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Review: El Deafo (Cece Bell)

Next on the To Read list: El Deafo by Cece Bell (Amulet Books, 2014).

Despite it winning a Newbery Honor and an Eisner Award in 2015, I hadn’t heard of this book. I saw it in the Scholastic Book Club catalogue and decided to get it because it sounded interesting (and Scholastic do a good job of selling books through Book Club at a nice discount).

I was glad I did.

El Deafo is the semi-autobiographical story of Cece Bell who, at age four, contracts meningitis and loses most of her hearing. The story follows Cece through the next five years as she tries to learn to live in a world of hearing-abled people who don’t necessarily understand her disability, and how it affects her life and her relationships.

The impact of deafness on Cece’s relationships is a major theme throughout the story—particularly with regards to her friendships. Cece’s longing for true companions is highlighted by her extreme loneliness: in certain panels, she’s visually depicted within bubbles. Friendship, which is always a rich subject for middle grade fiction, takes on other interesting shades when the children who try to befriend Cece also find themselves contending with Cece’s deafness. There are those for whom it is an issue, there are those for whom it is not an issue, and there are those who try to over-compensate for it. Mix that with friends who are overbearing, bossy and boundary transgressors; friends who are well-meaning but irritating; and friends who are terrific but human and flawed, and you get a sense of the rocky landscape that Cece must traverse in order to connect with her peers. The fruit of these vignettes is a very helpful guide to what helps and what doesn’t when relating to others who are hearing impaired.

Certainly one of the things I loved about Cece was her resilience: early on with the help of her phonic ear, which she has to use for school, she reframes her deafness, imagining herself as a superhero with super hearing and calling herself “El Deafo”. Whole scenes play out in Cece’s imagination, where she pictures herself saying things and dealing with others in a way she doesn’t quite feel confident enough to do in real life. The climax of the story is a wonderful culmination of Cece’s growth to self-acceptance, as well as the acceptance of the kids around her, and I came away from the story wanting everyone in the world to read it.

Final thing: there were a number of things about the artwork of this graphic novel that I really loved. The characters are all depicted as rabbits, which is quite clever considering how rabbits are known for having big ears. (I also wondered if it was a nod to Art Spiegelman’s Maus.) I loved how the effects of Cece’s deafness was depicted in empty speech balloons, faint lettering, and text that looked like a foreign language until you did the hard work of trying sound out the words phonetically and guessed what the speaker was trying to say. I also loved the diagrams showing how certain words look the same in lip-reading. All of these things helped put the reader in Cece’s shoes and so that you really feel what it’s like to be her and live her experience. As Harvey Pekar once said, “Comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures”, and yet I never expected that a comic—which is, essentially, a silent medium—could do that in a story about deafness and hearing. 

Obviously I still have a lot to learn.

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Review: Allergic (Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter)

Next on the To Read list: Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter (Graphix Scholastic, 2021).

Maggie is excited: she’s turning 10 and her parents have promised that she can get a puppy. With young twin brothers and a new baby on the way, Maggie often feels like she gets lost in the noise and tussle of family. She just wants something of her own: she loves animals and dreams of becoming a vet. But when she goes to choose her new pet, she discovers to her horror that she is allergic to animal hair—all animal hair. In addition, because the zoning has changed, she has to start going to a new school where she doesn’t know anyone.

The story of Maggie’s journey towards acceptance of her condition and connection with others is told with gentleness and humour. I really felt for Maggie and understood her sadness and disappointment. (We have something similar at our place, with children who really love cats, but are allergic to them. In fact, everyone in our family is allergic to cats …) I liked the way her first day at the new school is depicted and the circumstances that lead Maggie to becoming something of a social pariah. I also really really liked the unlikely friendships she forms—first with her new next-door neighbour and then later with a boy who has a different set of allergies to her. I kind of guessed the ending ahead of time, but still found it satisfying, and I appreciated how Megan Wagner Lloyd took care to tidy up a couple of the more minor plot threads.

Other things I loved about it: the diverse cast, Michelle Mee Nutter’s wonderful facial expressions, the muted warm colours, and the splash page in the pet store where you can see Maggie and her friend Claire moving around the aisles.

My only piece of criticism is one that I have a lot with middle grade graphic novels that are being released at the moment: I really really wish the lettering was better. Perhaps I have been brainwashed by Nate Piekos of Blambot, but the main issues I noticed were crossbar Is, text stacking in balloons that could have been more diamond-shaped, accidental tangents, and the occasional panel where I would read the balloons in the wrong order. They threw me right out of the story, but I do acknowledge that my brain has been trained to notice these things, so perhaps they wouldn’t annoy anyone else as much.

Overall, Allergic is a great addition to the middle grade comic canon. Give it to anyone who loves the works of Raina Telgemeier.

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Review: Seekers of the Aweto (Vol 1): The Hunt is On (Nie Jun)

I finally sat down to read Seekers of the Aweto Vol 1: The Hunt is On by Nie Jun (translated from the Chinese by Edward Gauvin). Xinyue, his brother Qiliu and their mother travel the land near the Silk Road, looking for aweto, a plant-like treasure that only sprouts from the top of majestic earth deities. (My father tells me that this is a real thing—not the earth deities, but the plankt: it’s called a fungus that grows out of a dead caterpillar called “cordyceps sinensis”, it grows in the Himayalas and it is highly sought after because of its medicinal properties.) The trio make a living from selling the aweto and are able to do what they do because of Xinyue’s drum, which commands the insects, and Qiliu’s flying prowess—along with his obsession with finding the celestial aweto, which is supposed to have the power to bestow eternal life.

The trio come across a village built around an earth deity and seek to rob them of their aweto, even though the inhabitants put up quite a fight. But in the tussle, Xinyue ends up becoming a carer for the deity’s little offspring, with warriors from the village in hot pursuit.

Nie Jun’s art is GORGEOUS (particularly the colours and his use of colour), the action scenes are dynamic and wonderful, and my goodness, will you just look at the crowd scenes! Volume 1 ends on quite a cliffhanger, and I’ve read that there are supposed to be four in total. With the first volume just released, however, I suspect it will be a while before we get the others!

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Review: Last Christmas

Emilia Clarke, the mother of dragons herself, plays a down-on-her luck London girl named Kate Andrich. It is Christmas in 2017 and Brexit is dividing the nation. Kate works full-time at a year-round Christmas shop under sharp-eyed dragon lady Michelle Yeoh. She has Fleabag-level dysfunctional family issues—particularly with her mother (Emma Thompson, who also wrote the screenplay), who still behaves as if the war they fled in Yugoslavia has followed them to England. She’s such a hot mess with all the terrible eating and the drinking and the hooking up with random strangers, she just can’t get her life together, and she can’t land an audition even though singing professionally is the thing she most wants to do. By chance one day, she meets a way-too-understanding manic pixie dream boy named Tom Webster (Henry Golding) and begins to form an attachment to him, and that’s kind of where the downward arc of her character starts to swerve.

It is very important to say upfront that the marketing has let this film down: watching the trailer, you’d be forgiven for expecting a romcom dressed up in tinsel and George Michael tunes. It is NOT that (and a part of me wonders if unhelpful expectations led this film to score only 46 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes). It’s more of a journey of a young woman trying to turn her life around and deal with her baggage, and while Tom plays a role in that, the story isn’t about him or even them; it’s about her. Her growth comes about over scenes and days and weeks and things that feel a little repetitious and slow at times, but the overall effect is akin to a novel where small things are changing and a character is growing, just not all at once.

My movie buddy Fiona picked the twist well before it happened—perhaps because she was paying far more attention to the clues than I was (the film’s title is a big one), but also perhaps because she knows more George Michael than I do. (Also, I was still expecting a romcom. Nope!) I was still surprised by it, and while I’m still tossing up whether it was satisfying, there were things about the ending I liked and things that I kind of wished had been better. Overall, I liked where the movie left Kate and the audience. But I think I understand why its reviews have been bad.

Other things I liked: the leads were all engaging: Emilia Clarke made me feel for Kate; Emma Thompson was fantastic as her overbearing over-anxious mother; and if Henry Golding was a little too cardboard and a little too good to be true, well, there was sort of a reason for that. I agree that Michelle Yeoh was under-utilised, though her little character arc was weirdly charming and I liked the interactions between her and Kate. I also liked how many of the minor characters had something to do, and they milked whatever screen time they were given. And I liked that the movie was grounded in a particular time and place—with themes regarding immigration, homelessness and the general anxiety of the British people underscoring everything.

I don’t think this will be a film for everyone. If you’re expecting a Love Actually/Serendipity/The Holiday Christmas romcom, you’ll end up disappointed. If you meet the story on its own terms, I think you might enjoy it.

3 stars. Screening on Netflix.

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Write like a 3D printer

Writing (pre-pandemic)

This is how I used to write before the pandemic: I organised my part-time job and my life so that I had very set writing mornings—Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Depending on the day, I would walk the girls to school for drop-off, go to a local café, and write and have a hot drink in the half hour before the library opened, then move to the library where, if I was lucky, I got my favourite desk. If I left it too late, my favourite desk was snapped up by an elderly Chinese man who liked to read the papers and mumble very loudly under his breath while reading. He’d stay until baby rhyme time began—during which I would be surrounded by parents and infants and would be trying to drown out the librarian who couldn’t sing in tune with very loud music piped through my headphones.

After baby rhyme time, I would continue writing and often try to stave off hunger pains/the need to go to the loo (as the library one was terrible as they shared it with the food establishments around it and you needed to ask them for a key). Then I’d walk home when I couldn’t leave it any longer, often still thinking about my novel.

Or some mornings, I’d go do my gym class and then sit for a couple of hours with my laptop in the food court of the shopping mall above the gym while people came and went around me.

Doing this, I managed to clock eight to ten hours of writing a week.

Writing (mid-pandemic)

Of course, COVID changed all that. During lockdown, I couldn’t go to cafés or libraries or food courts. I tried to make do with my little desk—or even my balcony while the weather was warm. But I usually couldn’t manage more than half an hour to an hour, and that was on days when Ben was able to take the girls out for exercise.

I expected that: we were all going through a hard time after all, and sharing a two bedroom flat with three others who needed to do home learning as well as paid work was stressful enough. I purposefully kept the bar low.

But then things began to open up again and we were allowed back into cafés and food courts (though not always libraries). I’d go occasionally, but I was more aware of the risks (even when masked). It was safer not to risk mingling germs with others.

And then we moved out of our two bedroom flat into a house—a house where, for the very first time, I got to have my very own a study. With a door. (It’s not a lockable door, but it’s a door! And if I really wanted, I suppose I could pay someone to put a lock on it, but a Do Not Disturb sign would probably do just as well if I could be bothered.)

But even with a study, I’m not being as productive as I was pre-pandemic. It’s easier to write when I’m not at home, away from the distractions of housework, parenting and the endless To Do list. The pandemic isn’t over, and while public health guidelines regarding masks and indoor spaces are still in flux (particularly at the moment), I’m still not completely comfortable with resuming my old writing haunts.

I’ve tried to set up my study so that it will work for writing: I have the two desks (one for writing; one for the paid job, and they face different directions). But I wonder if doing my writing in the same space as my work is having a detrimental effect. (I say this while being very conscious of how spoiled I am.)

It’s just that often I find myself doing a lot of trying to write and not actually writing.

Writing (or rather, not writing)

Part of it is my perfectionism: I have been known to spend hours and hours agonising over how to craft the right sentences and paragraphs for dialogue and description. Transitions are often a huge problem for me as it isn’t always clear how to move naturally from point A to point B in a scene. In addition, I am always falling down research wormholes, because my novel is set in a fantasy version of Edo-era Japan (which I did because one, I LOVE Edo-era Japan, but also two, it’s an exercise in world-building; there’s nothing like modelling your setting on a real historical period to make you curious about why things were done the way they were. Which reminds me, I should write some novel research posts sometime …)

After a couple of months of near-zero productivity, I decided I needed to change my approach. I’d been listening to Antony Johnston’s Writing and Breathing podcast (in which Antony Johnston interviews writers of different backgrounds and mediums about their origin story and their process) and several authors talked about how they wrote like 3D printers, building up a scene one layer at a time. Some would start with the dialogue, then add the dialogue tags (“he said, she said,“ etc.), then the action, then the setting/description, plot stuff, etc.

It reminded me a lot of a conversation I had with Louie Joyce at the last Australian Comic Arts Festival: I had been talking to him about making the switch from comics to prose, and how sometimes it helped to write what writers often call a “zero draft” first—a word sketch of a scene that might include bits of dialogue and action, but also the main point of the scene and the central conflict and any other important bits. Louie compared the zero draft to the thumbnailing stage in comics—when you’re sketching out how characters should look, how the story should be told in panels and what shots to use. He pointed out you’re often making key creative decisions and doing the bulk of the creative “work” in this phase, as when it comes to inking, colouring and lettering, the most important work has already been done—even at this stage when everything is still rough and raw.

I liked that analogy immediately and it helped change the way I thought about writing. It sounds obvious, but I fell into the trap of thinking that not all writing is “writing”. That is, “writing” does not simply consist of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard; “writing” also encapsulates the thinking and the scribbling and the sudden burst of inspiration you get when you’re on the loo and you have to race to capture it before you forget. “Writing” means the toiling and the crafting of sentences and tearing out your hair while you search for that elusive perfect word. And “writing” is the redrafting and the reshaping and the reworking you do in response to feedback as you whittle away the thing, trying to get it as good as you can make it.

(Related to the zero draft/thumbnailing/writing being difficult thing: recently I stumbled across the excerpt from an interview with John Swartzwelder, who used to be a lead writer on The Simpsons:

I do have a trick that makes things easier for me. Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue—“Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way. And be sure to send me a small royalty every time you do it. (Source)

Just quietly, I love the concept of a “crappy little elf”!)

My point is, it’s all writing. Why did I think it wasn’t?!

And the point for me was that as my current way of working wasn’t serving me, why not try something different? Why not approach writing prose the way I and my collaborators approach making comics?

Writing, writing, writing

The thing with this approach to writing is that there are no helpful metrics by which to measure progress. It’s more impressive to say, “I am now 50,000 words through this project!” compared with, “I’ve just finished sketching out the whole book!” I suppose you could do it a bit like the comics job sheet that Antony Johnston uses and make up your own boxes to tick off.  But that doesn’t quite work for me.

Neither does time: I tracked my hours for a while using Toggl Track (which I use to log my work hours), so that’s how I know I used to write between eight and ten hours a week. Yet I can easily spend a lot of time at my desk, getting sucked into a YouTube research vortex and not actually writing anything.

So how do I measure progress instead? (Well, aside from divorcing my self-esteem from my productivity.)

The answer is I’ve become a little less fixated on it. I am trying to be content with any forward movement, no matter how small. So with my current novel project (which I am calling “The Taika novel project” after the lead character), I’ve outlined the whole thing. I have a chapter by chapter and scene by scene breakdown that I think works (though I won’t know for sure until I write it). It will clock in at about 16 chapters (and hopefully at least 75,000 words, which is about standard for a YA novel). Chapters 1-2 are in early draft form, and have even been workshopped with my writing group. Chapters 3-4 are at zero draft stage. I’m currently working on the zero draft for chapter 5 using Tansy Rayner Roberts’ 100 words per day for 100 days challenge (see From Baby Brain to Writer Brain: Writing through a world of parenting distraction; so far, I’m up to a 42-day streak). It’s all very slow-going.

That’s okay. I keep reminding myself it’s better than nothing. The fact that I am writing anything during this period of creative depression is a small miracle. I’ll go back over it, and go back over it again, 3D printing up and up and up. One day I’ll have a book.

One day.

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Convertibly cute

Around the time we moved, I stopped knitting for about six months.

This is A Big Deal. Anyone who knows me knows that I always have something on the go, and when I don’t, I’m like an addict, chomping at the bit for my next fix. I need to keep my hands busy because it helps me keep my mind focused, and one of the nice things about knitting is that it’s not being faced with a blank canvas or yarn; you’re building on what other people have made and following/riffing on their directions. So it’s creativity with scaffolding.

Still, moving put a spanner in all of that. It wasn’t because I had to pack up all my needles and yarn (though I’m sure that was part of it); it was just not having the brain space to deal with it. And then afterwards … well, that was partly figuring out where to put things.

Of course, all the yarn (which used to live in a couple of boxes on top of a shelf in the lounge room) was going to go in my study; there was no question about that. But the wardrobe in the study had been built for clothes, and there was a lot of wasted space as I wasn’t hanging clothes in there. So we hired a handywoman who put shelves in for me (and put in shelves in other wardrobes in the house where there was wasted space, because who needs that many clothes?!) An IKEA trip later and I had some boxes—roughly one for all the ridiculous numbers of plys of yarn I own. The result was this, which isn’t very photogenic, but is immensely satisfying for the organisational side of me:

Still, it took a few months more to get some momentum back. It’s not enough to want to knit; I need the thing I’m working on to be useful. As the weather turned colder, I started wishing I had more hats to cover my head and my ears. But also Astrid asked me to knit her some new gloves.

I made her a pair back in 2017:

The pattern is based on the Knitty pattern Fetching, which is quite a fun pattern to knit, featuring 4×1 rib, cables and picot bind-off. It was modified by a designer who goes under the handle “Aufildesjours” and sized down for children (Convertibly Cute pattern link).

Not long after I made them, she lost one as children are wont to do, and it was never retrieved. (Not sure what happened to the other.) Anyway, earlier this year, she asked for ones that were the same—only black (because that’s her favourite colour at the moment). I raided my yarn stash, trying to find something that would work that would also be soft to the hands as she had tried the ones I had made for myself and complained about the scratchiness of the yarn. Fortunately I had some Bendigo Woollen Mills Luxury yarn in black, but it was 8ply and the pattern was written for 10ply.

As usual, Ravelry was an invaluable resource: checking out the pattern page for Fetching and the other knitters who had made it unearthed someone who had made it in 8ply, so I raided their notes and adjusted everything accordingly. Different ply means a different needle size, which means a different gauge, which means adding stitches and repeats to make up the difference, and you’ve got to do it for the whole pattern, not just part of it.

In addition, I threw out Aufildesjours’ instruction to knit a length of i-cord and then sew it on the top of the mitten shell; it’s much sturdier if you decrease the number of stitches at the top of the shell and then knit i-cord off that (and then, if you can, decrease/cast off by picking up stitches around the base where the i-cord begins).

The button to fasten the mitten shell to the back of the gloves proved to be a little tricky, though: I was keen not to buy buttons. (I have nothing against them; I just didn’t want to make a special trip out of the button store for two, and I felt like the ones I used back in 2017 were a little to big.) I had the idea of making them out of yarn—thinking about the sort of bobbles you can knit into jumpers—but further research revealed that they wouldn’t hold their shape well enough to act as an anchor for the loop of the mitten shell. So I looked elsewhere and discovered a pattern on Ravelry for an i-cord knot button. Again, I felt it was more secure to pick up four stitches across the back of the glove where the button would sit and knit the i-cord from that, but tying the cord into a knot proved to be rather tricky, and with the end result, I do wonder if I should have just gone with a button instead.

Anyway, Astrid seems pretty happy with them:

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Blog revival

So sometime last year, my website broke. More specifically, it was my online store: WordPress did something that caused WooCommerce to have a hissy fit, or maybe it was vice versa, but the upshot was that I didn’t have a functional store and had to rejig some things in the interim. And somewhere along the way, my website also started experiencing issues, which meant it wasn’t working all the time.

Of course, 2020 being a pandemic year, fixing the store and the site dropped to the bottom of my priorities. But it wasn’t just the pandemic keeping it there (because, most fortunately, I live in Sydney, Australia, where COVID-19 numbers have been very low and the government has done well to keep things under control, so while we went through lockdown, it wasn’t for as long and it wasn’t as intense as the rest of the world). The other big thing that happened last year was that after 12 years of living in a two bedroom flat, we bought a house, so much of the last third of last year was dominated by packing and moving, and then the first third of this year was dominated by selling the old place, setting up the new place and getting used to the new routine.

It’s now been six months and I still don’t feel like I’m back to where I was, creatively speaking. Oh, I’m still writing and doing a bit of editing, and I had the privilege of doing a workshop and a panel for Comic Gong earlier this year. I’ve even been attending my old writing group fairly regularly this year. And yet, I feel like I’ve stalled.

It’s partly the fallout from the move (and it’s interesting to see what moving and purchasing property score on the Stress-O-Meter). It’s partly because Ben was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea part-way through February (and I felt like I lost two months to terrible sleep). And it’s partly because I haven’t had a decent break since … I can’t remember.

I know why the fuel tank is low. It’s just not something I can do much about at the moment. And through it all, I still have this broken website.

Lately Ben did me a big favour and moved it to a new webhost. He was even able to re-instate the template and re-import my old blog posts. The store needs work, however, and somehow I need to clear some time and space to fix it among the billion other things that are on my plate. But because I’m working on the site, I keep thinking about reviving the blog.

Part of me thinks it’s a bad idea. Part of me wonders how I will fit it in on top of everything else. People keep telling me I’m doing too much, and it’s true that that might be part of the energy drain: as well as my part-time job, parenting duties and writing activities, there’s uniform shop (only twice a term now; that’s my new limit as I’ve picked up something new), Scholastic Book Club, I’m the class parent for Miss 10’s class, I still do morning church band, and I’m co-leading Bible Study.

But part of me really misses blogging. Social media just doesn’t do it for me (and I am increasingly finding social media, with its inbuilt algorithms, incredibly frustrating in the way it buries my posts). And part of me wonders if returning to blogging—perhaps with a modest goal of at least one new post a week—I can hack my way out of feeling so stuck.

I do think I’m in some sort of creative depression at the moment. It’s partly the low energy. It’s partly still getting used to the new routine in the new place. It’s partly my cold office (but hey, at least I have an office now! And it has a door!) It’s partly COVID. (You will not believe the number of times I yell at my kids, “We’re still in the middle of a pandemic! Wash your hands!!”) It’s partly feeling useless and unproductive, which then becomes a self-perpetuating spiral (in that feeling useless and unproductive leads to not producing anything, which further fuels feelings of being useless and unproductive). It’s partly feeling discouraged with everything: I see my peers moving forward in their creative careers while I remain stuck; I don’t want to be stuck, but can’t do anything about it on my own steam. And it’s also partly feeling under-supported as a creator, despite having a network of creative peers: only a handful of (very lovely) people ask me about this part of my life, and the rest seem oblivious that it even exists. There’s a rather odd dynamic in the creative life whereby when you put something out in the world, the momentum of doing that gains you attention, connections and perhaps even followers, but when the fields are more fallow, people tend to forget about you.

My other issue at the moment is that I have pivoted away from comics into prose: I am currently trying to write a prose YA fantasy novel. So the people who follow my comics work are less interested in that, and I don’t have a readership in prose yet. Also, no one is waiting for this book: it’s just the project I am the most interested in writing at the moment, and I do hope to sell it one day so that it is professional published by a major publishing house. But of course, I need to finish it first.

Anyway, given the circumstances, I am focusing on doing what I can with what I have. I remind myself that small progress is always better than no progress. I’m currently doing Tansy Rayner Roberts’ 100 words per day for 100 days challenge (which she talks about in From Baby Brain to Writer Brain: Writing through a world of parenting distraction). I am adopting the 3D printer mode of writing, which often comes up on Antony Johnston’s Writing and Breathing podcast (and which I might blog about sometime as it’s helping me break through some of my inbuilt perfectionism). And I am actually reading—reading!—more in years: at least one chapter a day, but sometimes more, which means I’ve already completed my initial goal in the 2021 GoodReads Reading Challenge.

I’m going to revive this blog one post a week. But it won’t be focused on anything particular, which I do think will be maddening to some. The topics will probably jump around a lot—musings on creativity and ideas, the occasional interesting tidbit I’ve stumbled across, a review or two (even though I don’t want this to become purely a review blog), and also news about what I’m up to. I gave my old blog the name “/Karen/” because, to me, the name connotes a directory or folder of all things related to me, and I think it still fits (even if I can’t get WordPress to obey me on this front—*SIGH*). Feel free to cherry pick what you read. In any case, I hope you’ll come across something interesting. And hopefully I’ll emerge from all this all the better for it.

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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.