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Broken store

Hi there!

Unfortunately my online store is current broken: you can add things to your cart all you want, but you can’t check out.

We’re not quite sure why. We’re working on finding a solution to the problem that is sustainable and doesn’t require Ben spending massive amounts of time trying to fix this website.

I’ll keep you posted when that happens.

In the meantime, if you’d like to order something, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line and we can work something out. I am still more than happy to ship books to people!

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Netflix binge-watching Xianxia Chinese dramas

My mental health hasn’t been great lately and I’m finding it hard to write things. So rather than run around in mental circles, I thought I’d do something semi-productive and blog about some things I’ve been binge-watching.

But I’m hesitant to do it. We are living in an increasingly judgemental society—a world where it’s common for people to lunge for your throat simply for voicing an opinion. Spend a day on social media and you see such things in abundance. It makes me very reluctant to say anything, let alone what I think and feel about media. I don’t want to get into some pointless argument about whether the thing I like is actually “good”. I don’t want people to go tsk tsk and shake their heads because I’m appreciating something they think I shouldn’t be. (Christians do this a lot.) I’d rather not have other people laugh at me because I’ve gotten into this thing that’s an easy target for mockery.

And yet I do believe in consuming media outside of my usual diet. I believe in learning from other forms of art produced in cultures very different from my own. I will always be a student of story—paying close attention to why something works or doesn’t work.

Which is why, lately, I’ve been binge-watching a bunch of Chinese xianxia fantasy dramas on Netflix. It feels weird even to write that; I have a complicated relationship with the Chinese part of my background, and to date, I don’t think I’ve ever watched an entire television show in Mandarin. But I do remember spending some of my summers with my grandmother in Hong Kong winters, and occasionally she’d be watching dramas like these. (Of course I couldn’t understand what was going on or who the characters were because they were all speaking in Cantonese.) So when Netflix started recommending them to me, they looked and felt somewhat familiar.

Now, it’s important to note that I’m a newbie when it comes to all of this. I’m not that familiar with the xanxia genre at all. (For those who aren’t either, it’s a genre of Chinese fantasy that contains elements of Chinese mythology, Taoism, Buddhism, martial arts, traditional medicine and so on.) One of the things that make it distinctive is that the characters often practice a form of cultivation derived from qigong involving meditation and breathing in order to achieve immortality. Another is the world in which these tales are set: it looks very much like ancient China, with very similar styles of dress, architecture and interior decor. You could almost say that, in a way, all xanxia stories are part of a shared universe because they look so similar. This also means that the cast are pretty homogeneous—which, of course, is what you’d expect, given that the three shows I’m going to talk about are products of the Chinese entertainment industry. But I feel like it’s worth pointing out, because we in the West have gotten quite used to multiculturalism, and while representations of race in our media are nowhere near perfect, they are still waaaaaaay more diverse, and while it’s been refreshing to me to see so many Asian faces onscreen and holding major roles, I’m also very aware of how homogeneous they are within their own culture.

Another thing to note: I found the pace of these shows a little too slow for my tastes. Perhaps I’ve become too used to western media where things happen a lot quicker. Anyway, because of that, I tended to watch these shows on 1.5x speed using Video Speed Controller for Chrome. I know, I know: I’m one of those people directors hate. But I feel like if I hadn’t, I would have lost interest a lot sooner simply because at times, the shows could really drag; in one of them, three of the main characters spend the entire episode crying. THE ENTIRE EPISODE! Yes, they were going through something extremely sad and they were in mourning because of it. But non-stop crying for 45 minutes … perhaps the intended audiences have a higher tolerance for melodrama than I do. (I suspect the overdose of melodrama is what will turn a lot of people off these shows.)

All right; caveats and intros over. Let’s get into it.

The Untamed

The Untamed

The Untamed was the show that set all this off: Netflix can be quite aggressive in their recommendations, and this one just kept coming up. I wasn’t sure about it first, but I watched a couple of review videos on YouTube that were quite enthusiastic about the series, so I thought I would give it a try. And I was glad I did.

The Untamed is based on the yaoi novel Mo Dao Zu Shi by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (which I have not read). (If you know nothing about yaoi [I didn’t], I found this 2006 Village Voice article a helpful introduction. But be warned: it does go into some of the more disturbing parts of the genre. Basically yaoi are stories about homoerotic love between male characters, but the peculiar thing about it is that the stories are all written by women. The big question is why, and for that, you’ll have to read the Village Voice article.) Given Chinese censorship, however, that aspect of the story has been completely toned down, and if you weren’t looking for them, you could be forgiven for missing them altogether.

The series is also quite hefty: it clocks in at 50 episodes of about 45 minutes each. But given that it’s based on a novel (and most of of these shows seem to be), I felt like you needed that many episodes to get through the plot.

The plot: oh boy. I sympathise with this Tweep who wrote:

From episode 1, the writers throw their audience in the deep end of the world and the characters. The series opens with a climactic battle during which you hear a lot of people badmouthing a young man in black named Wei Wuxian (also known as Wei Ying/Young Master Wei/the Yiling Patriarch, etc.; that’s the other maddening thing about the series—the number of names the many many characters have), who looks like this:

The Untamed: Wei Wuxian

In despair, he hurls himself off a cliff and is narrowly caught by another young man in white called Lan Wangji (also known as Lan Zhan/Hanguang Jun [which means “Lord of light”]/Second young master Lan, etc.):

The Untamed: Lan Wangji

But then another young man with a sword (Jiang Cheng, who also happens to be Wei Wuxian’s sworn brother) comes along and appears to stab him:

The Untamed: Jiang Cheng

Wei Wuxian falls to his death.

Fast forward 16 years. A bunch of students in white—disciples of the Lan clan—are sitting in a lecture hall, drinking tea and hearing stories about Wei Wuxian/the Yiling Patriarch and how awful he was. (One of them is this young man, who keeps popping up throughout the series, but you don’t find out why he’s significant until pretty much the end of the series:

The Untamed: Lan Sizhui

That’s one of the things I admired about the series: all the characters are essential to the plot in some way. ALL of them. This of course only adds to viewer confusion because there are A LOT of characters.)

While this is happening, Wei Wuxian is resurrected in the body of a man named Mo Xuanyu, a member of the Jin clan. Mo sacrifices himself to give Wei Wuxian life again so that Wei Wuxian will carry out his revenge on all of Mo’s enemies.

Coincidentally the disciples of the Lan clan are summoned to the manor where Mo/Wei Wuxian is staying to deal with a malevolent spirit—a spirit that turns some members of the household (and Mo’s enemies) into “puppets”. (Think zombies.) With Wei Wuxian’s help, the disciples of the Lan clan try to get things under control, but in the end, they need the help of Lan Wangji, who appears at the very end to bring order to the chaos, revealing the malevolent spirit to be that of a sword ghost. (Yeah, I didn’t know swords could have ghosts either …)

I mention all this because the business of the sword ghost and the murder mystery behind it become the framing device for the series. But before the story gets to that, we need to meet the people who have a history with Wei Wuxian. In the first three episodes you meet some of the key players—Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng again, of course, but also Jin Ling, who is nephew to both Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng—the son of Jiang Yanli (their sister) and Jin Zixuan:

The Untamed: Jin Ling

The Untamed: Jiang Yanli

The Untamed: Jin Zuxian

(See: I’ve only introduced five characters from the cast and I’m sure you’re already confused! This is something that editors and writing groups tell writers not to do: don’t overwhelm your readers with too many characters! Take time to introduce them! Introduce them in a memorable way! Unfortunately The Untamed doesn’t do that. [Or the script sort of does, but it moves fast.])

But if you can bear with the overwhelm, confusion and disorientation for the first three episodes, what follows is a THIRTY-EPISODE flashback/recap/dream sequence that starts from the beginning 16 years ago, telling the story of how Wei Wuxian and his adopted brother (Jiang Cheng) and sister (Jiang Yanli)—all members of the Jiang clan (because, of course, there’s a Jiang clan AND a Jin clan; surely an editor would have told the author to change that)—*ahem*—how these members of the Jiang clan visit the Lan clan at their ancestral home of Cloud Recess to attend school with the children of the heads of the other four clans. This brings them into contact with Lan Wangji and his elder brother Lan Xichen from the Lan clan—

The Untamed: Lan Wangji

The Untamed: Lan Xichen

—these people from the Jin clan—

The Untamed: Jin Zuxian

The Untamed: Jin Guangyao

(though it should be noted that the fellow just above also spends time in both the Nie and the Wen clans)

—these people from the Nie clan—

The Untamed: Nie Huaisang

The Untamed: Nie Mingjue

—and these people from the Wen clan:

The Untamed: Wen Qing

The Untamed: Wen Ning

So, um, yeah, there are major five clans: Jin, Jiang, Nie, Lan and Wen. (Still with me?) Much of those early episodes are devoted to setting up the relationships between the characters (and Wei Wuxian’s rebuffed attempts at friendship with Lan Wangji). But then gradually the story takes a darker turn when the Wen clan tries to take over with the help of a magical object called the Yin Iron. There’s a war, the aftermath of that war, the unrighteous oppression of one clan as a result of that war, and a truckload of tragedy that culminates in the battle that takes place at the beginning of episode 1. During the course of things, you learn Wei Wuxian’s history, his relationship to all the other characters, why he does the things he does and how he ended up becoming the universally despised Yiling Patriarch.

And then at episode 33, following Wei Wuxian’s suicide, the story jumps back to the “present” (16 years later): Wei Wuxian wakes up in the house of Lan Wangji and the two of them set out to solve the mystery of the sword ghost—a mystery that involves a murder—a mystery that draws in all the key players from the story so far and reveals the truth of what happened 16 years ago.

Across all 50 episodes, the story actually holds together remarkably well: it’s a story about heroism, justice, right and wrong, magic and power, but it’s also a story about family, loyalty, brotherhood and love (and I don’t just mean the boy love kind). The characters (once you get them all sorted out in your head) are dynamic, compelling and interesting, and they all have their own arcs. (Even the minor ones!) It can be a little violent in places (because, you know, martial arts—though most of it is quite balletic:)

There is also a bit of supernatural horror involving not just the zombie puppets and sword ghost, but also an entire town devoted to funerals.

The other thing to note about it and a large part of what attracted me to the series is that it is visually GORGEOUS: I’ve included a lot of promotional images and stills so you can see how beautiful the production design and costumes are:

The Untamed: Cloud Recess
The Untamed: Lan Zhan plays the guqing
The Untamed: Bedroom
The Untamed: Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji seated
The Untamed: Nie stronghold
The Untamed: Wen Qing and Wen Ning
The Untamed: Props
The Untamed: Street at night

You can see how much thought went into everything—from the colours that each clan wears to the spaces they inhabit and even the objects they use. Who wouldn’t want to live in such elegant spaces?!

Of course, there were things that bugged me: not all the sets and props looked as “authentic” as they could be. (The throne room of the Wen clan seemed a bit tacky, in my opinion.) Some of the clothes the characters wear very much looked like they were made from manmade fabrics that couldn’t possibly have existed in this alternate Ancient China. Some of the special effects are on par with early Doctor Who and they will probably make you laugh.

But overall, the series gets major points from me in terms of the level of storytelling it achieves—costumes, props, production design, music (which I quite liked, though more the tracks featuring traditional Chinese instruments, not so much the synth-laden tracks), direction and acting all working together to tell a compelling tale. Xiao Zhan is charismatic and joyful as Wei Wuxian, switching effortlessly between the comic and lighthearted moments of the script to the more serious and emotionally intense moments. Wang Yibo’s Lan Wangji is the perfect straight man for him, often garnering the best lines—particularly in those early episodes where he’s on his guard against Wei Wuxian and their friendship is only just beginning to bud. The rest of the cast also do well in bringing their characters to life, and if there were occasional moments of over-the-top melodrama, I suppose they can be forgiven because how pretty everyone looks. (It should be noted that a number of the cast are members of Chinese boy bands.)

One final thing: I binge-watched The Untamed during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, and it was really really nice to have somewhere to wonderful escape to when all the madness was going on in the world. For that, I will always be grateful.

Handsome Siblings

Handsome Siblings

Handsome Siblings (44 episodes) is the second xianxia series I tried on Netflix and possibly one of the ones the algorithm recommended to me. (Ben would laugh at the name every time I mentioned it.) I chose it because much as I liked the characters in The Untamed, I wanted to watch a series that had more female characters in it.

It’s based on a wuxia (i.e. adventures of martial artists) novel called Juedai Shuangjiao by Gu Long that has been adapted multiple times in different formats, and it’s the story of twins separated at birth after the death/suicide of their parents because of a feud between two significant and powerful martial artists. One (Hua Wu Que) is raised in Yihua Palace—the only male in a world of women. The other (Xiao Yu’er/Jiang Xiao Yu) is raised in Wicked Canyon, a sort of hell on earth where some of the most famous villains in the world have gone to retire. When they turn 18, each are sent out into the world—Xiao Yu’er to see the world; Hua Wu Que to kill him because he’s been told that Xiao Yu’er is an enemy of Yihua Palace.

Handsome Siblings: Hua Wu Que

Handsome Siblings: Xiao Yu'er

The truth eventually comes out, of course (and it does in a most satisfying way). But along the way, the two land themselves in all sorts of adventures involving various people—commonfolk, a number of girls/love interests (both noblewomen and peasants), the Ten Great Villains, the Twelve Zodiac and, of course, the man behind the deaths of their parents.

Things I liked about it: the little stories that occur along the way as the characters get caught up in other people’s lives. (There’s a lovely subplot involving Murong Jiu and the Black Spider, who is one of the Ten Villains but who is also a really lovely young man:)

Handsome Siblings: Murong Jiu

Handsome Siblings: Black Spider

Seeing the friendship develop between Hua Wu Que and Xiao Yu’er, even in spite of Hua Wu Que’s vow to kill Xiao Yu’er. Watching Xiao Yu’er talk his way out of situations. (He boasts that he’s “the smartest man in the world” and sometimes that’s true, but other times you know it’s just because he’s awfully good at misdirection. After all, he was raised by half of the Ten Villains.) Exploring the countryside around them—not just the villages and towns, but also the cliffs and the caves, and the prairie fields that looked like they were on the border with Mongolia (or whatever Mongolia is in this alternate Ancient China). The way the story explores what a true villain is (as opposed to a hero), and how revenge is always bitter and unsatisfying, no matter how it is served.

Things that annoyed me: the villains get a bit cartoonish and ridiculous at times. Some of the sets looked very very fake—particularly the Rat King’s underground palace. Overall, I felt the production design lacked coherence: it had a certain aesthetic, but that aesthetic felt chaotic and clashing (I couldn’t find very good stills of what I mean though):

Handsome Siblings: Five of the Ten Great Villains
Handsome Siblings: Xiao Yu'er on a bed

(I do like that the costumers chose to dress Xiao Yu’er very differently from most of the people around him.)

Handsome Siblings: Birthday night
Handsome Siblings: Rat King palace

(It could just be me, but I found the look of the whole thing rather unsatisfying.) Also, the hairstyles on some of the female characters are just ridiculous: nobody needs hair that tall!

Handsome Siblings: Yao Yue

Handsome Siblings: Lian Xing

Finally, although I was pleased about there being more female characters, the women in this series seriously annoyed me, because pretty much all their focus revolved around the male characters. I don’t think this series would pass the Bechdel test. The two pictured above—the Masters of Yihua Palace—were bitter and vengeful. The main love interests had a bit more going for them in that Tie Xin Lan starts off disguised as a boy (something the smartest man in the world fails to realise!) and then her backstory is revealed, and Su Ying is gifted with medicine and is clever enough to outwit Xiao Yu’er at various points. But even so, both become obsessed with the male characters and all their actions revolve around them. I wanted them to do more than exist to serve the main plot.

Handsome Siblings: Tie Xin Lan
Handsome Siblings: Su Ying

Ashes of Love

Ashes of Love: Jinmi and Xufeng

Final show! Hope you’re still with me.

Ashes of Love is a 60-episode fantasy epic based on the novel Heavy Sweetness, Ash-like Frost by Dian Xian about immortals and their lives across the six realms—heavenly, demon, mortal, floral, and I’m not sure what the other two are. The story follows Jinmi, daughter of the Great Floral Goddess, who died of grief after giving birth to her. (The implication of the opening episode is that her lover married another and she was too heartbroken to live.) Jinmi was fed the Yun Elixir from birth, which prevents her from ever falling in love. She’s raised in ignorance of her heritage and only thinks of herself as being a lowly grape fairy.

After losing her best friend Rourou, who was killed by a terrible monster, Jinmi encounters the Phoenix/Xufeng, the God of Fire and God of War, who falls unexpectedly into the Floral Realm after his rebirth goes wrong. Since he arrives in bird form, at first, Jinmi doesn’t know what he is. But somehow she is able to nurse him back to health, and to repay her, he takes her out of the Floral Realm (which she was forbidden to leave) to the Heavenly Realm, where she seeks to increase her magical prowess by any means necessary so that she might resurrect Rourou. But then when both the Phoenix and his half-brother, the God of Night, fall for her, she becomes entangled in the politics of the Heavenly Realm and the struggle for power, and her true identity and heritage is revealed. Also, the Yun Elixir begins to crack …

Ashes of Love: Xufeng and Runyu

I really enjoyed this one. I enjoyed watching Jinmi transform from a completely clueless person incapable of romantic love (which lands her in some very amusing situations) to someone who becomes filled to the brim with it and who engages in certain actions because of it. You see how much pain and suffering love causes her—not just in the sacrifices she makes out of love for the sake of her beloved (and to atone for certain awful things she does), but also the grief he causes her in what he does. It’s a massive contrast to the love of some of the other characters—namely, Suihe, the Bird Princess and Runyu, the Night Immortal and the Phoenix’s brother: both Suihe and Runyu claim to love and act out of love, but their love, at its root, is selfish and self-serving, instead of other-person-centred.

The romance between her and the Phoenix is well-developed (in two realms, even; you watch it twice over in a sort of play-within-a-play/show-within-a-show narrative device): I believed their characters were truly in love and really wanted them to overcome the obstacles that prevented them from being together. Those obstacles included not one, but two love triangles—something that was frustrating as I don’t generally like love triangles, but which certainly served to keep the lovers apart for many many episodes.

Ashes of Love: Xufeng and Suihe

Ashes of Love: Runyu and Jinmi

The other thing I liked about it was that it showed the consequences of the characters’ actions—particularly that of the older generation—the Heavenly Emperor, his Empress (another vengeful bitter lady), the Water Immortal and the Great Floral Goddess. I couldn’t help thinking that had they made better choices, the younger generation wouldn’t have had to suffer so much.

Finally, a word about the female characters: I liked that the cast was almost evenly split between the men and the women, and while much of what preoccupied the female characters involved the men, there were things that helped the series to pass the Bechdel test—for example, the friendship between Jinmi and Rourou. I also really really liked the friendship between the Phoenix and Liuying, Princess of Bian City in the Demon Realm: they had a wonderful brother-sister thing going on there that, at one point, hinted at some future romantic pairing, but fortunately never went there:

Ashes of Love: Muci and Liuying

Plot things that made me sad: the Night Immortal’s character arc. The script does well to make you empathise with him, and then he goes and does some truly awful things. I wished that he ended up happy. (Suihe the Bird Princess totally gets what she deserves, though, and her commuppance is immensely satisfying.) Characters (and there were many) who didn’t respect other people’s boundaries. Characters who didn’t listen to other characters and constantly went against their wishes. I know all this is good fodder for conflict and drama, but it was very frustrating to watch.

Other things I wasn’t that into: the production design on this one was all right, but I felt like it could be better. The costumes, generally speaking, were very beautiful (synthetic fibres and all), but the sets, while impressive, sometimes looked a bit tacky. The special effects are definitely not great. The scenes spent in the Mortal Realm were probably the best on that front as I think the designers were trying to make the Heavenly Realm, Floral Realm and Demon Realm more otherworldly and didn’t really succeed (in my opinion). The music, while enjoyable overall, is used in a very clumsy manner in certain scenes—particularly in the third act. Some of the more soap opera-ish aspects of the plot greatly annoyed me, but I suspect that sort of thing goes with the territory. Also, the ending: I felt like it could have been more satisfying—particularly given what had gone before. But that’s just quibbling.

A final thing to note: even though in all these productions, the makers are very careful not to depict any sexual content given China’s censorship laws, there was one scene where it’s implied that it’s happening, and it kind of shocked me because it happens somewhat unexpectedly. And then afterwards, not much is made of it. It made me wonder why it was necessary, but perhaps it’s one of those things that was inserted just to please fans.

I was going to end this post with some reflections on Chinese culture and my growing appreciation for it, and how all three series have taught me interesting things about charater, narrative and storytelling, and how to sustain interest over many many episodes. But I think it’s long enough!

Well done if you got this far. I hope I’ve convinced you to give one of these shows a try!

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Time confetti

So I’m on annual leave this week.

Part of me wondered, “What’s the point of taking leave during a pandemic? We can’t go anywhere. We can’t even do most of the things that would normally constitute rest or leisure.” But I haven’t had leave since late January. I could feel myself burning out. Our pandemic weekly timetable had taken a toll. My body was tired. So after we finished working on a major event for work, I asked for a week, and my boss (who is wonderful) granted it.

Leave, for me, is a funny thing: I’m on leave for one job, yes, but not from my others. Thankfully the girls are back at school, so I’m no longer supervising home learning. But I’m still doing the morning routine, packing lunches, doing drop-off and pick up, supervising homework, nagging them to do their guitar practice and managing their Zoom music lessons. I’m still in charge of the household admin, buying groceries, meal planning, cooking, cleaning, the endless wiping.

And strangely enough, even though I’m not writing (I promised myself I would take a break from the novel), I’m still dealing with things related to my writing life. This week, seemingly out of nowhere, I was asked to quote for running an online workshop during school holidays, and a friend who runs a bookshop got in touch to order more copies of Kinds of Blue. So while my general attitude towards leave is that it’s supposed to be for rest, I’m also doing a heap of things that aren’t actually restful. (I know some of you will be reading this will be thinking, “Duh: what did you expect? You’re a parent!”, but I think it’s still worth acknowledging the reality.)

I also have the feeling I’m doing the rest of these things semi-poorly because I’m low in energy at the moment. But I also think it’s because of post-adrenaline crash—that slump you feel after periods of high stress. I was more or less expecting that to happen: an author friend of mine who had a pretty sweet work setup—in which he was paid for four days of work per week, but worked five and then took something like two months of annual leave all at once (during which he’d write)—anyway, he told me once that it would take him a week or so to change gears, and during that week, he’d be cranky and irritable, and that it was all because of post-adrenaline crash or something similar. So I vaguely knew that I’d be like this and find it hard, even though I’d been looking forward to leave for a while. (I also don’t really have the luxury of being cranky for an entire week.)

But another factor has to do with the limitations on my rest time: the “leave” part of annual leave is only really taking place between school hours and then in the evenings after the girls are in bed, because during all other times, I’m “on duty”. (Side note: As many parents will tell you, the school day goes absurdly fast. It’s not really six hours; it’s more like five and a half, once you take into account travel and preparation time. And in the middle there, you have lunch, which also takes time to prepare and eat. So it’s really more like four to five hours. And trust me: it goes really fast. What’s interesting is that it feels different if the same amount of time was shifted to another part of the day: I remember back when my eldest was a toddler: she and I would do some sort of activity together in the morning, and then I would drop her off at Occasional Care where she would eat lunch and spend the afternoon, and I would go home, eat my lunch, and then either crash (because I was so tired from parenting a toddler) or write. (I was working on the script of Eternal Life during that period.) I think it has something to do with the interruption of a meal: without it, the same period feels longer.

And because the time is limited, I have this massive fear that I won’t use it well—that I’ll get to the end of it and feel like it wasn’t time well spent, and then feel that sense of despair because it’s not like I’ll ever get that time back.

(Side note: I think unlimited time is one of the great blessings that the gift of eternal life brings. Vampire novels [like Anne Rice’s] and even The Good Place often portray eternal life as being this thing that we will eventually tire of, but that’s because they assume the presence of earthly decay and human iniquity—things that have no place in the new creation of Revelation 21.)

I cope with this ever-present anxiety by making lists—to keep myself focused but also to remind myself of the things I really do want to do (versus the things that I feel like I have to do; I may have free time at the moment, but I’m highly unlikely to spend it on decluttering). It might look like this:

Or sometimes it’s less specific. (I do have a daily checklist that includes

  • Bible reading
  • Fiction reading
  • Work on novel
  • Duo Lingo
  • Twitter
  • Exercise

I rarely do all of those in one day. But the list remains in my WorkFlowy daily schedule to remind me.)

All the same, even if I get through my totally made up To Do lists during the 4-5 hours I have child-free, aside from ticking boxes, I wonder if it’s actually having the desired effect—that is, engineering rest. Restoring me. Helping me to be ready for the next sprint of work.

Pocket watch sinks into the sand

Today I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts at the moment: The Happiness Lab with Dr Laurie Santos. Santos is a professor at Yale who, after becoming concerned about the pervasiveness of low mood that she observed among her students, started running a course called “Psychology and the Good Life”. It became the most popular course in the history of Yale—so much so that they now offer it online for free as “The science of well-being” on Coursera. Now she’s taken that same content and put it in a podcast.

I love it because in it, Santos delves into a lot of the science into what makes human beings happy and comes up with a lot of things that seem contrary to what our minds may often tell us about what will make us happy. For example, the idea of striking up conversations with strangers often seems horrifying to most of us, but according to the research, it actually helps boost mood, and its positive effects persist for longer than you think.

The episode I listened to today was about time and how we use it (“For whom the alarm clock tolls”) and I felt it like a gut punch. Like Santos, sometimes I struggle with packing my schedule too full with different things—to the detriment of certain other aspects of my life (like sleep). Like Santos, I often feel time poor, instead of time affluent. Like Santos, I was somewhat horrified to discover how feelings of time famine can affect how I treat others. (The study of seminary students who were asked to preach a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan and who ran into a Good Samaritan situation on their way to preach that very sermon was particularly damning—as well as an excellent illustration of total depravity at work.) And like Santos, I found some of the solutions that Tom Hodgkinson (author of “How to be Idle”) profferred (late and lazy starts, focused work time, afternoon siestas, carving out time to walk in nature and discuss philosophy with friends) weren’t very practical, though she (and I) did take his larger point about the importance of making time for activities that would actually reduce stress, because time spent not working or cramming other things in is beneficial to our mental health.

In comparison, Ashley Whillans’ research felt very helpful: she points out that even though our feelings of time stress are going up (and are actually affecting us even more negatively than, say, being unemployed), we actually have more time available to us now than at any other point throughout history, and what we need to do is reclaim it and use it well. The problem is, the surplus time that we have is broken up into little bits—what she calls “time confetti” (I love that term!) That’s partly due to technology (which lets us multitask and communicate with one another instantly at all hours of the day) and partly because we value the wrong things (e.g. money over time, which may lead us to do things like take jobs that take up more time in exchange for more money, which doesn’t actually make us happier). Whillans advocates making choices that will actually claw back time, thus promoting happiness for you—for example, outsourcing jobs that you don’t like (like cleaning to a cleaning service or cooking to a restaurant that does takeaway). Granted, not everyone has the discretionary income to do that, but all of us usually have a little we can play with to grant ourselves some time windfall.

Even so, the key thing here is to use the time we have well. Santos closes out the episode by remarking,

The idea of being more deliberate with how we think about our time is critical. Remember, time affluence isn’t the objective amount of free time you have—the actual number of open boxes in your calendar; it’s your subjective sense that you have some free time. And that means you can do a lot to boost your sense of time affluence—even if, in reality, you can’t really open up that much actual free time. It’s just the sense of giving yourself a bit of a break that makes all the difference, even if the amount of time you actual gain is small.

My take-away from all of this is that the things I’m doing during this rather odd bit of annual leave are probably being helpful to me in some way, even though I don’t think I’m feeling the effects of them all at yet. (I do, however, think I am starting to; the fact that I feel like blogging again and I’ve carved out some time today to do it is a good indicator.) Furthermore, I need to keep working at prioritising little bits of non-work time even when I’m not on leave. I dare say that will go a long way towards combatting some of the time stress I feel.

Reading is probably a good way to do it: I’ve been trying hard to do as Guan suggests and aim for a bit of guilt-free reading on most days—at least a chapter a day, if not more. It’s hard for me because of my almost total lack of self-control around fiction (which is probably a subject for a whole other post I should probably write about reading) and my reluctance to leave a world once the book is over (which makes starting new books rather painful, even when I know they’re good). But I do know it’s worth it—and after writing this post, it’s worth it in more ways than one.

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Trying to write during a pandemic

Attempting to create art at any time is an audacious and difficult act. Attempting to do it during a pandemic can be near impossible.

When I realised that COVID-19 was serious enough to warrant keeping our children home from school, part of me was also deeply in denial. I knew that home learning in combination with my part-time job would completely decimate my writing time. It had taken a while, but I had finally reached the stage where I had managed to confine my paid working hours to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, thereby leaving Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturday mornings free to focus on the writing. (I would average about 8-14 hours per week.) I had grown accustomed to spending many a happy hour sitting in one of my local cafés, the library or even the food court near my gym, plugging away at my current work in progress—a young adult fantasy novel set in a world that roughly resembled Edo-era Japan. I viewed writing as being my part-time unpaid job, and even though no one in particular was awaiting this manuscript and even though it may not end up being very publishable (because the one book has since turned into two and publishers are less likely to pick up series these days), I liked what I was doing and wanted to see it to completion.

I spent that last day before home learning began out on our balcony, ignoring my paid job and defiantly scribbling because I knew I would not get the opportunity to do that for a long while.

Then when shutdown measures were put in place and our girls were home with us all the time, life changed completely. It took a while to get used to the new normal, but eventually it started looking like this:

  • Waking up later than usual and having my breakfast (one nice thing about the pandemic is being able to sleep in a little; I am thankful I have kids who will do this);
  • Getting the girls up, dressed and breakfasted; supervising home learning for both Miss 9 and Miss 6 using the schedule the teachers send through at the beginning of the week (it consists of a weekly timetable filled with tasks—mainly English and Maths, but occasionally there are activities related to Science, History, Health, Art, Library and [guh] PE. [I never thought parenting would involve teaching my child the Macarena and the Nutbush]). On a good day, I will spend most of my time supervising Miss 6 while Miss 9 just gets on with it; on a bad day, I will be on both their cases to try and get them to do the work. On a great day, I will even be able to get a few work-related tasks done at the same time. We are fortunate to have enough devices for this: Ben and I never got rid of our old laptops, so the girls have one each for their school work and occasional Zoom meetings;
  • Breaking for lunch: I pack four days’ worth of lunches at the beginning of the week so all the girls need to do is take their lunchbox out of the fridge. But I still need to prepare lunch for me and Ben. Most days it’s a salad of some description. On Fridays, we get takeaway from our local café as a way of supporting them and keeping them in business;
  • Making the girls do a bit of tidying and chores. In the early days, we worked on decluttering and tidying their rooms as the build-up had gotten a bit out of hand. These days, it’s more surface cleaning. Or sometimes I will get them to make a card to post to someone (e.g. if there’s a family birthday coming up) or finish some colouring in they started that they refuse to part with. This is also when I am able to squeeze in some housework;
  • Letting the girls have screen time: at the moment, they are completely addicted to Minecraft Education, so I log Miss 9 back into the laptop she uses for home learning and I log Miss 6 onto the iPad. The nice thing is they can play together in their virtual worlds. Occasionally they even get together with other school friends and play. They also never seem to get tired of it!
  • Working on tasks related to my paid job. Now that I’m finally doing just one job instead of two and I have a very lovely employer who is happy for me to work flexibly and who has always allowed me to work from home, I tend to spread my hours across five or six days a week. I also have some time in lieu I can use if need be;
  • My husband taking the girls out for some exercise at around 4pm. This is when I drop everything and write;
  • Throwing dinner together;
  • Squeezing in another hour or so of work after dinner while my husband does the dishes, bath and bedtime (though sometimes this time is also devoted to housework);
  • Spending my evenings after the girls are in bed either watching Netflix, reading, doing more work for the paid job (if need be), catching up with someone over the phone, online Bible Study, etc.
Hallway PE lesson

Hallway PE lesson.

Given I no longer have large swathes of creative time, I’ve found that there’s certain types of writing that I’m just incapable of doing right now. I can’t write new stuff. I can’t even re-draft what I’ve already written because I don’t have the brain capacity. Instead, my writing has consisted of scribbling longhand in a journal about things to do with my novel. It’s not quite a zero draft (though aspects of it are); I think of it being more like a subzero draft. It’s not the prose that will go into the novel; it’s writing around the novel to do with things about the novel.

Initially I wrote about the section I was up to and the section after, trying to work out what happens in it and why. Lately, though, I’ve started sketching out the arcs for each of my point of view characters—trying to work out where the plot twists and turns, as well as some of the finer details around that. Sometimes the sketching takes me off on research tangents. (I spent a very long time looking into Japanese arrows and how they’re made one afternoon.) Sometimes the scribbling is about minor characters I’m trying to get to know. The rule is that I must write about the novel, but I can write about anything I want related to it.

An old me would not have seen the value of this sort of writing because it doesn’t seem like actual writing (even though I am averaging 5-6 hours a week on it). And then a couple of years ago when I was at ACAF (Australian Comic Arts Festival), I was talking to my friend Louie about it and he compared it to that stage of comics when you’re thumbnailing/sketching roughs. He said something about how when you’re doing that, it can seem like you’re not doing much, because usually you’re just messing around and trying things. But often you end up making very key decisions that carry over into later stages of the work—when you’re pencilling/inking/colouring, etc.

That little comment stayed with me because I realised he’s totally right and that it’s true of prose writing too: as I’ve been playing around and giving myself permission to write whatever (even if it’s a grammatical and spelling nightmare, and it sounds completely incoherent), I have been making key decisions about story and characters that I know will carry across into the finished work. What I’m doing isn’t a waste of time; it’s actually constructive and helfpul. Furthermore, it’s even fun.

And when it’s fun, it’s a very nice escape from the current situation. (Indeed, one of the good things about writing a fantasy novel is being able to slip away into a different pandemic-free world.) And that’s very good for sustaining my mental health—at least until the time when I will finally have my writing days back again.

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Confessions of an exercise hater

(I’m dumping this here because I’m not sure where else to put it. It’s too long and too complicated for a Facebook post and part of me hopes (faintly) that it might be useful to someone else.)

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss my gym.

I’m not a gym rat and never have been. In fact, I hate exercise. (Though I suppose I can’t say that anymore, given I’ve been going to the gym pretty much three times a week for the past couple of years.)

Exercise and I first made our acquaintance during school PE (Physical Education). I like to think that if exercise was a person, the dislike was mutual. It involved running pointless laps of the local park, gymnastics on my high school’s antiquated equipment, teeball games where I was too uncoordinated to knock the ball off the tee, and soccer on the uneven hockey field in teams for which I was always picked last.

I had good reason to hate exercise.

But some years ago when The Biggest Loser became a television phenomenon, some of my friends started getting into a Jillian Michaels routine called No More Trouble Zones and I became so curious over what the fuss was about, I asked to borrow it. Another friend suggested we do it together, so for a time, exercise became going to her place one night a week, doing the routine in her lounge room while chatting and making fun of Jillian’s Jillian-isms.

This friend held me accountable so that even if we didn’t meet up, we would do it separately in our own homes—perhaps not on the same night, but at least on one of them.

Jillian Michaels No More Troubel Zones DVD cover

The routine goes for an hour and consists of a cardio warm-up, seven circuits of five exercises each (which you go through twice), and a cool-down. All the circuits involve strength training. The first time I did it, I had trouble sitting down the following day, and I was in so much pain, I wondered why people voluntarily subject themselves to this sort of torture. But subject myself I did—once a week pretty much every week for about three years.

Then I got pregnant again. Unfortunately for me, pregnancy means Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction (SPD) (that’s when the hormones in your body that loosen things up for birth go too far). I managed to keep going for part of the first trimester, but then eventually had to stop because I was in too much pain. By the final trimester, during waking hours, I had to wear a band around my hips to keep myself together and I was barely leaving home (or at least restricting my comings and goings to just once a day).

After the birth, however, I tried to get back on that exercise horse—very reluctantly, I might add. I still hated exercise, but I could see the value in doing it—all that stuff about how it’s good for your body, good for your mental health, good for your sleep, good for life expectancy, etc etc blah blah blah. I also missed the strength that doing Jillian had given me—strength that had accumulated slowly over time as I went through the chair squats, scissor kicks and side planks. “Once a week,” I thought. “I can manage once a week. I’ve done it before.”

That worked fine for as long as the little one was little. But soon enough, she became mobile, and being confined to a play pen or a high chair was becoming more frustrating for her. When I let her out, even though I tried to distract her with food for morning tea during my exercise time, more often than not, she would come up to me while I was doing the floor exercises and try and climb on me.

“This is not sustainable,” I thought under five kilos of baby toddler. “I’m going to have to join a gym.” But I’d never joined a gym in my life. I instinctively thought I’d hate them.

After procrastinating for several months, I decided to check out one that another friend (who had since moved out of the area) used to frequent. This friend had given me some coupons ages back that had since expired. The things this gym had going for it were 1. it was women-only (i.e. no stinky guys!) and 2. it had a crèche. It took me another couple of weeks after to deciding to actually make the call, but eventually I booked a visit, was given a tour of the facilities and signed up to be a member on the lowest tier that allowed me one visit per week.

I used that visit to attend a Pilates with props class on a Wednesday morning. The baby and I would drop the preschooler off at preschool, kill time at the park or at the mall, and then head to the gym, where she would go off to crèche and I would go to class. Inevitably I’d be called out to do a nappy change (for a while, the little one’s bowel movements were like clockwork). But at least I was doing some exercise. And it was Pilates—the sort of exercise you do when you’re lying down! (which I had done before for a couple of terms in hall of the local school)—and it was with a teacher I liked.

Time passed. Once a week was working pretty well, but I was also becoming more concerned about my weight, which had ballooned a bit for various boring reasons I won’t go into (but of course, my lack of movement was probably one of the factors). I loved Pilates, but felt like I needed to do a bit more. I had tried other classes at the gym—spin (that was the first class I had tried. Never. Again), weights (I liked that one a bit better), even aerobics to cool 80s music (I liked that one, but the class disappeared due to lack of numbers). I felt a bit constricted by the class timetable and wanted to figure out if I could do something more self-directed that would allow me to come at any time. I decided to spend some money and booked a session with a personal trainer at the gym, who weighed and measured me, and then put together a routine for me to use on the machines (which she had to teach me how to use). I also upped my gym membership to the standard rate, which gave me unlimited access. (What’s amazing is that since then, the rate has never gone up, and that was probably about five years ago.) Then, on the advice of that personal trainer, I aimed to go three times a week.

But self-direction only gets you too far: “I don’t like those machines at the gym,” says Jillian on her DVD, and I eventually got bored with them, even while listening to podcasts. I still hated exercise, but I found I hated it less when certain conditions were met—

  1. Doing it with other people (because I like sharing the pain and because I need an instructor to push me and to encourage me to persevere for that last little hard bit);
  2. Moving in sync to music (which is what we do in weights and, at the time under a certain instructor who I still miss, happened in Pilates too);
  3. Moving in sync with other people (which does have psychological benefits—see Daniel Pink on synchronisation:

    … when we do things collectively, especially in the synchronised in time setting, we literally feel different. So there’s research showing—so I put you—have you row in a single shell, boat, right, and you can measure basically the physics of how much you’re exerting yourself rowing. Then I can put you into a boat with other people. We can measure your individual exertion there and it can be exactly the same, but when we measure your pain levels, you’re feeling less pain when you do it with other people than when you do it on your own … There’s something almost—I hate to use the word ‘magical’, but there’s something powerful about when we synchronise with other people.”).

(Strangely I never developed a liking for Zumba—probably because I am too uncoordinated for it; the instructor says to go left and I go right.)

Women doing Pilates in the park

All this meant doing classes—which also meant arranging my life around doing the classes. So I did weights on Monday morning (or if I missed that one, Tuesday morning), Pilates on Thursday morning and weights again on Saturday morning. If I had to miss certain classes due to other things, I knew exactly when I could make them up. Or I’d do two back to back (not ideal—particularly if you’re going from Pilates to weights, instead of weights to Pilates, but at least you get the time in).

Something else that helped: a friend recommended magnesium tablets for the muscle soreness and they helped me a lot; the morning after classes, I no longer felt like I had been run over by a truck.

Also, after a while of doing this and not seeing much change in my weight and feeling fed up with comments about it, I talked to a GP and she suggested cutting carbs out of one meal a day. So I switched to salads and soups for lunch, and then the needle on the scale finally started moving.

I lost close to 8kg in about a year/18 months. (I wasn’t keeping close track because that wasn’t helpful for my mental health, but I know it was around that.) I also got stronger, adding more weight to my bar every couple of months. Before my gym closed in March this year due to COVID-19, I was managing 22.5kg on the leg track, 12.5-15kg for chest, 12.5kg for triceps and 10kg for biceps. (I know that’s not much compared to what other people can do, but it’s more than the majority of the women in my class.)

I miss my gym. I miss my classes. I miss the regulars I’d see at those classes—awesome women usually older than me who were all in terrific shape. For a short time when we were allowed to gather in groups of 10, the gym organised classes in the park. But now that they can’t do even that, they’ve switched to online instruction via Zoom on a timetable that doesn’t work for me.

Since social distancing began, I’ve tried to keep up the hated exercise. I’ve been going for walks—with the family and without them. I’ve mapped a route around my neighbourhood that takes up almost exactly half an hour.

But I knew it’s not quite enough. I knew I wasn’t working some of those muscles I became accustomed to using during weights and Pilates. I hated the fact that the strength I’d built up for the past however many years was fast disappearing—even if, a friend consoled me, I’d be able to build it back up again.

I knew I had to do something.

But it’s tricky. We (four us) live in a shoebox. The space I have to exercise in is less than 2m x 1m (see the photo at the top of this post). I could go down to the park, but I feel weird exercising in front of other people when it’s just me, doing it alone. Given the shape of life at the moment, it’s difficult to do exercise with other people, even if I could tee it up. Also, there’s my continual battle with motivation: I may love my gym, but I still hate exercise.

Street art in my local neighbourhood

“Necessity is the mother of invention”, as they say. I remembered vaguely that there had been a NPR Life Kit episode on exercise that I had listened to sometime last year (transcript). It had detailed a 22-minute exercise program recommended by the man who trains US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It consists of:

  • 10 minutes of cardio (broken up into two five-minute segments);
  • 8 minutes of strength training;
  • 4 minutes of stretching.

(It’s 22 minutes long because the recommended amount of exercise for adults is 150 minutes per week, so 150 minutes divided by 7 days = about 22 minutes.)

My problem with that and similar workouts (like this seven-minute one on the Science Versus podcast, and even this NPR Life Kit episode on how to start running) is boredom: I knew I would probably do the routine once—maybe even twice—but then lose motivation and never do it again.

So I decided to hack it.

Given my above conditions for exercise and given that 1 (doing it with other people) and 3 (moving in sync with other people) weren’t going to be possible, that just left 2: moving in sync with music. So I decided to choose music that I’d actually want to move to for each section of the workout and try to tailor the routine to that. So I started making lists—lists of songs that would work well for cardio (i.e. high tempo), for strength training (i.e. slightly lower tempo) and for stretching (slow songs worked best for this).

Then I went through Jillian Michael’s No More Trouble Zones routine, wrote down all the exercises for each circuit and picked out ones that would work for each section of the 22-minute workout that could also be done in a small space.

It took a few goes to get the mix right, but I think I’ve done it now. So here goes: I present to you The Exercise Hater’s Home Workout Routine that Can Be Done in a Very Small Space.

You do all the exercises in time to the music with the general rule being that when the music changes, you change what you’re doing. It’s a bit longer than 22 minutes (it’s 28), but that’s also because the strength exercises go for about 11.5 minutes and the stretching time is doubled.

Here’s how it works:

1. Warm-up/cardio 1: “Kill vs. maim” (Grimes)

Exercises (cycle between them):

  • Marching in place
  • Jump rope
  • Star jumps/jumping jacks
  • Running on the spot (but try to kick your butt with your heels).

2. Strength training 1: “Graffiti” (CHVRCHES)

Exercises:

  • Slow standard squats (do this during the verse and the first part of the chorus; try and get your bottom to the floor each time)
  • Low squats with isometric hold or pulses (do this during the pre-chorus—when Lauren Mayberry sings, “Time to kill was always an illusion …”—and also during the final bit of the chorus where she sings, “And now we never will, never will”.)
  • Forward lunges (start these at the bridge; try and get your knee to the floor)
  • Backward lunges (ditto).

3. Strength training 2: “All you need to know” (Gryffin and Slander)

(This is one they used to play at the gym during weights class—possibly for the tricep section.)

(This is the hardest track.)

Exercises:

  • Wide arm push-ups (which work your chest; start on your toes and switch to your knees when you can’t stand it anymore)
  • Pilates push-ups (which work your triceps because your arms are closer to your body; start on your toes and switch to your knees as above).

Do wide arm push-ups for the first and second verse, then bring your hands to your feet using Downward Dog and roll up through your spine. Roll down again and walk your hands out again to do the Pilates push-ups for the chorus (where he sings, “I’ll lift you when you’re feeling low …”).

  • Recovery: child’s pose during the instrumental part of the chorus (“And that’s all you need to know”)
  • Third verse: lie on your front with your hands by your sides, pointing towards your toes. Rotate your arms from your shoulder joint so that your palms face the ceiling. Rotate them back again so they face the floor. If you’re doing it properly, you’ll feel it in your triceps and you will want to die.
  • Last chorus: do the above, but hold your upper body and your legs off the floor as if doing Superman.

Cardio 2: “Gimme sympathy” (Metric)

The exercises are the same as for the first cardio track as it’s a little hard to do more than that in such a small space. (But feel free to substitute your own.)

DO NOT STOP MOVING.

Strength training 3: “Unstoppable” (TobyMac—Phenomenon Remix By Soul Glow Activatur/Audio)

(This is another track from weights class, but I forget what we used to do to it. I have a vague memory of doing push-ups to the opening bars.)

  • Slow double crunches (during verses and pre-chorus)
  • Bicycle crunches (during the chorus—“We are, we are”—and the rap section)
  • Recovery: child’s pose during the rap section (“We keep it movin’”).
  • Plank pose with toe taps (during the third chorus)
  • Plank pose with leg lifts (during the bridge: “There’s no disguisin’, truth is risin’”)
  • Plank pose with toe taps (final chorus to the end).

Stretching: “Like a star” (Corinne Bailey Rae) and “Finish what we started” (Jessie Ware)

“CONGRATULATIONS! You made it! It’s all easy peasy from here,” as Jillian Michaels used to say.

This is how I like to stretch:

  • Pigeon pose (both legs)
  • Froggy (but often I don’t have enough space)
  • Hamstrings while lying on my back
  • Glutes (opposite leg over opposite knee and pull through)
  • Child’s pose
  • Calf stretch
  • Shoulder stretch (can be done while also stretching calves)
  • Side bends
  • Tricep stretch
  • Shoulder rolls (forward and backwards).

I also like to hold the stretches for a LONG time—mostly because one of my instructors said that 30 seconds is the recommended length because after that long, your body settles into it.

For anyone who wants to try it out, I put the playlist up on YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music.

I’ve made it my aim to do it about every other day and go for a walk on the alternate days. It can be hard summoning up the motivation to do it, and certainly I have no shortage of procrastination on the days when I feel I should make myself do it. But I haven’t got bored with the routine yet. (And if I do, I figure I’ll just change the music around.)

In case, you’re wondering, it does work: I’ve got the muscle soreness to prove it. It’s not as good as my old weights and Pilates classes. However it will do for now. And hopefully one day when I am able to return to my beloved gym, I won’t end up in a ridiculous amount of pain after that first return visit simply because I haven’t been doing anything—which, you know, is really the purpose of all this.

(Yes, my goal is not to keep fit or lose weight or build my strength; it’s to avoid pain when I return to the gym!)

(Did I mention I hate exercse?)

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In which I waffle on about Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover

Recently I watched the film adaptation of The Changeover on Netflix. (IMDB link.) It stars Timothy Spall, Lucy Lawless, Erana James and Nicholas Galitzine, and it was an interesting (although flawed) film.

The story revolves around Laura Chant (who, in the books, is 14, but in this film, looks more like 16 or 17). She’s the daughter of a single mum who has to spend a lot of time taking care of her younger brother Jacko (he’s five in this film, but three in the book) because her mum is always working. The film brings out some of her conflicted feelings about this situation—her love for Jacko, her resentment at having to play caregiver, her struggle with wanting to be free as an adolescent, and her desire to support her overwhelmed mother. One afternoon on the way home, the two meet a man who is never named (played by Timothy Spall; in the book, he’s Carmody Braque). He has an odd little shop, which they go in to explore, against Laura’s best instincts, and as she tries to get Jacko to leave, Carmody offers him a stamp, which he accepts—only the stamp ink seems to burn him and won’t come off, even with washing. In the days following, Jacko falls ill and the medical professionals are stumped as to what’s wrong with him. Only Laura understands that it’s somehow due to Carmody, but of course no one will listen to her. So she turns to the one person she thinks will: school prefect Sorenson “Sorry” Carlisle—who Laura knows for sure is a witch.

Movie still from The Changeover

The writers decided to ground the story in a particular time and place—Christchurch after the earthquake—rather than the more suburban Gardendale subdivision of the book. I rather liked that: it gave the film an almost surreal look—this little story playing out in an almost apocalyptic ruined landscape with abandoned buildings, car parks still partially underwater, shops operating out of shipping containers, and empty green lots where there should have been family homes. The Carlisle place was also heavily modernised—more to emphasise the class difference between Sorenson and Laura Chant than to give a nod to the history of the location (though the Carlisles are still apparently well known in the community).

Overall, I liked the film: I like what Erana James did with the character of Laura—how she brought out those aspects of a young girl coming of age, struggling with her present circumstances, having a sense that something’s wrong and not knowing what to do about it, and being drawn to Sorenson for reasons she can’t quite explain. I liked Nicholas Galitzine as Sorenson, though it frustrated me that his character remained mostly two-dimensional eye candy. (In the book, you learn quite a lot about Sorenson—his back story, why he is the way he is, his complicated relationship with his mother and grandmother. I like the way Mahy portrays him: on the one hand, he’s an awkward, almost nerdy teen boy; one the other, he’s a little dangerous—a little unsafe—but in the way that fascinates and electrifies Laura because it hints at something more grown-up and intimate.)

The arc of the book is mostly the same, though there are some extra plot complications thrown in that I thought were rather unnecessary and seemed to designed to give Timothy Spall more screen time. (That said, he makes a terrific Carmody Braque, so I can see why the filmmakers wanted to use him more.) These additions also detracted from the main story arc of the book, which is all about Laura and her transformation—the changeover hinted at in the title—and how she comes into herself and her own power and then uses that power to (*spoiler alert*) rescue Jacko. I felt that if they had axed some of that unnecessary plot stuff, they could have made room for more significant material from the book—like Laura’s complicated relationship with her father (who doesn’t appear in the film, but the script hints at some other more mysterious backstory, when what Mahy wrote was perfectly serviceable and also fit in with the main story arc)—as well as Laura’s changing relationship with her mother when her mother begins a new romantic relationship. These relationships served as foils to her relationship with Sorenson, and while the chemistry between the two leads was undeniable, there were things about it that were a little clunky. The final scene in particular bothered me: I liked that she had agency and power, and I liked the banter between them, but the way the movie closes felt more like fan service or fan fiction than remaining true to the spirit of the book.

One final bit of criticism: I felt there were too many close-ups—particularly of Laura—and not enough wideshots to give you a sense of where she was. Or the wideshots came way after the close-ups, which left me feeling disoriented most of the time. I wasn’t sure if that was deliberate, or if it was meant to evoke a certain kind of mood. In any case, it just annoyed me.

The Changeover, book cover

After watching the movie, on the first day of the new year, I decided to go back and reread the book. It’s an old favourite—one of my comfort reads, though I often forget about it. I think I first read it back in high school (it may have been a set text) and then acquired my own copy (with its terrible cover, which you can see above). It won the 1984 Carnegie Medal—two years after Mahy won it for The Haunting. I was something of a completionist back then: The Changeover was my gateway into Mahy’s work, and after that, I read as many of her novels as I could get my hands on—The Haunting, of course, but also The Catalogue of the Universe, The Tricksters, Aliens in the Family, Dangerous Spaces. Strangely I remember very little about them; only The Changeover stuck with me after all these years.

I think it’s because it’s young adult fiction at its best: as I said, it’s a coming-of-age story, but it’s also something of a fairy tale and a tale of first love—a teen romance with supernatural elements before paranormal romance was a thing. The story, the characters and the themes all come together in a beautiful way, all related in Mahy’s gorgeous prose. I don’t think I appreciated her descriptions when I was a teenager (and am only paying attention to them now because I suck at description): e.g.

“Hurry up, Chant!” said the prefect at the gate. It was Sorry Carlisle himself, checking that people riding bikes were doing so in a sober fashion, not doing wheelies or riding on the footpath. “First bell’s gone!”

He had grey eyes with the curious trick of turning silver if you looked at them from the side. Some people thought they looked dependable, but to Laura there was nothing safe about them. They were tricky, looking-glass eyes with quicksilver surfaces, and tunnels, staircases and mirror mazes hidden behind them, none of them leading anywhere that was recognizable.

Laura and Sorenson looked at each other now, smiling but not in friendship. They smiled out of cunning, and shared secret flicked from eye to eye. Laura walked past him in at the school gates, bravely turning right into the mouth of the day, right into its open jaws which she must enter despite all warnings. She felt the jaws snap down behind her and knew she had been swallowed up. The day spread its strangeness before her resigned eyes, its horror growing thin and wispy as it sank away. The flow came back into the world once more, and the warning became a memory, eagerly forgotten because it was useless to remember it. The warning had come. She had ignored it. There was nothing more to be said. (p. 13)

It’s so different reading a book you loved as a teenager as an adult: there were things I don’t think I grasped the first time I read it—things more to do with the minor adult characters and the way they were depicted, their internal motivations translating into particular actions. I could see more of the strokes Mahy applied to Laura’s character arc—for example, how growing up made her more appreciative of the fact that her parents were only human, and because they were only human, they were deserving of her compassion and forgiveness. I remembered, as I was reading, a lot of things I had forgotten—tropes, ideas, character traits that had tunnelled deep inside of me and taken root, spreading through my subconscious so that they now infuse some of the DNA of the novel I’ve been writing. It’s in little things—things that no doubt no one but me will notice. But they’re there.

Finally, The Changeover reminded me of one of the life goals I’ve held for a long time—something that I’m not sure I will ever be able to achieve. But it’s this: some day I hope to write a book that becomes someone else’s comfort read—a book that becomes a favourite that a reader revisits regularly throughout his or her life—a book that this sort of reader would turn to in times of tribulation, sadness and suffering. Part of me thinks this is a laughable goal because it’s so subjective—so dependent on the reader and who he/she is. And nevertheless, I dream.

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Depression and the creative

I am by no means an expert on depression. I am a depression sufferer, but my sort of depression is my own and no one else’s. But publishing a book on the subject has made me a little more visible, and as a result, occasionally I get asked things about it. I also read things about it or related to it semi-regularly, and as I go through life with all its ups and downs, mental health is never far from my thoughts.

So what follows is a collection of loose thoughts about depression and mental health as it relates to creativity. It is by no means comprehensive, and the things I talk about may have no bearing on your lived experience. Nevertheless, I offer them up in the hope that you might find them useful in some way—and if they are not relevant to you, perhaps they will be to someone else.

Pressing in on depression

[B]eing depressed is a lot like … wearing this weird diving bell suit made of Ziploc baggies or something. And you’re there with other people and you can see them and hear them and touch them through the baggie or something, but you can’t conduct electricity. (Neko Case in an interview with NPR.)

People sometimes ask me, “How do I know if I’m depressed? How do I know it’s depression and not just having a bad day?” Generally speaking, depression is not just having a bad day; it’s low mood that persists for longer than two weeks.

It’s incredibly common, though I am still surprised at the number of people who don’t seem to know that. One stat I read says that one in four will suffer from some kind of depression over the course of their lives. This does not necessarily mean that they will be suicidal or that they will require medication; it just means that 25 per cent of us will travel through a dark period of low mood at some point. Given those stats, I think it’s good to expect it—and to even be prepared.

The thing is, there are different kinds of depression. Generally speaking (and it may be a bit reductionistic to say this), everyone falls along a spectrum between depression caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain (e.g. bipolar disorder) and depression caused by circumstance (situational depression). Often people have a mix of both, but the mix differs from person to person.

I tend towards situational depression. This means that when my situation improves, I tend to improve too. The way I see it, situational depression seems logical and obvious: we live in a pretty messed up world (what the Bible would call a post-Fall world). So of course there are going to be things that make us feel down. For example, the death of a close friend or a family member. Family or relationship breakdown. Troubles at work. Long-term unemployment. Post-traumatic stress from massive life events (like sexual assault). Personal failure. Comparing yourself to others—particular your peers—and wondering why you’re not where they are. Trump being in power. There’s a lot out there to be depressed about, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself affected by what’s going on in the world.

That said, how do you know if you’re depressed? There are common symptoms, but they can differ from person to person. Also, some of them can seem contradictory. For example, people who suffer from depression,

  • Sleep too much or not enough;
  • Eat too much or not enough/suffer from loss of appetite;
  • Suffer from sluggish thoughts or find themselves unable to switch off from thinking too much;
  • Experience a lack of sex drive or too much sex drive;
  • Complain of lack of energy or too much energy (which is what the manic stage is like for those with bipolar).

Everyone’s depression looks different. If you suffer from depression, you need to work out what yours looks like.

Creativity and depression

Woman by the sea

There’s a myth out there that you need to be depressed in order to create great work. Creators like Agatha Christie, Leonard Cohen, Sylvia Plath and Stephen Fry suffered (or still suffer) from depression, so it must be true, or so the thinking goes. Certainly there are an awful lot of creative people out there who suffer from depression, and there definitely seems to be a link between creativity and mental illness. But sometimes I think creative people suffer from depression less because they are predisposed to it and more because of the nature of the work.

As a friend pointed out recently, creative professions are brutal. Creativity means opening yourself up and making yourself vulnerable, and what you make is often subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism, which can feel very personal. Furthermore, unlike other occupations like teaching, accounting, engineering or IT, creative careers are far from stable. There’s a lot at stake and a lot of pressure to succeed—particularly if you want to make a living from what you do. But there are no guarantees, and sometimes pursuing a creative career can feel like madness.

In a sense, depression is massively detrimental to creativity, because it can prevent you from creating at all. Imagine trying to do this sort of work when you’re suffering from low mood, low energy, lack of sleep and an inability to focus. Imagine trying to do this sort of work when you can’t even get out of bed, let alone put pencil to paper.

Furthermore, imagine trying to do this sort of work with a swarm of judgemental and self-critical thoughts swirling around your head—for example, “This has been done before”; “No one is going to like this”; “What will they think of me?”; “This sucks. I’m a failure. I will never amount to anything. This will never amount to anything”; “This is a waste of time. What’s the point?”; and “Why can’t I be more like ____? They’ve has already done this, this and this and they’re my age!”

Many creative people may suffer from depression. But in my opinion, depression doesn’t really aid creativity.

Making good art in the shadow of the black dog

No matter your circumstances (or your brain chemistry), you can still make good art even if you suffer from depression. But you need to treat your depression first.

Everyone—depression sufferer or no—should be taking steps to manage their mental health. (Especially men: sorry, guys, but you don’t have a particularly good track record of doing this!) But unfortunately this is something we are not taught how to do by our parents, our schools or even the medical profession. Nevertheless, it’s important because mental health affects so much of life. It starts with observation—regularly stepping back from your life and assessing how things are going and how you are going. How has your mood been? What things have been affecting it? (Think specifics—for example, work stress, lack of sleep, relational difficulties, where you are on your menstrual cycle. Sometimes it helps to write yourself a list, even if you destroy it later.) Do you think you might be suffering from depression? If so, what does your depression look like? The nature of your depression will determine how you treat it.

Note I said “treat”, not “cure”. Sometimes depression cannot be cured—or at least not completely. Instead, aim for being able to manage it. The better you are at managing it, the closer you will be to getting yourself to a place where you can create.

Now, some people who have problems with their brain chemistry may have to go on medication. Antidepressants can be very helpful tools for keeping things on an even keel. But not everyone needs to take pills to manage their depression—particularly if their depression is more up the situational end of the spectrum.

Try some of the following to boost your mood:

Art-making in a café

Related to the above, some of the unhelpful critical or judgemental thoughts common to creatives may need some serious cognitive behavioural therapy to reverse or transform them. For example,

  • If you find yourself thinking, “I’m crap because I’m not doing as much as _____”, remember that your worth is not determined by your output—your word count or the number of pages you’ve managed to ink today. You are a valuable person in your own right. “Comparison is the thief of joy”, as one (or both!) of the Roosevelts is said to have said. Focus on what only you can do.
  • If you find yourself thinking, “It’s been done before”, think to yourself, “That may be the case, but it hasn’t been done by me .” You are a unique individual: no one else in the world is like you. No one else has your viewpoint, your life history, your skills and your particular talent. So use what you have to do it your way.
  • If you find yourself thinking, “This is a waste of time. I should just give up!”, don’t give up. Remember that nothing is a waste of time, because in creative work, everything is useful and nothing is wasted. Even if you have to scrap what you’ve just done, you’ve made progress, because you’ve figured out how not to do it. And that, therefore, means you’re closer to figuring out how it should be done. Remember that all progress is progress, no matter how small.
  • If you find yourself thinking, “I haven’t done enough!”, remember to celebrate your wins. Write yourself a list if that helps. (Daniel Pink recommends doing something like this to round off each workday, even if you’re not in a creative profession.) You showed up! You wrote some words or drew a sketch! You figured out that plot point! You nailed that character nuance! Go you! You’re now a little bit closer to achieving your goal and finishing that project.

Once you’ve got a handle on your depression and are combatting the unhelpful thoughts, be sure to nurture yourself creatively. I’ve already talked about this in a previous newsletter in an article about “Creator medicine”, so I won’t go over that material again. But one thing that’s worth mentioning here is my point about talking to other creators about what they’re working on and how they like to work: sometimes just hanging around other creative people is enough to stimulate the creative juices again. (It brings to mind Proverbs 27:17: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another”.) If that’s something that works for you, consider doing your creative work with someone else in order to foster accountability and encouragement. That’s something a couple of friends and I used to do—meet up once a week in a café to write. I found it helpful even on the days when I didn’t get much done.

Depression is hard. Creativity is hard. There are not shortcuts—no foolproof cures. But depression can be managed, and creative work can be done in the midst of depression. And sometimes the work itself can be something of a mood booster—particularly when you’re in that zone when it feels less like work and more like play, and you’re doing it for the love of it, instead of because you have to. Creating for yourself is, I think, is the best antidepressant of all.

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Hiveminded Episode 016

It’s the final day of Bec and Karen’s writing retreat (insert wailing!) and in this episode, we talk about where things are up to, how the week met (or didn’t meet) our expectations, what we learned from doing this and what lies ahead. Download the episode or listen using your trusty web browser (19:36 min). Show notes below.

And drop us a line and let us know what you thought of our mini-series and whether you’d like to hear more.

Bec and Karen recording this episode

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Show notes

Ang pow/lai see.

Big Magic (Elizabeth Gilbert).

Magic Lessons podcast.

Burnt.

Elizabethtown.

The phone call montage scene (which still irritates Karen to this day):

Bec’s post on The Faithful Writer conference.

Bec’s story about the pineapple tarts appears in this issue of Pencilled In.

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Hiveminded Episode 015

It’s Day 5 of Bec and Karen’s writing retreat, and today we have gone into the heart of Launceston to check out the Harvest Market and write at the library. In this episode, we update you on our progress, talk about the scenes we’re writing and find out more about Bec’s “squirrel” project. Download the episode or listen using your trusty web browser (8:37 min). Pithy show notes below.

Also, one episode to go! Tomorrow night is the last night of the retreat, so of course just in time, we now have a new iTunes podcast link

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Show notes

Harvest Market, Launceston.

Launceston library.

“How I went from writing 2,000 words a day to 10,000 words a day” by Rachel Aaron/Bach, who talks about the time/knowledge/enthusiasm triangle.

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Hiveminded Episode 014

It’s Day 4 of Bec and Karen’s writing retreat, but we’re actually talking about Day 3 as we didn’t get to record last night. In this episode, we update you on our progress, discuss what socialising would have been like in the Regency period (and many thanks to all the historians and romance writers who blog about this subject; your research is invaluable), explore the topic of fulfilling your purpose in life and anticipate taking a very pleasant day off. Download the episode or listen using your trusty web browser (10:37 min). Show notes below.

(NB: Current podcast feed can be found here. We are working at getting iTunes updated.)

Show notes

Supper at the Netherfield Ball (Jane Austen’s World).

A clip of the supper scene from the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice (2:28 min to 5:25 min):

Dancing at the Netherfield Ball (Jane Austen’s World).

Dancing cotillion (this clip features the music of Mozart):

Queer Eye on Netflix.