FLUTTERBIES!

AKA Butterflies. When my grandson was two, I took him to a butterfly garden. I carried him for the entire visit hiding his eyes against my neck, whimpering. I guess the flashes of color were too surprising, too unfamiliar.

Butterfly garden in Union, NJ
Butterfly Garden in Union, New Jersey
Dirce Beauty Butterfly
Dirce Beauty Butterfly

Fortunately, he didn’t become lepidopterophobic.  However, there are people with an irrational fear of butterflies and moths.

For those of us who welcome butterflies, their season is coming. June is the main flight period for many butterfly beauties, including swallowtail, black hairstreak, large blue, marsh fritillary, and glanville fritillary.  There are almost 20,000 butterfly species.

Butterflies are Fascinating!

Butterfly anatomy
Butterfly Anatomy
Butterfly puddling
Dryas Lulias butterfly puddling in the tears of a turtle
  • Butterflies use chemoreceptors on their feet to taste. 
  • Adult butterflies of most species only live for a few weeks, although the caterpillar may take months to develop.
    • Exceptions include migratory species, which may live up to 10 months.
    • In warm climates there are continuous generations, producing adult butterflies year-round. 
  • Butterflies have a liquid diet using a flexible tongue called the proboscis, which resembles a tube.
  • In addition to nectar, butterflies seek out nutrients in moist environments, such as mud, tears, and puddles. Scientists call this behavior “puddling.”
Black hairstreak butterfly
Black Hairstreak Butterfly
  • Butterflies will happily drink blood if they come across it, though they do not seek it out.
  • Nectar-filled plants naturally attract butterflies:
    • Joe-Pye weed
    • Ironweed
    • Coneflowers
    • Goldenrod
    • Brightly-hued asters
  • Butterflies actually have four wings, not two.
  • Butterflies can perceive ultraviolet light.
  • Butterflies have three body sections- head, thorax and abdomen. Other than this, they have two antennae, complex eyes, and an exoskeleton just like all other insects.
Pink Cottontail Butterfly
Pink Cottontail Butterfly
  • Butterfly wings are transparent.
  • Scales called lamellar cover a butterfly’s wings, giving them the patterns and colors we see.
  • The dust you may see on your finger after touching a lepidopteran wing is actually made up of tiny wing scales (modified hairs). If too many scales are rubbed away, the wing is more likely to tear or fail.
  • At night, or when the day is cloudy, adult butterflies rest by hanging upside down from leaves or twigs, where they are hidden among the foliage.
    • They become quiescent but do not sleep like mammals do.
  • Butterflies are able to learn signs that nectar is present.
  • Adult butterflies communicate mostly through chemical cues—the males produce chemicals called pheromones to seduce the females.
Tiger swallowtail butterfly
Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly
  • Size varies greatly:
    • One of the smallest butterflies is the Eastern Pygmy Blue (Brephidium isophthalma), from the coastal southeastern United States, with a wingspan of about 5/8 of an inch.
    • Among the largest are the Queen Alexandra Birdwing butterflies (Ornithoptera alexandrae) from New Guinea, with wingspans of up to 12 inches.
  • Butterflies have the ability to go through a full metamorphosis; their life cycle includes four stages – egg, larva, pupa, and adult.
  • If you see two adult butterflies with their abdomens linked tail-to-tail, they are mating. The male grasps the female and deposits a sperm packet, which fertilizes the female’s eggs.
    • Butterflies can fly while mating, but they usually avoid moving unless they are disturbed.
Blue Spotted Butterfly
Blue Spotted Butterfly
  • Tiny sensory hairs called tactile setae cover a butterfly’s body.
  • Butterflies have huge compound eyes with numerous light-sensitive lenses, both of which have their own refractive systems and which together contribute to the formation of the image.
  • Butterflies have a long chambered heart that runs the length of its body on the upper side.
  • Butterflies must have a body temperature of 86F or above in order to fly.
  • Some species of butterflies can fly at speeds of up to 3, 4.9-12.4, 25,or 30 mph depending on the source cited.
  • According to entomologists, butterflies do not feel pain.
  • Butterflies (and moths) can remember what they learned as caterpillars.
  • Some butterflies protect themselves through camouflage—by folding up their wings, they reveal the undersides and blend in with their surroundings. 
  • If you want a butterfly to land on you, stand still and don’t wear perfume, aftershave, etc.

Facts About Monarch Butterflies

Monarch Butterfly
Monarch Butterfly
  • They’re bright orange and poisonous.
  • They weigh less than a paperclip.
  • Pilots have reported seeing monarch butterflies as high as two miles up.
  • Monarch larvae are picky eaters, thriving on a diet of milkweed, which is poisonous to most animals.
  • Males release pheromones from scent glands on their back wings to attract females.
  • They migrate from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, a distance of about 2,000 miles, and return to the north again in the spring. 
  • Overwintering monarchs live up to eight months, while other generations only live about two to six weeks.

Save the Flutterbies!

Aile Violette Butterfly
Aile Violette Butterfly

So why am I writing about butterflies in January? Because the Environmental Defense Fund sent a flyer, “Butterflies are disappearing,” that cites pretty alarming statistics. 

“Across the country, the entire monarch butterfly population has collapsed by nearly 1 billion since 1990.” It is now officially endangered.  Many species of butterflies have already gone extinct.

Of course the point was to solicit donations to help restore butterfly habitats. But besides being eye candy, why bother about butterflies

  • Like bees, they are plant pollinators for many veggies and herbs, such as carrots, legumes, and mint
  • About 1/3 of our food supply depends on butterflies as well as other pollinators 
  • They control the populations of insects like aphids
  • They are food for birds and small mammals
Rhetus Butterfly
Rhetus Butterfly

Butterfly personality is a thing! We all know the social butterfly! This personality is social and influencing. They need to interact with others and are friendly, charming, persuasive, talkative, impulsive, and optimistic. They are usually good leaders and can motivate others.

Butterflies represent new beginnings, giving us hope for what the future has to bring.  Their fluttering wings bring beauty to many! All across the globe, butterflies are viewed as symbols of rebirth, representing change, hope, endurance, and life!

“[Butterflies] represent strength, endurance, spirituality, trust, sustaining what they believe, transformation, and evolution.”

Cristina Panescu

BOTTOM LINE: What’s not to love about about butterflies?

EYELASHES!

Why eyelashes? Why not? They’re more interesting than you might think. For one thing, they are functional.  Eyelashes protect the eye from dust or other debris. They are very sensitive to touch, and may close reflexively if an insect or whatever is too close. In addition, they contain sebaceous glands at the base that lubricates and protect from dryness and irritation.  Babies are born with eyelashes. 

Eyelash Information

Eye and eyelash parts

The lifespan of an average eyelash is three to five months, compared to the rest of your hair, which lasts two to four years. 

Baby eyelashes
Photo by Carlos ZGZ

For all that they look fine, lashes are the thickest hair on the human body—which I find hard to believe, but whatever. 

Most people have 150-250 individual lashes on the top of the eyelid and between 50-100 on the lower lid. They grow in uneven rows, 5 to 6 on top and 3 to 5 on the bottom. Just like head hair, eyelashes naturally fall out and replace themselves in a natural cycle every six to 10 weeks, so it’s totally normal to lose between one and five lashes each day.  The older people are, the slower the growth process becomes. This is how/why lashes start to thin out.

You Jianxia
World's longest eyelashes
You Jianxia

In addition, aging and menopause are considered to be leading factors that cause shorter eyelashes due to certain hormonal imbalances that affect the growth cycle of hair follicles. Other factors include stress, lack of sleep, and allergic reactions to medications.

In high school, I knew a girl whose lashes were so long that they brushed the lenses of her glasses.  According to the Guinness Book of Records, the longest eyelash measured 20.5 cm (8.0 in) long, grown on You Jianxia’s (China) left upper lid.

Feather eyelashes

The lashes on the top eyelid are usually between 7-13mm in length while the lashes on the bottom usually never grow longer than 7mm.  The average length of the normal lashes is 10mm-12mm  The researchers, led by Farid Pazhoohi of the University of British Columbia in Canada, estimate that the optimal eyelash length for women is about one-quarter to one-third of the width of one’s eye. The optimal eyelash length for men is a bit less, about one-fifth of the width of one’s eye.

Ethnicity does not have an impact on eyelash length. However, Asian people and those of Spanish and Eastern European descent commonly have straight lashes while others have curlier lashes.

Ideal Eyelashes

False eyelashes
Performers in Jakarta applying false eyelashes
Eyelashes

Does eyelash length really matter? It depends on who you ask. According to ancient Chinese face reading tradition, long lashes are for the sensitive and imaginative. Long lashes indicate more fire chi presence and it means that people who have them are extra sensitive.

Pliny the Elder, a Roman scholar born 79BCE, claimed that long eyelashes were a sign of purity and chastity. He claimed, “Eyelashes fell out from excessive sex, and so it was especially important for women to keep their eyelashes long to prove their chastity.”

Eyelashes

People have been darkening their eyelashes with soot, kohl, berry juice, oil, ink, or lead for millennia. The Algerian town of Mascara produced great quantities of antimony, which the locals applied to their lashes for beautification as well as to provide protection from trachoma and eye diseases. Ancient Egyptians combined galena, malachite, soot, crocodile dung, and honey to create the kohl they used to darken their eyelids and lashes.

Lash Lure
Eyelashes

In 1933, Lash Lure promised consumers that a “new and improved mascara will give you a radiating personality, with a before and after.” Unfortunately, the permanent eyelash and brow dye contained para-phenylenediamine, which caused dermatitis, conjunctival edema, keratitis, corneal ulceration, and necrosis. The damage permanently blinded fifteen women and killed one.

Eyelash extensions have been a fashion trend for more time than most people think. The desire to have luscious lashes has transformed dramatically since their beginning in 3500 B.C. While the reasons to have long eyelashes were more symbolic back then, today, they are an indication of beauty.

According to an article in the Dundee Courier in 1899, fashionable women in Paris could have hair from their own heads sewn “through the extreme edges of the eyelid between the epidermis and the lower border of the cartilage of the tragus.” Doctors would rub the patient’s eyelids with a solution of cocaine before taking a needle to them, so I’m sure it didn’t hurt a bit!

Early false eyelashes
Peggy Hyland applying false lashes, 1917

The darkness of eyelashes is related to (natural) hair color. 

For all that eyelashes are functional, we often associate them with beauty, the ideal being long, curved, and dark. There are actually eyelash salons! Who knew? (Not me, obviously.)

False eyelashes? One can get single lashes or strips. And fake lashes can be anything from mink to velour to real human hair.

A surprising number of people make and wear false eyelashes cut from paper. They design intricate patterns in strips of thick, waxy paper and attach them to their lids, just like false lashes made from hair or feathers.

Mink eyelashes
Mink

Gorgeous as they can be, fake eyelashes may cause temporary or even permanent loss of one’s natural eyelashes.  Taking the fakes off can break natural lashes, and possibly damage the hair follicle, causing lash regrowth to fail.

Problem Eyelashes

There are a number of diseases or disorders involving the eyelashes:

Trichiasis
Ingrown Eyelashes
Trichiasis
Demodex folliculorum
eyelashes
Demodex folliculorum

Eyelash and eyebrow transplant surgeries may help to reconstruct or thicken lashes or eyebrow hair.

On the stranger side, the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages linked the exposure of any hair (including eyelashes) to having an excessively erotic disposition. To demonstrate their modesty, Medieval women covered their hair and plucked their brows and lashes.

Animal Kingdom Eyelashes

People share eyelashes with other animals.  Lashes, being hair, are found in all mammals except the aquatic ones (dolphins and whales). 

Hornbill Eyelashes
Hornbill
  • Classically long and elegant, elephant lashes have been making history since the days of the woolly mammoth.
  • Camels‘ lashes are remarkably long and thick. 
  • Horses and cows feature lashes as well, as do dogs cats, and mice.
  • Lashes differ in length and density depending on where the animal lives 
  • Inherited eyelash problems are common in some breeds of dogs as well as horses. 
Eyelash viper
Eyelash Viper

Eyelashes are an uncommon but not unknown feature in birds.  Hornbills have prominent lashes (vestigial feathers with no barbs), as do ostriches. Among reptiles, only Eyelash vipers show a set of modified scales over the eyes which look much like eyelashes.

As best I can determine, the function of eyelashes for animals is the same as for humans: protection.  For animals that live in dusty areas, their lashes stop them getting specks of dust in their eyes. This is why camels, kangaroos, elephants, and giraffes have several rows of long eyelashes, not just one row.

Bottom line: There’s more to eyelashes than meets the eye!

SECRETS!

Elephant Secrets
secrets

The word “secret” implies scandalous, illegal, or at least embarrassing. Actually, it could be anything that is kept or meant to be kept unknown or unseen by others. Note: intention is essential; that’s what separates secrets from things merely unknown.

Of course there are “official” secrets: state secrets, corporate secrets, secret formulas/recipes, even secret ingredients. All can be important, even interesting.

But most of the secrets in our lives are personal, such as

Dog Secrets
  • The first erect penis I ever saw was my brother’s.
  • I overheard people at my sister’s concert talking about what a terrible musician she is.
  • My father in law helps me remember my wedding anniversary every year.
  • I put already dead batteries in obnoxiously loud kids’ toys.
  • I’ve had sex with 13 men.
  • I lose on purpose when playing video games with my spouse.
  • I’m afraid to see a therapist, because then I might have confirmation of what I suspect.
  • My dog is a better sleep partner than my spouse.
  • I never wear pants when on video calls for work.
  • I resent the cat for stealing my spouse’s affection.
  • If my dick wasn’t so small, I wouldn’t be such a great athlete.
  • I shave my face every day, and I’m a woman!
  • I haven’t washed my socks in three days.
  • I steal the kids’ Halloween candy.
  • I pretend to snore so my partner isn’t as embarrassed about her own snoring.
  • I shoplift at yard sales.
  • I fell for her when she said my sweaty body was sexy.
  • I’m the one who lost my sister’s Totally Hair Barbie when we were kids.
  • My mother is an alcoholic, and I pretend I don’t know.

PostSecrets

Perhaps surprisingly, people are eager to share their secrets!

In November of 2004, Frank Warren printed 3,000 postcards like the one below and started dropping them in public places. 

PostSecret
Secrets
Top: Sample PostSecret card
Bottom: Submitted PostSecret card
PostSecret
secrets

Thousands of postcards poured in, in several languages—and braille—from all over the world. The project exploded beyond its original intent. By early 2006, Frank Warren had compiled early postcards into PostSecret: Extraodordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives

The project spawned shows, exhibits, a website, and several more books: A Lifetime of Secrets (007), The Secret Lives of Men and Women (2007), My Secret (2006)and PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death, and God (2014).  (Eventually the website was taken down because viewers started posting porn and attacking some of the secrets shared.)

.

Warren believed that sharing secrets, even anonymously, was liberating, and often therapeutic. I highly recommend any and all of these books as fascinating reading, and also as sources of insight and (for writers) inspiration.

Psychology of Secrets

Horse Secrets

The topic of secrets is so seductive that of course, psychologists got onto the topic. At Psychology Today, you’ll find a pretty comprehensive research overview in the article, Why We Keep So Many Secrets, 2022. The facts and statistics that follow are from that article.

There are 36 common types of secrets identified by researchers, and about 97% of people have a secret in at least one of those categories.  The average person is currently keeping secrets in 12 or 13 of them. Examples of the categories include:

  • Hurting another person (emotionally or physically)
  • Illegal drug use, or abuse of a legal drug (e.g., alcohol, painkillers)
  • Habit or addiction (but not involving drugs)
  • Theft (any kind of taking without asking)
  • Something illegal (other than drugs or theft)
  • Physical self-harm
  • Abortion

Among more than 50,000 research participants  surveyed, the most common secrets include a lie we’ve told (69 percent), romantic desire (61 percent), sex (58 percent), and finances (58 percent)

Monkey Secrets
secrets

It’s OK to have secrets, says psychotherapist Gillian Straker. “We are definitely entitled to have our own inner subjectivity and our own inner lives. “With social media we are having less and less private space — so to have some private space, even if it’s from your partner, feels to me a positive.”

On the other hand, the emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual impact of secrets are well documented. In fact, research suggests keeping secrets can significantly boost stress hormones, impact blood pressure, inhibit sleep, contribute to mental health and substance use disorders and even increase chronic pain.  Every time you think about a deeply held secret, stress hormones such as cortisol can surge, impacting your memory, blood pressure, gastrointestinal tract and metabolism. “Those hormones also include norepinephrine,” Gopal Chopra, CEO of PingMD says, “which affects parts of the brain where attention and responses are controlled.

Bison Secrets
secrets

OF course, some people are more secretive than others. Some common synonyms of secretive are reserved, reticent, silent, and taciturn. While all these words mean “showing restraint in speaking,” secretive also carries a suggestion of deviousness and lack of frankness or of an ostentatious will to conceal.

Yes, there are differences between some of the secrets of women and men, at least with regard to sex. According to Justin J. Lehmiller Ph.D.:

  • Women are more likely to report keeping sex secrets because they don’t think their partner would understand.
  • Men are more likely to report keeping sex secrets because they don’t think their partner would approve of their behavior.

Bottom line: Secrets are common, numerous, wide-ranging, powerful, and personal. Consider your secrets and the pros and cons of keeping them.

Secrets

CELEBRATE PECULIAR!

Peculiar People Day
How peculiar!

January 10 is Peculiar People Day, an annual opportunity to recognize and celebrate peculiar people. Oxford Languages defines peculiar as, “strange, odd; or unusual.” Pretty straightforward. But when talking about this day’s peculiar people, other issues tend to mix themselves in.

For example, saying it’s those who refuse to conform to the world’s idea of normal assumes a conscious resistance. 

Peculiar People Day
Quite peculiar!

Some put it even more baldly: Peculiar People Day is to celebrate the leaders of the strange and unusual, who refuse to succumb to the world’s idea of what is normal and sane.  This view, by adding the role of leadership, requires influence.

Even taking out resistance and influence, honoring individuals who are eccentric, non-conformist or unique in some manner is still subjective. Indeed, we’re all deviants by someone’s standards, in some places, at some times.

Peculiar People Day
Doubly peculiar!

Finding/knowing who to celebrate is a public vs. private dilemma: in order to be labeled quirky (or whatever) one’s behaviors, beliefs, or attributes need to be perceived.  If a peculiar tree falls peculiarly in a forest and no one sees it doing so peculiarly, was it still peculiar?

The etymology of ‘peculiar’ is, in itself, fairly peculiar. Originally, it referred to a herd of cattle privately owned, from the Sanskrit word ‘pasu-‘ for cattle. Not until the 16th century did ‘peculiar’ develop its modern connotations of something distinguished or special, generally in reference to those especially well-endowed in wealth or social standing. By the 17th century, ‘peculiar’ had come to refer to something strange, curious, or unusual.

Of all individuals, the hated, the shunned, and the peculiar are arguably most themselves. They wear no masks whatsoever in order to be accepted and liked; they do seem most guarded, but only by their own hands: as compared to the populace, they are naked.” –

Criss Jami, Healology

I couldn’t find any solid info on the origins of Peculiar People Day; the earliest record (that I could find) showed up on a list of January Days published in the The San Francisco Examiner on January 1, 2002. But Peculiar People Day has too many options for fun and awareness to disappear anytime soon.

Peculiar People Day
Very peculiar indeed!

Peculiarity manifests in many dimensions:

  • Jobs
  • Opinions
  • Appearance
  • Physical characteristics
  • Speech or phrasing choices
  • Mannerisms
  • Pets
  • Reading Habits
  • Talents
  • Hobbies

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs is a fascinating fantasy read! But that’s not the only book with peculiar people:

A bit peculiar!
  • “I thought to myself Mr. Rochester is peculiar — he seems to forget that he pays me £30 per annum for receiving his orders.”
  • “I love my love with a b because she is peculiar.”
  • Don’t you realize that in my world my parents are peculiar because they’d never been divorced? Basically because it would have been too much trouble. But you live in a world where not only are your parents not divorced, they appear to love each other.”

Still need a reason to celebrate? Some believe people who are termed ‘peculiar’, ‘different’, ‘strange’, or ‘abnormal’ set the world in motion.

Bottom Line: Celebrate and recognize yourself as well as others on Peculiar People Day.

Peculiar, Missouri seal
Peculiar People Day
“Where the ‘odds’ are with you”

WHY NOW?

A resolution is a firm decision to do or not to do something. As such, you can make a resolution any old day. You needn’t wait for New Year’s resolutions.

In practice, people tend to make resolutions when something personally significant happens: birthdays, anniversaries, birth of a child, death of a loved one, when celebrating a big achievement or suffering a major defeat…

But New Year’s Day is the single most popular day to do so.  Based on the average of five studies, 38.5% of U.S. adults make New Year’s resolutions. Younger adults are more likely than older adults to do so.

Why this day? “The New Year offers a blank slate — an opportunity to get things right. When we set New Year’s resolutions, we are utilizing a very important concept called self-efficacy, which means that by virtue of aspiring to a goal and following through on it, I have a sense of control over what’s happening in my life.” (Piedmont.org

New Year’s Resolutions Then

New Year’s resolutions aren’t a new thing. According to Merriam-Webster, the practice has been around since the early 19th century, and perhaps as far back as the late 17th century.  Anne Halkett wrote a number of “Resolutions” in her diary on January 2nd, 1671.

New Year's resolutions
Aketo festival, Duhok
Celebrating Akitu (Aketo) in modern-day Duhok, Iraq, 2018

On the other hand, History.com says the ancient Babylonians were making New Year’s resolutions 4,000 years ago. They also held the first recorded celebrations of the new year, called Akitu—though for them the year began in mid-March.  They made promises to the gods to pay their debts and return any objects they had borrowed.

When Julius Ceasar established the Julian calendar circa 46 BCE, he named the first month of the year after the god Janus, who looked both backward and forward. Romans believed that if Janus had seen them making improvements in their lives during the previous year, they could start the new year with a clean slate. At New Year celebrations, Romans made offerings to Janus and promised the god that they would behave better.

New Year's resolutions
Peacock vow, medieval knights
Knight taking the Peacock Vow
from the Codex Manesse, c. 1304

Inspired by a 1312 poem by Jacques de Longuyon, medieval knights began the practice of taking the Vow of the Peacock (les voeux du paon) at New Year banquets. During the presentation of the subtlety (a special dish designed for visual or entertainment value more than actual nutritional value), people frequently made boasts, pleadges, and vows. When the host presented a roast peacock at a New Year feast, dressed in its own plumage, knights would vow upon the bird to uphold the values of chivalry.

For early Christians, at least as far back as 1740, the first day of the new year was the time to think about one’s past sins and resolve to do and be better in the future. John Wesley, an English clergyman and founder of Methodism, held a Covenant Renewal Service in 1740. Many Christian communities still hold Watch Night services overnight on New Year’s Eve.

New Year's resolutions
Jewish High Holy Days
New Year’s postcard made by the Hebrew Publishing Company, 1900

The Jewish calendar begins with the High Holy Days (יָמִים נוֹרָאִים), running from Rosh HaShanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה) to Yom Kippur (יָמִים נוֹרָאִים). During the ten days between, people work to improve the judgement presented upon their actions during the previous year. They seek atonement, donate to charity, and ask forgiveness from those they have wronged. Many Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur customs, including wearing white and eating honey with apples, originated in the Middle Ages among the Ashkenazi community.

New Year’s Resolutions Now

Now, of course, New Year’s celebrations are mostly secular and resolutions are usually promises to oneself. The most common resolutions are to continue good practices, change an undesired trait or behavior, accomplish a personal goal, or otherwise improve their behavior. In particular, according to 413 U.S. adults (18-89 y/o) surveyed Oct. 25-Nov. 2, 2022, who intended to make one or more resolutions (Source: Statista Global Consumer Survey);

New Year's resolutions
Family and friends
Spend more time with family and friends
  • To exercise more, 52%
  • To eat healthier, 50%
  • To lose weight, 40%
  • To save more money, 39%
  • To spend more time with family/friends, 37%
  • To spend less time on social media, 20%
  • To reduce stress on the job, 19%
  • To reduce spending on living expenses, 19%

But note: according to Discover Happy Habits, only 23% of survey participants planned on making new years resolutions for 2023. And the most popular resolutions for the coming year are living healthier (23%), personal improvement and happiness (21%), and losing weight (20%).  

Twelve percent of new gym memberships are created in January. Sales of healthy food spike by nearly 30% in January every year, though sales of junk food do not diminish much during the same period.

Keeping New Year’s Resolutions

But why bother? Do resolutions really work?  Of those who make New Year’s resolutions, after 1 week 75% are still successful in keeping it.  After two weeks, the number drops to 71%.  After 1 month, the number drops again to 64%.  After 6 months, 46% of people who make a resolution are still successful in keeping it.  And by year’s end, only 9% are successful. (Medical News Today)

Work on your goal with a friend to keep you both on track

To increase your chances of success (according to various things I’ve heard or read):

  • Be specific. (Lose XX pounds vs. lose weight)
  • Write it down.
  • Make it public.
  • Start small to see success early. 
  • Consider the steps it will take to reach your goal. 
  • Track your progress.

If you are tired of the same-old, same-old, consider some more unusual resolutions. In 2016, I shared suggestions for New Year’s resolutions for writers. Real Buzz published some more suggestions for unusual New Year’s resolutions, including the following:

  1. Take your photo in five interesting places
  2. Learn a decent party trick
  3. Break a record
  4. Make a new friend each month
  5. Develop a good relationship with your body
  6. Learn something you didn’t learn as a child
  7. Try new food each week
  8. Make the usual unusual
  9. Sort out financial worries
  10. Do something nice for someone else every day

BOTTOM LINE: To resolve or not? And remember, anytime, anything. Make it your own.

New Year's resolutions

Gift Giving Then and Now, Here and There

Gift Giving

This is an update of an earlier blog entry from December 30, 2015. I wrote this as part of a series that might be characterized as Darwin’s Christmas, tracing the evolution of a number of our current Christmas traditions.

Gift Giving Origins

blue Santa Claus figurines related to Odin
Blue-robed Santas reflect the influences of Odin, Saturn, Grandfather Snow, and Tovlis Babua.

The earliest gift-bringer I read about was Odin, a Pagan Germanic god who is thought to have influenced concepts of Father Christmas in numerous ways, including sporting a long white beard and riding through the night sky. Odin wore a blue-hooded cloak and rode through the midwinter sky on an eight-footed horse named Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. According to pre-Christian Norse tradition, he entered through chimneys or fire holes on the solstice.

The Germanic goddess Holda presided over the summer and winter solstices. In the winter, she presided over the first snow, bringing joy and good fortune, traveling in her sleigh and dressed in a red or white cloak.

In 16th century England (during the reign of Henry VIII), Father Christmas was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur. Popular custom associated Father Christmas more with good cheer, peace, joy, good food and wine, and revelry. In 1616, Ben Johnson presented at court the play Christmas: His Masque in which the character of ‘Old Christmas’ presides over holiday parties with his children ‘Misrule’, ‘Carol’, ‘Mince Pie’, ‘Mumming’, ‘Wassail’, and ‘New Yeares Gift’.

figurines of Santas around the world
Representations of Santas around the world, L-R: Hungary, 1884; Austria, 1904; Russia, 1903; Canada, 1930; U.S.A., 1935; Mexico, 1923; U.S.A., 1925; Holland, 1920.

Father Christmas merged with St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas), which morphed into Santa Claus. Suffice it to say that most people around the world who celebrate Christmas also have a tradition of a Christmas gift-bringer: Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, Pere Noël, Father Christmas, Christkindl, the Wise Men (Els Tres Reis), Olentzero, Grandfather Snow (თოვლის ბაბუა), or an old gift-giving witch called Befana (in Italy). In Scandinavia a jolly elf named Jultomten delivered gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats. And in Russia, an elderly woman named Babouschka (grandmother) leaves gifts by children’s bedsides on January 5th.

Mythical gift givers leave presents in different places. In much of Europe, children put their shoes or boots by the door, ready for presents. In Italy, the UK, and the USA presents are left in stockings—and, of course, under the Christmas tree.

Gift Giving Timing

gift-giving-santa-figurine-with-stack-of-gifts

People open presents on different days as well. Children in Holland often receive the earliest presents, on December 5th for St. Nicholas’ Eve. On St. Nicholas’ Day (6th of December), children in Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, and some other European countries open some of their presents. Christmas Day (25th of December) is the most popular gift day for the UK, USA, Japan, and many other countries. In religions that follow the Julian or Orthodox calendar, children open gifts on Orthodox Christmas Day, which typically corresponds to January 7th. Many people in Catholic countries such as Spain and Mexico don’t open gifts until the Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6th.

Gift Receivers

Alilo in Tbilisi

Who gets presents has shifted dramatically over the centuries. At the Roman midwinter festival of Saturnalia, the rich gave gifts and hosted banquets for the poor. Odin gave presents to “his people.” The goddess Holda spread good fortune to all those who honored her. St. Nicholas gave to the poor.

Dawnsyr Y Fari Lwyd

According to the Christian Science Monitor, in early modern Europe, gift giving also had roots in Christmas begging, when bands of young men, often rowdy, would wassail from house to house, demanding handouts from the gentry. The Welsh Y Fari Lwyd or Mari Lwyd custom includes revelers dressed as skeltal horse arguing with households to demand entry and beer, all in rhyme and song. For Alilo, Georgian Orthodox children dress in white or in religious costumes and sing carols house to house in exchange for wine, sweets, and an egg. It wasn’t till the mid-1800s that gift-giving shifted from the poorer classes to children.

On the other hand, giving gifts to heads of state, kings and queens, emperors, etc, pre-dates the birth of Jesus.

Modern Gift Givers

wrapped gifts

Today, it seems everybody gives gifts to everybody—an impression strongly supported by advertising and merchant specials! Christmas begging from charities is rampant. Salvation Army kettles (which first appeared in 1891) are on sidewalks all over the world.  Employers often give actual gift baskets or holiday bonuses. Co-workers, neighbors, and friends exchange gifts. Parents give gifts to children, but people also give gifts to parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and step siblings, and second cousins twice removed.

By now, all the glittery wrappings are probably torn asunder, the gifts put away, exchanged, maybe saved for re-gifting, and the leavings look more like this.

gifts unwrapped

And I’m left wondering: How many Christmas presents are gifts and how many are perceived obligations?.

Darwin’s Christmas series

Christmas Trees and Greenery 

Putting Christmas into Carols 

How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus

Christmas Eve Then and Now

Why is Christmas Celebrated on December 25th? 

WE’RE ALL STORYTELLERS!

Unless you’re a writer, you probably don’t think of yourself as a storyteller. But consider this: Whether face-to-face, by phone, by letter (for the few old-schoolers out there)—even by text, though that tends to be a tad disjointed—every time you “catch up” or spread news to family or friends, you are telling a story.

Some cultures consider oral storytelling to be an integral part of society and honor the storyteller as an esteemed member of the community. (World Storytelling Day is celebrated every year on or near the Spring Equinox, March 20th.) Storytellers still play in important role in Inuit, Irish, Indian, Iranian, … perhaps it’s something to do with the I. West African, Such storytellers hone their craft by training, practicing their skills, sometimes even undergoing formal apprenticeships. Pass on history, teach survival skills, warn about social taboos, and entertain.

Want to do it better? Check these tips!

Senses

Don’t always depend on what you see or hear.  Sometimes focus on what you feel, smell, or taste.  Use all your senses. Were you dizzy? Hot or cold?

Details

Be specific.  When you report on fall foliage, say whether you’re talking about oaks or maples. What flowers are in the garden or bouquet? Is that Christmas tree a white pine or a blue spruce?

Showing

We tend to talk about telling a story, but it’s better to show. “My boss really  pissed me off” versus “My face must have been rage red, and I had to bite my tongue to keep from yelling back.”

Motivation

Actions can be interpreted many ways. Your listener/reader wants to know why it happened. The more drastic the action, the stronger the motivation.  Even something as simple as slamming a door means little unless you set the stage for anger, fear, time pressure, etc.

Conflict

Conflict makes for a good story. Do people want different things? It could be as simple as dinner in vs. dinner out. Or it could be as important as whether to adopt a child. Or maybe you are talking about someone who has to overcome an obstacle—pay off a loan, recover from an injury, etc. But sometimes people are in conflict with themselves: whether to buy a car or a truck; whether to find a second job or cut spending; whether to break up for good this time.

Context

People want to know when and where things are happening. Is this news or a review of past events? When did the theft happen? And where? And where is the speaker now? 

Focus

And stay focused. Is what you were wearing when your spouse went to the ER important?  Does it matter that the food was similar to what you ate at Auntie Milicent’s retirement dinner?

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Maya Angelou

At this time off year, we often see or at least talk to people not privy to our daily lives. Good luck holding your own in those conversations!

BOTTOM LINE: We’re all storytellers. Be the magnet, not the bore!

Storytellers
Ashlee Wilson Photography

COSMETICS FOR PEOPLE OF COLOR

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about makeup for men. Researching that topic took me deep into the worldwide history of cosmetics. But discussions of cosmetics for African Americans or Native Americans were glaringly absent.

There are many reasons for this, ranging from forced relocations disrupting a community’s access to materials traditionally used for beautification, to societal beauty expectations, to cultural practices, even to the way film development parameters affect the way darker skin tones appear in photos and movies. The history of makeup use in darker-skinned communities in America also reflects the segregation and discrimination non-white people have faced. Cosmetics marketed to lighten or bleach skin, hair care products advertised to change texture, and a variety of treatments purported to change one’s racial appearance have been on the market for as long as the market has existed. The idea that one must mimic European ideals of beauty to be attractive is slowly changing.

Native American Cosmetics

In researching Native Americans, I found little that was specified for beautification, but many practices that would improve appearance. Across the entire North American continent, many different environments present very different challenges and materials for skin care and beautification. A Miccosukee person living in the heat and humidity of Florida would have a very different beauty regimen than a nomadic Assiniboine person living on the northern Great Plains. Better Nutrition identifies these 5 specific sources of health and beauty for Native Americans commonly used in the Mojave Desert. The article does not specify which tribe used these methods, but the author mentions researching in Sedona Arizona, where the Yavapai, Tonto Apache, Hopi, and Navajo lived at various times in history. (Bolding added.)

“Desert-dwelling Native Americans used aloe vera gel to expedite wound healing, soothe sunburn, and hydrate skin. Aloe is antimicrobial, antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and it contains antioxidants. Aloe also has phytosterols that help soothe itches and irritation. The bioactive compounds in the plant are rich in vitamins A, B, C, D, and E as well as magnesium, potassium, and zinc that aid healing.

Agave nectar is antimicrobial and was mixed with salt by Native Americans to heal skin conditions. Agave’s sugars soften skin and lock moisture inside hair. These sugars form complex bonds with internal proteins to add strength, resiliency, and elasticity to skin and hair.

“Native Americans ate the prickly pear and used oil from the fruit’s seeds to help strengthen skin and hair. The oil contains twice as many proteins and fatty acids as argan oil, and is rich in vitamin E, making it an excellent remedy for damaged or mature skin and dry hair. Linoleic and oleic fatty acids help moisturize and restore skin’s elasticity. The vitamin K in prickly pear helps to brighten dark spots and undereye dark circles.

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“Native Americans discovered that juniper berries produce a stimulating, astringent, and detoxifying oil. They used it to remove impurities. Today, juniper oil is a key ingredient in detox skin products. It can balance oily skin and open blocked pores and keep them clear. Juniper improves circulation and reduces swelling, making it an ideal ingredient in massage oil.

“Native Americans used the juice from the yucca root to make soap and shampoo because of its ability to lather. Since it’s packed with vitamin C and other antioxidants that soothe and nourish the skin and scalp, they also used it to treat ailments from acne to hair loss. Yucca is also anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and detoxifying.”

Many ingredients in modern beauty products were first used by Native Americans. In areas where maize was a prominent crop, people ground corn to use as a skin cleanser. It was often rubbed on to the skin to remove impurities from the body, sometimes for ceremonial purposes.

By “cosmetics” one usually means preparations intended to make the wearer more attractive, used as part of one’s regular toilet. Such cosmetics are typically removed daily.

Although not cosmetics in the above sense, the oldest materials used in Native American face paint were derived from animal, vegetable and mineral sources, with earth or mineral paint being the most common. White and yellow paint was obtained from white and yellow clays along river beds, and buffalo gallstones produced a different kind of yellow.

A growing number of cosmetic and skincare brands owned by Native people make use of traditional materials. Cosmopolitan recently published an article highlighting makeup brands owned and run by Indigenous Americans, including Prados Beauty, Cheekbone Beauty, Ah-Shí Beauty, and Sḵwálwen Botanicals. Huffington Post wrote about how some of these brands are using marketing and product design to break down harmful stereotypes and educate consumers about distinctions among the many, varied tribal cultures.

Black Cosmetics

By comparison, searching for African American/Black cosmetics turns up a long history of a population underserved by commercial cosmetic companies.

A black man born during slavery, Anthony Overton, opened the Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Co. in Kansas in 1898, to sell baking powder and other products to drug and grocery stores. Recognizing the absence of cosmetics in skin tones for women of color prompted his foray into makeup.

In the early 1900s, large department stores did not stock products for people of color, so Overton developed a network of salespeople who visited small stores with samples. People could also send for his products by mail.

Sales of Overton’s “high-brown” face powder boomed in the United States and countries like Egypt and Liberia. Overton Hygienic relocated to Chicago’s South State Street in 1911, and the next year went on to manufacture more than 50 products, including hair creams and eye makeup. The face powder expanded from “high brown” to include darker and lighter shades, such as “nut-brown,” “olive-tone,” “brunette,” and “flesh-pink.” Importantly, Overton (who had a chemistry degree) insured that his makeup was safe, unlike many products then on the market.

Valmor Products’ Sweet Georgia Brown skin lightening creams

In 1926, Morton Neumann, a Hungarian American also a chemist who grew up in Chicago, established Valmor Products Co., which largely targeted black customers. A big seller was Sweet Georgia Brown face powder, then available for 60 cents in colors like “tantalizing dark brown,” “aristocratic brown,” “sun-tan,” and “teezum [tease ’em] red.” Sweet Georgia Brown also widely marketed skin bleaching creams, reflecting the continuing trend trend of equating lighter complexions with beauty and desirability.

What does it tell you that one ad for the face powder promised a “lighter appearance in 10 seconds” and pointed out that the powder “is specially made to give tan and dark complexions the BRIGHTER attractive beauty that everybody admires.”

Unfortunately, skin bleaching has not gone away. Many companies still produce creams, powders, and even drugs that cover skin, chemically bleach skin, or disrupt melanin production, often with painful and dangerous side effects.

In 1923, two white, Jewish chemists — Morris Shapiro and Joseph Menke — opened Keystone Laboratories in Memphis. They split up, and Shapiro launched Lucky Heart Laboratories in 1935. Lucky Heart products were sold only by representatives, often community members, to show the cosmetics “to friends, neighbors, people you know at work, church or in social groups.”

“Both Keystone and Lucky Heart are still in business today. They primarily sell hair and skincare products, with some relics of the past, such as Lucky Heart’s beauty bleaching cream. Lucky once offered makeup products like tint cream and a Color-Keyed Cosmetics line. However, another Memphis cosmetics business, the Hi-Hat Company, prided itself on offering “smart shades for every complexion.” Hi-Hat’s Jockey Club face powder came in hues such as ‘Harlem tan,’ ‘Spanish rose,’ ‘chocolate brown,’ and ‘copper bronze.’”

(racked.com)

In the 1960s, mainstream brands like Maybelline and Avon got into the act. During the five years that ended the 1960s, a half-dozen cosmetics lines for black women debuted. One of them, Flori Roberts, bills itself as the first such line that department stores carried.

In earlier years, women of color mixed shades to make the right foundation shade for their skin. But that didn’t address issues of oil or silicone.

IMAN Cosmetics Shade Guide

In 1994, Somali supermodel Iman Abdulmajid started IMAN Cosmetics, to serve women whom other makeup manufacturers had overlooked — blacks, Latinas, Asians. The basic premise was/is that skin tones overlap, so cosmetics companies shouldn’t target one ethnic group.

Today, women of color have more options when looking for cosmetics to match or complement their skin tones. Mainstream brands such as AJ Crimson, B.L.A.C Minerals, Plain Jane Beauty, M.A.C., Bobbi Brown, Cake Cosmetics, Makeup Forever, Nars, Lancôme, and others have widened their color palettes in foundation, eyeshadow, lipstick, liners, and contouring. Ulta Beauty, one of the largest makeup retailers in the country, has an entire section of Black-owned brands of skincare, hair care, and makeup products.

Bottom Line: Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And today women (and men) have more makeup and cosmetic options than ever before.

Who’s Telling the Story?

Guest blog by Kathleen Corcoran

Unless the author uses an omniscient point of view to tell a story, the narrator’s voice will affect the reader’s understanding of events. Dr. Watson helps the reader to understand the habits and reasoning of Sherlock Holmes. Harry Potter serves as the reader’s guide to all the strangeness of Hogwarts as he experiences it for the first time. Ursula K. LeGuin and Terry Pratchett both wrote stories from the point of view of trees, with a tree’s perspective and understanding of the world.

There are loads of books out there with varied, interesting narrators’ voices that add to the tone and understanding of the story. Here are a few of my favorites.

First Person Narrators

Writing a story from the point of view of a single character creates a relationship between the audience and the narrator, especially when the author uses first person point of view. When the narrator has a limited or distorted understanding of events, the audience must fill in the blanks.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
Maude, the narrator, has dementia. The reader must piece together the events surrounding a possible murder through Maude’s disjointed and confused understanding.

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Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas
Shona McMonagle has an absolute certainty in her superior intelligence and understanding of human nature. When she is sent back in time to fulfill a vague mission in 19th century Russia, she jumps to every conclusion possible and misreads every other character’s intentions. This juxtaposition of the narrator’s understanding of what is happening with the reader’s understanding of what is happening is the source of much of the comedy in the book.

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Room by Emma Donaghue
Jack, a five-year-old who has lived his entire short life imprisoned with his mother in a small shed, has a limited understanding of the world and of things happening around him. The vocabulary and language of the novel reflect the narrator’s voice.

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Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton
S.T., a domesticated crow, describes the collapse of human society during the zombie apocalypse. He applies a crow’s logic to other characters’ motivations and physical symptoms. This book also answered a question I’ve had for a while: when the humans turn into zombies, who feeds their pets?

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Multiple Narrators

Sometimes, the author can best tell the story by employing multiple narrators’ voices. Each narrator’s voice and style tells a different aspect of the story. Varied and sometimes conflicting points of view provide the reader with a more rounded understanding of what is happening and why.

My Name is Red by Orham Pamuk
Every chapter has a different narrator, sometimes characters in the story, sometimes animals, sometimes abstract concepts. While ostensibly solving a mystery in 16th century Istanbul, the various narrators discuss philosophy and the nature and purpose of art.

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The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Each of the narrators Faulkner used is unreliable in a different way. When they describe the same episode, the reader gets a fuller understanding of events and significance, with the contradictions and tone shifts each employs.

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World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
Brooks wrote the novel as a series of interviews with various people, each describing the events leading up to and during a zombie apocalypse. The unnamed interviewer has very little to say, but each character interviewed has a different cultural perspective and explanation of motivations. Descriptions of events vary wildly in what’s emphasized and what’s left entirely unmentioned.

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Developing Narrators

Writing teachers talk a lot about character development, and with good reason. A character that does not change over the course of a story becomes boring. When the narrator’s voice develops and changes over the course of a story, the reader’s understanding of the world in the story changes as well.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
As the narrator undergoes an experimental medical treatment, the language used to keep a journal becomes increasingly complex. The narrator’s voice reflects the mental changes experienced by the test subject, with a drastically changing understanding of the world. When the treatment wears off in the second part of the book, the language and understanding becomes more limited again.

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
As the young man of the title grows, so does his style and understanding of the world. The language becomes more complex, and the narrator’s voice develops from that of a child to that of an adult.

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Hunger by Knut Hamsen
The narrator’s voice is Knut Hamsen, as this story is autobiographical. The author used stream-of-consciousness writing to describe the physical and psychological hunger he experienced during his struggles as a writer. As the narrator became increasingly alienated and self-destructive, his writing style reflected his changing obsessions and eroding mental stability.

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There are many more books out there with unique and interesting narrators, but there’s not enough blog space in the world to list every book I’ve read and loved. For example, the narrator in The Murder of Roger Akroyd by Agatha Christie contributes a great deal to the reader’s understanding of what occured. I can’t go into much detail without spoiling the plot entirely, so you’ll just have to read it for yourself to see what I mean. You might even have to read it again immediately, like I did!

The Principle of Least Interest

The Principle of Least Interest for Writers quote

Sociologists, economists, therapists, and every other sort of -ists have studied The Principle of Least Interest, but it’s incredibly important for writers as well. This is one of those areas in which science has confirmed what common sense has long maintained: the person who cares the least has the most power. This principle works everywhere from the housing market to the marriage market. (I wrote about this topic previously in 2015.)

That’s definitely a selling point.

If the buyer is more eager to buy than the seller is to sell, the seller will determine the selling price. If he loves her more than she loves him, he could end up the proverbial hen-pecked husband of so many comedies; vice versa and she is a candidate for the downtrodden foot-wipe—perhaps abused—wife of so many tragedies.

This principle is so well understood that sometimes people try to disguise their true levels of caring/interest (talk of other great offers forthcoming, flirting with or dating a rival). Inherent in disguise is the understanding that what counts is often the perception of least interest.

The First Take-Away for Writers:

For your characters, know who has the power (the least interest) and who is perceived to have it. And if your work has more than two characters, you need to understand the power relationships for each pair.

The elephant has the least interest in this relationship.

Unlike a credit score, people can’t go on-line and check out their power ratings. The primary reason that power relationships are often unclear is that the bases of power are virtually limitless: expertise, physical attractiveness, intelligence, wealth, athletic ability, knowledge of secrets, ability to make the other’s life miserable, being popular, great sense of humor—anything and everything that is important to that pair. Knowing the facts doesn’t tell you/the reader who has the power.

If she married him for the money and he married her for the Green Card, who cares more? What if we add in that she is beautiful and he’s a great problem-solver; she’s moody and he’s uncommunicative; he’s a natural athlete and she manages their money; they’re both extremely intelligent and care mightily for their two children. As the author, you can determine who has the power by giving weight to these factors based on the characters’ perceptions of what is important.

The Second Take-Away for Writers:

Anytime you think humans have total power over dogs, just remember which one is picking up the other’s poop.

Power is seldom one-dimensional, and if you don’t recognize the complexity, your characters will be flat and unrealistic.

In many relationships—for example, boss/employee, parent/child, older sibling/younger sibling, teacher/student—the general expectation would be that the total power package would favor the former. But my guess is that most readers don’t read to confirm the norm; they like to be surprised.

The Third Take-Away for Writers:

You should at least consider writing against common power expectations.

And just to end on a high-brow note: according to Lord Acton, “Power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Consider how less-than-absolute power might corrupt your character(s).

Bottom Line

  • Know who has the power and who is perceived to have it.
  • Power is seldom one-dimensional, and if you don’t recognize the complexity, your characters will be flat and unrealistic.
  • You should at least consider writing against common power expectations.

Learn more

“Who Has the Upper Hand? Power, Sex, and Seinfeld” by Dr. Benjamin Le

The Personal Use of Social Psychology by Michael J. Lovaglia (2007)

Social Psychology and Human Sexuality: Essential Readings by Roy F. Baumeister (2001)