Tuesday, June 27, 2017

TV Tuesday: Food Network Star

So, you may have noticed that after several years and many dozens of TV Tuesdays, I have not reviewed a single reality show. That's unusual, given how much of what is on TV now is reality TV. There's a simple reason for that: I really don't watch reality TV. I prefer scripted dramas or comedies and watch a very wide range of those, but there are only two reality shows I watch.

One is The Amazing Race, which is still - well, amazing after all these years. We used to watch it with our sons and loved cheering the teams on together, but I'm the only one left in my family who still watches it. The other reality show I watch is Food Network Star - I love to cook, I love to eat good food, and I enjoy this reality show that focuses on improving skills in the kitchen and on camera. The bonus: my son who rarely watches TV will sit and watch it with me if I turn it on during lunch!

The concept of Food Network Star is quite simple (and obvious from the title!) - it is a competition to find a chef who will be given their own show on Food Network. Pretty cool. The really cool part is that not all of the contestants are professional chefs (though many are) - some are caterers or chefs-in-training or even just people who cook for their families. There are usually 12 contestants in all, and each week presents them with different cooking challenges. Sometimes they work in teams and sometimes they are solo. Challenges almost always include some sort of presentation at the end, with the contestants learning how to handle appearing on camera. Usually one person (sometimes two) is eliminated each week, based on the appearance and taste of their food and the quality of their presentation. At the end, three finalists record pilots for their own shows, and one person is chosen as the winner and goes on to have his or her own Food Network show.

I enjoy watching the challenges, the cooking, and the presentations, but it is also fun to watch the relationships that develop over the course of the show. One reason I like this show and not other reality TV is that I really don't enjoy watching people be mean to each other! The contestants here are generally supportive of each other, and the judges - lately, Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis - are also kind and supportive, often giving someone who messes up but seems to have potential another chance.

The show is now in its 13th season (episode 4 just aired). I think this is the 3rd or 4th season I have watched. It's fun to see one of the contestants on Food Network later, or even - occasionally - making it big. I just discovered in researching this post that Guy Fieri - renowned now for Guy's Big Bites and Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives (one of our faves) - was the winner of season 2!

Season 13 is now available On Demand through cable providers. My own On Demand doesn't list the episodes in order (for some strange reason), so I refer to this episode list to figure out which one comes next - the show really doesn't make sense if you watch it out of order! You can also watch full episodes of the current season for free on the Food Network website. The current season - and most past seasons - are also available on Amazon for $1.99 an episode or a full season starting at $9.99 (some are longer than others) - see links below. And if you are interested in the history of the show and past winners, I found the Food Network Star Wikipedia page very interesting.

Do you watch any reality shows? Have you seen Food Network Star yet?


Monday, June 26, 2017

Movie Monday: Wonder Woman

During our recent vacation camping in Vermont, my husband and I had one cold, rainy day to contend with, so we left the campground to go into town. We met old friends for lunch, did some shopping, and then decided to just make a full day of it, with dinner and a movie in Morrisville, VT. The tiny movie theater there was showing the brand-new Wonder Woman movie, so we decided to see what all the fuss was about. We enjoyed this action-packed adventure very much.

I grew up in the 70's with the Superfriends cartoons and Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman on prime time, so I am well-acquainted with the famed female superhero. This new look at Wonder Woman, in the wake of dozens of comic book superhero movies in the past decade, finally gives her her due.

Israeli actress Gal Gadot stars in this new Wonder Woman film as Diana, Princess of the Amazons, later known as just Diana Prince. The movie opens on the secret island of the Amazon women, where they live and train together in a peaceful society. Connie Nielson plays Diana's mother, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and Robin Wright stars as Antiope, Diana's aunt and the fiercest warrior among this race of warrior women. Lilly Aspell is wonderful (and adorable) as the young Diana, eager to learn to fight, against her mother's wishes.

The Amazons' peaceful life is shattered when a WWI pilot crashes into the sea near their island, somehow getting through their protective barrier, followed closely by a German ship that is chasing him. After the Amazons defeat the German invaders, Steve Trevor, the downed pilot and spy who is played by Chris Pine, explains to Diana about the war that is tearing apart the human world. Diana, now a courageous young woman, feels a strong and compassionate need to help stop the war and leaves the island with Steve, despite her mother's pleas to stay.

Once in London, Steve and Diana try to deliver Steve's urgent intelligence about a new German chemical weapon to the British leaders, but they are unsuccessful in convincing them to act on this knowledge. Steve gathers a few friends, and their ragtag group heads off for the front to try to disrupt the German plan on their own. Along the way, though the men are mostly accustomed to the ravages of war, Diana is appalled by the suffering she sees and refuses to leave needy people unassisted. She gradually discovers powers that she didn't know she possessed.

As you would expect from any superhero movie, Wonder Woman is packed with action and suspense. Its battle scenes often incorporate slow-motion action so you can see Diana's moves up close. Given the subject matter, there is also the underlying spy movie plot, pitting good against evil, complete with mad scientists. What makes or breaks a superhero movie for me is the presence of humor, and there is plenty here, mostly through the motley crew Steve has assembled and some fish-out-of-water stuff when Diana visits London. There is also a hint of romance, as Diana and Steve are clearly attracted to each other.

The cast of the movie - both the Amazons in the beginning and the main characters in the war sequences - are excellent, and Gal Gadot seems like the perfect Wonder Woman (no offense, Lynda Carter). We both thoroughly enjoyed this suspenseful and entertaining movie. I'm not a huge fan of superhero movies, but I liked the humor and compassion in Wonder Woman, and I looking forward to its sequels.

Wonder Woman is currently in theaters. The DVD release is estimated for sometime in August, and you can pre-order both the DVD and the streaming version on Amazon now (links below).


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Weekly Inspiration: The Restorative Power of Nature

My husband and I have just returned from a week-long vacation in Vermont with our camper (hence the lack of recent blog posts!). It occurs to me - again - after spending a week mostly outdoors just how restorative and rejuvenating nature is. You can see more of my photos of the beauty of Vermont's natural areas here (or read about the VT bookstores and restaurants we enjoyed!).

Spending a week living in our camper in state parks, surrounded by forests and trees, lakes and streams, sunshine and blue sky, is a centering experience for me. It brings me back to my essential self. Although I try to get outside most days, my life is filled with obligations toward kids and other family, my home, my work, and even my blogs. I spend an enormous amount of time on my laptop, and when I leave the house, it is usually to run all over town doing errands or racing to get my father-in-law to a doctor's appointment or some other urgent matter. When we are camping, there is no internet, no electronics of any sort (we do bring our cell phones in case of emergency but we don't have smart phones), no obligations, and no to-do list taunting me!
Enjoying the outdoors at Emerald Lake State Park in Vermont
More important, though, I have come to understand, is not just the vacation from my usual life but the opportunity to spend so much time outdoors. Throughout the week, I can feel my levels of stress drop as I relax and adjust to the outdoor life.

It turns out I'm not the only one who thinks this way. Lots of research has been done on the effects of nature on people, much of which Florence Williams describes eloquently in this brief TED Talk:

She cites studies that have found that time in nature - even as little as 1 minute! - reduces stress, improves creativity, reduces self-criticism, and increases kindness. Spending time in nature has very real physical effects on us humans, including improving our immune function, as measured by Natural Killer cell function - something everyone with ME/CFS certainly needs! Williams also describes various projects being undertaken around the world to make nature more available and accessible, even to city dwellers - there's some pretty cool stuff going on! South Korea is even creating "healing forests" across the nation, where people can enjoy the healing effects of nature, both by themselves and in guided activities.

Back home, I have a long-standing goal to spend at least 10 minutes a day outdoors. That may not sound like much, but the research says it helps....all I know is that I feel better when I connect with the outdoor world each day. Today, I took a short walk around my neighborhood and am now writing this out on my back deck, lying in my favorite comfy bungee chair, looking up at the sky, feeling the breeze, and listening to the birds in the trees.
My favorite outdoor spot at home on our back deck

Try it yourself! Make time each day to get outside, even if it's just out to your own backyard or deck or patio for a few minutes. Lie down in a hammock or reclining chair. Leave the electronics inside and tune in to the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of being outdoors - you'll be amazed at what you notice!

I wrote another post about nature, based on the inspiring words of Anne Frank, an older post on The Joy of the Outdoors, and a recent post about exactly HOW people with chronic illness can manage to enjoy camping and the outdoors, based on our own experiences.

How do YOU enjoy the outdoors? What positive effects have you noticed from being in nature?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

TV Tuesday: The Fall

I am just back from a week in Vermont with my husband - camping, enjoying Vermont's quaint towns, visiting bookstores, great food, and of course, lots of down time for reading! Since our sons left for college, and my husband and I are now often traveling on our own, we have established a new habit when camping. In the evening, we watch a TV episode on DVD on my laptop in our pop-up camper (before we go to bed for reading time). We've been working our way through Dexter, since we have all the seasons of that show on DVD (we gave them to my son years ago). You can read my review of the show at the link. We are now up to season 3.

Back here at home, in between the spring and summer network TV seasons, we've been enjoying some streaming shows, most recently The Fall, a very dark and creepy Irish detective show.

Gillian Anderson (of X-Files fame) stars as Stella Gibson, a cold-seeming Detective Superintendent who's been sent to Belfast to review a case involving the murder of a young woman whose father is a prominent businessman in the community. While she's there, another murder occurs, and Stella realizes there is a serial killer on the loose. Stella works the cases along with the local detectives, and in the first episode, we see a very different side of Stella as she boldly invites another detective back to her hotel room for a passionate night.

Meanwhile, viewers also see things from the perspective of the serial killer, Paul Spector, a seemingly normal family man who lives with his wife, a nurse who works in the NICU, and two small children. He's an affectionate father at home but goes out at night and murders women in cold-blood, often posing their dead bodies in intimate ways. As Stella and the police force collect clues and get closer to Paul, his very controlled life starts to get more and more unbalanced, as his two lives threaten to collide.

This is a dark and compelling show, with a seriously high creep factor! To see Paul murder a woman and then, hours later, hug his little girl and tuck her into bed is absolutely chilling. Stella becomes more and more obsessed with the case, and Paul begins to pay attention to her as well. This show is unusual for a detective show, in that it involves a single case spread over time, rather than a new case in each episode (reminding me a bit of The Missing). The tension builds as Stella gets closer to identifying Paul, and Paul becomes more desperate to fulfill his sick needs and stay away from the police. The cast is all excellent, especially Gillian Anderson, with her cool exterior hiding a passionate center and Jamie Dornan as the super-creepy Paul. We also enjoyed seeing Archie Panjabi (aka Kalinda from The Good Wife) as the medical examiner.

As is typical with shows from the UK and Ireland, the seasons are short (just 5 episodes in the first season). We are into the second season now and are totally hooked...though we often watch The Fall first and then something a bit lighter before bed! All three seasons are available on Netflix or you can get the first two seasons on Amazon streaming for $1.99 an episode or $8.99 a season or on DVD (links below).

Have you seen The Fall yet?  Which detective shows do you enjoy?


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Weekly Inspiration: Music

Amazingly, with all my posts on inspiration and joy, it looks like I haven't really written much yet about music.

Music is a great source of joy for me and provides a great pick-me-up when I am feeling down. Like most people, I have certain songs I turn to that never fail to lift my spirits. I grew up in the 70's and 80's, so most of my favorite songs are pop and rock, from then to now. Some work for me because of the lyrics, some have beautiful, uplifting melodies, and some cheer me up just because they are great to sing along with. It's hard to feel down when you are belting out "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen!

Here are a couple I have been listening to this week:

Believer by American Authors - When this song was first released in 2014, my oldest son posted it on my Facebook wall and wrote, "I know you will love this new song, Mom!" He was right - he knows me well, and he and I have a special connection from all those years of sick days spent together. This is a wonderfully uplifting song, with a great combination of upbeat, optimistic lyrics and a peppy tune. Here's a version of the song with the lyrics shown:

Though you should also check out the band's original video because it is really cute and clever (though it has nothing at all to do with chronic illness):

The other song that's been in my head all week was thanks to the Netflix show Sense8, which we've been watching with our son (review coming up next week!). This show is all about a strange, psychic connection between 8 people all over the world. At the end of episode 4 (I think), all 8 people - each in a different part of the world - start singing the same song: What's Up by 4 Non Blondes. I'd never heard of the song before, nor the band, but it's a very catchy song that really gotten into my head. It's another song that wasn't written about illness but feels applicable and lifts my spirits:

I have a playlist on my iTunes called Cheer Up Music, that includes a wide range of spirit-lifting songs, like:
  • The River of Dreams by Billy Joel
  • Best Day of My Life by American Authors 
  • Breathe In, Breathe Out by Mat Kearny (from Volume 3 of the Grey's Anatomy soundtrack)
  • Days Go By by Keith Urban
  • Happy by Pharrell Williams (a trite choice but I love it!)
  • Never Let Your Fire Go Out by The Radators (a favorite band from New Orleans)
  • Sing by the Glee cast
  • Such Great Heights by The Postal Service (love their whole album)
  • Sunshine on My Shoulders by John Denver
  • I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor
I have about 100 songs on the list, so this is just a sampling, but you can see it's a wide variety - simply the songs that make me feel good!

If you're on Spotify, check out the Happier 911 playlist, put together by the listeners of the Happier podcast. There are a few strange choices there, but it's all songs that podcast listeners said lift their spirits.

How about you? Do you listen to music when you are feeling down?

Which songs lift your spirits and cheer you up?

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Good News in ME/CFS Advocacy & Research

How about some good news for a change? I don't know about you, but I am overwhelmed by what I hear on the news each morning and what it might mean in the future for me and my family.

So, here is some good news in the world of ME/CFS, some definite signs of progress!

NIH Launches In-Depth In-House Study of ME/CFS
This study was first announced in 2015 but has received some recent publicity and seems to be moving forward. This article explains how extensive the study is and why it is important. How is this different from other research studies?
  • It is being conducted by the NIH itself, using its own in-house experts. Given all the recent news about proposed slashes to the already tiny budget for ME/CFS, this is huge news, that the NIH has invested in our disease this way.
  • It is perhaps the most extensive study ever undertaken, using strict diagnostic criteria for ME/CFS and an enormous battery of tests, including sleep studies, immunological testing, genetic testing, different types of MRI, exercise testing, metabolic testing, and more - all in one study.
  • Participants in phase 1 include 40 severely ill ME/CFS patients who meet the strict criteria, plus another 20 patients who previously had Lyme disease (that part is exciting to me!), and 20 healthy controls.
  • In the first phase, over 3-5 years, they are searching for biological markers, the second phase will take that information and apply it to a larger population of patients, and the third phase will try interventions/treatments.
Stay tuned for results - hopefully, they will be sharing conclusions and progress along the way.

New Primer on Pediatric ME/CFS
The wonderful and well-respected Dr. Peter Rowe, of Johns Hopkins, (pediatric ME/CFS and Orthostatic Intolerance expert) has collaborated with Solve ME/CFS Initiative to publish a new Pediatric ME/CFS Primer in an upcoming issue of the journal Frontiers in Pediatrics. The primer was envisioned by the New Jersey ME/CFS Association and written by a team of experts, led by Dr. Rowe. You can read more about the new pediatric primer here and link to one of Dr. Rowe's excellent webinars at the same page. This is fabulous news for the millions of sick kids out there! It should help spread the word to regular pediatricians about the effects of ME/CFS on kids and how to treat it.

ME/CFS Advocacy Week 2017 Was a Huge Success!
This year, in conjunction with ME/CFS Awareness Day on May 13th and ME/CFS Awareness Month in May, the Solve ME/CFS Initiative joined forces with #MEAction, along with over 1,000 volunteer advocates. Their planning and efforts paid off, with these successes:
  • 71 meetings with the offices of Congressional representatives in Washington, DC
  • 8 face-to face meetings directly with members of Congress
  • A Congressional briefing providing information on ME/CFS
  • Over 3.000 messages sent to Congressional representatives by advocates
  • Dozens of local meetings with Congressional offices around the country
  • 6 politicians Tweeted about ME/CFS!
You can read all about the various efforts and their effects here. A big thanks to all of the advocates - patients, families, friends, and more - who helped make all this happen. It seems we are finally getting our message heard and spreading the word about the effects of ME/CFS to those in power.

Excellent Response to NIH Requests for Proposals
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the U.S. sent out two requests in January, for two different kinds of research centers. ME/CFS featured prominently in almost a dozen of these proposals, each including a wide range of diverse scientists and medical researchers. Even better, many of the top scientists included in these proposals will be applying their considerable talents to ME/CFS for the first time. This is just what we need, a double whammy: NIH funding for complex ME/CFS projects and an infusion of new talent to complement the wonderful but small group of experts currently dedicated to ME/CFS research. You can read all the details in this update from Solve ME/CFS Initiative, who were involved or assisted with many of the proposals.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

New ProHealth Article: Travel Tips for the Chronically Ill

My Travel Kit
My latest article has been published at the ProHealth website, just in time for summer: Travel Tips for the Chronically Ill. You can read the full article at that link, and I will reprint it here on the blog next month.

This article pulls together travel tips from our extensive experience: 15+ years of traveling with at least 1 of us (and sometimes 3 of the 4 of us) chronically ill. Through all that time, we have continued to travel: driving and flying to visit family, annual 3-week long trips cross country with our camper, vacation with extended family (those are the toughest), and more recently, my husband and I venturing out on some empty-nest road trips of our own. I've written here on the blog before about our tips for travel, but this article puts all of that experience in one place.

Stuff I bring to help with OI
The article mentions the important of understanding and treating Orthostatic Intolerance (OI), which greatly affects everyone with ME/CFS. You can read more about OI and how to treat it in this post. Treating OI will not only make travel easier for you, it can often dramatically improve all of your symptoms. You can also try other treatments to improve your condition so that you can travel more easily (or at all, if you are currently severely ill) - this post on Effective Treatments for ME/CFS explains about the treatments that have most helped my sons and I to feel better and become more active. Finally, if - like us - you enjoy the outdoors, this blog post includes some of the same tips but focuses specifically on outdoor activities & travel.

My husband and I are planning a week camping in Vermont this month, and we will put all these tips int use!

Do you have any travel plans for the summer?

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

TV Tuesday: Anne with an E

As I posted a few weeks ago on TV Tuesday, the spring shows have all wrapped up now, the summer shows are just starting this week, and so we have been searching for new shows to watch on the streaming services. I was thrilled to hear about the new Netflix series Anne with an E, which is based on the classic children's novel Anne of Green Gables by H.M Montgomery (my review at the link). I just read Anne of Green Gables for the first time two summers ago, as part of my Big Book Summer Challenge, and I absolutely loved it, so I was excited to hear about this new adaptation. It's wonderful so far.

In case you haven't read the novel, Anne Shirley is an orphan who has had a very tough life. She's been mistreated and brought into homes only to act as unpaid labor for housework and childcare. In the first episode, Anne is traveling by train to the town of Avalon, located on Prince Edward Island, to be adopted by an elderly brother and sister, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. The problem is that Matthew and Marilla had requested a boy to adopt because they need help with the chores on their farm, Green Gables. Despite the mix-up, Anne herself wins Matthew over quickly at the train station.

Anne is an exuberant, imaginative child brimming with energy and enthusiasm. She has bright red hair (which she detests) and a hard life, but she doesn't let anything get her down. She just plows forward, with a smile on her face, talking a mile a minute. Reticent Matthew, who rarely speaks to anyone except Marilla, is taken aback at first but soon enchanted with this bubbly, kind girl who is so full of life. He brings her home, despite the fact that she isn't the boy they asked for. Of course, this is a problem, and Marilla is more prepared than Matthew to hold the line and get this mistake corrected. The first episode is 90 minutes long and deals with this first very significant conflict in the story. It's no spoiler to say they eventually work things out, since the book is called Anne of Green Gables!

Each episode follows Anne through another new experience filled with potential stumbling blocks: meeting a new friend, passing muster with the judgemental neighbor, and starting at school for the first time in her life. Anne's determination and exuberance often get her into trouble, but there are also conflicts due to her upbringing and background. This small, insular town is not very tolerant of those different than themselves. Some feel sorry for Anne, but many judge her and look down on her. However, for the first time in her short life, Anne has a real family who care about her and a real home.

I have watched 3 episodes so far, including that first 90-miute long one, and am loving the series. Young actress Amybeth McNulty does a fantastic job of bringing the joyful, bursting-with-energy Anne alive on the screen, and Geraldine James and R.H. Thomson similarly seem like the perfect Marilla and Matthew. The casting is excellent, as is the script, some of which I recognize directly from the book. All in all, it's a wonderful production, filled with warmth, humor, and all kinds of issues that are just as important today as they were in the 19th century when this story takes place. It's a great show to watch with your kids, but I am enjoying it fully all on my own, too!

As a Netflix original program, Anne with an E is only available on Netflix.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Weekly Inspiration: Honesty & Hope, Life & Death

I often feature either quotes from a book I've read or a TED Talk on Weekly Inspiration, as the source of my inspiration and a springboard for discussion. Well, today is special because this post features BOTH a book and a TED Talk - oooh!

Last fall, I read the best-selling memoir When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, a book that got a lot of (well-deserved) attention in 2016. The author, a neurosurgeon, wrote it while he was dying of lung cancer. It is a very open, honest look at his experiences, as well as the bigger subjects of struggles and joy, life and death. You can read my full review of the book at my book blog.

Although Paul had cancer, much of his experience with the sudden shift from wellness to illness struck a chord with me, like in this quote:
"Severe illness wasn't life-altering, it was life-shattering. It felt less like an epiphany - a piercing burst of light, illuminating What Really Matters - and more like someone had just firebombed the path forward. Now I would have to work around it."
          - When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Yup, that's about it. I think "life-shattering" is a good explanation for how you feel after your diagnosis.

This observation equally moved me and felt perfectly applicable to life with chronic illness:
"Part of the cruelty of cancer, though, is not only that it limits your time; it also limits your energy, vastly reducing the amount you can squeeze into a day.
...If time dilates when one moves at high speeds, does it contract when one barely moves at all?"
           - When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

I'm sure that those of you who are homebound or bedridden can relate to that one. He also writes eloquently about his feelings when attending a medical school reunion at Stanford: "Yet being there merely heightened the surreal contrast of what my life was now" (that's just a short excerpt from a longer, very moving passage). I felt exactly the same way when I attended my 20th high school reunion, shortly after my diagnosis, tongue-tied as to what to say to my former classmates, how to explain the sudden, sharp turn my life had made, and how to reconcile my new limitations against what my peers were doing.

The whole book was excellent - very moving and powerful - and his wife wrote the last chapter, finishing it after his death.

So, I was immediately interested when I saw that Paul's wife, Lucy Kalanithi, had given a TED Talk: What Makes Life Worth Living in the Face of Death. You can watch the brief 16-minute video of her talk here:

I was equally moved by Lucy's talk as I was by Paul's book. As with the book, this isn't a depressing look at death but an insightful consideration of life, while recognizing that death is a natural part of life. Some of the topics Lucy covers in her talk that are very applicable to those of us with chronic illness (or anyone, really), include:
  • Resilience, an absolutely critical characteristic for those of us living with these rollercoaster illnesses.
  • Redefining your definition of success.
  • Honesty - being willing to say the truth out loud (I SO wish my extended family understood this).
  • Joy as a part of life, even in the shadow of death.
  • The importance of hope. I saw this first-hand with my Dad. Although he was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma, his oncologist gave him hope for what might be possible. I also tried to give him hope, with a book that had helped me tremendously when I first got sick, The Anatomy of Hope by Jerome Groopman. As a result, though my dad was naturally a realist and not one to sugarcoat things, he maintained that sense of hope throughout his year of treatments. I sincerely believe he had a full year with us in part due to his sense of hope. I didn't see him lose that until the very last weeks of his life. It was an incredible gift that his doctor gave to him, as Lucy talks about here. Hope is also very, very important to those of us with chronic illness.
Although both the book and the TED Talk are about death, they are both ultimately uplifting and inspiring in their view of the meaning of life, how suffering is an integral part of life, and how to face your challenges without giving up hope and joy.

I hope you find these as inspiring as I did.

Have you read Paul's book yet? Did you relate to any of the quotes I shared here or anything from Lucy's talk?