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 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, 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, 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!

Friday, 23 August 2019

5 Exercises You Can Do Right Now to Feel Fit and Energized

5 Exercises in 5 Minutes
A woman in exercise gear planks on concrete
Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash

A five-minute routine to feel better

Nodding off at your desk? Feeling guilty and slothful as you lie on your couch to watch the telly? Feeling too overwhelmed or too busy to commit to a longer workout? Take five minutes right now to rev up your metabolism, wake up your body and mind and (maybe) justify sitting down for another hour or two.

Equipment needed:

A timer on your watch or phone. (This is my favourite timer app.) If you're fancy, you can grab a yoga mat and a 5-lb hand weight, but it's not necessary at all.

A screenshot of a timer app with work and rest intervals
Tabata Timer by Eugene Sharafan

How to do it:

Set a timer for five minutes in one-minute intervals (or just watch your watch).

Start with the first exercise and perform it correctly for as many good reps as you can do, then rest for the remainder of the minute. When the timer goes off, start the next exercise. (As you get stronger and fitter, you'll be able to do more (perfect) repetitions and get shorter rest intervals, which is great for progressive overload training.)

The five exercises:

1. Rainbows
Start from an upright, wide stance (feet twice as wide as your shoulders), knees and toes turned out about 45 degrees. Keeping your right leg straight, bend your left leg and lunge over to touch the ground on the outside of your left foot with both hands, sitting back into your heels. Pushing through your heel, come up to standing, drawing the biggest arc possible with your arms until they are stretched above your head. Continue the arc as you lunge down to the right (this time with your left leg straight) to touch the ground beside your right foot. (Dial it up: hold a 5-lb dumbbell)

2. Pushups
Make sure that your body is a straight line from your shoulders to your toes (or knees) - do this by pushing your hips forward and squeezing your glutes. Look about a foot in front of your hands (don't tuck in your chin). Your hands should be a little wider than your shoulders, so that at the bottom, you have a 90-degree bend in your elbows and your neck is straight. Dial it down: drop to your knees to finish the set, as needed. If you're struggling, but still up for of a challenge, keep your legs extended for the lowering phase of the movement, and only drop your knees down for the pushing UP part.

3. Burpees
Start standing, feet shoulder-width apart. Squat down (hips back) and place your hands flat on the ground, between your feet. Brace your core and jump your feet back to that you’re in a strong plank position. Jump your feet back in to the outside of your hands, keeping your hips low. Stand up and jump with your arms up. That’s one. Keep your head up, looking forward the whole time. (Option: walking burpees.)

4. Mountain Climbers
Start with a strong high plank, with your core tight and braced, and jog your knees in and out. Left in, right in - that counts as one rep.

5. Bicycles
Lie on your back, pushing your lower back into the mat, drawing in your bellybutton, and lift up your knees to a tabletop position (knees and hips bent 90 degrees, thighs perpendicular/shins parallel to the floor. Place your fingers at your temples. Twist through the torso, bringing your elbow to the opposite knee, extending the other leg out straight. Switch. Keep this movement controlled.

Video of moves here

And in five minutes, you're done!

Just five exercises for five minutes will have your heart pumping and your muscles activated again; you'll feel fitter and energized for whatever comes next.

Related Articles:
Does Snacking on Exercise Really Work?
KISS workout

Try it! How do you feel?

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Pisa, Italy (and the beauty of a Tuscan highway)

Dammit Karen appreciates the journey to Pisa, Italy as much as the destination.
The Baptistery and Campanile in Piazza del Duomo, Pisa, Italy.
The Piazza del Duomo and Leaning Tower of Pisa (Photo credits: Author)

The Road to Pisa, Italy

First, let me be clear: it is terrifying to drive in the Greater Florence Area. Let me be even more specific: by "drive" I mean, "be driven", and by "GFA", I'm talking about the area from Pisa to Collodi to Florence and up the hills into Sieci and Pontassieve. I'm referring specifically to the super-skinny, hairpin-turny, crazily steep-and-surrounded-on-both-sides-by-very-old-and-tall-stone-walls streets that Google Maps sent us down (and up).

Fis has a theory that Google Maps sends us down such tiny roads (even in London) because it's learned that those are the kind of roads we prefer, and each time we accept such a route, this learning is reinforced.

I have two theories. One is that -- and hear me out -- that's what kind of streets there are in very old cities. The other one is that Google can hear what Fis says about it, and is punishing him and by extension, me.

To sum up, when driving (being driven) through the gorgeous hills around Florence, do not rent a large vehicle that is big enough for a family of five and their luggage and thus not at all made to hug a curve. Do not be in a rush. Do not drive angry.

Oh well, too late now.

But we survived, and this post is not about that. It's about a highway.

A Tuscan highway

Our last day in Italy was a beautiful day for the 90-minute drive to Pisa, all blue-skied and sunny, and the A11 highway between Florence and Pisa is possibly the most interesting one I have ever seen. It's a toll road (5.90 saved us 40 minutes -- worth it), and seemed to be kept in impeccable repair. Once we were out of the cities and towns and well underway, I relaxed my Unblinking Navigator Stressball persona, and gazed out the window at the ever-changing variety of plants and forests drifting by. After a few kilometres, I noticed that the plants and trees, flowering and coniferous, were in orderly rows and groupings. This continued for kilometre after kilometre, and repeated most of the way to Pisa. Once in a while, a large sign indicated the name of these commercial nurseries and tree farms (interspersed with cornfields).

It was beautiful to see. What an ideal way to use the land beside a highway: property there would be less attractive to developers (who wants to live right behind the highway?), but I'd bet the land on the far side of the nursery is prized. The expanse of trees and bushes (and the distance) would mute the noise of the traffic, beautifully, and I'm pretty sure science would say that plants help to clean the air from the emissions as well. Their visibility from the highway would be advertisement enough - it's a win/win for everyone involved.

A child poses behind a wooden cutout of Pinocchio in Collodi, Italy
This was not the strangest thing we saw at Parco di Pinocchio. Not by far.

A quirky theme park

We stopped in Collodi for a few hours to take in the Pinocchio Park, a quirkily enchanting combination of a sculpture garden and adventure park, with a hilarious puppet show that I bet would have been even funnier if I understood more than "pescecane!" (shark!) and "oh nooooo!". The reviews had run hot and cold, but we're glad we went. It was, as most of the reviewers noted, no Disneyland, but it was full of magic and art. Then, with time a-ticking, we got back on the road to Pisa with an ambitious goal: to get to the famous leaning tower, see it, and be back in the car driving homeward within 45 minutes.

We drove 130 km/hr (the speed limit) all the way there, and I became The Navigator again to get us to the closest free carpark (as we had spent all our money on tolls). The shuttle was waiting, and drove us the five minutes for 4. We stepped out into the heat and the crowds and vendors, winding our way through a seeming maze of old city walls and stalls selling cheap reproductions of leather purses and miniature towers. We stepped through an arch, and ... there it was.

Three children pretend to push the Leaning Tower of Pisa upright
"Push harder, kids! It's still leaning!"

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Some iconic landmarks are disappointing in real life.

When I saw the Statue of Liberty, it was smaller than I expected. After all the hype in movies, it just felt, well, small. I wasn't too keen on seeing this tower, either, as it meant a long drive on the last day of our holiday, and how great could it really be? Was the "lean" even noticeable? I was surprised that Chris was so insistent on us going so far to see it, but... wow. 

The baptistery and the tower (and boy, does it lean) set against a backdrop of dazzling photoshop-blue sky took my breath away. I didn't expect to be so moved (as I was at Stonehenge, another awe-inspiring UNESCO World Heritage Site). It was something I've only seen in books and movies ever since I was little, and there it was. It was beautiful.

Maybe it made me appreciate again the distance we are from home, seeing something that I never really thought I'd see in real life. We gazed at it for a few minutes, took the required pushing-the-tower-back-up photos, then stopped for gelato (again!) before walking only nine minutes back to the car (instead of waiting for the next five-minute shuttle in 14 minutes). (And we saved 4, which was enough for a pretty good half-litre of wine with dinner.)

The drive back was pleasant (till we got off the highway and back onto properly terrifying Tuscan roads) and although I still had the beautiful, historical image fresh in my mind, I appreciated the highway design again.

Bella Italia, indeed.

(more travel notes to come, I promise)
A family leans away from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, creating the illusion that the tower itself is straight.
More Fun with Perspective!

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Life Lessons from parkrun

Dammit Karen: parkrun and Life Lessons. Discomfort is just part of life.
(They're not just running and crying; they're ALSO building character.) (Photo credit: author)

The things we do for love

When we moved to London, I wondered what I was going to do with myself, having left my full-time career behind to follow my husband.

"Maybe you'll become an avid runner," he suggested.

And we laughed and laughed and laughed.

Chris is the runner, has been one since his twenties. When we met, he was training for his second Boston marathon (his fifth-ever marathon) and hoping for a(nother) sub-three finish. So yes, he's a serious runner with a six-day-a-week habit. When we were dating, I "happened" to take up jogging a few times a week, in hope of "accidentally" crossing him on the path at lunchtime, and getting a kiss as my reward. (Speaking of the things we do for love.)

For me, the best part of a run is the shower afterwards. I found, though, since I worked out and taught classes and I married that runner, I didn't see any real reason to continue running. I found excuses to shower at other times.*

However, since moving here two years ago, I've fallen in with a group of runners. Women Running the World have changed my life and possibly/probably saved my life as well. I've written about them before; we run three times a week for set distances, routes and paces, and work up to an annual girls' weekend half marathon somewhere in Europe.

Although I still won't run without the motivation and companionship of a friend, my dog, or Chris -- I do not run alone -- I now define myself as a runner. One might say that I'm a reformed non-runner.

So, when I heard about parkrun (and junior parkrun), I was so excited to share this experience with my children.

parkrun* puts on weekly 5km timed runs around the world, for free. These events take place in "pleasant parkland surroundings" and they are open to everyone: people of every ability take part, from those starting to run to actual Olympians; juniors (aged 4-14) run 2km.

I immediately registered my children. They are like me in a lot of ways, in that many things come easy. But they tend to complain, whine, and quit when things get hard. They are soft.

This is normal, and not just for kids, of course. But because their lives have been so...easy...I felt that they needed to face a challenge. To be uncomfortable.

Character building for free

I was the only one who was excited! We had downloaded their barcodes, set our alarms on Saturday night for 7:30 am, and rode our bikes the mile to the park. It was going to be awesome.

parkrun was a disaster for two out of the three. Crying, gasping, clutching at their throats, it was 2 km of sheer hell, tantamount to child abuse. I suggested once or twice that if they put half the effort into breathing that they put into screaming "I CAN'T!", they'd do better. They were not amused. We all recovered with brownies from Starbucks.

This was not the lesson I wanted them to learn.

A few weeks later, we tried it again. This time, it was raining, and Chris stayed home in his bathrobe, sick. Vaughn tripped right at the start line and was screamily refusing to keep going. I could see Tamsin jogging in fits and starts ahead of us, struggling and crying, because I had told her I'd run with her; but I couldn't leave Vaughn, who needed me more (and hated me more) with every step. At Starbucks afterwards, Tamsin was limp from crying. Vaughn was just angry. Ailsa was strutting around bragging about being the first girl to finish, and the third kid in her age group. She wasn't reading the room. It was a full-on parenting fail.

I told the story to some of the WRW runners the next day, of course hoping for support and commiseration. They all said, "Maybe running isn't their thing. You could find something else that they like."  The consensus was that, even though Chris and I are runners, it's ok that our children are not.

And I fully, totally, 100% agree.

My point of forcing them to participate in the 2-kilometre, no-more-than-15-minute exercise wasn't -- and isn't -- to turn them into runners. They're kids. Of course they'll find sports and activities that they enjoy more. They don't have to play football or baseball like Chris, or softball and swimming (with a hint of late-onset cheerleading) like me. But they have to understand the difference between discomfort and pain. They need to realize that discomfort means that there's a challenge to overcome and that it's worthwhile to put your head down and work through it. These are important lessons that (hopefully) all of us will understand if we live long enough.

Discomfort is just part of life.

So, yep, if you go to parkrun on Sunday, I'm that mom with between one and three sobbing kids, shouting over-cheerful words of encouragement to keep going, to not stop, because if we keep doing these every few weeks or so, I know I won't have to.

* Showers taken after not running are, admittedly, not as fantastic as post-running ones, but I got past that by feeling joy in not running. 

** As an editor, I despise proper nouns that are intentionally not capitalized. Why can't parkrun just admit that Parkrun is so much better at the start of a sentence? e.e. cummings, don't make me come after you next. 

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