Things That Make Me Smile No. 228: I Double Dare You

Learning to sew on a button.

One risk of a long quarantine, whether or not you’re working remotely, is slowing down. The brain is like any other part of our bodies. Your mind requires exercise. This can be anything from sudoku to chatting with the local barista, but as the Covid-19 crisis drags on, it’s easy to become passive in response. We’re overwhelmed and can shut down when fewer distractions balance out the statistics.

I’m guilty of that. I’ve been requiring more and more energy to go on social media, to keep up with my email, to do the outward-facing things that I used to find delightful. Heck, I wrote essays like this for a lot of my smiles when I started, and yet I’ve been posting YouTube videos with minimal commentary for a while. Fun and interesting videos, but still.

I pushed my family to get together to sing (over video conferencing) when they couldn’t go to choir and the folk groups they usually did. But I went only a few times before I ducked out. Last week, I forced myself to go, and I had a great time. Sure, it was draining, but the energy at least balanced out if not tipped in favor of going. I plan to do this again.

Now is the time to push yourself. Learn new things, engage in new ways, and keep yourself mentally active. I’ve learned, since Ehlers Danlos began overwhelming my life instead of being a constant undertow, when you give in, it’s that much harder to start up again. Sort of like trying to establish a new exercise routine.

So, here’s my dare: I dare you to take on something new. The attempt doesn’t have to be big; it doesn’t have to be major; it just has to be new.

Intimidated? Think small. Have you ever sewn on a button? Start doing some simple repairs or improvements to your clothing. Don’t just think about solutions…enact them. You never know where the skill will take you. Bare minimum, you’ll be that much more self-sufficient.

Is there something you’ve always wondered whether you’d be good at? Take this time to try. There are a lot of free sites that will teach basic coding if you’ve wondered whether you can. Study WordPress coding. You might come up with the next plugin everyone loves. Or dust off that guitar or harmonica and learn how to make some music.

If you’re working remotely, devote your former commute to the new task. Not working? Try setting aside a specific time. Classes exist for almost everything, and for free as well as paid.

Or take on a game that’s always been hard for you. Teach yourself sudoku, the memory card game, or crosswords. The “what” matters less than the challenge. Keep your brain growing, and you could come out of this downtime stronger and happier with whom you’ve become.

Oh, and a final note? If you don’t like whatever you chose after all, nothing says you must stick with it. The point is to try. You can always try something else. Why not tell us what you’re going to attempt in the comments?

P.S. As he’ll no doubt recognize, my father inspired this post. A little elastic can go a long way, especially if you install it yourself.

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5 Interesting Links for 09-18-2020

Note: Videos may auto start with sound so be prepared.

Fun (Baking)

For the cat lovers out there, here’s a collection of easy, cat-themed delights to brighten up your day. My favorite birthday cake was when my mom made a Siamese cat…then warned everyone there were bones. She’d stuck the scraps together with toothpicks to form the tail.
https://www.worldsbestcatlitter.com/2020/05/cat-themed-recipes-anyone-can-make/

Planning (Health)

The severity of Covid-19 has people looking at advanced health directives and similar paperwork to make sure their wishes are known. This article reviews what should be changed, if anything, and other key tips for managing your health in case you cannot communicate.
https://www.aarp.org/caregiving/financial-legal/info-2020/health-care-directives-coronavirus.html

Musicians (Interesting People)

This is a fascinating account of Prince Nico Mbarga’s musical career. He became a beloved West African talent and yet remained unnoticed on the worldwide musical scene. Following his dream, Mbarga left a small tenant farm in Nigeria and worked his way to a single record that outsold the Beatles. Mbarga found his fans’ cultural touchstones in his own life then blending in fun, danceable music. You have only to read the comments on YouTube to know his legacy lives on in the people he touched.
https://getpocket.com/explore/item/his-biggest-hit-sold-more-copies-than-any-of-the-beatles-so-why-haven-t-you-heard-of-him

Life (Science)

Looking for the red edge in light reflecting from other planets as a sign of chlorophyll-based energy absorption may miss another viable indicator of alien life. Retinal light harvesting still occurs here on Earth and draws in energy-rich green light. This alternate source would produce a green edge rather than red.
https://www.livescience.com/63883-purple-alien-life.html

Creativity (Writing)

This essay offers a nice set of tips for overcoming the creative slump quarantine has brought to many of us, or even for future writing blocks. Not every tip might work for you. For example, cataloging quirks when unable to escape each other’s company sounds dangerous. But a few of them could click.
https://mailchi.mp/712b2d8d35cd/pandemic-productivity

A Country Masquerade (Uncommon Lords and Ladies, Book Two)
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The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 1 Edited by Jonathan Strahan (Part 1)

The Saga Anthology of Science Fiction 2020

The Year's Best Science Fiction Vol. 1 Edited by Jonathan Strahan

Anthologies can be hit or miss depending on the editor’s vision. I picked this one up on NetGalley hoping to see a glimpse of the current short fiction world. What I didn’t expect was how many of the twenty-eight stories would win me over. These stories provide a diversity of voices and narrative styles, along with authors from many nations and/or ethnicities. The stories overall have more of a literary and sociological feel than the pulpy roots of the genre, but for every surreal tale, there is one more plot driven.

Jonathan Strahan begins the anthology with an essay on the state of the genre not only in short stories but across all mediums including non-fiction. This essay has enough examples you could easily use it as a reading list for the year. He also names the short fiction venues that he considers top markets.

The purpose of this volume, according to Strahan, is to honor works by stellar authors whether established or still becoming known. The theme celebrates diversity and the impact of culture. Rather than attempting to constrain speculative fiction into a narrow definition, Strahan aims to reveal how the genre can be both timely and interesting.

He succeeded on behalf of this reader. I am posting my review in two parts so I can call out all the stories that spoke to me, whether my favorites or those that came close. So, with no further ado, on to the stories:


These two were my favorites in the first half, a purely personal reaction. However, there is no question they are strong, well-written tales.

Kali_Na by Indrapramit Das

While I appreciated other stories, in Kali_Na I found my first favorite. It’s hard to articulate why without spoilers, so I’ll say only this: When Internet trolls come out in force to greet a newborn AI version of the Goddess Durga, the caste system might not be the only tradition to survive to modern day. It’s a cyberpunk-like vision of future India seen from the bottom looking up.

Sturdy Lantern and Ladders by Malka Older

I usually tidy my notes for the review, but here’s a direct quote: “Okay, wow. This is just wow.” I love this story for how it begins, because I’m sympathetic, then it takes us somewhere fascinating and new. Besides, it stars an octopus. I’d say more, but better you experience it on your own.


The below stories all had something about them I enjoyed, and/or which made them stand out. Appreciation is personal. While the missing stories did not catch my attention, they might still earn yours.

The Bookstore at the End of America by Charlie Jane Anders

The Bookstore at the End of America begins this volume with a glimpse down the path America is currently walking. The story has an almost magical realism tone. It looks at bias and the consequences of same, but more in raising questions than forcing answers on the reader. I like how it makes me think about these questions while reminding me of reading about a real-world library that exists on the U.S./Canadian border. I hope that library never faces what Charlie Jane Anders’ one does.

The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex by Tobias S. Buckell

As you might have guessed from the title, this short story offers a quick glimpse of a future where alien tourism wins. It’s something we’ve seen in smaller scales on our planet, but this is planetwide. But how our world has changed because of this commerce is only part of the story. Seen through the eyes of a taxi driver, the struggle to anticipate alien demands is both compelling and thought provoking.

Song of the Birds by Saleem Haddad

This story didn’t speak to me in part because of the focus on suicide. However, the strong imagery was compelling enough to warrant a mention. Nor is it the only story to include suicide as an aspect.

The Painter of Trees by Suzanne Palmer

This is an odd story, but a powerful one about ambition, arrogance, and claiming what is not your own. The author plays on the anonymity of first person, shared with a third person point of view (POV), to create a sense of mystery. There were enough clues to give me the answer before the reveal, but I still needed confirmation. It’s not only the mixed POV that makes this story stand out, however. I found the first-person narrator unsympathetic to the point of arguing with the page. In terms of engagement, this story earns a place, and I appreciate the questions it raises for all the method leaves me frustrated.

The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir by Karin Tidbeck

This story doesn’t have a firm plot, which is bizarre in a lot of ways since it’s a spaceship passenger vessel and has many of the older tropes mentioned. Instead, it’s beautiful for what it says and shows for both the speaking characters and those without a voice. The story didn’t go quite where I expected, but living ships and mechanically inclined, fix-it characters are some of my favorites.

Contagion’s Eve at the House Noctambulous by Rich Larson

The story sucked me into the moment with its sensory detail, so I accepted the strange happenings around me without question. And what’s happening is strange beyond question. This is the first one I’d classify as horror, and I don’t read horror because of the ability to be sucked in rather than despite it. I can safely say this is a strong horror offering, in part because it had the possibility of being something different had it made another choice.

Submarines by Han Song Translated by Ken Liu

As an example of the diversity within these pages, this story has two names attached, the author and the translator. It’s another odd story of unknowns and unknowables told through the perspective of an ignorant narrator. There are no answers to the many questions raised, and as a reader, I’m left trying to find meaning where none is offered. I don’t know whether this makes it more powerful a story or less. The imagery lingers, as does the tantalizing possibility of answers far beyond the life of our narrator.

As the Last I May Know by S. L. Huang

This is a powerful story of understanding war. It asks the same question covered in the movie War Games but puts it into more personal terms. The practice that serves as the story’s backbone is horrific, but that very quality makes it the best and possibly only way. The story offers a deep dive into another culture and the conflict between old and new ways. It plays with the reader’s emotions and pushes us to ask what we would do in the same situation.

A Catalog of Storms by Fran Wilde

This is a neat, surreal concept. It turns a story of lists into something emotional that plays with the reader’s sympathies tangibly. I enjoyed the imagery, the concept, and ultimately the question between desire and cost.

Dune Song by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

The narrative voice in this story is powerful and the description strong. I found the story to turn on belief and choice. Nata is trying to find her mother and find other civilizations. She rejects the ways of her village, choosing to reach for freedom rather than huddle in the dark and let fear swallow their voices whole. This makes it powerful.

P.S. I received this Advanced Reader Copy from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.

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Things That Make Me Smile No. 227: I Dare You…

This is a little different from my usual smiles, but we’re heading into NaNo season at a swift pace. (National Novel Writing Month starts in November with prep in October.) The quarantine has been a struggle for many creatives who might need a boost, so I figured I’d take a break from the results of creativity to share five prompts. While intended for writing, most of these can be translated into visual (art) or oral storytelling and likely more. Interpretive dance, perhaps? Regardless, maybe they’ll help get your creative juices flowing.

If you tackle one or more of these dares, feel free to drop a note in the comments about how you used them. Or suggest additional ways these prompts can inspire if we just give them a chance.

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5 Interesting Links for 09-11-2020

Note: Videos may auto start with sound so be prepared.

Hummingbirds (Animals)

Hummingbirds are fascinating, and this quick video explains a little of why. Despite the title, the video covers a lot more than flying in the rain.
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/videos/category/science/why-hummingbirds-dont-like-flying-in-rainy-c/

Cardboard (Art)

A photographic collage of a cardboard dragon coming to life. The pictures do not appear to be in order, but they still build a process in my mind. (Via Pinterest)
https://www.behance.net/gallery/11119909/CARDBOARD-DRAGON

Sociology (COVID-19)

A look at the impact of COVID-19 in heavily Black Southern areas where economic disparity limits health care and other resources necessary to survive the pandemic.
https://amp.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/05/us-deep-south-racism-poverty-fuel-coronavirus-pandemic

Research (Medicine)

Advancements in the field of genetic manipulation by expanding the genetic code offer hope for medicine delivery with fewer complications. This article is from 2017, but the way it looks not only at a breakthrough but also the various reactions to the research opens a window into that world for the curious.
https://www.nature.com/news/alien-dna-makes-proteins-in-living-cells-for-the-first-time-1.23040

Body Language (Public Speaking)

When I taught a class on body language, one of my exercises was to watch a video with the sound off, record your observations, then turn the sound on to determine if they match. Mostly ignoring politics, this article uses the same technique to explore the unspoken communication during both U.S. national conventions. The analysis is an interesting mix of observation and interpretation that can open your minds to conscious awareness of body language and how it influences your reactions.
https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/08/29/body-language-expert-conventions-rnc-dnc-404425?soc_src=social-sh

Box Set 1 The Steamship Chronicles
Posted in Animals, Art, Music, Crafts, etc., Culture, Economics, Health, Interesting Links, Language, Research | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment