Zen and the Art of the Adult Coloring Book

11201723_669770653154420_2144179061_nRemember “The Secret Garden?” No, not that stodgy old children’s tale. The adult coloring book!

I’m not talking about funnyman Colin Quinn’s latest literary effort, “The Coloring Book: A Comedian Solves Race Relations in America,” either. That’s a funny book, but not the kind of coloring book I’m talking about.

I’m talking about a grab-your-crayons-and-find-a-sunny-place-to-work kind of coloring book. Adult coloring books are topping bestseller lists around the globe. “The Secret Garden” recently topped the New York Times Bestseller list. French publisher Hachette has a collection called Art-Thérapie with 20 volumes including all kinds of drawings from butterflies and flowers to cupcakes, graffiti and psychedelic patterns. In the United Kingdom, illustrator Mel Simone Elliot’s “Colour Me Good” series lets you color-in pictures of celebrities like Ryan Gosling, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and Kate Moss. Spanish cartoonist Antonio Fraguas, or Forges, published Coloréitor, “a de-stress book.”

Grown-up coloring books are marketed as a way to escape the media bombardment of the digital world and rediscover the do-it-yourself joys of something simple and stress-free. According to psychologists, coloring activates both halves of the brain, stimulating creative skills as well as a sense of logic and reason. Coloring can bring a sense of relaxation that lowers activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotion and is affected by stress.

One of the most common symbols found in adult coloring books are mandalas, spiritual symbols from India that represent the universe. Mandalas have circular designs with concentric shapes and geometric symmetry, like the intricate patterns of a flower. One of the first psychologists to use coloring mandalas as a relaxation technique was Carl G. Jüng in the early 20th century.

abstract-coloring-page-by-thaneeyaThe first time I saw an adult using a coloring book was during an early episode of the reality show “The Osbournes” back in 2002. Here was Ozzy Osbourne, the Dark Prince of Rock-n-Roll, sitting at his kitchen table, surrounded by foul-mouthed chaos, calmly working a color-by-number landscape with a package of magic markers. He looked like an overgrown child, carefully selecting each color, and staying within the lines. Evidently the Ozzman was ahead of the curve when it comes to unwinding through art.

The Zen-like instructions for one of Amazon’s bestselling adult coloring books tells the story:

  1. Break out your crayons or colored pencils.
  2. Turn off your phone, tablet, computer, whatever.
  3. Stop thinking about your job, your credit score, your reputation with your co-workers, your goals, your waistline, your retirement savings, etc.
  4. Remind yourself that coloring is like dancing, or being alive. It doesn’t have a point; it is the point.
  5. Find your favorite page in the book. That is the beginning.
  6. Start coloring.
  7. If you notice at any point that you are having fun, forgetting your worries, daydreaming freely, feeling more creative, excitable, curious, delighted, relaxed or any combination thereof, breathe deeply and take a moment to enjoy it. Then, gently return your attention to coloring.
  8. When you are satisfied or don’t feel like it anymore, stop.

Adult coloring books are a way to recapture the innocence of youth. They also give artists a sense of control; everything’s got a specific shape and color, just follow the key and stay in the lines. Color-by-number and fill-in-the-blank style artwork offers a “shortcut” for artists of all skill levels. You can create your own artistic masterpiece without the talent and/or training of a fine artist!

ccd4f8667217a6ef737ed2bb0a25e777Pablo Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” This is why adult coloring books are so popular. They can cleanse the soul, or at least give your mind and spirit a rest, a chance to create something colorful, pretty, and uniquely your own.

Plus, it’s good to get your fingers working at something other than a keyboard, touch screen, or remote control.

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The Long-Awaited Undoing Of SeaWorld

6c12f7f2c2c4bad64a12c202e81c73bbI wanted to be a marine biologist as a kid.

My fascination with sea life began at age 7, when my parents took me to see “Jaws” (1975). The film left a deep mark/scar on me, and I became fascinated with creatures of the deep. I checked armloads of shark books out of the local library, and begged my parents to take me to see whatever “Jaws” rip-off was playing at the local movie theater.

One of those awful rip-offs was a stinker called “Orca” (1977), starring a regretful Richard Harris and a confused Bo Derek. Even at the tender age of 9, I recognized the movie was a far-fetched turd. Every book I’d read said orcas were smarter than sharks; they didn’t mistake humans for food. The name is a misnomer; a killer whale won’t attack a human.

Unless it’s held in captivity.

When I was 12, my parents took me to SeaWorld, during the height of Shamu fever. As much as I was fascinated by the dolphin and killer whale shows, there was something sad about seeing these majestic, intelligent creatures held in tanks and swimming pools. My trip to SeaWorld didn’t kill my dreams of studying marine biology, but it dampened them.

(What finally killed my marine biology dream was my inability to pass Biology 101 in college, though, in my defense, the class was only offered really, really early on Friday mornings.)

Childhood visits to SeaWorld also had a deep impact on Gabriela Cowperthwaite and the rest of the crew behind the 2013 documentary, “Blackfish.” The documentary looks at the detrimental impact of keeping killer whales in captivity, and follows the story of “Tillikum,” an orca responsible for three human deaths.

f7efc256bb244fbcd4b33348756f-is-seaworld-bad-for-orcas“Blackfish” was an arrow through the heart of SeaWorld. Attendance at the park dropped off after the release of the documentary. SeaWorld officials called “Blackfish,” “inaccurate and misleading,” but the public — and the park’s shareholders — felt otherwise. By August 2014, SeaWorld stock dropped 44%, and by December the company’s CEO resigned.

In November 2015, SeaWorld announced plans to phase out killer whale performances at its San Diego park, and in March of this year, SeaWorld announced it would end its orca breeding program and phase out orca performances at all of its parks.

Detractors believe SeaWorld still isn’t doing enough. Even if SeaWorld stops breeding orcas today, some whales currently in captivity may live another 30 to 50 years. SeaWorld says it has no plans to release its 29 orcas back into the wild or into semi-wild sea pens. Phasing out the orca program at SeaWorld may take a while.

The evolution of SeaWorld hopefully reflects an overall change in the way mankind treats animals. Many of us have nostalgic memories of visiting SeaWorld as kids (and cheering elephants at the circus). But antiquated and inhumane institutions like zoos, aquariums, and circuses have no place in 21st century society. Imprisoning and abusing animals for human amusement must end.

 

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College safe zones degrade higher learning

SafeZone_LogoColleges and universities were once hotbeds of creative ideas and free expression. Students used to question abuse, question authority. Today, students request “safe zones” so they can protest “offensive” Halloween costumes, and insensitive emails.

St. Louis University is one of several institutions of higher learning where designated safe spaces are a perceived necessity among minority and LGBT students. The SLU website reports:

“Homosexuality is an invisible diversity, both in its members and its supporters. The Safe Zone program helps to create a more accepting atmosphere on campus by providing visual statements of support and safe space. Many universities from Boston College, NYU, Georgetown, and Duke to Washington University, University of Illinois, and University of Missouri have already implemented similar programs.”

But safe zones threaten free speech. Missouri journalists were twice barred from covering college protests, according to USNews.com. Safe zones also create complex new job responsibilities for college employees. Professors worry about offending students in class with provocative texts or topics, while college administrators are being asked to step in and resolve conflicts among students instead of letting young adults fight their own battles.

I attended Rutgers University in the mid-80s, and there was nothing safe about it. (Except possibly the sex. It was the height of the AIDS scare, so people used protection.) There were many LGBT students on campus. Everybody knew where LGBT students hung out, and if you wanted to hang out with them, nobody judged you.

Safe Zone Image

For me, college was an unsafe zone. It was a place where I experimented, explored, and royally messed up. Hard partying landed me on academic probation after my first year, with a paltry 0.7 GPA.

That was when I learned to buckle down and take academics seriously. I learned the consequences of goofing off, and I took responsibility for my life choices. I still made time for tons of fun, but I learned to finish my schoolwork first.

And I did it well. By the time I graduated, I elevated my lowly 0.7 GPA to a respectable 3.0. It was hard work, but that’s the entire point. A good education should push you to your limits and beyond. If it’s easy, you’re probably doing it wrong. The most valuable lesson I learned in college was a simple one. Hard work pays off.

You can’t cut corners. If you do something, do it well. I learned how to be a major-league screw-up in college. But I also learned I could produce quality work if I set my heart and mind to it.

The college experience should be about taking risks, some smart and calculated, others blindingly stupid. Safe zones, language police, and other safety nets of the “bubble-wrap generation” take that risk away. We live in a “bully culture,” where everyone is a victim, even if they merely find themselves in “an uncomfortable situation.”

From Notre Dame University
From Notre Dame University

But uncomfortable situations are an essential part of life! How can young adults (or any living thing) develop and grow without occasionally stepping outside the comfort zone, if only to help define where exactly the comfort zone lies? Comfort zones change with time, age, and experience.

All colleges and universities are “safe zones” — places where young people can experiment, fail, succeed, and find out who they truly are without the emotional or financial responsibility of a home or family. There are still plenty of worthy causes for college students to protest in this country. This generation needs a better one than hurt feelings.

 

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Mythology offers insight into modern transgender issue

transgender-symbol-one-lgbt-symbols-icon-34278948The transgender issue is confusing, both politically and socially, but maybe we can find comfort and guidance in Greek mythology.

Tiresias was a blind prophet from Thebes. He had a lifespan of seven generations, so he appears in a lot of ancient Greek stories and plays, usually showing up at an inopportune moment to give the protagonist a dire prediction. But Tiresias wasn’t always blind or clairvoyant… and he wasn’t always a man.

According to legend, Tiresias once stumbled upon two snakes fornicating, and struck the creatures with a stick. This angered the goddess Hera, and she punished Tiresias by turning him into a woman. (Why was this considered a punishment? Were the Greek myths all written by men? And, more importantly, did Tiresias go by “Theresa” after his sex change?)

Tiresias lived as a woman for seven years, until she again came upon coupling snakes in the wilderness. This time she left the snakes alone (or trampled them to death, according to some versions of the story). Either way, the “curse” was lifted, and Tiresias changed back into a man.

Later on, Tiresias found himself called upon to settle a dispute between Hera and her husband Zeus. Hera argued that men got more pleasure out of sex, while Zeus believed women enjoyed it more. Tiresias, who lived as both sexes, was asked to cast the deciding vote.

“Of ten parts, a man enjoys one only,” Tiresias said, implying Zeus was correct. Hera was so angry, she struck Tiresias blind. Zeus felt bad for Tiresias, so he attempted to make up for his wife’s hostile overreaction by granting Tiresias the gift of clairvoyance and extending his lifespan sevenfold.

What can we learn from this Greek myth, and how does it apply to modern transgender issues? Well, it shows us that the debate over gender roles and gender identity is as old as storytelling itself. It also suggests the Greek myths were created by misogynistic men obsessed with the number seven.

But the main lesson is simply this: Be comfortable in your own skin… whatever skin you’re in.

Tiresias was a happy, successful man — a respected advisor to the leaders of Thebes — before Hera turned him into a woman. But Tiresias took the change in stride and made the most of it. As a woman, Tiresias became a priestess of Hera. She married and had children, including a daughter, Manto, who was allegedly an even more gifted fortune-teller than her father … er, mother.

Easy with the snakes, T!
Easy with the snakes, T!

Some versions of the myth claim Tiresias was a famous prostitute during his “lady years,” but, again, these stories were likely authored by geeky and vindictive men in togas who were spurned by women. Some things never change. History is not only written by the victors, but for many years it was written by men who resented and looked down on women.

Living life as both a man and a woman is a blessing, a curse, and a path to enlightenment for Tiresias. When the gods took his vision and gave him “second-sight,” Tiresias embraced his role as blind prophet. He appears frequently in Greek plays and literature, though his job is sometimes difficult. He once had to tell King Oedipus that Oedipus had inadvertently killed his own father and married his mother. Yuck, right? But don’t shoot the messenger! Soothsaying is a tough gig.

Whatever lemons life (or the gods) tossed at Tiresias, he turned into tasty lemonade — and then into a profitable chain of lemonade stands. Tiresias lived to his fullest personal potential, even when the person he was kept changing. He was a respected man, a fine woman, and a blind prophet rock star. Whoever he was, he was the best he could be.

That’s something we should all strive for, whether you’re a man, a woman, or something in between.

 

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Brian Williams saga shows false face of journalism

FEBRUARY 26, 2015    LAST UPDATED: THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 2015, 12:31 AM
Media Fall Guy Brian Williams
Media Fall Guy Brian Williams

I learned journalism basics at college in the late 80s.

1) Ask the five “W” questions. Who, what, when, where, and why. Sometimes “how.”

2) Report the facts. Stories have many sides, and the people involved all have a personal agenda. Cut the fluff from the facts and deliver the closest version of “the truth” as possible.

3) Get quotes from involved parties. Quotes may or may not be factual. Quotes are simply one person’s side of the story.

4) Don’t put yourself in the story. A true journalist is invisible, a fly on the wall.

That last rule has become increasingly blurred over the last 30 years, and the latest to forget is “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams.

I feel bad for Williams. For the last decade he delivered the news on NBC in admirable fashion. He read the words on the teleprompter and occasionally colored those words with appropriate emotional flavor. But when Brian Williams goes off-script, troubles begin.

Williams was recently suspended without pay for six months after it was revealed he lied about a war story during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Further digging showed Williams embellished stories on several occasions, including his coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

Like a geeky high school kid, Brian Williams lied so he could look cool. But in a world where privacy is a farce and fact checking is easy, it’s hard to get away with monkey business or tall tales.

You can’t completely blame Williams for gilding the lily. Coolness was one of the traits imbued upon him by his handlers at NBC, along with sharp suits and white teeth. They encouraged Williams to yuk it up with late night hosts, from Jimmy Fallon to David Letterman.

What’s Brian Williams supposed to talk about on Letterman? He’s got to be as interesting as Anderson Cooper and Matt Lauer! The NBC brass seemed to support Williams’ appearances. Perhaps Williams was being groomed to take over a late-night job himself one day.

But that seems unlikely now. Williams is being called a raconteur, a spinner of yarns, a teller of tales. Being a raconteur is great if you’re putting on a one-man theatre show (or if you’re a newspaper columnist), but if you’re being paid to be a truth-teller, there’s a problem.

At the time of this writing, there’s talk Williams might be fired from NBC. The New York Post claims to have found an important “morals clause” in Williams contract which reads:

“If artist commits any act or becomes involved in any situation, or occurrence, which brings artist into public disrepute, contempt, scandal or ridicule, or which justifiably shocks, insults or offends a significant portion of the community, or if publicity is given to any such conduct, company shall have the right to terminate.”

But the language used points out exactly why Williams shouldn’t be fired. He’s an “artist,” not a reporter or a “journalist.”

The immediacy and intimacy of social media has changed the boundaries of modern journalism. The public-at-large, equipped with trusty smartphones, is an army of “imbedded reporters” (see the rise of CNN’s iReports and the ever-expanding blogosphere) and “real journalists” have become news-readers, color commentators, and “television personalities.”

Journalists — from Katie Couric to Perez Hilton — are a new kind of modern celebrity. (So are rich housewives and duck hunters. What happened to our standards? Didn’t celebrities used to have to be good at something exceptional or impressive?)

The problem really isn’t Brian Williams’ attention-seeking fables, but a media machine and news-consuming public that demands our anchors be dashing adventure–seekers, physically beautiful, intelligent, funny, opinionated, witty, relentless investigators, and good on camera. It’s a lot to ask. Brian Williams did his best to stay afloat in the brackish waters where journalism and entertainment meet, but was sunk by one-to-many big fish stories.

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Digitize Salinger and Other Literary Pursuits

JD Salinger
The elusive J.D. Salinger

I was going through a “Why Didn’t I Read This in High School?” phase, and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was up next on my reading list.

I was eager to download a copy of Salinger’s classic novel onto my Kindle. I’m a firm backer of the digital publishing revolution, since ebooks let you:

  1. Change the size and style of the text.
  2. Look up word definitions and background info on the spot.
  3. Highlight, makes notes, and export chunks of text.

These features are incredibly helpful when I’m writing book reviews (bobsbookblog.com), and must be a major timesaver for students working on school essays. (Back in my day we had to write out notes and quotes by hand on index cards, whippersnappers!)

But The Catcher in the Rye isn’t available on Kindle. You can’t get it on your Nook or iPad either. J.D. Salinger never allowed any other editions of his novel other than the one published by Little, Brown and Company in 1951. The breakout success of The Catcher in the Rye spooked Salinger, and he retreated to his rural Vermont home after the book’s publication. Salinger produced three additional books, but didn’t publish again after 1961.

Salinger died in 2010, but his estate still closely guards the copyright on his work, and had never allowed any adaptions. Film directors from Elia Kazan to Steven Spielberg have been turned away, and the Salinger Estate still hasn’t sanctioned audiobooks or digital editions.

If you want to read The Catcher in the Rye (or Salinger’s other work) you have to order the same Little, Brown and Company mass market paperback (now in its 98th printing) that’s been kicking around classrooms since forever. It’s got the original 1951 orangey cover art by E. Michael Mitchell — an ink sketch of a carousel horse and the NYC skyline — on both the front and back. Besides the title and “a novel by J.D. Salinger,” there is no other cover text, no sales copy, no About the Author copy, no blurbs from other authors or academics, and no “New York Times bestselling author.” Nothing.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

The interior of the book is equally sparse. There is no forward or afterword. No advertisements for other books, no offers to join Little, Brown and Company’s Readers Club. There is no About the Author page here either. The Catcher in the Rye is 214 pages of Holden Caulfield’s inimitably cranky narrative, presented exactly how the author intended, and it’s been this way, unchanged, for nearly fifty years.

Salinger’s over-protectiveness guarantees his work is uniformly consumed. I experienced The Catcher in the Rye the same way, in the same font and format, as nearly everyone else who ever read the book. I dog-eared pages, underlined in pencil, and scribbled notes in the margins, the same way lit students have for decades. Salinger’s format constraints demand it.

According to a new documentary on J.D. Salinger, the late author left specific instructions for five books to be published between 2015 and 2020. I don’t know the Salinger Estate or Little, Brown and Company’s publishing plans, but launching new Salinger titles is an ideal time to bring all the author’s work into the digital realm. Contemporary literature should embrace contemporary formats, and ebooks are here to stay. Salinger’s work needs to be readily available, brought into the digital realm, and forever preserved in binary code.

Digitize Salinger! And Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, too!

Check out my review of The Catcher in the Rye here.

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Facing 2014 with resolution, resolve

New Year Fresh Start
New Year Fresh Start!

I‘m heading into the New Year with a new attitude, because, in all honesty, I need to get a grip on myself.

In many ways 2013 was the best year of my life. Unemployment was a godsend. I love being home, spending time with my wife and kids. Grocery shopping? Laundry? Picking the kids up from school, and helping with homework? Count me in!

My wife and I had time to return to animal rescue this year. We fostered a pregnant stray, and helped find excellent homes for her and all her puppies. Our current foster, a sweet Cairn terrier named Enzo, is still looking for his forever home.

I spent the year rebranding myself as an author. I promoted my books, built a few web sites, and dipped my toe in the blogging sea. I’m not earning enough (yet) to make it a full-time profession, but I’ve had a lot of fun trying.

A lot of fun … that was 2013. A little too much fun.

I let myself go in 2013. I ate like an animal, and packed on pounds. I fell off the no smoking wagon months ago, and can’t seem to find my way back on. I’m indulgent, gluttonous, living too high on the hog.

Mick Jagger once said, “It’s all right to let yourself go, as long as you can get yourself back.” But it’s more difficult to get back on track when you’re older, (Mick also noted, “What a drag it is getting old.”) It’s fun and scary living a decadent lifestyle, like riding a roller coaster. But it gets old and pathetic.

If the body is a temple, then mine is a battered old shack, a handyman’s special in need of TLC. I’ve had a lot of fun in this house — it was a 24/7 party palace in 2013! — but I’ve neglected the maintenance. I need to turn it around. I need to dig deep. I need to refurbish myself. I need to get control of myself and get healthy.

Most important, I need to set a good example for my children.

All success in life stems from self-control. When you’re out of control, your world spirals out of control, too. Control your inner self, and you control the world around you. As Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho writes in Aleph: “If you conquer yourself, then you conquer the world.”

It takes discipline, but as a wise man once said, “Discipline weighs ounces, regret weighs tons.” Unhealthy lifestyle choices lead to a world of regret.

But it’s never too late to change. As author C.S. Lewis noted, “You are never too old to set another goal, or dream a new dream.”

May all your dreams come true in 2014!

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