War Horse: I love puppets.

Ever since I was very young, I have loved puppetry.  If I hit the lottery tonight, I would quit my job to study the art of puppet construction and performance.  While puppetry was only part of the show and not the whole thing, they used it very successfully as a tool to allow full-sized horses to be present on the stage with actors.  I thought it was so great to illustrate to the American theater-going audiences how puppets can contribute in a beautiful and important way to adult theater performance.  As a nation, we seem to think that puppetry is for children or a lesser theater art form than human acting.  Fortunately, some cultures and countries are more open-minded and understand the amazing and entertaining applications of puppetry and have organizations to promote adult puppet theater.

So often in films, I am disappointed by the sort of “liquid” and plastic-looking CGI.  I would prefer that many creature effects were done with puppets and animatronics instead.  If you’d like to widen your horizons and see an wonderful film that makes excellent use of the art of marionetting, watch Strings, an international film (English and Swedish, I believe) made in 2004 whose story is an allegory for the war on terror.  It is voice-acted beautifully by actors including Derek Jacobi, James McAvoy, and Catherine McCormack.

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A mental health moment.

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Mood and emotions seem like quickly vacillating, arbitrary, amorphous “things” that are influenced and controlled by events and people around us.  “My (fill in the blank) is driving me crazy.”  “(Blank) is getting to me.”

Thoughts and emotions are products of your brain function and they work on a “feedback loop” that can  change your neural structure and function for better or worse.  While we still don’t know exactly how things work, neuroscience and psychology are working to get a better understanding of the brain structures involved in emotion and memory and to find out how we can work with them to improve our mental quality of life.  If you care to read up about it, focus your studies on the limbic system which is made of: the hippocampus (memory), the amygdalae (twin centers deep in the temporal lobes which process emotions), and the hypothalamus which provides a link between your nervous and endocrine systems.

Now to move away from the research stuff for a minute. What are some things that one can do to improve mood, emotional outlook, and one’s overall sense of mental well-being?

First, recognize that all thoughts and emotions are products of real, measurable chemical and electrical changes going on in various parts of your brain.  It’s not some magical event or weird vapor that passes over your mind.  It’s something concrete and factual.

Second, understand that when you exert some conscious effort, your mood and emotional reactions to situations CAN change.  Think about it this way: you have to exercise to build your physical strength.  You have to practice a musical instrument to improve your playing.  If you put some constructive work into your mood and emotions, they can improve as well.

Third, in the absence of any constructive, conscious work, your thoughts, mood and emotions will become more and more engrained.  If you get stuck on a negative track and allow your brain to keep thinking the same thoughts and soaking up the same chemicals that are released with the negative feelings, you are setting your brain up for more of the same.

Fourth, there are many tools and activities available to us that can help when we are not able to consciously “exercise” our emotional centers and get better on our own.  In no particular order, these include but are not limited to:

  • psychotherapy provided by HIGHLY trained QUALIFIED professionals–sorry social workers, but most of you seem woefully under-qualified and should not be in charge of counseling people with serious mental health issues.
  • “talk” therapy, i.e. working things through by talking with a trusted friend or mentor who can listen patiently and knows they don’t have to give you the right answer.  Also, talking to others (online or in person) who are going through what you are experiencing can be a great help too for putting things in perspective.  Postsecret is one of my favorite online forums to share in the lives and experiences of others.  You can even unburden yourself and send some postcards.
  • meditation has been shown to make measurable positive changes in the baseline functioning of the human brain.  You can do it by yourself or participate in group guided meditation classes.  Meditation is not strictly a spiritual practice and doing it does not mean you have to ascribe to a particular religion to participate and reap the benefits.
  • pharmaceuticals can be an incredible boon to people who have medical conditions that make it impossible to self-regulate.  There is a still stigma attached to people on “meds” but if it means the difference between suicidal depression and being able to function in daily life, I think you need to ignore the haters and get the help you need.  I strongly feel that drugs should always be used in conjunction with non-chemical methods for improving mood and emotional response.
  • pleasure therapy which is the term I use to describe “doing stuff that makes you feel happy.”  The more you involve yourself in happy activities, the more you train your brain to enter the “pleasure mode.”  It’s best if you find activities that are free, readily accessible, and get you involved with other (positive) people.  Shopping, food and sex can affect our brains on a very deep level and usually do make us feel happy, but they are often associated with many other complex emotions as well so I feel it’s best not to use them as a form of therapy.  Things like enjoying or making art and music, spending time with a pet, watching a funny movie or t.v. show, and exercising strenuously to release endorphins (the body’s pharmaceuticals) are some of my favorites.  Engage in these for a significant period of time (at least 20 minutes) a few times a week to feel the effects.  You may find that some of these activities also have a meditative quality to them as well.  Double points!
  • memory therapy which is spending time thinking about good times you’ve enjoyed (so get out there and do some pleasure therapy).  Picture the scene in detail and even write it down so you can go back and read it.  Wallowing in good memories is a great way to retrain your brain to think positively.

I am not some sappy-happy-go-lucky person and I was definitely not raised by positive people, but these are some things that I have found helpful.  Remember, you won’t change overnight and there will be some days when everything seems completely suck and you might backslide.  That’s okay.  It’s only too late to change when you are dead.  Until then, keep trying.  Hope you are well.

I’m not sure I agree with fertility treatments.

Yes, I know.  This is a very touchy topic for many people, but after reading an article that talked about certain fertility treatment protocols resulting in higher numbers of birth defects, it got me thinking about the subject.

I’m not convinced that people who are infertile should be having biological children.  There, I said it.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have met a few lovely people who were born via in vitro fertilization and the world is a better place for them being in it.  Nevertheless, just maybe there is a sound biological and/or genetic reason that your body isn’t reproducing (this goes for both men and women).  Maybe the money spent on fertility treatments, paid out of pocket and by insurance companies would be better spent elsewhere, and people with trouble conceiving could adopt one of the millions of wonderful children worldwide that are already born and waiting for a loving home.

I don’t have children, but I am a fan of them, and while I know there is a strong urge among people to have children to carry on their biological information, just because it can be done, doesn’t mean it necessarily should be.

Another thing that bothers me about fertility treatments is that they often result in multiple births since more than one embryo is often implanted at once and sometimes they all take.  I don’t think that induced multiple births are a good thing, and I have read some research suggesting that having more than two babies per birth is associated with a higher incidence of developmental problems and delays.  The human body is meant to gestate one thing at a time, not a litter, and there are many sets of natural twins I know of who had some complication or other.  At the very least, many of them are born premature, which is definitely associated with a higher risk factor for various congenital issues.  Something to think about.

Then you have mental patients such as Octomom and Mrs. Kate + 8 and her brood of little ratings units who have not only abused fertility treatments, but then used their resultant litters to garner celebrity status, obscene incomes and lavish lifestyles (some more successfully than others).  Having a whole mess of kids that you aren’t equipped to care for independently is not something that should be encouraged or enabled by medical professions.

Maybe my atheism makes me look at the whole issue differently, but if you are religious, why can’t you trust to your God’s plan and let nature decide if biological kids are in the cards for you?

The Shins: Port of Morrow.

Love love love the new Shins album.  I was a little concerned since it has been five years since their last studio album and as the line-up is an ever-revolving door, but the music stays true while continuing to evolve.  They played an amazing show which was much tighter and better-ended than when I saw them on tour for Wincing the Night Away.  At the previous show, they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with a piss-poor encore performance where they flubbed a song, double-played one from earlier in their set, and did a lame-o cover.  Not so this time, friends.  Time has been spent honing their show into a nearly seamless spectacle; solid from start to finish with a well-executed finale.  But still, they did not play Turn on Me, nor did I hear A Comet Appears.  I suppose this is because the show hewed more toward a rocking sound than slow-jam.

Opening act Chairlift was pretty okay if you’re into retro eighties synthpop sounds.  I swear there was one sound their keyboardist got that was straight from a video game I used to play on Sega Genesis.  Have yet to place it.  In fact, their opening song was their weakest and sounded like a reject from the Space Harrier II soundtrack.  It did go up from there, but I still didn’t like them as much as I wanted to.  Their sound mix was excellent.

P.S. What is with all the nautical/aquatic references and themes, James Mercer?  Is it in reaction to relocating to land-locked New Mexico after being born in Hawaii?