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Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Meditation

Many years ago I read (at least some of) Wherever You Go, There You Are by John Kabat-Zinn. The point that stayed with me all this time is that if you’re not really fully present and engaged with the now, you’re not really living.

Which doesn’t mean that I am always, or even particularly frequently, fully engaged with the present. I am a hopelessly plan-y person, which makes for a lot of thinking ahead! But I at least had that idea, in the back of my mind, that if you’re going to do a thing, you do that thing, you focus on it, and you really appreciate it. And at least occasionally, I would actually do that.

Kabat-Zinn’s technique for getting better at being present and mindful was (and still is) meditation. That practice, I never adopted. I think I tried a few times, but it never stuck.

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This is not me. (Photo by Prasanth Inturi on Pexels.com.)

Jump ahead to January 2018. TV journalist Dan Harris is the guest on The Daily Show, talking about his new book Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book. A lot of people are interested in trying meditation, he says, but think they don’t have the time. His pitch to them? Five to ten minutes, he says—that’s enough. Don’t even have five minutes? One minute will do.

Then he adds that it’s nothing complicated, that it doesn’t require wearing of yoga pants and becoming a mystic, and that you’re not failing if you don’t manage to clear your head. The attempt to clear your head is what matters.

I finally bought the book this spring, and after a few bouts of anxiety left me wishing I had some better coping techniques, this summer I actually read it.

After an introduction to what meditation is and what its benefits are, the book is divided up into chapters based on people’s excuses for not doing it. I thought I’d only have to read the first two: “I can’t do this” and “I don’t have time for this.” Then when I actually started trying it, it was a bit uncomfortable, so I figured I should also read the third chapter: “People might think I’m weird.” (What’s actually weird? That so many people find being alone with their thoughts so off-putting they are actually willing to give themselves electric shocks as a distraction.)

In the end, I found something of value in each chapter, even the ones that appeared to have nothing to do with me: “Meditation is self-indulgent”—as if I have any trouble with self-indulgence. Or, “If I get too happy, I’ll lose my edge”. Yep, that’s me all right, miserable and edgy, and wanting to stay that way!

But the “self-indulgent” chapter included tips for if you thought you maybe had the opposite problem (of perhaps being a little selfish), and the “edge” chapter included some great techniques from managing worries (the “Is this useful?” mantra).

Furthermore, the book was just more interesting and fun to read than I expected from a “self-help” type. There was a running story-line of going on a meditation tour and trying to gain recruits. Meditation techniques are not “one size fits all”, it turns out.

But did the book work? Yes, absolutely, in that for the first time in my life, I am meditating regularly. (Turns out that my office has a meditation room! Who knew?)

And am I now 10% happier? Is the meditation itself working? Well, that’s hard to say. The whole thing is subtle (the promise is about a 10% happiness increase, not a complete transformation of your entire outlook) and the effects take time. At first it just seemed weird and a bit pointless. Now, sometimes I actually look forward to it. I can’t say for sure, yet, whether I’m developing better long-term coping strategies. But maybe?

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My relationship with the Globe and Mail is dysfunctional

I do think that, in these times, it’s important to support the newspaper industry financially, if you can afford to. This might seem crazy, when so much news is available for free online—and there’s certainly an argument that news companies haven’t been that smart in making so much of it available free online. But, we need to support real journalists. Those who hold politicians to account. Who spend months on investigative stories. Who fact check. Who provide the background details on that “click-bait” headline. Someone needs to help pay for all that—or we’ll lose it.

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Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

However, there is really no need to subscribe to as many newspapers as I do. Most of these subscriptions, I acquired at some great deal, but these deals gradually expire, I have to start rethinking some of these relationships.

Long-time companion: My local paper

If you’re looking to subscribe to one newspaper, your local paper is a good one to consider. For one thing, if you even have one, you’re lucky—just ask Guelph. And there have been studies that closures of local newspaper increase the cost of local government: no more watchdogs.

But you don’t have to think of your subscription as a charity donation; it is actually a source of useful information—who’s running for office in your town; local perspectives and comments on national and international stories (example: Greg Mercer’s great investigative work on Doug Ford’s shoddy treatment of former Kitchener MPP Michael Harris, later picked up by The Toronto Star); upcoming and ongoing constructions projects; festivals and other events; stores and restaurants opening, closing, moving, and expanding; and updates on when the heck those Ion trains are going to get here. The New York Times is great, but it ain’t going to cover any of that stuff.

Conestogo River at sunset!

Wondering where this lovely neighbourhood trail is? Your local paper might tell you.

Plus, an e-subscription to my local paper, the Waterloo Region Record, is pretty cheap. For just under $8 a month, you get unlimited access to the website and a full replica of the print edition in a handy Android or IOs app. It’s also a nice, I think, that The Record is not a Postmedia publication, meaning it doesn’t run obligatory corporate editorials (that just happen to have a right-wing slant). The Record is owned by the TorStar, who allow the local staff to set their own editorial direction.

Cheap date: The Washington Post

So, this is how they lured me in: They said subscribe to our newsletter, and we’ll give you full website and Washington Post app access for six month. And I said, OK. And it turned out their newsletter was kind of interesting, and I was reading a bunch of their articles (Trump era! You can’t look away!), and when the six months was up they said, how about you give us $20 (US) and then you can keep getting the newsletter and having full website / app access for a year. And I said, OK.

postThen the year was up, and I was like, oh my God, what is my price going to jump to now? But it didn’t jump at all (except to the extent that the Canadian dollar fell); it was still just $20 US for another year. Or about $2 Cnd. a month. Which, I can totally afford, so I’m keeping it, because—you can’t look away!

Weekly gentleman caller: The Toronto Star

Though this is soon to change, the Toronto Star doesn’t currently have a online paywall, so my subscription is an old-timey one, to the paper version, but on Sundays only. And at this point, I’m still getting it at half price.

It is kind of nice to get a paper copy (in limited quantities), and I do usually get it read (though not necessarily all on Sunday). I’m also wondering if this small subscription will provide some access once the paywall does go up. So I’ll hang on to this for now to see what happens.

Toronto Star special project: Daniel Dale keeps track of every false claim Donald Trump makes. (Maybe they should do Doug Ford also?)

Glamour boy: The New York Times

Yes, this is the prestige paper, but the thing that stands out to me about The New York Times is that its online experience is just head and shoulders above everybody else’s. Their long-form stories are interactive and gorgeous. For example, though it broke my heart:  Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.

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“Long-term disaster is now the best-case scenario…”

You can seamlessly link to the responsive and attractive New York Times app from browsers and social media. As a subscriber, you can “set aside” any story for safe-keeping or later reading, something I’m now constantly expecting from all other papers! But alas, no one else has it. (Thanks goodness for Pocket.)

And if you like cooking? A vast collection of recipes is available, auto-organized, to which you can add external sources. And even get it all printed up (for a small extra fee). If you want the “full paper replica” experiences, that’s available, too. And though it’s not my thing, the crossword experience is apparently incredible as well.

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The lovely (and far less depressing) cooking section of the New York Times

I had this subscription for a year at 60% off, and the full monthly price ($22; they let you pay in Canadian) is now a bit of a shock. Cheaper subscription are available—and even freeloaders aren’t completely cut off. So I’ll have to do some research on how much glamour I really need in my life.

Dysfunctional relationship: The Globe and Mail

If you think The New York Times is a bit pricey… Meet the Globe and Mail. I have the cheapest possible subscription, but now that this 60% off discount has expired, we’re talking $27 a month. That’s just to read stuff on the website—no amazing app, no replica of the full paper, no home delivery, nothing much extra other than… Report on Business magazine.

So I keep breaking up with The Globe and Mail. Which is always painful—because it requires a phone call, of course, no handy Cancel button. And the cancellation request is never immediately accepted. No, they first try to lure or guilt you into staying, but if you succumb, you know you’re just putting off the pain to a later date.

But even when I succeed in ending the relationship, I often find myself lured back. Because for all the frustrations with this publication:

They do have some very good columnists, and they do invest in long-form investigative pieces more so than any other Canadian newspaper. A prime examples is the Unfounded series that Robin Doolittle worked on for 20 months, revealing that an incredible percentage of reported sexual assaults were being dismissed as “unfounded”, or without merit. It’s a rare case of a newspaper story leading to nation-wide changes in policing.

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There’s also the simple fact that a lot of Globe and Mail stories are “subscriber-only”, period. While there are ways around this (you can get the Globe digital replica free from the library, for example), they are not  as convenient as just clicking and reading the story. But what price convenience? That’s what I have to decide.


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I have not completely forgotten how to read

This Globe and Mail article, called I have forgotten how to read, was posted some weeks ago now, but the opening sticks with me [bold added by me]:

Turning, one evening, from my phone to a book, I set myself the task of reading a single chapter in one sitting. Simple. But I couldn’t. There was nothing wrong with my eyes. No stroke or disease clouded my way. Yet – if I’m being honest – the failure was also not a surprise.

Paragraphs swirled; sentences snapped like twigs; and sentiments bled out. The usual, these days. I drag my vision across the page and process little. Half an hour later, I throw down the book and watch some Netflix.

Out for dinner with another writer, I said, “I think I’ve forgotten how to read.”

“Yes!“ he replied, pointing his knife. “Everybody has.”

“No, really,” I said. “I mean I actually can’t do it any more.”

He nodded: “Nobody can read like they used to. But nobody wants to talk about it.”

I identified with the gist of the remainder of the article, which is that the Internet has rewired our brains and made it difficult for us to focus on extended text, such as a book. Heck, even a brief Internet outage (maybe 2.5 hours) one Sunday left and my husband and I feeling like lost, disconnected souls, missing our regular jolts of online distraction.

But still, that opening example… You literally can’t sit and read one chapter? That just seems impossible. Like, how boring was this book you were trying to read? Maybe don’t go for Moby Dick or Middlemarch. Try some hot fiction. A lively bio, maybe.

On the other hand, if actually true, it’s made me feel slightly superior, because despite my web-addled brain and Twitter addiction, I still manage to read a book chapter pretty much every single day.

Sure, it takes a bit of conscious effort. No screens in the bedroom (other than an eReader), TV off by a certain time. And quite deliberately having at least two books on the go, so that my Internet-addled brain has variety and choice. Normally, I try to make sure it’s at least one fiction and one non-fiction on the go.

Here’s a few I’ve gotten through—or am working on—recently.

Caught by Lisa Moore

Nobody I’ve talked to seems to have of this book, even though it was supposedly a best seller. It’s a Canadian novel, set in 1978, about a young man convicted of drug dealing who escapes from prison. He then connects with his former partner in crime, who evaded incarceration, for another possible job. But he might not be evading the law as well as he thinks….

This was a well-written novel, with each chapter acting like a short story in itself, with its own suspenseful arc.

I was pleased to see that CBC has adapted the novel as a mini-series, and even more pleased that they’ve changed some plot elements in an interesting way. Now I don’t know how this version will end, as I’m thinking it can’t be the same as in the novel…

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Yes, it was about time I read this, and yes, it came to mind because of the popular mini-series, even though I only watched the first episode of that, because then the free Bravo preview ended, plus I found it kind of dark.

Compared with that one episode of the mini-series, the novel was not as depressing as I’d expected. The episode quickly presents the story of Offred’s capture and “orientation” into the life of handmaiden; the novel spends more time with her immersed in that life, with flashbacks occurring only later on in the book. And it’s overall less graphic, I suppose.

I “enjoyed” reading it, if that’s the right word? It kept me engaged, anyway. And not having seen the rest of the mini-series, I didn’t know how everything would play out.

Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK by Bonar Menninger

This a non-fiction work about what I think is the most convincing take on the Kennedy assassination: that the President was accidentally killed by one of his own security men. It documents the work of ballistics expert Howard Donaghue, who was asked to prove whether Oswald could possibly have fired three times in the necessary time span for him to have acted alone. Donaghue managed to replicate that feat, but wanted to do more research before giving his own stamp of approval on the official account. Hence begins years of research.

He discounts some of what conspiracy theorists insist prove their case; the “magic bullet” problem. He explains that by how Kennedy and Connolly were seated relative to one other, and by the type of bullet used. But he couldn’t buy everything about the official account, either, concluding, for example that the first shot did ricochet onto Kennedy but not Connolly. And he was especially troubled by the fatal head shot: both its trajectory and its effect. Leading to his eventual conclusion that it was actually fired from a different location and type of gun.

I know exactly nothing about gun and ballistics, of course, but the evidence laid out here just works better for me than any other I’ve heard. The official story, about one deranged man acting alone, makes it hard to explain why so many officials did act in such weird, suspicious, cagey ways—breaking Texas law by stealing away the body, later losing the President’s brain (!). But arguing that Oswald was either just a patsy or a party to some government conspiracy doesn’t work that well, either; he really did seem the deranged loner type to try something like this, and he did murder officer Tippet.

But that Oswald alone tried to murder the President, and that one of the security men reacting to the shooting tripped and accidentally fired? And that officials didn’t want the world to know that accident happened? Yes, that makes sense to me.

There was a documentary made about this theory in 2013. (The book was published in 1992.) Trailer below, but the whole thing seems to be posted on YouTube.

My Real Children by Jo Walton

Someone had recommended Jo Walton to me as an author, and I picked this particular novel because it was the only one immediately available for borrowing (as an ebook) from my library. It’s a novel about a woman whose life starts off on one trajectory, then splits off in two directions based on a pivotal decision. After the setup chapters, the book alternates between what happens when she says “yes” versus what happens when she says “no”.

It’s not only her own personal life that veers in different directions in each case, but world history itself. Early on we learn that in one case, President Kennedy (him again!) was killed, while in the other he was not. So you initially think that one life will take place in “our” world vs. an alternative one. But no. Kennedy is killed is different way, and a whole other history follows (such as his brother not being assassinated and instead becoming President himself).

With the mix of two personal stories and two alternative world histories, I got totally caught up in this. My original plan was to read what I could doing the three-week borrowing period then check it out again later, but no, I found I really wanted to finish it! The only downside to that was that it meant reading the later chapters in rapid sequence, which got pretty confusing—there was so many characters (friends, children, partners, grandchildren), not to mention varying historical facts—to try to keep straight in each “life” at that point.

I was wondering how this would all come together in the end. The answer wasn’t entirely satisfying, but I didn’t regret the journey one bit.

The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

The current read, one I am still working on. (Plus, it’s a book club book, so discussion is to come.) Early part is a really sad story, told by a very funny person.

Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman

Just anticipating this will be my next fiction read, as that is the Oscar-nominated movie that really had my heart this year. Whereas my brain said Get Out might have been the best in terms of ideas. But the Academy thought Shape of Water, of course—it was also good. Jean and I liked The Post also, but it was more conventional than the other five nominated movies I saw.

I did not watch the actual telecast, beyond the opening monologue. I had reading to do.