Liz Andra Shaw

Journey into the Creative Mind of a Writing Reader

My Dysfunctional Relationship

June 15th, 2016
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sleep disorder

Once upon a time, I had a great relationship with sleep. I could sleep anywhere, anytime and awake refreshed. I loved sleeping in on weekends. I loved curling up on the couch in the middle of the afternoon and falling asleep over a good book. In the 1980s, that all changed.

It started with excessive daytime tiredness. No matter how much sleep I got, I was always tired. I went to bed tired, and I woke up even more tired. At one point I joked to my roommate that I felt so tired it was like I’d run a marathon in my sleep. The next morning she told me that she’d looked into my room during a middle-of-the-night bathroom run, and that she had seen me running a marathon in my bed while fast asleep. This simple observation kicked off over a year of insanity.

I spent a week in the hospital being tested for every neurological problem my doc could think of, from tumors to multiple sclerosis to epilepsy. I had scans, including a CT with contrast where we discovered I’m allergic to the contrast. I was given such a huge shot of benadryl after breaking out in whole body hives that I was high for several days. (Yes, not sleepy, high. Paradoxical reaction.) Then there was the lumbar puncture that had me down for days with a massive headache, the nerve conduction study that left bruises over my entire body, and finally the sleep EEG.

Before I tell you about the sleep EEG, let me tell you about the nurses on my unit. They were tasked to check in on me throughout the night to see if they could observe the strange night movements. They would check one time and report to the doctor that I had slept peacefully all night long. One night, they noted that they had checked at 1:02 am and that I had been asleep in bed. At that time, however, I was actually walking the hallways because my legs were so restless. The security guard, who I walked with for several hours backed up my story that I was not in bed. At 1:02 am, I was having a tour of the lobby with him. Not that the nurses would ever admit that they weren’t actually doing their checks. Nope.

The sleep study occurred without warning one morning at 8:30 am. Yes, 8:30 in the morning. Crazy, right? They took to me a lab in a wheelchair and had me climb up on a gurney. Oh, so comfortable for sleeping. They attached wires all over my head and told me to go to sleep. I had a lovely view of the sun through the bank of east-facing windows just 5 feet to my left. The fluorescent lighting completed the mood lighting for this “sleep study.” Amazingly, I managed to fall asleep anyway, and the show began. According to the technician, she had never seen anything like it. My EEG showed that I was asleep, but my legs, arms, and entire body were flailing about crazily. She ended up waking me up in fear that I would fall off the gurney.

All this insanity ended up with me having a diagnosis of myoclonic jerks in sleep and a prescription for clonopin, which ironically made it worse. A year later, due to the jerking starting to occur during the day, I had a similar hospital stay with identical results – a diagnosis that means nothing and no help. My neurologist threw up his hands and sent me to a neuropsychologist.

The neuropsychologist was wise enough to have me fill out some dietary information. Turns out, the culprit was NutraSweet, and as soon as I eliminated it from my diet, my relationship to sleep was restored.

Fast forward to last year. I reported to a health screening at work, and my diastolic blood pressure was off the charts high. That landed me back at the doc’s being given a trial of meds to bring it down. That didn’t work, but in looking at my BP, I noticed that it was always high in the morning and low at night. I started to wonder if my legs were running marathons at night again. Indeed, I had been waking up with low back pain and tweaked muscles in my legs for a while, but hadn’t even thought about the myoclonic jerks, which are now known as Periodic Limb Movements Disorder (PLMD). My doc started me on a very low dose of a med for Parkinson’s and it seemed to be working.

Periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD) is unique in that the movements occur during sleep. Most other movement disorders manifest during wakefulness. The condition is remarkably periodic, and the movements may cause poor sleep and subsequent daytime somnolence. PLMD may occur with other sleep disorders and is related to, but not synonymous with, restless legs syndrome (RLS), a less specific condition with sensory features that manifest during wakefulness. The majority of patients with RLS have PLMD, but the reverse is not true. Treatment involves either dopaminergic medication in an attempt to modify activity of the subcortical motor system or, more commonly, sedative medications to allow uninterrupted sleep. -Medscape

Nobody really knows what causes PLMD. PLMD frequently occurs along with Restless Legs Syndrome, which is a creepy-crawly feeling in the legs that is only relieved by moving them. Ironically, exercise and stretching your legs before sleep will decrease the RLS symptoms but exacerbate the PLMD symptoms. Also, the medication that they are giving me for the PLMD is causing me more RLS symptoms while I’m awake. I don’t feel safe driving at night anymore, even if I  haven’t taken the medication yet. The RLS symptoms are starting earlier and earlier in the evening, which is a known side effect of the medications.

More good news:

The idiopathic form of this syndrome may be chronic. Relapses and remissions may occur, but treatment does not appear to modify the disease. -Medscape

All that can really be done is to try to control the symptoms. There are some foods you should avoid – caffeine topping the online lists, but take it from me, get off anything with NutraSweet (aspartame) as well.

Most of the online sources talk about a stereotypical leg movement, however I’m having full body movements, just like I did back in the ’80s. The week I wrote this, I woke up with my entire right trunk in pain due to pulled muscles from the PLMD. My low back and my hips, however, are the usual complainers.

This post is a bit of a downer, but I wrote it because there is someone out there who is suffering and doesn’t know what is causing it. I hope this post will help them reach out for help. Go have a sleep study – they are better about how they do those nowadays. And for a laugh, see if you can find the Mad About You episode where Jamie has the sleep study – it’s Season 6 Episode 22. When you see Jamie asleep, you’ll understand my story even better.

Thanks to Thomas Bartherote on Flickr for the photo!

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How a Writer Should Live – William Saroyan

June 8th, 2016
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The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think:

Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep.

Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell.

And when you get angry, get good and angry.

Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.
Preface to The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (1934) by William Saroyan

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Recipe: Spicy Sweet Potatoes

June 1st, 2016
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sweet potatoes

These are succulent, sweet, and spicy. I’ll never cook sweet potatoes any other way. I didn’t measure the ingredients, and it worked out perfectly.

Spicy Sweet Potatoes

  • 3 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
    (about 6 cups)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil or canola oil
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar (I used coconut sugar.)
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

In a zip-top plastic bag, toss potatoes and oil. Combine remaining
ingredients; add to bag; toss to coat.

Transfer to a greased 11×7 inch baking dish. (I did not grease mine, as the potatoes had plenty of oil on them.)

Bake, uncovered, at 400F for 40-45 minutes or until potatoes are tender, stirring every 15 minutes.

This recipe is from Taste of Home.

Thanks to Su-Lin on Flickr for this great photo. I ate mine too quickly to snap a pic, but they look just like these.

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The Inner Life – E.M. Forster

May 25th, 2016
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inner life

A man does not talk to himself quite truly — not even to himself: the happiness or misery that he secretly feels proceeds from causes that he cannot quite explain, because as soon as he raises them to the level of the explicable they lose their native quality.

The novelist has a real pull here. He can show the subconscious short-circuiting straight into action (the dramatist can do this too); he can also show it in its relation to soliloquy. He commands all the secret life, and he must not be robbed of this privilege. “How did the writer know that?” it is sometimes said. “What’s his standpoint? He is not being consistent, he’s shifting his point of view from the limited to the omniscient, and now he’s edging back again.” Questions like this have too much the atmosphere of the law courts about them.

EM Forster, Aspects of the Novel

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Book Review: The Last Innocent Man by Phillip Margolin

May 18th, 2016
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last innocent man
Criminal defense attorney David Nash is brilliant at getting his clients off. As we join the story, he has managed to clear the name of an author who he suspects may be a sociopathic killer. As he begins some soul-searching about whether he wants to stay in this business, a case falls in his lap. A fellow attorney, Larry Stafford, has been accused of a brutal rape and murder. At last, David believes he may be defending an innocent man. After his client is found guilty, David spirals into an alcohol-driven pity party.

There is the requisite love triangle, heavy foreshadowing, and the inevitable stand-off in which our hero is almost killed. And this is the biggest problem with this book. It follows the formula that many thrillers, legal or otherwise, followed back in the 1980s.

Don’t read this book because you’re looking for great literature, but if you want a fast read by a competent writer,this will do. I found my copy at Goodwill. For a quarter, it didn’t lead me astray.

The book was made into a movie with Ed Harris as David Nash and David Suchet (of Poirot fame) as the villain, Jonathan Gault. I haven’t seen it, but the idea of Suchet as a villain is really appealing to me. Here’s what I found on YouTube about it.

This is lovely, too. Jean McRobbie (91 years), resident of Madison Care Centre, Coquitlam, BC, gives a book review of The Last Innocent Man by Phillip Margolin to Teresa Rehman, Community Services and Outreach Librarian, Coquitlam Public Library

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Building the Future

May 10th, 2016
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sci fi

People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it.

Predicting the future is much too easy, anyway. You look at the people around you, the street you stand on, the visible air you breathe, and predict more of the same.

To hell with more. I want better.
Ray Bradbury

Beyond 1984: The People Machines (1979)

Thanks to Tom Simpson on Flickr for the awesome picture.

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Book Review: The Oddfits by Tiffany Tsao

May 3rd, 2016
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The Oddfits by Tiffany Tsao is a book about a boy with the unfortunate name of  Murgatroyd Floyd.

Murgatroyd is a happy little chap, despite the fact that his parents are horrible people. He has no bed or hot water in his bedroom/bath because his parents have told him it would be too expensive.

They rarely pay any attention to him, unless it is to dress him in unusual garb or give him a hair cut that is even more unfortunate than his name.

Despite their cruelties, Murgatroyd loves his parents. He gets up early and fixes them breakfast every morning before he goes off to school. Of course, you would too if your mother cooked like Murgatroyd’s:

She was always making silly mistakes when it came to preparing her son’s food—mistakes that anybody could have made, really. Like sprinkling chilli powder instead of cinnamon into his birthday cake batter every year, or accidentally spreading crushed cockroaches instead of tuna onto his tuna sandwiches.

Poor Murgatroyd! He has a friend from school, one who is as self-absorbed as Murgatroyd’s parents, if not nearly as evil. And for a time, he has a friend at an ice cream shop who tells him that one day something wonderful is going to happen for him. It is unfortunate when this one true friend disappears one day without telling Murgatroyd any more about his promise.

Murgatroyd grows up, still inexplicably happy despite his parents and only friend. He has found a job and is actually starting to fit into his world when a strange woman appears. She tells Murgatroyd about something called the More Known World, dimensions of our world that normal people can’t see, but that people like him – OddFits – can travel through. He is invited to join the other OddFits on their adventure.

This is a delightfully odd book that is just the beginning of a great adventure. I am anxiously awaiting the sequel to The Oddfits by Tiffany Tsao.


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Competition Time, or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Toastmasters Contest

April 26th, 2016
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It’s that time in the Toastmasters year when an old woman’s thoughts turn to the International Speech Contest. I thought I would do a short retrospective on how competing has changed for me over time.

I started in Toastmasters in May of 2004. My first contest was a club evaluation contest that I was drafted into before I really understood how Toastmasters do evaluations – 85% encouragement / 15% gentle suggestions for improvement. I can’t even begin to tell you how embarrassed I am when I think back to that contest evaluation wherein I listed everything – yes, everything – the speaker had done wrong, included a detailed recitation on grammar, proper pronunciation, and my general disagreement with the topic of the speech. I can’t remember that I said anything positive.

The worst part is that I didn’t even know how awful that was for several years because my club never assigned me a mentor, and no club member took me aside to tell me. They made me figure it out by myself and then feel ashamed at how stupid I’d been.


Lesson 1: Don’t pick a club based on your emotional response to the nice people there. Don’t pick a club based on them being President’s Distinguished every year. Ask questions about the things that are really important to your growth and development, like do you have an active mentoring program? Who are the people who would be available to mentor me? Can I interview them before I join?

My second competition was in the International Speech Contest at that same club. Again, I was voluntold I was going to be competing, and quite honestly, I didn’t want to compete. No one at that club told me about the huge benefits I could reap from competing. I wrote a speech titled The Quantum Mechanics of Forgiveness that quite honestly would only appeal to fans of Star Trek and/or people who understand Quantum Mechanics. I confused over half the audience, lost the contest, and considered the outing a complete success.

Once again, no one at that club took me aside to tell me why I was a complete idiot to throw away a chance to become a much better speaker through the competition process.


Lesson 2: A good Toastmasters club is a fun way to spend a couple hours every week. A great Toastmasters club has members and officers that explain the benefits of the Toastmasters world outside the club and how you can participate to accelerate your personal growth.

At this point in my Toastmasters career, I became an Area Governor which put me on the other side of the contests. Instead of being in them, I was running them. Thanks to this experience, I had the AHA! moment when I finally figured out why contests are such an integral part of the Toastmasters experience if you are really dedicated to honing your skills as a speaker. I ran contests, judged contests, acted at a functionary at contests, and attended contests until I was so excited about contests that I absolutely could not wait for my year of service to be done so that I could compete in contests. I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy my year as Area Governor very much, but I credit it for most of the growth I’ve experienced and am continuing to experience in Toastmasters.


Lesson 3: When you step outside the club, you may not learn what you expected to learn, but you will most certainly learn many valuable things. Be open to it all.

My first competition after finishing up as AG was a humorous speech contest. I had started a new job and had what I thought was a great speech about mutinous telephone systems. My club thought I was the funniest speaker they’d ever heard. I went to the area contest believing that no one could beat me. Only 3 people from my club showed up. I couldn’t buy a laugh. At first I thought it was the audience, but they laughed like crazy for the next gal up. I took second, and felt like the world’s biggest loser. I went out of the contest telling myself that I was funny and no one ever wanted to hear anything I said.

Lesson 4: You aren’t going to win all the contests, and that’s OK. Stop overreacting, silly girl! You’ll learn a lot when you lose, especially if you’re paying attention to what the other people are doing.

The next couple of contests were International Speech Contests, and while I managed to win at area, I didn’t do well at division. Looking back, these were critical contests for me. I managed to avoid taking the losses personally and focused instead on learning how to write a speech and compete effectively. It was during this time that I joined a different club that places an emphasis on mentoring. The people there helped me overcome my fear of the humorous speech contest, so I took another shot at it. I got so many laughs at the area level that I DQ’d for time, which restored my believe in my Inner Funny Girl. The final thing that happened during this stage of my growth is that I made it to the district stage in the evaluation contest. There I had a microphone malfunction. Despite failing to place, I’d gotten a taste of the big stage, and I knew I had to keep working to get there again.


Lesson 5: Regardless of the outcome in any individual contest, keep going. People will share information and encouragement as they see that you are serious about bettering yourself as a speaker and competitor. If you’re not in it, you won’t ever have that available to you.

In 2012 I won the District 3 International Speech contest and went on to represent the District at the International Convention in Orlando. I had mentoring in how to dress and how to do make up. The experience in Orlando was fantastic, and I wanted to go again. One of the things that I learned is that District 3 is more competitive than many other districts, so I knew it would be a tough road. The following 2 years, I lost at Area and Division.  I fought the temptation to give up, even though I was challenged to go after the position of Chief Judge for the District. The stage is where I challenge myself to grow, so it’s to the stage I must return.

Lesson 6: Go where the learning is, even if that means disappointment after disappointment.

Last year I wrote what I believed was my best speech ever. I won my club contest, but just over a week before the area contest, I broke my shoulder. Here’s the crazy thing: I talked myself into believing that I could still compete. I could barely dress myself, but I thought I could win contests. Let’s just say I was on some pretty good pain pills. A couple days before the contest I came to my senses and bowed out.


Lesson 7: Health is more important than anything, including a Toastmasters contest. Don’t be crazy.

I’m in the midst of the competition for this year. I’ve got a speech that is so good that I don’t even remember why I was so excited about last year’s. I’ve won the club, the area, and the division. I’ll speak on the big stage again at District in May. I want to share with you what winning means to me.

First, I always set personal goals for the performance. I watch and listen to the recording of the previous performance of the speech, and set out to improve specific sections of it. If I walk off stage knowing that I have met my personal goals, I am a winner. This is the only criteria that is under my control. That’s why it is the first, and most important criteria I set for winning.

Second, one of my motivations for speaking in the International Speech Contest is that I like to serve my audience. If someone comes up to me after the contest to tell me that the speech touched them, made them think differently about their life, or inspired them to change, then I’m a winner.  While I can’t control this, if it doesn’t happen, it tells me that I have lost focus. That sends me back to do some rewriting.

Finally, I do like to win so that I have the opportunity to move on to the next level. This is the least important of the criteria, no matter how much I enjoy it. Judges are one of the great mysteries of the competition world. What one set of judges loves, another set hates. It’s impossible to predict what judges are going to do on any given day. Therefore, I don’t speak to impress the judges; I speak to serve the audience.

Are you competing for something? What are you learning from the experience?

Thanks to hobvias sudoneighm on Flickr for the DOH picture.
Thanks to Karol Franks on Flickr for the AHA picture.


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Why We Do Rituals

April 22nd, 2016
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This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don’t have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down.

We all need such places of ritual safekeeping. And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn’t have the specific ritual you are craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet.

Elizabeth GilbertEat, Pray, Love

Photo Credit: Vincent F on Flickr
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Liz Andra Shaw

Journey into the Creative Mind of a Writing Reader