Get Cozy and Read This Winter!

As the air gets colder and it’s pitch dark by 5:00, it is easy to get caught in a cycle of boredom. For someone who finds doing things outdoors relaxing but hates cold, I find it especially hard to come up with things to do to unwind. I know with the recent spree of every book ever being turned into a movie or television show, reading may seem superfluous to some, but there is nothing like making a hot drink, grabbing a blanket, and kicking back with a good book as the darkness looms through the windows. Here are some of my favorite books, by category, to get you started.

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(My favorite mug is courtesy of illustrator Feral Doe)

Coming Of Age Tale: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

This novel deals center around Callie/later Cal and their experience with an oft misunderstood affliction, but the story is about so much more than just them. It is about the history of a Greek American family and their travels to come to reside in Michigan, USA (woot! Shoutout to my home for the past 27 years!), and it is about how our family’s history and choices trickle down and touch our current lives as well.  It is also about how different isn’t always something that needs to be “fixed”.

Runner Ups: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, The Girls by Lori Lansens

Romantic Drama: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

This story is very different and much more straightfoward from Murakami’s other works, but it still has his distinctive style. It is a moving portrayal of love and loss, the affect a suicide has on those left behind, and a window into how young people navigate relationships in the aftermath of an intense trauma, just as they are trying to still figure out who they really are, and who they will become as adults.

Runner Ups: There are none. I really don’t read romantic stories at all, and only tried this one because it was Haruki Murakami and I had loved his other more surreal works – so glad I gave it a chance!

Horror: Other People by Neil Gaiman

This is actually a short story from Neil Gaiman’s collection, Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders, yet it was more chilling than any full length novel I had ever read, and I’ve read a lot of Steven King ;). This simple short story paints a specific picture of one way the author envisions hell, and it stuck with me for days after. You can click the link above to read the full short story online.

Runner Ups: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Tommyknockers by Steven King (Don’t judge this by the horrible made-for-TV movie like I originally did – this is nothing like it.)

Fantasy: The Name Of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Like Harry Potter, this is another series about a young boy discovering his potential for magic and despite all odds entering a magical school for learning the art of wizardry. I personally enjoyed this series far more (though I must be candid … the author is really dragging his feet on adding more books and continuing the story!). The characters both major and minor are uniquely developed and full of personality, and the story covers the gamut of emotions from moments that are exciting and tense, comical, and also sad.

Runner Ups: Game Of Thrones Series by George R.R. Martin (Yes, there are books. I am absolutely gobsmacked by the number of people who seem to not know this.), American Gods by Neil Gaiman – or really anything at all by Neil Gaiman.

Sci-Fi: Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

I’ve always been fascinated by dreams, and wished desperately as a kid that someone would invent a VHS recorder that could be hooked up to people’s brains and record their dreams. In this book, they have something even cooler – a device that psychologists can use to enter their client’s dreams and hopefully gain insight that can help them better assist them in their struggles. With great power comes great responsibility, and of course, chaos ensues. I watched the anime film first, not even knowing it was based on a novel. The book gives extra details where the film left confusing gaps, and is a little more intense and dark at parts than the more whimsical movie.

Runner Up: Tuf Voyaging by George R.R. Martin

Biography: Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson 

This is a difficult read, but something I believe should be required reading for both adults and high school students as well. Even as progress has been made since the time of this story, there are still many today who count the lives of those with disabilities as worth less than “normal” individuals. This sort of thinking is not innate, it is learned and therefore with education and awareness can be unlearned.

Runner Ups: Frida by Hayden Herrera (later adapted into a film starring Salma Hayek), The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy With Autism by Naoki Higashida

Family Drama:

The Marriage Artist by Andrew Winer

This is another story about the intersection of family history and the nation’s history, specifically revolving around the time of the Holocaust, and the trickle down impact of our family’s beliefs, words, and actions down the line. It is rich, complex, and riveting, and taught me a lot I didn’t know before about Jewish culture, including the artistry and meaning behind Ketubahs.

Runner Up: All Families Are Psychotic by Douglas Coupland

On Mental Health: The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore

This novel alternates between the individual narratives of each of the main characters. I absolutely love when writers use that technique, so that made this story enjoyable for me from the get go. Memory is a poignant part of each character’s life in some way, from dealing with Alzheimer’s to living with synesthesia and a subsequent photographic memory,  to studying memory and psychology, to dealing with a traumatic past memory that consumes the present. As the character’s lives begin to intersect more and more, the reader is prompted to consider the role memory plays in their own life.

Runner Ups: The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan, A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

Historical Fiction: Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien

This was about the only required book I enjoyed in high school. It blends reality with fantasy so that the reader is constantly unsure what is real and what is not, much like the main character. It explores the meaning and role of bravery, and the effect the strain of war has on the mind.

Runner Ups: The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny, Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann, Requiem by Francis Itani, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Social Critique: Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum

This book was my first introduction to disability activism. It takes place in a group home for juveniles with disabilities, and besides discussing disability activism and the constant fight for the right of independence, it drives home the point that individuals with disabilities are not that different from you and I. We all share the same basic desires for relationships, employment, autonomy, and a place to call home. The title comes from the idea that individuals with disabilities are often at the mercy of a variety of “kings” lording over their employment, relationships, and decisions – some with good intentions, and some who are neglectful or outright hostile.

Runner Ups: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, Dead Eye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut (on immigration, women’s equality, and gun control – all 3 of these books, written in 1989, 1899, and 1982 respectively, are still so relevant today.)

Surrealist: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

This book is complicated to really explain, and no explanation could really do it justice. It is one of the most fascinating meditations on addiction that I have ever read. It is over 1000 pages long and uses a liberal amount of footnotes, but don’t let that discourage you. This novel made Wallace famous in the 90s for a reason.

Runner Ups: House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Vitezslav Nezval, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami 

What books have you been reading recently that you can’t put down?

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Year End Reflections And A New Project

As I mentioned earlier, after the completion of my “Unlimited”series I’d been experiencing a bit of artist’s block. I tried playing around with a couple new ideas, but nothing seemed to stick.

Design is pretty much my constant state of existence similar to, you know, breathing, so I stayed busy with commissions, crafting, my day job, and involvement in the Creative Team at my church. It was one of my projects for the team that would be the inspiration for my next piece. Upon the usual late December reflection, I discovered the themes explored in this piece really parallel what I’ve learned in this last year.

The series this image was designed for was titled Whole Heart, and though I hate being videotaped, I was somehow coerced into it so you can view this video explaining the concepts and thought behind the design. For a medium I chose a simplistic watercolor illustration with bold colors and sharp outlines. This would make the image clear and easy to read on a small app icon as well as in larger print form. The style would also appeal to any age from kids to older adults. I was surprised how even with a “story” that seemed so basic, people could strongly relate to it on multiple levels. Hearing how touched many were by image made me want to develop the concept into a more detailed piece in my usual surreal, mixed media style. Right now I just have the pencil outline, but keep checking back for in-progress shots!

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The girl in this piece is doing something absolutely terrifying, and in no way should she be smiling or feeling any positive emotions such as liberation or elation, and yet …

I’ve always read things or heard speakers in inspirational youtube videos talk about the difference between joy and happiness, but for the most part it just sounded like a bunch of nonsense to me until this year. Suddenly – I get it. Happiness is about things that make you feel excited and content in the moment – it’s situational. Joy is about a balance of fulfilling what you need to be content, doing what you can to fulfill the needs of others or even the world or society as a whole, and learning how to deal with and process those desires that are not yet fulfilled, or those instances in your surroundings that are unjust, upsetting, or draining. Joy is about being your best self not just personally but in how you affect others.

Self care has been a huge buzz word this year, from making being comfortable into an art with lists of specific tenants required to reach maximum coziness level such as in the Danish hygge trend, to the increased conversation around kids needing “personal days” or “mental health days” in school just as adults get personal days off from work to reach their optimum ability and stay healthy. Articles about self care tend to revolve around taking it easy and giving yourself permission to indulge guilt free for the most part, but I read a really great article recently that discussed a far less popular part of self care. I suggest you read the entire thing for yourself, but the main highlighted, bold font point from this article reads as follows …

“True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from. And that often takes doing the thing you least want to do.”

Self care could mean finally making that counseling appointment you’ve been putting off. It could mean finally seeking help for your alcohol or drug addiction you’ve been struggling with. It could mean having an uncomfortable, challenging conversation with a friend or family member. It could mean either temporarily or permanently cutting a toxic person out of your life. Doing the hard things will give you not the temporary happiness that comes from giving yourself a free day relaxing in front of Netflix with a fuzzy blanket and a bottle of wine (Because you’re still going to have to go back to that job you hate after the sun sets on your mental health day … I speak from direct experience.), but the joy of a life you don’t need to regularly escape from.

I have felt the most content and fulfilled this year than any to date in my adult life, despite the fact that I still experience bouts of anxiety from time to time, I still experience periodic stressers in both work and personal life at pretty regular intervals, and the fact that the news cycle and goings on in my home country of America have really, really done a fantastic job in 2017 of pushing the exact buttons that make my blood boil.

And that is definitely an awesome thing, but it is not even all about my own or your own personal well being or fulfillment. More and more, I don’t think the point in life is necessarily to be happy all the time; I don’t think happiness is the endgame.

Most moral people tend to think that the reason we shouldn’t do bad things is because though we may think those things will make us happy, there will be some deep, dark void inside of us that will eventually eat us alive or something. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is always the case. I think there are plenty of people who are perfectly happy celebrating greed, lying, assaulting and bullying, and causing great harm to others … until they get caught. Just turn on the news. That is why the level of our happiness does not always correlate to a good life lived. We may feel happier and more internally at peace living with our heads under the sand, ignoring all the problems and injustices going on in our world, accepting the unacceptable because “I can’t do anything about it, so why should I worry?” But … if every single one of us did that, how would anything ever change? Not that every person is called to be a world changer that will end up in the history books, but plenty throughout history have put themselves in some pretty miserable conditions in order to speak up for what is right – certainly not the road to happiness and internal zen – because the purpose of life is not simply achieving momentary happiness over and over and over again.

My hope for this new year is that we all continue to grow into our best selves, and continue to flourish in awareness, in empathy, in bravery, and yes, in joy.

Come at us 2018, we’ve got this :).

Art Discussion: New Year’s Resolutions

I have to admit, I never make New Year’s resolutions; partly because if you are truly dissatisfied with something, it seems silly to arbitrarily wait until the turning of the calendar to fix it. In part also because we all tend to set the same goals, those goals that we know everyone else is setting so we can easier relate to those around us as we share that we want to find our soulmate, get a promotion, or lose weight, and we can all laugh together about how we probably won’t actually do anything to work towards most of those things. But, what would happen if we committed to doing one thing that we were truly passionate about in this new year, one thing that we didn’t over analyze to death, asking ourselves, Should I want this? Is it too silly? Too shallow? Too lofty? Too weird? No one would understand anyway … 

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During my senior year of college 7 years ago (Whoa! 7 is a big number.), I entered an art book into the Annual Student Exhibition at Central Michigan University. I asked a sampling of the people I encountered in a day, some I knew well and some I did not, to think of a couple of experiences they would like to have before their life was over, and pick the most obscure one to share with me. I chose 35 different submissions to illustrate, and Underneath was  born. This was my first experiment with creating art based on collected personal stories, something I would use to create many more projects in the future. I also ended up winning the Grand Award for this piece, which was the first time I’d ever won anything for my art aside from a coloring contest in 4th grade, and not a bad way to exit my college career ;).


As annoying as it may be that the first thing anyone asks when meeting someone for the first time after “What’s your name?” is, “So what do you do?”, we kind of are what we do. This doesn’t have to mean our day jobs, or even be workplace related at all. What we do with each day is a choice, and it is these choices that reflect what we value and shape who we will become. True goals can give immense insight into each individual’s unique personality, drive, and psyche. That is why I so enjoyed sifting through the responses I received for this project.

I was reminded of Underneath recently for an unfortunate reason. The young woman who 7 years ago submitted the far right response above took her own life in a murder-suicide earlier this month. She attended my high school, but our school was so large growing up there were tons of people who walked in graduation with me that I felt like I’d never laid eyes on my whole four years there. I never knew her well, but our paths did cross and I remembered her submission deeply affecting me back then, as the news of what occurred deeply saddened me now. A couple of my good friends had had classes and clubs with her, some even keeping up over the years at least through texting and facebook, and the news hit them even harder.

This may not be a typical resolution, but something to be mindful of in the new year is this: we do not know everyone else’s story. We have no clue about everything the people we run into in our day to day life may be going through. People learn to adapt, and to act, and to portray themselves in person, at work, and in social media as how they want others to see them. I know I do it; I think we all do to a point. I have always been fascinated with the dichotomy between individual’s alone personas versus their public personas. It is a concept that is interesting to explore. It can also be a concept that is dangerous, because it can prevent people from reaching out who need help. If you make one resolution (aside from foregoing all convention and chasing your oddest dream / within reason and lawfulness, of course), resolve to be transparent and authentic, and resolve to be someone who is willing to make that reach when someone needs support either in the form of just a listening ear or otherwise. Christmas falling on a Sunday, I attended the Christmas morning church service at MFMC with my family this year. We spoke about how there is the whole Christmas story which most of us, churchgoers or not, have known since childhood. But, we all have stories, and our story, how we live and interact, can change someone else’s story for the better if we allow it to happen. We have nothing to lose for trying.

To see the rest of my art book in order, visit the album on my website.