Some Commonsensical Coronavirus Advice From a Doctor

If you have symptoms and are wondering whether or not to go to the doctor or E.R., watch this video.

Basically – for most people – staying at home and calling your doctor for extra confirmation about what to do is the best way to protect yourself and others.

Heading to a clinic, doctor’s office, or hospital with relatively mild symptoms can a) expose you to other illnesses b) increase the chances that you’ll infect others and c) contribute to the overburdening of a healthcare system which needs to make room for people who are most in need of medical attention. If your symptoms are relatively mild, and they aren’t deteriorating into alarm signs (which he describes in the video), your best bet is to rest at home, call your doctor for additional advice if necessary, and take other precautions (like washing hands, disinfecting surfaces, coughing into your elbow, avoiding crowded and confined spaces, and avoiding close contact with others).

School Closed Because of Coronavirus? Check Out These 18 Educational Sites

Many kids around the world are missing out on classes because of coronavirus closures, and in the U.S. the number of closures is expected to increase, both for K-12 institutions and colleges.

Even if your school is still open, these sites are worth checking out. You’ll find content for a variety of levels, and for both kids and adults.

1) Atlas Obscura – Exploring the wonders of the world.

2) Bozeman Science – Excellent videos primarily on AP chemistry, biology, physics, and environmental science.

3) CK-12 – A resource for different topics in science, math, and social studies.

4) Curiosity Machine – Offers challenges involving artificial intelligence, engineering, and other areas of science and technology.

5) edX – Lots of courses geared towards professionals and students in higher ed. However, there are younger students who could also benefit from the site.

6) freeCodeCamp – Check out their YouTube channel too. HTML & CSS, Javascript, Python, an introduction to statistics, and more.

7) GCFLearnFree – Many tutorials on computer programs, job skills, communication skills, critical thinking, and other useful and important topics.

8) Khan Academy – Because a list like this wouldn’t be complete without it. They even posted content about coronavirus school closures and how the site can help.

9) MetKids – The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City offers an interactive, kid-friendly feature for exploring the museum. Includes many suggestions for creative activities.

10) OpenStax – Free online textbooks.

11) Physics Girl – YouTube channel exploring topics in the physical sciences, with demonstrations of experiments you can try.

12) Project Gutenberg – Free eBooks. Here are their top 100.

13) Read Theory – For help with reading comprehension skills.

14) Science Friday – Lots of subjects covered in article, audio, and video form. (Just one example: a look at the word quarantine.)

15) Simplilearn – A YouTube channel for building digital skills. Includes tutorials on data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

16) StoryJumper – A fun way for kids to create their own books.

17) We Are Teachers: Free Printables – Search by grade level and subject.

18) Wonderopolis – For exploring different topics, working on reading comprehension, and getting ideas for creative and educational activities.

YouTube Exercise Channel Recommendation: Koboko Fitness

I recently discovered Koboko Fitness, and while I haven’t tried every workout video, I like the ones I’ve used so far.

– There are a variety of exercises and routines.

– The routines vary in length. Some may be 5-10 minutes, while others are half an hour. I like that, because sometimes if I have a free 10 minutes or just want to take a break from work, I can fit a shorter routine into my schedule.

– For some of the exercises, you may want to have dumbbells, but they aren’t strictly required. A yoga mat or towel can be helpful for floor exercises, but you don’t need to go out and buy any equipment to participate.

– You sometimes get presented with low-impact and high-impact versions of the same exercise. Depending on your fitness level or how you’re feeling on a given day, you may want to go with one or the other. You can also introduce your own intensity level – for example, instead of doing a wall push-up, do a regular push-up on the floor if you can. Or if you don’t want to jump your feet out during a burpee, maybe walk them out and then back in.

– The instructor and creator of the channel is a positive, encouraging person who is dedicated without being a fanatic.

– Although the channel is geared towards women, there are many exercises (maybe even all of them?) that men could benefit from. So if you’re a guy who wants to try out some of the routines, go right ahead (during a workout, you might get called a “beautiful goddess,” but maybe you can cope with that).

Here’s one routine I did today:

Here’s another good one:

And if you’re wondering, no, I’m not affiliated with Koboko Fitness, and I haven’t been paid anything for this post.

Please Stop Confusing Criticism With Censorship

If you’re reading this and thinking, “I don’t confuse criticism with censorship,” that’s great. This post is for people who do, or for people who aren’t sure what I’m talking about and would like some elaboration.

I’ve participated in many discussions over the years where someone reacts to a criticism by saying, “I have a right to my opinion,” even though no one questioned their right to have an opinion. Because there’s a difference between criticizing the content of a statement/opinion/argument and denying your right to express it.

Maybe this reaction is heightened in an environment where people are subject to various forms of censorship. Not just censorship from the government, but the threat of being fired, unpublished, or attacked for expressing a dissenting opinion on a subject. No matter how thoughtful or courteous you are, there may be people who look at any dissent as “harmful” and use it as an excuse to try to ruin you.

But it’s still important to distinguish between criticism and censorship. For example, it’s especially weird seeing so-called “free speech warriors” rail against criticism in the name of free speech, even though criticism itself is a form of speech. But maybe not so weird when you consider that the “confusion” can be deliberate – a useful strategy for staving off criticism and making your opponents seem unreasonable.

I’ve also seen the flip side of this – people calling for censorship while pretending their call for censorship is mere criticism. For example, people may ask for a book to be banned or unpublished and claim that this request is merely a form of criticism. But it isn’t. There’s a difference between thoughtfully writing a negative review of a book and asking for that book to be banned (or burned).

A Book With a Built-in Writing Lesson

In Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo, a police chief going through an emotional crisis attends the funeral of a local judge he dislikes. During a long-winded speech by some clergyman (it’s unclear what denomination if any he represents), the chief remembers a lesson taught him by his eighth grade English teacher: the rhetorical triangle.

On the rhetorical triangle, the three sides are as follows:

  • Subject – What you’re writing about.
  • Audience – Who your audience is.
  • Speaker – Who you are.

The triangle seems simple, but really it can get complicated.

Regarding “Subject,” you may not be sure what you’re writing about. Maybe you have a general topic, but you don’t know what to focus on within that topic. You’re not sure what questions to ask.

When it comes to ‘Audience,’ do you have a person in mind, or a group of people? What is it about your writing that they’ll find interesting? (The police chief kept thinking that for his school assignments his teacher was his audience, but she denied this.)

‘Speaker’ seems like a straightforward one, until you realize that the issue of who you are isn’t always clear. Who is the ‘you’ that’s writing? Do you think of your writer-self as a persona, one of many roles you play? What ‘you’ is in the text?

The police chief’s English teacher would write on his essays, “Who are you?”

There was always, she claimed, an “implied writer” lurking behind the writing itself. Not you, the actual author – not the person you saw when you looked in the mirror – but rather the “you” that you became when you picked up a pen with the intention to communicate.

Part of what the chief struggles with in this book is who he is, decades later. With his teacher, he always wanted to tell her “Nobody,” because he hoped that passing himself off as a nonentity would mean she’d dismiss him instead of expecting anything good from him. One of his dilemmas in the book is that he has been roped into writing a speech for a ceremony in her memory, so her lesson – and her questions – have elbowed their way to the forefront of his thoughts. The speech that he’s meant to deliver about her will reflect something about himself, and he doesn’t want to confront himself. He’s tempted to ask one of his officers to write the speech for him.

It’s worth thinking about how the three sides of the triangle interact – more generally and for specific pieces you’re working on. How does the Subject, for instance, influence the voice of the author-you? What if author-you seems weak or phony?

The clergyman at the funeral (the police chief thinks of him as Reverend Tunic) seems to have held on and enlarged the Speaker side of the triangle while dropping the other two sides as inconsequential. But without giving much consideration to Subject or Audience, what kind of a speaker/author is he?

A Book for Boomers (but Not Only Boomers)

I recently read 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal by Elizabeth White, even though I’m a couple of decades younger than 55. Although the book might be most useful to Americans of the Boomer generation, the reader’s age isn’t so important, because people younger than that (and some in the 75+ crowd) might benefit from it as well.

55underemployed

What brought me to the book to begin with? I happened to see it at the library and read through its section on employment issues (fewer full-time jobs with benefits and pensions, more part-time/contractual/freelancing/gig work, and age discrimination in hiring practices), and then I checked it out.

I recommend it as a kind of ‘starter guide,’ as it addresses a number of important issues, including:

  • Social isolation, shame, and anxiety.
  • Options for more affordable housing, along with things that need to change, such zoning restrictions that don’t suit current needs.
  • What to do if you don’t have enough saved for retirement (most Americans don’t have nearly enough).
  • What to do, and how to cope, if you aren’t finding a good job or any job.
  • Finding the right mindset for making your life worth living and meeting the difficulties head on, even if your life isn’t turning out the way you expected it to.

Anyone can use this book to plan for future problems or find insights into current difficulties. One of the book’s strengths is the number of resources the author shares – a large number of organizations and their websites covering all kinds of areas, including assistance with work and housing.

I also liked the author’s tone. It’s compassionate, firm, and straightforward. She obviously supports taking responsibility for your life, but she also doesn’t ignore various issues that people don’t have control over (such as the recession of 2008). She’s a level-headed person, and she’s clear about the fact that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for each problem she discusses. You might read through this book and find little that helps you, but even if you get one or two ideas for what to do next, it could be worth it.

The book is also full of short, often moving contributions from other people. Sometimes, they share their struggles, and you can commiserate. Other times, they share solutions for what works for them.

It’s worth checking this book out.

A Valentine’s Day Playlist

I recommend listening to these songs throughout the year, but they would make a good playlist for Valentine’s Day too. Not all of them involve romantic love. Some are focused on friendship and one is full of compassion towards the self.

Angels (the xx)
A lovely, melancholic song that flows through you.

Beam Me Up (Pink)
Not a Star Trek song specifically (though go ahead and think about Star Trek characters if you want). It’s a tender, gut-wrenching song – when you miss someone so badly and want to see them again, just for a minute if you can’t have more than that.

Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon & Garfunkel)
Uplifting. Through dark times and shining dreams, loyalty endures, and I don’t care if that sounds cheesy.

Dance Me to the End of Love (Leonard Cohen)
So beautiful and should be played at weddings. Also, here’s a gorgeous cover performed by Madeleine Peyroux.

Don’t You Forget About Me (Simple Minds)
Part of my childhood was an ’80s childhood. And the music video for this song (at the link) is probably the ’80iest of all the music videos that ever came out of the ’80s. All kidding aside, I really like this song.

Dreams (The Cranberries)
“Totally amazing mind, so understanding and so kind…” The wonder of love, the wonder of the meeting of minds and hearts.

Happy (Marina and the Diamonds, in the acoustic band version of her song)
I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a personal anthem, but when I first listened to it, it struck deep. This is the one that has a gentle compassion towards the self, a love that may have been absent before.

Kind and Generous (Natalie Merchant)
When you feel appreciation for lovely people in your life.

Misty (Ella Fitzgerald)
Meltingly tender love song, and Ella Fitzgerald is a rare gem.

La Vie en Rose (Rhiannon Giddens)
I love when Edith Piaf sings it, but I’m linking to Giddens, because hers was a beautiful surprise. I didn’t think I’d want to hear anyone else sing this but Piaf.

You’re My Best Friend (Queen)
People know Queen best for their grander pieces, but I’ve long had a soft spot for this quiet, moving one.

Four Annoying Things People Do When Discussing Fictional Characters

I like talking to people about fictional characters, for two main reasons:
1) It’s interesting to think about psychology, behavior, relationships, and culture.
2) As a writer, I find it worthwhile to think about how other writers have crafted characters. How did they portray a character’s development or find a creative way to describe appearance?

Along with many enjoyable conversations with people, online and offline, about characters, I’ve also run up against some frustrating behaviors. Here are four examples of annoying things people do during these discussions:

1) Exaggerate the flaws of an unliked character

I won’t try to argue someone into liking or disliking a character. How people feel about a character isn’t always easily explainable, and people have preferences that you can’t control.

What I do care about, however, is a fair and well-intentioned reading (or viewing, if we’re talking about a movie/show). For some people, it’s not enough to dislike a character. They have to make that character the WORST EVER, blowing up all their faults while minimizing or erasing any good points. They’ll exaggerate mistakes or terrible behavior while pretending that the character has never done anything meaningfully good or interesting. Sometimes, they’ll completely make stuff up.

(I’ve also seen the reverse situation, where someone favors a character to the point where they exaggerate everything good about them and give that character credit for things they never did. This can also be annoying.)

2) Reduce a character to one dimension

Oversimplification bothers me. When a multi-faceted character gets described – and dismissed – as “the muscle” or “the babe” or “the brat” or “the bitch,” we miss out on an opportunity to consider a more complex figure with a mix of characteristics and motives, a character who may have changed in key ways throughout a story.

3) “Well I wouldn’t have done that!”

It’s normal to wonder how you would have handled a situation similarly or differently from a character. It’s interesting to consider how the same situation can affect people in different ways.

It gets annoying, however, when people keep using themselves as the sole yardstick for determining whether a character is good, wise, kind, beautiful, worthy of sympathy, or written realistically.

Regarding whether or not a character is “realistic,” there are multiple issues to consider. A character may seem unrealistic because the author failed to portray them convincingly – maybe the character seems flat, written without care or consistency, or the author messed up some major details about their job or religion. Or maybe the character is meant to come across as deceptive or unreliable in some way. Or the story is set in an unsettling fantasy realm, and as a reader you haven’t yet figured out all the “rules” for the way things are. There are interesting discussions to be had about what it means for a character to be realistic.

In any case, your personal experience is important, but it isn’t the sum total of existence. People don’t all act/speak/think/feel the same way in similar situations.

4) Make unwarranted, uncharitable assumptions about the author and other readers

Authors do sometimes write themselves into a story as a character, or they seem to favor one character greatly (possibly at the expense of the other characters or the plot).

But I’ve also seen many cases where readers make unfair assumptions about an author based on the behavior of a character. One example – they assume that a character’s racism is reflective of the author’s beliefs. Or that if a villain didn’t receive a harsh punishment, it must mean the author is condoning what the villain did.

They may also make assumptions about other readers (or viewers) in a similar way. In some fan forums and social media subcultures, it’s imperative that you feel a certain way about a character, or else you’ll get viciously harassed, dog-piled, or even doxxed. By liking a certain character, you become indistinguishable from them in values and world view. Never mind that it’s possible to like a character for multiple reasons. For instance, you can be drawn to a character because they’re interesting and make the whole story more interesting, even if in real life you know they would be harmful to you.

Implications Beyond Fiction

Everything I’ve mentioned here can derail a discussion about fictional characters or make it become deeply unpleasant, an exchange of attacks rather than a conversation. But what also bothers me is that I see the same kind of reactions applied to actual people:

The need to demonize opponents, while downplaying the flaws (or dismissing the crimes) of those you support. A strong tendency to sum people up with a label or two before stuffing them into some mental compartment within easy reach. An inability to see beyond yourself and try to understand why another person (someone in the present day or perhaps a historical figure) acts, thinks, or feels a certain way. A desire to ascribe unwarranted, perverse motives to people or leap to conclusions based on faulty judgments of collective guilt or guilt by association (“you agree with so-and-so about one political issue, which means you agree with them about every political issue, you bigot/communist/fascist/insult-buzzword-of-the-day”).

If we change the way we think about and discuss fictional characters, can we change the way we look at real humans in the messy world around us, present and past?

Dealing With Regret: Insights From an Australian Novel

“There’s always a chance to start over” is a common message. It’s meant for encouragement, and plenty of times it’s accurate. People do often rebuild their lives after an abusive relationship or a job loss or an illness. Their life may not look exactly the same, but it can wind up being better in a number of ways.

Other times, there’s no fresh start, not in the way one hopes for. A missed chance is gone. An opportunity won’t return. There are limits to the ways in which we can start over.

Regret naturally follows. And regret can throw up a wall around you, keeping you locked up with your past, tormented by “what-ifs,” and unable to perceive present and future possibilities.

Insights From Tirra Lirra by the River

tirralirrabytheriver

Last year, I read Tirra Lirra by the River, a novel by Jessica Anderson. As a young woman, the main character, Nora, jumps at the chance to leave the backwaters Australian community where she grew up. As an old woman, she returns and wonders whether leaving had been the right decision after all.

Nora has a gift for art. In various ways, she draws on her artistic skills after leaving home, but towards the end of her life she also thinks that she would have grown more as an artist had she stayed.

Throughout her life, she suffers various heartbreaks, including a wretched marriage. After her marriage, she wonders if some paths are permanently closed to her:

I knew that like fruit affected by a hard drought, I was likely to be rotten before ripe. Sometimes I believed it was already too late, but at others I was seized by a desperate optimism that expressed itself in spates of chatter and laughter and hectic activity.

But it would be wrong to say that her life has been devoid of joy, interest, and friendship. And this is what brings me to the main point – What insights does the novel give us about dealing with regret?

Avoiding sentimentality and self-pity

Nora may feel angry, crushed, or terrified at various times in her life, but she doesn’t indulge much in self-pity. She also doesn’t try to sugar coat reality. Her retelling of her life has a clarity and straightforwardness that’s admirable. She can also take on a wry tone, finding absurdity in depressing circumstances.

She isn’t invulnerable to despair. But her general level-headedness is a way of dealing with regret and getting on. She doesn’t spend a lot of time railing against fate. She doesn’t lie to herself and pretend that everything is ok when it’s not. And – this is also important – she doesn’t pretend that something isn’t good enough when in fact it’s quite lovely and inspiring. Without being sentimental, Nora can appreciate what’s good.

Avoiding what-ifs

Nora has her “what if” moments during the book. But for the most part, she doesn’t dwell on alternate scenarios or choices left unchosen. She also doesn’t waste mental energy on “should haves” or “shouldn’t haves.” (“Things shouldn’t have turned out like this!”) Whether they should have or not isn’t really something we can fully understand or control. Things are as they are; hard work and powerful hopes don’t guarantee certain outcomes. Sometimes we do have the power to change things, but not always, or not to the extent we like. We face our circumstances, make various choices, and that’s it.

Seeking beauty

With her artist’s eye and her powerful determination, Nora does find beauty in all kinds of situations:

In whatever circumstances I have found myself, I have always managed to devise a little area, camp or covert, that was not too ugly. At times it was a whole room, but at others, it may have been only a corner with a handsome chair, or a table and a vase of flowers. Once, it was a bed, a window, and a lemon tree. But always, I have managed to devise it somehow, and no doubt I shall do it again.

This skill in seeing beauty has been with her all her life. For instance, when she was younger:

I was amazed and enthralled by the thickness and brilliance of the stars, by the rich darkness of the sky, and the ambiguous peacefulness of the blazing moon. In an aureole of turquoise the moon sailed across the sky, and as I watched, our block of land became a raft and began to move, sailing swiftly and smoothly in one direction while the moon and clouds went off in the other.

And when she’s an old woman:

… at the other end of the veranda, I can see the dark leaves climbing one behind the other, casting on the timber a shadow perforated by tear-shaped fragments of sunlight.

This ability to perceive beauty in various forms and make space for beauty even in the middle of pain or misery, is a potentially life-saving skill. And it can certainly help temper regret.

Notes from a New Year’s Day Fitness Fair

In what is a promising way to start 2020, I went to a fitness fair at a health club and community center. All of the classes at the fair were free, and it was a fun way to try some different activities. Here are my notes:

MELT method for improved neck and shoulder posture and pain relief

– I didn’t know what the MELT method was, and unlike in a regular class, the instructor didn’t have time to explain. She kept using certain terminology (like “shearing”), and she mentioned how this was about connective tissue.
– The particular exercises she used were supposed to help with the healthier position of the neck and shoulders and a release of tension in those areas, which is important for me, because when I write I have a tendency to get a tortoise neck (where my head pushes forward towards the laptop screen). So I thought maybe this could help.
– The exercises involved lying on a mat and using a cylindrical tube, a roller, made of foam that sometimes didn’t feel soft at all, like when it was digging into my spine.
– Some parts of me did feel genuinely more relaxed – not numbed, but truly more relaxed. But I also developed a pain in a part of my upper back. So, mixed results.
– Maybe it would have worked better with a smaller class where the instructor can stop next to each person and make sure their technique and roller positioning are good.

Nia Dance

– Ok, this was fun. So happy I signed up for this one.
– It was an hour-long workout combining dance, martial arts moves, and other types of movements (free-styling too). The warmup and cool down were effective, and the workout itself was energetic and called on the whole body.
– Also, the energy in the room was fantastic. A friendly vibe, people enjoying themselves. This was seriously a great activity.
– I felt happy, relaxed, and at peace with the world after.

A lecture on sleep

– Some of the stuff I learned kept me awake at night. (Just kidding, somewhat.) Anyway, sleep is a critical part of good health.
– It’s important to consider both quality and quantity of sleep.
– The lecturer talked about some things I’d like to look into further, like blue light from various screens and light fixtures (fine during the day, but could disturb ability to sleep when exposed to it at night before going to bed).
– Low-quality sleep can arise for multiple reasons, ranging from anxiety to problems in the physical environment. Also, the lecturer brought up a disturbing attitude towards sleep, where some people consider it unproductive or a waste of time.

Meditation

– Really low-key instructor. A relaxed, quiet guy. You could tell he meditates.
– The first meditation, which was just breath-focused, was pretty good, but I also felt impatient some times. The instructor talked about how to gently note the impatience and gently return attention to breathing whenever attention slips.
– The ticking of the clock sounded like a caterpillar munching on a leaf.
– The second meditation was more successful for me. It was focused on breathing and on a single word of your choice. I chose “mayim” (pronounced “mah-yim”), the Hebrew word for water. This also got me to imagine water flowing over me (including on the MELT-induced upper back ache), and to picture myself at one of the best beaches I’ve ever been to – the one at Halibut Point State Park near Rockport, MA. This is a photo I took when visiting there in the summer of 2017:

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– The third meditation involved focusing on a feeling of warmth and closeness. That one was good too, but for meditating on a regular basis I think I’ll do the second one most frequently.