Shouldn’t relaxing be easy? But it’s not.

We live in stressful times, but I imagine that times have always been stressful. It could not have been relaxing to have lived in an age when you spent most of your waking day gathering food and trying to survive.

I  have written here a number of times about things that would fall under mental health or relaxation techniques, such as meditation. But I haven’t written about several of the ways I have tried to manage stress or even relax in order to sleep.

This was all inspired by watching a yoga class and seeing the people go into the Savasana or Corpse Pose. It is one that looks to be incredibly easy and yet is sometimes called the most difficult of the asanas. It is “simply” lying on the floor.

How easy is it for you to turn off stress and the world around you and just say, “I’m going to relax now” when you mind is racing with thoughts and your body is tense?

I know that some nights when I am trying to go to sleep and can’t, it seems like trying to relax is actually making me more stressed out.

Some people would tell you that relaxation can be zoning out in front of the TV. But brain research always shows that watching TV actually activates parts of the brain and doesn’t help the areas that control things like sleep. Of course, I will admit to falling asleep while watching TV, but it seems it is not so much the programs that are putting me into sleep mode.

Some relaxation techniques are not at all “New Age” thinking but the result of scientific research. The Mayo Clinic recommends some relaxation techniques.  One of those techniques is one I actually did first learn in a yoga class. The medical term would be progressive muscle relaxation. In this relaxation technique, you focus on slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group. I was taught that lying in that corpse pose, I should begin by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes. You then progressively work your way up your body – the calf muscles, knees, thighs, buttocks, fingertips, arm, shoulder, chest, neck and finally even the parts of your face. I was taught to tense muscles for a count of five seconds and then relax them completely before moving up the body.

Doing this while lying on a soft mat after a yoga workout made me want to take a nap. Though I no longer practice any true yoga, I do still use this technique when I want to fall asleep – both for a nap or a night’s sleep. It doesn’t work all the time, but it has about a 50% success rate for me.

Stimulating breath (sometimes called “bellows breath”) is often a yogic breathing techniques designed to raise energy and increase alertness rather than relax you.

Breathing should be easy. We do it all day without even thinking about it. Anyone who has taken a meditation class knows that thinking about breathing is something that is really emphasized. Though I never became convinced that counting my breath was helping me, several breathing exercises have stuck with me as practices.

Most of us breathe quite shallowly. Taking a deep breath is something out of the ordinary.  Sometimes we sigh a deep breath. the doctor asks us to take a few in our checkup. We suck in a big breath after exerting yourself physically. But it is extraordinary rather than ordinary.

Think about how someone who is hyperventilating is told to breathe into a paper bag. Though most of us take shallow breaths and deeper breaths is probably a good practice, hyperventilating is “overbreathing” and in that case it is not a good practice.

The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is very simple and can be done at almost any time. Some people recommend it as a stress break while seated, perhaps at your desk. I know someone who told me that if he tries to do it before he goes to sleep, he rarely gets past 6 repetitions before he falls asleep.

Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise.
Exhale, completely emptying your lungs through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
Close your mouth, inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of seven.
Exhale completely again for a count of eight.
This one breath will have an exhalation that is twice as long as inhalation.

I know that this ratio of 4-7-8 is always said to be important, but I find the counting distracting. I modify it to an untimed maximum lung capacity inhalation, hold for four, and then totally empty my lungs. I had my wife time it once and it came out to be about 5-6-8 for me without counting, which is pretty close. A friend told me that rather than counting she repeats a phrase that times out at about the 4-7-8 cycles.

The relaxation response is a state of deep rest that is the opposite of the stress response. When the relaxation response is activated, your heart rate slows, breathing becomes slower and deeper, and your blood pressure drops or stabilizes, your muscles relax and blood flow to the brain increases. It is definitely something to strive for in your day and night.



A friend asked me this past week what I do when I hit writer’s block. She was really referring to writing poetry, but that block hit me last weekend here in Paradelle. Nothing inspired me to write, so I only posted one instead of the usual three posts.

Back in the 19th century, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described an “indefinite indescribable terror” at not being able to produce work he thought worthy of his talent. He also claimed that French writers created this idea that all writers have to suffer to write.

I had bookmarked an article by Jennifer Lachs about writer’s block, so I decided to read it and write about not being able to write. Of course, the block can also be a creative block that goes wider than just writing.

The article quotes playwright Paul Rudnick who says that “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write.”  You have to write?  Unless you’re on deadline, no one has to write.

A dictionary might define writer’s block as “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.” Is it psychological?

In the book Fire Up Your Writing Brain, author Susan Reynolds turns to neuroscience to turn on the brain’s creativity for writers in particular.

Reynolds actually claims that it being a psychological condition is a myth. (Others disagree)  She feels the brain can be used to generate that creative spark and defeat the  procrastination that we call a block.

Her approach includes some self-study about the type of writer you are, and  developing writing models.

A believer in neuroplasticity, she says you can hardwire your brain for endurance and increased productivity.

Arguing about whether writer’s block is a real psychological issue or a romantic term coined by writers won’t help you if you hit a block.

Why do you get blocked?  I found several lists online. Some items resonate with me, some do not.

Is it fear of failure or rejection? Are you such a perfectionist that you can’t get started? Certainly many of us are our own toughest critics. All of these are fear in some way.

If you really have to write because it is your work or you have a deadline to meet, that pressure can block people.

The solutions are even more numerous than the causes. Feeling blocked? Try these block breakers. Do some exercise. Take a walk. Do something aerobic.

I have often heard that you should do something completely different from the task at hand for a bit. That sounds like procrastination, but switching tasks just for a short time might reset your brain. make a cup of tea. Try drawing something. Einstein famously would pick up his violin and play some Mozart when he hit a creative wall.

You can combine several solutions – take the dog (or just yourself) for a walk. That is exercise, a different task and also a change of scenery. Cook something, rake some leaves, sew, knit, sculpt,  do some woodworking, paint a wall or a landscape, chop some firewood.

Some current research finds that doing something with your hands when you are blocked in your brain.

If that seems too much like procrastination, for writers, free-writing can be a block breaker. Writing without rules, about whatever pops into your head can let the imagination free. I’m not good at this. I tend to keep drifting in my writing back to the task.

It is also recommended that you block back. Get rid of distractions – not an easy task in this distractible times.  Certainly email, social media, 24 hour news and movies on your phone can take you away from your writing. I think this is a mythical solution. As much as I would love a cabin out in the woods for a writing place, I could see me sitting there unable to write and distracted by rabbits and a river.

It bothers some of my writer friends but I rarely ever feel blocked. One of my methods is keeping notebooks full of ideas, a note on my phone where I list one-liner poetry ideas (there are 133 there now) and usually a few blog posts in draft mode that I started and stalled on.

Maybe it is a time-of-day, circadian rhythms issue for you. Are you more productive at certain times? I write best in the morning and at night. Afternoons, not so great. But if I am banging up against that block at 9 a.m., I might do something else and come back at 3 p.m.

Recommendations often say that binge writing is not recommended. Smaller sessions are better. John Updike, who was very productive, treated his writing like a regular job. he went to an office and didn’t let himself out for lunch until he had produced a certain amount of writing. It might be a poem, a few pages in the novel or even answering mail.

Poet William Stafford was famous for writing a poem every morning when he woke and before breakfast. How did he do it? He admitted that he lowered his standards. It was a case of progress, not perfection. Perfectionism is a block builder. I followed that philosophy when I did my poem-a-day project 365 times in 2014.



A “Barnes Dance” is not a “barn dance.” The latter is an old-fashioned dance involving traditional or folk music with traditional dancing that was once held in a barn, but probably is held in almost any kind of place these days.  But a Barnes Dance  The Barnes Dance (or Shuffle or Scramble) is a street-crossing system that stops all traffic and allows pedestrians to cross intersections in every direction at the same time.

This system was first used in Kansas City and Vancouver in the late 1940s and was then adopted in other cities such as Denver, Colorado, New York, San Diego, Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.

I regularly see news stories, like this one in New York magazine, about traffic and pedestrian safety.  That article says that NYC has only one remaining Barnes Dance intersection (where Broadway meets Battery Place and State Street), so it is an idea that has fallen out of favor it seems.

At one of these intersections, the car traffic halts for a bit so pedestrians can cross in all directions — including diagonally. Take a look at the one shown here in the Shibuya part of Tokyo.  It looks quite chaotic, but it works – as long as all the vehicles stop and all the pedestrians make it across in time.

Shibuya Crossing

Click image for video of the intersection in action

In some places, this type of  intersection is called an “X Crossing,” diagonal crossing or exclusive pedestrian interval.

First used in Canada and the United States in the late 1940s, it seems to have fallen out of favor partially because it was seen as prioritizing flow of pedestrians over flow of car traffic.That seems to me to be a plus rather than a negative, but I guess traffic engineers are more interested in vehicles.

Who is Barnes? It is Henry A. Barnes, who was an American traffic engineer and commissioner who served in many cities, including Flint, Michigan; Denver, Colorado; Baltimore, Maryland; and New York City. Barnes came up with a bunch of innovations in traffic engineering, including coordinated traffic signals, actuated traffic signals that are set off by the presence of an automobile or a pedestrian pushing a button, and the introduction of bus lanes.

Barnes actually said that he did not “invent” the concept of the Barnes dance but he did promote its use. The phrase originated with a reporter, John Buchanan, who wrote, “Barnes has made people so happy, they’re dancing in the street.”  I don’t recommend dancing in intersections of any type.


Keep an eye on the live video from on board and let us know if you spot any aliens.

That Tesla roadster out in space will, like an asteroid, make its first close pass of Earth in 2091. I don’t think I’ll be around for that event, so I’ll post now.

After that pass by Earth, scientists say it has a 50 percent chance of continuing to orbit for a few tens of millions of years. Eventually, it will collide with a planet or fall into the Sun. If it makes it back to Earth, the atmosphere will burn up most of it before it hits the ground.

For now, it is safely on its way out past Mars, playing David Bowie to deaf, airless ears. It also carries on its dashboard screen the always appropriate message to Earthlings and anyone else who might encounter it: Don’t panic.



Young Vincent

I finally saw the beautifully animated film, Loving Vincent.  It is an Academy Award and Golden Globe Nominee for Best Animated Motion Picture. It tells a part of the life and also investigates the controversial death of Vincent Van Gogh.

It is told by his paintings and by the characters that inhabit them. It takes place one year after Vincent van Gogh’s death. A postman who knew Vincent asks his son Armand to deliver Van Gogh’s last letter to his brother, Theo. Armand goes to the town not even knowing that Vincent is dead and interviews people who knew Vincent in an attempt to deliver that letter.

He finds the circumstances of the death suspicious. Only weeks before, Vincent had said in letters he was in a good mood, calm and working and in need of new canvasses.

What makes the film unique is that each of the film’s 65,000 frames is essentially an oil painting on canvas. A team of 125 painters using the same technique as Van Gogh created the images which often flow one into another as the paint swirls.

I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?

Vincent Van Gogh wrote hundreds of letters. Most of them were to his brother Theo who often supported him and his painting and served as his “art dealer” – not a very good one, since only one of his paintings sold in Vincent’s lifetime. He signed many of the letters “Your Loving Vincent.”  He also wrote to other family members and fellow artists including Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard.

His prose is very detailed, especially about his work. Some are illustrated with sketches and some of the collections put the letters beside the paintings he is describing.

Everyone who works with love and with intelligence finds in the very sincerity
of his love for nature and art a kind of armor against the opinions of other people.

The film was inspiring. It inspired me to borrow a few books to read more about Vincent and particularly to read his letters:  Letters of VincentVan Gogh’s Letters: The Mind of the Artist in Paintings, Drawings, and Words, 1875-1890, Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh and Van Gogh: The Life

The film and books also inspired me to take out my paints and brushes. I am the most-amateur of painters, but I have been setting things down in watercolors since I was in college, though very sporadically.

You have to let your creativity out. Usually, I do that with poetry. Visually, I am far more likely to take a photograph than paint. That is also a creative outlet but, for me, one done more from laziness.


Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat

What am I in the eyes of most people?
A good-for-nothing, an eccentric and disagreeable man,
somebody who has no position in society and never will have.
Very well, even if that were true, I should want to show by my work
what there is in the heart of such an eccentric man, of such a nobody.

Vincent was educated mainly in what he called “the free course at the great university of poverty.” He wanted to find purpose in his life after what knew was a long period of searching without purpose.

One who has been rolling along for ages as if tossed on a stormy sea
arrives at his destination at last; one who has seemed good for nothing,
incapable of filling any position, any role,
finds one in the end, and, active and capable of action,
shows himself entirely differently from what he had seemed at first sight.

self portrait

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

Vincent suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions. He often neglected his physical health, not eating and drinking too much wine.

His friendship with Gauguin ended after a confrontation with a razor, which resulted in him severing part of his own left ear. He spent time in psychiatric hospitals, including a period at Saint-Rémy.

In the film, they cover some of the time he spent after he discharged himself from a hospital. He moved to the Auberge Ravoux in Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris. There he befriended a homoeopathic doctor, Paul Gachet.

There are two versions of his death. One is that as his depression deepened, on 27 July 1890, he shot himself in the chest with a revolver. That is a very odd way to commit suicide.

Another version is that he was shot, probably by a man from the village who had harassed Vincent during his time there. The position of the wound suggests this version makes more sense.

In either version, he dies in the seemingly non-existent care from Gauchet two days later.


Van Gogh was unsuccessful during his lifetime. He is considered to be a genius, a madman and a failure. His fame came after his death. I doubt that he would be happy that he is often seen as a misunderstood genius or that it took until the early 20th century for him to be recognized as a great painter.

Van Gogh gave his 1889 Portrait of Doctor Félix Rey to Dr Rey. The physician was not fond of the painting and used it to repair a chicken coop, and later gave it away. In 2016, the portrait was housed at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and estimated to be worth over $50 million.

Vincent and Theo's graves at Auvers-sur-Oise

Vincent and Theo’s graves at Auvers-sur-Oise


I was digging through some boxes in storage and open a box of children’s books. Most of them are ones that I bought for my sons in the 1980s-90s, but there are a stack of ones that were mine in the 1950s and even a few that were given to me as a kid that were from the 1930s and 40s.

Right on top of the stack was The Poky Little Puppy. It is a book that might have been purchased for a child from 1942 through now. This children’s book was written by Janette Sebring Lowrey and illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren and is one of the first twelve books in the Simon & Schuster series Little Golden Books.

This simple story about beagle pups was at one time and might still be the all-time best-selling hardcover children’s book in the U.S. Since 1942, it has remained in print and there have been other sequels and extensions of those beagle pup stories.

I remember reading the book as a child and had a copy for many years. Too bad I didn’t save pristine first edition as it would be worth quite a bit more now than their original price of 25 cents. I read at the Mental Floss site that before Little Golden Books, children’s books weren’t a big thing. Most were large volumes made more for parents to read and fairly expensive – $2 to $3 each, which is about $28 – $42 in today’s money.

A man named George Duplaix of the Artist’s and Writer’s Guild, partnered with Simon & Schuster Publications and Western Printing to publish small, sturdy, inexpensive books with fewer pages, simpler stories, and more illustrations so kids would be the actual owners and readers.  A series already existed called Golden Books, so the new line was dubbed Little Golden Books.

Another title from those early days that has survived is Tootle from 1945 about a young locomotive who loves to chase butterflies through the meadow. Since most of the Little Golden Book stories carried a lesson for their readers, Tootle has to learn to stay on the tracks if he really wants to achieve his dream of being a Flyer between New York and Chicago. Play by the rules kids!

I’m not sure all parents today would like that Tootle lesson and might instead encourage some butterfly chasing. But in The Saggy Baggy Elephant, we have a theme that might even resonate better now than in the 1940s and 50s.  A mean parrot makes fun of Sooki’s big ears, long nose, and wrinkled skin. This young “saggy baggy” elephant certainly lacks confidence. But in his travels, he finds some beautiful creatures who look just like him, and so discovers his own beauty and acceptance. This book was illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren, who also did The Poky Little Puppy.

The odds that you read these books to yourself or have read them to kids are pretty good. I have an immediate connection with these books because of the shiny golden spine they all have that made them stand out on a shelf. The Poky Little Puppy is the top-selling children’s book but others in the series became bestsellers, including Tootle, Scuffy the Tugboat, and The Little Red Hen. And some of the illustrators, like Richard Scarry, have become quite famous for their artwork and better know for their own books.

The Little Golden Books series wasn’t just fiction. It included books on nature and science, Bible stories, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales. I have several Christmas titles, and I bought a number of books for my sons that featured  crossover characters from other media, like Sesame Street, The Muppets, Disney, and some TV and movie tie-ins. In my own collection are older crossover titles from Hopalong Cassidy, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin and Captain Kangaroo.

From the time that the original 12 titles were released in 1942,  1.5 million copies had been sold within five months. One reason they sold so well is that they were available more readily in department stores, drug stores, and supermarkets rather than just in bookstores. My mother often bought me books when I was home sick from school or on vacation or when I accompanied her shopping downtown.


I found that more than two billion Little Golden Books have been sold. They seem to be priced around $3-4 these days – still a bargain for a book.

My own kids may have read Pokemon, and Thomas the Tank Engine books, and now Dora the Explorer, Dinosaur Train and SpongeBob SquarePants might be more popular titles. I know my boys got a few Little Golden Books with McDonald’s Happy Meals.

If there are copies hiding in boxes in your attic and you are thinking that they might be worth big bucks, here are some facts to consider. It is difficult to determine if you have some original editions if you base that on the copyright date. That rarely changes from the original printing.

For a first edition, a blue spine means it was published between 1942 and 1947 (the edition number will be on the first or second page). Original books in great condition often sell for $100 or more.

A letter near the spine on the lower-right corner of the last page will tell you it was published between 1947 and 1970 and an “A” means first edition, “B” is second edition. They had to start over, so an “AA” is the 27th edition.

The third period of books have a series of letters on the first few pages of the book. These books are from 1971 to 1991 and the first letter is that same letter system – “A” is a first edition from that period.

Between 1991 and 2001 the publisher went to years written in Roman numerals on the title page. An “A” in front of the year means it’s a first edition, and an “R” means it’s a revised edition – and no letter means who-knows-what-edition you own. , there’s no definitive way to know what edition it is.

Since 2001, the copyright page has a series of numbers and the last one is the edition.




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If I had wings and I could fly
I know where I would go
But right now I'll just sit here so contentedly
And watch the river flow. -BD Here, in a sanctuary, some of my brave student poets read their work at a poetry slam.  # bravery Feeling a bit out of place and time. The man with the foolish grin is sitting perfectly still The kid. On his birthday, 16 years later. Yeah, that kind of day.  #Metropolis


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