The Golden Toga Flap: Sensitive Santas

[Note to audience: According to Wikipedia, citizens of ancient Rome used to wave their toga flaps to express approval for public performances. In the style of the Golden Globes, the Golden Raspberries, the Golden Goggles, and other alchemical plaudits, the Golden Toga Flap affirms people working to improve the world. Anyone is eligible: A-list actors, small children, teachers in rural Illinois, frat guys behind me in line at Grocery Outlet. I’m not writing these blurbs for any sort of commission; I just want to spread the word about great people doing lovely things. If you have nominations for the Golden Toga Flap, please feel free to leave them in the comments or send me a private message.]

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There’s no time of year quite like Christmas. It’s got its own foods, its own music, its own decorations and stationery and scents and greetings and movies and literature. It’s quite an egalitarian holiday, in a way. You’re not excluded if you’re blind or deaf or illiterate or allergic to a lot of foods; you’ll still be able to enjoy the holiday spirit in other ways.

But for many people, the sensory stimulation of the season isn’t a gift — it’s painful. And if your child is part of that population, it can be difficult to find holiday activities that he or she can participate in comfortably.

Enter the Sensitive Santas, who take the traditional shopping mall feature and give it a new spin. While the program varies from location to location, common features include dimmed lights, minimal decorations, low music (or no music), no crowds, crafts and snacks for the waiting children, and a Santa who moves slowly and speaks quietly. The end result? Kids with an autism spectrum disorder or a sensory processing disorder can interact with Santa in a way that is comfortable for them — and their parents can breathe a little easier with this reminder that their community has their backs and wants to help their children thrive.

If you’d like to set up a Sensitive Santa program in your community next year, AbilityPath has a guide to doing that. But no matter what this season has held for you so far, no matter how you’re feeling on this longest night of the year, here’s hoping that your Christmas Day will make some memories in all the right ways.

Many thanks to Cyn from That Cynking Feeling for bringing this topic to my attention.

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Photo credit: Santa from skeeze on Pixabay.

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Book Chatter: Shakespeare: The World as Stage

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You might know Bill Bryson as the guy who wrote A Walk in the Woods, the tale of his romp along part of the Appalachian Trail (if any part of the AT can be accurately called a romp). You might have run across his alternately fascinating, horrifying, and hilarious collection of notes from Australia, In a Sunburned CountryOr you might know him from a book previously reviewed on this site, the saga of his England-wide trip down memory lane relayed in Notes from a Small Island.

But no matter where you know him from, you know that Bryson’s writing is instantly engaging: sidesplitting in one breath and thought-provoking in the next; well researched; well thought out; and always, always well phrased. As you might expect from books about daunting journeys and bizarre lands, Bryson excels at tackling subjects that tend towards the extraordinary.

Australia: Where you teach your children early that sharks are playthings.

Australia: Where you teach your children early that sharks are playthings.

So it makes sense that sometime before 2007, Bryson decided to take on yet another extraordinary subject: William Shakespeare himself. In Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bryson gives a brief overview of the Bard’s life and times. And I do mean brief: Clocking in at 196 pages (at least in my 2007 paperback edition), Shakespeare: The World as Stage makes for a quick but satisfying read.

There are many things I like about this book, but in the interests of keeping the review shorter than the book, I’ll limit myself to two.

  1. Many biographers try to sell their books through sheer confidence: claiming previously unplumbed sources, new insights, groundbreaking evidence, and so forth. Bryson doesn’t claim any of that. He states straight off that we don’t know a whole lot about Shakespeare, and what we do know is often lacking crucial context. He acknowledges many of the big rumours and theories about Shakespeare’s life (for example, “He was secretly Catholic!!!”), but then he calmly lays out the reasons why each theory could and could not be true. It isn’t often that you see this kind of honest uncertainty in a writer, much less in a biographer, and it’s very refreshing — especially with a figure as hyped as Shakespeare.

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    Case in point: Did the theatres of Philip Massinger, Thomas Kyd, or Aphra Behn get resurrected?

  2. As exhibited by the 2011 film Anonymous, there exists a small but vocal collection of critics who protest that “Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare”, but was actually Queen Elizabeth I, Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, William Stanley, or another of nearly fifty candidates, depending on who you ask and which evidence they choose to highlight (and, in turn, which evidence they choose to ignore). Bryson spends the last chapter discussing these various theories, and as a no-nonsense Stratfordian, I appreciated his tone in this section, as well as the polite snarkiness of his conclusion:

In short it is possible, with a kind of selective squinting, to endow the alternative claimants with the necessary time, talent, and motive for anonymity to write the plays of William Shakespeare. But what no one has ever produced is the tiniest particle of evidence to suggest that they actually did so. These people must have been incredibly gifted — to create, in their spare time, the greatest literature ever produced in English, in a voice patently not their own, in a manner so cunning that they fooled virtually everyone during their lifetimes and for four hundred years afterward. […] One really must salute the ingenuity of the anti-Stratford enthusiasts who, if they are right, have managed to uncover the greatest literary fraud in history, without the benefit of anything that could reasonably be called evidence, four hundred years after it was perpetrated.

So this Christmas, if you’re looking for a good stocking-stuffer for that drama or literature nut in your life, consider Shakespeare: The World as Stage. That’s how it came into my life, and I’ve always been glad it did.

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Photo credits: Cover image from Better World Books; shark sculpture from sandid and Globe performance from tpsdave on Pixabay.

Counter Action: Sweet potato–black bean enchilada casserole

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For a lot of people, winter’s not the best time of year. They’ll be rolling along just fine … and then BAM, winter hits them like a sledgehammer and it’s all they can do not to spend the next three months curled up in a lethargic ball in the corner.

Other people are more or less melancholy all year round, so winter isn’t so much a sledgehammer as an especially prolonged dip in the already hilly road.

Personally, I have the most success getting through winter when I view it as a military campaign. Not that I’ve ever been in the military, but I took a History of WWII class once and I’ve read The Things They Carried, so I have a sketchy idea of what it’s like. Work with me here. If you ask too many questions, the metaphor falls apart.

So here are my beating-winter priorities:

  • Have a mascot. It can be super relaxing to spend some time with something that’s always happy to see you. I’m lucky enough to live with three snuggle-happy cats, but if you’re in a pet-free zone, try visiting an animal shelter every few weeks. If you’re still in college, many student wellness centers will bring in therapy dogs or a clowder of shelter cats for students to pet.
  • Tune out the press. We all have those Facebook friends for whom absolutely everything appears to be going well. They’re forever posting about their killer workouts; their stellar grades; their fun, meaningful, high-paying job; their amazing significant other; the gourmet dinner they just hosted for 25 people; the coffee/quote/friend/salad that makes them #soblessed. If this makes you feel as inferior and frustrated as I do, consider unfollowing those people for a while. Better yet, take a break from the social media rat race altogether — it might help you regain perspective and re-realize that we all have our struggles and weaknesses.

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    “Never been sick a day in his life! Been sleeping through the night since he was 5 days old! Eats anything I give him! #soblessed #askingforfewerfollowers”

  • Don’t dismiss the band. Put together a playlist that helps you rise above the blues. Some of my favourites are Two Steps from Hell’s “Cassandra“, Ingrid Michaelson’s “One Night Town“, and — yes, I’ll admit it — Hank Green’s “Shake-a-Booty“.
  • Find a good drill sergeant. I’ve tried to follow Jillian Michaels’ 30-Day Shred several times now, and I’ve never been able to make it a permanent part of my life. Then I discovered Jessica Smith TV, and I realized what was missing: encouragement. Her workouts can be seriously tough (second-position demi-pointe plié squats, anyone?), but she always projects kindness and the understanding that not everyone will be 100% up to the task right away. If this is what you need in a workout leader, don’t give up until you find one who works for you. It can make a huge difference in your motivation to work out — which in turn means you’ll be more likely to get the myriad physical and chemical benefits that exercise brings.
  • Stay well-provisioned. Nothing brings me down faster than the realization that I have nothing in the cupboard except some stale bread and a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter. Cooking tasty, nutritious meals takes time and energy, I know — but it doesn’t have to take much.
  • Find some buddies. You’re not alone in feeling down. In fact, the longer I listen to my Pandora comedy station, the more I realize that a lot of my favourite comedians have dealt with depression on a regular basis. This was a helpful realization on two levels: First, that human beings can turn those kinds of harrowing experiences into such beautiful art; second, that I can trust them to offer helpful advice. Here’s something Patton Oswalt posted recently that I found especially helpful:

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  • Don’t be afraid to admit when you’re in over your head. Calling my school’s counseling center to ask for an appointment was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I’m so glad I did it. It was really helpful to talk through various issues, face questions I’d been avoiding, and get some tools for managing my mental health more efficiently. Plus, I knew that I was in the hands of professionals who were uniquely qualified to evaluate whether I needed medication or more in-depth therapy. It was wonderful to hand that responsibility over to them, instead of trying to sort through conflicting advice from friends, family, and the Internet.

On the topic of provisions, I just made this casserole yesterday, and I can already tell that it’s going to become a standard this winter. It’s pretty easy to throw together, it’s fairly cheap, it’s filling, it’s got fantastically vibrant flavours, and it packs a nutritious punch. Perhaps best of all, one batch will feed one person for a week, and it freezes beautifully for the days you don’t feel like cooking.

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Sweet potato–black bean enchilada casserole

(Inspired by these Sweet Potato, Corn, and Black Bean Enchiladas from Averie Cooks; seasonings adapted from The Creekside Cook’s Crash Hot Sweet Potatoes)

Ingredients:

  • 4 medium sweet potatoes, diced
  • 1 tsp. honey
  • 1 tsp. salt (divided)
  • 1 tsp. cumin (divided)
  • 1/2 tsp. chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp. paprika
  • 1/4 tsp. onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/4 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 c. corn
  • 1 c. dry black beans, cooked until tender (or 1 can, drained)
  • 6 large flour tortillas
  • 1 small can of your favourite enchilada sauce, divided (I used 8 oz. of Chi-Chi’s mild taco sauce)
  • 3/4 c. of your favourite salsa, divided (I used medium-hot Pace Picante salsa)
  • 3/4 c. grated cheese, divided (your choice — I used pepper jack)

Directions:

  1. Bring medium pot of water to a boil. Add sweet potatoes and cook until tender (~20 minutes).
  2. Drain sweet potatoes, reserving ~ 3 T. hot water. Add honey, 1/2 tsp. salt, 1/2 tsp. cumin, and rest of spices. Mash until smooth.
  3. Add 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. cumin to black beans. Set aside.
  4. Spread half of the enchilada sauce evenly in large casserole dish. Add 2 tortillas to cover bottom of dish.
  5. Spoon half of the sweet potato mix, half of the corn, half of the beans, half of the salsa, and a third of the cheese over tortillas.
  6. Add 2 more tortillas and repeat step 5.
  7. Add last 2 tortillas and spread last half of the enchilada sauce and third of the cheese over the top.
  8. Cover in foil and bake at 375°F for 20 minutes. Remove foil and cook for 5 minutes longer, or until cheese is golden-brown and bubbling.
  9. Serve warm with green salad. Keep leftovers refrigerated for up to 5 days.

Possible variations:

  • Replace sweet potato with 1 medium butternut squash (cubed and roasted), or with 2 c. roasted or stewed pumpkin.
  • Chop 3 c. spinach and add half to each layer.
  • Garnish with sliced avocado, cilantro, and/or sour cream.
  • Replace Pace Picante salsa with any of these delicious homemade options: pico de gallo, green tomatillo salsachipotle salsa, or cilantro–lime salsa.

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Photo credits: Mother and baby from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay.

How original is that dystopia?

As I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy a good piece of dystopian fiction. At its best, it challenges people to think about the future and what they think humanity’s biggest priorities will be one hundred, five hundred, or a thousand years from now. Will racism be eradicated by then? What about sexism? Will we have corrected our contributions to climate change? Will we have reached out peacefully to other life forms?

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This forward-thinking citizen is already on it.

But towards the less thoughtful end of the scale, there’s a lot of stories driven mainly by emotion, not by circumstances. I’ve read story after story where the external scenario (a war, an oppressive regime, a natural disaster) consistently fades into the background, and the internal struggle (forbidden/unrequited love, family dynamics, self-discovery) takes center stage. I’m all for internal struggles. I love how they add a third dimension to a story and really make characters pop. But I’ve found those struggles most poignant and engaging when they’re a foil to whatever else is going on — not the other way around.

Earlier this quarter, I picked up a new YA dystopian novel from the library, just for something to read on the bus. On page 199, I came across this line, and I had to stop and grimace — it was such a perfect summation of so many protagonists I’ve come across:

“It’s so frustrating to have logic thrown at me now. It’s making all my plans seem so hopeless.”

That’s it, that’s the state of modern teenage female protagonists in a nutshell. Go away, Hermione Granger. Move over, Sally Lockhart. It’s time for narrators characterized mainly by high emotion and indecision.

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I call this phenomenon the Rise of the Waffling Narrator, and if you’d like to turn that into a comic book, here’s your first character for free.

This latest foray into dystopias started me thinking about the patterns and tropes that many of them include. Below, I present for your amusement a metric for modern YA dystopian fiction.

Instructions: Measure the book against the following questions. For every question you answer in the affirmative, give yourself one point.

  1. Is civilization physically divided into separate groups or clans, with strict injunctions against mixing?
    BONUS POINT: Does the protagonist below to one of the lower-class groups?
    SUPER BONUS POINT: Is the protagonist initially in the lowest-class group, but then there turns out to be a hidden group that’s even lower?
  2. Is the protagonist at least half an orphan?
  3. Has the protagonist always felt different and/or misunderstood?
    BONUS POINT: Is this because the protagonist is really from another class but was swapped/smuggled in at birth?
  4. Does the protagonist eventually fall in with a different band of people?
    BONUS POINT: Is the protagonist then dazzled by the food and/or clothing they offer her?
    SUPER BONUS POINT: Is this new band kind of evil but the protagonist decides to cut them some slack based on said food/clothes?
  5. Is the Internet mysteriously missing from this civilization?
    BONUS POINT: … but does medicine border on the miraculous?

    "All right, I'm willing the tumor away now ... done. I also cleared up your gingivitis. You're good to go."

    “All right, I’m willing the tumor away now … done. I also took care of your earwax and the heartburn you were going to have tomorrow. You’re good to go.”

  6. Is access to books extremely limited?
  7. Does the protagonist encounter some long-lost technology (which is conveniently very well known to us, thus sparing the author from having to come up with something new)?
    BONUS POINT: Does this technology play a role in Saving the Day later on?
  8. Is there a Secret Rebel Alliance that has been operating behind the scenes this whole time?
    BONUS POINT: Do they, for reasons we can’t fathom based on our knowledge of the protagonist, choose to reveal themselves to the protagonist?
    SUPER BONUS POINT: Has the protagonist been The Chosen One all along, the rebel alliance’s only hope at pulling this whole rebellion thing together?
    EXTRA BONUS POINT: Is this because of the protagonist’s true parentage, which has been kept from her all along?
    WILDLY EXTRA BONUS POINT: In the end, does the rebel alliance actually turn out to be evil/infiltrated, forcing the protagonist to form a splinter group?
  9. Is there an irritatingly handsome, inexplicably single young man floating around making things difficult for the protagonist?
    BONUS POINT: Does he actually turn out to be a member of the Secret Rebel Alliance, making it A-OK for the protagonist to fall in love with him because Nobody Else Understands?

    "Can we discuss the plans now?" "Not here. The horse can read lips."

    “I’m so glad I found you — rebelling against the status quo can get lonely sometimes.”                                                                  “Ssshh, not here. I think the horse is an enemy plant.”

  10. Does the protagonist save the day by Listening to Her Heart instead of basing a plan on logic or following the advice of older, more seasoned superiors?
  11. Are there two separate moments when the protagonist realizes that Everything She Knows Is a Lie, the first good because it confirms all her suspicions of society, the second terrible because she has to go back to square one and discover what’s really going on?
    BONUS POINT: Is the irritatingly handsome young rebel a major part of this second reveal?
  12. Is the person who guides the protagonist to the truth ultimately killed?

Point guide:

0–8 points: Well done, that’s an original piece of modern YA dystopian fiction you’ve selected. (Shout it out in the comments — I’d love to hear what it is.)

9–16 points: Sounds like you’re getting to know modern YA dystopian tropes pretty well. Would you like to branch out into other plots and devices? Try Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, which scared my socks off and forever changed how I feel about grocery stores.

17–25 points:  So maybe Mark Twain was right:

For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.

But that shouldn’t stop you from trying to find some new material. Have you considered reading some old-school dystopias that laid the groundwork for today’s works? Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” and “The Sound of Thunder” are classics; for something more recent, try Lois Lowry’s The Giver.

What devices are you tired of seeing in books? What device do you keep hoping a writer will use, but you haven’t seen it yet?

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Photo credits: UFO parking sign from MartinStr, massage from Olof, couple and horse from gpalmisanoadm, waffle vector from Nemo on Pixabay.

Book Chatter: Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

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Two weeks ago, a friend and I took a trip to a monastery. It was something we’d been meaning to do for a while, and at the end of the quarter, getting outside the city and into four inches of manure was a much-needed break.

As a general rule, I don’t take many pictures. When I’m enjoying an event or a landscape, I’d rather focus on soaking it in than on trying to capture its aura with my abysmal photography skills.

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Oh yeah. Bring on the Pulitzer.

You will, however, be pleased to know that during my weekend at the monastery, I took eleven pictures. Nine were of a window; two were accidentally of my leg.

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I call this one Fenestra: The Undead Arise.

Anyhow. When staying at a monastery, it’s practically required that you bring along something meaningful to read. For me, that meant Anne Lamott’s Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.

You might remember Lamott as the author of one of the best writing books of all time, Bird by Bird. In Plan B, she’s no less of a gently challenging maestro who will make you simultaneously laugh, sigh, and wince. Written during some of Lamott’s more spiritually fraught times (which, not coincidentally, were also during the second Bush Administration), Plan B is a collection of short stories about parenting, church, dogs, forgiveness, politics, weddings, racism, cruise ships, terminal illness, skiing, and more — in short, topics where you’re either bracing yourself for controversy or pursing your lips in preemptive boredom. But despite this broad range of topics — or perhaps because of it — Lamott succeeds in turning out a richly detailed patchwork quilt of a narrative that works very well, as one reviewer put it, as “a spiritual antidote to anxiety and despair in our increasingly fraught times.”

So if the world has been getting you down lately, and you’re exhausted from trying to nudge it towards a better state of being, try sitting down with Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. It might not fix the world, but it might lower your cortisol levels a bit — and really, sometimes that’s all we can expect from a day.

In closing, I’ll leave you with this excellent calming song and this warming post from Amanda Palmer:

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What’s your favorite hope-filled book?

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Photo credit: Book cover from Better World Books.