Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Winner/Victim: Potato/Potahto

The footnotes are the best part of this post.

I think my husband and kids should get "NaNoWriMo Survivor" badges.
(image courtesy of https://nanowrimo.org/

Much like getting married, having children, or even just being a grownup, the NaNoWriMo challenge is one of those things that seems like a really good idea at the time, but then when you've done it, you're... well, you're a grownup who's married with kids -- I think we can all agree that the idea of that is a lot more attractive than the reality. And yep, that's where I am now.

I did it. I won.*

I wrote a 50,058-word novel ("novella" if we must) in thirty days. In fact, I did it in twenty-seven days, because three of my writing sessions were replaced with "going to the pub". Those were good days.

My daily word count tally. Note the three "days worth living" out of the month.
Also, it took me till November 2nd to figure out the website, so that's why it looked like I wrote double on the 2nd.
Courtesy https://nanowrimo.org/stats

Every night, after the kids went to bed (or, as the month went on, as the kids were getting ready for bed), I sat down to bang out 1667 or more words. At the beginning of the month, I was keen. After the first week and a bit, I was incredulous. It was going too well. Writing a novel in a month is really easy!

And then.

And then the pub. The desktop. A pull in my shoulder from poor ergonomics in the desktop setup. The sniffles. I looked longingly at the couch and fluffy blanket from where people with sniffles should be writing, then put up my fuzzy hood on my camping/I have a cold hoodie, put on an extra pair of fuzzy socks, and typed on. Like an animal.

Last weekend, we had two outings on Friday and Saturday evenings, which meant I had to get my wordcount in during the day ("Don't even think about it," said Ziggy and the children), or try to do it when we got home, after possibly having a glass (or three) of wine.** So I did.

I had pretty much wrapped up the story part of the story on Thursday, or at least come to terms with the fact that I didn't have an "ending" for it per se, but thought that perhaps the journey could be the destination. I was possibly rationalizing.*** I still had ~2500 words to go, so I wrote long character sketches for each character.

That's not cheating. The idea is that, at the end of this challenge/exercise in the destruction of my soul, health, marriage and family, I'd have something you can work with. I'm not supposed to read through it for at least a month (not that I re-read it as I went - that was frowned upon, as was editing as you go), so I'll be interested to see how it actually went.

I don't have very high hopes. After all, it's the story of a woman following her scientist husband on a one-way trip to Mars and realizing that she hasn't lived her own life. This is not in any way any kind of reflection of my own life and experience.**** 

I am left with a permanent pain in my left shoulder and a giant document that I can edit, tear apart, re-order and maybe make into something good, or maybe not, starting January 1st.

For now, I'll take it as an exercise in writing and confidence (and a little bit of catharsis). I have no excuses for not writing now; after all, I just wrote a 50,000-word novel in less than a month.

And no, you may not read it. Don't even ask.

* "winning" this challenge just means completing it. I wrote 50K words, so I won. 
** it was definitely three.
*** I was totally rationalizing.
**** Don't worry: when the "Chris" character dies, it's quick and painless.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Where Have I Been?

It's been suspiciously quiet on the blog lately, which usually means that my life is too busy to even, or that I'm pregnant.

That one was for you, Mom! I'm kidding!

I'm busy, but not super overwhelmingly so.* I have a list of excuses, though, which I'm sure you want to hear.

No laptop

To misquote W. H. Auden, "Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead/Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’." Actually, that's a proper quote, but I'm misusing the sentiment behind it. My laptop has been with me a long time, and after a few false alarms, I can happily declare that it's just not going to make it this time. Well, hello, Black Friday! I'll be seeing you very soon!

In the meantime, I am chained to our computer desk (note: our refurbished desktop is even older than my refurbished laptop was) like some kind of respectable office worker. Shudder. Gone for now are the days of sitting at my own desk, on my couch with my lap desk, or at Starbucks, trying to look like a writer.

Here I sit.

New phone (who dis?)

In theory, this would improve my productivity, but one must remember to factor in the "over-40 effect" of trying to learn a slightly different interface as an elderly person. I went from a Samsung S7 to an S10 and I might as well have gotten one of those screens from Minority Report.

When I do this, it just doesn't work. Image credit


"The biggest thing separating people from their artistic ambitions is not a lack of talent. It's the lack of a deadline." ~ Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writing Month

I'm doing it. I'm twelve days in and I'm actually meeting my word count goals to write a novel.

It is not going to be a good novel. There will be no story arcs unless they put themselves in there without my noticing, and the characters are so far fairly unlikeable (though they do keep surprising me with the stuff they do -- they're all sort of terrible people, which I just couldn't see until they started surprising me by doing terrible things), and also, it's set in space, so there's that.

But, as God is my witness, there will be fifty thousand words by November 30th.

I have a cold

If I do not have 50K words by November 30th, it's because I have the sniffles and should be in bed, or at least on my couch, not propped up at this desk like an animal.

* My baseline is "overwhelmed", so...

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Fitness App Review: Home Workout by Leap Fitness Group

The Home Workout App Icon: a drawing of a shirtless man in a plank position
Screenshot of Home Workout - No Equipment App, courtesy of Google Play

With my increased client base, travelling husband, rabid, overscheduled children, overanxious dog, no appreciable time-management skills, poufy hair and fairly steady work schedule, I thought a bit of extra motivation would be a good idea to help turn my sitting-on-the-couch-after-dinner into well, sitting-on-the-couch-but-then-doing-15-minutes-of-exercise-too so I'd feel less guilty about the first part.

The Fitness App: 

I downloaded Home Workout - No Equipment from Leap Fitness Group onto my Android device, just to try it out. It's calisthenic-based (no equipment), FREE (with ads), and was very highly rated on Google Play.

I followed their Full Body 7x4 Challenge (seven days of workouts for four weeks), and here's what I think:


Simple to follow. 

The exercises are shown as little animated images, and if you really don't get it, you can tap on the image to see a write-up with more technique cues. As you're exercising, the app will suggest form notes and modifications to make it easier or harder.


Each routine takes between about 7 and 19 minutes, and are adjustable by extending or skipping the rest breaks with a simple tap.

Variety of exercises.

I thought I'd done every exercise under the sun; I was wrong. There are lots of (mostly pushup) variations, including several that I'd never even seen before.

Incorporates stretches.

I don't stretch enough, but this app made sure that I got at least 30 seconds (or more) of stretching in, every session. This is possibly more than I would normally do. Don't look at me.


My phone lights up at 8 pm every night, telling me to work out, just for a little while. So, I do. I haven't done seven days in a row yet (and wouldn't recommend it - the body needs rest), but it always makes me feel a bit bad about it, so that's something?


So. Many. Pushups.

So many. Decline, incline, hover, inverse, reverse, Hindu (have to question the nomenclature on that one), staggered, wide arm, diamond, spiderman... I love pushups, but this is ridiculous. For those that, for some reason, don't love pushups, there is nothing to look forward to in life. Just more pushups.

Not really "Full Body".

There are jumping jacks as a warmup every once in a while, but the "full body" in this workout refers specifically to the part of the body found from the hips on up. So, if I'm really being picky, it's not really full body at all, but since I am ramping up my speed and distance with my running group and adding in some hills on the bike, I'll look past that. This time. But it's not Full Body.

Kind of not "Full Upper Body" either.

It's very hard to train your back or biceps without equipment of some kind. I get it. There are attempts made for the rhomboids and scapulae, but mostly, it's triceps, chest, shoulders and abs with a hint of lower back and one glute move. The shoulders are definitely overworked.

Starts too easy/gets too hard.

When you start the program, you choose your level by being honest-ish about how many pushups you can do, then they lull you into complacency with the first week of workouts. I was all, "man, I'm so fit, this isn't even a challenge" then BAM! they got me. Now in the last week of workouts, the pushups make this half-grown woman cry. And remember? I Love Pushups.

Not enough stretching.

Hey, I'll take 30 seconds of stretching when I can get it, but even on the Big Stretch days, you might get two minutes of stretching, total, and often not on the right areas. Nobody likes stretching, but nobody likes pushups either, so they might as well make us suffer in a balanced way.

Drawings of a male character doing jumping jacks and various types of pushups in a sample workout
Screenshot of Home Workout - No Equipment App, courtesy of Google Play

The verdict:

Home Workout - No Equipment has been an interesting experiment for me. Would I recommend it?  Well, it's free, which counts for a lot in my books. It's gotten me doing bodyweight strength training most days of the week, and I'm actually feeling leaner and stronger because of it (no empirical measurements, I'm afraid) (although I did cut out wine on school nights, so that probably helps too...and explains why I'm less content to just sit on the couch). It's quick and the instructions are clear, and is definitely a step in the right direction for those that just don't have time to work out. (Every little bit helps!) However, the program I tried claimed to be a balanced, full-body workout, and it isn't. 

I'd say, give it a try yourself if you want to do a bit of strength training but don't want to spend a lot of time or money, but listen to your body -- especially your shoulders -- and take a rest day when you need it. It will still be there for you when you come back.

I'm going to try the Lower Body challenge next, and possibly test out another app - happy to take suggestions of a new one to review!

Do you use a workout app?  Which one?

Are you interested in becoming more active? 
You can read my article on Snacking on Exercise, and how Small Changes can lead to Big Results. Then, try this 5-minute workout or this 20-minute workout. (Consult your doctor first!) Don't forget to comment and leave me feedback!

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Why I Write on Medium

DammitKaren: Why I Write on Medium. It's more than reading and writing about reading and writing.

Reading and writing about reading and writing

An open laptop, mouse and ceramic mug sit on a wooden desk
Photo by Anna Auza on Unsplash

I've been writing on Medium since June 2018.

From the beginning, I've been trying to pull away from my standard "bloggy" style to craft more professional articles, ones that will boost my portfolio and stretch my skills, so that I'm ready for the call, when it comes, and more honestly, to build my confidence so that I feel able to pitch, submit and query and all of that terrible, soul-destroying work that is so integral to this whole "being a writer" schtick.

It's a safe space, without (much) rejection, with the added validation of (sometimes) clapping and (sporadic) curation. It also pays me--though I admit that some months, it's not enough to even cover the membership fee--which means I can add "professional" to my "writer".

Half by accident (as I do), I tend to write what I know: health and fitness, then more and more about grammar, writing and freelancing as I read and write and research for my own purposes. In this way, I feel that I've fully succumbed to Medium, which at times, feels very meta: writers writing about writing for writers. But, if I've put all this energy into researching these things for myself, then other writers might appreciate my help...at least enough that they clap for me.

At times I howl with frustration when I see how many claps a writer gets for putting out another piece on how much money they make through this site, and how publishing something every day is key and how to have your stories curated. Other days I read such articles feverishly, bookmarking and taking notes and trying to remember everything that it takes just to be a real writer.

Medium, at times, feels very meta: writers writing about writing for writers.

I find that, when I stop just reading about writing, there is every kind of article and viewpoint under the sun, all in one beautiful, accessible place.

The more I delve in and explore the site, the more I find. I find great writers, good writers and mediocre-at-best ones, which, respectively, inspire me and make me fear that perhaps I'm no good after all. I am motivated to "do the work" and to write more often, but pressured to do so as well; writing more for Medium means that my blog is neglected or my WIPs stagnate.

On Medium, I find writers that bill opinion pieces as fact and call fact reporting "opinion", and both of these are sometimes curated. I read articles by writers for whom English obviously isn't their first language and am offended that their work is curated if mine isn't, and awed at how well they can express themselves, errors and all, in a foreign tongue. I read more intolerant and misogynistic views than I expected, but I also read well-researched and thought-provoking pieces. I read ignorance and brilliance.

It's not perfect, of course. I'm reading humans, all of whom feel, like I do, that what they have to say is important.

That, I think, is the essence of Medium. It's not a group of like-minded people, but we all have the same goal: to be relevant; to be heard; to write. And we have the perfect medium to do it.

Monday, 2 September 2019

Tuscany for a Family of Five

Dammit Karen takes the family to Tuscany and it is SPECTACULAR (travel review).
Two girls in long dresses and a boy in shorts walk up an olive-tree-lined path
Under the Tuscan sunset: a magical evening (all photos author's own)
Our fortunate family of five recently had the opportunity to explore Tuscany for a week in August. We are very grateful to be able to access a set of subsidized chalets across Europe for our holidays (over the last two years here, we've discovered Austria and Croatia as well), and were excited to experience Italy, especially in "farmstay lodgings" on an estate winery, the Castello del Trebbio.

(note: if you're reading this on a mobile phone, turn it sideways - the formatting's gone wonky)

A good start

Within a few days of booking, we received an email from Alberto, the manager of the estate, with a comprehensive welcome package attached. He gave us recommendations for activities, dining and touring. He asked us to confirm the number of occupants (five) and ages (our kids are 6, 9 and 10), and offered to set up some activities and reservations for us. We responded fairly promptly, and then all we had to do was eagerly await our trip!

Getting there

Three children sit on a big rock overlooking a Tuscan hillside
What a view.
Chris wanted to drive (hey! it's only 19 hours in a car with three kids!), but when we crunched the numbers (food, gas and hotel), it was cheaper to fly and rent a car. Thank God for math. We flew into Florence via Zurich (with a 5-hour stopover)(see? cheaper). While waiting for the next flight, I spent a lot of time on a website called visitflorence.com, which had walking tour suggestions, driving-in-Florence information, parking queries...really everything we needed was there. I referred to it several times over the week, and highly recommend it.

We arrived in suffocating heat - it was 36 degrees when we landed, and 37 degrees the next day - which made sightseeing unbearable (without gelato, that is - something that was quickly remedied, and of course, became an almost-daily experience). After a few hot, sweaty hours of exploring old Florence, we took the tram back to the airport, picked up a bright blue Jeep Renegade (practical for a family of five, unless you're in the skinny streets of Florence!), and drove out of the city, up steep, hairpin-turning hills, to the Castello del Trebbio.

A woman stands in front of a family in bright coloured floaties in a pool
Green water? No problem.

The Castello del Trebbio

Set in the Chianti Rufina region, the beautiful 12th century castle has been witness to historical battles, family dramas and conspiracies. It is still an active winery and is inhabited, though the owner allows tours at set times. Several stone outbuildings have been converted into five apartments and two stand-alone villas.

Our apartment (Panicale B) slept the five of us nicely, with a large loft containing a queen bed and ensuite, a second, main-floor bedroom with two twin beds and an ensuite, and a pullout couch. And air conditioning, thank God! The kitchen was modern enough to feed us breakfast and lunch every day (grocery stores were a twisty 15-minute drive away), wi-fi was included, and there was a large TV with Netflix. As well, we found puzzles and games in various cabinets to occupy us in quiet times.

The view was breathtaking from every window and door: hills, valleys, vines and olive groves. We ate our meals outside on a covered porch with spectacular views, not least the entertaining little geckos that frolicked in the sun. Out the back door, the pool and deck again boasted stunning views. The pool was a good size, holding about eight people and their floaties. The water was bright green for the first three days of our stay, but by the fourth day, it was blue again. It didn't slow our kids down at all!

Exploring Castello del Trebbio

Three children stand in front of wine bottles in a cellar
Hufflings stand in front of their respective vintages
We took a long walk around the property, up and down the steep hills, through olive groves and along paths to the grapevines. We couldn't walk through the vines (the estate had electrified fences to stop wild boars from eating all the grapes), but it was still very cool. We even found wild boar tracks!

Alberto had made a reservation for us at the Castello's restaurant (La Sosta del Gusto) at the first seating, 7:30 pm. (This is very early to eat in Tuscany, we discovered repeatedly.) We sat on a large patio with fairy lights strung overhead as the sun set over the mountains around us. It was magical. The children were served first (from a basic children's menu of burgers, chicken nuggets and pasta), so became bored well before we finished our prima, then secondi, then dolce. They rallied when we told them to explore some more, and especially when we said they could (gasp!) go get their tablets while we finished our quite-probably-could-have-been-romantic meal.

A chef teaches kids to roll out pasta on a marble slab
Alberto also booked us on a castle tour, in which our charming-and-multilingual guide Constanza showed us around the beautiful building including the Conspiracy Room where the assassination of Lorenzo di Medici was planned, then took us down through the cellars and dungeons where their winemaking operations are in progress.

More activities

After the tour, one group stayed in the courtyard for wine tasting, while the rest of us went into the Castello's kitchen for a hands-on pasta-making class with a very large, gruff chef named Jerry. The kids were delighted by him. We all donned the provided aprons and learned how to make our own pasta (from scratch) and two simple sauces. Once everything was prepared to Jerry's satisfaction, Constanza led us into the Castello's ancient dining room for good conversation and a delicious dinner with wine pairings (the kids got sips, too!). We did their bottles justice, and took the recipes home with us.

Three children sit on a white horseConstanza was kind enough to call a local stable to set our children up with a horseback riding lesson. Sylvia from Tenuta dei Cavalieri gave each of our beginners exercises and drills that had them literally turning in circles while their horse walked around the ring. They're already pestering us to go back next year so they can go to their camp.

Other spot-on recommendations from Alberto:

Old stone statues line a path beside a stone wallDay trips:

Grotto of Santa Brigida - we couldn't find it on a map, but a local man kindly led us to the ruins of a church bombed in 1944. It's a quiet, magical place surrounded by stone and statues.
Collodi and Pisa - blog post here.
Florence - again, I recommend relying on visitflorence.com, but there's so much to see! We also did a Florence city trail from Questo.


Toscani da Sempre - the best meal we ate in Tuscany (and that's saying a lot!)
Pizzeria da Nappino - relaxed, family-friendly pizzeria (and wine, of course)
Ristorante al Trebbio - the perfect meal for our last night in Tuscany


We're tempted to make the trip again! Although we know our time in Europe is limited and want to explore as much as possible of this part of the planet before we move back to Canada, it was truly a perfect holiday. We brought home wine and olive oil (and lots of mosquito bites - pack bug spray!) and so many good memories. Our hosts (and, indeed, everyone we met) were so helpful and gracious, that we are considering another trip to Castello del Trebbio next summer.     ~Ciao!

A woman drinks a glass of wine under vines full of grapes
La dolce vita! Saluti!

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