The end is the start to something new…
It’s over… I don’t think I’ve quite grasped that fact yet. Yet as much as it may be a cliché, the end is always the beginning of something new, the undiscovered country, the future. And I for one am looking forward to it. I sit here at Denver’s airport, overlooking the Rocky Mountains towering tall in the distant background, colorful planes coming and going. I’m on my way to Tucson for a couple of days, to see my dear sister, having just taken leave from my tribe, my beloved crowd of readers and authors of GRL. Four intensive days, climaxing – as always – last night – with the annual costume party. And yes, that is over, too.
A costume party and a goal
A slow but steady increase in weight around my waist had me look like this in March of 2017. Not what you want to show off in public…
The road to Denver began in early March when we were finally able to register. Just days later I learned of the theme for the costume party, and after my exploit in 2015, the pressure on me to pull another queen out of my hat has been high, from attendees as well as myself. And it’s always a tricky endeavor, as last year proved. My emperor Hadrian, champion of marriage equality, as amazing as the costume was, fell flat after the theme of the party was morphed from “over the rainbow” to a more specific “The Wizard of Oz”. Yeah, no Roman emperors in the emerald city, but I had already invested so much money in the costume design that it was too late to morph it into a munchkin or another twister. Instead, everyone marveled at a naked Tin Man, amazingly performed by vocal artist Joel Leslie Froomkin, with the body paint applied by his equally artistic husband. Hat off…
When the organizers told me that this year’s theme would revolve around the Wild West, I had a flashback to last year and Joel’s costume, and I’ll be honest (as always) and admit that I had felt a tinge of envy at Joel’s beautifully sculpted body. Yes, and my friend Meghan Maslow confirmed as much in a discussion we had, if you want to show skin, you can’t do so in a flabby dad bod. Nobody wants to see that. There is a fine line between being sexy and being embarrassing. I agreed. Yet oddly, the “wild, wild west” had me think of a slutty cowboy (because just going in chaps wasn’t very original). I have never been ashamed of my body, and I had people cat-calling and whistling after me in France way back in 1983 when I dressed up as a prostitute (female, mind you) for a costume party thrown by my language school EF. I was named Miss EF St. Malo for that mini skirt and t-shirt, wearing my madame’s bra underneath it. No shoes, because we couldn’t find any my size. Madame was petite. I was sixteen at the time, and I had the body for it: hairless, slim and no visible muscles. I had never worked out in my life.
My personal trainer, coach and nutrition expert, Markus Jielin from STC Training in Sweden. I got really lucky with him, and his gentle way was exactly what I needed to push myself harder and harder to reach my goal.
So being un-dressed didn’t scare me. What did scare me was my body. I had let myself go over the past twenty-five years, increasing in weight from the 75 kg (165 lbs) at my 6’1” to almost 90 kb (195 lbs), note that my skeleton only weighs 3.7 kg (8.1 lbs). The slope had been gentle and slow, but steadily downward, and while I don’t remember my clothing sizes as a kid, my upper body had always been a medium, but my jeans sizes began to increase from a 31 to a 34 two years ago. And it was a tight fit. At my age, other complications arose: I have a herniated disk in my neck, which had been giving me trouble ever since it ruptured in 2012, and I have a shot disk in my lower back which had my sciatica in turmoil for the past three years. There were many a day when I could barely get out of bed, and when my physical therapists prescribed me exercises to strengthen my core to help steady my spine, I couldn’t do them because of the pain. Or I didn’t do them because I wasn’t in pain that day, the latter a huge mental problem, more than anything else. I was badly out of shape, and mentally nowhere near ready to tackle the lapses of twenty-five years. I started gaining weight shortly after my twenty-fifth birthday. So it’s been a long time building. To be able to show off my naked torso and a six pack was a dream, a crazy, really crazy dream, but somehow it rooted itself in my mind and I decided to try and do something about it. Nothing but a challenge for me to rise to. I contacted a local gym, five tram stops from our port and hired a personal trainer.
Markus from STC probably (no, most certainly) thought I was nuts, out of my mind, when we first met for our first work-out on March 20th this year. I mean who hires a personal trainer just to get undressed at a costume party in the states, right? But I guess he thought “his money to waste…” and we began to work. One of the first things we looked at was my nutrition. I don’t use the word “diet”, because we all know that dieting doesn’t work, because the second you stop, you’ll gain that weight right back, and then some. You have to change your nutrition permanently in order to achieve results. Markus suggested going slow, making tiny changes, one at a time, not to overdo it, in order not to lose faith in the process. He was spot on. I always thought I was eating healthy. No bad fats, no cheap processed food and yada, yada. However, I quickly noticed two things: there was too much fat in my food (still), way too much sugar and, worst of all, we simply ate too much, drank too much, the casual glass of wine pretty much every evening for instance. Empty calories…
“Remember, nutrition is 80% of your success, working out only 20%”
Progress was fast, and by June, my jeans felt super loose. I had already lost two inches around my waist. Now I’m back at my 31” jeans waist.
This is Markus’s mantra, and he (and all scientific research in the area) are of course right. But we did work out, once a week together, him showing me new exercises, pushing me to lift more weight, me alone, twice every week. I remember how frustrated I was, not remembering them, not knowing what to do, how to do it, but I began to spend many hours at the gym, every week, with three hours of weightlifting and two to three hours on the treadmill, walking off calories. Progress was swift. By the end of June, that excess flab I had built up in the past four to five years was mostly gone, my body fat count had dropped from 15.6% (which is pretty average in Sweden for men my age) to 10.7%, but I had also lost muscle tissue, even though I was feeling stronger.
We increased the tempo and made more nutritional changes, which also included to pretty much forego alcohol. We increased my protein intake to help build my muscle strength, and my first real mental challenge was the cruise and vacation this summer: all this amazing food, free drinks on the ship, and I could barely partake, because I realized that every mojito meant less food left to be eaten. I could not, I would not, exceed my daily calorie targets. It paid off. By the end of the summer, my body fat count was down to 9.9% and I began to see muscles in my upper body. As a former runner, I’ve always had muscular strength in my legs, and even though I’ve increased my leg press results from 350 lbs in March to 750 lbs (!) in September, it wasn’t a priority. My arms, chest and shoulders were (re herniated disk). At the beginning, I could barely do a bench press with the 20 kg (44 lbs) empty bar. These days I press 70 kg (154 lbs) and I’m sure I have room for improvement. To do a pull-up was a dream for me, but to lift that chin and the 89 kg of my body over the bar just was not in the cards. These days I can easily do ten, and one with 30 kg (66 lbs) attached to my body, totalling 244 lbs. More than any other of Markus’s clients, and by a fifty year-old? I’m proud of myself…
I don’t care about the costume party any more…
The slutty cowboy or “unique”, as I’ve called him last night… The end of the road, or?
Not entirely true, but as I learned about my body, my nutrition, and when I saw the changes in my physical appearance, I also began noticing the effects of it on my general health: I began to sleep better, my bathroom visits less complicated (no need for details), my mood improved, there was a ‘spring’ in my walk and my mood. It’s really hard to explain, but I began to feel happier, and proud of what I had achieved, the fact that I had achieved it. But I wasn’t quite there yet. Not for Denver, not for GRL, not for that six pack. For many men, body fat first gathers around the belly, and I quickly learned how hard it is to realize that “the first place you gain it will be the last place you lose it…” After the weigh-in in August, I realized that if I really wanted for people (and myself) to see the growing six pack, I needed to push myself even harder and decrease the fat content of my body even further.
Last Monday, the day before I flew to Denver, at my final weigh-in, I had it pushed all the way down to 6.4%, lower than Markus’s own, and he’s been working out regularly for decades, a former elite athlete. Mission accomplished. But that wasn’t important any more, as much as it was a mile stone worth celebrating. I am healthy as a horse, and while my sciatica still hurts regularly, it’s not debilitating. I’m not having trouble getting out of bed, I move freely. I am happy.
And as weird as this may sound, at the age of 50, I look better than I ever have in my entire life, sexy – if I may say so – not embarrassing, beach 2018, where art thou?. The six kilo that I’m heavier than I was when I was sixteen are all muscle, and these days, my t-shirts aren’t tight around the waist, they’re tight around the shoulders. An amazing feeling. I’m healthy (as certified by two doctors), I’m happy, and I’m stronger than ever before.
The statistics behind my physical change. We never did a weigh in at the start so those figures aren’t complete. I guess Markus didn’t really believe I would stick to it in the beginning… I’m surprised myself that I did. Then again not. I tend to rise to a challenge, particularly when people say “you can’t” or “you won’t”…
So when I finally got ready for the party last night, having duped people for over seven months, wearing a fake santa belly for the entire conference, I was ready to show off my new body. Oddly, I wasn’t excited though, or nervous. Had I not spent so much time, I might as well have just attending in jeans and a t-shirt. It was almost anti-climactic, because I had already reached my real goal. The goal that had begun to take over as I began to enjoy the endorphin kick of a good work-out, as I was able to walk and hike again without being out of breath after a half-hour, as I was able to admire myself in the mirror after the shower every morning…
I did dress up (or down), and I did go to the party. I did have a great time, and nobody recognized me, some not even after I’d removed the mask, which had been a sort of sub-goal of the whole process with the little white lies (of not even going to the party) and the santa belly I’d worn all week (which was hellish btw, killing my posture and impeding my mobility, which was an odd reminder of what it meant when I was carrying around the worthless weight of the 8.8 kg (19.4 lbs) fat I’ve lost.
The end of the road?
In order to maximize the “look” of my muscles, Markus set up a brutal body-builder competition regimen, something I don’t care to repeat, but yeah, one of those things you do for maximum results. I wasn’t allowed to work out the last three days before the costume party. I couldn’t abstain entirely, and did walk quite a bit, even sneaking into the gym at the hotel in the middle of the night for a walk on the treadmill. This morning, when I woke up, my body ached to work out and break out a sweat. 45′ in the gym did the trick. Some arms, legs and stomach exercises and a few minutes on the treadmill were exactly what the doctor prescribed. Weird, because I had never had that urge before. I do now, and I can’t wait to see Markus again and discuss new goals, to further strengthen my back, to alleviate my back pain some more, and to continue to work on my upper body strength and particularly my shoulders. But I’ll be honest and I can’t wait to actually drink the champagne on my flight home, not just sip it, and to drink a good glass of wine with a great dinner again, not that I’ve felt the urge to drink alcohol tbh. But to be able to…
I’ve changed my entire life-style to a healthier one, both for me and my family, and the only way to keep this body is to keep working out, because I know what happens when you stop, and I don’t want to lose that amazing feeling of feeling great.
How to read this post and what it isn’t…
This week I’ve also come to accept that I’ll never be able to repeat San Diego. Her Majesty is a GRL legend, and no other costume idea will ever top her accomplishment. What I did this year may be amazing for me on a personal level, but in terms of costume, it was nothing out of the ordinary. That is quite alright.
We talk a lot about fat shaming in my community and amongst my friends, and I do have friends society would consider “obese”, and who are called “fat”. Some even call themselves those words. There are a gazillion reasons why people’s bodies act and react differently to things. And we, as a society, tend to go for the physical look and judge a book by the cover. Trust me, as an author, I know that to be true. I didn’t talk to many people, and particularly avoided friends who feel self-conscious about their bodies. Progress for me, as hard as it was (in terms of labor), was easy. I have a lean physique, genetically, and I had the means, in terms of finance and time, to spend up to eight hours per week at the gym, slaving with weights, treadmills and bikes. Many do not. No blame, no finger pointing. We are all very different, and while it took a silly costume party to finally get my butt out of the house, someone else’s motivation may be different. I don’t want to hand out advice. Medical science knows exactly what can be done and how in order to achieve a healthier life-style. Yes, perseverance and hard-work, alongside lasting, permanent changes to your nutrition are at the core. No free lunch, no quick fixes. I need to remind myself that while I may have lost a lot of fat in my body, the fat cells remain, ever ready to be re-filled.
But as I enjoy my now regular breakfast with eggs, quark, fresh fruit and berries, I also realize and smile at the fact that eating well and healthy can actually mean to eat more, and tastier. I do hope that my journey might show that it’s never too late to aspire to change, that a 50-year old can have a ship-shape body, and if you do want to change, I hope you find the motivation, that first goal, you need to get started, as well as the help of someone like Markus to guide you professionally. I wish you the best of luck on those first baby steps (no leaps!) into your undiscovered country, your future. I see a lot of very old people at the gym, and I’ve met some amazing and strong people, whose much bigger muscles aren’t visible, so just because you have a roundish figure doesn’t mean you can’t be super healthy and strong. The two just aren’t totally correlated. Will I stay as lean as I am now? Probably for a while, but it’s not even healthy in the long run. There is a biological need for fat to e.g. grease joints, so I’ll try to gently increase to a more sustainable level, with Markus’s help. I’m not getting younger and over time, as my skeleton weakens and the clock ticks, my body will change naturally. I’ll need to adapt. And that is fine. The one thing I want to retain though is my happiness, and that spring in my walk. It’s made me a better person.
Denver, October 22nd, 2017
Hans M Hirschi
author and 7 month fitness convert
PS: I know that I’ve been consciously telling a ton of little white lies to a bunch of people over the past seven months, about me never working out, about not knowing what to do for the costume party, not going etc., culminating with the Santa belly this entire past week. If anyone has taken offense, please accept my sincere apologies. I never meant to hurt anyone, and I doubt I did, but these days you never know what people are hurt by, so better sorry and safe, to paraphrase the old saying. I’m not a liar, and it wasn’t easy to keep the charade alive for such a long time, particularly not around some of my closest friends.
When my mother in law had a heart attack, we were facing impossible life-altering choices
When this post goes live, I’ll be in Switzerland, buying sweets and chocolates for my trip to the U.S. next week. I’ll be enjoying the company of family and relatives, amazing food and hopefully glorious fall weather. St. Gallen, my home town, can be glorious this time of year. However, this year our trip is overshadowed by my mother in law’s health. After suffering a heart attack, she was rushed to the hospital where the professionals quickly surmised that she needed major open heart surgery to replace a heart valve and to undergo a triple bypass. Yeah, imagine. Life…
Disease, my highly praised coming novel, isn’t ‘really’ about Alzheimer’s, it’s a story about celebrating life, creating memories that outlive our physical existence. You can pre-order it here.
Open heart surgery is never easy. Recovery times are three months for healthy people. Well, healthy for someone who needs that sort of major op. But for someone who’d suffered a major stroke, whose general health is on a slow downward slope? Yeah. Luckily, we didn’t have to make the choice between surgery and no-surgery. In Sweden, when someone isn’t of sound mind, that decision lies with the healthcare professionals.
Today the hospital informed us that they wouldn’t perform any surgery on my husband’s mom. I should say I’m relieved, but on the other hand I also know that this means that she could suffer another heart attack at pretty much any given time. Tomorrow. Or a year from now. But like Hunter in my coming novel, a best before date has been place on my MIL’s life, and unlike the date we all have to face at some point, it’s not in the too distant future.
The death of Casper is the start of the story, not the end. A story of life and one hell of a relationship.
Luckily for her, she’s not aware of all this, never will be. Not consciously. But we, her kids, and her grandchildren, are. And we have to deal with it, somehow. Carpe diem comes to mind, and we’ve already decided to travel the three and a half hours north to see her more regularly. Quality of life. And if seeing her grandson and her two “boys” (as she refers to us) gives her joy then so be it. Least we can do. Meanwhile we get to form some final and lasting memories of our mother, mother-in-law and grandma.
Needless to say it’s hardest on my husband. He lost his dad twelve years ago, and is now facing the harsh reality of losing his second parent any day. For me, it’s going to be rough. I’ll be reminded of my own mother’s passing, I’ll think of the day when my dad joins her and that I, too, will be all alone. No more calling “home” for advice or that friendly, non-judgemental ear. You know? That unconditional love? For our son, he’s only four and a half years old, it’s difficult to say how he’ll react. He was only nine months old when his Nona passed. Nothing to remember. But he knows his grandma, and he even left her one of his plush animals at the hospital so she wouldn’t be alone. It’s hard to tell whether he loves her and how that manifests in terms of loss. We’ll see. Maybe, just maybe we’ll get to practice this with our oldest feline family member first. He’s been getting weaker and weaker and at almost nineteen, he’s way past his prime. But yeah, loss we’ll experience. Part of life, the ultimate consequence of it, actually.
Alex (my husband) lamented the other day that being middle-aged meant having more and more death around you. Hopefully we’re better equipped to handle it than when we were kids. But I understand how he feels. Pretty soon, our generation will be the “oldest” one, the one at the frontier so to speak, the next one in line to… kick the bucket? Pick out the good suit? People sometimes ask me why I chose to write two books in a row about death, first Nilas’s story, the loss of Casper, and now Hunter’s, and Ethan’s coping with that. Sometimes I think people misunderstand. Neither of those books are about death, or dying. They’re about living, Nilas’s is about the memories he holds of Casper and their life together and how he can best celebrate that memory by living his life to the fullest. For Hunter it’s all about maximizing the quality of life, rather than the quantity, to bestow as many good memories on his little daughter Amy as humanly possible. Quality over quantity.
So if you pick up any of those two books, by all means, shed tears, but make sure they are cathartic, because those stories celebrate life, and for as long as we have memories of our loved ones, they live on, forever, through us.
Have a wonderful weekend,
PS: If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram.
PS2: I was recently invited to a great podcast called The Wrote Podcast. Click here to listen to the episode.
One word could summarize how I feel: AAAAAAAAAARGH!
Time, whatever happened to time. That’s certainly true when you prepare for a large convention where you have a major investment while also being eighteen days away from a major book release. Now to be fair, I am doing okay. Maybe it’s reading all those posts in the GRL Facebook group form all those people with (admitted) OCD who have already packed their bags (that’s on my mental – mind you – to do list for next Tuesday, the day I fly out), people who are already on their way to the airport and what not, worrying about spending money, taxi fares or high altitude sickness. I’m not even close, and life just handed our family a major curve ball last week that threw our planning about as out of whack as only life can do.
A trip to my native Switzerland and St. Gallen with its beautiful hinterland beckons this week. Nothing like coming home…
Oh, did I mention that we have another trip planned between now and next week? Yeah! GRL is the last convention of the season for me and as it is the largest one, I’m always looking forward to it. New city, old friends, new acquaintances, and you always have to come up with new ways to please readers, not just with better books, but more exciting swag, crazier costumes and funny or tear-inducing readings.
I DO have a bit of a reputation in a couple of departments. My planning for GRL starts early, along with everyone else, as we sit down on a Saturday evening (my time) and engage in a crazy game of “fastest clicker”… I won again this year and as a sponsor of the event, my nerves were not as tested as some of my friends’. After that, there are discussions with the organizers of what to do with my investment as sponsor, and then spring and early summer settle into a calm rhythm of monthly payments, and waiting. Waiting for the theme of the costume party to be announced, waiting for the Facebook groups to open, waiting for program advertizing, waiting, waiting…
Meanwhile, I was working on my fall release, Disease, to be finished, and this year, my publisher and I are doing a special, to sell Disease exclusively at GRL, a full week before it releases to the public. We’ll see how that works. That also meant that we had to finish the galleys earlier than usual, to make sure the print copies made it to Denver in time. As I am writing this, my publisher just sent me the tracking number for my four parcels on their supposed way to Denver. Given that the hotel threatens to charge $20/day if they packages arrive more than three days before the guest, we’re playing a weird game of target practice with a moving target, as postal services and deadlines are notoriously unreliable, no matter what country you’re talking about. Oddly, my pre-order of ten copies for myself and family has already been delivered to the hotel we’re going to this week, four days ago. Color me puzzled.
This week on Thursday, we fly to Switzerland, for our annual visit of the St. Gallen agricultural state fair, OLMA. It’s an old family tradition and my son loves the rides as much as the animals on display, and we enjoy the culinary delights and seeing relatives and spending time together. Plus, I’ll be stocking up on chocolates for friends stateside and for my surprise cornucopia giveaway for people who sign up for my newsletter. It will be filled with an Amazon gift card as well as Swedish candy and Swiss chocolate. Hopefully it’ll prove to be irresistible to readers attending GRL. We return on Sunday afternoon to do laundry and grocery shopping (you know those pesky weekly tasks of survival in your average family) and next Monday I’ll get my GRL haircut, I’ll write my final pre-GRL blog post and then on Tuesday, I’ll pack my bag(s). I’ll hopefully have bought all the stuff that I need for Denver, but Monday-Tuesday are sort of my final days to sort out any last minute glitches and “shit, I forgot to…” Knowing me, there will be more than one of those.
Tuesday night, my family will drop me off at the airport and I’ll fly to Munich, where I’ll have to spend the night at an airport hotel, as I would not be able to catch the early morning flight on Wednesday, seeing as my first ferry in the morning reaches port fifty minutes before the morning flight leaves… Unless you travel faster than the speed of light, a no can do. Wednesday morning, I’ll take it easy and board my flight to Denver just before lunch, arriving there at two pm. I’ll have my bags with me (hard to get lost on a direct flight), I’ll hopefully be able to breeze through immigration, I have my sales permits in order, I (will have) all my ducks lined up in a row and I’ll be ready. I usually use the flight to prepare for my readings (two this year, allowing me to read slightly longer passages from my two most recent novels) which is great. And I’ll spend some quality days with my tribe of friends, unless life decides to throw us another curve ball…
Yeah, life. It has a tendency to foul most plans and because shit happens, shit tends to happen when you least expect it (or need it). Last week, my mother in law was admitted to the hospital for difficulties breathing, in the middle of the night. Now here comes the odd part: turns out she needs major open heart surgery, and as relatives we obviously wonder how doctors could have missed that, given that she’s been in and out of hospitals on four occasions in the past twelve months. I’ve had more doctors listen to my heart in the two visits I’ve had in this time than she did. I had two, she had one. I’m fine. She’s not. Needless to say, that this is really throwing our lives out of sync, not to mention that my MIL is suffering. My husband is a mess, it’s the second time he has to deal with this, and with a family trip and my GRL-trip ahead, we struggle to make this manageable. Somehow. Coping. Breathing. Speaking of moving targets… This is a developing situation and we don’t really know what is when and how or even if.
Makes no sense? Welcome to mi vida!
This has ben a great way for me to be seen by readers, meet new ones, and just talk. Goes far beyond just selling books. I’ll once again have a table to sell books in Denver. Just two more than last year, plus the beckoning cornucopia as a prize for signing up to my newsletter.
So, GRL. I’m nervous. Nervous, because my new book is miles apart from what the vast majority of the other authors are there with. So much more than any of my previous releases. I’m a gymnast among swimmers, a dodo among flamingos. This is gayROMANCElit after all, not gayFICTIONlit. I feel at home, don’t get me wrong, but Disease is a very different beast. And I’m nervous about the week as such. I fly in late (for different reasons, but maybe it was foresight?), I only stay Wed-Sun before I fly on to Tucson to see family, and I just couldn’t come up with a decent costume idea this year, so rather than failing expectations this year, I decided to skip that night and “Do Denver” on Saturday night.
I mean really, “Wild Wild West” (the second wild added late in the season, once again throwing me a curve ball, alluring to a crap Hollywood movie), just as last year’s “under the rainbow” was suddenly changed to “The Wizard of Oz” making my gay roman emperor look weirdly out of place among emerald cities, tornadoes and munchkins. How can you make a costume pop out among cowboy hats? How could I possible top Her Majesty? It’s all either cowboys or inappropriate “Indians”. Unless you show up as a wagon, full with four drawing horses… I just couldn’t come up with any fun ideas, maybe I was too preoccupied with writing Disease at the time, maybe you’re only afforded one good costume idea in a lifetime… So no costume, no party this year, but maybe pleasures of a different kind? I can be as wild in the wild west as the next person…
This week will also include some minor GRL and book launch activities, mainly blog posts for the time while I’m gone, release interviews etc., but also some time allocated to look after my mother in law. She lives three and a half hours away from us, and we just visited her yesterday. This week we’ll be dealing with doctors and planning for the next steps in her care. As her guardian (after her stroke last year), the buck stops with me. I’l have to make the final decision on a surgery, which – trust me – is not a situation I ever envisaged myself (or hoped) to be in. But with my husband and my sister-in-law, I’m sure we’ll find a way forward that we feel is in her best interest. Ultimately, this proves once again that we may feel that we are in control of our lives, our fate. We may write long to do lists, set goals for this and that, but ultimately, life always sits on the biggest trump card, and we just have to learn to deal with that, as best we can. Maybe something to keep in mind…
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. I hope your week turns out to be calmer than mine, and peaceful, and may Prozac and Valium guide the world away from the precipice of another global conflict…
Hans M Hirschi
I still remember my childhood, reading books
I face fierce competition in my strive to get my son to start reading books. Since the age of nine months, the iPad has been the most popular toy in our house. He’s not unlike other boys though, toys with sirens (particularly fire trucks) are always cool, and I don’t recall how many times we’ve driven by our local fire station just to make him smile. Spiderman is his (and many of his friends in school’s) favorite superhero, and there’s always a train track covering the floor of his bedroom. Plus Lego etc.
At some point we had to limit his iPad consumption, and mind you it’s not violent slasher videos he watches, but Peppa Pig (which Daddy despises with a vengeance), Ben & Holly, the Cat in the hat etc. Good kids entertainment. And for us parents, the iPad is a blessing. He gets up on a Saturday morning, grabs his iPad and crawls back under his covers to watch his cartoons without waking us. Needless to say, Pappa and Daddy are happy for the extra hours of sleep. During meals, between ten am and noon and from one-thirty to four pm, and always after seven pm, the iPad is disabled thanks to an app we have installed. And the great thing is, we can increase that time on the fly, or decrease if needed (long car drives, plane rides etc.)
Remember this? I doubt that very many millennials have seen one of these in real life. I believe this was the most popular program on our channels…
When I was a child, we had a handful of TV channels, and more often then not, in the afternoon or mornings, you’d see the “test screen” on your TV. There was simply no programming. Today, all channels broadcast 24×7 and there are more channels out there than you could ever wish for. At some point, my dad (he’s got a satellite receiver) had over 400 channels in his TV, making it virtually impossible to find anything valuable to watch. We’ve completely abandoned old-TV style watching, unless we want to watch NPR-news when something’s happened. Otherwise, we use our old DVD to watch one of our many hundred discs lying around the house, or it’s Netflix or something directly from Apple on our Apple TV. Books compete with a lot more media today than when I grew up.
But it’s not just more competition for books, it’s also (or so it seems to me) less time. When I was my son’s age, my mom was at home. A home maker she raised us until we “had to” go to pre-school at the age of six. My son began pre-school at the age of one due to both parents working. He’s already in his fourth “academic” year and he’s only four and a half years old. He has long days, starting at 6:30 am and he won’t be home until 4:00 pm today, often later. My school days began later, were shorter, which left me more time to play.
When I was able to read, I also began to read (and write). And while I can’t remember what books I read at what age, I recall the emotional impact of diving into different worlds, whether it was science-fiction with aliens and rockets and star ships, or to be transported across time and space to the old west and Karl May’s many books about cowboys and indians, with the Winnetou trilogy my childhood favorite, along with many others. It was that feeling of instantly being transported to a different place, imagining that place, the characters, living their adventures, following along on whatever track they were pursuing. It was so riveting, so fulfilling.
Reading books is still one of my favorite past times, even though I have less time for it now than ever before. But unlike TV or the big screen, where we get to watch one person’s imagination of whatever it is we’re watching, reading books allows us to fill the blanks ourselves. We get to design costumes, build sets, choose the actors to play the roles, we determine if the sun’s out or not in various scenes, and we get to hop from character to character and live vicariously through them.
My son’s library. (Picture) books from several cultures, some new, some classics. My own childhood books are stored elsewhere. We also read a book a week from my son’s school library.
I really want my son to experience that. I really do. And whenever we read a book together, usually before bedtime, it’s one of our best times together, as we both dive into a story, and you can tell which books excel at enabling children at this journey, and which don’t. My son goes to an amazing school, and every Friday, he brings back a new book from their library to read over the weekend. An amazing program for sure, and we usually send the book back Tuesday or Wednesday. We want to make sure he gets to read it at least twice and our weekends are often bookless, as he gets to stay up late because we’re out or watching a family movie together. But to read with Sascha, kid in my lap, even if we’ve read the same book one hundred times already, is always something special. And he already has a fair collection of books in six different languages: English, Swedish, German, Alemannic, Hindi & Raeto-Romansh.
Children have an almost limitless imagination. Once they reach scholastic age, that imagination is slowly but surely driven from them, until they are mostly grown-up automatons. As an artist, I managed to keep some of that imagination, that ability that allows me to think outside the box (to speak corporate for a second), to challenge status quos, see new ways to do things. I want my son to retain that ability, too, because it’s such a priceless gift. Just as he picks up a stick in the forest to be used as sword or magic wand, he can read books to transport him to strange new worlds or quaint places instantly, to learn and grow as a human being, to walk a mile in the shoes of those less fortunate, those utterly unlike him. And when he’s old enough, I hope he’ll read my books, too, including the one written specifically for him, because I have a hunch that his opinion is one I’ll cherish more than that of a Nobel Prize critic…
How did you get your kids to read? Do you find it hard to compete with TVs, phones and pads? Share your best tips here… If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great week.
I’ve been proofreading Disease this week, and suddenly I realized the story was no longer mine…
This week I spent with my latest manuscript, working on marketing plans, contacting people who might review it etc. Most importantly, I reread the manuscript several times, first to work through the edits from my publisher, then to proofread the revised galley. A very early ARC was sent out to a couple of recipients in the medical industry to get endorsements. So far, the feedback is uniformly positive and very encouraging. That is, of course, a huge relief, as I had been worrying about this one, not just because of the way I’d written it, but also because this story was as close to home and my own life as it can get.
Disease, the cover, a story about Alzheimer’s, but no longer the story of my life. Reading it again was very cathartic.
I’ve often said that Family Ties was my autobiography, which is not entirely true, even though the book includes a lot of me, details about my own life and youth, but it’s adequately fictionalized. Disease is an entirely different beast, it’s not written “after” the fact, it’s written as a way of dealing with the fear of having the disease, having Alzheimer’s. Turns out – luckily – that I don’t. I’m just a nutty professor, in possession of a highly functional brain that just can’t be bothered to deal with certain mundane tasks such as remembering gym shorts or cutting the claws of my cat.
I had sent away my manuscript in July to my publisher, but I still remembered the story, maybe not in all its details, when the manuscript came back on Monday. It was weird reading it again, after my visit to a neurologist to do some of the same tests that Hunter had undergone in the book. Well, where I got a green light or a negative diagnosis, his is red, positive. It’s how the book starts:
“I’m sorry, Hunter. The results are conclusive. You have the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. I know it’s rare, particularly for someone your age. But sadly, it’s not unheard of. Early-onset Alzheimer’s isn’t something we fully understand, but given that your mother had it, and your grandfather, those are strong indications that your family carries a genetic predisposition.”
“Is there nothing we can do? More tests?”
After reading the first paragraph, again, and then continuing through the novel, I realized that Hunter’s story was no longer mine, not one bit. And I began to read it differently, not just as I worked through the edits, hunting for typos. No, on an entirely different level, this was a story about someone I wish I’d known. But it wasn’t me.
My writing always begins with me, be it topics I struggle with, questions or philosophic issues on my mind, and there have been quite a few through the years, weaving together my experiences from traveling the world with the research I do, with possibly opposing views on the subject to weave a narrative that hopefully stirs emotions and thought in my readers. I am well aware that this isn’t how you reach millions of readers, but it helps me stay ‘sane’. It helps me to reflect on the big issues in my life.
I cried a lot reading this manuscript, which is not unusual for me (reading) books. But it’s unusual in the way that I read my own stuff. After all, I know what happens when and how. But this was a different reading. It was cathartic to see just how the characters took on a life of their own, how they were no longer reflections of me, but flesh and blood, in their own right. I cried for their suffering, I cried for my own health, it was quite cathartic. With the manuscript back at the publisher’s, my task continues, to prepare my readers, my audiences for the release of my latest book. The first reader reactions are in, and they are encouraging, beyond my own tears:
Truly exceptional! I think I ran through half a box of tissues. I think this is your best work ever!!!!!!
or the endorsement from this Alzheimer’s expert:
The novel captured the essence of Alzheimer’s disease accurately and on point. It should be read by all people who are affected by Alzheimer’s, patients, families, and friends. This is a tragic story but full of hope and an exceptional read.
Being in the geriatric field and encountering so many people with Alzheimer’s dementia, this book gave me so much hope that showed that even when the disease progressed, his family was still there and very supportive, keeping him home as long as possible, using the nursing home as the last option.
Dr Claudine Hutchinson-Clarke
Disease releases October 26 from Beaten Track Publishing. I hope you’ll give it a chance, too. Pre-orders are available from Amazon et al.If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great week.
Is our time’s sense of entitlement at the root of the right-wing populist upswing we see?
It’s not about you, or me, at least not all the time, but it’s always about us, as a society and where we are heading. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across an article about a professor of literature in the U.S. who was dismissed from his tenure for apparently having “hurt” transgender students’ feelings. Sadly, I can’t seem to find the article anymore, but in one of the four instances mentioned that led to his dismissal, the professor was discussing a scientific theory about a book which two students found offensive because it didn’t match their world view. Another case involved the lack of a trigger warning in a literary novel about a rape which was discussed in class. A couple of days ago, a local paper in Sweden published a debate article about how “milk is a symbol of white supremacy“… I’ll just leave this here for you to ponder upon.
Today’s post, as explosive as the topic may be, isn’t about the specific articles quoted above. It’s about a phenomenon that I find in our society today, a sort of extremism of the “I”, or entitlement if you will, that is spreading like a wildfire through our midst. A couple of additional examples (random and anecdotal):
- There are people who feel that we should abolish gender pronouns. Period. Replace he, she, they, xe, s/he or whatever, with one gender neutral pronoun to be used for all of us. Now, I have absolutely no qualms calling people whatever they feel they are most comfortable with (and I beg for forgiveness if sometimes I slip back to a pronoun I may have used on them before), and I personally like to use the Swedish gender neutral pronoun in cases where the gender of the person in question is unknown (e.g. in job advertisements), but why take it to the extreme and force others to give up the pronoun they feel comfy with? Why do to others that which has (or may have) been done to you?
- In Sweden, some cities have begun to replace certain “job titles” with new ones, which are supposed to be less “laden” with negative connotations, gender neutral etc. There are always different reasons for different words of course. One of the typical examples is the word for “handicapped”, which was replaced a few years back with “funktionshindrad” (“disabled”). However, apparently, that wasn’t good enough. Now they use the word “funktionsvariation” (“functional variation”), while at the same time reducing public support for the very people they try to linguistically “upgrade”. I understand the drive for the new word but don’t ostracize people for using an older version, because “handicapped” is still much better than the words I grew up with… Tell them instead why you’re suggesting the new one?
- Veganism vs Omnivores. Yikes, what a nightmare this one is. But yeah, wouldn’t it be great if we, as a society, could reduce our dependence on animals as a food source? Particularly reducing the production of cheap meat, eggs, and dairy and move toward a more sustainable and species appropriate treatment of animals? To expect an entire population to go vegan overnight won’t accomplish this, but produce a huge backlash and pushback from the vast majority of omnivores amongst us.
I am who I am, and I expect people to accept me as such. Why can’t we grant each other that same courtesy? Photo: Alina Oswald
As a linguist, I’m acutely aware that language changes, evolves. However, it’s rarely a good idea to force change top down. It rarely works. When the new director for the Swedish medical board, Bror Rexed, announced to his staff in 1967, that he was going to use “du” (second person singular) in dealings with his staff, he was riding on a wave that had begun earlier. Sweden’s traditional honorific to that date had been “han/hon” (third person singular, or preferably a title). Within months, the entire country adopted the new way of talking, and it is a proud accomplishment of our egalitarian society to this day, although, in recent years, the service industry has begun using the German/French version of the second person plural instead, something I personally find strange, but that’s another post. But the du-reform is a linguistic exception. When Germany tried to “simplify” the use of German with the infamous Rechtschreibereform in the nineties, they failed miserably. You can’t have state ministers dictate how to spell mayo. People generally dislike the reform and to this date, over twenty years later, some of the biggest newspapers refuse to use it, and entire generations of German speakers feel disenfranchised because their spelling is “outdated”.
Sadly, these trends go deeper than just language, and I acknowledge that these government institutions, the researchers, and activists mean well. But, they overreach, and they scare some of the more conservative people. I can literally see my dad and his generation’s reaction to no longer being a man, but a person, to be addressed as “it” (or whatever pronoun of choice the know-its agree upon) rather than “he”. And I think this is exactly where the populists, the alt-right, and others, chime in and find feeding ground. They paint a rosy picture of a world where men were men and women were women, where men gave away women to other men at the altar, a world where men came home from work to a clean house and dinner on the table, wife, and kids eagerly waiting for them. A two-polar world, black & white. Simpler, easier to understand, comfortable, just the way we knew it when we were little (or from TV). A world without marriage equality, and no trans people. The world of Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Vladimir Putin and their likes.
These people don’t understand why we allow people to use whatever religious clothing they like here in the west, while we must adjust to strict local laws when we visit certain countries. They don’t understand how we can allow mosques, temples, and synagogues to be built in our western cities while other countries wouldn’t allow the same. And so they believe their own faith to be besieged and threatened, even though sharing is at the very core of the Christian faith they claim to uphold and defend (Jesus breaking the bread, holding the other cheek etc.)
We, as western societies are risking further division, if we don’t “chill out” for a bit, and allow the world around us to catch up. We’ve been caught up in a frenzy of “me, me, me” which – quite frankly – is scary. The Internet and modern communication devices certainly seem to be a part of the explanation, the seeming distance between the device and our next shutting down our inhibitions around human discourse, enabling us to lash out at others with the vilest commentary and language, words we would never use face to face. And because we get away with so much, it emboldens us and we push further, and before long, it’s all about me, me, me. My rights, my demands, my needs, regardless of your needs, your rights.
If I don’t feel like working today, that’s fine. Many employers see a significant increase in sick leave and “unexplained absence” during days of sunny weather in the summer, causing huge problems in e.g. care facilities. My husband tells me stories from his job that’ll make anyone gasp…
In this book, there is an entire chapter dedicated to change management, what works, what doesn’t and why. Have a look if you’re interested. Lots of other smart tips included, too.
So what can we do to improve things? Talk to each other, explain things. Use incremental steps, as hard as this may seem. Don’t ask for too much too quickly, and never ask others to change on your behalf. Now I understand this last one is tricky. I remember coming out (eons ago) and basically giving my parents an ultimatum in accepting me for who I was. They asked for time, and time they got. For a while, we barely spoke, but after a couple of years, they openly accepted my partner at the time, and later my husband. But still, to this day, at times, we argue, my dad and I, and he’ll never be the perfect “ally”. But I understand that I can’t change him. I had to learn to live with the discomfort of him disliking e.g. that small magnet of two men kissing on our fridge, and his fear of how it would affect my son’s sexuality. My take is simple: it’s none of his effing business what we put on our fridge door, our sexuality is not defined by pictures we see on the fridge when we grow up (or I’d be straight), and I have to accept that he probably won’t change his mind. Then again, he does, continuously, but at his pace. A few years ago he told me that “men can’t raise kids” and now he’s super proud of the job my husband and I do. People do change, but rarely under duress (unless it’s for their own benefit), there’s an entire chapter in my book Common Sense on that topic if you’re interested in reading more.
A society only works when most members work together. Every society can accept and live with a few outliers, but when too many forces pull in too many directions simultaneously, the very fabric of society begins to fail, and we can see tendencies of that in recent events like Brexit, the 2016 U.S. elections, Poland, India, Russia etc. Rapid change, pluralism, followed by that “collective” urge for the good old days, which incidentally, in that picture presented by the populist, never even existed, but that’s a different story. So chill, forgive, move on, talk to each other, rather than explode, condemn and scream. It’s not about you, at least not always, only sometimes.
What’s your take? Do you share this (mind you, completely unscientific) analysis of mine? Am I onto something? Am I missing a piece of the puzzle? I welcome your thoughts on the matter… If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, the next one due next week. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a good weekend.