Christmas Spirit… in Books

ChristmasA quick post reflecting on the season.

My favourite books with Christmas as a background theme:

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, set in New York City

Jerusalem Inn –  Richard Jury #5 by Martha Grimes set in the UK countryside. [My favourite UK detective series ever.]

Au bonheur des ogres de Daniel Pennac au coeur de Paris. Un auteur français fabuleux. Meilleur échange :

–   Ça vous plaît (ce travail) ?

–   C’est comme tout. Beaucoup trop payé pour ce que je fais, mais pas assez pour ce que je m’emmerde.

Honorable mentions

A Fatal Grace Chief Inspector Gamache #2 by Louise Penny set in the Quebec Easter Townships

Snowdrops by A. D. Miller, set in Moscow (how apropos)

The Private Patient by P.D. James (yep, I have a thing for UK’s countryside and police force)

Happy Holidays!! Joyeuses Fêtes !!

I got broken this year

I’ve been fighting anxiety and depression since I was nine years old. Through most of these years, of course, there were no official labels just very personal ones: “negative”, “moody”, “annoying”, “whiny”, “lazy”…

As I grew older, I kept within me the feeling of being utterly defective but was able to balance things out using my brain to perform tasks leading me on successful academic and professional paths.

A few years ago, when I was dealing with stressful situations at home and at work, it was relatively easy for me to engage in a dialogue with my doctor regarding reducing my anxiety symptoms. What I wasn’t ready to admit however, was my depression symptoms. I just hoped that in reducing anxiety, things would get better.  I tried four anti-depressants. Some drained me so much that I would spend my work day desperately wanting to lie down on the repulsive flooring to sleep. One finally made a positive difference and I spent the good part of a year taking it, then the side effects (major weight gain, loss of any sense of urgency, loss of interest in life) were no longer tolerable. Since my personal circumstances had changed for the better in the meantime too, I thought the worse was behind me.

It lasted less than three years.

I got broken again this year. I had spent months trying desperately to avoid the crash. Worked on getting enough sleep, exercising, eating well, seeing friends, put some fun in my life. But I was fighting a losing battle. Again, work and life stresses, brain chemistry and perimenopause did me in. I showed up at a medical appointment for prescription renewals and I finally admitted I was broken and could not get the pieces back into place on my own.

I still needed to make a living so I was back on medication, now with two new anti-depressants to keep side effects in check. What changed however, is that this time, I was ok requesting help to alleviate my depression symptoms. Bully for me.

If I was listening to this story, I would be 100% behind the story teller, assuring them that mental health challenges happen to everyone, but that not everyone has the courage to get help, that he/she should be proud. That people suffering from a mental ailment deserve the same respect as individuals suffering from a physical ailment, that he/she, in no way, created this situation for themselves and that there is absolutely no shame in taking medication to become healthy may it be physical or mental health.

When it comes to me though, I’m not always this supportive. I’m working hard on being supportive and compassionate for myself. I thankfully have help from very good and wise friends. One I spoke to every day during my worst weeks. She finished our conversations with “talk to you tomorrow” and this lifeline was invaluable.

Why am I talking about this? Well, I need to for one, but mostly, if I want the stigma of mental health issues to be a thing of the past, I need to make the first step and admit to my challenges.

Some of you know me, but most don’t so it’s clearly not a true public confession, but it’s a start.

Give me time.

Still here…

I haven’t posted in quite a while. I needed to deal with a number of personal challenges. I’m trying to get back to a place where I can get excited about things again and want to share.

I’m not quite there yet.

Today is World Mental Health Day – as much as it is humanely possible, please be kind to each other.

Until next time.

Deep Work and Mindfulness

It seems that everything I read is telling me we all need to be more present, more focused, less distracted.

Over the past five years,  I’ve read Jon Kabat-Zin,  Mark Williams, Les Fehmi and pretty much everyone else under the sun to help me deal with constant and persistent work and life stresses. Bottom line: be in the moment, appreciate the gifts of boredom, avoid distractions whenever possible, and meditate every day. I haven’t been able to get fully there yet and don’t actually know anyone who has, but maybe I’m travelling in the wrong circles.

Then I came across Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, which demonstrates advice that I can actually put into my daily living. Deep work is essentially mindfulness you can bring to work. The book is separated into two parts. The first, “The Idea” espouses his theory and the second “The Rules” discusses his ideas in a practical way.

We are bombarded by statements from everywhere that workers in today’s world need to be great multi-taskers, agile, swimming beautifully through constant change, etc. Work environments are now open and collaborative to help foster creativity and innovation. But what if this was all a pipe dream?

Newport’s thesis is that you can only accomplish a high level of quality work if you deeply concentrate and focus on that work for prolonged periods of time, ideally for at least four (4) hours at a time. His idea is that in dividing focused work into smaller chunks (ex. one hour) you lose precious time and effort and will never achieve the amount of quality work you would in working four (4) straight hours. He states: “Don’t take breaks from distraction. Instead take breaks from focus.”

He then moves to state that open-space offices do not increase communication,  collaboration and productivity but are actually “an absurd attack on concentration”. He lauds instead “soundproofed offices connected to large common areas” which he believes support  chance encounters and focused thinking. I agree.

Quoting Clifford Nass discussing his research on attention switching: “People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted (…) They’re pretty much mental wrecks.”

Feeling great yet?

He also discusses the overwhelming place social media takes up in many lives (both in personal and work lives) and how it destroys focus and is used to keep boredom at bay in a way that negates your capacity to focus – the more mental distractions you use, the more your mind is constantly looking for distractions. Having just finished Reclaiming Conversations by Sherry Turkle, I also see a number of links to her conclusions. Turkle studies younger adults and realizes that they cannot handle any boredom moments, and use their phones to avoid these moments at all cost. I would venture to say that adults of any age are in the same situation.

Newport is an academic and his work experience is not necessarily something that is scalable to other work environments, especially when he goes into his idea that you should only do “deep” work and never “shallow” work and that your boss will understand this or you’ll move to another job. As well, I see very few workers benefiting from his suggestion to use an automatic email reply that essentially states: “I will only respond if I see an inherent benefit in doing so”.

I also question the long term effects of his only do the work that is the deepest, foregoing any unnecessary meetings and tasks on his work relationships. Relationship building involves some give and take and also favour exchanges (ex. would you mind reviewing this for me, could you attend this meeting for me, etc.) for longer term benefits. What happens then if everyone is busy doing deep work that only benefits themselves?

Nonetheless, I really enjoyed this book and would wholeheartedly encourage you to reading it, if only to start overdue discussions on the state of work environments and how things could improve.

What are your thoughts?

For more information: http://calnewport.com/

Old Rome Fiction

I love historical fiction, especially when a good portion of the story is based on actual facts. So I started reading Imperium, the first book in a trilogy by Robert Harris. It’s set in Rome in the 79-70 BC decade and is devoted to Cicero who held, among others, the role of famous orator and politician. I read the first 100 pages and just couldn’t get into the story, which seemed pretty dry to me.

The main reason for this, is that I remember maybe too fondly the Gordianus series of Steven Saylor. Starting with Roman Blood (1991), where the Finder Gordianus is hired by Cicero, to The Triumph of Caesar (2008), Saylor takes you through Roman and Egyptian life, where you meet wonderful characters sharing their secrets, and, ultimately solving riddles and discovering the culpable parties responsible for thefts and murders.

I so longed for the old Roman setting of Saylor, that I read the prequel Raiders of the Nile and I despise prequels (yes George Lucas, I’m looking at you). It was a fun read, but I dearly missed the older and much wiser Gordianus. The author recently promised a new “old Gordianus” book in an interview, and I can’t wait.

Saylor also published two books also set in early Rome, spanning many generations : Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome (2007) and Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome (2010).

Series Rating: 9/10

Improving Body Crankiness

As I grow less young and more solid, desperately trying to keep daily stress abreast, I noticed that my body had lost fluidity and that little aches and pains were more common. This was especially true in winter. My whole body seemed to be holding on to stress in all muscles in a way that it hadn’t before.

My winter physical activities are usually reduced to walking to and from work, living room dancing and functional stair climbing, sprinkled with core building exercises whenever I felt my mid-section growing too mushy. Something was missing to make my days fully pain-free.

A couple of years ago, I got a hold of a DVD of an old PBS Classical Stretch exercise show with Miranda Esmonde-White. Although I loved the concept of bringing energy and flexibility to your body through dynamic stretching, the 1980s leotard and bad image quality lead me to try it just once and move on. Then last year, I read Aging Backwards: 10 Years Younger and 10 Years Lighter in 30 Minutes a Day (no judging) also written  by Esmonde-White, presenting the Essentrics method. The e-book format didn’t provide a full idea of the exercises, but those I tried really made my body feel better. I looked for more exercises on YouTube and found some short (5-15 minutes) workout to give me a better idea.

I then came across the 2015 ESSENTRICS The Ultimate Stretch Workouts  video which I love. It includes four 15-minute workout (the maximum amount of exercise I think I can do on weekday evenings) covering posture improvement, full leg stretches and shoulder pain and tension release. These feel so good that I often pile them on to complete 30-45 minute workouts. When I feel more energized, I can also look to the two 30-minute workouts (muscle activation or release).

The Essentrics website offers many different DVDs. Be careful though, sometimes the routines are the same but done by two different people, and some abdominal exercises are advanced enough to injure without proper practice. You can also subscribe for $15 per month to online stream the routines but I’ve yet to try this format.

For those who prefer in-class sessions, Essentrics is also offered in many cities in the United States and Canada, particularly in Montreal where Miranda is based. Figure skating and hockey lovers might also enjoy knowing that Joannie Rochette and the Montreal Canadiens are some of the many athletes who have benefited from Ms. Esmonde-White’s technique (French article).

Any other recommendations?

Readalism III – Fictional Male Loner Leads in Action/Crime Series

I started reading the first book in the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child last week. Written in 1997, it features what I can only describe as a “man’s man” protagonist – loner, strong, violent (only when needed, of course), keeping his feelings close to the chest, with few financial resources and average looks, but who still manages to get the hottest women. You know the type.

The story starts interestingly, but then there’s a hot girl and much violence. I have a low tolerance for violence where the author appears to try and top off others in shock value, but I can usually finish these stories when I can identify with the lead character in some way. Jack Reacher is unfortunately not that type of lead for me. I just kept seeing Jason Statham playing Terminator, but without the fun parts. (No need to remind me that Jack Reacher was played in the movies by Tom Cruise – shudders.)

It made me think of other male loner lead characters whose same genre stories I enjoyed much more. For example, the Hieronymus”Harry” Bosch character written by Michael Connelly. The series is set in Los Angeles and begins in 1992 against the backdrop of the Rodney King events. The aspects linked to police corruption anger me and,  having had to live through them, I am not a fan of the 90s, but I figure the author will eventually move to the millennium decade.  I am now reading Book 6 in the series. Amazon also began a TV series in 2014 featuring a favourite actor of mine, Titus Welliver, but I can’t quite figure out yet how to access it yet.

Lastly, but one I like most fondly as “loner guy” series go, offers you a fantasy and mystery  mix rather than pure crime is the Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher. I’ve finished all 15 books and wait in anticipation for Peace Talks, the next in the series. Maybe I’m cheating here because Harry does accumulate close friends and allies as he rips through his encounters but he also makes a whole slew of enemies which makes him break even in my book. Having him played by Paul Blackthorne in the sadly short lived TV series did not hurt one bit either.