Categories
Life

Dealing with Epilepsy

On December 9 2019, I was officially diagnosed with Epilepsy. I suffered my first seizure November 9th, 2019, and had just undergone an EEG test. I was in no way prepared to walk down this road. Things are a little better now than 8 months ago, but it took a while to get to where I am now.

In total, I have experienced 7 seizures:

  • The first one in November
  • 2 in January
  • 1 in February
  • 2 in March
  • 1 in April

I almost don’t want to use the word “experienced”, because for all of these seizures I completely passed out and am only aware of them because I was told that I had a seizure – and then the muscle pain after each of them. It’s probably more accurate to say that my wife experienced them, and they just happened to me.

But I want to talk about my experience with epilepsy – everything that comes with it. I usually find that writing about things is the best way that I deal with them, and in this case I can probably also help someone else who might be new to it as well. Look at me, I say that like I’m “experienced” – I was only officially diagnosed eight months ago. This is new to me too!

Processing the Information

Another thing that helps me process things is to look at statistics. I’m actively trying to lose weight, so having stats at my back are especially great in that regard. So I want to describe my seizures in as much detail as I can, but I think I need to deal with how I have processed the information coming at me since November.

To do that, I’ve used a very helpful Android app called Epilepsy Journal. A short bit of info about it – it’s an app developed by parents who have a daughter, Olivia, who has severe epilepsy. You can read more about it by clicking through the “About Us” section of the app, should you download it. It’s a fantastic app – it lets you record your medications, your seizures, and you can generate reports that give you tons of information about your progress.

Here are my basic stats:

  • Current time seizure-free: 104 days, 11 hours
    • Last seizure: Apr 3 2020
  • Average time seizure-free (before now): 24 days, 10 hours
  • Longest time seizure-free (before now): 62 days, 16 hours
    • Nov 9 2019 to Jan 11 2020
  • Average seizure duration: 1 minute, 34 seconds
    • Max length: 3 minutes
    • Min length: 30 seconds

There is probably more information I could provide, but I feel this is the most relevant. To me it tells a fairly accurate story: I was feeling really great between November and January. Sure, I had just had my driver’s license suspended for medical reasons, but I knew I just needed to go at least 3 months without a seizure and I’d be on the way to starting the process to get it back and get behind the wheel.

But then on January 11th, another seizure. Two, actually, in the same night. My medication was increased by the emergency room doctors, and that’s what started at least one seizure a month. I was feeling my worst after the February seizure. What good was this medication doing, anyway? How come I was able to go two months without a seizure, and all of a sudden now I can barely go 30 days without one?

Not much has changed since February, except that I had an appointment with my neurologist (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d use: “my neurologist”) in March, and talking with her helped calm a lot of my feelings about the whole situation. I had another medication added to my arsenal, and even though I would go on to have another seizure after the appointment, I was expecting 1-2 more before getting to the full dose of the new medication. I can tell you for sure that it feels different to expect a seizure, than to hope you don’t have one.

The First Seizure

My first seizure came out of nowhere – a Saturday morning when I was cooking breakfast. A normal activity, nothing out of the ordinary for me. My wife was still in bed, and if I’m remembering right, so was our dog – just relaxing in bed while I puttered around downstairs.

The last thing I remember about that morning was laying down some bacon on the frying pan. Right now as I write this I don’t think I remember exactly how many slices I put in the pan – maybe it was three? Possibly four. The only thing that comes to mind is that they were wide slices.

But after that? I remember waking up in a stretcher, in the back of an ambulance. I remember being very confused as the paramedics helped me wake up. I vaguely remember the ride to the hospital – I think it was bumpy but it’s a little blurry.

What I remember is the bed in the emergency room and my wife beside me. There were also various needles in my left arm – an IV I suppose and also something to draw some blood for testing. I was taken for a CT scan – another first – and had a lot of information thrown at me. I was told my driver’s license would be suspended automatically because of the seizure. I haven’t driven since November 2019 – about 8 months now.

The pain I experienced after was probably the worst part of it all. I’m told I hit my back on a baseboard heater when I fell, which led to some of the worst back pain I remember feeling. I could barely stand up straight and it hurt to get in and out of the car. Luckily it didn’t last long, but I remember it well.

But that’s the most that I remember of the first seizure. I don’t know if that’s common for people who suffer seizures, but for me this has been the norm. I pass out, have the seizure, and then slowly come out of it, usually confused. The only differences is which part of me hurts (and lately, it’s been my left arm, which has been severely weakened since January) and once when I threw up. Fun times.

The Medication

To put it mildly, medication has been an issue for me. From the start, after the first neurology appointment, I was given the option to start on medication (this was before my EEG). I was told that not everyone decides to take medication for seizures unless directed to, mainly because of various negative side effects.

Given this information I decided not to go with a medication plan; but after my EEG in December, it was determined that I should start medication immediately. So started my first experience with antiepileptic drugs.

I was first introduced to Levetiracetam, which is the generic name for what’s most widely known as Keppra (often, I refer to what I’m taking as Keppra as a short-hand that I can pronounce). It has some seriously scary side effects. Here are some of the most common:

  • Feeling aggressive or angry (colloquially known as “Keppra Rage”)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Change in personality
  • Drowsiness

There’s actually a much longer list of “most common” side effects over at Drugs.com, but it was a bit disconcerting to hear described to you over the phone shortly after a first-time-ever EEG appointment.

If I’m being honest, I think I did feel the mood changing effects (which I was told only last for “the first few weeks”). I remember lashing out when I normally wouldn’t, or being more short with co-workers. Those feelings wouldn’t last long, and I’d sheepishly apologize after, but I can say for sure it was noticeable.

And that was just on a low dose. I’ve since been bumped up to 2000mg a day, which from what I understand is the max dosage. But it’s not stopping there – the name of the game for treating epilepsy is to find the right combination of drugs and see what works. Considering that a lot of these drugs are also used to treat people who are bi-polar, I can sort of understand why it’s a mix-and-match game.

I’m now on a second medication – Lamotragine – which apparently is meant to target ‘focal’ areas of the brain vs. generalized areas that Levetiracetam targets. The side effects of Lamotragine are a lot less severe, but they’re still present.

Another factor to this is that my neurologist doesn’t know exactly what she’s treating. She is trying to figure out what caused my epilepsy, but it’s still unclear. Perhaps in the future, she can figure it out, and have a better treatment plan for me.

Mental Health

This topic took me a long time to write. The biggest difficulty is because I don’t know how to write about it, exactly. I’ve definitely had some personal experience with different aspects of mental health, but I’m sure nowhere to the degree of people who deal with it every day. That’s the hard part for me. Who am I to talk about my experience with mental health?

Most of it relates to my main medication, Levetiracetam. I don’t have too many bad days anymore compared to the “early days” (which is only 7-8 months ago now). But apart from mood changes, there were times when I was just experiencing “too much”.

To explain it a little better…it could be something like having my fill of people, or maybe even just being in an environment that was too loud or busy. Usually the fix was as simple as moving to a quiet place or going home.

But there’s another side too, that relates to what I already wrote about – the anxiety of not knowing when another seizure will come. There was anxiety whenever I was getting close to the 30-day mark – at one point, that usually meant a seizure was coming, and I wasn’t sure whether I’d have a seizure or keep going without one. I could feel just a little bit of extra stress around the days leading up to that special number.

And then there was also frustration. I remember feeling frustrated that I had to start from zero again. I remember feeling frustrated that I’m already doing everything I can to prevent a seizure, and yet they still happen.

Others may be feeling it worse than I do, or struggle with mental health more than I do, but it’s real enough for me. I am just lucky and thankful that it doesn’t impact my life as badly as it could.

Wrapping Up

As I finish writing about my experience, I am now over 100 days seizure-free. This is a huge accomplishment for me, and I’m looking further ahead to October, when I might be able to drive again.

I’m in a good place right now. I’m sleeping well and getting better every week. I’m hopeful instead of fearful. In short I feel like I have some measure of control. Believe me, it’s taken a long time to get to this point.

I also know that I could have another seizure and just as easily restart my progress. That’s sitting there in the back of my head, and it’s something I have to live with. But I am choosing not to let that dictate how I live and interact with everyone else in my life.

In writing this account of my experience with epilepsy, I’m hopeful of two things. First, that it informs people who know me understand what I’m going through and how it’s affecting me. And second, that maybe it will help someone with similar struggles and know that they’re not the only one going through it.

I for one have got a lot simply from reading other people’s experiences in places like Reddit or other articles. If this doesn’t help, there are many other resources that can. Even recently I learned about a new term (Breakthrough Seizures) that helped me relate to what I’ve already experienced.

I’m still learning as I go.

Categories
Podcasts

Podcast Rec: Almost Educational

I will fully admit that this suggestion is self-serving, because I was a guest co-host on the episode I’m recommending.

Normally, Almost Educational consists of two educators (both teachers in the US) who discuss various topics – thought experiments, alternate realities, “drafts” where they go back and forth picking personalities for different things – that they aren’t able to discuss in the classroom.

It’s a lot of fun and worth listening to. Patrick (who I’d call the “main” host) also has a lot of guest hosts on when Dennis isn’t available. I’m one of those guests! This was my first time as a guest on his show, and I hope it’s not the last.

We talked about Baseball, hence the title of the episode: “Canadian Baseball“. The episode spurred from an off-the-cuff Twitter dialog between the two of us talking about which MLB teams we would contract. It was a lot of fun and the only thing I’ll reveal is that we both revived the Montreal Expos.

Enjoy!

Categories
Podcasts

Podcast Rec: Transporter Room 3

Many people are discovering podcasts for the first time, so that’s why I’ve started sharing individual podcast episodes that I’ve found particularly enjoyable. If you want to dive deeper, check out my “podcasts” category to find more posts.

Before I get to my next recommendation, I want to share some thoughts about podcast episode backlogs (which I’m experiencing a lot right now). I recently listened to an episode of Reading Glasses that talked about not forging ahead with a book you don’t like simply because you feel like you need to finish a book once you’ve started it. The truth is, you don’t. You can put it down.

The same is true for podcast episodes. I often clear out episodes I know I’m not interested in, but yesterday I stopped listening to an episode midway through because I wasn’t interested in it. If you have a problem with too many episodes to listen to, keep this “tip” in your toolbox.

Transporter Room 3

Transporter Room 3 is a Star Trek podcast that I’ve listened to since its inception (circa 2011). The hosts don’t take Trek too seriously, and like to poke fun at it (and themselves). It’s entertaining and their episodes aren’t too long.

I am recommending their latest episode, 188: “This DS9 Episode Is Not A FAAAAAKE!!!”. They talk about the classic Deep Space Nine Episode “In the Pale Moonlight” with special guest Justin Bolger.

I’m highlighting this one not only because they have an entertaining and thorough discussion about the episode, but they also have some insightful talk about Star Trek: Picard. This discussion was prompted by a well-written fan email leveling a complaint against the show (and “new Trek” in general).

Overall a great episode, and you can also dive into their back catalog for some fun listening. They don’t cover anything in order (except for Discovery, and Picard) so you can jump around and listen as you please.

Categories
Podcasts

Podcast Episodes to Keep You Occupied

Most people are likely going stir-crazy while not being able to do what they normally like to. And you know what? That’s okay. After you get past watching TV for the thousandth hour, you’ll start doing some different things around the house.

And maybe that different thing is listening to Podcasts. I’ve been listening to Podcasts for well over a decade now, so I have my favourites (and occasionally new favourites pop into my subscription list). I thought I would write a few posts to share some specific episodes that I’ve listened to lately that I enjoyed. Most podcast players allow you to listen to specific episodes without having to subscribe to them, so don’t feel obligated to do so – although you may not be disappointed if you do.

The Crazy One Podcast

I’m 99% sure I’ve written about The Crazy One Podcast in the past, but in case you’re not familiar with it, it’s a podcast hosted by Stephen Gates. Gates is basically a creative person who talks a lot about creativity in various forms – I was introduced to him in the context of his thoughts around leadership. You can read more about him here: http://stephengates.com/

The episode I found particularly enlightening was number 94: The Lost Art of Boredom. This one came at just the right time – now is a time when a lot of people are bored, right? But the gist of it is that with all the tech and distractions surrounding us, we’re not bored anymore.

Gates suggests that “boredom feeds creativity” and I don’t disagree with him. Often when we find ourselves ‘bored’, we need to be creative with what we do to fill the time. Often, too, that’s when ideas come to us (when our minds aren’t occupied by something else).

I don’t want to give away the entire episode, but Gates also implores listeners to “impose boredom back into your schedule.” Take some time to shut out the distractions that keep us from being bored. You might be surprised to find out how creative you might become.

Categories
Goals

The Weight

Not the iconic song by The Band. The stuff that’s hanging around on my body and doesn’t want to come off, regardless of my efforts to rid myself of the extra fat.

I can’t say that I’ve tried everything, because I’m sure there are still some things I could be doing (exercising beyond nightly walks, perhaps?). But what I’m currently working on essentially boils down to Calories In/Calories Out (CICO), the foundation to the science of weight loss.1For the unfamiliar, burn more calories than you consume and you lose weight.

Granted, there are days that I go well over my calorie “goal”2it would be better for me to call it a limit, than a goal and this clearly explains why I’m not losing weight at the pace I would like to be. But the days and weeks that I am following a strict regime, I struggle to see results.

Or am I? When I think about it, my starting weight was 2763Right now I can’t place the starting weight date, but it was a while ago., and I’m sitting at 255.1. So I have indeed lost 21 pounds. I can’t lose sight of that.

The last couple of days, I’ve been re-adjusting my calorie limits and figuring out what’s not working for me. I realized that I was eating back exercise calories when I shouldn’t be. I fixed my calorie limit to not include light activity, so now exercise calories are truly extra instead of trying to figure out, “are these calories really extra for me to use, or are they part of my calorie limit?” It can be confusing sometimes.

As I type through this4This blog post is as much informative for other people as it is helpful for me to process things, I realize that’s the key: keep things straightforward, and try not to sow confusion around things. Also, find what works and stick with it.

Thanks for reading.

Categories
Podcasts

The Slow Reader Episode 14: Catching Up

I finally recorded a new podcast episode for The Slow Reader! It was becoming a chore and Not At All Fun to read, and I got to the point where I almost stopped the podcast. But I didn’t want to do that. Instead I changed up the format a bit.

I’m not the happiest with this episode, but I’m satisfied enough with it. The only thing I wish I had done better was editing in the music. I honestly did not spend that much time on it, and it shows.

Here’s the episode, plus show notes below.

Catching up on several books that I’ve read in the last two months, in addition to covering off what I’m reading now and what I’ll be reading in the future. Stay safe, stay healthy!

Music: Rebels With a Cause by Renae

For more Creative Commons Tracks, visit https://www.alternativeairwaves.com or https://www.jamendo.com.

Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/stephen_g

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/2474979-stephen-gower

Blog: https://www.noformatblog.ca

Support The Slow Reader by donating to their Tip Jar: https://tips.pinecast.com/jar/slow-reader

Find out more at https://slow-reader.pinecast.co

Categories
Media

It’s 2020! What have I been reading? What have I been watching? What have I been listening to? What have I been

Ohhhhkay. I fully recognize that I have neglected writing much of substance (not counting the last bunch of reviews that I shared for The Slow Reader) in a little while. Sure, I could blame the busy holiday season (and I do); but that’s the easy way. The truth of the matter is that aside from various medical complications, I have actually been consuming a lot of media rather than creating new media (again, aside from my podcast).

Simply put, I hadn’t really felt the writing bug exactly. But lately I’ve been consuming a lot of creative-inspiring media that are giving me that nudge in the “write” direction again, so I thought I might pump out a mass post that covers some of the stuff I’ve watched or listened to or read or what-have-you in the last little while. This is not in any particular order, but I will try to indicate the media type next to each text block. Oh and that’s another thing – I’m limiting myself to a paragraph per topic; otherwise I will just keep going. Do you see what I’ve done so far without even providing a review of anything?

As always with my reviews, expect there to be some kind of spoilers involved. I’ll do my best to keep major surprises hidden, but sometimes I need to be specific.

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (Movie)

Amazingly, Vanessa won tickets to a private screening on opening day to see the final entry in the Skywalker saga. By far, this is the earliest I’d ever seen a Star Wars movie; I usually wait until a few weeks and resort to dodging spoilers left and right while I let the crowds die down. In short, I enjoyed the movie. I have still only seen it once, and while I had several issues with the film, I thought it did a good job. The downside: it felt like a direct sequel to The Force Awakens, and tried very hard to play down the events of The Last Jedi. The brightside: it was a visually fantastic film. I had other points about this to make (good and bad), but I’ve run out of room. If you were on the fence and waiting on my opinion (shocker), go see this film.

The Mandalorian (TV Show)

I think most people have already watched all of The Mandalorian, but so far we have only watched the first two episodes. The main reason for us was because I was selfishly holding out for a new 4KTV, not wanting to watch a cool new Star Wars series on a 32″ 720p TV. We got our new TV, and I subsequently subscribed to Disney Plus. I really like this show – it’s the right mix of Sci-Fi and Western, and is the visualization of what a good Star Wars novel can do. It’s definitely raising some interesting questions about the Star Wars universe (such as why are Jawas on a planet other than Tatooine?), and it looks fantastic.

Star Trek Picard (TV Show)

I’m going to have to do a deeper dive on this at a later time, but for right now let’s just say that it does a lot of things right. One episode in (well…at the time of writing this), I’m really glad that it’s not just a glorified reunion show. It could very easily rely on nostalgia – and to some extent, it does – but it’s giving us a new story. It definitely feels like it’s relevant to today’s world too. I’ve heard rumblings of some people who don’t like it, because of some action sequences, or say that it’s not Star Trek. Well too bad. This is Star Trek in 2020. I find that what Star Trek is changes with the times. We wouldn’t have gotten this in the 90’s because that’s not what TV was in the 90’s.

The Big Bang Theory (Seasons 1-3) (TV Show)

I’m still not through season 3 yet, but after spending years avoiding the show I decided to finally watch it. The first season and first half of season 2 were pretty bad – the only good parts were the clever comedy that wasn’t at all related to nerd culture. In fact that’s the part I liked the least – all of the “nerd culture” jokes. I’ll have to research this a bit, but it seems that the series had a bit of a turning point in season 2 and the characters had some subtle changes introduced. They started to grow a little beyond their “haha laugh at us beecause we’re nerds” stereotype. I’ve seen some later-season episodes and think they’re much better than this early stuff, and I can at least see some of those seeds planted in late season 2 / early season 3. Ultimately I find it interesting to see how slowly they do character development in a half-hour sitcom.

The Informal Biography of Scrooge McDuck (Book)

I picked up this weird little zine (published I believe in 1974) from my Uncle’s book collection after he passed away in 2017. It just seemed like a quirky little thing that would be fun to read. So far, it’s either ironically hilarious or incredibly dry – never both. I’ll probably be reviewing it for The Slow Reader this year.

Writing Excuses (Podcast)

This is the podcast that has had me mainly growing my itch to write more. This season, the Writing Excuses crew are answering listener questions and one of them was an episode about self publishing. This is the episode in particular that made me want to get some writing done. I still don’t think I’m cut out to write fiction anymore, but writing in general is something I like to do quite a bit. I think I dropped the ball in 2019 so I’m going to pick it back up in 2020.

Descript (Software)

Descript is a recording software program that I started using late last year. The long and short of it is that the program automatically transcribes the audio that you either record or import. It starts you off with I think 3 hours free transcription services, after which you need to pay a nominal fee every year (I couldn’t tell you what that fee is right now without looking it up). But it’s not just about transcribing – it also lets you edit your audio by highlighting and deleting text! This part of it is specifically really amazing and saves a lot of time in the editing process. I really like it so far and am strongly considering paying for the product. They released a video to announce their project and it gives you a good idea of how it works.

Well, that’s all that I wanted to write about this time around. I’m not sure what’s up next; I’m trying not to force my writing, which means that I’m putting off writing my review of Master and Apprentice. I’m not feeling it right now, so I think I’d come out of the process with an inferior product. I’m also trying a new set up for my writing process, so that may lead to some different things too.

Categories
Books Podcasts

The MVP Machine (Review for The Slow Reader)

Yesterday I finally released the review I wrote / recorded for The MVP Machine (by Ben Lindburgh and Travis Sawchik). The audio and un-revised transcripts are below! I also decided to paste the show notes because I made a few revisions on the fly while recording, and didn’t include podcast list or music notes in the written version.

My review of The MVP Machine, a book that covers the latest evolution of player development in Major League Baseball; the book is written by Travis Sawchik and Ben Lindburgh.

Podcasts mentioned in the episode: * Pr0ductive Outs

Music used in this episode: * “Baseball” by Guglielmo Brunelli – Jamendo

Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/stephen_g

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/2474979-stephen-gower

Welcome to the Slow Reader – a podcast about books. I’m Steve and in today’s episode I am reviewing The MVP Machine by Ben Lindbergh & Travis Sawchik. 

About the book  

Publish date: June 4, 2019  

Back of the book summary:  

Move over, Moneyball — a cutting-edge look at major league baseball’s next revolution: the high-tech quest to build better players. 
 
As bestselling authors Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik reveal in The MVP Machine, the Moneyball era is over. Fifteen years after Michael Lewis brought the Oakland Athletics’ groundbreaking team-building strategies to light, every front office takes a data-driven approach to evaluating players, and the league’s smarter teams no longer have a huge advantage in valuing past performance. 
 
Lindbergh and Sawchik’s behind-the-scenes reporting reveals: 
 
How the 2017 Astros and 2018 Red Sox used cutting-edge technology to win the World Series 
How undersized afterthoughts José Altuve and Mookie Betts became big sluggers and MVPs 
How polarizing pitcher Trevor Bauer made himself a Cy Young contender 
How new analytical tools have overturned traditional pitching and hitting techniques 
How a wave of young talent is making MLB both better than ever and arguably worse to watch 
Instead of out-drafting, out-signing, and out-trading their rivals, baseball’s best minds have turned to out-developing opponents, gaining greater edges than ever by perfecting prospects and eking extra runs out of older athletes who were once written off. Lindbergh and Sawchik take us inside the transformation of former fringe hitters into home-run kings, show how washed-up pitchers have emerged as aces, and document how coaching and scouting are being turned upside down. The MVP Machine charts the future of a sport and offers a lesson that goes beyond baseball: Success stems not from focusing on finished products, but from making the most of untapped potential. 

So I hope you’ve at least gathered from the book summary that this is a book about Baseball. The last books about Baseball that I’ve read – that I can remember off the top of my head – include The Only Rule is It Has To Work (also co-authored by Ben Lindbergh), Moneyball, and books by Jonah Keri: The Extra 2% (a book covering the Tampa Bay Rays) and Up, Up, and Away!, a book about the Montreal Expos. There may be more that I’m leaving off the list, but I feel these are the most relevant anyway. 

Moneyball is probably the one book that is mentioned the most throughout MVP Machine. With good reason, I think – because “moneyball” is also the term most quoted for what the Oakland A’s popularized in the early 2000’s when they couldn’t compete with the payrolls of teams like the Yankees or the Red Sox. But the advantage moneyball provided – which was, in essence, about finding undervalued players and getting the most out of them – is no longer there because most teams have latched onto the analytics revolution.  

The Extra 2%, on the other hand, was about how teams could squeeze extra value out of what they had to work with – and not just about finding undervalued talent – as well as properly managing your assets. The negative connotation around The Extra 2% is that the Rays are known for being notoriously cheap and stretching dollars in the guise of being “revolutionary”. If you combine the content of Moneyball and The Extra 2% though, that’s kind of what you get with The MVP Machine.  

Before I go any further, however… 

My Reading Timeline 
 

I began reading this October 28 2019, and finished reading it December 17, 2019. In total, this meant it took me just over 1 and a half months (50 days) to read the book. I should point out that I had a break between November 17th and December 14th when my library loan ended, and I also had to stop to read a new book (Warlight, which I covered back in December). 

Unfortunately, I can’t provide any detailed statistics because my reading took place between a physical book and an eBook, so with different formats it’s tough to figure out what my stats were.  

My Review 

Since this is a non-fiction book, and I’m writing this review almost a month removed from actually finishing it, I thought I would just go with a more straight-forward review. I didn’t really have any questions leading into reading the book; I knew more or less what it was about and I was very interested in the content. I’m not a huge baseball watcher – I mean, I like baseball, I just don’t devote a lot of time to it as some people do. I also don’t read a lot of articles about baseball, though I try to keep up to date with a handful of baseball podcasts (my list at the end of this episode).  

With that said, I was peripherally aware of some of the “real life” content of this book. What I mean by that is I did read some articles here and there talking about players changing their swings, trying different things. For example, I remember reading about J.D. Martinez of the Boston Red Sox talking about how he started to swing up at the ball a few years back; in general, that’s what I’m hearing – a lot of players are trying to put the ball in the air these days more than anything else, which is partly what’s leading to an increase in Home Runs. 

What I’m getting at here is that I have not been unaware of the idea presented in this book: that professional baseball players are actively trying to improve upon their talent. What was new to me was the history of all of this, dating back to names like Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers; or the extent to which some teams and some individual players (like Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer) are going to go about these improvements. 

One thing I particularly enjoyed about this book was that it wasn’t just a bunch of charts and numbers thrown in my face. There was some narrative involved, and authors Lindbergh and Sawchik did a fairly good job of preventing the material from coming across as boring. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed the passages where the authors would describe a specific at-bat, one pitch at a time. In theory, that sounds like something that could be really boring: first pitch – swinging strike, fastball. Second pitch – Ball, outside. And so on. But they were able to put me in the time and place of the game they were describing. Maybe this is just something that I found interesting and others didn’t, but it definitely worked for me. 

What this also did for me was get me excited about baseball again. For a little bit, other than following the local indy ball team the Ottawa Champions, I haven’t really been following baseball all that closely. I still don’t know what players are on what team right now, as there’s been a lot of movement in this year’s off-season; but reading The MVP Machine has me excited to watch some regular season ball (although I suppose it helps that we just got a big 4K TV over the Christmas holidays). 

So, to sum up, I had a great time reading The MVP Machine. I learned a lot of different things that weren’t just related to baseball – I’ll expand on that in a little bit – and the information was not presented in a dry manner in any way. I felt that part in particular was very important, as presenting statistics can be potentially very boring.  

So What Did I Learn? 

Obviously, I learned about how many baseball teams – and specifically individual players such as Trevor Bauer – are embracing growth mindsets and trying to improve their talent rather than just “finding good players”. The main thing that I got out of it is that baseball teams all are using advanced analytics to find great players for less money; because of that, the advantage that teams like the Oakland Athletics enjoyed for a few years is gone. The new advantage is in player development when teams realized that their players were capable of so much more.  

But I also learned that a lot of what baseball teams and management are doing is incredibly similar to things that I learned last year participating in a new people leader course. I already mentioned “growth mindset” – that’s a huge term bandied about lately. I’m struggling a little to remember everything I read and wanted to mention, but suffice it to say that you could give this book to anyone aspiring to improve themselves in their career – any career – and they would get some good information out of it. You could really take out the specific statistical mentions related to baseball and you’d still get a great book. 

I should also mention that while I was reading this book, details of the Houston Astros cheating scandal were starting to trickle out (and as I type this review, the rulings from Major League Baseball have since been handed out). Interestingly, I read the chapters about Houston before a lot of the information came out. The picture I got of the Houston management was not pretty and I decided fairly quickly that this is not a front office I would want to work for if I had my pick of teams.  

I can’t say that there’s a team that was presented in the book that I would put at the top of my list, but it’s good to know that I can recognize the kind of work environment that I absolutely want to avoid. Just because it’s something semi-glamourous like working in sports doesn’t make it a fantastic place. 

Wrapping Up 

I think this is a great book that helps to cover off some of what is going on in the world of Baseball in terms of player development and a bit of insight into how players move throughout organizations. It also touches on some of the history of the game (which was really neat – it was especially fun to learn that Branch Rickey was famous for more than just employing Jackie Robinson). If you also get a chance to see some of the behind-the-scenes material, which includes a short commentary audio track where the authors talk about the book, I recommend doing that as well. 

Pop Culture 

I am slowly making my way through The Mandalorian. We were waiting until we got a new big-screen TV to get the most out of the show, which we did around Christmas. It’s a great show so far, and we’re only two episodes into it. Other than that, I’ve been taking a bit of a break from consuming content. I’m starting to get myself back into things so in future episodes I’m sure I’ll have something new to talk about. 

Thanks for listening to The Slow Reader – next episode I will review the Star Wars novel Master and Apprentice. Spoiler alert: I liked it. It’s probably going to be another short one though, because I finished reading it after Christmas but before New Year’s. I’ll share some thoughts about The Rise of Skywalker in that episode too. See you next time! 

Categories
Books Podcasts

Warlight (Review for The Slow Reader)

I posted the review for Warlight last week on my feed for The Slow Reader (https://slow-reader.pinecast.co). Here’s the text! Please excuse any minor typos – I didn’t really write it to be read, but to be heard.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje  

Welcome to the Slow Reader – a podcast about books. I’m Steve and in today’s episode I am reviewing Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. 

About the book  

Publish date: May 8, 2018  

Back of the book summary:  

In a narrative as mysterious as memory itself – at once both shadowed and luminous – Warlight is a vivid, thrilling novel of violence and love, intrigue and desire. It is 1945, and London is still reeling from the Blitz and years of war. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel, are apparently abandoned by their parents, left in the care of an enigmatic figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and grow both more convinced and less concerned as they get to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women with a shared history, all of whom seem determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all he didn’t know or understand in that time, and it is this journey – through reality, recollection, and imagination – that is told in this magnificent novel. 

Warlight is a book that, because it’s by a renown Canadian author, is going to be found prominently displayed at most large bookstores in Canada, so that’s how it first appeared on my radar. I’ve never read Ondaatje before (even though I was supposed to read In the Skin of a Lion in university), so it didn’t immediately go on my to-read list. It wasn’t until I read the back-of-the-book description that made me want to read it. I also knew that it was critically acclaimed and on several book prize lists. So that’s what really sealed the deal and prompted me to add it to my library hold list. 

The book has different chapter headings, but they’re not numbered. I might not have had a good idea of how the chapters were divided, reading an eBook copy. Unfortunately, in preparing this review, I didn’t have a physical copy to rely on and can’t really elaborate further. But the way it worked in the eBook was that the novel was split into 3 overall parts, and within those parts were chapters (with headings such as “Wildfowling”), and within those were other, smaller breaks.  

I found it really easy to read full chapters at a time, as they were all small chunks. It made for some easily digestible reading sessions – and as I’ll elaborate on in a little bit, this was really helpful in trying to decipher the book. 

My Reading Timeline 

I started reading the book on November 13th, and finished reading it on November 28th. That’s 16 days, which is quick for my standards – but the reason for that was because it was a library eBook that I had no opportunity to renew.  

My copy had 272 or 292 pages (depending on my font settings), so it was a short book to move through as well. Because I read it in my Kobo Clara HD, I was able to get some good stats: it took my 8.6 hours to read, with my average minutes read per session at 6 minutes, and an average of 0.9 pages per minute. 

Questions to Answer 


I didn’t come up with any questions before I started reading Warlight, mostly because I had to just dive right into the book. The summary I read earlier is actually a fairly good indication as to what the book is about. But to really understand it, I need to delve into spoiler territory. From this point out, while I won’t get into every detail, I recommend reading the book before continuing with the podcast. 

What’s the book really about? 

This is a complicated question, and a complicated answer. On the surface, I don’t think the book is “about” anything in the sense of conflict. It really feels like it’s three different stories mashed together. It starts out as what appears to be a coming of age story, but at the end of part one, it becomes a spy story when there’s an attempted kidnapping of Nathaniel and his sister. But given the details weaved throughout the first part, you can see that it also has always been a spy story. In Part Two, it becomes a fact-finding mission – Nathanial as an adult trying to uncover secrets about his mother. And the third part is his mother’s story – but in the end, all three parts are woven together and tied up neatly.  

I’m not going to lie, I had to do a little bit of extra reading to try to pick apart this book. There’s a section in the Warlight Wikipedia entry devoted to “interpretation”. I’m grateful for it, because it helped distill some of the more confusing aspects of the story (and also helped inform my own interpretation of the book). There’s a New York Times review by Penelope Lively where she suggests the theme of the novel is that “the past never remains in the past”, and “the present reconstructs the past”. I think this interpretation is bang on – and fits with some of the observations of the main character at the end of the story.  

When I think about it personally, I can’t help but come to the same conclusion about the present “reconstructing” the past. It’s really easy to look back at past events and remember them in a different light. “Hindsight is 20/20” is a saying for a reason, after all.  

Another part of the novel that I picked up on, and confirmed in Lively’s interpretation, that the narration is deliberately vague and not revealing. The term “warlight” is mentioned several times throughout the story, referring to periods in the war where England would create blackouts to make it difficult for German bombers to see the landscape at night. There’s also a point in the novel describing a small village outside of London where during the war, they removed all signposts from the countryside to make it virtually impossible for anyone on foot to navigate.  

Ondaatje does this in the novel as well – he makes it deliberately difficult to navigate the narration and follow along, forcing us to fill in the gaps ourselves with a close reading. There’s a quote from the main character: “I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth.” 

This really made my reading sessions somewhat overwhelming and hard to get through. I mentioned earlier that my reading sessions were short and easily broken up, but there were times where I just couldn’t keep reading because of how much information is just thrown at you to try and digest. It’s very difficult to follow and you really need to concentrate on what you’re reading. 

Highlights from the Book 

I highlighted a lot of lines from the book – for various reasons, these passages spoke to me. Unfortunately, I neglected to get the page numbers or which chapter they’re from before I returned the book, so it’ll have to remain a mystery to you. 

“Nothing lasts. Not even literary or artistic fame protects worldly things around us” 

– I’m not entirely sure why I highlighted this line. I think maybe I picked this out as one of the underlying themes of the novel. I don’t think that’s the overall message I got after finishing the book though. 

“It was strange to consider their world being organized in such a godlike way by a woman who was remembering less and less of her own universe” 

– This was referring to a bee colony and a woman from, whom Nathanial was buying a house. I just enjoyed the contrast displayed in this short sentence, which at the same time made a somewhat sad statement about the mental state of the woman it was describing. 

“In any case, this was the government job I had enigmatically referred to that afternoon in Mrs. Malakite’s garden while the bees moved uncertainly in their hives and she had forgotten who I was.”

 – There’s nothing particularly special about this line – I just highlighted it because it reminded me of how we sometimes tell stories. Something mentioned in passing gets elaborated on further. There was a lot of that happening in the novel. 

“There was a hasty, determined destruction of evidence by all sides”

 – The destruction of documents that was being described by Ondaatje put in my mind the image of the various Ministries in 1984

“In this post-war world twelve years later, it felt to some of us, our heads bent over the files brought to us daily, that it was no longer possible to see who held a correct moral position” 

– I think this might be referring to the kinds of atrocities committed on both sides of the war. Part of what Ondaatje illustrates in the novel is that we have this idea of the “good guys” winning the war, but – alongside the previous quote about destroying evidence – as his mother put it in the novel, “sins were various” no matter which side you look at. 

“She was not in her right mind, of course, then. She was exhausted. A seizure had been activated in her and she was probably never clear about the details of what had happened” 

– The fact that Nathanial’s sister, Rachel, had seizures in the novel turned out not to be an important detail. It helped to weave some minor points together in the story; but what made me highlight this was that I recently experienced a seizure for the first time. This part of the description: “…she was probably never clear about the details of what had happened” resonates with me completely. One minute I was cooking breakfast, and the next thing I remember after is waking up in the back of an ambulance. I don’t know what happened other than what was told to me. 

“Do we eventually become what we are originally meant to be?”

 – This idea of pre-determined fates was explored a little bit in the novel. I’m not sure that the question was ever really answered. But personally, I believe that yes, we all have some sort of destiny and life exerts itself to put is in a particular path. We have some control over what direction we go, but ultimately, we end up where we’re supposed to be. 

““So how long are you here? What do you do with yourself?” 

It felt to me that both questions, side by side, showed a lack of interest.” 

– I laughed a little at this quote. The way these questions were written, that’s exactly the tone I imagined. They feel like small talk made to say something and doesn’t require attentive listening. 

“But above all, most of all, how much damage did I do”

 – To be honest, I’m not sure why I picked this line out of the book. I think it was Nathanial realizing who he was and what his past meant to him and others. 

“We are foolish as teenagers. We say wrong things, do not know how to be modest, or less shy. We judge easily. But the only hope given us, although only in retrospect, is that we change” 

– This is a very bleak outlook on how we act as youth. Still, it’s fairly accurate. I think we all acknowledge that we do stupid things in our youth (from teenagers on up including even our 20’s). As adults, we look down on teenagers and chalk up their actions to “they’re just teenagers”.  So I guess I highlighted this line for truth. As for the previous line – I think it followed this line so now I understand it in context. Nathanial is asking how much damage he did as a teenager – and I suppose, asking himself if he changed. 

Wrapping Up 

I liked the book – I wasn’t really bored while reading, except for a few places here and there. But this was not an easy read, by any means, and I really feel like I need a palate cleanser in between. Luckily I have a couple of lighter books on the go that help in that regard – the only problem being that I feel the need to take a short reading break. 

On Goodreads I rated Warlight 3 out of 5 stars. After reading through I like to read other reviews, and a lot of what I saw matched my opinion. It’s a solid book, but Part Three suffers a little compared to the rest of the book. This is where it really slows down, when Nathanial starts to recount his mother’s childhood and how she learned to become a spy.  

I didn’t really think it fit with the rest of the book – I’m not sure I even understood how Nathanial knew all of these details. I think maybe he was making a lot of it up based on small bits of information he learned over the years. That could very well be what happened here. But to me it felt very unimportant to the overall story and I just wanted to breeze through it. 

I recommend the novel, with the caveat that you should give yourself time to get through it. Don’t rush through it as I felt I had to. 

What’s Next on the Podcast 

So, what’s next for The Slow Reader? I have two books that I put on hold while I read Warlight: The MVP Machine and Master and Apprentice. The latter is a Star Wars novel set before The Phantom Menace. I intend to finish these books before the end of the year, but I’m not sure if I will get to the recording process before then. I anticipate that you’ll see a new episode in January 2020.  

After those books I think I want to get through some shorter material, so I’ll have a look on my shelf and pick out some thin reading.  

The music at the start of this episode was called Labile Polvere, recorded by Mattia Vlad Morleo. Find out more at Jamendo.com. 

If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to check out previous episodes and books at https://slow-reader.pinecast.co. Share this with other people and leave me a comment on Twitter, @stephen_g. Thanks for listening! 

Categories
Movies

The Role of the Protagonist in Dystopian Films

I wrote this essay in March 2004; I was in first year University and this assignment was for “FILM 1000B”. I recently found it while cleaning up my basement studio, and saw that I scored 18 out of 20 on the paper. I thought I’d share it online for all to see.

Stephen Gower
FILM 1000B
Genre Essay
Prof. Mark Langer
MAR 17 2004

The Role of the Protagonist in Dystopian Films

It is suggested that in the musical film, a utopian community exists where the protagonist acts as an active participant in its construction. The overwhelming result is that a situation, having wronged itself at some point during the film, rights itself in the end as a direct result of the protagonists’ actions. The musical community is often cheerful and there are no false pretenses surrounding it. Conversely, the dystopian community is based on control and power. There is often a strong policing force that keeps the population in line. In dystopian films, the protagonist is still aparticipant, however partakes in destryoing the oppressive society he or she lives in rather than working to preserve the community as it once was.

As mentioned, dystopian communities are usually structured governments, and are accompanied by some sort of policing force (or in cases like Nineteen Eighty Four, self-policing methods1George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four. (England: Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd, 1949).) to control the population. In A Clockwork Orange(1971), it is an actual police force; in Brazil(1985), it is the Ministry of Information; and in The Matrix(1999), it is the Machines/Agents who control the delinquents. On the surface, this is not something out of the ordinary; every society needs to be policed to enjoy a sense of personal security. But in the case of dystopian films, this policing force does more than just enforce the law. In the case of Brazil and The Matrix, the police force not only stops but eliminates errors within the system. However, since A Clockwork Orange is set in a modern time frame, it operates more like our society, using prisons. It is the government that uses its experimental treatment that eliminates the problem, while the police force works to try and correct it, and then benefits from the reversal of Alex’s conditioning. These are all quick and easy example-s of an outside force controlling the protagonist, but there is more to it than simply a policing force.

The idea of the outside force controlling the protagonis comes into play when he feels compelled to change the society for the better – whether to bring edown the government or shutting down the artificial intelligence controlling the humans. The protagonist is allowed to believe he is working to make the community better, or more than what it is, but in the end, he is stopped by the controlling force (usually the government). For instance, in Brazil, Sam Lowry thinks he is helping to bring down the government, and actually believes he succeeds in escaping the Ministry of Information. However, not only is Sam broken down by the series of torture performed on him by Jack Lint, but his grand escape (which takes up approximately the last five or ten minutes of the film) is all in his mind; this reinforces the notion that the protagonist merely undergoes the illusion of de-constructing the dystopian society.

Invariably, the protagonist also has a meaningless job2Fred Glass. “Brazil,” in An Introduction to Film Studies. Edited by Mark LAnger. (Pearson Custom Publishing), 2004. p.373. with no aspirations of advancing. In Brazil, Sam has a dull job with little to no advantages, and refuses every offer of promotion sent his way – to the point where his boss, Mr. Kurtzman, assumes that Sam still wants to turn down the latest offer of promotion and forges his signature. Since Sam has no initial desire to move beyond his current position (for he proclaims himself to be happy), there should be no problem with this (and there is no problem until Sam decides he needs a higher level of security clearance to locate his dream woman, Jill).

Likewise, in The Matrix, Neo/Thomas Anderson has a cubicle job at a nameless software company. He has no ambition or plans of advancing his career with the company, and it appears that it would not phase him if he lost his job. However, his meaningless job is not as important to the plot as it is in Brazil. What is important is that Neo, within the Matrix, conducts software piracy; he is under the impression that he is circumventing the system by performing this piracy. Of course, the machines who have set up the Matrix, who are ultimate responsible for controlling the actions of their crops, probably do not care that an insignificant human is conducting acts that are only illegal in a computer simulation of 20th century New York City.

A common relation between the protagonist and the dystopian society is that the protagonist is often watched closely by the ruling government. In the case of Brazil, Sam’s actions are watched immediately after he accepts his promotion in the Ministry of Information. For all of his efforts to hide his activities, the Ministry is always aware of what he does and is a step ahead of him. Because of this, he cannot escape his eventual fate of becoming trapped in his own fantasy.

Likewise, Neo is watched, even more closely. However, he is watched by more than just the machines; revolutionaries such as Morpheus and Trinity are watching him through the Matrix, and even guide him around his office, seeming to know Neo’s surroundings better than even him. In the sequence where he has to choose to leave with the Agents or leave with Trinity, Morpheus informs Neo that “they” have been watching him – indicating the Agents/machines – and that he is not safe. The scene immediately following Neo’s capture features a set of TV monitors watching Neo. We are not sure who is watching those screens, but it is certain that someone else is watching Neo (it is quite possible that these are the TV screens from the scene where Neo interacts with the Architect in The Matrix Reloaded(2003), but that movie is not in discussion).

The most important aspect of the dystopian film is that the protagonist is not in control of his actions, even though he thinks he is. This was touched on before, when the illusion of the protagonist being able to bring about change was mentioned. Sam’s manipulation at the hands of the Ministry of Information was mentioned; as in the novel Nineteen Eighty Four (for which Brazil was based on3Glass, 371.), this is key, because in the novel, the Inner Party knew Winston was going to commit “thought crime”, and eventually eliminated him when he had gone too far. In Brazil, the Ministry of Information knew Sam had committed the crime of aiding a suspected terrorist, and had him eliminated after he had gone too far. In both cases, the government knew of the protagonists’ actions, were watching him, and eliminated the problem.

As a point of reference, in the dystopian novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, the members of that particular society are controlled by their genetic conditioning from before entering the embryonic stage. Miscreants are watched by the government and are removed from society. All dystopian genre films and literature contain this key part, and that is what makes them a dystopia.

One could argue, then, that The Matrix is not a dystopian film. Neo is able to break free from the controlling machines and help rid the humans of the Matrix once and for all. In that respect, The Matrix fails as a dystopia4This is similar to Gattaca(1997). Even though most people are controlled by genetics, the protagonist defies his inferior genetic make-up to strive and reach his goals. This film does not qualify as a dystopia, despite being based on Huxley’s Brave New World.. However, if you looked at The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions(2003) as well as The Matrix, it can be seen that Neo – and other liberated humans – is still a pawn of the machines, even outside the simulation.

In A Clockwork Orange, this control comes from the conditioning Alex received after volunteering for the government-sponsored program while in prison. In effect, the government is able to control Alex. In the end, after removing the effects of the conditioning, the government in fact uses Alex for their own twisted purposes. Even in this, a film that just barely qualifies as a dystopia, exterior control exists. This control extends to a point where Alex has no choice but to commit suicide so he would not have to hear the music he was conditioned to hate (even though he loved music).

Lastly, the protagonist is concerned with changing his situation; this is why A Clockwork Orange is only vaguely a dystopia. Alex is simply concerned with getting out of jail as fast as he can. He could care less about his society – but what makes the film a dystopia is the message that it presents to the viewer. But in Brazil, even though Sam claims he is perfeclty happy in his job, he constantly fantasizes of a dream woman who he is sure he is destined to meet. When he does finally meet her in real life, he feels the desire to change everything, especially when he discovers his dream woman is a suspected terroirst.

In The Matrix, this desire for drastic change is most evident. The humans wish to destroy the Matrix and the machines, hoping to liberate all of humanity. The only difference between The Matrix and other dystopian films is that the dystopian film generally sees no change to the situation, leaving the viewer with a feeling of hopelessness. The Matrix, on the other hand, leaves the viewer instilled with hope that the machines will be destroyed. Again, this is another argument against the notion that The Matrix is even a dystopian film. It simply exhibits the general aspects of a science fiction film.

In short, dystopian films feature extremely well-structured, inescapable societies where the protagonist simply exists. He may try to change the world, or bring down the ruling power singlehandedly, but because of the ever-vigil eye of the ones holding power, he fails to accomplish anything but bring his life to term at a quicker pace. The protagonist is often watched, either from the beginning or at the moment of crimes against the state, and is controlled by an exterior force. It was just stated: the dystopian community is unavoidable once a society is locked within it.

In general, the dystopia is meant as a commentary on present society, rather than a story where the hero saves everyone. It is not meant to have a happy ending, only to stimulate the viewer/reader’s mind into asking questions about the current state of their own world. While The Matrix does cause us to pause and think on whether our world is real or not, it does not put social values into question. Films like A Clockwork Orange and Brazil both lay the groundwork for the curious mind to ponder their current situation, or what might happen should they continue along a certain path.

Bibliography

An Introduction to Film Studies. Edited by Mark Langer. (Canada: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2004).

Filmography

A Clockwork Orange. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Malcom McDowell, PAtrick Magee, James Marcus. U.K., 1971.

Brazil. Dir. Terry Gilliam. Perf. Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Robert DeNiro. U.K., 1985.

Matrix, The. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss. U.S.A./Australia, 1999.