Foreword Reviews

Favorite Interviews of 2021: Improving-You Edition

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As we do at the very beginning of every year, this week we’re offering you an assemblage of favorite questions and responses from the previous year’s fifty-plus interviews between reviewers and authors. Please give this an attentive read—we know you’ll find a few nuggets of wisdom to help make 2022 a year of great gains and growth.

Reviewer Kristine Morris Interviews Jessamyn Stanley, Author of Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance

Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance, is stunningly honest about your experiences as a fat, Black, queer woman in the mainly thin, White, straight world of American yoga. What was it that kept you going despite how others perceived you, misunderstood you, or communicated their belief that you didn’t belong?

There are few things more liberating than being able to ignore the perspectives of people who do not respect you. I have found other people’s lack of belief in me to be one of the greatest motivators and calls to action.

In a span of ten years or so, you went from practicing yoga in your living room to becoming a “yoga professional,” called upon to practice in ad campaigns for major brands like Adidas and Amazon—a transition that left you feeling conflicted. What was the source of this conflict, and how did you resolve it?

I think my conflict stems from the fact that capitalism and yoga really don’t go together. In particular, social media and yoga are at odds with each other: social media requires that you look outside yourself for answers, whereas yoga asks the opposite. I’m not sure that I’ve really resolved anything, but I have found that there is value in sharing my yoga practice with other people, specifically because it encourages and makes space for other people to live their own yoga practice. In my opinion, if each of us practiced some form of self-acceptance, yoga or otherwise, we’d have the potential for living in a world that navigates from a space of love and compassion as opposed to navigating from a space of fear.

*****

Reviewer Kristine Morris Interviews Charles Hood, Author of A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat: The Joys of Ugly Nature

One of the many things I loved about your book is the way a seemingly simple statement can reveal great depth and insight. For example, you quote Victor Hugo, who said, “The desert is where God is and man is not.” Having lived in the Mojave for thirty-plus years, what is there of God that you find in the desert, and why does it please you that other humans are scarce or absent?

People are annoying, plus they smell bad and spread disease. Who even invented them? There’s a C.S. Lewis throwaway line, “What rum little creatures humans are.” I am glad New York City exists since it provides the infrastructure to keep the Met up and running, but couldn’t there be some way to move the Met to someplace quieter, and with more parking? (Marfa, Texas, comes to mind, and you wouldn’t have to fly in and out of Newark to get there.) It’s a rare desert that won’t let you see the horizon, and doing that keeps you centered in the landscape, which in turn keeps you centered in your own body. Everybody should be able to point to where the sun is going to rise, where it is going to set, and which way you need to walk to reach a perfect place to take a nap. If you can’t see stars, you live in the wrong place.

*****

Reviewer Kristen Rabe Interviews Alexis Conason, Author of The Diet-Free Revolution: 10 Steps to Free Yourself from the Diet Cycle with Mindful Eating and Radical Self-Acceptance

Your insights are timely as people emerge from the pandemic lockdown, many with a few extra pounds. What’s your advice for people considering a new diet or exercise regime to shed the extra weight?

I encourage people to look at the complete diet cycle when deciding whether to go on a diet. That is, do diets work for you in the long-term? We tend to credit our short-term weight loss to a successful diet and then blame ourselves when we go off-track and regain the weight. But, as I explain in my book, dieting inherently involves both parts of the cycle, the part where you are on the wagon and the part where you fall off. Diets don’t work for 80-95 percent of people, and I have a hard time believing that all those people are unmotivated, weak-willed, or undisciplined. When the product fails for up to 95 percent of its users, clearly the product is faulty.

I have a ton of compassion for people who want to lose weight and see dieting as the solution. This is natural in a culture that villainizes fatness and idealizes thinness. Especially as we emerge from the pandemic, body image issues are intense. A recent survey from the American Psychological Association found that over 60 percent of adults in the US experienced unwanted changes in body size during the pandemic. The weight loss industry is capitalizing on our insecurities and ramping up marketing for diet plans. As the public figures out that diets don’t work, diet companies are rebranding themselves as wellness companies, lifestyle changes, or even anti-diets, while selling the same old product. It’s all really confusing! Remember, your body just survived a global pandemic, and that is incredible. I wish we could take some time to celebrate that instead of shifting right back into cycle of judgement and shame.

*****

Reviewer Danielle Ballantyne Interviews Elissa Washuta, Author of White Magic: Essays

This interview could not do your book justice without addressing a central theme within it: cultural appropriation. Even beyond the realm of the occult, Western culture has borrowed yoga for their health and wellness and feng shui in their interior design, to name but two examples. Do you feel appreciation rather than appropriation of cultural and religious traditions and practices outside of your own is possible? If so, how should people approach partaking in them?

The cultural appropriation conversation felt like it began to stall and circle after a while, at least on Twitter, and I’m really looking forward to reading Paisley Rekdal’s Appropriate once school’s out for summer, because she’s incredibly insightful and has a way of deftly parting the weeds our online literary world conversations get into.

Definitely, I think appreciation is possible without appropriation, but real appreciation doesn’t mean pulling cultural items/knowledge out of context and incorporating them into the dominant culture without permission. A lot of “appreciation” still does that, and that’s appropriation.

Genuine appreciation requires learning how to interact with the knowledge/art/etcetera on its own terms, and then doing that without straying from established boundaries. I too often get the sense that settler culture is looking for permission in any blurriness in logic around this. When it comes to Indigenous spirituality, the answer is clear to me: the best way to show appreciation is to leave us alone and to demand that federal, state, and local governments stop harming our land. A settler building a sweat lodge does nothing good for me.

*****

Reviewer Melissa Wuske Interviews Shelly Tygielski, Author of Sit Down to Rise Up: How Radical Self-Care Can Change the World

For those new to mindfulness and self-care, what’s a good transformative practice to start with?

I always tell people to start with the simplest thing that is available to all of us: our breath. Our breath is portable, it doesn’t require a battery, and it is always there from the moment we wake and even in the moments we are in a deep state of sleep. I remind people that meditation can begin with a simple pause—ten seconds, fifteen seconds, sixty seconds. It doesn’t need to be a formalized practice initially. It can look like a “reset” between activities to help ground us and help us to show up more fully with a different quality of presence. I’ve often read that as healers and teachers, we need to “meet people where they are,” and I think that we need to apply that to ourselves, too. We need to meet ourselves where we are right now, in this moment of our lives, without setting expectations that we can’t live up to in this moment. Fifteen seconds of conscious breathing, a simple box breath or a 4-7-8 breath, is doable. Do what is doable first and don’t discount how much impact that can have. It helps you start somewhere.

*****

Reviewer Tanisha Rule Interviews Eugen Bacon, Author of The Road to Woop Woop and Other Stories

How do the sciences influence your writing?

Speculative fiction writers know that nothing is black or white. There are all shades of grey and the colourless: hybrid creatures, parallel universes … Hard science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, or Larry Niven created art that leveraged from science.

In a 2008 study of “geniuses” and creative proclivity, Robert Root-Bernstein et al, determined that arts foster scientific accomplishment. The investigation considered Nobel laureates, National Academy, Royal Society, and Sigma Xi members and concluded that most geniuses are polymaths—the Greek term for a person whose expertise spans across various subject areas. An inspection of biographies, autobiographies, and obituary notices uncovered notable artistic ability, as in music, painting, or literary creation, in these geniuses, affirming them as “hybrids;” well-adjusted all-rounders’ with ability to be both scientists and artist-humanists.

And perhaps there is no true artist or scientist, but rather inhibited polymaths who could well benefit from exercising both sides of their brain.

As an artist, I learn structure, organised scepticism, curiosity, attention to detail, adaptive persistence, and a solutions focus from science. As a scientist, I learn passion, aesthetics, vision, creativity, inherent meaning, diversity, uniqueness, and the non-linear from art.

Through speculative fiction I can ask fundamental philosophical questions, interrogate the past and learn from it, contemplate a future with paradigm-shifting possibilities.

*****

Reviewer Rachel Jagareski Interviews Sean Adams, Author of How Design Makes Us Think: And Feel and Do Things

Graphic design, as with so many other design disciplines, goes through style cycles. Do you think it is vital to balance being in step with the current style and having a particular timeless design?

This is such a great question. The solutions we classify as timeless are often clearly connected to a specific time. A Marianne Brandt lamp from the Bauhaus is elegant, flawless, and classic. But it has an inherent relationship to the Bauhaus and 1920s. Avram Finkelstein’s poster Silence=Death is hugely successful and embedded in the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Thirty years ago, I decided to stop trying to design work that was “cool.” I’m the last thing from groovy, so why try? I found it enormously liberating to not see the trendiest typeface, color palette, or form. I could focus on solutions that I believed were the best rather than worrying about the hipness quotient.

I often tell students that desperation in design, trying to be amazingly cool and “with it,” is like desperation in dating, not a good look.

*****

Reviewer Michelle Anne Schingler Interviews David Ebenbach, Author of How to Mars

I absolutely loved that one of Josh’s early reactions to finding out that he was going to be a father was to ask Jenny about raising their child as a Jew on Mars. But ours is a very community-centered religion, which made me wonder: what would Judaism on Mars look like? How would one observe Shabbat there, for example (to say nothing of minyanim)?

You know, our minds are going to pretty similar places. I’ve actually got a blog post called “Judaism in Space” coming out sometime soon on the Jewish Book Council’s blog, The Paper Brigade Daily. In that piece I talk about how Judaism is a really time-bound and place-bound religion, with certain holidays tied to certain seasons and lots of emphasis on sundowns and all of us facing Jerusalem during certain prayers, and I ask what we would do if we were cut loose from Earth’s patterns and places. It’s a head-scratcher, for sure.

But you raise a different question that I love, which is about the community. As the saying goes, “you can’t be a Jew alone.” And yet there’s Josh, the only Jewish person on the planet. What does it even mean to be Jewish under those conditions? Well, I think it’s significant that he only really starts to think about it when a kid’s coming, because that means the community is growing. That new kid, if the parents decide to encourage it, has the potential to make Judaism plural on Mars.

If you’re curious, I deal with these questions a bit in my short story “What Lights We Have,” a quasi-sequel to How to Mars. But the short answer, I think, is that Judaism has been through enormous change before—I mean, our ancestors practiced their religion by sacrificing animals at a single central Temple. And we adapted, focusing on ways to preserve what mattered most to us, and we survived. And we may well need to do it again.

*****

Reviewer Kristine Morris Interviews Katharine Norbury, Editor of Women on Nature: 100 Voices on Place, Landscape, and the Natural World

You wrote that “it is our species that has the capacity to act, consciously, for the good of the whole. To act, to conserve, to change, to renew, to invigorate that which we encounter, not merely to observe and catalogue its fall.” What do you think stops people from taking action? What do you think it will take for people to realize what’s at stake? What might appropriate and effective action look like?

The naturalist Jane Goodall has said that what separates us from the great apes is our linguistic ability. However, I suspect that it’s our linguistic ability that enables us to describe concepts that we are currently unable to process. It’s all too abstract, too apocalyptic. We need concrete images. For example, in parts of China there are no longer any bees, so fruit trees are pollinated by hand by people with paint brushes and little pots of pollen. Can you imagine that happening in the USA? Yet one in every three mouthfuls of the food we eat is pollinated by bees or other insects. We need to stop using insecticides and pesticides in our back yards and learn to be happy with a little wildness. We need to make changes in our own lives. How about stopping the use of plastic? Go back to brown paper bags and waxed paper. We managed fine without plastic until about forty years ago!

We must learn our proper place and start inhabiting it. Quickly. We should ask why so many people are on the move. What is the refugee crisis really about, and how much of it is caused by degradation of habitat, rising temperatures, loss of water supply, and the ensuing societal breakdown? When we don’t address these issues, what is gained and what is lost are far from equal.

We have much to learn from Indigenous communities, and from the ancient Celtic tradition of the “wise woman.” The spiritual path is another way into thinking about our place in the Universe and our responsibility towards our common home. The Abrahamic religions have been fantastically slow to wake up and smell the coffee, although the Greek Orthodox Church has had a deep interest in the natural world for a long time. But in general, they’ve all been pretty low-key in shouting out the message.

Barbara Hodge

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