21 February 2017

alpha female

and now, i shall science!
i have a friend who does a variety of therapies for others. i'm always slightly skeptical of the efficacy of these things [which is probably just bottled up resentment over the fact that i can't meditate], but one thing we discussed the last time i saw her was work she was doing with soundwaves to affect the brain. i'm a little more at ease with this concept, because there is a body of science behind it. different frequencies do trigger certain things in our brains.

she uses these techniques most often to help people with insomnia, or to help people who suffer from anxiety [and who often have sleep disorders as a result]. obviously, those purposes are of interest to me, because i don't often sleep well. but another aspect of it that was of interest to me was the use of alpha waves to heighten creativity.

so my friend sent me a set of recordings that she uses for these sessions, and this morning, i tried out the alpha waves. i set myself up to write and continued to do so for the entire length of the alpha wave recordings [one hundred and ten minutes in total]. i haven't been able to shake off the creative cobwebs in quite a while, but i had some time today, plus the extra impetus of doing an experiment on myself.

the recordings aren't simply waves- there's soft layers of natural sounds and hints of melody flow in and out. it's short of full on new age-y, however, because, in order to be effective, the alpha waves have to shine through. so it's not unlike the very delicate edge of ambient music, especially from the early nineties era when there was a trend towards incorporating 'ethnic' or 'tribal' influences.

the sounds are very relaxing, and i was initially seized with the fear that my experiment was going to end with me passing out and drooling on my keyboard. but i forced myself to start working and, lo and behold, two hours later i did have a complete short story. [well, more of a mood piece than a true story. but those count as short stories too in my world, because i feel like they can stand on their own best when they're unencumbered by a traditional plot or setting.]

so the test was a resounding success?

well, i would say that the findings warrant further investigation. clearly, a story came out where there had been no stories coming out for a while. the entire idea came from scratch; it ends up fitting in with an idea i'd had for a series of stories, but it didn't start that way. it didn't start as anything.

on the other hand, i did set myself up to write, and refused to allow distractions. that in itself is helpful.

and i was working from a single word prompt dom had given me some time ago, a technique which has worked very well for me in the past. [and which also resulted in an almost instant story.]

i think it would be stupid to try to write without imposing that first condition, and i know from past experience that, even when i can make time for writing, my brain doesn't always cooperate. but the next stage is clearly to work without a prompt and to see if i get spurred to create anything worthwhile, even if it isn't a complete piece.

so the verdict on alpha waves is plausible. now i get to test how the others fare at helping my sleep, because, as often happens, writing has left me physically exhausted. [thank god i generally stick to short stories.]

20 February 2017

i don't feel well

although i've put "mental health mondays" on temporary hiatus, this post does sort of fit the bill, except that it hasn't taken any of the effort that those posts usually do. because i'm not capable of making that effort today, because i either skipped my medicine yesterday, or i took it twice, or i slept too little or too much, or i ate too much sugar, or the wrong amount of it at the wrong time. i don't know. i can't remember, because, as much as the medications i'm on help me cope with day to day stuff, they are terrible for my short term memory. i can't go out to the store without a shopping list and even then, i'm at the point of needing an alarm to remind me to look at the shopping list. the sleep thing is unpredictable, because there seems to be a very narrow mountain ridge between the chasms of crazy on either side. the food thing is more of a theory, but there's no doubt that my reaction to sweets and carbohydrates is extreme compared to where it used to be.

days like this aren't just about being "in a mood". what i experience on a bad day is very physical it feels like my insides are trying to run in about twenty different directions, and that my skin is desperately trying to hold them in. sitting for more than a few minutes is uncomfortable. i've already had to stand up and pace a few times in the time it's taken me to write a paragraph and a half. the muscles in my neck are tensed to the point where it feels a little like i'm choking and while i don't have a headache, exactly, it feels like i've got a helium balloon inflating more and more and more inside my skull. i'm also uncomfortably hot, all the time. i get sweaty, which is pretty rare except under extreme heat, which feels disgusting to me. in a few years, i'm going to get perimenopausal, and then i'll get to experience this at the same time i get hot flashes. literal flames are going to shoot out of my eyes.

of course, there is also a shift in my mood when i get like this. i want to talk, i want to babble constantly and excitedly about half a dozen things in the space of ten minutes. i get so keyed up that it's like a stampede at the front of my mouth, all sorts of words getting crushed to death against my teeth because they can't find a way to squeeze through the gate. that's when i'm feeling happy. but on days like today, i also have a hair-trigger temper. i go from happily chattering to violent fury in the time it takes most people to sneeze. earlier, i was ready to murder someone because i was struggling to find a clean pair of tights. that's not an exaggeration. i've tried talking to my doctor about this, because it honestly worries me that just for a second, my fears over the consequences of being caught will be elbowed out of the driver's seat. one day, i tell her, someone's going to brush my arm and the next thing either of us know, i'm going to be on top of them with a toaster that's been thrown in an alley, counting how many hits it takes to drive their eyes through the back of their head. she reassures me that i'm much too calm and composed for that to ever happen.

so why write all this down? because it's days like this that remind me that i'm not ok, that i have stuff that needs work, and that's possibly going to need work for the rest of my life. i need to remember to take the medication that i'm given and to monitor how well it's working. i need to keep track of everything i do, so that, on days when things are 'off' like this, i can figure out what might have caused it. i need to be cautious about going out of the house, where i'll have to encounter others, and where i'll pass alleys with discarded toasters or worse.

and i'm writing this down because i know that there are a number of people who read this blog who aren't ok. i want you to know that it's ok to be not ok. i go through the same things. others go through these things. you can wade through the swamp of the mind and still find yourself getting sucked into the mud some days, because you forgot something, or because your body reacted strangely to something, or just because that shit happens some days. you can find drugs or therapy or meditative techniques or dietary changes that work to help you feel in control, and sometimes, those things just crap out on you. it sucks. [and it sucks even more that there's an army of people willing to tell you that your problems aren't real, or that they're not serious because they can't see them by looking at you, or because someone can't sample your blood and detect the crazy.]

if you're struggling today, i'm feel you [not literally]. if today was a good day, you earned it. it's a fight and we nuts have to look out for each other as best we can.

p.s. :: this illustrations used in this post come from here. there are more of them, and they're quite amazing.

p.p.s. :: the link works now. i'd forgotten to add it at first.

18 February 2017

making faces :: inspired by some mighty girls

some of you may already have heard this, but the journal of medical ethics recently had what can only be described as an epic brain fart when it published an article by white, male american doctor allan jacobs advocating for a "compromise solution" on the issue of female genital mutilation [fgm]. i'm not sure what the temperature was in his office when he was writing this missive, but i can only assume it was pretty fucking warm and that he was in the preliminary stages of a drop in blood pressure associated with extreme temperatures, which diminishes the brain's ability to make complex decisions and think clearly.

his case was that little progress had been made in eliminating fgm in thirty years [although, as this riposte points out, the issue really hasn't been addressed until the last decade in any meaningful way]. therefore, he says, western doctors should feel comfortable with "milder forms" of mutilation, so as not to appear to judge a cultural tradition. i'm not sure what part of cutting off a clitoris qualifies as mild. even typing the words makes me squirmy.

look, i'm all in favour of cultural sensitivity and being respectful of the traditions of others, but that doesn't mean that all cultural traditions deserve to be continued; as a white person, i can claim that slave ownership is a cultural tradition; as someone of british heritage, i can claim that taking over someone else's territory is a cultural tradition; as a scot, i can claim that murdering leaders when they need to be replaced is a cultural tradition. but as a human being living in the twenty-first century, i can say that i don't believe that any of those traditions should be respected. i don't even think they should be legal. i know that there are grey areas, but can we just agree that any practice that ends with a person missing a functional and helpful part of their body is probably something that we shouldn't be going to the wall to protect?

luckily for all of us, dr. jacobs was called out by a group of young women and men in the most adorable way one could conceive: a catchy little ditty sung with plaintive voices and played with sincerity. [thus marking the only time "adorable" and "female genital mutilation" will ever collide in public parlance.]



i absolutely love everything about this video, but one of my favourite things is the sugary sweet look the youngsters are all [female and male] sporting. so, when i got the idea that i wanted to post the video to call it to your attention, i thought it would be fun to recreate a version of the makeup they used, which somehow channels pure fun while dealing with a subject that's anything but.

since everyone in the video clearly had that youthful radiance to them, i went with my handy-dandy joe fresh illuminating primer [although i just mixed it in with my foundation]. i just don't glow like that anymore without help.

clearly, the looks are all about da pink, sometimes on the eyes and sometimes on the lips, but i just said "screw it" and did both. i combined a lot of mac eye shadows to get that medium-to-slightly-cool pink that most of the young women are wearing, including a couple of limited edition products. i found "sushi flower" was too warm and coral on its own, so i topped it with "sunset b" and added the cooler, more violet-fuchsia "lala" on the outside of the eyes. then i tapped "swish" on the centre to give a bit of a highlight. that list bit is a departure from what you see in the video, because the makeup they've used is quite matte. i think that you could probably achieve something similar with just "sushi flower" and "swish", but if you wanted a cooler medium pink to combine, i think that mac "cherry topped" would work.

along with the pink, i noticed one woman who was wearing bright yellow shadow, so i decided to incorporate that as well with the pink, in the crease. i also added some black eyeliner, which, along with combining colours, is different than what's in the video, but was necessary to make the look just a little less "editorial" and more wearable when i went out to the grocery store later on.

the cheeks in the video are pretty subtle, so i just dabbed a little colour and highlighter on: more glow and not quite as drastic looking as no blush at all [which i considered].

as far as the lip, in my collection "candy yum yum" was the hands-down choice in terms of colour. it really is the perfect, bright, candy pink. i wouldn't even be surprised if it was one of the colours used in the video. bite "cotton candy" would be another good choice. if you're the kind of person who wears cooler pinks well, i think mac "st. germain" or "pink nouveau" would be nice options from that family [although lighter]. bold fuchsia looked too red, and competed too much with the eye.

it's not a look that lends itself to being tamped down, but if you wanted to try something more subtle, i'd drop "bright sunshine" [the yellow shade] in favour of something yellow-toned but softer and apply the pinks with a lighter hand. on the lips, you could opt for bite "dragonfruit" which is still pretty bright, but a bit deeper and more muted, or a warm pink like mac "chatterbox".




here's what i used to look that way ::

the base ::
clarins skin illusion natural radiance light reflecting foundation 103
clarins instant concealer 01
joe fresh illuminating primer "pure glow"
guerlain pressed meteorites 01 "clair"

the eyes ::
mac "sushi flower"
mac "sunset b"*
mac "lala"*
mac "swish"
mac "bright sunshine"
mac "vanilla"
marc jacobs highliner gel crayon e/l "blacquer"
colour pop e/l "exit"
marc jacobs velvet noir major volume mascara

the cheeks ::
tarte cheek stain "flush"
guerlain pressed powder "parure de nuit"*

lips ::
mac matte l/s "candy yum yum"

*indicates a limited edition or discontinued product.

i apologise for the quality of those photos, by the way. the battery for my regular camera has given up the ghost, which means i've had to resort to phone photos. they look decent enough small. maybe don't click on them.

those weird faces i'm making were completely unintentional, by the way. i have no idea what was going through my head, other than that catchy little song.

so remember:

1. not all traditions are worth saving.
2. the female clitoris is not something other people should be making decisions about.
3. cutting off parts of someone's body without their informed consent is just bad.

you can find out more about the group that put that lovely video together right here. [and make a donation to help fund their work.]

10 February 2017

uncle alex and the sands of time

black watch soldiers marching in mesopotamia, wwi

when i was growing up, there was a photograph that hung in the landing of our staircase. i saw it every time i went downstairs to play in our [mostly] finished basement, which was pretty much every day, usually more than once. the picture was a black and white of a dark-haired, bearded man in full highland regalia. i knew early on that this was "uncle alex", although it took me a while to realise that he was my father's uncle and not mine. i knew that uncle alex had died in the first world war, supposedly at gallipoli with many, many, many other soldiers. i was probably the only seven year old to know what a "gallipoli" was.

as an adult, when i developed an interest in genealogy, one of the first things that i did was look for information about uncle alex. i quickly found out that he was buried with his parents in the cape breton town where the clan had lived since they were driven out of scotland in the 19th century. his epitaph was not elaborate, but it did give his date of birth and the date and place of his death: january 21, 1916 at the "battle of mesopotamia", as well as the fact that he was a member of the "2nd black watch".

right away, this information threw a wrench in my established narrative: the date of his death corresponded with nothing to do with gallipoli, which had been evacuated much earlier. but nor was there any record of the "battle of mesopotamia" in the annals of wwi history. i don't blame my father for this, although he is one prone to exaggerating his proximity to important events. he would not have heard about his uncle until decades after the man's death. his father, alex's younger brother, would have been in his sixties by the time he related it, and who knows how good the information received by the family was to begin with? the date inscribed on the grave, however, did give me a good lead on the actual circumstances of his death.

information from macdonald family grave

january 21st, 1916 was the battle of hanna, an ill-fated effort by british forces to liberate fellow soldiers from the now iraqi city of kut, where they had been trapped by the ottoman army. by the time the battle of hanna took place, it was already pretty clear that things were not going to go well for the brits. at the beginning of the month, a group of 19,000 had left the british army's mesopotamian theatre headquarters in basra with the aim of relieving the 10,000 soldiers trapped in kut. they'd hardly set foot outside the base when they came up against a faction of 22,500 turks. in the end, they survived chiefly because the opposition simply disappeared; the ottomans packed up and left for reasons that remain mysterious. but when i say the british soldiers survived, i mean that most of them survived. 4,000 didn't.

convinced that they had gone about things the wrong way, the british regrouped and found another 19,000 men, mostly indian soldiers pressed into service for the king. they marched off and made it farther than the group before them, but on the 13th, they suffered a massacre at the hands of the better-equipped, numerically superior and battle-hardened ottomans. the force of 19,000 was reduced to 9,000 in one day of fighting. if the entire town in which uncle alex had grown up had been eliminated, it still wouldn't have come close to equalling the number of men he saw killed that day. he was lucky. he lived to fight another day. but one week later, his luck ran out.

despite the disastrous events on the 13th, the command from basra was that the force was to continue towards kut,  mostly because the british failure to liberate their men from the "inferior" turks [the same sort of rationale that had spurred the idiocy of gallipoli] was getting bloody embarrassing. on the 21st, the 10,000 soldiers remaining came up against 30,000 ottomans at hanna. things did not go well.

whether or not it would have made any difference, the british came shockingly close to their goal. hanna is close enough to kut that the soldiers there could hear the sounds of the battle taking place. as the day wore on, however, it became obvious even to them that things were not progressing as they had hoped. the sounds remained distant. their rescuers were coming no closer.

the british losses at the battle of hanna were actually less than those suffered the week before. still, 2,700 men died and one of them was my uncle alex. on the other side of the world from where he had spent the vast majority of his life, he fell alongside thousands of indian soldiers, who must have seemed terribly exotic to him, on a landscape unlike anything he had ever seen.

thus did i close the story of the man i looked on every day for years. except that, as i looked into it more, things weren't quite so simple. as i mentioned, the great bulk of the soldiers at hanna came from two indian divisions. descriptions do note that there were "some others", without generally getting specific about who they were. after more searching, i did find that the 2nd battalion of the black watch contributed 225 soldiers to the rescue effort, 75 of whom died at hanna. and yet still, the case is not closed.

the black watch that contributed those soldiers, you see, was a british division. there's no evidence at all that there were any members of canada's black watch present. in fact, the official website of the canadian black watch doesn't mention any battles in the middle east in which they participated. they don't even have a 2nd battalion. why would uncle alex have joined a british division? had he moved there before the war? if so, why? none of his family ever left the tiny town where he was from. the easy answer is that he was moved over there by the army, but that would mean that he had been in the canadian army and then somehow got transferred to the british after he'd been stationed in scotland. not exactly standard procedure.

a perusal of canadian military records reveal 155 men with the first or second name 'alexander' and the surname 'macdonald'. not one of them died at the battle of hanna. now, the those records aren't complete, so the fact that his name doesn't appear doesn't prove anything. the aim is to have all records digitized by the end of 2018, and until then, there's nothing that's absolutely certain.

records for the british army require a paid membership to access. you can take your chances and pay for a single record, but with a name as common as alex's, it's a real gamble that you'll end up with the right one.

the man in the black and white photograph, so stark against the earthy colours of the seventies-era decor that was my childhood, is as remote to me as he was then. i believed i knew more about him, but everything i've learned has made his story more confusing, and at the same time more fascinating. uncle alex was not a soldier fresh off the proverbial farm. [or any farm, for that matter, his father was a ship's master who never worked a field in his life.] he would have been forty at the very beginning of the war, a rather exceptional age to be serving on the front lines. i'd been told that he'd been a soldier most of his life, but during that time, he seems to have progressed only to the rank of sergeant, so if he was a career soldier, he wasn't very good at it. he never married and never had children. [in fact, of the four brothers in the family, my grandfather was the only one who ever had children and even then, he was in his forties by the time even the eldest of them was born.] his grave says that he died in a battle that history says he could not have participated in. and with thousands of bodies to account for, it can't be ruled out that another person was mistaken for him, especially given the commonness of the name. uncle alex headed off to fight in the war, and even the circumstances of that are unclear. if he communicated with his family after that point, none of it has survived. years later, his family was told that he'd died in the desert, valiantly fighting a doomed battle, trying to rescue a group of her majesty's soldiers.

as for those soldiers, they never did receive their reinforcements. they managed to hold out in kut until april, five months since they had found themselves penned in by the enemy, and on the 29th, they surrendered to the ottomans. in 1929, the british erected a memorial to the more than 40,000 soldiers who died in the mesopotamian campaign and whose graves are not known, known simply as the "basra memorial". in 1997, due to political instability in the region, saddam hussein moved the memorial 32 kilometres, to a location where he felt he could keep it safe; a massive undertaking given the size of the structure. [unfortunately, with hussein gone, no such protections have been given. crime in basra has been a huge issue, since the army was pulled out of the region in order to fight isis. it's unclear if the memorial even exists anymore.]

the basra memorial in better times

in that memorial is one final, tantalizing clue: among the thousands of names listed there is one "sarjeant alexander macdonald", member of the black watch royal highlanders- the canadian black watch. if that's so, then uncle alex has two graves, neither of which contains his body. his death in the iraqi sands is a matter of guesswork, process of elimination as the shellshocked remains of the army tried to figure out who was still with them in the wake of the bloodbath. if he did die in hanna on the 21st of january, he was separated from his supposed home regiment, apparently on loan to another. if he didn't, it seems like the army simply lost track of him, and that he probably died in some other battle, with someone else's name attached to him. if he did manage to somehow wander off the field and not die in the wilderness, he was content to allow his family to believe him to be dead.

some day, i'll inherit the picture that haunts me so [it's still in my father's possession]. i fancy i'll hang it somewhere where my great-uncle can continue to taunt me with his peaceful, knowing expression and that that will drive me all the harder to find out who he was and what happened to him. i'm counting on it. 

08 February 2017

in the beginning

among other projects that i'm struggling to get to various levels off the ground right now, i've had this idea that sits in my head, that i can't ever seem to do anything with. i want to do something with it, because i feel like it would power me out of other areas where i've become creatively stuck. but instead it just feels like a ball of uranium in my creative pocket, weighing me down as i'm trying to swim through the waters of my own brain.

the concept that i'm trying to work out has to do with a thing, not really a character or a setting, although it has elements of both, that appears in several things i've written/ am writing. my idea is that i'd like to give it a sort of origin story, something that mixes facts with [modern] myths- the tale it tells about itself. but i'll be damned if i can think of a good point from which to start.

perhaps it's my personal view of history that gets in the way; everything is the result of what has preceded it, therefore the idea of an origin point is fatuous. the only true origin stories are myths, where you have the luxury of choosing, but even then, they're not quite perfect. what was god doing for all that time before he decided to create the earth and all that good stuff? the primordial deities of ancient greece might have been born out of chaos, but how did chaos get there? even science follows the rule of "nothing from nothing", meaning that there literally cannot be an origin point of anything at all, because there had to be a something to cause the something else. billions of years ago something sparked in the tiniest imaginable corner of the universe, and from that, i have blue eyes.

yes, i realise that i'm overthinking this.

the fact is that we set origin points because we need to, because we can talk our way back to the primordial ooze every time we want to explain a historical event. and certainly, we can talk about turning points, when the weight of some historical events pushes things in one direction rather than another at a particular point in time. so maybe that's what i'm searching for: the particular confluence of circumstances that would have caused my imaginary bugbear to invent itself at a certain point.

if you've read things i've written, you've probably figured out that this is not a fantasy story, where i have unbound options. i favour things that take place in a real, or real-seeming world. maybe like something that lives on the other side of the mirror. it looks exactly the same, but there's no rule that says that's the case when you can't observe it. [yes there is. -ed.]

so here's my dilemna:

i need a realistic story [probably with some actual historical detail thrown in, because i'm sort of hung up on strange but true details];
it has to explain how something expansive enough to hang in the background of several stories i've written or started
i have to be able to connect it to other things that i've already said about it
it needs to be imaginative and memorable and maybe a bit scary, like a proper old-fashioned fairy tale.

so that should be no problem, right? creative people are always able to come up with highly specific ideas on command. that's how the creative process works.

i'm going to go hide in a hole now.

p.s. :: i have bronchitis! that's not related in any way to my creative problem. i just wanted some extra  pity.

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