Learning to breathe all over again

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Bad breathing: like managing a hot air balloon

bootcamp2015-small 2So, the next boot camp task was to practise slow breathing, using the diaphram instead of chest and shoulders. Breathing like a baby. Breathing the way my poor body yearns to breathe. The schedule: breathe in to two counts, breathe out to five. Just for five minutes before sleep. How hard could that be?

Even lying down, it was a struggle to fit my breathing to this pattern. The more I tried, the more I failed. Managing my breathing was like steering a hot air balloon: a little more heat, a bit less puff, go up, now go down, left hand down a bit and hey mind the Eiffel Tower!

Breathing just happens, unless you have a physical problem such as asthma. It’s regulated by the autonomic nervous system and requires no conscious input. Interfering with my breathing was like trying to change my digestion speed or heart rate or blood pressure just by an effort of will. Those things are easy for yogi, I suppose. But for mere mortals, repeated exercises are needed.

That’s what I had faith in: the plasticity of the human brain. Practice makes perfect. Repetition, repetition, repetition.

Changing an old breathing pattern: not easy

But first, get it right. My first attempt to breathe the new way stressed me out, and I rather foolishly announced the fact on Facebook:

“I have just noticed that I am stressed. But who can I tell? My friends will all just say, serve you right!”

Bless them, my friends did not say “serve you right” but offered helpful advice. Sensible, kind, caring advice. And naturally this included the number one classic, authentic tip for stress reduction: deep breathing. Alas, deep breathing cannot be the cure on this occasion because it’s the problem.

I was stressed but not downhearted, because I reckoned I had overcome a comparable breathing challenge not so long ago. Now you mustn’t laugh at this: I know it seems ridiculous, but here goes.

Swim and breathe at the same time? A miracle of coordination!

Until a couple of years ago, I hardly ever swam freestyle. Breast-stroke and back-stroke were a breeze because I could always keep my head above water. Anyway, I mainly swam in the sea, where freestyle seemed somehow inappropriate — too earnest, too intense, too pretentious. And between you and me, in my heart of hearts, I believed that if I swam freestyle, I would drown.

Then I began lane swimming at the Freyberg pool and decided to tackle the breathing problem once and for all. It was a psychic struggle—me against my urge to breathe when my nose was still underwater. It was a challenge of coordination and timing and control. A fight for domination. A fight for life. No approach could be less appropriate for the gentle art of breathing, and yet little by little, week by week, I got over myself. Now I’m comfortable doing freestyle, in my own good time.

So I know I can do this breathing thing! Babies can do it and I will too.

Feldenkrais on breathing: upstairs, downstairs and in my lady’s chamber

My next ploy was to attend a workshop on breathing and voice run by Elke Dunlop, the uncrowned queen of Feldenkrais in Wellington. This was perfect timing.

I’ve been a fan of Feldenkrais practice for some years now but it is extraordinarily hard to describe to other people. In fact, I only began attending in the first place because a friend kept nagging and niggling at me. She couldn’t describe it coherently either:

“Most of the time you’re lying on the floor but it’s quite hard work sometimes. You learn to use your body in unexpected strange movements. The idea is to let go of unnatural habits of moving that take too much effort, and to relearn the natural, effortless way of moving, the way we moved as babies. I think you might like it.”

Well! That wasn’t a great pitch, was it? And my friend is a communications professional! I can’t describe it any better, either. All I know is that Feldenkrais practice is a physical game-changer and most of the time, it makes sense.

So I spent a day lying on the floor moving my chest and diaphram and belly and other bits in strange unfamiliar contradictory ways while breathing in and out in equally strange unfamiliar contradictory ways. This experience succeeded in disrupting my bad breathing habits so profoundly that I’m now doing the exercise that Peter prescribed without stress.

Oh, and I got a breathing app for my iPhone. It’s called Breathe & Relax, and it helps.

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If I can swim underwater, I can breathe. I reckon.

Image from “Airships past and present, together with chapters on the use of balloons in connection with meteorology, photography and the carrier pigeon” (1908) Hildebrandt, A. Public domain. Photo of underwater swimmer by Rachel McAlpine. CC BY 2.0

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Decoding a table of contents

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I’m looking at the table of contents (TOC) of Fixing Mrs Philpott, my new novel, and thinking that it tells a story.

First clue: that a table of contents is even provided. A quick glance at other novels on my shelves suggests that the norm is probably to have no table of contents, but merely to number the chapters as they happen.

Another obvious weirdness is the number of chapters: way outside the norm. When a novel does include a TOC, it usually fits neatly on a single page. Fixing Mrs Philpott has a TOC that fills three pages. It has 57 chapters in Book One, and then another 32 short stories, narrated by 27 different characters. Weird or what?

So what can we deduce from this 3-page TOC?

As the author I think I know, so you don’t have to sit this test.

  • One event happens per chapter, so to speak. As there are 57 chapters, the plot has a touch of the picaresque.
  • Zoe is the main character, but 26 other characters get to tell their tale or tales. Only one character is male. It’s a book featuring many different aspects of women’s lives.
  • The style is light-hearted for the most part. But with such an absurd structure, this was a mighty hard novel to shape and took a lot of grunt to write.

The strange provenance of Fixing Mrs Philpott

Professionally, I’ve been 95% occupied with my business for the last ten years. All that time, any so-called creative writing was low priority, squeezed into rare opportunities. Therefore the only book I could write apart from business books was a collection of short stories, based on true tales about personal relationships told to me by various women. This book became Scarlet Heels, published in 2010.

Then in 2012, the NZ Society of Authors picked Scarlet Heels as one of 40 books to promote at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I went along and seized the opportunity to quiz publishers and literary agents who answered with a single voice: “Virtually no publisher will touch short stories now. Turn it into a novel.”

Enter writing buddy and Writers Salon

Okaaaay… I struggled with the question: but how? I made a few doomed attempts at the job. Then in 2015, I got together with a writing buddy, Denise Keay, and that made all the difference. We meet on some Sunday evenings for what we jocularly call our Writer’s Salon. Denise is relentlessly honest and a splendid writer herself. With Denise at my elbow I struggled to squeeze a raggedy, random, all-over-the-shop narrative into the stern structure of the Hero’s Journey. Amazingly, it could be done and eventually I did it.

But what about the table of contents?

OK, getting to that. Originally the novel had all the stories inserted in the narrative at the moment they occurred. Each chapter ended when a story was told. Result: chapters without a focus, of wildly different lengths, chapters in which several major events might occur or none at all. So I decided, one event, one chapter. Stories happen whenever.

Then four friends beta-read the manuscript, and they were neatly polarised, two distracted by the short stories, and two distracted by the story of Mrs Philpott. So I removed the stories and put them back as Book Two of the novel. Mrs Philpott was well and truly fixed.

That was boring

I know! If you don’t write novels, I have just been guilty of a pointless rave. But if you do write novels, you’ll know exactly what I mean, and why it matters. You see, that’s one of the primary things that novelists do: struggle with structure. If we don’t get the structure to work, it’s not a novel. End of story. So to speak. Thanks for reading this far. (I’m amazed.)

PS How about your writing buddy?

Go read her blog, which is really an extraordinary novel, sort of, written by a 16th century cat and edited by Denise Keay, whose avatar is toutparmoi.

The Earl of Southampton’s Cat

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Unloading the larynx: not for sissies

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Physiotherapist digs into muscles that affect the voice. 1906

bootcamp2015-small 2It’s boot camp year. I don’t say no to anything that could help me achieve my prep-for-old-age goals. I’m on stage three of working on my voice. So, off I went to Peter Chum, specialist voice-and-breathing physiotherapist for performers. I do perform (in more ways than one) and I want to give every performance my best whether singing or speaking.

During our initial conversation Peter sussed out my needs, all the while sneakily observing my voice and my breathing. Luckily I didn’t realise he had pointed his mental CCTV camera at me, or I would have tried harder … which would have been counterproductive.

That endless throat clearing: sorted in seconds

Ahem ahem ahem is such a common human problem, given a badly designed valve between stomach and oesophagus. In one minute Peter told me how to abolish gastric reflux. Take a little apple cider vinegar in hot water before dinner, digest your dinner and go to bed. But the vinegar must be the good stuff, cloudy with threads of fermentation bug or “mother”.

Oh. That simple, huh? Ladies and gentlemen, this remedy has worked for me from day one. Awesome.

Getting strangled in a good cause

Then it was hands on time. Have you ever had your throat massaged? Thought not. You wouldn’t choose to be strangled, either, and it’s not so different in the initial stages, I dare say.

A pair of ultra-strong physiotherapeutic hands grasped and pressed and pushed not only the muscles of my cheeks and neck and shoulders and jaw, but even my larynx (yes really!) and tongue (from the outside).You know how a therapeutic masseur digs in extra deep and hard to the very parts that hold the most tension or pain? Now imagine someone doing that to your throat. That’s called unloading the larynx.

It was both scary and intensely wonderful. Amazing. Only after the tension was released did I realise how tense those parts of me had been. After the session I floated away, pretty much spaced out. Migraine eye patterns came and went. Unloading the larynx is powerful stuff. But hey, I could take it.

And now what? No point in softening all those muscles if I go back to my bad old habits and screw them up again. I’ve learned a lot about relaxation from Natasha the speech therapist, but that is not enough.

Next on Peter’s list: slow belly breathing

Breathing is voice. Breathing is life itself. My inner smart-ass Smugilla had something to say on the topic.

Smugilla: You’re a shoo-in. You’ve been breathing all your life. There couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with your breathing. Look at you, you meditate, you do tai chi, you sleep like a log, you know all about breathing. As a breathing machine you’re perfect.

Oh yeah? According to Peter I am breathing fast and shallow.

What? This cannot be! Yet Peter was only stating something that was obvious to him. The numbers do not lie.

To my credit, I instantly saw the truth of his diagnosis. I do constantly raise my chest or even shoulders to suck in air. I often feel as if I’m drowning for lack of air. I breathe as if my lungs need a Sergeant Major to make them do their job.

Fast and shallow breathing ties in with tension around the neck and throat and jaw and shoulders. Everything’s connected, and you can’t have a good voice without good breathing.

Peter gave me a breathing exercise to practise each night before sleep. I’m to do it lying down, so that there’s no contest with gravity, no need to use any muscles to hold myself vertical. Just count 1-2 on in-breath, 3-4-5-6-7 on out-breath. Easy peasy? Well, no.

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Image from The manual on barbering, hairdressing, manicuring, facial massage, electrolysis and chiropody as taught in the Moler system of colleges” (1906). Public domain.

Photo of Capital Choir singers after a thrilling performance of Shaky Places, a song cycle of New Zealand poems. Capital Choir, Wellington, New Zealand shares this photo.

The aging voice: therapy and gym programme

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1912 therapy for stuttering has some similarity to today’s therapy for muscular tension dysphonia

bootcamp2015-small 2Speech therapist Natasha Curham has a positive approach to the common voice disorder, muscular tension dysphonia (MTD). She assured me that it can be successfully treated. Why? Because muscles are involved. With practice, muscles can be strengthened, better coordinated and used more efficiently. Brain has learned to overuse these muscles: brain can learn a better way. I summoned the wisdom of Elke Dunlop, Feldenkrais teacher: “Do less, make less effort.”

The voice review: Rachel could do better

First Natasha gathered my case history and tested the current state of my voice. She found “roughness, breathiness and mild aesthenia (weakness) … creak quality in conversational and reading voice … breath support slightly lower than expected … reduced pitch range with increased gravelly quality at low pitch … reduction in control of volume at times …” In other words, “Rachel could do better.”

I learned a lot about anatomy in the speech therapy sessions and I learned and practised exercises of three different types.

Gym programme for the voice

  1. First I learned ways to decrease muscle tension, any time any place. New ways to take a breath, sigh, yawn, and clear the throat.
  2. Secondly, I practised the “gold standard” fix-it exercises for times when my voice is scratchy or creaky. These involve controlling the amount of air you breathe out while making certain sounds through a straw in water.
  3. And thirdly, I was given vocal function exercises to do twice a day, every day, regardless. This is tried and true practice backed up by solid research. A daily programme has been shown to strengthen and balance all the laryngeal muscles, increase resonance, and improve muscular control and flexibility. This is a gym programme for the voice, with a physiological schedule and shape: “ee” (warm-up) “whoop” (stretching), “boom” (contracting), “knoll” (power).

As with any gym programme, knowledge is not enough. You have to actually do the time. And I do. I care that much.

Altogether I spent four sessions with Natasha, and since then I’ve become much more confident about my voice. It does get tired sometimes, and old-lady-voice reappears. But it’s not an unpredictable enemy waiting to destroy me; it’s a reminder to drink water, take a silent little breath, yawn and sigh, and keep up the exercise regime.

I have evidence already that the regime is working, and every confidence that it will continue to do. I know my brain has to unlearn bad habits, just as my body does. But it all depends on me, now.

How do you do, body

Perhaps the greatest benefit has been an immediate growth of awareness. Before visiting Peter the ENT specialist, I had no idea how much tension I was holding in my jaw and throat. After a simple diagnosis and brief therapy, I could actually see muscles twitching in my cheeks and neck. I never attained the Deirdre Barlow level of neck tension, but we were sisters under the crêpy old skin. Now I consciously relax not only cheeks, jaws, neck and shoulders, but my larynx. I can pop my vocal chords open and shut at will. I can tell my larynx to lie down like a good dog, and it does.

Nevertheless, Natasha had more to offer. She suggested I get in touch with Peter Chum, a physiotherapist specialising in performers with voice problems. “I’ve worked on the inside. He’ll work on the outside,” she said.

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Fifty shades of green. Tea, kiwifruit, griselinia, rata. And a white straw for voice exercises.
 Images: 1912 stuttering therapy from Internet Archive Book Images. 50 shades of green by Rachel McAlpine

How to teach your cat to write

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Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. Portrait attrib. to John de Critz (c. 1551–1642).

The Earl of Southampton’s cat is one of my favourite blogs. It was, you understand, written by a cat in the 16th century. A cat, moreover, suspected of having written at least some of the works of Shakespeare. These strange circumstances are plausibly explained by the editor of his works, who has deciphered Gib’s writings and has been publishing them in bite sized pieces, complete with scholarly annotations, on a WordPress blog.

In today’s chapter, the now elderly Gib is pestered by his niece. She wants to learn how to write. OK… where to start? I love this chapter because it unpicks the massive phenomenon of writing. What is it? What’s it for? Before Gib ever figures how to teach a kitten how to write, he must find ways of explaining the purpose, the tools, the very definition of writing.

“Now see,” sayt I, “these black marks?  Like to a host of little worms?  They are sounds imprinted.”

Of Reading, Writing, and My Greatness

Blog post No 71 of The Earl of Southampton’s Cat is compulsory reading for all who write. Be amazed yet again at your miraculous skills, the toys at your fingertips, the knowledge and wisdom and understanding that you possess once you embark on the adventure of writing!

No wonder Gib writes of His Greatness. You too, you who write: ponder today on your own Greatness. You can read those black marks, like to a host of little worms! You can write those little worms! Oh Great One, I salute you. And I am one of you.

But Gib is the Great of Greats, because he is about to impart the skills of reading and writing to a kitten. Inspired by Gib I have been trying for months to teach my cat Ursula to read, which Gib has shown is possible, but in the end I don’t have the patience. Let me know if you succeed.

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Of Reading, Writing, and My Greatness

The blog’s top menu has more about the discovery of Gib’s writings and the historical background

 

 

 

 

More about Mrs Philpott

Mrs Zoe Philpott is the central character of my new novel, Fixing Mrs Philpott. Here, to give you a better idea of why she thinks she might need fixing, are a few more samples of the book.

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Moving on a couple of months, Christchurch, where Zoe and her husband live, is struck by an immense, devastating earthquake. Endless aftershocks follow, playing havoc with everyone’s nerves and health.

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Here’s a little bit about Zoe’s morning bathroom ritual — extremely difficult when the city’s infrastructure is in chaos.

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As for happiness —

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Just for fun, do you have any life advice for Zoe? I promise it’s just for fun: there is no real Zoe, so you can preach to your heart’s content.


Accessible description of the images

  1. When Felicity Philpott preached her famous sermon on marital love, Mrs William Philpott suspected that the message was directed at herself and her husband. And so it proved.
  2. This road trip was a doolally idea.Text overlaid on a photo of an earthquake-shattered road by Brendan Zim.
  3. These days her elaborate Dusty Springfield hairdo took a lot more back-combing and a few more hairpins, but eventually the job was done. Text overlaid on part of a sketch of Zoe in the yellow caravan; sketch by Lesley Evans.
  4. ‘Oh sure,’ said Zoe. ‘Happiness is very much in vogue nowadays.’ Text overlaid on a photo of orange azaleas by Rachel McAlpine

Fixing Mrs Philpott: but how?

My new novel is ready for printing, after many a drama and deadline. Yippee!

The launch is on 29 September and if you are in Christchurch, New Zealand, you are warmly invited to attend! Rachel Eadie at Scorpio Books is the person to contact with questions.

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Meantime here is the first of, well, an indeterminate number of tasters. I’m hoping that you will give some unsolicited advice to my character Mrs Zoe Philpott. After all, you have much collective wisdom (and humour) and could surely help her. She has multiple problems … if you like to see it that way.

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It’s just a game but—Zoe needs your help!


Accessibility note

WordPress lets us add captions to images, but that’s always not the greatest solution for people who use a text-to-voice aid. So here’s a transcript of the text in the images.

  1. A new novel from Rachel McAlpine, celebrating the resilience of Canterbury women—especially the eccentric Zoe Philpott and her friends. Come and launch Mrs Philpott! In the earthquake era, she needs all the help she can get. Scorpio Books, 120 Hereford St, Christchurch. All welcome. RSVP rachel [at] scorpiobooks.co.nz.
  2. Zoe rolled off the bed into a mess of muesli and milk, clamping a pillow over her head. There she lay for 15 everlasting seconds. When the aftershock stopped, she pulled her nightie down over her panties and heaved herself back on to her feet. From “Fixing Mrs Philpott” by Rachel McAlpine. (So what advice would you give her?) Photo: Sharon Davis