Category Archives: life

7 Tips for Mental Health and Lower Stress During the Holidays

Christmas treeThe holidays can be a tough time for many of us. Whether it’s the pressure to be perfect, the tension of navigating family relationships, the weight of memories, or the sheer length of the to-do list, there are many reasons to feel like Scrooge or the Grinch at this time of year.

Here, then, are some tips for retaining your mental health.

7. Don’t try to do everything. Pick your projects and your battles. I don’t bake or send cards, but I do decorate my home and put lots of thought into my gifts. If you’re trying to make Christmas amazing for a small person in your life, for example, pick and choose the things to focus on — the ones they’ll remember. Years later, they won’t remember how many kinds of cookies you made, but they’ll remember a tradition of making gingerbread together. If you’re a writer, maybe December is the time to scale waaaaay back on your goals or writing schedule — the words will still be there in January.

6. Resist the pressure, both internal and external. You’re inundated with messages about using your dollars to make your loved ones happy. You want to find the best gift ever this year. Maybe your in-laws and your step-family both want you with them for Christmas dinner. Resist. You can do this.

5. Do focus on what you love about the season. This is where family traditions can come in handy. A particular holiday music album that you always put on? A visit to Santa? Decorating the tree together? Curling up on the sofa to watch holiday movies? None of those things are expensive or time-consuming or stressful — they’re just fun, or if they’re not, they should be. Linger on them, and enjoy.

4. Make time for you. If you’re an introvert, for example, you’ll still need me-time — that won’t change just because it’s the holidays. Stick to your exercise routine if you can, or your weekly ritual of going out for coffee on Sundays, or whatever else you ordinarily do that you love.

3. Don’t beat yourself up for not being perfect. Your tree might not look like it came out of a magazine (unless doing it that way causes you more happiness than stress), but it looks like you trimmed it your way. Your cookie-decorating skills might be lacking, but if they taste good, who cares? I promise your family and friends won’t notice, or if they do, they won’t care.

2. Plan something to look forward to in the new year. One reason the holidays get so much pressure is that after they’re over, there’s a long, dark slog until spring (at least in this part of the world). My significant other and I have started a tradition of a weekend getaway for mid-February, and let me tell you, it makes January go much faster. If a trip isn’t in the cards for you, try a concert, a party, or any special event that you can get excited about.

1. Do what you need to do. Above all, your mental health is the top priority. If that means skipping things, letting other things slide, staying home sometimes…well, so be it, and don’t let anyone (including your own Inner Critic) tell you otherwise. You’re worth taking care of.

Your turn! What are your best tips for staying sane during the holidays?

Your Turn: First News Memory

This week is the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination — a huge event in US history, to be sure. But the extent of the coverage is kind of strange to me, because I wasn’t born yet. One newspaper bore the headline “Why we can’t stop grieving”…and all I could think was “Speak for yourself.”

It did get me thinking, though. We all have our seminal news memories — events where there was a “before” and an “after”, when our perception of the world shifted. But if you go even further back, we all have our first news memories, the first time we were aware of events that didn’t personally involve us.

I’ll tell you mine.

In October 1987, I was eight years old. I was pretty sheltered from news coverage — for example, I don’t remember the Challenger explosion or the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which both happened the previous year.

But I do remember Baby Jessica.

That month, a toddler named Jessica McClure fell down a well in Texas and was trapped. More than two days later, after many dramatic rescue efforts, she was freed via a freshly dug parallel shaft. The whole saga was broadcast on TV, discussed endlessly in the print media with diagrams of the well shafts (I remember vividly how the tunnel that was dug between the two shafts sloped up towards the old shaft, so as not to bury Baby Jessica in dirt), and so on.

In hindsight, I don’t think it really occurred to me that she could have died down there — and she certainly could have, from the fall or exposure or even from the digging of the other shaft. It was just a captivating story…with, as it turned out, a happy ending.

(Here’s an update on Jessica as an adult.)

Your turn! What’s the first news event you remember?

 

We Remember

Poppies on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa, Canada. Photo by Mikkel Paulson.

Poppies on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa, Canada. Photo by Mikkel Paulson.

Today is Remembrance Day in Canada — a melding of both Veterans Day and Memorial Day, for the Americans in the crowd.

The first war that I remember is the Gulf War, 1990-91. I wasn’t born yet during Vietnam or Korea, let alone the two world wars. But I’ve spoken about them with people who were.

My father might well have fought in Vietnam, had he been American instead of Canadian.

My mother’s uncle died at Dieppe, along with 900 other Canadian men.

My grandfather’s generation lived through the German occupation of Norway. When I visited Norway years ago, one of my elderly relatives told me stories: how he learned German in school instead of English, how German soldiers once came to the farmhouse for food. Another relative took me to see WWII bunkers overlooking the Norwegian coast.

I had been fascinated by that war for a long time, but speaking to those who had lived through the fighting, not overseas but right in their own country, made it real to me as it had not been before.

We have new wars now, young veterans. These wars are messier, but the vets are worth honouring and supporting just the same.

So each year on November 11 I pause, and remember.

 

The Space Program and the Path that Might Have Been

I’m over at Turtleduck Press this week, talking about outer space (yeah, you knew I was a space cadet…or is that joke too dated now?):

Here’s something about me that you might not know: I used to be a Physics major. I started out my university career taking courses like astronomy and calculus, before I realized that a creative writing/English degree was a much better fit.

But those two areas are closer than you might think.

You see, I write science fiction. I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. Anecdotal evidence suggests that an awful lot of real scientists have a similar story. So I had dreams of becoming an astronaut, or at least a SETI scientist or an astrophysicist.

Read the rest here: Dreaming of the Stars

Life took me in a different direction, but I’ve always kept one eye on the path-that-might-have-been.

I was thrilled to pieces when we started landing robots on Mars (I still remember being awestruck by those first panoramic photos), horrified when the space shuttle Columbia came back to Earth in pieces (I was too young to remember Challenger very well), and brokenhearted when the shuttle program was retired altogether.

I’m not sure whether it’s optimism or cynicism — or simply too much Star Trek in my impressionable years — that makes me passionately believe that one day we’ll need a space program. We’ll want a way to get off this planet, if not out of our solar system. I don’t know whether it’ll be a need for expansion, or the discovery of alien life, or a disaster (possibly our fault) befalling our home planet, or simply the desire for exploration, but one way or another, the human race is going to reach for the stars.

I hope we make it.

Your turn! Are you a space-lover or amateur astronomer? Why are you drawn to it?

Knight Errant by KD SargeIf you liked this post, you might enjoy Turtleduck Press author KD Sarge’s novels about spaceships, ex-Marines, and young men facing down their fears. The first one is called Knight Errantclick the cover for more info!

7 Things Gardening Has Taught Me

I’m a beginning gardener, just finishing up my first year — a small backyard garden, mostly vegetables, with a few flowers. I’ve learned a lot, both about gardening and about life. Here are 7 lessons from Year 1…

Rose close-up

1. Adapt your plans to your lifestyle and needs.

I know my garden isn’t going to be tended for hours each day, so I’m keeping it small, and I’m on a mission to discover which vegetables grow best under my erratic care. Zucchini is robust? Great! Celery needs nursing? Too bad, it’s not going in my garden. If you’re in a small space or have poor soil, look into container gardening — it’s pretty amazing what you can grow in pots these days. Make gardening work for you, and it’ll be a lot more fun.

Life lesson: Whether you’re trying to make time for a hobby you’re passionate about or to fit exercise into a busy schedule, it’s easier if you can work your new activity around the lifestyle needs you already have.

2. Keep up, don’t catch up.

You can pull out every last weed, stand back, and admire a job well done. But a week later, they’ll be sprouting up all over the place again. (It helps if you can get the whole root, which is hard with weeds that have long taproots). Discouraging? Yes. But it’s easier to keep up now than catch up later — trust me.

Life lesson: Some tasks come back again and again — laundry and other chores come to mind. It’s easier to stay on top of them if you’re not always playing catch-up.

3. But…it doesn’t have to be perfect.

See the green thing on the right? That's a weed. Should it be there? No. But is it the first thing you notice? Probably not.

See the green thing on the right? That’s a weed. Should it be there? No. But is it the first thing you notice? Probably not.

My garden had weeds in it. I watered erratically, so a lot of my carrots are stubby. But even so, I got a good haul of carrots, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, hot peppers, and various herbs — all local, organic, and delicious. And the roses and tiger lilies put on a glorious show. That’s good enough for me!

Life lesson: Who cares if my garden (or house, or personal style…) doesn’t look like it belongs on Pinterest or in a magazine, as long as it makes me happy and gets the results I want?

4. Experiment, learn, and do better.

I didn’t get good results from bell peppers, cantaloupe, spinach, or sweet peas (flowers) this year. So next year I’ll plant more of what did work (see above) and try out a couple of new things. I’ll also try to be at least a little more consistent with watering, and more proactive with weeding.Life lesson: Try things, make mistakes, and learn from them. Experiments and mistakes are okay. It’s how kids learn — why not you, too?

5. It’s weirdly exciting to watch things grow.

Baby cantaloupe!

Baby cantaloupe!

You plant something. You water and weed it occasionally. Maybe you fertilize it. And with just that and sunshine, you get a whole new living thing. If you’re growing vegetables, you get to see what baby cantaloupe look like, or watch the whole growth cycle of zucchini. If you’re growing flowers, there’s the cycle of bud to blossom. Every week there’s something new to see. It’s pretty cool.

Life lesson: Nature is both engrossing and relaxing. If you don’t have a garden of your own, try looking at the plants you pass on a regular basis and watch how they change — it’ll give you a minute or ten of being present, unplugged, and connected to the world around you.

6. Plants are slow…and that’s a good thing.

You can’t sit there and watch them grow. You might not see a change in 24 hours (unless it’s kudzu…). If you’re growing a perennial, you won’t see real results (whether fruit or flowers) in the first year — and that’s without even mentioning trees! So gardening is an exercise in patience. In a world that’s increasingly fast-paced, watching plants is a great antidote.

Life lesson: Sometimes good things build slowly. In the hectic pace of modern life, from social media to television, it’s good to step out of the flow and move at a different speed for a while.

7. Gardening is hard work…but it’s worth it.

Carrots 2

Gardening is a lot of work, especially when you’re just starting out and don’t know what you’re doing. It’s not for everyone. But it’s good exercise, and doing something with one’s hands — something tactile and tangible — is a welcome change for a lot of us. The process is rewarding (see above!). And all your hard work gets you delicious food and/or beautiful flowers.

Life lesson: Hard work reaps rewards. Maybe not instantly (see above), but then the payoff is richer when it finally comes.

 

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy my other posts on gardening (at Turtleduck Press):

Vegetable Gardening? Ooh, Shiny!

Vegetable Gardening, The Sequel: An “Ooh, Shiny!” Update

Vegetable Gardening: The Tasty, Tasty Conclusion

 

Your turn! What has gardening taught you?

A Short Story Inspired by Thailand

This week I have a new fantasy story up at Turtleduck Press. It’s the third installment in “Still Waters Run Deep”, a serial story about a pedlar trying to solve a magical crisis that’s entwined with his own long-buried past. (The first installment is here.) His world is not our own, but it bears a more-than-passing resemblance to ours…specifically, some of the places I saw on my travels earlier this year.

If I were to illustrate the story so far with photos, here’s what I’d choose…

The floating market at the beginning of the story, and the pedlar’s boat:

Thonburi floating market(Thonburi floating market, Bangkok, Thailand)

The river and vegetation:

Longtail boat in Thonburi greenery(Longtail boat in Thonburi, Thailand)

The narrow streams where the pedlar prefers to trade:

Kerala backwaters(The “backwaters” near Kumarakom, Kerala, southern India)

More vegetation along the main river in the story:

Jungle view from boat(Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia)

The Grand Temple in the city:

Grand Palace(Grand Palace, Bangkok)

And from the latest installment…

 

…leaving extra space in case you want to avoid spoilers…

 

The Old Temple:

Wat Arun(Wat Arun, Bangkok)

The golden statue would be something like this, except sitting upright in the lotus position (I did see statues like that, but most temples prohibit photography, so this is one of the few I was able to snap):

Wat Pho Reclining Buddha(Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok)

With those visuals in mind…hope you enjoy the story!

Your turn! Did the photos add to or detract from your experience of the story? If you’re a writer, do you use photographs as inspiration?

Nominated for the Liebster Award

I’ve been nominated for the Liebster Award! This is a blog award that’s been around for quite a while, so there are different versions of the rules floating around the blogosphere. I’ll follow the ones given by the blogger who nominated me — My Luggage is Elsewhere, a fascinating travel blog by a young woman from Bosnia.

Liebster Award

The Rules for the Liebster Award are simple:

1. Each nominee must link back the person who nominated them.

2. Answer the 10 questions which are given to you by the nominator.

3. Nominate 10 other bloggers for this award who have less than 400 followers.

4. Create 10 questions for your nominees to answer.

5. Let the nominees know that they have been nominated by going to their blog and notifying them.

And here are the 10 questions posed by My Luggage is Elsewhere, with my answers:

1. If you could have one special power, what would it be?

I’ve always wanted to be able to fly.

2. At what age of your life will you consider yourself “old?”

That’s a moving target! Ten years ago I thought 30 was getting up there and 40 was ancient. Right now I’d say 60, but I’m sure my answer will be different as that number approaches….

3. Hard copy of a book or electronic edition? Why?

Both! I will happily consume books in any form. I can’t imagine giving up my shelves of dead tree books, but I love my Kobo ereader too. When I choose an ebook over a paper book, I tend to do it for one of several reasons.

4. What is the most amazing place you have ever been to?

The Taj Mahal. A bit cliché, I know, it’s a major tourist attraction…but sometimes there’s a reason for that. We went at dawn, and it was so beautiful I could barely speak. Proper post, with photos, coming soon….

5. Do you blog more for yourself or for others to read?

I created this blog as an author platform, so even though I love writing the posts, I’d have to say I blog for others. Still looking for the best intersection between what I’m interested in writing about and what others are interested in reading, though!

6. Sunday – a pajamas day, or a day out?

Pajamas, all the way. I’m usually out on Saturdays, so Sunday is my day to sleep in and lounge about.

7. What is your biggest talent?

Writing, I hope.

8. What is one thing without which you never go out?

A book. Heaven forbid I should be caught on public transit without one.

9. Country or a city life?

City. I crave nature, so I try to get out of the city several times a year, but I don’t think I could live without all the amenities of a big city — restaurants, public transit, movie theatres, and so on.

10. What’s one of the strangest things you have ever done?

I broke my arm while roller-skating with my eyes closed. Don’t ask….

Rule 3 for the Liebster Award is to nominate 10 other bloggers who have fewer than 400 followers. Sadly, most of the bloggers I know have already done the Liebster Award, since it’s been around for so long. I’m going to nominate a few who I don’t think have, and if you’d like to join in, let me know in the comments and I’ll add you!

1. Erin Zarro

2. KD Sarge

3. Kit Campbell

And my questions for the nominees are:

1. Star Wars or Star Trek?

2. What’s your favourite item of clothing? Why?

3. What do you like best about blogging?

4. If you could live in another country, which one would it be?

5. Tea or coffee?

6. Oceans or mountains?

7. What are you reading right now?

8. Tell us a memory from when you were a kid.

9. Who’s your favourite superhero (or supervillain)?

10. Vampires, werewolves, or zombies?

Go to it, nominees, and have fun!

Guide to Train Travel in India

It’s time for another installment of Adventures in Asia. I’m mixing personal travel tales with how-tos, and this week is the latter…

Earlier this year, I spent six weeks travelling through India, much of it by train. Like India in general, the trains were an intense experience, chaotic, busy, sometimes dirty…but I wouldn’t have missed them for the world.

Here’s how to get the most out of travelling by train in India.

1. Decide whether trains are practical for your travel needs.

Pros: trains in India are extremely cheap (all of $10 for a six-hour trip in a decent class), they’re a great way to experience the country while not being insulated from it, they beat buses hands down, and they’re memorable.

Cons: they’re not the most comfortable by Western standards (more about this later), delays can be extensive, and you have to plan ahead.

The best parts of India to see by train are those where you can do 6- or 8-hour hops. That’s why the northern state of Rajasthan is so popular: it boasts a string of cities, most an easy day’s ride apart. If you don’t have time to tour Rajasthan, even more popular is the Golden Triangle: New Delhi–Agra (home of the Taj Mahal)–Jaipur (one of the major cities in Rajasthan)–and back to Delhi.

Certain parts of the country don’t have trains at all — any of the Himalayan states, for example — and in a lot of other cases, the trips required are extremely long. Faced with a 30-hour train ride, for example, you might decide to splash out for a plane ticket instead, or even hire a car. (In India, when you rent a car you also get a driver — which is not prohibitively expensive unless you’re really on a budget.)

2. Book your tickets online ahead of time.

Indian train tickets can be booked through Cleartrip, but if you don’t have an Indian mobile (cell phone) number, you’ll need to contact customer service to get an activation code.

The train system has a confusing number of different classes and trains (read all about them at IndiaMike — a wealth of information). The better ones fill up fast, so book as early as you can — best is to do it at least several weeks ahead. We did manage to get some last-minute seats, but they weren’t on the fastest trains or the best classes.

If you don’t book online, you’ll have to go to the station. New Delhi Railway Station is memorable, but not an experience I’d like to repeat. That’s because…

3. Expect chaos.

Big stations are incredibly busy and chaotic, full of people wanting to carry your luggage (for a fee) or take you to your hotel via rickshaw (for a fee) or begging. They’ll be especially eager if you look like a new tourist, or if you’re at a big tourist destination like one of the Golden Triangle cities. And you have to watch out for pickpockets, and not trust people who offer directions, because they may be part of a scam.

Even boarding and finding your seat can be tricky. When you get to the right platform, you’ll have to watch for electronic signs that will tell you where on the platform to wait for your train car (check your ticket). If you get on the wrong one, you’ll have to haul your luggage up and down the train, asking other passengers which car you’re in, receiving conflicting advice and trying to get a consensus. When you find your seat, there might be someone in it who will insist you’re in the wrong car.

There will be no staff to help; other passengers may be eager to help, but they may also have their information wrong.

Even after we had a handful of train trips under our belt, we still found the station navigation and boarding process to be exhausting and confusing.

4. Persist and learn the patterns.

Despite what I said in #3, it is quite possible to enjoy train travel in India — even if, like us, you’re not the most confident of travellers. Most of the stations where you’ll be getting on or off have electronic signs and announcements in English (smaller ones won’t, but unless you’re well off the beaten track, you shouldn’t have to worry). The complex system of classes starts to make more sense (tip: AC2 and Chair Car are the best; AC3 is also fine). You’ll get used to the layout of the cars. Even running the gauntlet of would-be rickshaw drivers gets easier — by the time we returned to Delhi, we’d mastered the art of ignoring touts so completely that we weren’t hassled for rides at all, even though my light hair attracted plenty of attention throughout India.

5. The level of comfort won’t be what you’re used to.

I mentioned that trains aren’t very comfortable by Western standards. In the classes you’re most likely to travel in, AC2 and AC3, you’re sitting on benches (reasonably well padded) facing other travellers, so there’s not much privacy, and the windows may be tinted so you won’t have a good view. (At night the benches convert into tiered bunks. In AC2, each compartment can be curtained off and the lighting dimmed individually. We managed to avoid any overnight trips, though, so I can’t be any more helpful there.)

If you’re travelling alone or at night, you’ll want to bring a sturdy lock to lock your bag up for security (there’s a ring for that purpose under each bench). The cars aren’t all that clean, particularly the bathrooms. Most of the time you’ll find each car equipped with three squat toilets and one Western-style toilet — usually with no toilet paper, so bring your own (and hand sanitizer!).

6. Make a conscious choice to relax and enjoy the experience.

Despite #5, if you have the ability to take such things in stride, trains are a wonderful way to see the country and meet locals. India hosts a lot of tourists, but almost everywhere you’ll be seriously outnumbered; I’ve been the only white person in a car many times.

AC2, AC3, and Chair Class are how the Indian middle class travels, so your seatmates will tend to be businessmen or students or families. I’ve chatted with a young woman travelling with her mother-in-law and her small son, showed off the sock I was knitting to a cadre of women, and asked lots of people whether we were coming up to our stop yet.

(And no, you don’t need much language in common to share moments like these. It helps if you learn the local pronunciation for places and a few key words, though many people will have a little English.)

And then there’s the cultural flavour. Periodically, someone will come by selling chai (tea) with a long drawn-out shout of “Chaaai!” that recalls a train whistle, or paani (water) with a low, growly “paani-water-paani-water-paani-water”, or bags of chips in strange and wonderful flavours. In Chair Car class, food and chai are provided free, but I learned the hard way not to partake. If in any doubt, bring your own.

Have you travelled by train in India? Any tips to share?

If you liked this post, you might also like other posts in my travel series, Adventures in Asia.

The Epic Battle of Sugar Cravings vs. Vegetable Smoothies

This week I’m over at Turtleduck Press talking about vegetables:

My household has had a steady (but not overwhelming) supply of zucchini for the last month. Zucchini grow fast, did you know? We picked the first one a month earlier than we were expecting after last year’s tomato crop. And we could have picked it even earlier, only we didn’t notice it. They’re good at hiding. By the time we realized we had one, it was thicker than a baseball bat. Whoops!

Partly as a result of our vegetable garden, my household has been drinking a lot of smoothies lately, full of varying and tasty combinations of greens, celery, apples, ginger, and fruit. I haven’t noticed any Popeye tendencies yet, though. I admit I was hoping for a magic food that would give me 100% more energy, 150% better digestion, 98% fewer mood swings…and, I can’t deny, 33% less tummy pudge. But maybe green smoothies can only do so much against a desk-bound lifestyle.

I go through phases. I find that when my mood is lower, I crave sugar; but conversely, drinking (or eating) less sugar doesn’t seem to have an effect on my mood. Sometimes I drink more lattes, sometimes more soda pop, sometimes hot chocolate. When I wasn’t working, I drank sweet chai (Indian-style tea) because someone in my family makes a fantastic chai. For a while I bought red wine regularly and tried to become a connoisseur; now I’ve given up and only have alcohol at restaurants.

These days most of my fancy drink needs, and some of my dessert needs, are being met by smoothies. I drink regular coffee and the occasional cappuccino or pop, and that’s pretty much it.

But winter is coming (I’m a Stark at heart) and I know what happens then. I get cold and want warm, sweet drinks. And my NaNoWriMo drink of choice is mildly caffeinated root beer. We won’t even get into NaNo snacks.

So…

Your turn! How do you combat cravings and stay healthy? How much does varying your diet affect your mood?

Visiting the Red Fort in New Delhi

The outer walls of the Red Fort

The outer walls of the Red Fort

In this installment of my Adventures in Asia series, we’re exploring the Red Fort, built on the order of Shah Jahan — better known as the emperor who built the Taj Mahal.

The fort was built during the heyday of the Mughal Empire, a Muslim empire that controlled much of India from the 16th to early 19th centuries. They built a lot of forts, palaces, and tombs that still stand today, even though Muslims have been reduced to a minority in present-day India.

If you go, rent an audioguide — it will not only walk you through the various structures in the fort but also give you a good overview of the history.

The Red Fort, or Lal Qila, overlooks the Yamuna River. Its imposing red sandstone walls are enclosed by a moat (now dry). Once you make your way through the series of massive gates, you’ll see that the complex wasn’t just a fort, but also a palace.

(Lots of photos after the jump!)

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