“Welcome to Marwen” and the power of art therapy

Welcome to Marwen is a film due out on December 21 starring Steve Carell (though, honestly, Jeremy Renner would have been a dead ringer). At first glance it looks like a weird film about a man playing with dolls, but don’t be fooled by that. Marwen is so, so much more than live action mixed with fantasy. It’s a story of loss, recovery, and overcoming disability. And it’s a true story.

 

    A Life Lost

Mark Hogancamp was an artist and photographer, five years in the Navy, five years married, and an alcoholic. In April of 2000, he admitted to being a cross-dresser while drinking in a bar. When he left the bar, five men beat him so badly that he spent nine days in a coma, and forty days in the hospital relearning how to walk, talk, and behave. He had permanent memory loss of everything before the beating, and severe post-traumatic stress. His entire life before that night had been erased. Insurance cut off his therapy after a year, and he could not afford to continue on his own.

Healing Himself

    Instead, Hogancamp turned to fantasy art. Outside his home in New York State, he created Marwencol, a fantastically detailed Belgian town caught up in World War II, and populated it with excruciatingly detailed 1/6-scale figures (that’s Barbie-sized, if you don’t know. Before his injury, he’d painted miniature aircraft as a hobby, but now his hands shook too much) – including both himself and his attackers. In Marwencol, a safe place populated by women, grisly acts do occur (it’s WWII), but women are the heroes. Through the scenes he set up, Hogancamp worked out a lot of his rage and anger by “killing” his attackers over and over, his own form of therapy to deal with the loss of 38 years of memory and the disabilities he’d been left with. He can no longer draw, but he can use a camera, and his artistic photos of his figures caught the eye of the right people. They were published in an art journal, then on to a gallery show, and then a well-received documentary (Marwencol). In 2015, a book was released to critical acclaim (Welcome to Marwencol). Now, Robert Zemeckis has picked up the trail, and turned the story into a wider drama for the holiday season.

Life is Art; Art is Life

    Hogancamp’s photos are a child’s dream: proof that your dolls/action figures are having a rich life when you aren’t looking, a voyeuristic peek into a place where anyone can be the hero, the bad guys always lose, and Mom is there to save the day. His photos are eerie in their realism, down to pen-tip bullet holes and nail-polish blood, a dream gone creepy where department store mannequins have replaced people but you can’t always tell at first glance. Take a look at some of his works here, and if you like them, you can purchase some for yourself here.

    Severe head trauma is no laughing matter. Not everyone emerges from a coma, and fewer still survive them without some form of permanent disability. Trauma has been implicated in everything from brain cancers to seizures to murder, and the road to recovery is long, difficult, fractured, and rarely complete. We think of therapy as being Freudian, or using a walker down a hospital corridor, and dismiss art therapy as wasting time on a hobby, but to some, art therapy may be their very salvation. Hogancamp is still shy, plagued by anxiety and difficulties, his memories will never return, but he’s found his support, and that makes all the difference in the world.

    Check out the movie this Christmas, and read up on these other real-life survivors and their determination to pull themselves through the toughest of times. You might even be inspired to dabble in a little art therapy yourself.

Ghost Boy : The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body by Martin Pistorius

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Proof of Heaven : A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander

The Long Awakening : a Memoir  by Lindsey O’Connor

Overcoming Mild Traumatic Brain Injury and Post-concussion Symptoms by Nigel S. King

The Mindfulness Coloring Book : Anti-stress Art Therapy for Busy People by Emma Farrarons

 

 

 

Dealing with Toxic People at Home and at Work

In a previous Blog Post, I discussed the prevalence of bullies in workplace culture (How to Spot a Bully in the Workplace and What to Do About It). My recommended reading list included The No Asshole Rule with the comment “A gem. I may write another post just about this book.”

Here it is.

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t by Robert Sutton, PhD

The summary of this book says it is, “a business handbook on preventing and curing a negative work environment that explains how to restore civility to the workplace by weeding out problem employees in order to increase profit and productivity.”

But, oh, it is so much more.

How bad can working with, living with, and  having  toxic jerks in your life be? Consider some of these stats from the book:

Studies show that having just one chronic jerk in a workplace can diminish performance of the entire staff by a whopping 30%-40% .

Negative interactions affect mood fives times stronger than positive interactions.

25% of bullying targets and 20% of witnesses to bullying leave their jobs.

Working with toxic people can increase you risk of heart attack  20%-40%.

While this book was written with workplaces in mind, The No Asshole Rule can be applied to all areas of life. The author originally published his idea in the Harvard Business Review with the title: “More Trouble than They’re Worth”. And that basically sums up the No Asshole Rule. Some people, whether in your personal life or your business life, are simply more trouble than they’re worth.

The No Asshole Rule can help you:

1. Distinguish between  people who are having a bad day (temporary assholes) and those who are persistently nasty and destructive.

2. Spot the most common actions that toxic people use against others.

3. Discover how to assess the actual cost of having a toxic person in your workplace or life. (Yes, you can add up the money spent dealing with destructive, mean people. Think of such things as hourly salaries of managers and the human resources department. Think of sick time taken by the people who are targeted by the jerks. Think of the costs of counseling and lawyers. Think of stress-related illnesses and medications. Think of the loss of quality of life.)

4. Discover how to set up a No Asshole Rule and enforce it.

5. Learn how not to be an asshole. (Reigning in your inner jerk, avoiding asshole-poisoning, and a self-test to see if you often behave like a jackass.)

6. Tips for surviving an asshole-infested workplace.

7. The virtues of assholes (Yes!) with the warning that being a jerk all the time won’t work.

8. How a few demeaning creeps can overwhelm a horde of nice people.

The bottom line is that toxic personalities, whether at work or home, demean and de-energize those around them. They cost everyone in many ways: money, time, health, confidence, etc, etc. The advice of this book is clear: Expel rotten apples as fast as possible. There is a reason, Sutton asserts, that there is a delete button on the cover of the book.

I give this book Five Stars. It’s not just a valuable tool for the workplace, it is important for those who want to free themselves from anyone toxic in their lives.

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Reliability is Overrated – 10 Books With Unreliable Narrators

Recently, I was discussing two of my favorite television series’ of the past year, “Mr. Robot“, and “Legion“, when it occurred to me what I found compelling about both of them – they are both told by unreliable narrators. The narrative characters in each show have major difficulties perceiving reality, which means the viewer sees the story through their skewed lens, often having to puzzle out what is real and what is not.

It’s a challenging concept, relatively uncommon in television, but more often used in literature. In the literary device of the Unreliable Narrator, the character who leads the reader through the story cannot be taken at face value. The reason could be because this character is lying, insane, or simply seeing events from a very limited viewpoint. In every case, though, it leads the reader to form conclusions beyond what is being disclosed in the narrative. A puzzle of sorts, where questioning what everything really means becomes part of the reading experience.

As I thought about it, I realized that many of the novels that have stayed with me long after reading them have had some kind of unreliable narrator. I remember finishing some of these books, and immediately starting them over again, looking for the “tells” that would have clued me in to the real truth of the tale if I had recognized them the first time. Here, with as few spoilers as possible, are some of my favorite unreliable narrators, (and a few whose heads I could not wait to get out of):

1. Silver Linings Playbook – When we meet the  point-of-view character Pat,  he’s being released from a mental facility into the care of his parents. That’s the first indication that situations in the story may not be exactly as they seem. As Pat’s repressed memories start to come forward, we’re able to piece together exactly why Pat was institutionalized in the first place.

2. Flowers for Algernon –  Charlie Gordon is a learning disabled man who undergoes an experimental operation to increase his intelligence. The novel is told through entries in Charlie’s journal, and the reader is able to see the improvements in self-awareness and intelligence through those entries. Then, too, we witness his deterioration as the long-term effects of the operation make themselves known. Bring a hankie.

3. Life of Pi – A fantastical tale of a boy set adrift after a shipwreck, with a tiger sharing his life raft. It’s a beautiful and uplifting story, until it is revealed that it may be what the narrator’s chosen to believe rather than what actually occurred.

4. Room Told from the very limited point of view of a five-year-old boy, Jack,  who has spent his entire life in an 11-square-foot soundproofed room with Ma, his mother. When Ma devises a plan for Jack to escape, we experience the exhilaration and confusion the world for the first time along with him.

5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime – The engaging narrator of this book is an autistic teen, so we perceive the events in the story the way he would. When he comes across a neighbor’s dog stabbed with a fork, his obsession with Sherlock Holmes takes over to help him solve the mystery.

6. Fight Club – Whether you’ve seen the movie or read the book, the twist that’s revealed about the identities of characters in this story packs a real punch (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

7. Shutter Island – In this gripping psychological thriller, nothing is quite what it seems. It starts out as an investigation into the escape of a mental patient, and well,  to say more  would be too spoiler-y.

8. Lolita – A compelling and beautifully written book told by a pedophile who is as charming as he is perverse. His justifications and attempts to win the reader’s sympathy are as fascinating to read as they are icky.

9 & 10.  The Girl on the Train  & Gone Girl – I’ve lumped both of these together even though they both contain different types of unreliable narrators (a blackout drunk and just plain liar) because they came out close together, are both murder mysteries, and if you’ve read one, you’ve probably read the other. I couldn’t wait to close the covers on both of them, though, the characters were just too unlikable for me to want to spend much time with.

Seeking Rest in a Busy World

Rest is hard to find. Our homes, schools, and public places are filled with sound and activities. People talk, electronic devices ping, beep, and trill. Machines hum. We are plugged in 24/7.

Our lives have become a hive of constant connection. We are never alone! And quiet time is so necessary for well-being. A recent study looked at the benefits of time alone. It turns out, even extroverts need alone time and that time spent alone makes people feel more rested, which contributes to their well-being.

james_tissot_-_quietAnd the activities that people in the study found the most restful?
1. Reading.
2. Being in a natural environment.
3. Time spent alone.

So grab a book and head outside for some quality alone time. It’s good for body and soul.

 

Want to know more about the benefits of rest? Try these titles. Just want to relax? Check out the downloadable music suggestions at the end of this post. For a full list of relaxation resources, click here.

jacket-aspxSilence : the power of quiet in a world full of noise / Thich Nĥát Hạnh. (Hardcover)
One of the world’s most beloved teachers and Zen masters shares a profound, concise, and practical guide to understanding and developing our most powerful inner resource—silence—to help us find happiness, purpose, and peace.

jacket-aspxThe art of stillness : adventures in going nowhere / Pico Iyer. (Hardcover)
Why might a lifelong traveler like Pico Iyer think that sitting quietly in a room might be the ultimate adventure? Because in our madly accelerating world, our lives are crowded, chaotic and noisy. There’s never been a greater need to slow down, tune out and give ourselves permission to be still.

jacket-aspxStillness speaks / Eckhart Tolle. (ebook)
If you connect to the stillness within, you move beyond your active mind and emotions and discover great depths of lasting peace, contentment, and serenity.

 

 

jacket-aspxRelaxation revolution : enhancing your personal health through the science and genetics of mind body healing / Herbert Benson and William Proctor. (Downloadable Audiobook)
Using the mind to quiet the body not only eases stress, it actually alters the activity of thousands of genes, promoting wellness. Science now proves that relaxation not only changes how a patient feels physically and emotionally, it has the power to transform genes, molecules, cells, and other physiological functions to relieve a variety of afflictions.

vector-musical-1Downloadable Music

Positive thinking, vol. 1 – music for meditation, relaxation & yoga

Guided meditation guided relaxation & guided imagery for the body and mind

Classical music for relaxation vol.1

Spa music: relaxing music for massage therapy, spa, yoga, stress relief, meditation and sleeping

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Understanding Urban Issues

Here is a group of books – some of them very good – that are sure to fuel political fire, no matter which fence you sit on regarding the issues of the blighted inner cities.

indexGhetto is a brand-new book by Mitchell Duneier on the term “ghetto,” which dates back to the 1400’s when Jews were forced to live in isolation from Christians. They were free to come and go, except at night, and anyone could do business with them. This led to a flourishing if separate culture for hundreds of years. Enter the Nazis, who isolated Jews into Ghettos with barbed wire. No one was allowed in or out. Here, people had no jobs, severe overcrowding, no public services, and as the ghettos decayed and residents grew desperate, people accepted the fact that Jews lived like animals, and it helped fuel antisemitism. Why would people live like that if they didn’t deserve it, forgetting that to cross the wire was not just banishment, but death. By the 1940’s the term expanded to the narrow neighborhoods that African-American people were allowed to live in. There was no barbed wire, but an invisible barrier that they weren’t allowed to cross except for work. As their neighborhoods became overcrowded because no one could move out, they fell victim to the same issues faced in Germany. Duneier presents facts throughout the last century – the 40’s, the 60’s, the 80’s, and today, on the current use of the term vs. the historical one, and how the stagnation and forced living creates the discord we see today. The book is far too long and detailed – it could be half and still be excellent – but even if you have to skim it, it is serious food for thought.

Easier to read, if not more infuriating, is Family Properties:  Race, Real Estate, and the5190mOD8p3L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_ Exploitation of Urban Black America by Beryl Satter. Satter details the blatant racist policies of 1940’s Chicago, where Real Estate agents were threatened if they sold houses to African Americans past the “White” line, and people who did buy in would find the houses disassembled by the neighbors to prevent it. It took many years and many lawsuits to get things to change. This book will make you angry.

514dyV2l3KL._SY479_BO1,204,203,200_A head scratcher is All Souls: a Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick McDonald. Mrs. McDonald is Irish, unmarried, and pumps out children like party favors (11 in all), living in the infamous projects of South Boston – an area run by no less than Whitey Bulger himself. Michael tries to sort out his childhood as his siblings fall victim to gangs and drugs and forced busing. Entertaining and tragic, even if you can’t relate to their lifestyle.

Death at an Early Age, Savage Inequalities, and Fire in the Ashes, all by Jonathan Kozol, are heart-rending books about the disparities in Urban and Suburban education. They are excellent reading that will break your heart. The realities of urban living will block most of these kids from ever achieving, and it is not their fault.

Jacket.aspxI cannot recommend the book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood by David Simon and Edward Burns enough. I could not put it down. It covers the grim streets of Baltimore, a place so bad it’s where trauma surgery originated. It is compelling and reads like a novel. And they made a TV Miniseries out of it. One of my top-50 favorite books.

51BHwvQwVbL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_If you’re really, really, really into sociology, then go back to the original: How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis. This is one of the first sociological studies on the slums of 1886 New York City, and the issues seen there – discrimination, overcrowding, street children,  gangs, alcoholism, domestic violence, prostitution – paint a familiar story as European immigrants try to find a way to survive in a hostile new world. It’s dry reading at times, but interesting in the patterns that appear.

Lyndon Johnson took decisive moves to improve our urban areas; 50 years later, not much has changed. The issues brought up in these books are just as relevant today as then, and we have more than enough information to make positive changes. These books will open your eyes.