Monthly Archives: October 2015

Give us this day our daily bread.

Give us this day our daily bread.

the daily reader/strong>, 365 selections of great prose and poetry to inspire a productive and meaningful writing life. By Fred White

I have a ton of assignments to mark, but everything else seems more interesting. Especially this book which surely is a cure for a writer’s block. Each page is divided into 3 parts: summary of a book, points for further reflection and “try this” – suggestions on what you can practice writing about.

Example, the entry on Jan 8 is about “Alexandria: City of the Western Mind” by Theodore Vrettos. White invites you, the reader to reflect on how a city like Alexandria, can prepare you in writing your own story, and describing the setting, the people and how life is organised. In “try this”, White suggests that the reader describes a scene based on Vrettos’s reference to Julius Caesar strolling with Cleopatra through the streets of Alexandria. Describe the citizens and try to capture as many sensory impressions as possible.

At other parts, White invites you to try writing a story in which individuals from two vastly different cultures or time-periods come together such as “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” by Mark Twain. And if you think that time traveller stories are passe, recall “The Time Traveller’s Wife”.

All together, if you are searching for suggestions on what to read next, there are 365 ideas, from “The story of Jazz” by Marshall Stearns to “The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance” by Henry Petroski.

Did you know that a lead pencil while seemingly simple by today’s standards, involves an “exacting process employing a multiplicity of raw materials. And the materials depends on the most modern and cosmopolitan of political, economic and technological systems. The lead might be a mixture of two kinds of graphite, from Sri Lanka and Mexico, clay from Mississippi, gums from the Orient and water from Pennsylvania and the wooden case from western incense cedar from California.

From St Augustine to Nero, from “Coffee” to “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”, there’s a good selection of genres ending with “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers” by Christopher Vogler.

The stages of a hero’s journey can be traced to all kinds of stories. The book ends with Vogler’s depiction of story patterns as described by Joseph Campbell in “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, how writers can construct a story using the 12 stages of the hero’s journey, including the call to adventure, crossing the first threshold, facing enemies, suffering ordeals and setbacks, and coming home.

How about writing your own, 100 stories that changed your life.

Source: Photo taken by L in Japan

In recent years when I started working part-time, I found that my level of stress has not abated. Himself suggested that I walk, to simulate a “fight or flight” response for my body.

Some of you may find this obvious, but not to me. My family doesn’t exercise, and my mom claims that her doctor told her not to exercise. In school, my teachers would get us to exercise at 10am, and resume classes in our sticky tropical sweat. At my first workplace, my bosses scoffed at “farmers”. All brawn and no brains. Thus begins my research and excitement when I read some of the experiments cited by Reynolds.

Thus began my love-hate relationship with exercise, especially given that my favourite past-time was eating, I had to exercise to keep my Asian frame in respectable-husband-worthy form.

I’m reading “The First 20 minutes – the surprising science of how we can exercise better, train smarter and live longer” by Gretchen Reynolds

In Ch8 of her book, Reynolds opens with a story of the sea squirt, which has long sections of DNA similar to our own. Movement of the sea squirt seems to strengthen their brain and the nervous system connections.

These are the benefits of exercise cited by Reynolds:

Creation of new brain cells
Pumps up existing ones
Improves mood
Aids in multi-tasking
Blunts aging-related memory loss
Sharpens decision making
Dulls stress
Enfeebles bullies
Improves thinking

The experiments were initially tested on mice by Fred Rusty Gage, a world renowned professor in the Department of Genetics and his colleagues on a Morris water maze which was the rats equivalent of an IQ test. The difference between the smart mice and those that failed the test was exercise. Later the experiments were done on brain tissue from deceased cancer patients who had donated their bodies to research.

Again Dr Gage saw new neurons, centred almost exclusively in the hippocampus.

In another experiment conducted by Dr Nathaniel Thom, a stress physiologist at a recent American College of Sports Medicine conference presented studies that showed that exercise, even a single bout of it (in the experiment it was 30 mins on a stationary bike), can have a robust prophylactic effect against the buildup of anger. The volunteers still became upset but it helped them to hold their anger in check.

In another experiment by Dr Lehmann of the National Institute of Mental Health, exercise helps to achieve emotional resilience. The researchers gathered two groups of male mice. “Some were strong and aggressive. The others less so. The alpha mice got private cages and acted like thugs. They had to be restrained from harming the smaller mice when the partition was removed for 5 mins… Under such conditions, the smaller animals were predictably twitchy and submissive… After two weeks, the weaker mice became nervous wrecks.”

In a separate group of mice that had been allowed access to running wheels for several weeks before they were housed with the aggressive mice, they appeared stress resistant. Although these mice were wisely submissive when confronted by the bullies, they didn’t freeze or cling to dark spaces in unfamiliar situations. They explored.

Dr Lehmann expounded that one of the mysteries of mental illness is why some people respond pathologically to stress and some seem to be stress resistant. The answer, according to Dr Michael Hopkins at Dartmouth University, may at least, in part be workouts. Possibly that the “positive stress of exercise prepares cells and structures and pathways within the brain so that they’re more equipped to handle stress in other forms.”

How much exercise is needed?

Dr Lehmann doesn’t run. He walks everywhere (has no car) and does not believe that hours of daily exercise are needed or desirable. “The mice in his lab ran only when and for as long as they wished.” [NB: To our Minister of Transport, maybe the solution is not cycling but walking!]

Some experimenters demonstrated that aerobic exercise was better. Others showed that weight training was more suitable, in experiments involving older women of 60 yrs and above. And the studies showed that people with low efficacy and low confidence showed injuries. Hence its better for them to get some kind of coaching help.

To find out more, read this book!

Recently I found myself very interested in the lists on LifeHack especially lists such as 10 things successful people do before breakfast. Soon I found various versions of such lists put together randomly by people. Although I appreciate the lists, I wondered on what basis each person created those lists. At around that time, I chanced upon this book by Amy Morin. Her 13 items are listed here:

After finishing Ch1 and Ch2, I felt I needed to write a blog entry because this is a book that several years from now I want to read again but may have forgotten the title. Unlike the LifeHack lists, Amy is a professional therapist. Her writing comes from real experience of having to pick up pieces of her life having lost mom and husband within two weeks of the other. She also shared stories of patients/ clients whose experiences, I could somehow relate to in my life.

In Chapter 9, “They (Mentally strong) don’t resent other people’s success”, Morin cites a 2013 Study entitled “Envy on Facebook : A Hidden Threat to Users Life Satisfaction ” explains why some people experience negative emotions while browsing Facebook. Researchers discovered that people felt the most anger and resentment when their  “friends” received a lot of Happy Birthday wishes on their birthdays. Frighteningly the study concluded that those who experience a lot of negative emotions while browsing Facebook experience an overall decline in general life satisfaction. (Talk about a double whammy).

Morin advises “Focus on cooperation rather than competition”. Another story she told was how Milton Hershey’s employee HB Reese began another candy company in the same town. While still working in the chocolate factory, Reese used the knowledge he’d gained from Hershey’s to invent his own candy, the peanut butter cups. Although Hershey could have easily viewed Reese as a competitor stealing away customers, he instead supported Reese’s business ventures. The two remained on good terms.  After their deaths the two companies merged which could have ended quire differently had they not cooperated.

Morin advises:

  • Create your own definition of success.
  • Practice celebrating other people’s accomplishment

She provides another story of how a coach in the US Olympics hockey team  looks for players who could work well together and not one player attempting to steal the spotlight.

Isn’t this true of today’s corporations where team work is necessary as we need the diversity of talents.

I think that every parent, leader, teacher, coach should read this book. Our young people today are subject to so much stress from everywhere that we need to be mentally strong for them.  Even those very familiar with self help books. Her research and practical advice will help anyone keep the faith!