4.06.2020

listening to joni: #13: chalk mark in a rainstorm

Chalk Mark In a Rainstorm, 1988

After writing my first negative review in this series, I was half-dreading listening to the album. Happily, I ended up pleased and relieved. Chalk Mark In a Rainstorm is a solid album with some lovely and memorable songs. There are choices that don't work for me, and one truly awful song, but overall the album is a great improvement over the previous Dog Eat Dog.

On Chalk Mark, Joni's writing is strongest when she's at her most topical. "Tea Leaf Prophecy," quotes the old spiritual and anti-war song "Down by the Riverside," using one of my most cherished lines, "study war no more". The song tells an unlikely love story of two people who met during the Second World War -- inspired by Joni's own parents. With the song's rhythmic refrain "study war no more" and "lay down your arms," not only have the lovers chosen love over war, but we are asked to do the same.

In "The Beat of Black Wings," the narrator meets a "young soldier" in a bar. The war had no meaning -- "propaganda piss on 'em" -- and has left him damaged.
There's a war zone inside me
I can feel things exploding
I can't even hear the fucking music playing
For the beat of the beat of black wings
I am reminded of the black crow on Hejira, but these black wings are far more sinister.
They want you they need you
They train you to kill
To be a pin on some map. . .
The old pick the wars
We die in 'em
To the beat of the beat of black wings
"Lakota" is a lament for Indigenous people, not only for the distant past, but for the present, where their land is being stolen again, for mining "the deadly ore". (In "Chinese Cafe," on Wild Things Run Fast, Joni also refers to this deadly ore: "Uranium money is booming in the old home town now".)

"Lakota" features a Native American chant, sung by Iron Eyes Cody. Cody was the "crying Indian" featured in PSAs many of us grew up with -- before his actual heritage was revealed. (His original name was Espera Oscar de Corti; he was born in Sicily.) No doubt Joni would be accused of cultural appropriation now, but this was not known at the time. (I do wonder if it had been known, if she would have cared.)

Back Cover

"Cool Water" -- written by Bob Nolan, with revised lyrics by Joni, and featuring some vocals by Willie Nelson -- and "A Bird That Whistles" -- an arrangement of the traditional song "Corinna, Corinna" -- have a similar earthy feel as the songs rejecting war and the destruction of the earth.

In "The Reoccurring Dream," Joni taps a familiar theme -- the dead-end of consumer culture -- using some samples of advertising-speak. I have mixed feelings about this. Sometimes I feel it interrupts the song and is too obvious, other times I like the inventiveness of the sound collage and the cumulative effect of the repetition.

"My Secret Place" has a synth-pop feel and the sound of a deliberate attempt at a radio track or single, as they were once called. It features prominent vocals by Peter Gabriel, although not quite a duet. It's not a bad song, and I like the imagery of the "secret place" that we go with a lover. It just feels facile and simple.

"Snakes and Ladders" combines two Joni themes -- materialism, and the ups and downs of a love affair. I hear it as an update on "Harry's House" from Hissing of Summer Lawns, the man trapped on the hamster wheel to keep his trophy wife satisfied. It's a duet with Don Henley, and it's a bit of a mess.

And then there's "Dancin' Clown", possibly the worst song and production Joni has ever written. This is "fool for love," upbeat edition. Bizarre vocal appearances by Billy Idol and Tom Petty push the song from a silly throwaway to just awful. Ah well. She's human.

The album cover

Joni designed the cover art, using photographs taken by Larry Klein, her partner at the time. The front features a portrait of Joni with her face partially obscured by a blanket with a Native American design and a hat. Inside, she is lying on the ground covered by the blanket, wearing jeans and sneakers, the hat beside her head. A snake is coiled at the opposite corner of the frame.

In her own words

The relentless sexism and condescension that featured so prominently in early reviews of Joni's music seems to have abated. So instead of "bad critic comment of the album," I'll use quotes from a feature story or interview that accompanied the album release.
I have to keep my spirit high. And to keep my creativity flowing, I've learned not to be afraid of failing—because out of the ashes of failure may come a great idea.
-- Quoted in Portrait of an Artist in Her Prime, Nicholas Jennings, Maclean's magazine, April 4, 1988
Guest vocals

This album is notable for the many guest appearances by other singers -- five musicians on four different songs, plus background vocals by some name artists. I don't know if this was something Joni wanted to try, or if it was a bid for a more commercial sound. It really stands out as unnecessary.

Other musicians on this album

Drums, percussion, Manu Katché; Larry Klein; Thomas Dolby
Bass, Larry Klein
Guitar, Michael Landau, Steve Stevens
Saxophone, Wayne Shorter
Organ, Steven Lindsay
Vocals, Manu Katche, Larry Klein, Benjamin Orr, Don Henley, Iron Eyes Cody, Lisa Coleman, Wendy Melvoin, Julie Last, Willie Nelson, Billy Idol, Tom Petty

4.05.2020

streaming follow-up: we need a universal watchlist app: updated!

On my recent post about streaming -- five reasons streaming is still better than cable and etc. -- I alluded to something towards the end of the post that I want to spotlight here.

We need a universal watchlist app. Perhaps several universal watchlist apps, so we can choose the one that suits us best.

This app would combine all your watchlists, from all the different streaming services you use, into one list. I wouldn't have to look through Netflix, Crave, Prime, and Britbox - not to mention some free services that once in a while have something good.

I wouldn't have to wonder, Where did I see that show? Was that Netflix or Prime or Crave? Didn't we see something good on Tubi? Or was Hoopla?

All my watchlists across all services would be combined.

Reelgood and JustWatch may do this, but it's unclear. I'll try them both and report back.

One thing right off the top: Reelgood doesn't include Crave, even on their Canada site. Crave is where Canadians can legally watch HBO, Showtime, and Starz movies and series, so it's important. I did email Reelgood to ask if they can pick up Crave. JustWatch has Crave, so it's possible to do.

More info when I have it.

Important update below.

*  *  *  *

I've been searching for this for a while, but I didn't know quite what to call it. I was coming up with services like Cinetrack, Seriesguide, and TVTime -- there's a list here. This would tell you where you could stream a particular movie or series, and you could track what you've watched. But they are more streaming search engines than feed aggregators.

Plex has the idea -- all your media streaming through one app -- but it works with media you've purchased or downloaded, not streaming.

I just had no idea what to call this thing I was dreaming of, until I recently saw this post: Forget universal search; give me a universal watch list. That's when the light bulb went off.

Now I've found two services that sound like they can do this. The strange thing is, they are both referred to as streaming search engines. Yet both services claim you can create a master watchlist and click through to the service through this.

Even comparisons of Reelgood and JustWatch calls them streaming search apps.

Maybe that's what the universal watchlist will be called?

I'm going to try both and report back.

*  *  *  *

Update. Reelgood or JustWatch? Neither.

Neither service works properly. Choosing your streaming apps and adding shows to a watchlist is simple enough. But neither Reelgood or JustWatch functions as a streaming hub or universal watchlist on either Roku or AppleTV.

Reelgood has more streaming services -- but not Crave, which Canadian viewers need.

JustWatch has Crave, but is missing Kanopy and dozens of free services. Part of the beauty of the universal watchlist would be the ability to access the bits of decent content on each of the free apps.

But more importantly, neither of them works properly on a TV. They might function properly for people who watch everything on their computer or phone. But the quest for a universal watchlist app continues.

4.03.2020

what i'm reading: political graphic nonfiction: emma goldman, muhammad ali, eugene v. debs

I have been collecting graphic nonfiction with leftist political themes. I just love these books and am indulging myself in buying them.

I was planning to review them, but I've decided to simply post images of the covers, the names of the books and the creators, and a quote from the person, group, or idea the book is about.



Dangerous Woman: A Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman, written and illustrated by Sharon Rudahl, edited by Paul Buhle
The greatest bulwark of capitalism is militarism. The very moment the latter is undermined, capitalism will totter. True, we have no conscription; that is, men are not usually forced to enlist in the army, but we have developed a far more exacting and rigid force--necessity. Is it not a fact that during industrial depressions there is a tremendous increase in the number of enlistments? The trade of militarism may not be either lucrative or honorable, but it is better than tramping the country in search of work, standing in the bread line, or sleeping in municipal lodging houses. (1908)



Muhammad Ali, written by Sybille Titeux de la Croix, illustrated by Amazing Améziane
If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years. (1968)



Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography, written by Paul Buhle and Steve Max, illustrated by Noah Van Sciver
Foolish and vain indeed is the workingman who makes the color of his skin the stepping-stone to his imaginary superiority. The trouble is with his head, and if he can get that right he will find that what ails him is not superiority but inferiority, and that he, as well as the Negro he despises, is the victim of wage-slavery, which robs him of what he produces and keeps both him and the Negro tied down to the dead level of ignorance and degradation.

The man who seeks to arouse prejudice among workingmen is not their friend. He who advises the white wage-worker to look down upon the black wage-worker is the enemy of both. (1904)

4.02.2020

five reasons streaming is still better than cable, even if the price tag is the same (plus a long story mostly for myself)

If you stream movies and TV series, you know that the proliferation of streaming channels has had mixed results for consumers.

Many shows that were formerly on Netflix have been pulled by their media parents, and are now found on different streaming apps. At the same time, Netflix's monthly price has increased -- so you're paying more for less.

Those who still want access to the shows no longer on Netflix need to subscribe to an additional streaming service; Disney (which has all the Marvel properties) and Britbox are two big culprits.

Two other very popular streaming services, Crave (owned by Bell Media) and Prime (owned by Amazon), have exclusive rights to many enticing shows, including all the HBO and Showtime series. Recently Bell Media made an annoying cash-grab by offering a first season of a given show on Crave, then requiring an additional subscription to Movies+HBO or Starz to watch the rest.

Many people have observed that if you want a few of these services, the price tag will rival the cost of cable.

I recently decided to subscribe to whatever streaming apps I want. Previously I was holding it to Netflix and Crave. But we spend next to nothing on entertainment now, and watching movies and series is a principal form of relaxation for me. I'm fortunate that I can afford it now.

So I added a bunch of channels/apps/services/whatever (what are we calling these now?), and the combined price does rival our former cable bill.

However, I still find streaming far superior to cable. Here's why.

1. NO ADS. Paying for TV and still having every show stuffed with commercials is an indignity and should be considered theft. The paid streaming services are ad-free.

2. Streaming lets you purchase only the channels you want. Pay for what you use, don't pay for what you never use. When we had cable, I found 95% of it completely useless.

3. The low monthly prices for most streaming services give you flexibility. You can get an app for a month or two to watch a specific show, then easily unsubscribe.

4. Which leads to the next reason: there are no installation fees or other rip-off costs.

5. Which leads to reason #5: you don't have to deal with telcos at all. All you need is internet.

In conclusion, streaming > cable.


* * * *

I was looking back through some of my early posts about cable, access to baseball, Netflix, Roku, and etc. I had forgotten about some of the twists and turns I went through. I want to document it all here. Totally boring stuff, but I want to have it in one place.

1. In New York, we subscribed to Netflix, back when it was only a DVD-by-mail service. Netflix was a huge game-changer for us, as renting quality movies in our neighbourhood was always problematic. We subscribed to Netflix for DVDs for several years.

2. When we emigrated to Canada, I knew there was no Netflix (at the time), but I heard there was a Netflix-type service called Zip.ca.

3. I subscribed to Zip, but there were issues. One, they sent you movies in random order. Netflix didn't guarantee you would receive movies in the exact order of your queue, but you got something close to it. Since we don't watch blockbuster movies, we almost always received our top three choices. With Zip, it was totally random. The next baseball season would roll around, and I hadn't seen my priority movies. I did find a workaround, but it was limited.

4. At the same time, we were spending a lot of money to see our out-of-town team's baseball games. We had to subscribe to cable at a high level, then add the MLB package, plus we subscribed to MLB online, so Allan could watch games while at work (which was at least half the games for the week, sometimes more). But we couldn't watch MLB only online, because Rogers capped our internet usage!

5. In 2006 I lost my job and was unemployed or very under-employed for many years. Spending less was a priority, one that we often failed to achieve.

6. In 2010, Netflix came to Canada as a streaming-only service. There wasn't much on it.

7. In 2011, my workaround with Zip -- which depended on a willing and creative customer service person -- ended. (Soon after that, Zip was purchased by Rogers and became a standard pay-per-view service.) I subscribed to a different DVD-by-mail service, called Cinemail. It sucked and I quickly cancelled it.

8. In 2012, two extraordinary things happened at that same time: my friend M@ told me about Teksavvy, and I learned we could watch MLB through a Roku streaming device. Minds were blown, worlds were rocked.

I'll let an old post tell this part of the story.
In February, I asked for help with my movie-season problem. We had been getting special treatment from Zip, but once that ended, Zip became useless again. I knew there had to be a better way. It's the 21st Century, for crissakes. Why can't we get on-demand baseball, movies, and whatever else we want to watch? First world problems? Absolutely! But that's where I live.

In the past, no suggestions really worked for us. We couldn't get rid of cable TV, because we needed it to watch baseball. We couldn't watch baseball online, because we had a cap on our bandwidth usage. (And because of our work schedules, we had to subscribe to baseball through cable and internet!) I didn't want to watch movies via Netflix only on computer. I didn't want to buy a gaming system just to watch movies. Nothing was quite right.

And then, everything came together.

M@ started it all by identifying the root of the problem: the first step was to get rid of Rogers and their ridiculous bandwidth cap. Switching to TekSavvy was fast and easy. We save money, we get more, and suddenly... we have choices.

Next, we bought two Roku devices, one for each TV. Allan drove to Buffalo to make sure we were set up for the baseball season, but they may now be shipping to Canada.

Next, Roku began to support Netflix Canada.

And next, Netflix Canada has hugely improved since I first checked it out. It has even improved in the last two weeks, growing by leaps and bounds.

I thought that getting rid of cable would be slightly inconvenient, but I'd adjust. That's because I didn't know what awaited me through streaming, via Roku.

Baseball without commercials! (At least the ones between innings.)

Movies! And lots of them. No more waiting to see what we receive in the mail - but without having to watch on a computer, or having to hook up a computer to the TV.

And not just movies. The small amount of TV I care about is suddenly now available on demand. Without commercials. . . . .

From the earliest days of Netflix DVDs-by-mail and cable Pay-Per-View, I used to wonder when we'd be able to watch any movie or any TV show, anytime we wanted, in our own homes. I just moved one giant step closer to that.

9. We learned how to create a wireless VPN, so we would have two IP addresses, one in Canada and one in the US, so we were able to access both versions of Netflix, plus baseball without blackouts.

10. In 2016, Netflix cracked down on VPNs. You could still watch US Netflix on a computer, but I could no longer get it wirelessly through Roku. (VPN providers still claim that you can, but really... no.) Fortunately by this time, Netflix Canada had improved significantly.

11. Also in 2016, Amazon's streaming service, then called Amazon Instant Video, finally was available in Canada.

12. In 2018, we purchased an AppleTV, which has exclusive rights to Crave -- which has all the HBO and Showtime shows. Turns out it gives much better access to MLB than Roku. Nice!

13. In 2019, I gave myself permission to add any streaming service I want, to have maximum options. I am pretty happy about this.

14. One last bit. I am dreaming of an app that would let viewers track their watchlists across different services. Not a media server, because I won't have the shows downloaded. And not quite one of these, as they are all limited in different ways. I want a master watchlist that can click through to the show on the appropriate streaming service.

4.01.2020

what i'm reading: graphic adaptation of anne frank's diary

Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, is many things to many people.

It's the most widely read and recognizable Holocaust narrative.

It's one of the most common ways to teach young people about the Holocaust specifically and genocidal in general.

It's a book for all ages. I read it as a child, as a teen, and as an adult, and I understood it on different levels at different times of my life -- and that's probably a common experience. If you haven't re-read the Diary as an adult, I highly recommend it.

The Diary has been translated into 70 languages and more than 25 million copies have been printed worldwide. It continues to be read in schools all over the world. This is partly because the first-person account personalizes the experience, makes it relatable, in a way that conventional histories cannot. But I believe the impact of the Diary endures because Anne was such a talented writer.

This fact is often overlooked in discussions of the Diary, overshadowed by the experiences Anne wrote about and the extremity of her living situation. You will often see reviewers mention "Anne's voice" -- and there's no doubt that Anne's appealing personality adds to the compelling nature of the Diary. But the girl who was hiding in that Amsterdam attic was a talented writer, and I believe that fact, more than anything else, has made the Diary transcend culture, time, and place, and is the central reason it endures.

Anne was a writer. Proof of that is in the Diary itself: the more she wrote, the better her writing became. She was becoming a writer, as all writers are, always. It's obvious that at some point, Anne realized her diary might be shared with the outside world, and she upped her game. Anne dreamed of becoming a famous writer -- a dream that came true, without her.

The graphic adaptation of the Diary does many things well, but also strains against the limits of the form. To expand on this, I'm doing something here that I rarely do: quoting from other reviews.

What I really liked

David Polonsky's illustrations are gorgeous -- lavish, rich in detail, suffused with emotion. Ari Folman uses the graphic novel form to its utmost advantage.

It's disappointing when graphic novel creators use illustrations as they would be used in a conventional novel -- illustrating what's already in the text -- rather than as an integral part of the story itself, moving the story forward in time and meaning.

As Ruth Franklin wrote in this New York Times review,
As Folman acknowledges in an adapter’s note, the text, preserved in its entirety, would have resulted in a graphic novel of 3,500 pages. At times he reproduces whole entries verbatim, but more often he diverges freely from the original, collapsing multiple entries onto a single page and replacing Anne’s droll commentary with more accessible (and often more dramatic) language. Polonsky’s illustrations, richly detailed and sensitively rendered, work marvelously to fill in the gaps, allowing an image or a facial expression to stand in for the missing text and also providing context about Anne’s historical circumstances that is, for obvious reasons, absent from the original. The tightly packed panels that result, in which a line or two adapted from the “Diary” might be juxtaposed with a bit of invented dialogue between the Annex inhabitants or a dream vision of Anne’s, do wonders at fitting complex emotions and ideas into a tiny space — a metaphor for the Secret Annex itself.
Here are a few examples of the skillful and inventive artwork.


Anne imagines her future.


The graphic adaptation beautifully captures Anne's personality and her voice -- not just her longing and frustration, which is more widely known, but her sarcasm and her sardonic wit. Parts of the Diary are funny, because Anne was funny. We shouldn't be afraid of that humour. Laughing with Anne is not laughing at the Holocaust. If anything, the humour only deepens our understanding of her tragedy, because it makes more real to us.

What didn't work for me

In The Atlantic, Stav Ziv notes that "the shortcomings of the adaptation are illuminating in their way, and underscore what makes the original so potent". I have to agree.
The difference between the two versions, however, is that by this point in the diary, you've been in her head for so long that her extinguished voice and sudden disappearance crush you with the weight of the world. You can imagine heavy boots on the stairs, pounding on the bookcase, and cruel orders spewed at the shocked residents. This scene isn't described in detail in either version. In fact, the afterwords are virtually identical. But the diary itself sets the reader up to fill in the horrifying blanks in a way the adaptation does not. They weren't coming for an unknowable character in hiding. They were coming for Frank.

It's not that Folman and Polonsky haven't added a valuable interpretation. They have. The volume contains some stunning and poetic drawings, such as a two-page spread that visualizes a passage in which the diarist describes "the eight of us in the Annex as if we were a patch of blue sky surrounded by menacing black clouds" and "in our desperate search for a way out we keep bumping into each other." But those images are poignant complements to Frank's words, not sufficient replacements. To this point, Folman wrote in the adapter's note that he had "grave reservations" editing "while still being faithful to the entire work." On the whole, the story becomes shorter, neater, and more naive. That might make sense if the adaptation were a primer geared toward children who aren't ready to tackle the diary yet, but the inclusion of entries on sex and Frank's lesson on the female anatomy indicates otherwise.

The point is also not that illustrations or graphic novels are less suited to tell stories of the Holocaust. Those mediums and so many others, including artificial intelligence and virtual reality, offer opportunities to experiment with new ways to share narratives that humanize and resonate—all the more crucial as we get further from the history and those who lived it. But the format should be tailored to the story, and in the case of a story that power lies squarely in the quality of the writing and the vividness of a teenager's thoughts, the diary provides depth that is hard to replicate in other versions.

The movies, plays, and graphic adaptations that Frank's diary inspired are entry points, thought provokers, or conversation starters, not substitutes. The most promising way to keep her story in the forefront of our mind is to keep reading her diary, but also to continue allowing the original source to spark a broad range of retellings and interpretive works of art that might highlight different aspects and reach new audiences. All together, they foster discussion and remind readers of the smart, vivacious, and complicated girl who went into hiding at 13 and died at 15.

The graphic adaptation does contain long sections of Frank's last entries—the ones that make it so distressing to see her account end as abruptly as it does. But the omissions leading up to them soften the blow. More than any particular fact or event, the graphic version is missing the sense of familiarity that slowly builds, more strongly and deeply than you realize, until the moment that this friend, this stand-in for you, confronts the thing she'd feared for so long: the moment that stole her fantasies of her life "after the war" out from under her. The last pages of the adaptation feel like the end of a story, not the end of a life.
For me, it comes down to this: I loved reading this book, and I hope it moves readers to search out and read the original. If this was to be a reader's only contact with The Diary of Anne Frank, I would be both relieved and disappointed. I recommend this version without hesitation -- but I hope you will re-read the original, too.

3.30.2020

a reading plan for 2020: the (second) year of the biography plus... more?

On the final day of 2017, I wrote a short list of people and topics I wanted to know more about, authors I wanted to sample but somehow never did, and unfinished reading challenges: what i haven't read and what i'm not reading (again, a post that had a fair number of comments... still hoping to restore them).**

From there, I dubbed 2019 The Year of the Biography (just for my personal reading, of course). I ended up reading three massive tomes on the lives of Frederick Douglass, Jackie Robinson, and Muhammad Ali.

I also read three graphic biographies: the graphic adaptation of Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl (which I hope to write about), and biographies of Muhammad Ali and Emma Goldman.

These weren't the only books I read in 2019, but they dominated my reading time.

Social distancing and the absence of library books inspired me to purchase three more biographies, and continue the trend for 2020: Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Hermann, and Galileo: Watcher of the Skies by David Wootton.

Only after ordering these did I realize they were all included in that 2017 "what i haven't read" post. To that end, I'm also finally going to finish Taylor Branch's King Trilogy (I stopped halfway through the final book) and Siegfried Sassoon's Sherston Trilogy. (Thank you, social distancing!)

I'd also like to get back to my weekly chapters of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 and Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 which got left behind when we decided to move west. This, however, might be too many balls in the air.

Taking the advice of a dear friend, I am allowing myself to give up on my elusive Shakespeare project, begun in 2003 and abandoned in 2005, but still nagging me more than a decade later.

** This is not The List. The List is ridiculously long. The List is not so much a to-read list, as a place to consult when thinking about what I might want to read next.

3.29.2020

is my body keeping score? personal insights (plus brain dump) after reading the book by bessel van der kolk

When I wrote my beyond-rave review of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk, I purposely omitted some personal reaction and connections I had to the book. Here they are.

Moving forward with my own healing

On the list of physical issues that can result from trauma, fibromyalgia is one of the most common -- along with depression, anxiety, stomach issues, and chronic fatigue. I've long ignored the connection between my past experiences and fibromyalgia, but now I feel ready to take it on.

After resisting this for years, I want to try EMDR, for its potential to reduce my fibromyalgia symptoms.

When I made this decision, I thought it might be futile, as I assumed I wouldn't be able to find a practitioner. To my surprise, there are many, not far away! Not in our town or region, but in the closest more populous area. That's about three hours away, but doable.

(Funny how a three-hour drive now seems like no big deal! It helps that it's a beautiful drive through the woods, with mountain views -- not three hours on the 401 or I-95.)

Right now we are all on COVID-19 lock-down, but when the pandemic is over, I am going to contact some EMDR practitioners.

Below is a timeline of how my thoughts on this evolved. Please feel free to skip to the next section, called "The inevitable and useless thought".

EMDR and PTSD

For many years, I've considered myself done -- done with therapy, done with support groups, done with therapeutic activities like Model Mugging and public speaking. Done with dealing with the aftermath of being raped. Also done with resolving any childhood trauma, the result of growing up with a mentally ill, abusive parent. I've done a ton of work around this, and then drew a line under it.

The thought of venturing again into this territory -- sexual assault trauma -- just made me angry. Enough already! It was so long ago. How can it possibly still be affecting me?! I determined I was fully healed, and that was that.

And it probably could be that, for the rest of my life. But maybe I could do better. Maybe I could feel better.

In 2014, I went to France with my mother, and had a rare insight that led me to a huge revelation: PTSD is forever. It is a permanent condition. With work, you can learn how to manage it. But there is no post-PTSD. I believed I was no longer experiencing it -- but that was because I usually don't remember my night terrors. (Posts on this: here and here.)

In 2015, I saw a therapist for anxiety. I already had medication, and my doctor suggested using my employer's EAP to get some cognitive-behaviour therapy. I met a wonderful therapist, and had a few grueling (not CBT) sessions.

This therapist told me there is a strong link between trauma and fibromyalgia, and she suggested I try EMDR. That was the first time I heard of it. I wrote about this on my fibromyalgia blog: here.

In 2016, I read The Evil Hours, a social and cultural history of PTSD (review here). It's an excellent book, and made a big impression on me.

The author is dismissive, even contemptuous, towards EMDR. Whether or not that attitude is justified, I dropped the idea. The thought of doing any further work around trauma angered me. This book gave me permission, so to speak, to not go there.

In 2017, we visited our family in Oregon. (This is when the idea of moving west was born!) (And these are some of the people I would soon be visiting if we weren't under COVID-19 lock-down.) One of my nephews is a therapist, and a psychology professor. I asked him about EMDR. Turns out he is a qualified practitioner. He had some encouraging things to say that, in my mind, brought it back to the realm of the possible.

Also in 2017, we had two family weddings, plus another in 2018 -- which means more opportunities to see my nieces and nephews. At one of these, we were hanging out with a different nephew, who is a holistic medicine practitioner -- acupuncture and craniosacral work. He recommended The Body Keeps the Score.

In late 2018, we relocated from a sprawling suburb in southern Ontario to a remote region of Vancouver Island.

In 2020, I read the book.

Throughout, van der Kolk lists various physical conditions that are related to trauma -- and fibromyalgia always tops the list. (Other conditions are depression, anxiety, and fatigue.) There it was in black and white.

This must have come at just the right time, because all of a sudden, my resistance to the idea was gone. I'm ready to explore another path to healing.

Some other things I've written about my own PTSD:

the tyranny of the subconscious

my subconscious is an annoying bitch

i need a canada for my subconscious

The inevitable and useless thought

The Body Keeps the Score is full of brief references to many horrific forms of abuse. Compared to these, my own experience seems very small.

When I was part of a community of sexual assault and domestic violence survivors*, I frequently thought, What happened to me is nothing compared to what happened to them. I minimized my own trauma relative to someone else's. It's pretty common to do this.

I felt this again while reading The Body Keeps the Score, and you may experience the same feeling. But here's what I've learned.

Maybe what this person endured is objectively worse than what happened to you. Maybe it wasn't. But true or not, it's irrelevant.

Nothing is to be gained from these comparisons. No one is helped by them. No pain is alleviated. And many opportunities may be lost.

Here's the thing. Just as the trauma was not your choice, your brain and your body's reactions to it were not choices. Our brains' reaction to trauma is wholly involuntary.

You did not choose to have night terrors or panic attacks or hypervigilance, or any of the many physical responses to trauma. Your body responded automatically, from a deep, primitive part of the brain, the part that is programmed for your survival.

How you choose to deal with trauma, given enough support and resources, is a choice. But becoming traumatized and the subsequent changes in your brain are not a choice.

It doesn't matter if someone else thinks your experience isn't awful enough to give you PTSD.

Actually, it doesn't even matter if you think it is!

Those are judgments, and the deep, emotional brain is not subject to judgments. It just is.

At some point, I made a decision to let go of the comparisons and the judgment. I can look back to an event decades ago, through the distance of time and all the protective barriers of my rational mind, and think, That shouldn't still be bothering me. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me, but come on, it's been nearly 40 years. Enough already!

But that's my conscious mind speaking, separated from the trauma by time, language, culture, and all the layers of my rational self. When the trauma speaks, that's when I wake up screaming.

In order to heal -- in order to give ourselves the space in which the possibility of healing exists -- we must release ourselves from these judgments. Because even when they are true, they're irrelevant.

Think the thought. Feel the feeling. Put it aside. Carry on.

Brain dump

-- I'm always a proponent of using medication like SSRIs to treat anxiety and depression, and always encourage people to at least try meds. Despite the fact that the drugs enrich the disgustingly corrupt pharmaceutical industry, I have seen meds save relationships, and save lives. The Body Keeps the Score taught me about the limits of medications. I understood that these medications may be over-prescribed, but I didn't understand either the extent or the dangers of this, as I do now.

-- Similarly, I'm always a proponent of talk therapy. When I used to do public speaking about my recovery from sexual assault, I always credited talk therapy as a way to release the poison. The Body Keeps the Score taught me about the limits of talk therapy to effect PTSD and other trauma reactions. Trauma -- especially the sustained traumas of child abuse and neglect -- occurs in a place in the brain where there is no language, a place before language. Survivors of childhood trauma often cannot process talk therapy, because they cannot access their memories in words.

Trauma often blocks memory. When it is remembered, it is recalled in disconnected bits and pieces. Adults who experience trauma can use language to weave together a narrative about their trauma, but that story is a reflection trauma -- not the trauma itself.

I might not be explaining this well. Van der Kolk touches on this again and again, with both the clinical observations and the neuroscience to back it up.

-- Some of the studies that are used to test various neuroscience theories are fascinating. Here's one small example.
Alexander McFarlane is studying how exposure to combat changes previously normal brains. The Australian Department of Defence asked his research group to measure the effects of deployment to combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan on mental and biological functioning, including brain-wave patterns. In the initial phase McFarlane and his colleagues measured the qEEG in 179 combat troops four months prior to and four months after each successive deployment to the Middle East.

They found that the total number of months in combat over a three-year period was associated with a progressive decrease in alpha power at the back of the brain. This area, which monitors the state of the body and regulates such elementary processes as sleep and hunger, ordinarily has the highest level of alpha waves of any region in the brain, particularly when people close their eyes.

As we have seen, alpha is associated with relaxation. The decrease in alpha power in these soldiers represents a state of persistent agitation. At the same time the brain waves at the front of the brain, which normally have high levels of beta, show a progressive slowing with each deployment. The soldiers gradually develop frontal-lobe activity that resembles that of children with ADHD, which interferes with their executive functioning and capacity of focused attention.

The net effect is that arousal, which is supposed to provide us with the energy needed to engage in day-to-day tasks, no longer helps these soldiers to focus on ordinary tasks. It simply makes them agitated and restless. At this stage of McFarlane's study, it is too early to know if any of these soldiers will develop PTSD, and only time will tell to what degree these brains will readjust to the pace of civilian life.
-- One of healing pathways van der Kolk writes about is the use of therapeutic theatre. One project he mentions is "Theatre of War", which uses the tragedies of Ancient Greece to help give language and healing to PTSD sufferers. This reminded me that I once had a strong interest in the history of theatre, now long forgotten in the annals of Things That I Used to Know.

Further info on Theatre of War:

How Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Help Veterans Deal with PTSD, written by a veteran who initially dismissed the idea of this as total bullshit (vice.com)

Theatre of War: Sophocles' Message for American Veterans (The New Yorker)

On YouTube: 36 minutes, more than an hour -- and incredible, five minutes with the creator of the program here.

-- Reading about neurofeedback was super interesting. In this process, a person learns to control the functioning of different areas of their brain! The results of the studies are quite amazing. It's been especially useful treating ADD and ADHD. It is generally not covered by insurance, and so, rarely used.

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* When I did training with a rape-crisis centre, and later, with this sexual violence intervention program, I met many survivors and listened to their stories. Many of them had been victims of child sexual assault -- incest. This is much more common than most people realize. And it is seldom a one-time event. It's often something endured repeatedly for years. Child sexual abuse is a root cause of much substance abuse, self-harm, eating disorders, high-risk sexual behaviour, suicide attempts, inability to maintain relationships, and untold mental illness.