Who is Jan Svankmajer? [And What's With His Claim That We're All a Bit Sadistic?]

This post is the EIGHTH in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

In August 2016, I had the opportunity to interview Czech animation king and Surrealist film director Jan Svankmajer at his summer house outside Prague. The questions stemmed from a Masters thesis that I wrote on Svankmajer’s work in 2012 (available here). Enjoy his thoughtful answers, below.

Jan Svankmajer in his study, August 2016.

Jan Svankmajer in his study, August 2016.

1. Do you believe that childhood is malevolent?

I do not think that childhood is malevolent, though it could be said that childhood is “cruel”—at least from the adults’ point of view. Children stand outside of “good and evil.” They have not been domesticated yet. Unaware of morality or its lack, they are innocent—even as they tear the wings off of flies.

2. What is special about children that makes them more sensitive to magic, surrealism, terror, imagination, etc.?

Neurologists have determined that mankind’s instincts—the lizard brain—have not changed much since the Neolithic Age. Despite the pragmatism and rationality of civilized life, man’s tendency is toward the irrational (even the magical). There is no ‘homo economicus;’ rather, civilization is at odds with human nature, and that is why it cannot end well. Evolution occurs too slowly for people to keep up with civilization as it changes. The preschool-aged child is protected from this contradiction. Just as children are exempt from morality, so, too, are they immune to those habits of civilization like logic (the principle of reality). They live by the principle of pleasure—which has its source in the imagination.

3. How do you think the intrauterine (prenatal) experience influences the people we become?

Surrealism concerns itself with mental morphology, or how the preschool-aged child’s milieu/surroundings influence the formation of his interior life. As Freudians, Surrealists place the greatest importance on the first three years of life, and much less on the intrauterine experience. That said, I do not want to claim that the prenatal experience has no influence—but I am afraid we would be veering too much into the realm of speculation. Who could retain any relevant memories from the prenatal state?
A Surrealist sculpture by Jan Svankmajer.

A Surrealist sculpture by Jan Svankmajer.

4. What color is your imagination?

Brown—puzzuola to be more precise. When I was five, my family (my father, mother, and two older sisters) moved to Vrsovice (a district in Prague). One of my earliest memories is of painting the kitchen floor brown in my family’s new house. I’ve never forgotten it.

5. From where do sexual fetishes originate? Phobias?

According to Freud, fetishes and phobias arise during the pre-genital phase of psychosexual development—probably in the sadistic-anal phase. Phobias are therefore relics of childhood. They are rationally unsuppressable, because having once accepted them emotionally, phobias and fetishes live in our emotional cores. For the same reason, they are the strongest sources of individual creative output.

6. What are your dreams like?

Colorful and usually related to persecution. I was growing up at the time of World War II, during the German occupation. At night I used to be haunted by recurring dreams in which I was being chased by soldiers and I had to escape through gardens and yards in a block of houses. (I reference those dreams in my film Surviving Life—and they still come back in different variations.)
The Sedlec Ossuary, which inspired one of Jan Svankmajer's short films.

The Sedlec Ossuary, which inspired one of Jan Svankmajer's short films.

7. In what ways are men manipulated like puppets?

When I compare people to puppets controlled via wires and strings, of course I mean it metaphorically/symbolically. In reality, those wires or strings can be, for example, advertisements, populist politicians, religion, mass media, laws, the police, etc. Civilization is based on manipulation. How else would the minority be successful in controlling the majority? We live in a manipulated democracy—as Noam Chomsky remarked.

8. What value is there in isolating objects from their original contexts (e.g. feet dancing by themselves?)

Comte de Lautréamont, the predecessor of Surrealists, wrote this sentence: “As beautiful as the meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” Real poetry begins when we take reality out of its natural surroundings and put it into an inadequate context. Only then does it excel in its forced/constrained/unnatural beauty, which Surrealists love so much.

9. How are fear, dream, and eroticism related?

Fear, dream, eroticism—and I would also add childhood—are our imaginative values. They are the most significant and the most intense sources of imaginative (magical) creation/output.

10. Why the emphasis on the tactile in an audio-visual medium?

Sight and hearing have been ‘spoiled’ by an audio-visual-heavy society. I think that just the ‘primitivistic’ touch could bring some fresh authenticity to creation.
Meeting my animation idol, Jan Svankmajer, August 2016.

Meeting my animation idol, Jan Svankmajer, August 2016.

11. Are we all a little bit sadistic? Narcissistic? Masochistic?

Yes, we are. At least Freud says so. According to him, as children we are poly-perverted, and remain so to a certain extent into adulthood—some people more, some people less.

12. How do you feel about technology?

Even though computer animation made new techniques possible in animated films, I still have objections to it and whenever possible I do not use it. I miss the tactile dimension that gets lost in digital animation. Computers works in ‘non touched’ reality, which I believe deprives animation of one important emotional level.

13. Can you pinpoint the loss of your childhood innocence?

I cannot, because I view my childhood as not being over yet. I consider it to be an unfinished chapter of my life. I am infantile. I have never closed the door on my childhood and I am still having a dialogue with it. I do not understand how I can be getting away with it in this civilization of adults.

What to Wear & How to Network in Austin and Beyond

In her book The Intentional Networker, Patti DeNucci lays down the basic (and some more advanced) ground rules for professional business networking. Two of her points are worth exploring in more detail here: (1) what to wear, and (2) how to network—especially when it comes to referrals and asking others for their time.

WHAT NOT TO WEAR TO A NETWORKING EVENT

When DeNucci gives the example of a woman who wants to make $75K but dresses in sweats and has perennially dirty, unkempt hair, chances are that on some days you recognize yourself in that woman. Maybe you work from home (and let’s be honest, possibly in your PJs); maybe you’re a firm believer that it’s the person, not their appearance, who should be judged. Call it quality over quantity of designer suits, jewelry, or briefcases. I, too, wish the world worked this way … but it doesn’t. Not when it comes to business. 

NETWORKING IS LIKE DATING

The last date I went on, I knew very little about the guy in advance. I’d asked him out after only a brief encounter (on the volleyball court no less). Given the casual circumstances under which we’d met, I decided to err on the side of caution, picking a nice but fun dress and funky statement earrings for our dinner. Whether he showed up in jeans or a suit, I felt I’d be okay. I arrived at our meeting place earlier than he, but I spotted him immediately as he approached my table. He wore fitted pants, a button-down shirt and a blazer, with an exquisite leather belt and Italian shoes. VERY put-together, and quite frankly, he kind of took my breath away. He dressed better than he ‘had’ to (given that he’s also just naturally good-looking), but the extra effort spoke volumes about his character, ambitions, and how seriously he took the date.

Right away, I was reassured that I was in the presence of a calm, confident, well-to-do gentleman. That’s exactly the type of person I like to date, and exactly the type of person I want to do business with!

WHAT SHOULD I WEAR TO A NETWORKING EVENT?

If there’s a networking event on my calendar that I’ve planned for well in advance, I always take pains to look professional going in. A dress, or dress pants and a blouse, are standard for me, as well as either elegant or funky jewelry (depending on the mood of the event). I’ve learned that the accessories are what pull a whole outfit together, so don’t skimp on the shoes or bag either. (I just placed a bag order with this great Italian company on Etsy—check them out!) It's better to be overdressed than underdressed.

ALWAYS BE PREPARED TO NETWORK

Then there are the days I leave my house in my jeans or even yoga pants because I’m ‘just walking to the grocery store.’ Yet, it never fails that as soon as I walk through the doors of HEB, I see someone I know or end up in line behind someone who wants to make conversation. And those are networking opportunities, too! Maybe I’m in a bad mood, or not wearing make-up, but as the face of my business, I always have to be ‘on’ and ready to go. It’s a challenge—one that can excite you, or leave you perpetually anxious. Work on the excitement by always having a non-salesy elevator pitch in your back pocket, and a desire to make a genuine connection.

MAKING & RECEIVING REFERRALS: GIVE TO GET

Sometimes other people in your network facilitate the connection. They introduce you to their friend or a potential contact, and wait for the sparks to fly. You’ll connect authentically or you won’t, but three words that instantly turn me off are “pick your brain.” Anyone who asks me to make time for them in my busy schedule with no inkling of a return on the investment isn’t going to get much from me. Business is transactional (a give-to-get) before anything else.

I recently found myself in that exact scenario, but wearing the other shoe. There was a filmmaker I wanted to meet, whose work I greatly admired but who had no real incentive to make time for me. So I made it worth his time. I wrote my thesis on his complete filmography, had it translated into Czech (his native language), and sent it to him with a request for a meeting. I offered to come to him in Prague, arrange for an interpreter, and have my questions prepared. Clearly, I’d done my homework, and was conscious of making my request as easy for him to fulfill as possible. The value to him was also already clear: he got more exposure in America through the publication of my thesis in a popular film journal here. I’d demonstrated my sincere interest in who he is as a person and artist; I was not just another ‘fangirl.’ I gave to get.

Bottom line:

Dress to impress (because it does impress). Be on your toes. Do your homework. Offer value to get value. Good luck.

Making 'Big Magic' in Life, Love, and Business

Does the name Elizabeth Gilbert ring a bell? What about EAT, PRAY, LOVE?

Gilbert had authored four books prior to EAT, PRAY, LOVE, but it was the wild success of that travel memoir that really launched her into the international consciousness.

If you haven’t read it, EAT, PRAY, LOVE follows Liz’s travels to Italy (to eat), to India (to pray) and to Bali (to love) after her particularly brutal divorce. 

The next book she wrote, called COMMITTED, picked up where EAT, PRAY, LOVE left off. Liz’s Brazilian, Bali-living boyfriend visited her so often in the United States upon her return that Homeland Security became suspicious and barred him from ever entering the U.S. again—unless he and Liz married. The only problem with that stipulation being that Liz no longer believed in marriage, and never wanted to marry again. Hence a book-length investigation into worldwide cultural norms around marriage, and various interpretations of the institution that challenged her (and my) American viewpoints. Pretty fascinating stuff.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest nonfiction book, BIG MAGIC, treats the topic of creative living. There are lots of amazing moments in there, though none of them are particularly earth-shatteringly new. Mostly they’re interesting because they’re backed up by Liz’s own rich life experiences, of which she’s had more than most. 

The two things that stuck with me after reading BIG MAGIC were her ideas about, well, IDEAS, and trusting your own shamanic abilities.

According to Ms. Gilbert, ideas are like sentient beings with their own whims and feelings. They come knocking on your door, and if you’re listening, and if you’re open, maybe they decide to stick around for awhile. But if you then sit on them and prioritize everything else instead of entertaining your houseguests, eventually the ideas will leave. They will go and knock on someone else’s door, because the ideas don’t belong to you. You didn’t claim them, and therefore they are not yours.

What I love about this concept is the sense of urgency it gives to acting on your hopes and dreams. It’s about getting stuff done, people! Definitely not a guide for the natural procrastinator. At the same time, relinquishing the notion that we ‘own’ every idea also frees us from the responsibility to act on every fleeting thought. We get to consciously choose which pursuits to devote our time and energies to. Ideas are gifts and opportunities, and we can forgive ourselves for not picking up every bread crumb! Such moments are not failures!

The second lesson that really hit home for me is trust. Trusting not that you will succeed, but that you might very well fail (spectacularly), and asking what you would be willing to risk anyway. What is so important that it must be attempted regardless of un undesirable outcome? When you have the answer, go do it, and don’t look back.

My friend Amber* once made a list where she wrote down all the traits she wished to find in a husband, then read it to the universe under a full moon. Later, she met the man of her dreams at a wedding, where he said he’d been led to her by the Archangel Michael. One year later, they married in the same place they met. I can’t comment on the validity of these strange happenings, but it seems like Big Magic to me. They embraced a common idea and they ran with it—marriage being one of the biggest risks of all. They have a lovely life together in Austin, and they’ve never looked back.

Accountability: Why You Need It in Your Business, Relationships, and Even Your Writing

What is an accountability partner?

As Austin life coach Myrna King defines the term, “[An accountability partner is] simply someone who we make promises to about what we plan to achieve, over a specific period of time, within an agreed upon partnership framework. Both partners lay out goals and then take steps towards achieving them.”

Myrna is the one who introduced me to my own accountability partner (and fellow life coach) Dr. Lisa Raphael Bogaert. Lisa and I meet in person or via phone once/month for “check-ins.” We review the list of goals we set for the previous month in regards to our respective small businesses, we discuss our progress and whatever roadblocks or other challenges may have cropped up, and we talk about how to move forward. How can next month be bigger, better, stronger, and what might that mean? More clients? More conversions/better retention? More effective advertising? A new workshop on offer?

BUSINESS

Accountability is key in your business because it keeps you, the solo-preneur, LLC, or C-corp owner on the up-and-up. Your revenue stream spikes when you’re servicing your area competitively, respectfully, and most important—lawfully, and all of these factors create the reputation that one day will either attract or repel all future business. You know, that mythical day when you can stop hustling on street corners and attending every. single. networking breakfast or happy hour in a 25-mile radius because finally people are knocking on YOUR door. [Yeah, I dream about that day, too.] Indispensable things that my accountability partner has gifted me include: self-employment tax advice, business leads, and July’s upcoming co-led workshop!

RELATIONSHIPS

Accountability is so important in relationships that Dr. Lisa Raphael Bogaert and myself are offering a joint workshop on it July 16. Practicing accountability with your spouse, partner, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc, means you make weekly, monthly, or bimonthly goals together for yourselves, your commitment, and/or your family; you “check-in” and hold each other accountable to what did or didn’t happen/improve; celebrate the gains; and re-strategize tackling the problem areas. Ways that I’ve used accountability in my relationships include daily check-ins on the best parts of our days, and News Years resolutions for what we hope to achieve in the next year of being together.

WRITING

Though I am not certified with the International Coaching Federation (ICF), you might call what I do for my Cider Spoon Stories clients “coaching.” As a ghostwriter, I coach you through content curation, design principles, and the sometimes-tricky world of custom publishing. As an editor, I coach you on details like word choice, paragraph cohesion and transitions, and overall content analysis. Sometimes you just need someone to say, “Have 5 pages ready for me to review every week,” just to keep you writing and keep you in the game. Knowing that someone else expects something of you can make all the difference as far as your motivation level!

HOW TO FIND AN ACCOUNTABILITY PARTNER

I strongly suggest that you don't choose a friend or family member for this exercise—at least when it comes to business or writing. People who know and love you are less likely to practice tough love in these two scenarios, quicker to let your goals slide into the next month and the next, and then you're not really accomplishing anything! Obviously, in a relationship your partner is your accountability partner. In business, try asking that really cool, confident, interesting person you met at BNI last week to help mentor you (and yes, you, them!) When it comes to writing, contact Cider Spoon Stories!

Who is Colin Meloy? [And How Does He Get Away with Pseudo-Rapey Art?]

This post is the SEVENTH in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

LYRICS OR MELODY?

Every single one of you fall into one of two categories: lyrics-person, or melody.

Me, I’m a writer. I hear the words long before I memorize the telltale guitar riff or that wicked drum solo. If the lyrics are boring, unoriginal, or just plain silly, the singer/songwriter/band has lost in me a fan.

Then there are those of you who will be humming mindlessly along with your quote-on-quote “favorite” song one day and go: “Wait—THAT’s what those lyrics says?” You’ll shake your head and smile at your own ignorance and your life will go on … because, hey, you still like the music.

THE DECEMBERISTS

Luckily, there’s at least one band who combines them both: witty writing and exceptional chords. Colin Meloy is the front man of the Portland-based Decemberists, a group unmistakable for their signature sound (and voracious vocabulary).

PSEUDO-RAPEY ART

I remember the first Decemberists song I ever heard: “A Cautionary Song.” Set to an upbeat yo-ho-pirate accordion frenzy, it tells the story of a young mom who is kidnapped and gang-raped at sea every night, so as to pay for the collard greens that her children then refuse to eat. Dark, yes, but darkly hilarious and infinitely catchy. All the Decemberists songs follow a similar bent: epic storytelling, fairytale morality, tragedy that inevitably falls just shy of morose, and fantastic phraseology like “indolent,” “odalisque,” and “parapet.”

talented colin

Colin crafts these masterworks almost singlehandedly: as the band’s singer, guitarist, and principal songwriter, he has produced seven studio albums, eight EPs, thirteen singles, two compilations, and a live album. He variously plays the acoustic guitar, 12-string guitar, electric guitar, bouzouki, harmonica, and a handful of percussion instruments.

THE WILDWOOD CHRONICLES

When he’s not song-writing, he’s fiction-writing! The Wildwood Chronicles are a trilogy of 800-page tomes marketed to young adults (I still read them, though). Colin writes the text, and wife Carson illustrates. Together, they describe the story like this:

PLEA TO THE UNIVERSE

Colin Meloy, musician, author, hipster heartthrob: please come read/sing my someday-children to sleep.

Who is Ayn Rand? And Why is She So Damn Controversial?

This post is the SIXTH in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a Russian-born immigrant to the U.S. and subsequently, an accomplished American author and screenwriter. She is perhaps best-known for her seminal work of fiction Atlas Shrugged, the characters of which embody in word and action Rand’s own branch of philosophy known as Objectivism.

In recent years, the Tea Party movement has coopted Rand’s language in support of their campaign. There is little evidence, however, to suggest that were Rand still alive, she would have lent her voice to the libertarian cause, uncomfortable as she was with any political party or model other than that which espoused pure laissez-faire capitalism.

To clear up the many misconceptions, here’s how Rand *actually* felt about a wide variety of topics. Quotes have been sourced from the anthology entitled Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed (edited 2009).

Definition of Objectivism

How Objectivism Differs from Conservatism

Objectivists are fundamental capitalists, a notion diametrically opposed to today’s conservatives.

Taxes and Federal Government

Rand objected to the income tax, believing that mankind was entitled to profit from business to the utmost extent that his mental faculties afforded him. Recognizing that government still needed to be funded in some way, Rand advocated for an optional contract tax. In this scenario, any business transaction conducted contractually could be subject to an insurance fee (a set percentage of the transaction) at the signers’ discretion. If they chose not to pay the fee, they could not seek legal arbitration from the government in the event of a party’s non-compliance—which Rand further saw as the federal government’s only acceptable role: a police force meant to uphold the law.

Women’s Rights

Rand hoped all women everywhere could one day be the masters of their own destinies, choosing to work (or not), to marry (or not), to have kids (or not), to in all ways create and prosper … recognizing, as she did coming from a Communist state, that only in America were such dreams possible, as women here “have the opportunity to live happier lives than anywhere else in the world.” (7)

Media

“The culture of a country is influenced by its predominant philosophy.” In this country, the culture “tends toward the gray, the timid, the non-committal, the middle-of-the-road,” with the effect that “television [and the news] is a vast wasteland.” (77)

The Death Penalty

“Capital punishment should be outlawed—not out of moral consideration for the murderer, but to prevent the rare instance of an innocent man’s being convicted. It is better to sentence nine actual murderers to life imprisonment than to execute one innocent man.” (64)

Education

“As a system, public education instills social conformity and obedience, not independence. If education is in the hands of the state, then the teachers, in order to be honest, will tend to support the system in which they work. They will tend to endorse the ideas of statism … In private schools, self-reliance and rationality are stressed. If it weren’t for the public school system, private education wouldn’t be an expensive as it is today. Competition in private schools would have the same beneficent effect that it has in all other activities … furthermore, it is in the interest of the industrialists to have an educated work force.” (82-83)

Civil Rights

“The cause of civil rights has to start at the level of defining, protecting and fighting for the individual rights of all men, which of course includes minorities. The smallest minority on earth is the individual. If a man wants to be segregationist, he is evil and we have to fight him, but we have to do so by moral means. We cannot violate his rights. We don’t have to deal with him, but we have to protect his right to be wrong on his own property.” (88)

Raising children

“consists of one simple principle: never deliver moral ultimatums to a child. Never tell a child: ‘This is good because I say so.’ Instead, always say, ‘This is good because …’ Give the child a reason he can understand.” (91)

Joy

“The two great values in life [are] career and romantic love.” (231)

Sex

“It is a main source of happiness. If you regard sex as a value … then you carry on only one affair at a time and only very serious ones, not casual, one-night stands. If on the other hand you regard sex as evil, you either forbid it, as the religionists do, or you consider it so unimportant that you go around having sex like animals, as the hippies do.” (236)

Purpose of Life

“Life is the purpose of life. And nature has given us a very good way of knowing whether we are spending our lives properly or not: namely, whether we are happy or not.” (247)

Age of Envy

Today, the subconscious philosophical force driving our culture is envy. The actual feeling is: hatred of the good for being the good.” (207)

Drugs

“I am against all controls on drugs—except insofar as sale to minors is concerned. The government has no right to protect a man from himself.” (221) 

Guns

“If this country falls apart or the government collapses in bankruptcy, having a handgun in your pocket isn’t going to save your life. What you need in order to fight for a proper system of government are the right ideas.” (249)

Incorporating Oral History Assignments into College Writing Curriculums

Before Cider Spoon Stories, Jess taught writing and art at Benedictine University in Illinois. In both her Writing 101 (Composition) and 102 (Research Writing) classes, Jess found it imperative to assign an oral history and/or interview component as part of at least one major writing assignment per semester, given the wide variety of career fields in which storytelling skills are applicable, as well as the incredible array of corollary benefits that accompany the unique fusion of people skills and technology skills incumbent to the interview process. She recently presented her theories on a panel at CUNY’s “Transitions and Transactions: Literature Pedagogies” Conference in Manhattan in April 2016. The following details her findings.

Career Fields Utilizing Storytelling Skills

  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Entrepreneurship/branding
  • Parenting
  • Education
  • Grantwriting
  • Medical
  • Law enforcement
  • Engineering/technical writing
  • Arts/theater
  • and more.

Learning Objectives Met by Oral Histories in Common College Writing Assignments

  • Fosters clear, concise, specific communication
  • Spurs engagement
  • Allows information to be assimilated over/despite the glut
  • Challenges student conceptions/misconceptions
  • Makes history real
  • Broaches uncomfortable topics safely
  • Informs believable character dialogue, motivations, and setting in fiction/CNF
  • Informs documentary poetry and activisit art
  • Creates of the student an ‘expert’
  • Prepares student for real-world experiences post-graduation
  • Fulfills a vicarious experience
  • Generates empathy
  • Refines organizatioon skills
  • Reiterates importance of cross-cultural comparison and artifact preservation

Other Benefits

  • INCREASES FAMILIARITY WITH BOTH PEOPLE SKILLS AND TECHNOLOGY (SKYPE, RECORDER, TRANSCRIPTION SOFTWARE)
  • IMPROVES EDITING SKILLS (TOO MUCH INFO; WHAT TO CUT)
  • PLAY WITH ATTENTION-GRABBERS
  • PRACTICE WRITING FOR DIFFERENT AUDIENCES
  • APA/MLA/CMS CITATION STYLES
  • STUDENTS CAN’T FAKE DOING THIS WORK: THE DETAILS WON’T BE THERE
  • PRACTICE LISTENING, OBSERVING, WITNESSING
  • WHEN TO QUOTE, WHEN TO PARAPHRASE
  • HOW TO MAKE “CHARACTERS” SEEM AS REAL AS THEY DO IN LIFE; GREAT APPLICATION TO FICTION/CNF ESPECIALLY
  • EMPOWERING: GIVES A VOICE TO THOSE WHO MIGHT OTHERWISE NOT BE HEARD. STUDENTS MIGHT LEARN TO VALUE THEIR OWN VOICES MORE AS A RESULT. CONSIDER WHAT MESSAGES THEY’RE CONTRIBUTING TO THE WORLD. SOCIAL MEDIA CAN BE POWERFUL, NOT JUST FOOD PORN.

Who is Anna Tibaijuka? And Why Did She Make Headlines as One of Twenty “Black Women to Know”?

This post is the FIFTH in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

India is famous for many things: rich curries, decadent sandalwood, gorgeous silks … and yes, slums. Slumdog Millionaire (2008) helped shed light on life in India’s slums with its Bollywood-tinged rags-to-riches plot line and nod to popular American TV show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, Slumdog was by all accounts successful.

Far fewer people are talking about Africa’s slums. Almost under the international radar, in 2005 Zimbabwean President Mugabe implemented Operation Murambatsvina (literally, Operation Drive Out Rubbish), also known as Operation Restore Order. As its dual names might suggest, the campaign was part of a large-scale effort to forcibly clear out slums across the country—completely disregarding the millions of nationals who would be and were displaced.

Today the United Nations estimates that as many as 2.4 million Zimbabweans directly or indirectly suffered from a loss of home and/or livelihood. Government officials say the operation was intended to curb illegal squatting and the transmission of infectious diseases like tuberculosis, but the relocation of thousands to cramped holding centers only increased the prevalence of both TB and AIDs. To top it off, Zimbabwe’s doctors fled the nation in droves after unsuccessfully striking for higher salaries to compete with out-of-control inflation. Suffering conditions “far worse than the demolished shanty towns,” more than one-third of the population became dependent on food aid and life expectancy plummeted to 33 years.

Further fueling the “humanitarian nightmare” of Operation Restore Order were rumors that the government’s motivations may have been far darker and more corrupt than a simple “spring cleaning.” Zimbabwe’s urban and rural poor comprised a large percentage of the oppositional constituency that threatened President Mugabe’s long reign, introducing a vulnerability that had to be crushed.

In June of 2005, the secretary general appointed Anna Tibaijuka, professor and UN delegate, as his special envoy to study the impact of the Zimbabwean government’s campaign. After two weeks in the field, Tibaijuka concluded that “while purporting to target illegal dwellings and structures and to clamp down on alleged illicit activities, [the operation] was carried out in an indiscriminate and unjustified manner, with indifference to human suffering.” The report was of course censored in Zimbabwe and plans to launch a flash appeal all but silenced. Mugabe disputed Tibaijuka’s findings, insisting that a mere 2,000 people had been affected by his evictions.

Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka (1950) was born to coffee and banana farmers in Tanzania. After graduating college in Sweden, she earned three doctorates and was the recipient of several more honorary degrees. Until 2010, she was the second-highest-ranking African woman in the UN system. Her resignation was inspired by her desire to run for political office in Tanzania. Tibaijuka won, and currently serves as a member of the Tanzanian Parliament.

Meanwhile, in 2008, Valerie Tagwira, a Zimbabwean medical doctor and author, published her debut novel The Uncertainty of Hope. The story is set in Mbare, Harare, where its characters struggle in the aftermath of Operation Murambatsvina. Check it out for a more personal (albeit fictionalized) encounter with Zimbabwean unrest.

Who is Neil Strauss? And How Did He Get Hundreds of Women to Sleep with Him?

This post is the FOURTH in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

Who says you’re allowed to take lessons in motorcycle riding but not in interacting with women?
— p. 247

It’s a widely known fact that to defeat the enemy, you must know the enemy. You must understand his habits, pigeonhole his strategies, and keep him closer than you do your friends. That’s why after so many years I finally had to read that holy grail of man-Bibles: The Game, by Neil Strauss. I thought if I knew what to look for in a pick-up artist, I could avoid becoming his target (or at least his victim). Plus, it’s much easier to disparage a person or a set of principles when you can speak about them intelligently. Meaning, it’s not fair to criticize/condemn ANYone or ANYthing without having that firsthand experience, right?

So, this week I read The Game. New York Times bestselling author Neil Strauss (code name “Style”) published in 2005 this pseudo-documentary about an underground movement among young (and not so young) men training each other on the best way to score. The definition of scoring changes: it might mean to “number-close” (get a woman’s phone number), kiss-close (make-out with her) or f***-close (yeah, that one) … the only real goal (beyond success) being to do so as quickly as possible, and with as many other witnesses as you can muster to later bow down and slobber over how amazing you are.

The thing is, as disgusting as the premise is, by the end of the story you feel pretty sorry for these guys. “Sarging” as the term goes (to “sarge” is to go out clubbing and hunt down women) more or less comes to ruin these men’s lives. It’s not the typical douchey jock who’s playing the game, but quiet, nerdy, unattractive men who have never had the confidence to even approach a women before (almost all of them enter the game as virgins). While, yes, over the course of two years they manage the minor miracle of sleeping with hundreds of women each, it doesn’t exactly make their lives any better. The original ringleader (codename Mystery) succumbs to a violent depression, two others feel so guilty and “defiled” in regards to their past misdeeds that they run off and join seminaries or ashrams, and our narrator Style finally admits he’s just empty and lost. You actually cheer for him when in the last couple chapters, he meets the woman of his dreams and quits the game altogether. For a time, anyway.

Project Hollywood sucked in anyone with mental problems and scared away anyone of quality.
— p. 356

This radical 360, from loser to hottest-thing-in-LA (and that’s not an exaggeration; the men befriend Paris Hilton and Courtney Love), back to well, loser, had me forgiving them on behalf of women everywhere for all the times they’d taken home a one-night stand and never called her back. Or they called back, only to refuse to commit to monogamy and instead suggest that the girl-of-the-week should hook up with the girl-of-last-week (while he watches or participates). You forgive them because while it’s never right to trick a woman into sleeping with you, ultimately the PUAs (Pick-up Artists) tricked themselves into thinking the playboy lifestyle could be personally fulfilling. Instead, it’s exhausting. They live in a pigsty mansion where even the stains have stains, ruin their closest friendships, cut ties with their families, lose jobs, and flunk out of school, all while investing every shred of their self-validation in how many women they “close.” They become robots and clones of the PUA gurus. There’s beaucoup money to be made on ebooks and seminars, but no one escapes happy.

We may have been supermen in the club, but on the inside we were rotting.
— p. 204

My takeaways: Ladies, if a guy approaches you and tries to run the Best Friends Test, entertain you with a magic trick, or ask if you saw the two girls fighting in the parking lot, walk calmly in the opposite direction. These men aren’t dangerous predators; they’re lonely, and kind of sad, and you deserve better than that. Gentlemen, if studying the PUA Way gives you the tips and tools to improve your self-confidence and skills with women, then by all means improve yourself, but for everyone’s sake, don’t ever take yourself that seriously.

Since The Game, Neil Strauss has written several more books, including a sequel that details his subsequent inability, post-seduction community, to stay monogamous to the woman he eventually married. I haven’t read it yet, but plan to. For all its faults, The Game is a hell of a good story. I couldn’t put it down! And that’s the business I’m in—telling good stories.

Survey Says: Write a DIY Family History Guide!

Last week I posted a 7-question market research survey to the world of social media. In a nutshell, I wanted to find a way to offer my writing services to families and individuals who cannot afford a full ghostwriting package.

To that end, I intend to write, publish, and sell a DIY family history guide! Here are some of the excellent suggestions I received from fans and readers. If you have another idea to add, please leave it in the comment box below!

Q1. I am authoring a new genealogy guide to help kids write their parents' or grandparents' life stories. The guide will be a full-color, interactive book, with lots of interesting prompts and space for creative expression. Kids might complete the guide over a summer break, a long road trip, or several holiday visits, for example. Is this a product you would buy?

A1: 86% Yes; 14% Maybe.

Q2. Thinking about the ages of your own kids, or kids to whom you might gift this book--what age range should the book target?

A2. 57% 4th and 5th graders; 43% 6th and 7th graders.

Q3. Should the book target a specific gender of child user?

A3. 100% Both boys and girls.

Q4. Let’s say the book is a large paperback, printed on recycled paper. What other features would you like to see?

A4. 43% prefer a hardback format; 14% prefer an ebook format.

Q5. About how much would you be willing to pay for this book? 

A5. Answers ranged from $10.00 to $50.00, with an average price of $28.00.

Q6. Suggest ways to make the book friendly/accessible to users of all genders, religions, sexualities, races, etc.

A6. Include images of children that reflect the noted characteristics; Include an editor’s note to the effect that “family is subjective” and may also include adopted individuals; Allow kids to personalize the book with their photos; Use a template format that kids can build off of and get creative with; Allow kids to design the cover; Include maps and other cultural associations.

Q7. Suggest some interesting prompts for the book. Prompts are the questions that the child will ask his/her parents/grandparents. For example, "How did you spend your summer breaks as a kid?"

A7: Did you like school? Did you ever get in trouble with your teacher ? What grade were you when you had your first girl/boyfriend? What was your favorite book or story? Who is the first person you remember? When did you have the most fun? Who is the oldest person in the family you remember? Who could make you smile/laugh no matter what? What was the worst thing you remember? What were the rules in your house? Who were your best friends? Do you have pictures of them? What did you want to be when you grew up? Did you become that? If not, why not? Who did you admire most? Do you remember when any of your grandparents or other relatives died? What did your house look like when you were a kid? Did you always live in the same place? What important lessons have you learned as an adult? Maybe an activity prompting them to participate in a hobby that their parent or grandparents enjoys or used to enjoy and then reflect on that experience. What is your favorite food? Who was the first friend you remember having, and what did you do together? What was a favorite toy you had? What kinds of games did you play indoors and outdoors? Is there a special recipe you have to share? Describe a typical school day that you remember (from start to end) … how did you get there in the morning, what was the day like, how did you get home, etc. What is a special song you have a memory of listening to? Do you remember your first date/crush? What kind of chores or household duties did you have growing up? What were your parents like? What was your childhood home like? What was the most amazing place you ever traveled to?

Thanks for all the help! GUIDE FORTHCOMING CHRISTMAS 2016!

Who are Daniel Pinchbeck, Terrence McKenna, and Graham Hancock? [Ayahuasca and Other Psychotropic Plant Medicines]

This post is the THIRD in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

I really love contemporary satirical rocker Father John Misty’s music, and not least because his song “I’m Writing a Novel” mentions doing ayahuasca—a psychotropic plant medicine from the Peruvian Amazon. The first time I heard of ayahuasca was in a lecture by Daniel Pinchbeck on the Mayan 2012 prophecy, which of course predicted an end to the world that never happened. Whether or not some other, more subtle shift in global consciousness took place is up for debate, but I remember thinking, This Pinchbeck guy is either nuts, or a genius. And I had to respect someone who’d managed to integrate himself into what are still remote tribes in the Amazon and experience what I’ve come to understand is that rather powerful medicine called ayahuasca.

If I’m honest, sure—I’m curious. I’d like to have that mind-altering, consciousness-shifting experience for myself—one that a close friend describes as the “hardest and the best thing he’s ever done … ten years of therapy in four hours” (that’s how long the high/visions last). But. I want to work for the FBI, and there’s a drug policy. So for now I’ll live through others!

Before we get to McKenna and Hancock, one more name bears revisiting: Timothy Leary. You probably know of him as the LSD guy in the ‘60s. Especially if you've read Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. You could say Leary was McKenna’s and Hancock’s predecessor, and indeed McKenna has been called the “Timothy Leary of the ‘90s.” Basically, Terrence McKenna studied shamanism and Tibetan folk religion at Berkley, discovered psylocibin mushrooms in the Colombian Amazon, had a bunch of visions, and determined a fractal pattern in the I Ching that he called Novelty Theory, which supposedly predicted the 2012 world-endingness that had Pinchbeck’s panties in a twist. McKenna was less concerned with the end of the world, however, than using plant medicines to access the collective human memory (he was highly influenced by Jung) in an attempt to manifest that alchemical treasure: the Philosopher’s Stone.

Though McKenna, and later Hancock, were largely dismissed as New Agey, McKenna himself stressed not New Age dogma, but the importance of the “felt presence of direct experience.” He wanted people to trust their inner knowing (called prajna in Ayurveda). Unfortunately, McKenna died of brain cancer (1946-2000) and didn’t make it to see 2012; but Hancock is still going strong.

Graham Hancock espouses a “mother” civilization from which all ancient civilizations sprang. Like McKenna, Hancock believes in using plant medicines, particularly ayahuasca, to access that mother culture (also the collective human memory). According to Hancock, ayahuasca encourages self-improvement and social progress, especially in the form of curing deadly addictions, from alcohol and tobacco to controlled substances.

Want to try ayahuasca for yourself? It’s not legal in the States unless you join the church of UDV. First watch Chelsea Handler’s hilarious exploits with the drug in Peru. Then check out these Peruvian retreats.

Who is Elon Musk? [And how many people does he plan to send to Mars?]

This post is the SECOND in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX. Hopefully you’ve heard of at least one of these companies and know something of the services they offer. What you might not know is that one relatively young man is behind them all—and at 44 years old, Elon Musk may just be one of the most important entrepreneurs and innovators of the 21st century.

Each in its own way, PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX are ushering the world into the next generation of economic and scientific technologies. Musk’s ultimate goal, however, is to ferry mankind right out of this world entirely. SpaceX was the first commercial company contracted by NASA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. Next, Musk plans to deliver human settlers to Mars: 80,000 of them by 2040.

Why? As Musk points out, it’s taken homo sapiens hundreds of thousands of years to evolve to this point. In just the last 60 years, man has both developed the atomic weaponry and effected the climate change to annihilate the entire species, and soon. If we don’t kill each other off, we’ll kill the earth that sustains us (the plot of 2014’s Interstellar). It’s time to explore other options—extraterrestrial ones, as Musk would have it.

Until then, he’s working to make life on earth ever more convenient and safer for its human denizens. PayPal protects your online financial transactions with more retailers than even PayPal can compile into a single directory. Tesla currently manufactures luxury electric vehicles, but promises to offer a sub-compact retailing at no more than $30,000 within the next year.

All of these ventures have (rightfully) made Elon Musk a very rich man. With a net worth of almost 13 billion, he’s LA’s wealthiest resident. Even so, he takes an annual salary of $1 as the CEOof Tesla, the rest made up by stock options.

Born to a South African father and Canadian mother, Musk was educated at Queens University (Ontario) but graduated from UPenn with dual bachelor’s degrees in Physics and Economics. He dropped out of Stanford’s PhD program in Physics two days after matriculating, preferring to follow his entrepreneurial leanings. Today Musk has American citizenship and 5 sons (1 deceased). His other venture capital projects include renewable energy (SolarCity), high-speed transportation (Hyperloop), and artificial intelligence (OpenAI).

Ready to write your memoirs? Contact Jess Hagemann, Austin's premier ghostwriter, today!

Spotlight on: The Marchesa Theatre

This post is the first in a series of mini-historiographies that chronicle the power of PLACE in memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about the ordinary buildings you pass every day. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs about the places you moved and move through.

In an unassuming east-side strip mall, largely empty of other attractions, hides the recently renovated Marchesa Theatre: home of the Austin Film Society and several trademark east Austin events—including the Blue Genie Art Bazaar, an annual holiday art show that just wrapped up at the end of December.

The Austin Film Society at the Marchesa

Walking into the Marchesa takes you back to a time when cinema was really something special. Before the days of movie pirating and Netflix streaming, going to see a film was an event. The AFS makes sure it still is, by screening lots of foreign and independent flicks you won’t catch anywhere else, alongside hard-to-find classics. I’ve never seen a bad movie there, and many of the films that made the carefully-curated playlist have been downright incredible.

To give you an idea of the breadth and depth of the AFS’s inclusive offerings, in 2015 alone they screened Seven Chinese Brothers (2015), Particle Fever (2013), and Blind (2014). The first was directed by local Austin filmmaker Bob Byington and stars Hollywood darlings Jason Schwartzman and Olympia Dukakis. As part of the Science on Screen series, Particle Fever documents the first (unsuccessful) launch of the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland and follows several years of subsequent research and trials. Meanwhile, Blind is theextraordinary debut effort of Norwegian director Eskil Vogt—a rather skillfully-told, surreal story about a newly-blind woman who dances at all times between daytime and dreamtime.

The Austin Film Society’s affordable membership packages include complimentary tickets, free monthly screenings, discounts at the Alamo Drafthouse, and a host of other benefits that well outweigh the very fair package pricing.

The Blue Genie Art Bazaar at the Marchesa

Spanning the whole month of December, the Blue Genie Art Bazaar features the work of over 200 Texas artists every year, offering one-of-a-kind handmade gifts to fit every taste and budget. The Bazaar takes over the whole theatre lobby and large side halls, greeting both movie-goers and those who are just there to shop with lots of light and sparkle and good smells.

Knock-out products this year included Hemp360’s Raw Olive Lotion with Lemongrass, handmade in New Braunfels, Texas, and “Grandpa”-scented soy candles from Austin’s own The Burlap Bag. With a true “old-man aftershave” aroma, “Grandpa” definitely had me smiling and reminiscing about my grandfather! Beautiful jewelry for mom, soft unicorn headbands for the kiddos, stylishly screen-printed shirts, scarves, and tea towels for everyone, plus the requisite you-will-find-this-nowhere-else-novelty items rounded out an impressive showing from the Blue Genie.

http://shop.theburlapbag.com

http://shop.theburlapbag.com

In the event you get inspired to make your own crafts after seeing the wide variety on offer at the Marchesa, you’re in luck! The theatre butts up to Jerry’s Artarama, the east side’s most comprehensive discount art store with everything you need for DIY fun—including art classes and drop-in figure drawing for the budding enthusiast.

Other Events at the Marchesa

The Marchesa Theatre also rents out its facilities for conferences, expos, birthday parties, wedding receptions, performances, business meetings, etc. They offer a generous 15% discount for nonprofit fundraiser events! Additional services like table and chair setup, bartenders, PA systems, and event cleanup are also available.

Conclusion:

Whether checking out the next international film phenomenon through the AFS, shopping for the perfect gift at the Blue Genie, or celebrating a big life moment, remember to support the Marchesa Theatre. Your investment will be returned to you two-fold every time!

Who is Mary Karr? [Why truth is free, yet sometimes costs us everything.]

This post is the first in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

Maybe Karr’s is a name that doesn’t mean much outside of academia and literature, but her story is significant because it taught me, for the first time, empathy for addicts. After battling alcoholism and a loveless marriage, Karr went on to publish three bestselling memoirs and currently teaches writing at Syracuse University. 

Karr also recently came to Austin for a reading at BookPeople, but I missed it because I didn’t then know who she was. My cousin Kelli had recommended Karr’s latest memoir Lit; however, I didn’t associate the author’s name with that other book The Liars' Club, which is required reading in many high schools but was not in mine.

By now, I have read Lit, and I do know (in some sense of the word) who Mary Karr is, and I wouldn’t miss her reading if she came through Austin again. Besides the fact that a book devoted almost entirely to her fight with alcoholism deviates into a strange Catholic conversion story near the end, Karr’s writing is powerful and her language beautiful.

“There’s a space at the bottom of an exhale,” she writes. “A little hitch between taking in and letting out that’s a perfect zero you can go into. There’s a rest point between the heart muscle’s close and open—an instant of keenest living when you’re momentarily dead. You can rest there.” Here Karr describes learning the practice of meditation that proved both a lifeline out of addiction and a gateway to her eventual conversion. 

Mostly, I never understood before why a person with an addiction can’t just stop, cold-turkey, and never look back. Especially when they can see how much the addiction is hurting themselves and their relationships. Karr had a newborn son when they both took to the bottle hardcore: his full of milk, hers full of scotch. When she said: “For me, everything’s too much and nothing’s enough,” though, I got it. For a second, I could relate to the overwhelming anxiety of being alive, and the hunger, always, for something else. If I didn’t personally have more constructive outlets for such moments, perhaps I’d seek solace in blackouts, too.

Then of course there’s the fact that Karr is a writer—a profession near and dear to my heart. In a passage typical of her honesty and directness, Karr admits: “I’d spent way more years worrying about how to look like a poet—buying black clothes, smearing on scarlet lipstick, languidly draping myself over thrift store furniture—than I had learning how to assemble words in some discernible order.” In a nutshell, this is the brutal crux of growing older. We construct images of ourselves, and sometimes there is no substance to the image. When it crumbles, or the mask is stripped off, or the visage itself becomes an ancient and wrinkled thing, what is left? Only truth.

Funny, how truth is free, yet sometimes costs us everything. Karr’s truth-telling in Lit slides a razor into the soft flesh between ribs, exposing her many-times-over failure as a wife, mother, and writer. It was also returned to her many-times-over in the form of bestseller royalties—and more importantly, freedom from the daily oblivion of addiction.

You can read more about Mary Karr at her author website.

Advice for writers: these 5 steps take your book from idea to implementation

Writing is work, not inspiration.

One day in summer 2010, I was sitting in the audience at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program, and feeling every fiber of my being internally resist against everything that the four well-established authors on the panel were saying. Little wisdom chunks like “Writing is work, not inspiration” sounded miserable to me.

To that point, I’d been the artist who painted when I felt like it, wrote when the spirit moved me, and indeed considered myself all-around “inspired.” Because such activities came easy to me, I never thought art or writing was something over which I should have to sweat. THEN I STARTED AN MFA PROGRAM AND BOY HOWDY. Let me tell you, writing IS work.

Naropa Summer Writing Program 2010: When I still thought I knew everything.

Naropa Summer Writing Program 2010: When I still thought I knew everything.

But! It doesn’t have to be the kind of scullery-maid drudgery to which Cinderella’s evil stepsisters sentenced the one blushing blonde among them. Writing can be, should be, and is all kinds of awesome fun—and it’s hella more rewarding than any other “work” you’ll do today. So let’s get started!

Follow these five steps to take your book from idea to implementation:

  1. When you do get that spark of inspiration, write it down immediately. The physical act of writing turns ethereal thought into visceral muscle memory. Then that great idea is more likely to stay present and active in your conscience mind, where the wheels can spin your straw into gold—meaning you get to keep your baby (aka, your book)! Rumpelstiltskin, anyone?
  2. Talk to people about your ideas. Don’t talk their ears off, and don’t bore them—there’s nothing worse than alienating those who stand to be your first fans. But the more you discuss your plot, the more confident you become in it. When people poke holes in your story, you know where to fix the leaks. Try out different character traits, and take polls on whether they sound believable. Allow real people to inspire your protagonists' fatal flaws—it makes them relatable!
  3. Do your research. Think you’re already an expert, but you need a few more details to make a scene really come alive? Turn to the books that already exist. Walk into a library. Close your eyes. Stick out your hands. Walk slowly (SLOWLY) around, letting your fingers guide you up and down the shelves, over spines, caressing covers, until they happen upon the perfect resource. This is called bibliomancy. Just don’t use it as an excuse to grope people (without their consent, anyway).
  4. Write, and write some more, and build writing into your schedule like you would grocery shopping and doctors appointments. Never miss a writing appointment you’ve made with yourself. When you need a break, read. The only way to become a better writer is to read great writing. Read mainstream fiction, and popcorn lit, because these have made it into the cultural consciousness, and it’s good to know what’s influencing the face of fiction. But read deeper. Read the classics. Troll the internet for books with a cult following. They’re always just about to be the next big thing.
  5. Remember that the worst thing you have written is better than the best thing you have not. You can spend your life doubting yourself and your ability, or you can in the immortal words of Nike “Just do it.” Godspeed.

Using story instead of pills to heal PTSD

PTSD and the DSM-V

The DSM-V (the 5th and current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) was published in May 2013. It introduced many important changes to 2000's DSM-IV-TR, including a long-overdue categorical shift that finally removed PTSD (Post-Traumautic Stress Disorder) from the list of anxiety disorders.

For the first time, PTSD is being recognized as a trauma disorder, the direct consequence of exposure to an external traumatic event. Mental health activists hope that PTSD sufferers will in turn be subject to less stigmatization, as the shift finally liberates PTSD from the realm of inherent mental illness, and acknowledges its origins in an etiological event--the traumatic stressor.

Should PTSD be Renamed PTSS?

One more change that still needs (ethically) to be made is the renaming of PTSD to PTSS, replacing “disorder” with “syndrome.” Not only does “disorder” have a more negative connotation, but it fails to account for PTSD's spectrum of symptoms, any or all of which sufferers may experience--rendering the one-size-fits-all approach both futile and inaccurate.

The Psychology behind PTSD

In Jungian terms, PTSD affects the ego, or that part of the person we call the Self. The ego is the center of consciousness; it orients us in time and space; and the ego wants to survive as long as possible with as little pain as possible. When confronted with pain, the ego defends itself with the only weapons it has: projection, idealization, and denial. All three of these defense mechanisms have as their corollary suppression and repression. Because the psyche is a closed system, repressed energy necessarily leaks out in other forms: anxiety and depression, for example. 

COPING WITH PTSD: EMPATHIC PRESENCE

No one "cure" has ever worked for every PTSD sufferer, but there are many suggestions for helping individuals learn to cope with high-level stress. The first is practicing empathic presence. Empathic presence occurs when the PTSD-afflicted individual meets with a qualified therapist who simply listens to the individual's story, over and over again … until such time as the story begins to lose its power. At that point, the story stops “owning” the individual.

There are many free or low-cost resources for people with PTSD (click here for a list of Austin’s veteran services, and here for a unique civilian service), but a kind friend with a good ear can also go a long way toward alleviating said suffering. To be an empathic presence for someone you know, practice being a “container” for story, where narratives may be received and treated as sacred. Friends and family members, even more so than therapists, are good about seeing the human being and not just his/her symptoms.

PTSD and Cider Spoon

When asked what war was like, a Vietnam veteran recently replied:
“War is 99% boring and 1% sheer terror.”
— http://www.soulrepairtx.com

PTSD is commonly associated with veterans, but many non-veterans suffer from PTSD. Rape victims, abuse victims, and those who have lived through car accidents are just a few more examples of afflicted sub-groups. While there are more PTSD services than ever before, the paradigm of trauma remains the same. Our vets and others are dealing with the same problems as 40 years ago, and still not feeling heard.

At Cider Spoon, my job is to listen to your story. No judgment, and no “therapy” in the licensed sense … but helping you make sense of your life all the same, through healing narratives. 

Bastrop is burning, but life is good.

As I type, Bastrop, Texas is burning. Yesterday a wildfire claimed over 30 homes. Smoke curtains nearby Austin with a throat-searing haze. My nose keeps running and it hurts to swallow, but life is good.

Many of you will recognize the phrase “Life is good” from the iconic wearables line that really took off at the start of this century. Founder Bert Jacobs spoke to 7,000 women at the Texas Conference for Women on October 15, and he left us with a story about his mother: Dying of cancer, she did not have to run around “making up” for the love she wished she’d given, because she’d given it all her life. Instead she asked her sons to throw her a party—because life is good.

Candy Chang, urban designer and installation artist, reinforced the sentiment with an overview of her Before I Die walls. Stenciled in white paint on abandoned buildings in over 70 countries around the world is the inviting phrase “Before I die, I want to __________.” Hope-filled messages written in every language and chalk of every color overflow her new book that showcases the walls. Chang’s offering of a receptacle (even a shrine) for low-barrier, anonymous community input is her attempt to “make democracy more accessible” while encouraging “unbridled creativity.” “Embrace the honest mess and remember you’re not alone,” she said ... because ultimately, life is good.

Life is good, and it’s fast. Faster than ever before. “Who controls the speed and the incline of the treadmill?” asked Carson Tate of Working Simply. “You do.” We can speed up or slow down life by saying Yes to what best aligns with our highest priorities, and No to those asks we feel we “should” do regardless of personal benefit. When we don’t say No, Tate joked with a smile, we end up "shoulding" all over ourselves—and that’s not what Candy Chang meant by “honest mess” … that’s just a mess. Life is good when we reach the flow state and improve efficiency. When drafting your to-do list, batch ‘like’ tasks and build in time for thinking and reflecting.

And not just thinking and reflecting—but stimulating your reticular activating system. This is the part of the brain that gets a workout whether you’re actually experiencing a given scenario, or just picturing it in your mind. Visualizing success is like practicing being successful—and in this example anyway, practice really does make perfect. The Olympics committee keeps 10 psychologists on staff just to coach the athletes on their mental game. Picturing your prosperity can help actualize it—and life is good when everyone prospers. Focus on prosperity and abundance rather than scarcity and fear.

Bastrop is a frightening place right now, but it will overcome and you will, too. Life is good.

This blog will teach you to blog better

On Monday evening, I attended the Internet Marketing Party in downtown Austin as part of Austin's Startup Week. The event was facilitated by David Gonzalez, who offered valuable tips to make the most of the internet marketing strategies you're already using.

Do you AIDA?

That’s Attention, Interest, Desire, Action.
— David Gonzalez

First,

you must grab your audience's attention with a salivation-worthy hook. Who is your target market, and what kind of click-bait header would they be unable to resist?

Next,

hold their interest by offering them something of value, whether or not they intend to buy. Your chances of converting the sale are slim to none if people aren't at least still reading.

Third,

create the desire to buy. In what ways will their lives improve by purchasing your service/product? Is your free "interest" section so strong that they can't help but want to see what your paid services look like?

Finally,

plant that big blinking Call to Action button where your reader can't fail to miss it--and voila! A SALE!

For more great tips, check out Neville Medhora's short self-help guide "This Book Will Teach You to Write Better."

Swallow Your Pills! Seniors & The Pharmaceutical Future

I have a soft spot for older adults. They make up 50% of my clients: grandparents who want to write their life stories for the grandkids. I loved my own grandparents so much that I cherish the time I get to spend with other people's grandparents. Like those grandkids, I only want the best for our ever-growing, ever-aging population.

What does the best look like?

Yesterday I attended Aging 2.0's speed-pitch start-up contest, featuring 8 presenters pitching brand new boomer-oriented problem-solving technologies. We the audience got to vote on the pitches, taking into account such factors as ease of use, impact, and social/environmental responsibility. The products and services ranged from mental healthcare access to home healthcare and personal training; all of them had an app component.

The verdict:

While I certainly believe in capitalizing on the power of technology, especially as a tool of access for seniors, I wasn't convinced that anyone would want to log on daily or multiple times/day to scan healthcare provider profiles or record the number of sit-ups completed. Instead, I was most drawn to the one pitch that promised an immediate and easy solution to a real and pressing problem: that of making sure older adults take their medicines--the right ones--on time, every day.

The product:

As EllieGrid explains it, "EllieGrid is the smartest pill box in the world. We allow people to organize their medications & vitamins in seconds. (Yeah, seconds.)" A riff on the traditional pillbox, featuring large and organized cubicles, EllieGrid allows patients to dump a whole bottle of pills into a compartment rather than counting out the pills by days. EllieGrid can then be programmed such that each day, an alarm goes off reminding the patient to take his medicine. The compartments with the requisite pills for that time light up, and a digital display tells him how many pills to remove from each compartment.

Conclusion:

Simple and brilliant. No more over-medication, under-medication, or forgetting whether or not Grandpa has taken his pills already! Now he's guaranteed to be feeling well and up to sharing his stories with Cider Spoon! Thanks, EllieGrid.