The Definition of Beauty: It Can Expand Along with Your Waistline

We are very lucky to be living on planet Earth, because beauty surrounds us. However, it sometimes seems we have forgotten to appreciate it. One of the beautiful things we seem to have forgotten to appreciate is the beauty of the human body.

2013 04 05 - Blog Post - BeautyThe media constantly reminds us of this sad fact. For example, the article 20 Celebs Criticized for Their Curves is a horrifying collection of almost abusive comments about the weight of 20 female celebrities, who rank from pretty to downright gorgeous. These comments include: America Ferrera, a size 6 or 8, being a spokeswoman for curvy women in Hollywood, Kelly Clarkson’s curves being mocked on numerous websites, Mariah Carey being fat or pregnant, Scarlett Johansson’s curves making her look too sexy, Tyra Banks being called fat by Janice Dickinson… Need I add more?

This is not to say that we should never watch our weight. After all, it is one of many indicators of good health. But the line between watching one’s weight for health reasons and watching one’s weight because of societal pressures is a very fine one. There is also nothing wrong with wanting to look good, as long as it does not become the central focus of one’s life. The challenge is in determining what “looking good” means. The current definition of beauty as portrayed in the media is so narrow, that trying to achieve it can – and does – become the source of many physical and emotional ailments.

When one believes that there is a God, and that humans were created to know and worship Him, then concerns about one’s weight should be mainly related to our health, so that we can fulfil this purpose. However, because of the immense pressures exerted by mainstream media (the same that calls the size 6-8 America Ferrera “fat”), it seems like a large part of our day to day life is ruled by concerns about our weight. How interesting that the average human being, a creature endowed with a soul, exerts so much mental energy on maintaining the weight of its body within the limits of an unrealistic definition of beauty.

How can we rid ourselves of the pervasive, unjust influence of this limited-to-the-point-of-cruelty definition of beauty? The first step is awareness. Thankfully there is an ever-increasing amount of that! Next is action at the level of society, a powerful example of which is the recent, successful petition asking Seventeen magazine to stop airbrushing its models. Boycotts are also often called: of tabloids that denigrate women by focusing on size, of fashion magazines that also focus solely on image, of clothing companies that market their wares through models that belong to only one very limited category of beauty.

Society can only advance if change happens at both the level of society and at the level of the individual. What can we do, then, at the level of the individual? We know that we were created in the image of God. We have a right to want to look good, in part by wanting to reach and/or maintain a certain weight. However, we should filter out decisions that have to do with our lower nature from those that have to do with our higher nature. To want to look and feel good by losing weight is not a problem; to forget that the primary way to look and feel good is by achieving emotional and spiritual balance is. To define oneself primarily according to one’s weight is a problem. We should instead primarily define ourselves by our virtues.

We should also remember that man’s reality is his thought. This means that the words we use to talk to others, or even to ourselves, defines our reality. When we greet each other by focusing on how we look physically, it limits our reality to our physical selves. We are telling each other that our physical selves is what deserve the focus of our attention. What if instead, we changed our words to reflect the fact that the focus of our attention is on each other’s souls? Instead of seeing the weight lost, what if we saw the extra bounce in their step, the shine in their eyes, or the way they are holding their heads higher?

So while we should pay attention to our physical well-being and beauty, we should strive to remember that, despite the media’s strong emphasis on the contrary, our main focus should be on our emotional and spiritual well-being. And maybe we should be more interested in the fact that America Ferrera is concerned with the advancement of women and girls, that Kelly Clarkson is involved in the organization “Houses of Hope”, that Mariah Carey donated the royalties to her song “Save the Day” to charities that create awareness to human rights issues, that Scarlett Johansson visited African as a Global Ambassador for Oxfam, and that Tyra Banks founded the TZONE Foundation which aims to empower girls and young women.

Maybe it is time that we focused on the many reasons why these women are beautiful, and not just on their bodies – which are, by the way, beautiful as well, in all the sizes we have seen them in.

Originally Published on Sahar’s Blog on 5 April 2013

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The Many Ways of Channelling Beauty


One of the most beautiful things about humanity is the diversity of the ways we have come up with for doing the same thing. One easy example: cooking. Various parts of the world do completely different things with the same ingredients, and all have the potential to taste excellent.

I for one love having access to all the foods of the world. And most people, while having their own preferences, will not begrudge me for wanting to go to my favourite restaurant. And most amazing is that a majority of people do not seem to begrudge an individual from one ethnic background loving food from another ethnic background. The success of fusion cuisine, which brings together the best from various ethnic cooking techniques, is another sign of people not only accepting differences in cooking, but also learning to build on these differences to make food better. My waistline sometimes suffers from the consequences of this, but that is another story altogether.

It is clear therefore that we have the skills to experiment and learn to create something better out of our differences. How can we apply these skills in arenas of life other than cooking? Perhaps we can move from trying to convince each other of who is right and wrong, to learning to live together in a way that goes beyond tolerance. For example, we could learn to allow divergent lifestyles to cohabit while respecting the differences. Maybe we could even learn to celebrate them, and perhaps one day, learn to build on their respective strengths to create a “fusion lifestyle”.

By focusing on the positive aspects of various lifestyles, we are also cultivate a way of looking at things that filters out the negative and focuses on the positive. As everyone knows, learning to appreciate beauty makes us so much more aware of it, which brings great joy. What effects on a community would learning to appreciate the beauty in all lifestyles be?

One example that comes to mind are weddings. Guests are usually filled with the same sense of joy and reverence when attending a Hindu wedding, a Buddhist wedding, a Bahá’í wedding, or a Christian wedding. They look very different one from the other, but equal in beauty, joy, and happiness. To learn to see all differences in this way would no doubt be quite conducive to creating communities that are filled with joy. And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing to see.

Image credit: Chad MaugerOriginally published on Sahar’s Blog on 9 August 2013

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The Many Facets of Beauty: From the Human Body to the Body of Humanity

The question of the objectification of the human body has become an even more sensitive one for me after experiencing pregnancy.  Why is it that the amazing potentialities of the human body to create life are not only limited to only its physical appearance, but that only a limited range of the way a human body can look is considered beautiful—and then it’s not considered beautiful in its fullness, but only because of how well it can gratify sexual appetite?

I don’t think it is wrong to appreciate the physical characteristics of the human body, nor is it wrong to spend time beautifying it further with makeup and carefully chosen clothes.  I actually think that it is showing respect to the human body’s full potentialities when we take care of it.  By the same token, there is nothing wrong with sexual attraction; it is a normal part of the human experience, one that, within the right context, brings great joy.

After all, we are all naturally attracted to beauty, however subjective its perception may be.  Thankfully there is a lot of it all over the place!  Otherwise it would make for a very boring world…

Which brings me to wonder: how do we consciously practice becoming more appreciative of beauty for the right reasons?  When it comes to the human body, how do we teach ourselves to learn to appreciate the beauty in all human forms?  How do we learn to weed out the narrow perception of beauty we have been fed and open up our minds to a broader yet still accept personal differences in opinion?

Questions, Questions, and More Questions

One thing I have found is that using a specific set of questions, or even just using one question as a mantra of sorts, can really help us start our journey towards a broader definition of beauty.  A simple “Why do I find this beautiful?” has helped me and a number of my friends start to understand why we find something beautiful.  Surprisingly enough, without having to do much else, we found ourselves appreciating the same thing in places we never expected to.  So for example, if we found someone beautiful because of the symmetry of their faces, we found ourselves appreciating symmetry on our desks, in buildings, in the way gardens are set up, even in the parking lot on the way to work.

No Bashing Allowed

There is an almost ingrained defensiveness in our opinions related to beauty—or lack thereof.  I think it is very important to let go of this attitude.  If we find something beautiful, that’s fine, even if we don’t understand why—and the same goes for something we don’t find beautiful.  But we have to be completely OK with the fact that not everyone will agree with us.

In the same vein, there is a reason why the narrow conceptions of beauty which society imposes on us has such a hold.  Going around bashing tall, thing, long-legged women goes against the spirit of learning to appreciate beauty in all its forms.  I’ll be the first to admit that models can be absolutely gorgeous.  And thin can definitely be beautiful!  The issue is that models and thin are not the only beautiful bodies around.

Letting Go of Insecurities

I have a feeling that the defensiveness is related to the insecurity that years of being exposed to messages that “anything outside of this narrow range of beauty is not beautiful”.  I know I have it, a number of my friends know they have it.  We have come to understand that us reacting to certain body types extolled as beautiful is a reflection of insecurities further nourished by the fashion and cosmetics industries.  In our journey to broaden our appreciation of beauty, then, we have had to consistently make sure that our insecurities are not keeping us from seeing a certain body type as beautiful for—oh irony—reasons just as superficial as those used to tout them as beautiful in the first place.

Final Thoughts

The idea of figuring out how to appreciate real beauty seems like something superficial to some.  But to me, the implications are huge.  If we can learn to appreciate the diversity of beauty in its physical sense, we can apply those same principles and skills to appreciating the diversity in opinions.  And imagine what we could do in such a world.

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Music Review: Nick de la Hoyde – ‘Passion’ EP

Music is a powerful form of art.  It always has an influence on our mind and on our soul.  In the context of constantly trying to contribute to one’s own personal development as well as to the development of our communities, music can be quite a potent ingredient.  But what kind of music?  How often?  How should we consume it?  I started reviewing music in an attempt to figure these questions out, and it’s even tougher than I thought it would be.  So: challenge accepted 😉


Nick de la Hoyde
Sydney, Australia’s 21-year-old Nick de la Hoyde brings together the sounds and vibes of hip-hop, pop, soul, R&B, and spoken word, creating a collection of songs both unique in their breadth and depth, yet approachable and radio-friendly. His debut EP, Passion, features single “The Longest Way”, the result of a collaboration with Chicago-based hip-hop producer Lemoyne Alexander (who worked with the likes of R. Kelly and Aaliyah).

The almost soft and ethereal “Aces” opens things up. Listeners are introduced to two realities: that de la Hoyde can both sing and rap. The pop, R&B, and hip-hop track moves between emotional band boy ballad and passionate rap artist which we soon discover seems to be de la Hoyde’s preferred formula. While “Aces” is nothing remarkably unique in the current soundscape of popular music, it is a strong, pleasant beginning to the EP. “By My Side” is just as predictable and enjoyable. Listeners start feeling secure that de la Hoyde’s great rapping flow and soulful singing are a rule and not an exception. The chorus is particularly catchy both in style and in content, and the light groove of this song carries through its entirety, building up towards the last burst of energy which closes the tune.

“The Longest Way” adds two great new elements to de la Hoyde’s music: guitars and thumping drums. It’s a call to remain true to one’s dreams and to remain hopeful despite the despair the structures of society seem to actively encourage. While the flow is just as flawless, the rapping is a little more laid-back, making it more interesting for audiences typically not interested in the genre. There is a certain joy and lightness in this track that leaves listeners uplifted long after it ends.

The smooth “Passion” brings things down, opening with toned down rapping and a simple piano line. One layer a time, including a synthesiser and drums, the song builds up to a—what else—passionate ending. The closing “No Consolation” brings back tighter rapping laid on a funky and upbeat melody. It has an almost rock-like quality, with a pop chorus that lies on the contemplative side, which comes as an interesting contrast to the rest of the song. Of particular note is the electric guitar line that launches the last moments of the track.

With a sound that embraces a collection of genre and lyrics that read like journal entries, Nick de la Hoyde has put together an EP that will resonate with many a fan, as his following of well over 100,000 on Instagram can attest to. Tracks are available for streaming on Bandcamp. More information is available on his official website; follow Nick on Twitter and Instagram.

Pictures provided by Independent Music Promotions.
First published on Blogcritics.

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Music Review: Skittish – ‘Two Legs Bad’

Music is a powerful form of art.  It always has an influence on our mind and on our soul.  In the context of constantly trying to contribute to one’s own personal development as well as to the development of our communities, music can be quite a potent ingredient.  But what kind of music?  How often?  How should we consume it?  I started reviewing music in an attempt to figure these questions out, and it’s even tougher than I thought it would be.  So: challenge accepted 😉


Minneapolis-based Skittish is set to release next month its latest album, Two Legs Bad. Jeff Noller, Brianna Tagg, Jeremy Krueth, and Lazarus Ulysses Clearwater come off as talented from the first bars all the way to the last ones, carrying listeners on a auditory path in which all tracks have a distinct feel but fit well under their band’s umbrella. Similarly, the sounds are vaguely familiar and yet have a unique twist that makes listening to them a journey of discovery.

The mid-tempo “Regarding the Wolf” starts off with a plucked electric guitar opening that leads into a throbbing, almost pulsating guitar and drum-driven pure rock track fronted by female and male vocals, both of which are distorted enough to bring another element to the table without distracting from the message Skittish is trying to convey. The pop rock “Shot in the Dark” conveys a completely different sound but builds very similarly: A slow tempo beginning is kicked into higher gear, with the female vocals coming through clearly this time. Those sensitive to coarse language might not appreciate the use of a radio-unfriendly word, but other than that, it’s a good track about dealing with the anxiety of not messing things up that comes from dealing with high stakes.

Up-tempo and driving “House Cats” features a modernised version of the quick, fast, jumping melody, carried by a guitar, typically associated with silly silent movies. Accompanied by a hand drum, the use of both female and male vocals specifically brings to mind a scene where a husband and a wife are trying to deal with a chaotic situation. “Roots” has a certain Caribbean hop to its beat thanks to the melody plucked on the bass. Mid-tempo “Baggage” is built on more typical rock and roll sounds and instruments—the good old combination of vocals, drums, and guitars.

The instrumentation on the ballad “Swim Away, Little Fish” features only a couple of guitars and delicate strings. Its vocals are mainly male with whispers of the female one intermittently weaving in and out. “Come Find Me” begins with a dance between plucked guitars, gentle drums, and soft female vocals before building up into a satisfying crescendo. Some of the effects added to the guitar bridge in “I Killed a Spider” bring to mind the squishing of a spider—yuck! The metaphor of a seemingly small action that has large scale repercussions is one much appreciated in this day of fast food, fast fashion, fast everything: “Today I killed a spider/Another thing that this world has changed.”

The piano ballad “Meet Your Maker” brings the album to a rewarding close.

Skittish’s Two Legs Bad contains a lot of diversity that seems to not be all over the place, instead fitting within a coherent auditory whole. They also bring to the table well-crafted melodies, talented vocals and instrumentation, and thought-provoking lyrics. More information is available on the band’s official website and on its Facebook page. Tracks are available for streaming on Bandcamp.

Pictures provided by Working Brilliantly.
First published on Blogcritics.

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Music Review: DownTown Mystic – ‘DownTown Mystic on E Street’ EP

Music is a powerful form of art.  It always has an influence on our mind and on our soul.  In the context of constantly trying to contribute to one’s own personal development as well as to the development of our communities, music can be quite a potent ingredient.  But what kind of music?  How often?  How should we consume it?  I started reviewing music in an attempt to figure these questions out, and it’s even tougher than I thought it would be.  So: challenge accepted 😉


DownTown Mystic, Robert Allen’s alter ego, released last June a four-track EP titled DownTown Mystic on E Street, which features members of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Allen’s passion for old school rock and roll comes through in all four of these tracks, although it’s hard to pinpoint a specific influence to each one. There are hints of so many different artists and rock and roll styles that it creates a sound both very familiar but fresh, not original but still engaging.

“Hard Enough” touches on its more boisterous, loud, and rollicking side, while the mid-tempo “And You Know Why” is melancholic and emotional, running on a simple guitar and drum line and a three part harmony chorus. The groovy “Way to Know” is more rolling than rocking, the melody featuring a relentlessness that drives it forward no matter what, giving is an anthemic quality further enhanced by easy to follow lyrics. This is a track to be seen performed live; one can easily imagine the band members playing off each other on stage. And while it is apparently a demo, closing track “Sometimes Wrong”, which shows off some great drumming, sounds already pretty great, perhaps more so than if it had been an actual polished recording.

While all four tracks definitely have a strong retro feel, mostly in the way they are stripped of modern day production fanfare, they are not outdated and would make for a solid addition to rock lovers’ music libraries. More information is available on DownTown Mystic’s official website and on their Facebook page. Tracks are available for streaming on SoundCloud.

Pictures provided by Working Brilliantly.
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Book Recommendation: ‘Multiple Listings’, by Tracy McMillan

Happy Sunday!  I use Sundays to plan and prepare for the upcoming week.  I have been asked so many times about the resources that help me plan a full week that I decided to launch the “Planning the Week” feature with three concomitant components: a recommended book to make your commute easier; a healthy recipe to make your week tastier and healthier; and a planning/planner tip to keep it all running smoothly.


As you ready yourself for another great week, are you wondering what book to take along with you on your commute?  Take a peek at this week’s book recommendation!

‘Multiple Listings’, by Tracy McMillan

Review here.

Purchase here.

Author website here.


What would you do if your ex-con father suddenly came to visit…indefinitely? Family drama ensues when Nicki’s dad unexpectedly moves in with her, her son, and her boyfriend in this comedic novel from successful TV writer Tracy McMillan.

Nicki Daniels owns a home appraisal business, but real estate is her true passion: she lives for open houses and really knows her way around a floor plan. And especially at this juncture of her life, real estate has come to signify the stability she is trying to build with her teenage son, Cody, and her much younger boyfriend, Jake. She’s finally ready to find the perfect house for the three of them and work on a new business venture with Jake that she thinks will jump-start their lives together.

Meanwhile, Ronnie, a longtime inmate at a nearby correctional facility, is getting some good news for once—there was a mistake in his sentencing, and he’s eligible to get out of prison. After a sixty-day stay in a halfway house, Ronnie decides his best option to avoid homelessness is to move in with his estranged daughter: Nicki. Even though they haven’t spoken in years, her door is always open to him, right?

Inspired by the author’s life and imbued with wit and profound insight into relationships, Multiple Listings speaks poignantly—and often hilariously—about the ties that bind families of all types together.

If you have a book you think I should recommend as part of this feature,
tweet me @saharou with a link to the book’s Goodreads or Amazon page!

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What Does My Baby Actually Need? The Balance Between Necessary Consumption Versus Over-Consumption

My husband and I are at the beginning of our journey as parents.  When we found out we were pregnant, we were elated.  True nerds that we are, we started lists for just about anything we had to decide.  One of these lists focused on our baby’s spiritual needs, and the other, on the little one’s material needs.

Experienced parents know (and parents-to-be, you have been warned): there is a LOT out there when it comes to baby gear.  Some of it seems essential; some of it is totally adorable; some of it doesn’t seem necessary but makes life easier; and some of it is apparently completely useless.

As my husband and I waded through the lists of items suggested by various stores and parenting resources (on top of all the recommendations that were being made by family and friends), the question that came to mind again and again was: do we *really* need all of this?

On the one hand, it seems like we are constantly encouraged to spend a lot of money on items that will fill up our living space but might or might not come in handy.

On the other hand, neither he nor I have experience as parents so who are we to tell?

How do we balance our feeling with our lack of experience?  I mean, it’s not like my husband and I don’t want to buy things for our little one; we want the baby to have everything it needs and we want those things to be quality products in as many ways as possible—including standing up as much as possible to ethical concerns.

What we decided to do was to research everything we were being recommended, from those we deemed essential to those we really don’t understand why we would need.  For each item, we decided on which one we would buy should it become evident that we need it.  We identified an online store where we could purchase said item and have it delivered within a reasonable amount of time (which varies according to the item, of course).

We figured that we are all caught, in North America, in a web of over-consumption.  But our lack of experience strips us of the ability to differentiate if some things are actually needed or if they are being pushed on us by this consumption machine.  So starting with the strict minimum then building on it with pre-done research felt like the best middle line to tread.

The most interesting thing we have noted to date is that we feel like we need more than we did before we started our research.  We don’t know yet if this is because we have learned from all our research and the great advice we have gotten from our friends, or if it is because we have fallen under the influence of the consumption machine.  All we feel we can do now is wait until the baby arrives and figure it out step by step, weighing the situation as it evolves and learn with each item we choose to purchase or not if we are being practical or just consuming for nothing.

This parenting thing just got even more interesting.

Picture courtesy of Wonderfelle Media

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Ask an Author: You Write What You Read

It’s finally summertime where I live, which means the season to spend time on a deck somewhere with a pitcher of ice-cold water and a pile of books to read!  A couple of years ago, I started reading not just books that I was interested in, but books that I wanted, as a writer, to emulate: storylines that I enjoyed, genres that got me engaged, writing styles that enveloped me from the first line, anything that I was aiming to be as a writer, I looked for in the books I read.

This is not a novel (ha) idea; it is a well-known fact in the writing world that you write what you read, as a writer is greatly influenced by the books he or she reads.  So this week we ask out group of writers: of the books that influenced you the most as an author, which handful would you recommend an aspiring writer first focus on?  Which books do you keep returning to again and again?  Which atypical book do you use as inspiration for your writing?

Lee Murray

As a person — and I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before — the book which most influenced me growing up was Dr Seuss’ Horton Hatches the Egg. My dad would read it to my brother and me, each of us sitting on a knee, and the book perched between us. Dad did the best voices: “I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant’s faithful 100%.” It’s a statement to stand by, and not just professionally. I’ve tried to live my whole life on this mantra. Plus, my dad made it pretty clear that you didn’t want to be one of life’s Lazy Maisey birds!

I’d love to return to books again and again — and I have reread childhood favourite To Kill a Mockingbird this year — but I no longer have time to reread books, when my to-read list is full to overflowing with new talent to discover. However, I recently attended StokerCon, the American Horror Writers’ convention in Las Vegas, where Bram Stoker Award-winning editor, Stephen Jones, reminded attendees of the importance of reading backwards in our genre, to rediscover those ground-breaking writers who made the genre what it is. It’s only reading those pioneers, that we can then challenge ingrained tropes to create something fresh, and perhaps ground-breaking in itself. So I may have to re-evaluate my thinking because re-reading may be just as important as reading something for the first time.

An atypical book I use for inspiration? Hmm. Maybe reading outside our own genres. If you never read romance, maybe pick up a romance. Or if horror isn’t your thing, try it again. Sometimes, reading outside our genre can help us discover innovative ways to approach our own storytelling.

Catherine Mede

I proofread a lot for other authors, and the books vary from erotic romance, to contemporary and urban paranormal.  I guess this is why I tend to focus my writing mostly on contemporary and paranormal books.  Reading these kinds of books gives you an idea of what other authors are writing, where their focus is.  Its all about genre trends, and reading the latest books coming out lets you know where the trends are heading.  Also reading their styles makes you realise what you do and don’t like about their writing styles, and adapting your own.

I don’t have a specific book that I read for inspiration, but J A Huss, Melissa Pearl, T. G. Ayer are my regular go to authors as I love their writing styles.

A.Carina Barry

I’d suggest reading something from every major genre.  Understanding the feel of the stories, the format and formulas will fuel their writing.  Just because you love sci-fi doesn’t mean you might not have a gambling scene on a space ship that could have come out of an old Western.  Just because you love fantasy, that doesn’t mean you won’t have an implacable foe that could do well in a horror novel.  Just because you write mysteries doesn’t mean you won’t have a fateful meeting of two lovers worthy of a romance novel.  To me, working with the different themes is like having different arrows in my quiver to draw on when I’m writing.  Creating a story is more like working with a mixing board for music.  You dial up some themes and down others, but you need to know what all is available to you.

That said, if you want a good book for a first-time writer as a reference, I’d recommend “How NOT To Write A Novel:  200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them, A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide”.  “The Emotional Thesaurus” is also a helpful one for avoiding the same words over and over.  As for regular novels, it depends on what moves them.  Mine include “Bardic Voices 1:  Lark and Wren”, “Hogfather”, “Dragonsinger”, “Valley of the Horses”, “House of Leaves”, “The Billionaire’s Muse”, “Needful Things” and pretty much anything from Stephen King and Louis L’Amore.  Go find yourself, and most of all, write.

A.J. Ponder

Of all the strange books in the world, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones is the one I’d recommend for aspiring fantasy authors. It’s a hilarious romp through fantasy tropes best avoided. (In alphabetical order.) Warning, never lend it out, it may not come back. Unlike Grunts by Mary Gentle which will never come back if you lend it out. So always keep your copy close at hand, unless you want to stay young and innocent, in which case, run a mile.

The other weird book I’d recommend aspiring science fiction authors is The Martian by Andy Weir. Yes, it’s the same book as the movie. Written in diary form, it’s innovative and accurate (mostly) but really, given the fact I still know where my copy is, Grunts and Tough Guide to Fantasyland are the outstanding picks – and worth returning to time and again. More so even than Verdigris Deep and The Hobbit, my most loved, and longest loved stories, in that order.

Our full roster of authors, in alphabetical order: A. Carina Barry, D. Odell Benson, F.C. Etier, Jean Gilbert, J. C. Hart, Hunter Marshall, Catherine Mede, Lee Murray, Karo Oforofuo, A.J. Ponder, Meryl Stenhouse, Lorene Stunson Hill, Lynn Voedisch, and Sybil Watters.

2 votes, 4.50 avg. rating (93% score)

Book Review: ‘Lighting their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World’, by Rafe Esquith

Every child has amazing capacities inherent in him, and these gems of inestimable value must be polished. Most parents and educators alike are more than eager to do so, but the question remains: how?

Who better to ask this question to – and get an answer from – than Rafe Esquith. He has been a teacher at Hobart Elementary school for over twenty years, and his classroom, Room 56, has made quite a name for itself for all the right reasons.

His first book, There Are No Shortcuts: Changing the World One Kid at a Time, introduced us to Room 56 and its magic. His second book, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, is filled with great advice on how to make that magic happen. In his third book, Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World, Rafe Esquith continues sharing insights gained from his more than 20 year’s worth of experience as a teacher, expanding on some of the themes covered in his first book, to expand the magic beyond the classroom.

These aren’t only books about inspiring children to become great students. After all, that’s not what’s the most important about education. Rather, these books are about how to inspire children to become thoughtful and honourable people, making good decisions at each crossroad they encounter during their lives and whose every action is imbibed with wisdom.

And you know you’re getting good advice when the person dispensing said advice is following it, too. This reality leaps out of the pages of this book, as Rafe Esquith strives to make parents and educators understand why he is giving the advice he is giving, rather than simply giving out a list of do’s and don’t’s.

The other thing Rafe Esquith does is to place the advice he gives in the context of his own personal learning experiences. The overarching plotline of this book is a Dodger’s game to which he took five of his students, but other stories from day-to-day encounters with his students and various programmes Rafe Esquith started fill the gaps.

The success of Rafe Esquith the teacher is probably linked to his true love for teaching, as well as his confident yet humble approach to ten-year-old children; for those of you who have had the experience, you know that an arrogant person cannot hope to achieve a working, two-way relationship with a youngster that age – the type of relationship which is the basis of Rafe Esquith’s teaching method.

And don’t think this means that he takes it easy with his students. Quite the contrary; he expects only the best from each and every one of them, and the simplest of things becomes a lesson enormous in its scope.

For example, one of his first pieces of advice is that children should be taught to always arrive on time. Relatively simple, you’d think – until he explains that arriving on time not only teaches children to respect others, but makes them aware of others who are not on time. And that’s not all there is: he continues to explain how this knowledge, combined with that age-group’s increasing powers of observation and capacity to analyse, helps the children correlate the fact that people who do not arrive on time are usually the ones who also show other signs of disregard for others.

And it doesn’t stop here.

Making children aware of the need to arrive places on time makes them aware of how time is limited to twenty-four hours a day. Coupled with various interests, encouraged and honed through after-school activities, children soon learn to use their time in more productive ways, rather than wasting it, say, in front of a TV screen – voluntarily.

Doesn’t that sound like a parent’s dream come true: a child who chooses not to turn on a television.

One exercise in particular that the author does with his students that struck me is when he helps them plan their week-ends. He actually does the math with them: if they leave the school at 5PM on Friday and are back by 6:30AM (you read that right) on Monday, that gives them 61.5 hours of ‘week-end’ time. Barring nine hours of sleep, six hours eating meals and doing chores, 10 hours of pre-planned family time (church, visits etc), that leaves the students with a whooping 18.5 hours of time. Rafe is generous; even with 13 hours of time to play, a child still has 5.5 hours left to do something else.

A child who realizes how precious time is will realize what a real treasure those five hours are; a child whose curiosity has been aroused and who has various interests will use these hours to satisfy that curiosity. While every second of the child’s free time doesn’t have to be pre-programmed, having a vision of its potentialities will help guide his decision between doing something constructive versus doing something destructive.

How can we further reinforce these lessons about time? Rafe Esquith has noted time and again (pun not intended) that one of the most efficient ways to do so is by teaching children how to play an instrument. On the one hand, the student has to be on time for his music lessons and has to make time to practice. But the student also has to know how to time each piece played to the beat of the metronome and, when the student plays with others, he or she learns that it isn’t playing well that counts, but also playing in time with the others.

By the same token, putting on plays (again, pun not intended) helps to reinforce the concept of time. The student has to make time and be on time for rehearsals and preparations, but also has to learn the importance of timing, especially when it comes to comedy routines and punch lines.

As if Shakespeare wasn’t already deep enough.

Another one of the important topics covered in this book is that of helping a child develop focus. It’s a well-known fact: focus is needed to achieve things, and, yet, because of the increasing distractions that surround them, children have a hard time developing it (and, it could be argued, adults have a hard time keeping theirs, too). It probably won’t come as a big surprise that television is one of the big culprits. However Rafe Esquith doesn’t tell us to turn off the TV or to get rid of them. Rather, he encourages parents and educators to make the children turn off the TV themselves. How they can manage this is intimately linked with the development of an appreciation for time and its limitless possibilities. Why sit and watch hours of TV when one can do so much other things?

Seriously, this book is brilliant, and no review less than fifty pages long can hope to sum up its awesomeness. It’s all the more inspiring that the author doesn’t only expect the best from his students; he also expects the best from parents and educators. While he is the first to admit that it’s not easy polishing the gems in each child, that it takes a lot of effort and time, he does make it sound remarkably simple once the basic principles of his philosophy are understood.

Of course, neither the philosophy nor the book is perfect. There are a couple of little things I don’t agree with. One of them is that Rafe Esquith presents altruism as something that needs to be taught. Having working with 11 to 14 year olds for over 10 years, when I myself was a teenager, I have come to realize that most kids (if not all) have a deep sense of justice and an innate sense of altruism. Parents and educators are only there to make that inherent gem shine, which is a task all the tougher since altruism is one of the first victims of today’s egocentric individualistic society.

Despite its weighty topic and the wisdom behind each piece of advice, this book is not only easy but a delight to read. It is a must not only for parents and educators, but for aunts, uncles, older siblings and cousins whose lives are blessed with children they love and would like to help become thoughtful and honourable.

Rafe Esquith’s book, Lighting their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World, hit bookstores in August 2009. You can read more about what is happening in Room 56 here.

First posted here on Blogcritics.
First posted on Sahar’s Blog on 3 June 2013.

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