Saturday, June 23, 2012

When One Little Thing Changes Life

Two weeks ago, I spent most of my out-of-work hours lying on the couch, trying to cope with my back pain from an old injury. The injury happened a few years ago, but my back finally gave up and went south last year. I had to leave my job, and spent six months doing NOTHING except going to doctor appointments and physical therapy. The only other activity my doctor allowed was swimming, because it allowed my spine to completely decompress.

After six months, I decided I needed to go back to work. The only other alternative was to start preparing for a disability claim, and accept that at age 30, my life was pretty much over and I was just lying around waiting to die.

Instead of waiting to die, I wondered, what could I do with my life now that my injury essentially frees me from the societal pressure to work at a respectable 40-hour-a-week job? My husband's salary pays our bills (barely, if we want to do nothing else in life except pay our bills and eat). If I'm bringing in any income at all, we're OK. Now that I'm not expected to do what everyone thinks I should do, I can do anything I want.

I got a part-time job for an animal rescue. The organization drives me nuts, and the pay sucks, but I can work as many or as few hours as my back can handle. It's just a steady paycheck, though, not an end in itself. And honestly, my 25 hours a week pretty much wipes out my back, leaving me to lie on the couch the rest of the time.

Until two weeks ago. While wasting an afternoon on Twitter, I came across an article about all the ways soda is killing everyone. I knew all of these things before, but it was more scary reading them all together in one article. I really have no desire to rot my teeth, become grotesquely obese, and die of cancer. So, I decided to quit.

I have "quit" soda many times before. I'm not sure why, this time, I dropped it with no looking back. I know it's only been two weeks, but I already know that this time is for good. I also kicked my sweet tea habit. I decided that I wouldn't order sweet tea whenever I was out; I would only drink sweet if I sweetened it myself at home so that I knew exactly what was in it, and how much. After two days of only water and unsweetened tea, I felt better than I had in years. By the third day, I suddenly felt like, if I could do this, then there must be countless other things I can do.

I dusted off an old writing project, and started working on it. And I started thinking, what if I just self-published this as a series of e-books? And suddenly, my lifelong dream of being paid writer (maybe even a career writer?) didn't seem so huge and unobtainable.

I added a serving a day of kombucha, which a friend of mine introduced me to a few months ago, into my strict daily beverage routine. It was amazing. On the second day, I woke up and didn't go to the couch. I cleaned my house and played with my dog. My back hurt less and I had more energy. Do you know how good it feels to be moving?? And then I thought, what else? What else can I do?

Today I quit fried food and committed to 30 minutes a day of exercise. It's been almost a year since I had good exercise habits, when my back injury forced me to go on hiatus from Kung Fu. I've steadily gotten softer in the middle and slipped into worse cardio shape. But then I thought, what if I keep removing bad things and replacing them with good things? What if I'm healthier and more fit in my 30s than I was in my 20s?

And then I started meditating. I started focusing on my breathing and choosing to inhale positive things, like love, health, and happiness, and to exhale negative things like fear, illness, and depression. Just for a few minutes, just for a few breaths at a time, whenever I get a quiet moment in the day. And it changed the way I thought of everything around me.

Two weeks ago, I was a near-invalid on my sofa, with nothing to look forward to in life. And then I quit soda. And now I'm a writer, as I always should have been but was afraid to be, with dreams of becoming healthier and happier and more successful every day. One small decision taught me a couple of really big lessons. First, that making one positive change leads to other positive changes. Second, if you purge something negative and replace it with something positive, you can't help but feel so much better that you would never dream of going back. And third, no matter what your circumstances, you can always stop letting life happen to you and start making life happen, and it will completely change the way you see the universe.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Review: Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome

Last night I finished Anthony Everitt's Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome. This is actually the second time I've read one of Everitt's books; the first time being several years back when I attempted to read Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician. I was hoping that giving Everitt a second chance would improve my opinion somewhat, but it didn't. The fact is, I find Everitt's writing to be phenomenally sloppy and boring, and I take issue with him as a scholar.

My most overwhelming beef with Everitt's work is that, at the end of the book (at least in the case of Hadrian; I never made it to the end of Cicero) I inexplicably feel as though the author's treatment of the subject has made the subject seem less important, rather than more important. Any good work of history or biography ought to be enlightening the reader as to the larger impact of the subject matter in the grand scheme of things. Everitt's premise did seem to be that he thinks Hadrian's reputation was given a raw deal by contemporaries, but none of the body of the work did much to back that idea up. In fact, by the end I felt more as though I supported Hadrian's detractors!

Everitt's inability to showcase his subject matter is certainly not my only complaint, however. The narrative in Hadrian, as in Cicero, reads like a vast collection of disjointed, loosely-related snippets. The writer is unable to transition smoothly between segments, leaving the reader feeling as if being jerked from point to point and topic to topic. In addition, many of the quotations used (presumably to support the author's points) seem to say nothing of any purpose at all. There are also many grammatically awkward moments throughout the book where one must read backward and forward a few sentences to figure out to whom some ambiguous pronoun refers. These factors come together to give the impression of careless, haphazard writing.

My final complaint against Everitt's work (again, in Hadrian as in Cicero) is what comes across as a lack of responsible scholarship. When real evidence is lacking, Everitt seems to enjoy giving way entirely to the realm of imagination, and then analyzing his guesses as if they are fact. He also has no qualms about questioning the reliability of a source and then in the next sentence basing his opinions on the very same questionable source material. When multiple rational hypotheses may be readily apparent, Everitt is content choosing one that may or may not even be the most plausible, and treating it as though it is reality.

I was sincerely hoping that I would go into Hadrian and formulate a completely different opinion than what I was left with from my time with Cicero, but sadly, that didn't happen. My previous opinions of Everitt's merit as a writer and historian were completely confirmed. I can say with relative confidence that I won't be venturing into this author's work again. His books seem to be relatively popular, so I wish I could give them more credit. Maybe other people see something in this guy that I just don't see (if you do, more power to you; I'm not judging and we don't need to argue about it). It's entirely possible, since I seem to be much more persnickety in my book choices than most of my acquaintances are. Personally, though, I just wish he would stop writing on subjects that I'm interested in, so that I would know that I wouldn't have any future temptations to torture myself with his work.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Review: Persian Fire

Last night, about midnight, I was exhausted, but I only had 50 pages left in Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West and I could not allow myself to go to sleep until I finished it.

Overall, I thought this book was great. Holland has a very eloquent writing style (one of my few complaints is that in some spots it was almost too eloquent), and a knack for portraying people and events so vividly as to draw them through the centuries to the here and now and make them live again. He does a wonderful job of illustrating the complexity of the motivations of the major players on both the Greek and Persian sides of the conflict, and does an equally great job of placing all events within a solid framework of cultural and political context. Indeed, I gained a depth of understanding of Persian, Spartan, and Athenian social and cultural development that none of my history classes have ever given me. And perhaps most importantly, the work read less like a dry history textbook and more like a great historical epic. All of the great information in the world means nothing if it's so horribly boring that no one can wade through the book, but this was assuredly not the case with Persian Fire.

As I mentioned before, I have few complaints about the book. There were a few moments, typically when introducing a new point, where Holland seemed to wander off into tangents. He generally seemed to be attempting to introduce his point by way of some analogy, but on more than one occasion the attempt seemed a bit forced and clumsy. In addition, the last 15-20 pages of the book were a bit difficult to get through; they contained such an abrupt, hasty, and anticlimactic summary of postwar events that I almost felt as though Holland had gotten to the end of his material and was at a loss for how to wrap the thing up. While somewhat puzzling, neither of these faults was enough to materially damage my opinion of the book as a whole. A very worthwhile read.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Review: A History of Pagan Europe

Moving right along in my autumn reading spree, I just finished A History of Pagan Europe by Prudence Jones & Nigel Pennick.

I'm going to start right off with the book's major weakness: Because so many centuries and so much territory was crammed into a relatively short volume, the text had a tendency to degenerate into a list of dates and events. Also, for the same reasons, the book was able to do little more than summarize traditions and pantheons, without giving more depth to cultural context. In addition, some of the illustrations were downright irrelevant. Their captions offered little information, and many of them were never even mentioned in the main body of the text, so they served no purpose.

On the other hand, the book had a few notable strengths. For one thing, this history of paganism was not offered through the lens of a Christian bias, yet doesn't seem to project modern Neo-Pagan concepts on ancient traditions. This is remarkably refreshing. Also, the book addresses more than simply classical Greek and Roman practices and Celtic practices. I found the second half of the book much more interesting than the first half because of its glimpses into societies and traditions that aren't covered ad nauseam elsewhere. Another virtue of the text is that, unlike many Christian-biased histories, it does not portray the displacement of official paganism by official Christianity as a simple clear-cut event; rather, the sometimes lengthy persistence of many folk practices through time is given proper acknowledgement (without being unduly portrayed as the continuance of a formal pagan priesthood through the ages). Lastly, the book illustrates the roots of some not-so-obvious remnants of folk religion in modern culture.

All-in-all, I would recommend this book as a basic overview for readers who have not already engaged in any in-depth study of pre-Christian religion in Europe. If you're pretty grounded in Celtic or classical Greco-Roman culture, the latter half of the book still has value for you as it addresses Germanic and Slavic religion and the interaction of those cultures with the better-known Celtic and Greco-Roman traditions.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Women's Bodies Are So Gross!

You Should Fear The Barbie Crotch | xoJane: Really, there isn't a whole lot I can add to this brilliant article, except that you shouldn't read it if you're squeamish about lady bits, and you should definitely read it if you own a set of lady bits.

Also, the woman that designed this stupid product has clearly never heard of how our paleolithic ancestors revered vulva for their life-giving power. If she had, maybe she wouldn't be so ashamed of her own that she has to try to make herself feel better by telling other women to be ashamed of theirs.

As for me, I can only strive daily to not buy into this culture of self-loathing. I can only tell myself as often as possible that there is nothing wrong with my face, hair, figure, or sexual organs that needs to be "fixed" by anything I can buy at a store. And if I'm going to cave on something, it's going to be a bottle of nail polish, not a designer anti-cameltoe apparatus.

'via Blog this'

4 Reasons the United States Postal Service Blows

1) The Postal Service doesn't do the job. Not a day goes by that I don't hear someone complaining about a package that was lost, bills delivered to the wrong house, or time-sensitive material arriving too late. If I'm the one who happens to be complaining, every single person I complain to can sympathize. I don't know a single person who thinks the Postal Service does a good job. Even most postal employees I know won't look me in the eye and say they think the USPS does good work. There are two kinds of people in relation to the Postal Service; people who know the post office sucks but that we should keep it because there's no alternative, and people who know the post office sucks and think we should give it the ax so we can create some good alternatives.

2) The Postal Service doesn't even care that it sucks. Have you tried to get some good customer service from USPS lately? Call their 800 number to complain that your carrier didn't even attempt to deliver your parcel. Leave a note for your carrier to please stop delivering mail that goes to the people who lived in your house five years ago. Go talk to the station manager at your local post office about how your carrier is a twit. It's like talking to a brick wall. The folks at the 800 number are more than happy to record your complaint, thank you for calling, and let you know that the manager from your local station will call you. Nothing ever happens, there's never any apology, and the station manager never calls. If you have one of the good carriers, which is about a 50/50 chance, leaving some sort of request in the box might get your issue at least somewhat addressed... until routes are re-assigned or it's your carrier's day off. That, I could live with. If you have the lazy twit carrier (of which there are many), you will be lucky if the worst thing that happens is that the carrier ignores your request. Some carriers will write back on your request with a snide remark. Some will continue delivering mail you have refused. Some will begin intentionally misdelivering or not delivering your mail (a federal offense IF you can prove it). The worst ones will actually damage your parcels (again, a federal offense IF you can prove it) or vandalize your property if they think you're troublesome or if you've been complaining about them (yes, I know of more than one actual occurrence of this). And complaining in person to a station manager? Generally useless, because station managers invariably speak to you as though your request is unreasonable or as though you're too stupid to understand the complex process of delivering the mail.

3) The Postal Service is a money sink. In USPS new employee training, employees are trained to recite the mantra that the USPS has been self-sustaining since 1984. The reason that employees are trained with this little tidbit of knowledge, is specifically for the sake of arguing with customers who might accost the employee and accuse the USPS and its crappy service of being a waste of tax dollars. The employee replies to the accusation that actually, the USPS has been self-sustaining since 1984, and therefore wastes no tax dollars. The problem with this is, the USPS is always in the red and can't even raise enough revenue to pay all of its employees' salaries, so it operates on a massive line of credit from the federal government. That means tax dollars, folks. So even if you are really hardcore and boycott the USPS (which means not sending letters, not subscribing to publications, not ordering Netflix, paying more to send every possible thing by other means), they are still getting money from you one way or another. And they certainly aren't self-sustaining by any stretch of the imagination (though they are correct in saying that they have been legally mandated to be self-sustaining since 1984).

4) The USPS abuses its employees. Take a survey of postal employees someday and find out how many clerks and carriers there are that haven't had job-related injuries. Out of postal employees that have worked for the USPS for more than 10 years, find out how many aren't needing surgery from a permanent job-related injury. There aren't many. And why is that? Because the USPS bullies its employees into rushing when it isn't safe to do so, and into working when they're hurt. And once there is a serious injury, USPS supervisors try to find some reason to blame the employee for the injury and write them up (a letter carrier can get written up if they are the victim of a dog attack, for example). And then the supervisor tries to bully the employee into not filing a workman's comp claim. The supervisors pressure the employee to see the USPS-provided doctor (who is paid by the USPS and therefore will nearly always declare that the injury is not serious and that the employee can get back to work right away). And then, if the employee insists on filing a workman's comp claim and seeing a competent doctor, the supervisor will get in the employee's face and scream that the employee is obviously not really hurt and is trying to scam the USPS.

I think those are four pretty good reasons to hate the USPS. Congress should repeal the law that bans price competition with USPS, and then stop all government subsidies. The USPS would then be forced to become competitive in the areas of quality and customer service. The USPS would probably have to cut jobs in the process (they're doing that anyway), but the startups that would be jumping to compete with it would be creating jobs, many of which would end up going to experienced former postal workers anyway. And I wouldn't have to sit here writing rants against the freaking USPS.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Review: The Fossil Trail

I went on a birthday book-buying binge (oooh, alliteration!), so I expect to be writing up a few book reviews in the near future. The first one is now!

I just finished The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Think We Know About Human Evolution by Ian Tattersall, who is currently with the American Museum of Natural History. It's the revised edition of a book first released in 1995. I would rate the reading as being on the level of a college-level introductory paleoanthropology course. Having never done any previous reading on the subject matter before, I still found Tattersall's explanations relatively easy to follow.

One thing I noticed throughout the book is that it is rife with typos. The book otherwise seemed to be of pretty decent quality, but the missing letters and duplicate letters ran rampant throughout the book, and it got pretty irritating after a while. Tattersall also seemed to have a bit of trouble organizing his material, with a large number of instances of "more on that later," but that could simply be due to the complexity of subject matter being squeezed into one volume. It can also be difficult to keep up with the large number of fossil specimens specifically dealt with in the text. The additional chapters added for the second edition, though, did a pretty good job of bringing the text up to speed with current developments in the field, and I thought Tattersall's treatment of the subject matter was pretty enlightening and thought-provoking.

Some thoughts this book brought to mind:

1) I hadn't truly realized how young the science of paleoanthropology is, nor how arbitrary species classification is. Really, when I began to comprehend how much uncertainty riddles the field, I almost began to have some idea of how there are people in the world who can still militantly oppose the idea of evolution. I say "almost," because with some of those people, I'm pretty sure that even if there were no uncertainty in the field, they would be just as militant in their objections anyway.

2) The book addresses the fact that species classification is only possible because of gaps in the fossil record, which reminds me of an article I read some time ago that discussed offspring always being the same species as the parents... so presumably, if there were no gaps in the fossil record, there would theoretically only be one species from us all the way back to our point of origin. The same would be true of every other species on the planet. Then, theoretically, by this reasoning, if we all descended from some common single-celled organism, we would all have to be classified as the same species. That possibility puts me in mind of the Native American "all my relations" concept of all living things being our brethren. It was a profound moment in my reading. I had to sit the book down and process that idea for a minute before I went on. That one train of thought alone made it worthwhile for me to pick up this book on impulse off the table at Half Price Books.

Overall, I really enjoyed this read, and would recommend it to anyone who gets into science, anthropology, human evolution, and the like. I would particularly recommend it to folks who are interested in those topics but don't have a previous background in studying those topics. If you've studied the subject matter already, this overview of the development of the field of paleoanthropology may be a bit too basic for you.