayed on screen here in the U.S. Now, according to the most recent report by GLADD, those numbers are higher than ever, with Netflix, Showtime, and the CW all showing the most representation in the streaming, cable, and primetime categories respectively. Admittedly, asexual characters are seriously underrepresented across the board and there is still room to grow.

Fortunately, relationships between people who identify as part of the LGBTQ community are becoming more common in popular media.  For the purposes of this, I’m sticking with movies, series, and characters I have personally enjoyed.

Movies 

Full disclosure, I’m not a huge fan of prestige pictures (sorry, Moonlight, I’m sure you’re wonderful). I’m more likely to watch big blockbusters or rom-coms.

Piper Perabo and Lena Headey in Imagine Me and You lesbian movie ...

Imagine Me & You (2005) is one of the first movies I saw where the main love story was between two women. I saw it again recently and it’s still quite sweet. (Bonus: it features a pre-Game of Thrones Lena Headey as part of the main pairing.)

What it does well: There’s a strange trend in lesbian cinema in particular to kill off at least one member of the main couple by the end of the movie. I’m not really into downer movies and this avoids that tragic pitfall. It’s also set in England, which I’m pretty much always here for and I like Matthew Goode and Piper Perabo.

Boy Meets Girl (2014) - IMDb

Boy Meets Girl (2014) is a fun romantic movie. I saw it on Netflix when it was on there in 2016.

What it does well: For one thing, the trans character is actually played by a trans actress! Luckily, that is becoming more common. She was also given creative input on the film. While set in the South, her family, friends, and most of the town are shown to accept her. It’s as much about the love story as it is about her interest in pursuing a career in fashion. I’m not sure where you can watch it now; I keep hoping Netflix will bring it back.

TV

Sense8

Sense8 | Netflix Official Site

What it does well: I love Sense8. The story is about connection and it’s fitting that all of the relationships between the characters are beautifully done. Two of the three creators (the Wachowskis) are trans women–they also wrote and directed all three Matrix movies. While the other romantic and platonic pairings in this show are also amazing, I want to shine a light on the two LGBTQ pairings:

Lito and Hernando

Sense8 Season 2: Filming Lito's Coming Out at Sao Paolo Gay Pride ...

I hope the picture shows up. That scene when they went to the Pride parade in Brazil and Lito announces to the world how much he loves Hernando was adorable. Their relationship is loving and problems that arise (like Lito publicly closeting to preserve his career) make complete sense for the characters.

Nomi and Amanita

We Have An Unspoken Bond GIF | Gfycat

This couple practically invented “ride-or-die.” Amanita (played by the Doctor Who alumna Freema Agyeman) is glorious in this as Nomi’s devoted girlfriend. Nomi, a trans woman (played by trans actress and model Jamie Clayton), is a brilliant hacker and equally devoted to Amanita. It’s a testament to the strength of their relationship that Amanita is the first person outside of the cluster to be told about all of the different people suddenly connected to her girlfriend.

GLOW

GLOW (TV Series 2017– ) - IMDb

What it does well: Considering the third season starts in 1986, the show helps shine a light on some heavy topical issues. A comedy about a female wrestling show that tackles the AIDS crisis, abortion, sexism, #MeToo issues, homophobia, worries over pregnancy, working motherhood…all while still having genuinely funny moments?  While Bash’s internalized homophobia and rejection of his own sexuality is heartbreaking to watch–albeit understandable given the show is set during the AIDS crisis and what we learn about his upbringing–Yolanda and Arthie have a sweetly quiet courtship.

Arthie and Yolanda deserve more time to shine together on "GLOW ...

Arthie and Yolanda deserve more time to shine together on "GLOW ...

Just look at those cuties! So heartwarming. While Yolanda didn’t show up until the second season, I adored the direction they took her character and how Arthie came into her own during their relationship. They didn’t just suddenly fall in love and have everything work out; their issues are relatable and done well.

Characters

What makes a good LGBTQ character? One of the most important parts of any character, LGBTQ or hetero/cisgender, is giving them depth. Sexuality and gender identity are not the most interesting aspects of a person. They’re just one piece of who we are.

I’ve written about the next two characters before  but they’re worth highlighting again.

Eric in Sex Education (Netflix)

The Best Of Eric In Sex Education Season One - YouTube

Best of Eric? Do you mean every moment he is on screen?

Why he’s great: While he could have been written as the stereotypical Gay Best Friend, his best friend is another boy and the fact Eric is gay isn’t an issue between them. Eric also has his own story-lines independent of Otis, which is an important way to differentiate between a character included as a token and one written as a person in their own right.

Mo in Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (NBC)

Mo Sings "This Little Light of Mine" - Zoey's Extraordinary ...

Why he’s great: For starters, I love that the show brings up what it means to be gender fluid through Mo. Mo uses he/him pronouns while being feminine presenting (with many amazing outfits). We learn about him throughout the show, including pieces about his fears over being fully himself at church, and he has a quiet love story with a handsome guy. Hopefully he’ll be able to shine more next season!

Mistakes to avoid

Dead Lesbians. I already mentioned it up above. Lesbian romances on screen skew tragic astonishingly often.

How to avoid it? Let the lady-loving-ladies live! That’s it. Don’t kill them off, especially right after you’ve gotten them together. (*cough* The 100 *cough*.)

The 100 season 3, episode 7 review: Death is not the end

Queer baiting is another one I’ve seen talked about a lot.

What is it? Queer baiting is when creators try to appeal to LGBTQ fans or fans of slash ships (same sex pairings) by creating situations and subtext that hint at a gay relationship without ever making it canon (or coding a character as part of the LGBTQ community but then going back on that later by throwing them into a heterosexual relationship).

Now, people will definitely ‘ship’ pretty much any possible pairing in a show if there is even a glimmer of chemistry between characters–and sometimes even if there isn’t–but queer baiting takes it a step further. Admittedly, it is tricky claim to make about a piece of media in many cases. Some viewers see it as intentionally malicious or merely a cold-blooded marketing ploy to draw in more fans without alienating others. I’ve lost track of the number of shows I’ve seen accused of queer baiting, but Supernatural and Sherlock and Supergirl come up pretty often. Killing Eve has also run up against claims of queer baiting.

Watch Killing Eve Streaming Online | Hulu (Free Trial)

You don’t exactly need to look all that hard to see it. That image above is part of their official marketing. Villanelle is canonically interested in Eve, but Eve is supposedly not interested in return…except it definitely seems like she is.

How to avoid it? If you’re a creator, why not intentionally introduce LGBTQ characters and relationships into your piece from the beginning? While I am a fan of deep platonic relationships too (friendships for the win!), audiences clearly want to see LGBTQ characters  represented on screen. We want to see a broad spectrum of romantic relationships portrayed in the media we consume. I think we’ll all be the better for it.

Pride Month: What to know about the LGBTQ celebration - CNN

Which LGBTQ characters and relationships on screen do you love?

Getting personal: anxiety, depression, and being “normal”

As a teacher, I taught sex ed and human systems three times. It didn’t take long before I realized almost all questions kids asked were variations of the same one: “Am I normal?”

The Other Side of Normal - Jordan Smoller - Hardcover

I read The Other Side of Normal by Jordan Smoller a few years ago and think about it a lot. It sprang to mind whenever I answered the questions my students posed. “Normal” is a spectrum. It’s scary to deviate from what we perceive is average, but almost all of us do in some ways.

Even if we’re all still mostly stuck in one spot right now as this pandemic continues, whatever you’re going through, other people are dealing with it too.

Mental Health Awareness Month | Anxiety and Depression Association of  America, ADAA

It’s almost the end of mental health month. It’s also the end of a personal era as my time at the place I’ve worked the longest draws to a close. I know mental health for many of us is under particular strain this year as we cope with a global pandemic.

For me, my mental health issues predate lockdown.

I’ve dealt with anxiety since childhood. When I was younger, it manifested like it does for Chidi Anagonye in The Good Place.

the good place gifs — I'm in a perfect utopia and I have a ...

I got stomachaches ALL THE TIME. Basically, whenever I had to take a math test…which was every week in the third and fourth grade. That stress reaction continued through high school.

The Good Place's Chidi Gives Me Stomachaches, Too (But Not Always ...

I also struggled with decisions. To a certain extent, I still do. I’ve gotten better at it as the years have gone by, but I do still torture myself over my choices and drive the people in my life crazy as I ask for input….

As I got older, my anxiety manifested more like Annie from Community.

Still Hurting GIF | Gfycat

I got migraines almost every week for a year in college and have had stress headaches that last for days at a time, even as recently as this year.

And a different aspect of Chidi’s anxiety, insomnia, has also become a recent issue.

18 Times Chidi From "The Good Place" Got Way, Way Too Real

My insomnia is also tied up with something I was finally diagnosed with last summer: depression.

Dark Arts Halloween GIF by Harry Potter

The best fictional example I’ve seen of depression is a dementor. J.K. Rowling came up with them after her own struggles with depression. They’re monsters that drain the joy out of people, trapping them in their own worst experiences, making the world around them cold; they’ll quite literally suck out your soul if left unchecked. Which is….dark for a children’s book. 

Except children already know that bad things exist. The beautiful part of the dementor storyline is that it is about Harry learning to defeat the dementors. He doesn’t give up: he faces the stigma of his peers as he’s more affected by the dementors than they are, but he finds a mentor in Professor Lupin and learns the complicated spell that helps him cope.

Gilbert K. Chesterton Quote: “Fairy tales do not tell children the ...

The message that monsters can be overcome was important to me because my childhood and teen years were shaped by mental illness…it just wasn’t mine.

In my late childhood and teen years, my mum and my dad had all of the symptoms of depression between them: one couldn’t sleep, one slept too much, one had a lack of focus, one lost interest in things they loved, and they both dealt with negative thoughts and had difficulty taking care of things. I always knew I was loved and they made sure my sister and I had clothes, food, and were safe; but it is hard to watch people you love not love themselves.

I’ll admit that I’ve carried around some damaging ideas about depression. Creativity is important to me and for a time I bought into the idea that being treated for mental illness would make me lose the piece of myself I valued above all others.

Starry Night Print by Vincent Van Gogh Painting by Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh is often touted as an example of how mental illness is linked to creativity. He created beautiful art, but he was already in treatment when he painted Starry Night. The yellow hues in the painting may have even been influenced by the digitalis he was taking as part of his treatment for epilepsy.

Van Gogh lived in a time when mental illness was poorly understood. He is likely to have suffered from the same mental illness my grandfather did: bipolar disorder. Van Gogh himself recognized the need for treatment: “If I could have worked without this accursed disease, what things I might have done” is a line from one of his final letters before his suicide (Wolf, 2001).

A Pile of Good Things (With images) | Doctor who quotes, Doctor ...

A line from one of the most beautiful Doctor Who episodes when they visited Van Gogh.

If anything, when my depression is bad, I’m less creative. Lack of interest in things you love is a common symptom of depression. After my grandfather died in a way I found difficult to cope with and I started the demanding job I’m now leaving, I struggled to sit down and write. Then I’d be paralyzed by self loathing (another common depression symptom) over my failure to do what I love…or disgusted with myself about my less than healthy coping strategy of watching too much TV.

It took a long time–longer still due to an impacted mental health system that made me wait months to get an actual appointment–but I finally saw a therapist.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend recap: 3x06 "Josh is Irrelevant."

My major depression is, fortunately, of the mild variety. I am largely functional: I have a steady job and do well in grad school, pay my bills, feed myself, and exercise. Because I’m functional, it took time to admit that I needed help. I started Cognitive Behavior Therapy in September and, while I didn’t gel with the therapist and was about to find a new one when the quarantine started, even taking that one step has helped.

I started writing again.

How to cope 

I am not a mental health professional, and I strongly encourage you to see one if you are dealing with mental illness or any sort of mental health issue, but here are some small tips for activities that have helped me.

#1 Talk about it.

Talking To Your Pets Means You're A Well Adjusted Person

He’s a good boy; he will not judge.

This one is scary, but it’s worth it. If you aren’t ready for a therapist, start small. Tell a close friend or a family member or a stranger online. Heck, start with a pet to help you find the words. It was so hard for me to open up to people about my depression, but the more people I told, the easier it got. I learned that more of my friends were dealing with similar issues than I’d ever expected.

#2 Make one habit healthier

The Beginner's Guide to Meditation | Shape

It sounds a bit hokey, but meditation, even for just a few minutes a day can have positive impacts on your mental health. Will it solve serious chemical imbalances? Of course not. But it can help you cope with mild depression and anxiety symptoms. It can also help with stress management, which we could all use right now.

I’m fond of the free app Insight Timer (other popular apps include Calm and Headspace) and have started to do a short guided meditation every morning. I decided to make it a part of my routine after my existing morning routine of scrolling through Instagram and BBC news resulted in getting out of bed feeling awful. My new habit has improved my mood. It doesn’t mean everything is great or that I don’t sometimes feel low. I’m definitely a work in progress, but I’m glad I’ve been able to incorporate a healthier habit into my day.

Sunlit path | In the evening woods at Sugarloaf mountain in … | Flickr

Getting outside, even if it’s just for a quick walk around my block, helps get me out of my head for a few minutes. Being around natural spaces has been shown to improve overall health; try it if you can.

Even a small change can feel huge. Pick just one habit to try to make a little healthier.

#3 Be kind to yourself

Demi Lovato - I Love Me (Lyrics) - YouTube

Lyrics from Demi Lovato’s song “I love me”

 

Mental health is a lifelong process. Most of us will struggle to cope at one point or another. So be a little kinder to yourself. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you need it.  Don’t be mad at yourself for needing help with your mental health.

Nobody is perfect. Nobody is worthless or unimportant or expendable. And nobody is here alone.

Community GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Community is my most recent obsession. None of them are perfect, but they love each other anyway.