SPINELESS? HEAVEN FORBID!

Hmmm, I think I may have mixed up a few bits.

I wrote about bones last week, but the spine deserves a starring role. For one thing, the spinal cord (along with the brain) control everything else in the body. The spine is the bony canal and transmission hub for the spinal cord. Scroll on through and find the parts most interesting to you!

Skeleton of a 15th Century woman with severe scoliosis.

Spine Facts

  • The spine is extremely flexible, allowing people to move in so many ways.  
    • It has more than 120 muscles attached.
    • Over 100 joints allow for the spine’s extreme flexibility and range of movement.
    • It can bend far enough back to make ⅔ of a circle. 
    • The spinal column includes approximately 220 individual ligaments.
      • These ligaments keep the vertebrae interconnected, which is paramount to keeping the spine (as well as the nerves it’s protecting within the spinal cord) stable.
    • Cartilage in the spine can expand and contract. 
  • Over one fourth of the spine’s total length is created from cartilage, the sponge-like substance that separates one vertebral disc from the next.
    • Gravity can cause the cartilage to expand and contract. Sometimes when people go into space they come back taller!
    • People are also taller in the morning than at night, because at night gravity has been pushing down on the spine all day.
    • Exercise programs that emphasize good posture and strong torso muscles can reduce pressure on individual vertebral discs, increasing height.
    • It is also why people “shrink” with age: the permanent compression of cartilage can shorten one’s height by two inches or more.
  • The spine has an exceptional memory. 
    • The spine remembers one’s usual posture.
    • A habit of bad posture is difficult to change.
    • But a spine will remember good posture, too, once it’s established.
  • Approximately 80% of Americans will suffer back pain in their lifetimes.
    • Back pain is the number one reason that people miss work in the U.S. 
    • Back pain in also a leading cause behind disability claims in the United States.
    • Most back pain, approximately 80%, doesn’t require medical treatment and typically subsides in one to two months.
    • The most common cause of spinal cord trauma and resulting back pain in America is car accidents.
    • Most back pain is experienced in the lower back.
      • This is because the lower back is constantly twisting and stretching.
    • Some scientists believe that back pain is due to evolution, and in many ways is not preventable.
      • Homo sapiens never fully evolved to walk upright, but reproductive drive shifted away from species survival.
This is what a baby’s skeleton looks like, right?
  • Babies’ spines begin developing just two months after conception. 
    • The spine is the first bone to start to grow in utero. 
    • When we’re born, our spines consist of 33 individual vertebrae.  As we age, some of these vertebrae fuse together.
    • The five vertebrae composing our sacrum become one bone and the coccygeal vertebrae – which can vary from three to five bones – fuse together as one.
      • Thus, the tailbone is formed.
  • The spine is incredibly strong.
    • It can hold hundreds of pounds / kilograms of weight.

Spine Functions

Scoliosis and a therapeutic brace
And Some Surprising Effects on Our Daily Functioning
Teardrop fracture in cervical vertebrae
  • Cervical Spine = 7 vertebrae. (FYI, humans and giraffes have the same number of vertebrae in their necks.)
    • C1, is sometimes called Atlas. This is a reference to the Greek mythological Atlas who was burdened with carrying the world on top of his shoulders (much like the neck supports and carries the weight of the head). C1 is involved in blood supply to the head, pituitary gland, scalp, bones of the face, brain, inner and middle ear, and sympathetic nervous system. Possible symptoms of problems:
      • Headaches and migraines
      • Nervousness
      • Insomnia
      • Head colds
      • High blood pressure
      • Amnesia
      • Chronic tiredness
      • Dizziness 
    • C2: also called the Axis, involved with eyes, optic nerves, auditory nerves, sinuses, mastoid bones, tongue, and forehead. Possible symptoms of dysfunction:
      • Sinus trouble
      • Allergies
      • Pain around eyes
      • Earache
      • Fainting spells
      • Certain cases of blindness
      • Crossed eyes
      • Deafness
    • C3: cheeks, outer ear, face bones, teeth, trifocal nerve
      • Neuralgia
      • Neuritis
      • Acne/pimples
      • Eczema
    • C4: cheeks, outer ear, face bones, teeth, trifacial nerve
      • Hay fever
      • Runny nose
      • Hearing loss
      • Adenoids 
    • C5: vocal cords, neck glands, pharynx
      • Laryngitis
      • Hoarseness
      • Throat conditions such as sore throat or quinsy
    • C6: neck muscles, shoulders, tonsils
      • Stiff neck (of course)
      • Pain in upper arm
      • Tonsilitis
      • Chronic cough or croup
    • C7: thyroid gland, bursae in the shoulders, elbows
      • Bursitis
      • Colds
      • Thyroid conditions, which can relate to weight, fatigue, hair loss, cold hands and feet
  • Thoracic Spine = 12 vertebrae– the middle portion of the back
    • T1: arms from the elbows down, including hands, wrists and fingers, esophagus and trachea
      • Asthma
      • Cough
      • Difficulty breathing
      • Shortness of breath
      • Pain in lower arms and hands
    • T2: heart, including its valves and covering, coronary arteries
      • Functional heart conditions
      • Certain chest conditions
    • T3: lungs, bronchial tubes, pleura, chest, breast tissue
      • Bronchitis
      • Pleurisy
      • Pneumonia
      • Congestion
      • Influenza  
    • T4: gallbladder, common duct
      • Gallbladder conditions (of course)
      • Jaundice
      • Shingles
    • T5: liver, solar plexus, circulation (general)
      • Liver conditions
      • Fevers
      • Blood pressure problems
      • Poor circulation
      • Arthritis
    • T6: stomach
      • Nervous stomach
      • Indigestion
      • Heartburn
      • Dyspepsia
      • Other stomach troubles
    • T7: pancreas, duodenum
      • Ulcers
      • Gastritis
    • T8: spleen
      • Lowered resistance 
    • T9: adrenal and suprarenal glands
      • Allergies
      • Hives 
    • T10: kidneys
      • Hardening of the arteries
      • Chronic tiredness
      • Nephritis
      • Pyelitis
      • Other kidney problems
    • T11: kidneys, ureters
      • Acne
      • Pimples
      • Eczema
      • Boils 
      • Other skin conditions
    • T12: small intestines, lymph circulation
      • Rheumatism
      • Gas pains
      • Certain types of sterility
  • Lumbar Spine = 5 vertebrae – the lower back.
    • L1: large intestines, inguinal rings
      • Constipation
      • Colitis
      • Dysentary
      • Diarrhea
      • Some ruptures or hernias
    • L2: appendix, abdomen, upper leg
      • Cramps
      • Difficulty breathing
      • Minor varicose veins
    • L3: sex organs, uterus, bladder, knees
      • Bladder troubles
      • Menstrual troubles/ pain/ irregularity
      • Miscarriages
      • Bed wetting
      • Impotence
      • “Change of life” symptoms
      • Many knee pains
    • L4: prostate gland, muscles of the lower back, sciatic nerve
      • Sciatica
      • Lumbago
      • Painful or too frequent urination
      • Backaches 
    • L5: lower legs, ankles, feet
      • Poor circulation in the legs
      • Swollen ankles
      • Weak ankles and arches
      • Cold feet
      • Weakness in the legs
      • Leg cramps
  • Sacrum: hip bones, buttocks 
    • Spinal curvatures
    • Sacroiliac conditions
  • Coccyx: rectum, anus
    • Hemorrhoids
    • Pruritus (itching)
    • Pain at end of spine on sitting

The spine is truly fascinating! While its complexity interests us, that complexity is one reason so many different spinal conditions exist. If you’re suffering from back pain beyond occasional stiffness and muscle stress, it’s recommended you consult your physician to see if a visit to a spinal specialist or chiropractor is warranted.

Quotes about spines (literal, metaphorical, and figurative).

If you would seek health, look first to the spine.
— Socrates

You only really discover the strength of your spine when your back is against the wall.
— James Geary 

My books are written with a strong chronological spine.
— Doris Kearns Goodwin

Life is so spine chillingly beautiful. — Amani Al-Khatahtbeh

You’re only as old as your spine is flexible.
— Joseph Pilates

Having a spine is overrated. If everybody squealed and ran away, there’d be no more wars. — Robert Anton Wilson

Bottom Line: Consider all the ways spinal injury or malfunction can complicate one’s life, from being paraplegic to urinary incontinence.

BEAUTIFUL BONES

A bone doctor is called an orthopedist, but I think this might be a different type of “bone doctor.”

We’ve all got bones. The average adult has 206 of them.  Babies are born with 300 bones, but  with age, tiny bones fuse together to form the larger bones of the skeletal system. So, when we think bones, we often think skeletons. 

But Wait! There’s More!

Humans have had multiple uses for skeletal remains since prehistoric times.  

Imagine sitting down to a meal of ground-up bone, served on a plate made of burned bones, while two musicians—one rattling two sawed-off ribs together and the other ominously shaking part of a horse’s skull—provide grim ambience in the dim candlelight. Off in the corner, an oracle shoves some bones into a fire in an effort to predict whether the crops you just fertilized with shattered bones will yield a hearty harvest.

Here, in one handy list, are several uses for bones besides propping up a body (not always human).

  • Bone arrowheads
  • Fish hooks
  • Jewelry
  • Drinking vessels
  • Musical instruments
    • (“Bones” themselves [pairs of rib bones] but also parts of guitars, whistles, drums, harps, pianos, etc.)
Making Music
The Bone Player by William Sidney Mount

As an instrument, the bones have their roots in traditional Irish and Scottish music, and immigrants from those countries brought them to America, where they found a home in bluegrass and other folk genres. They’re similar to other clacking percussion instruments like the spoons, the Chinese paiban, and castanets.

The jawbone, meanwhile, is originally an African instrument that made its way to the Americas as a result of the slave trade. It’s usually the jawbone of a horse or another equine (like a donkey or zebra), that’s been stripped of all flesh and dried. Once it’s dry, the teeth become so loose they rattle around in their sockets.

Sensing the Supernatural

But it’s more than a simple rattle—fortune telling: scapulimancy and plastromancy. Relatives of augery, these involve writing questions on bones, heating them up until they crack, and then interpreting the cracks.

This form of divination was called scapulimancy when it was performed with the shoulder bone of an ox (the scapula). When the practitioner sought divine inspiration on the inside of a turtle shell (a plastron), it was called plastromancy.

Most commonly, inhabitants of Europe, western Asia, and North Africa most commonly inspected the bone after all flesh was scraped away – apyromantic. Practitioners who lived in North America and other parts of Asia more often used fire – pyromantic.

Bone China
Bone china chocolate cup for the fanciest chocolate

Unlike true porcelain, which contains only minerals, the ceramic material known as bone china includes bone ash. It originated in England in the 1700s and for a long time, most, if not all, bone china was made there. The addition of bone ash makes the finished product stronger.

Fertilizer

Bone meal, as ground-up bones are called, has found its calling as plant fertilizer. It contains phosphorous and calcium, nutrients often leeched from the soil by common crops.

Gelatin and Glue
Ballistic gelatin

Most gelatin is made from the byproducts of the meat and leather industries, usually bones and skin. In its purest form, it’s 98 to 99 percent protein and is nearly tasteless and odorless. Its use dates back to the medieval era. 

Delicious gelatin

Gelatin ends up in obvious foods like gummies, but can also be used in a wide variety of ways to stabilize, thicken, and add texture to the things we eat. It’s also used to make modern film.  Gelatin and animal glue are closely related, though use of the latter has largely disappeared, essentially eliminated by the invention of synthetic adhesives. 

Bony Bits

Types of Bones

The dense, hard bone is called cortical bone. Cortical bones are primarily the “structure” bones.

The second type, trabecular bone, is soft and spongy. It’s often found inside large bones and in the pelvis, ribs, and skull. Though less dense than cortical bone, it’s quite hard and protective.

Inside the Bones

Bone marrow is a spongy substance found inside large bones like hips, pelvis, and femur. Bone marrow houses stem cells. Stem cells produce many of the body’s most important cells, including blood, brain, heart, and bone cells.

Bony Trivia

Skeleton keys are not actually made of bone. Usually.
  • There are 26 bones in the human foot.
  • The human hand, including the wrist, contains 54 bones.
  • The femur, or thighbone, is the longest and strongest bone of the human skeleton.
  • The stapes, in the middle ear, is the smallest and lightest bone of the human skeleton.
  • Arms are among the most commonly broken bones, accounting for almost half of all adults’ broken bones.
    • The collarbone is the most commonly broken bone among children.
Children definitely have more fun fixing broken bones!
  • Bones heal themselves.  When you fracture a bone, your body will go to work producing new bone cells and helping heal the break. A cast or brace just ensures the bone heals straight so you don’t have more problems in the future.
Riding a skeleton horse is not at all comfortable.
  • Bones are made up of calcium, phosphorus, sodium, and other minerals, as well as the protein collagen.
  • Bones stop growing in length during puberty.
    • Bone density and strength will change over the course of life, however.
  • The only bone in the human body not connected to another is the hyoid, a V-shaped bone located at the base of the tongue.
  • Bones are strong but teeth are stronger. The enamel on your teeth, which are considered part of your skeletal system, is actually stronger than bones. Enamel protects the delicate nerves and tissue inside your teeth. Inch for inch, your teeth can take more wear and tear than any of your other bones.
Skeletal diagram by Leonardo da Vinci (extra points if you can read his labels!)
  • Some people have 13 ribs.  A 13th rib is rare — only 1 percent of people are born with it. In most people, this extra rib, called a cervical rib, can cause medical issues like neck pain. For that reason, people born with this extra rib often have it removed.
  • Humans are part of a group of creatures called vertebrates. That means our bones are covered by a system of tissue and skin. Only 10 percent of the world’s animals (humans included) are vertebrates.
  • It is possible for your muscles to contract so hard that they break your own bones. Tetanus cramps can cause the bone to snap under the pressure. More common are avulsion fractures, in which the muscle contracts so hard and so quickly that the tendon rips away and takes a chunk of bone with it.

Skeletal Forensics

Was the victim male or female or centaur? Check wear on the hooves to determine age.

We’ve all seen movies or TV shows in which a skeleton is used to tell whether the dead person was male or female.  Here’s how.

A skeleton’s ability to draw anatomical diagrams is a good indicator of fine motor control.

A female’s skeleton is usually much smoother and less knobby than a male’s.  A male’s skeleton is usually thicker, rougher, and appears more bumpy. This is simply because males have larger muscles and therefore their skeletons require stronger attachment sites.

Differences in bone mass and geometry give males greater skeletal integrity, which may contribute to the lower incidence of stress and thin-bone (osteoporotic) fractures in males.
A male’s skull is usually bigger and bumpier than a female’s.  There are specific anatomical differences in frontal brow, eye orbits, lower jaw, and shape of chin.

This skeleton would like to know why you’re staring so rudely at its pelvis.

Examination of the pelvis is the easiest method to determine the sex of a skeleton. The female pelvis has a wider subpubic angle by 8-40 degrees, is rectangular (vs. triangular), and oval (vs. heart-shaped). The sacrum for females is shorter, broader and curved outward (vs. inward). All of this is to make childbirth easier.  Women who have borne children have scars on the surface of their pelvis.

Bending the Bones

Don’t forget the joints! What would bones do without them? Not much. 

This skeleton is using its ellipsoidal joints to threaten its enemies.
  • Joints are the place where two bones meet or connect.
  • Ligaments are short bands of tough fibrous connective tissue that function to connect one bone to another, forming the joint.
  • Tendons are made of elastic tissue and also play a key role in the functioning of joints. They connect muscle to bone.
  • A coating of another fibrous tissue called cartilage covers the bone surface and keeps the bones from rubbing directly against each other.
Lucy, one of the oldest humanoid skeleton fossils
  • Some joints move and some don’t. Joints in the skull don’t move. Synovial joints are movable joints. They make up most of the joints in the body and are located mostly in the limbs, where mobility is critical. They contain synovial fluid, which helps them to move freely.
  • Ball and socket joints, such as hip and shoulder joints, are the most mobile type of joint. They allow you to move your arms and legs in many different directions.
  • Ellipsoidal joints, such as the one at the base of the index finger, allow bending and extending.
  • Gliding joints are found between flat bones that are held together by ligaments. Some bones in the wrists and ankles move by gliding against each other.
  • Hinge joints are those in the knee and elbow. They enable movement similar to the way a hinged door moves.

Bone Problems

Feathers and glitter are not problems at all!
I’m not sure what disease this is, but it looks painful.

Bones provide the structure for our bodies. Each bone plays a role in the mechanics of body function, so if a bone is broken, none of the bones around it can function properly.  Bones get little attention unless injured or diseased.

Bone diseases can make bones easy to break. Different kinds of bone problems:

Extreme magnification of bone marrow looks like a fabulously abstract painting.

The importance of bone health is highlighted in National Osteoporosis Month, which is annually in May.

Raccoon skeletons are just as troublesome as fleshy raccoons.

I, for one, think October should be National Bone Month. After all, it’s the month when we most often see and (for most often us) think about bones. 

IT’S GOOD TO KNOW STUFF

Except this. It’s never good to know what this is.

Everything from scintillating cocktail conversation to realistic writing to acing tests depends on it!

Minerals

  • Quartz can scratch glass—easily. It’s one of the few minerals that can. But gem stones topaz and corundum (mainly ruby and sapphire) can mark glass, too, being between the hardness of quartz (7) and diamond (10, the hardest of all).
  • Of course, diamonds can cut glass, and can scratch virtually anything. Is there anyone out there who didn’t know that? I’ve often heard that in years gone by, women would authenticate their engagement ring stone by scratching a name or other inscription into window glass.  Little did they know it might be quartz! Or zircon!
  • Zircon is the oldest mineral found on earth, and it’s the only natural gemstone that can imitate diamond (hardness up to 7.5). It can mark glass, too.

Out of Breath

  • The human body can function without air longer than you think. The current record for voluntarily going without oxygen is 11 minutes, 35 seconds for men and 8 minutes, 23 seconds for women.
  • As a point of comparison, the average person can hold his/her breath for 30-90 seconds. FYI, Japanese pearl divers don’t have super lungs; they hold their breath for about two minutes per dive. And, yes, people can train themselves for longer breathlessness.

Weather: It’s Everywhere!

Russians never let snow get in their way.
  • Chicago has more sports events cancelled because of weather than any other U.S. city—but I couldn’t confirm that just now.
  • Consider how weather could add tension to any sport that is played outdoors. Communities in regions prone to rain, snow, etc., residents tend to be more willing to play soccer in the rain or huddle around fire pits to watch an outdoor hockey game. Don’t forget heat and drought.  And consider the implications of climate change.
Betcha can’t tell it’s below zero!
  • Similar considerations apply for outdoor concerts, plays, and lectures. Some instruments (brass, certain woodwinds, a few percussion types, and [shockingly] harps) can be played in the rain or cold if they are properly prepared and cared for after. The heavy stage makeup actors wear to withstand sweat and theatrical weeping will also stand up to rain.
  • Death Valley is the hottest location in the U.S. (Marathoners have to bring extra shoes to replace all the pairs that will melt on the asphalt during the course of the race!)
  • Phoenix, AZ, is the hottest city in the U.S.
  • Fairbanks, Alaska is the coldest city in the whole country, but Grand Forks, ND, is the coldest in the continental U.S.
  • The Yukon is the coldest region in the U.S. (Most items have to be shipped in refrigerated trucks to prevent them freezing in transit!)
It’s tough to get around when the snow is up to your belly.
  • Mount Rainier has the most snowfall.
  • Syracuse, NY is the snowiest city in the continental U.S.
  • Mobile, AL, is the rainiest city in the continental U.S.
  • All 10 of the rainiest cities are along the southernmost border.
  • For all that Chicago is known as “The Windy City,” the windiest is actually Dodge City, Kansas. Indeed, Chicago doesn’t even make the top 10!
  • The difference between a hurricane and a typhoon is a matter of geography.
    • In the North Atlantic, central North Pacific, and eastern North Pacific, it’s a hurricane.
    • In the Northwest Pacific, it’s a typhoon.
    • In the South Pacific, it’s called a tropical cyclone. In fact, all are tropical cyclones.
    • The weakest of these are tropical depressions; the next level up are tropical storms.

$ and € and £ and ¥

Even scams are subject to inflation.
  • The Value of a Dollar is actually the name of a great reference book. 
    • It gives the cost of goods and services as well as typical salaries/wages by year, starting in 1860 and still updated.
  • Gas in Bath County, Virginia, cost ten cents per gallon in 1935. Ham was ten cents a pound as well.
  • Over the last 20 years, U.S. annual inflation rate has varied between 0.1% (2015) and 3.8% (2008). The highest inflation rates, some in the thousands of percent, occur in third world and developing  countries, including Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Lebanon, and Argentina. Those who know these things blame the lack of a central bank, which allows for easier currency manipulation.
From the Instagram of ceskemapy
  • In 2020, Wichita Falls, TX was the city with the lowest cost of living. The four lowest cost-of-living cities were all in Texas. However, the lowest cost of living state is Mississippi. 

Gender and Orientation

  • 120 males are conceived for every 100 females, but only 105 males are born for every 100 females. Sometimes called “male fragility”, the fact is that at every age and stage, males are more likely to die than females, as well as having more behavioral and developmental disorders.
She’s ready for the Olympic tryouts.
  • Physiologically, a newborn girl is 6 weeks ahead of a newborn boy. Females tolerate heat, cold, famine, and disease better than males.  Speed and strength favor men, but endurance favors women.
  • In 1/1500 to 1/2000 births, the newborn’s genitalia are so noticeably atypical that a sexual differentiation expert must be called in. What used to be called hermaphroditic is now part of a larger category termed intersex: 1 in 100 newborns have bodies that are not standard male or female. 
  • In the U.S., 58% of reported COVID deaths are male (per the CDC as of May 6). In England, Wales, and France, that figure is 60%. In Malaysia, it’s 78%.
  • Research lags sexual identification, but I was able to find that similar numbers of men and women in the U.S. identify as LGB (3.5%). (8.2% report having actually engaged in same-sex sexual behavior.)
  • Among LGB identifiers, a slight majority identify as bisexual, and the majority of those are women.
  • 0.3% identify as transgender. Research in these areas is fraught with hurdles and problems.

Love and/or Marriage

Divorce cakes seem to be growing in popularity. Maybe it’s just because everyone wants an excuse to eat cake!
  • Predictions are that 40-50% of all marriages end in divorce. That number goes up to 60% of second marriages and 65% of third and fourth marriages.  
  • About 6% of couples who married and divorced later remarried each other. 72% of those remarried couples stayed together.
Henry VIII looks almost tame next to Glynn Wolfe.
  • Glynn Wolfe (1908-1997) was a Baptist minister who seems to hold the record for the most monogamous marriages (29). The shortest lasted 19 days, the longest 11 years.
  • Britney Spears and Jason A. Alexander were married 55 hours. Long-time friends, they married on the spur of the moment in Las Vegas and agreed to an annulment just over two days later.
  • But wait! That’s still 1100 times longer than the record (which still holds, as best I could determine). In 2019, a couple in Kuwait probably set the bar for the shortest marriage on record: 3 minutes. Leaving the courthouse, the bride tripped and fell. Her new husband called her ‘stupid.” She returned to the judge who had just married them and demanded a divorce.
Is there a different term for having multiple vampire wives?
  • Vocabulary:
    • A bigamist marries a second (third, etc.) spouse while still married to someone else.
    • Polygamy is the culturally/legally accepted practice of one man having several wives.
    • Polyandry is the same, only it’s one woman with multiple husbands.

Bones

  • The human skeleton renews approximately every 3 months.
  • Human infants are born with 6 cranial bones and 2 holes in their heads (called fontanelles). The fontanelles usually close up within the first two months.
  • In total, human infants are born with more than 300 bones. They fuse with age, resulting in adult bodies with only 206.
  • The hardest bone in the body is the mandible/jawbone.
Children are so weird.
  • Children develop both sets of teeth at the same time. Their baby teeth fall out as their permanent teeth grow downward.
  • The hands and feet have over half of all the bones in the human body: 27 per hand and 26 per foot.
  • The hyoid bone is the only bone in the human body not connected to another bone.
  • Ancient Egyptians (about 3000 years ago) developed the first functional prosthetic bone, a big toe.
  • Humans and other animals with internal bony skeletons are in the minority—only about 2% of animal species are endoskeletal.
Some people have three or four or more skeletons in their bodies.
  • The average number of skeletons in the human body is technically more than one. (Pregnant women skew the numbers ever so slightly.)
  • The femur is the longest bone in the human body, and one of the most researched in both human anatomy and forensic medicine.

Bottom Line: One of my greatest rewards for writing is learning new things. I want my facts to be right. Therefore, I do a lot of research—and therein lies the joy of coming across the unexpected. I recommend it!

Very Important Note: Be mindful of what you’re researching, where you’re researching, and what that research might look like to a stranger. Some topics will throw up a red flag in search engines or on monitorwd networks. You don’t want the FBI knocking on your door just because the explosion scene in your novel is chemically accurate!

HAPPY COFFEE DAY!

September 28th is National Coffee Day! It may be a fairly new holiday (started in 2015), but it’s becoming one of favorites.

Whenever I find a big hole in my knowledge stash, I immediately try to fill it. Thus, when my husband and I were lingering over our breakfast coffee—Kenyan, one of our favorites—and, for no identifiable reason, I said, “Does coffee grow in the United States?”

Bingo! Something to find out about!

Being my husband of many years, he immediately knew that I meant the continental U.S., not Puerto Rico or Hawaii, but he didn’t know. The answer is “yes.” Coffee is grown in California now, though it is a newcomer to coffee production.

As it turns out, I found researching coffee fascinating.  Although coffee is now grown worldwide, its roots trace back centuries to ancient coffee forests on the Ethiopian plateau.

According to legend, the goat herder Kaldi first discovered the potential of these beloved beans when he noticed that after eating them, his goats became energized and didn’t want to sleep. (I don’t know how anyone could tell the difference.) He took the beans to a monastery where the head monk made a drink from them, felt the energizing effects, and shared the drink with other monks. And then the word began to spread.

By the 15th century, coffee was being grown in the Yemeni district of Arabia.

By the 16th century it was known in Persia, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. 

By the 17th century, coffee had made its way to Europe and was becoming popular across the continent—which raises the question of how the British came to be/stay tea drinkers, but that’s another story.

Afghani women grinding coffee beans

The common breakfast drinks of the time—beer and wine—quickly lost ground. Though people probably didn’t realize it, boiling the water in coffee generally made it much safer to drink than water. Coffee-drinking workers were alert and energized, and the quality of their work was greatly improved. (The National Coffee Association suggests that this was a precursor to the modern office coffee service.)

Coffee was brought to New Amsterdam, later called New York, by the mid-1600s. However, the American preference for coffee didn’t come until after the famous/infamous Boston Tea Party, when the colonists revolted against the high tax imposed on tea by George III. A fuller history of coffee and lots more coffee info can be had at ncausa.com.

Suffice it to say, lots of wise and not-so-wise people have commented on coffee.

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women: “I’d rather take coffee than compliments just now.”

Thomas Jefferson: “Coffee – the favorite drink of the civilized world.” 

Ronald Reagan: “I never drink coffee at lunch. I find it keeps me awake for the afternoon.”

T.S. Eliot: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”

Anthony Trollope, The Warden: “What on earth could be more luxurious than a sofa, a book, and a cup of coffee?”

Vincent Van Gogh: “To do good work one must eat well, be well housed, have one’s fling from time to time, smoke one’s pipe, and drink one’s coffee in peace.”

Abraham Lincoln: “If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.”

Johann Sebastian Bach: “Without my morning coffee, I’m just like a dried-up piece of goat.” (FYI, he wrote a coffee cantata.)

Clark Gable: “I never laugh until I’ve had my coffee.”

Dave Barry: “It is inhumane, in my opinion, to force people who have a genuine medical need for coffee to wait in line behind people who apparently view it as some kind of recreational activity.”

One measure of coffee’s ubiquity is the sheer number of quotes available! If you search coffee quotes on line, you will find lists ranging from 30 to 117. Even discounting repetitions, that’s saying a lot about coffee.

from Etsy

I’m not a coffee addict, though there are such—people who get headaches if they don’t have their caffeine fix. In truth, other sources of caffeine can be just as addictive (think soda, tea, or chocolate) but coffee is the one most often acknowledged/recognized. 

from Etsy

I typically drink only one cup of coffee a day, which some consider heretical, but even so, I have my preferences: start with roasted beans, grind, brew using a drip coffee maker. I drink it black, and prefer Kenyan or Tanzanian, sometimes Mocha or a darker roast.

In the U.S., coffee drinking is practically a cultural requirement, and as such, it’s everywhere, in many forms.  Black, cream, sugar, foam, no foam, full caf, half-caf, decaf, soy latte, instant (ugh!)—people love their coffee a certain way and often will not budge on change it.  I, on the other hand, like to change it up.

Coffee and coffee shops are a huge part of our social culture. Teenagers often start drinking it to keep up with late night homework and early morning bus schedules. Many people hang out in coffee shops to use the wifi or meet friends. Sending coworkers to fetch coffee or jumping the line at a kiosk is frequently a method of establishing or reinforcing workplace hierarchy. I know several parents who have special “coffee time” with their young children. (In every case I’ve heard of, the child drinks milk with maybe a teaspoon of coffee added.)

Believe it or not, some people are allergic to coffee or just really dislike it. In a country with (seemingly) coffee shops on every corner, what social implications might this have?

With whiskey and cream, pretending to be Irish?

And what about equipment? Grinder for freshly ground beans? Keurig for easy portioning? Where/when is it drunk? Made at home or purchased in a cafe? Milk or whipped cream or fancy syrup? SO many opportunities!

What’s your coffee habit? And how about your characters?

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: JEWELRY

Very few people wear no jewelry at all, at any time.  That said, men are more likely than women to be among those few. Where, when, and what type of adornment provide fertile ground.

Characters from different cultural backgrounds, time periods, and social classes are likely to view jewelry in ways that seem odd to outsiders.

So change it up! 

Go Against Expectations

In June of 2020, I posted another blog about jewelry titled JEWELRY AS MORE THAN BEAUTIFICATION: IDENTIFICATION, INFORMATION, AFFILIATION, COMMUNICATION. Lots of good information there (I say, most humbly) but I won’t repeat it here. 

In determining your characters’ jewelry profiles, start with “Why does this character wear (or not wear) jewelry?”

Uses of Jewelry

Jewelry is often viewed as a fashion accessory for complementing one’s clothes, especially for special occasions. With a bit of imagination, it can be so much more.

Research has shown that wearing jewelry can increase an individual’s self-esteem. Nursing home residents with memory loss were less unruly when they wore jewelry.

Not wearing jewelry when it is the norm can also attract attention, possibly criticism (such as removing a wedding ring before going out to drink).

Flo-Jo (Florence Griffith-Joyner)

Many wear jewelry as a symbol of femininity or masculinity. Think of the number of female athletes who wear jewelry while competing or even coaching. Think biker chains and skulls.

Jewelry has an obvious dollar value that can be a signifier, even if it is fake.

  • Showcase social status or wealth
  • Serve as an investment
  • Be a safety net for financial independence
    • This is especially common among women, particularly in nomadic cultures
Traditional Afghani Bridal Jewelry

Jewelry can make a person feel confident and attractive.

Jewelry can have personal or sentimental value. It can be a powerful connection to loved ones and memories.

Many wear jewelry because, well, one likes how it looks

Wearing jewelry can be a way to express oneself.  

  • Red jewelry, for example, connotes vitality, courage, and confidence.
  • Anchor jewelry denotes stability, strength, steadfastness, and hope. 
  • Hemp

A variety of jewelry pieces signify strength, courage, and hope. Some actually contain the word—in letters or Morse code.

Rings by goldsmith Danielle Crampsie

The recorded sound wave of a loved one’s voice (or bark) can be etched onto the metal of a ring or pendant.

Others are symbolic like the Celtic tree of life, the Viking axe pendant, the Egyptian ankh, or the eagle ring. Still others could be more esoteric, like dragonfly earrings supporting the wearer to pursue dreams. These are often gifted or awarded to someone.

Jewelry for Healing or Health

One well-known example is the usual 7 stones in the chakra, used for reiki, healing, meditation, chakra balancing, or ritual: 

  • Amethyst (Crown Chakra)
  • Carnelian (Sacral Chakra)
  • Yellow Jade (Solar Plexus)
  • Green Aventurine (Heart Chakra)
  • Lapis Lazuli (Throat Chakra)
  • Clear Crystal (Third-Eye Chakra)
  • Red Jasper (Root Chakra)

Virtually every stone is associated with physical and/or mental health in one way or another. Whole books have been written about. One good all-around reference for The Book of Stones: Who they are & What They Teach by Robert Simmons & Naisha Ahsian. 

Particular Stones in Jewelry

First of all, think birthstones.

Although there is assumed to be a particular affinity with one’s birthstone, there is no hard evidence (that I found) that this is the case. One thing they all have in common is that they sparkle, especially in sunlight. Some wearers find the sparkle both beautiful and cheering.

In general, does your character prefer sparkly stones, opaque ones, or no stones? 

Malachite
  • As a general rule, sparkly stones are dressier as well as more expensive than opaque ones. Are these factors?
  • Opaque stones offer more variety, from jasper to turquoise to onyx.
    • Color and pattern are primary considerations.

Turqupise: An Example of How a Stone Can Be Related to a Character 

John is an undercover police officer, 6’4” tall, and he wears silver jewelry as a statement that he’s a rogue, and not to be intimidated. Depending on the role he’s playing, he sometimes goes more subtle, choosing a tie bar, cufflinks, or belt buckle.

When he delved into turquoise, he discovered the huge range of colors, including copper-turquoise in blue, green, purple, red/orange, and black. 

Women find him handsome and say his jewelry just accentuates that he’s one of a kind. He once dated a woman who told him turquoise represents wisdom, tranquility, protection, good fortune, and hope, and that contemporary crystal experts celebrate it for its representation of wisdom, tranquility, and protection. John is skeptical of all that.

His preference for turquoise reflects his (distant) connection to Native American culture, even though he has no involvement with a tribe and was reared entirely within the Anglo world. However, his paternal great-grandfather was Navajo. John has a blue turquoise ring that belonged to his great-grandfather, and a green turquoise one made by his great-grandfather’s brother.

When those rings came to John, he was surprised to learn that Native Americans (the Hohokam and Anasazi peoples) first started mining and using turquoise around 200 B.C.E. They mined the famous Cerrillos and Burro Mountains of what is now New Mexico and, in Arizona, the Kingman and Morenci turquoise mines.

When John is deep in thought, he often turns his ring around and around. Depending on context, he can do this when problem solving, daydreaming, or planning. He is very disciplined not to do it when playing poker or being threatened.

Which Metal

  • Platinum
  • Gold
    • White gold
    • Yellow gold
    • Red gold
  • Silver
  • Aluminum
  • Titanium
  • Stainless steel…

Not to mention the role of leather, cord, wood, hemp… But I’m not going there!

When Not to Wear Jewelry

Many professions require specific jewelry or no jewelry at all. This could be for safety considerations or to create a specific professional impression.

  • Most medical professionals cannot wear rings, bracelets, necklaces, or large earrings for health safety.
  • Jobs requiring heavy machinery, blades, or high temperatures (locksmith, chef, welder, etc.) generally prohibit wearing anything that dangles or hangs.
Those working out of the spotlight, such as in the pit orchestra or in the flies usually wear no jewelry, at least nothing that catches the light.

Raw food can also get caught in the settings of rings and bracelets, trapping bacteria and other contaminants in your jewelry and leading to possible skin irritation or contaminated food. 
While at the beach, the sun, sand, and sharks (attracted to shiny objects) are three reasons why not to wear jewelry at the beach.

Whenever the activity might damage or wear-down the gem or the metal. This list is just a reminder. You can figure out the risks associated with each activity for yourself—except, maybe, sleeping!

  • Showering
  • Swimming
    • Whether in the pool or at the beach
  • Exercising
  • Cleaning
  • Getting ready in the morning
  • Gardening
  • Cooking
  • Sleeping
  • Painting

Jewelry prongs/settings can wear down faster during sleep, especially if someone tosses and turns a lot. The prongs can also become bent out of shape if caught on a sheet or blanket, making the chances of accidentally losing a gemstone more likely.

Bottom line: Writers, tap the rich vein of jewelry and gemstones to add depth and detail to your work!

COLLECTING: A FINE OLD THING

According to Wikipedia, “Collecting is a practice with a very old cultural history. In Mesopotamia, collecting practices have been noted among royalty and elites as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE. … Collecting engravings and other prints by those whose means did not allow them to buy original works of art also goes back many centuries.” 

Carl Jung—to drop a familiar name—suggested that the appeal of collecting is connected to hunting and gathering for early human survival.

Collections of art and antiquities often form the basis for museums or galleries/wings within museums. Donating such a collection is often an intentional or unintentional path to prestige, usually a wealth marker. Just look at James Smithson, who would have been just another wealthy Englishman if he hadn’t founded the Smithsonian Institution.

Sometimes these museum collections are the result of are generational family collections. The Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures in Arizona began with a dollhouse passed down to founder Pat Arnell from her mother. The museum is now a series of exhibits arranged to transport the visitor to various times and places all over the world, like a time machine.

N.B. the difference between an antique and a collectible is age.

  • In general, antiques are at least 100 years old.
    • The DMV classifies vehicles as antique when they are 25 years old.
  • Collectibles are “vintage,” meaning old but not that old.
  • Of course, everything old was once new, so…

A collection must be valued at least… ?

A lot of Depression Glass collections started with free pieces of glassware in bags of flour.

Neither age nor monetary value define collections for ordinary people. Virtually anything can be collected—and probably has been! 

My mother collected salt and pepper shakers. My sister collected dolls. One aunt collected Swanky Swigs Kraft Pimento Cheese Jars, free when she bought the cheese for her son’s favorite lunch sandwich.

Aunt Lena took pride in collecting them all and decades later used them as juice glasses.

I’m probably the most varied collector I know. I started as a preschooler collecting “pretty” pebbles—and collecting them again after my mother dumped them back into the driveway. Then it was paper dolls.

As an adult I have several collections.

Perhaps my jewelry collection could be measures by the branch.
  • Carved wood Santas (>450)
  • Hundreds of cookbooks ranging from newly published to one from 1840
  • Depression Glass table service and flower vases
  • Mahjong sets approaching antiquity 
  • Gold and cloisonné napkin rings
  • Mineral skulls as both shelf art and jewelry
  • Jewelry that can be measured only by the pound.

The general consensus among those who know me is that having grown up poor, as an adult objectively enough is never psychologically enough.

Why do people start collecting?

Imelda Marcos’s shoe collection probably provides enough material for a dozen psychological studies.

Collecting can reflect a fear of scarcity, or of discarding something and then later regretting it. No doubt many collections are connected to deep-seated personality or psychological issues.

This form of collecting can very easily cross the line into hoarding, a mental disorder connected with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Psychologists differentiate between collecting and hoarding in several ways.

Pet hoarding is one of the most tragic forms of hoarding, both for the keeper and for the animals. The ASPCA has information and resources on how to help.
  • Collectors tend to organize and display their collections.
    • Hoarders are more likely to have so much that everything is piled together, often becoming crushed or ruined beneath other piles.
  • Collectors are specific about the items they collect and know the monetary value of items in their collections (if there is any monetary value).
    • Hoarders may collect categories of items, but these categories are more likely to be vague, regardless of monetary value.
  • Collectors have a sense of pride in the uniqueness or size of their collections, creating displays to share with visitors and to preserve everything in the collection.
    • Hoarding is often a source of shame, leading hoarders to attempt to downplay or hide their hoarded possessions from visitors.
This photo of a collection of BDSM and fetish gear is one of the very few that is not X-rated!

One might wonder about sex collections, those who own dildos in various sizes, shapes, and materials; fetishists who collect shoes, handcuffs, or leather. Collections of marble, glass, clay, and leather sex toys have been found in Roman ruins and Viking burials. This is certainly not a modern phenomenon. (There are actually books out there that talk about sex collectors, fyi.)

But surely many—most?—are not related to deep-seated needs or issues.

What explains collecting belly button fluff?  At 22.1 grams, Graham Barker has the largest collection of belly button fluff. It’s his own fluff. He started the collection in 1984, and keeps a daily log of color, amount, and what towel he was using or clothes he was wearing that yielded the sample.

The fact that Mr. Barker has the largest collection implies that there are other people out there who collect belly button lint.

And what about the guy who keeps his ABC (already been chewed) nicotine gum balls to make one giant one?

Personally, I think a lot of collections begin by happenstance. 

Becky Martz shows off her collection with help from the Chiquita Banana Lady.
(Image from Chiquita.com)

For example, that seems to be what happened for Becky Martz: in 1991 she noticed that label on the newly purchased Dole bananas (from Honduras) was different from the one already in her fruit bowl (from Guatemala),  and voila, a collection of >21,000 banana stickers from around the world was begun. 

What else would explain collections of

  • 730 umbrella covers/sleeves
    • There is a museum of umbrella covers in Maine.
  • Rubber door stoppers
  • Bars of soap

And some collections start as free-bees. Many people keep mementos of their travels in the form of free items with the location printed on them. These sometimes depend on quantity rather than variety:

In case you’re curious, collecting matchbooks is technically known as “phillumeny.”
  • Water bottle labels
  • “Do Not Disturb” hotel tags
  • Airline barf bags
  • Sugar packets
  • Drink coasters
  • Matchbook covers
  • Bottle caps
  • Seashells
  • Cigar bands 

Pure whim?

  • Artificial Christmas trees
  • Pink hats
  • Coke memorabilia
  • Old cast iron cookware and utensils
  • Pens or pencils
  • Chicken/pig/cow memorabilia
  • Barbed wire
  • Bells

Examples I know of circumstances leading to collections:

  • A home brewer who collect beer glasses and steins
  • A woman who bought an historic home on a railroad track and started collecting train memorabilia
  • A firefighter who inherited her father’s and grandfather’s firefighting badges and helmets
  • A collection of 30,000 toenail clippings for medical research

Collecting socially

Znachki are all over eBay these days.

In Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and many Eastern European countries, there is a tradition of znachki – trading pins. During the end of the Imperial Era and throughout the time of the Soviet Union, people were given pins in commemoration, in celebration, as congratulations, to note achievements, and pretty much any other occasions. When meeting in public, people could ask about pins and medals worn as a way of breaking the ice. Pins were often traded and collected.

A meeting of antique doll collectors hosted by DOLLS magazine.

Disney parks and Olympic Games have similar customs of issuing commemorative pins to be collected and traded by strangers and friends.

Many hard-core collectors can also find societies and organizations of like-minded individuals. Dollhouse furniture, Star Wars memorabilia, and Pokemon cards all bring people together online or in swap meets to buy, sell, and trade to perfect their collections.

Collecting Christmas cards is one of the most social collections imaginable.

Bottom line: Whatever the source or start point, what might a collection add to your plot or character? You can go online to find about about these and innumerable other collectables and their collectors, associations, meetings, swaps, and collecting venues.

SEPTEMBER FOCUS

Every day of every month marks something remarkable, something to celebrate, something to be aware of. I’m not up to tracking daily events; instead, I like to look at whole months.

Of course, International Talk Like a Pirate Day on September 19th is worthy of being studied and celebrated all month long!

So here, for your information, entertainment, and possibly seasonal scenes in your fiction, is the September summary.

Books/Education

  • Be Kind to Editors and Writers Month
  • Library Card Sign-Up Month
  • Sea Cadet Month
    • (The Sea Cadet program is similar to the ROTC, run by the Navy and Coast Guard.)
  • International Strategic Thinking Month

Food

  • Eat Chicken Month
  • Great American Low-Cholesterol, Low-Fat Pizza Bake
  • Hunger Action Month
  • National Honey Month
  • National Mushroom Month
  • National Rice Month
  • National [Milk]Shake Month
  • Whole Grains Month

Health and Safety

(Make sure the baby is wearing a helmet before she rappels off the roof.)
  • Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Month
  • Baby Safety Month
  • Childhood Cancer Awareness Month
  • Gynecologic Awareness Month
  • International Speak Out Month
    • (For those who suffer from a fear of public speaking) 
  • Mold Awareness Month
  • National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month
  • National DNA, Genomics, & Stem Cell Education and Awareness Month
  • National Head Lice Prevention Month
  • National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month
  • National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month
  • National Recovery Month
    • (To support recovery from substance abuse, addiction, and mental illness)
  • National Skin Care Awareness Month
  • Healthy Aging Month
  • Sports Eye Safety Month

Pets/Animals

  • AKC Responsible Dog Ownership Month
  • Happy Cat Month
  • National Service Dog Month

Relationships

  • Intergeneration Connection Month
  • International Women’s Friendship Month
  • One-On-One Meetings Month
    • (In the workplace)
  • Pleasure Your Mate Month
  • Subliminal Communications Month

And Then There Is…

Bottom line: September has something for almost everyone! But if none of these are for you, look forward to next month (or back to last month).

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: SLEEP

Even without pausing to think, people can easily describe their sleep habits. What does your character think and feel about about his or her own ? Is sleep a welcome respite or a necessary evil? What’s necessary for your character to fall asleep—and stay there? Is insomnia a chronic condition, or only within the plot situation? Does your character sleep as an escape mechanism? Does your character take sleep aids? Self-medicate with alcohol? Does sleep feel like a waste of time?

Deviating From Eight Hours

By now, pretty much everyone knows that, on average, people spend approximately one third of their lives sleeping. Anything that time-consuming must impinge on people’s (characters’) awareness.

It turns out most people sleep about 7 hours a night, so that would be “normal.” Fewer than 6 hours a night means one is a short sleeper, and more than 8 hours a night is a long sleeper. Does it matter?

People tend to perceive short sleepers as high-energy, productive, and on top of things. Long sleepers are often perceived as lazy, or at least not hard workers. 

What is your character’s sleep duration? Is s/he happy with with it? Smug? Defensive? Self-conscious?

Sleeping longer is better for physical health.  A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology titled Sleep Duration and Survival Percentiles Across Categories of Physical Activity says sleep duration affects physical health: Those who get less than six hours of sleep are at increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, and early death even if they’re active and exercise regularly.

But can one sleep too much? Not if you maintain a reasonable level of physical activity. (Inactive long sleepers also die earlier, usually from cardiovascular problems.) 

Keep this in mind when creating realistic characters.

Early Birds vs. Night Owls

Early birds tend to get up early without setting an alarm, and even on the weekend.  Mornings are the most productive times. And activity trackers indicate that early birds actually move 60-90 more minutes per day. They fade in the evening, often in bed by 10:00.

There is a middle group: Day people sleep a little later and are most effective in the afternoon.

Night owls sleep as late as possible and are up well past nightfall, into the wee hours of the morning.  Night owls tend to sit more and move less, even when researchers factored for education and health conditions—so need to make an effort to move more for health reasons! And because this pattern doesn’t fit the world at large, making appointments for doctors, etc., can be problematic. Robo-calls while still in bed are especially annoying!

Stereotypes favor early risers for being healthy, wealthy, and wise. On the other time, creative types often report that their best work hours are evening/wee hours of the mornings.

NB: sleep patterns can change naturally over the lifespan. Infants sleep almost constantly; teenagers seem to sleep only while in a classroom setting.

What is your character’s sleep rhythm? Is it felt to be a blessing, a burden, or relatively irrelevant fact of life? Does s/he struggle against the “natural” rhythm? If so, why? Does your character push the limits for staying awake and then “catch-up” later?

Napping

Some people doze off while sitting in a chair; some settle into a recliner and nap intentionally; and yet others can only nap in their own beds, often with shoes off and tight clothes loosened. 

Some take “power naps” for 15 minutes or so during the work day; others nap for an hour or more at a time.

Napping offers several benefits for healthy adults, including

  • Relaxation
  • Reduced fatigue
  • Increased alertness
  • Improved mood
  • Extended functioning hours later
  • Improved performance, including quicker reaction time and better memory

Napping can also have negative effects, such as

  • Sleep inertia: feeling groggy and disoriented after waking up from a nap.
  • Nighttime sleep problems. 
    • Short naps generally don’t affect nighttime sleep quality.
    • People who experience insomnia or poor sleep quality at night, napping might worsen these problems. 
      • Insomniacs often have trouble napping at all because it takes longer to fall asleep than the allotted duration of the nap!

Does your character nap? Where? Why?  And is s/he okay with that?

Dreaming

Does your character claim not to dream? If so, s/he is mistaken. People team an average of 7 times a night during so-called REM sleep. These dream periods get longer as the night’s sleep progresses. Chances are, your dream denier simply doesn’t wake up within ten minutes of dreams ending.

Are dreams important to your character?  Some people mine dreams for clues to their inner lives, creative insight, and even hints of the future. Some people treasure dreams as raisers of awareness of non-conscious problems or conflicts. Some believe internal conflicts actually get solved during dreams. Some dreams are erotic and can lead to sexual release. And some people keep dream journals for later review and inspiration for creative works.

Like other dreams, nightmares often include elements of real life: anxiety, fears, failures, embarrassments, or trauma. People do not wake up happy from nightmares. Because nightmares are a disruption of the REM cycle rather than a part of it, a sleeper with nightmares wake up less refreshed than before. (Nightmares are not the same as night terrors.)

Lucid dreaming is less well-known than other sorts of dreams. According to Psychology Today, “During lucid dreaming, which most commonly occurs during late-stage REM sleep, a dreamer is aware that they’re asleep, but is able to control events within their dreams, to some extent.” Lucid dreamers report willing themselves to fly, fight, or act out sexual fantasies. There are communities dedicated to learning how to lucid dream at will, although evidence that this is possible remains inconclusive. Still, that doesn’t mean your character can’t be a dedicated lucid dreamer!

Research indicates that dreaming is crucial to intellectual functioning, memory consolidation, and mood regulation. A sleeper who is allowed to undergo every part of the REM cycle except dreaming will eventually develop the same problems as severe sleep deprivation, including hallucinations and strokes!

What is your character’s dream scape? Are dreams remembered? Are they amusing, irritating, or sources of unease? Does your character talk about his/her dreams? If so, to whom?

Bottom line: sleep—and everything associated with it—can make your plot richer and your character more realistic. 

A while back (March 10, 2020, to be exact) I wrote a blog Sleeping Alone and Together, about gender and personality reflected in sleep positions. 

ONE RESOURCEFUL BLACK MAN

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that (among other things) August is Black Business Month. And then I heard about John P. Parker. He caught my attention because 1) my father’s name was John E. Parker; and 2) both moved to Ohio from points farther south, and died there.

Although there’s no other connection, that was enough to make me want to find out about this historical Parker—and an amazing man he was!

An Eventful Early Life

John P. Parker was the son of a slave mother and white father—name unknown, but reputed to be a Virginia aristocrat. At the age of eight, John was chained to another slave and forced to walk from Norfolk to the slave market in Richmond, VA. There he was resold and added to a chained gang of 400 slaves being herded to Mobile, AL. In Alabama, he was bought by a local physician.

“After the Sale: Slaves Going South from Richmond” by Eyre Crow, 1853
Encyclopedia of Virginia

Parker worked first as a house slave and companion to the doctor’s two sons. According to John’s memoir, he became good friends with the two boys and enjoyed being their playmate. Although educating a slave was against the law, the doctor’s sons secretly taught Parker to read and write.

When the sons went to Yale, John was supposed to go with them as their personal servant. However, in Philadelphia, the difference in public sentiment regarding slavery became obvious. Afraid that abolitionists would try to free John, the doctor’s sons sent him back to Alabama. His dreams of university were dashed.

John Parker returned to Mobile, where the doctor apprenticed him to a plasterer. The plasterer was a brutal drunk and after defending himself, Parker feared for his life and fled by riverboat. After months of pursuit and escape—well worth reading about!—he ended up on the docks in New Orleans. In a bizarre coincidence, Parker happened to cross paths with the Alabama physician and returned to Mobile. According to his memoir, Parker was quite happy to accompany the doctor home.

Returned to the doctor’s household, John was apprenticed again to a foundry. He thrived and learned there until he got into a fight with his boss. The doctor sent John to work in another friend’s foundry. Again, John’s temper ended in a fight with the superintendent. The argument was compounded by the superintendent’s theft of Parker’s design for an improved tobacco press. Fortunately, the superintendent was unfamiliar with patent law, and Parker was able to file the patent when he was a free man.

After this, the doctor claimed he didn’t know what to do with John and would have to to sell him as a field hand.

Finding Freedom

The three golden balls of a pawnbroker’s sign originally referred to the three golden coins on the medieval Medici family crest.

Desperate to avoid the brutality of a field hand’s life, John asked one of the doctor’s patients, a widow, to purchase him. He persisted in his petitions until she agreed to do so, for $1,800. 

Elizabeth Ryder, the widow, allowed John to hire himself out to earn money. She agreed that his wages could be used to purchase his own freedom. John Parker repaid that $1,800 plus interest at the rate of $10 per week. He earned the money doing piecework in Mobile iron foundries, as well as occasional odd jobs and running a “regular three-ball pawnshop.”

Parker was so motivated to repay Mrs. Ryder that he paid her far more than $10 every week.

John Parker gained his freedom in 1845, after eighteen months with the widow. This is a pretty amazing achievement: that $1,800 (never mind the interest) is the equivalent of $64,659 today. He was only 18 in 1845!  Clearly, he was both hard working and talented. And thanks to Mrs. Ryder, who “gave me a free hand to go where I wanted to and do as I pleased.”

Businessman

John Parker’s patents for a portable tobacco press, an improved tobacco press, and soil pulverizer

Beginning as an iron molder, Parker developed and patented a number of mechanical and industrial inventions, including the John P. Parker tobacco press and harrow (pulverizer), patented in 1884 and 1885. He had actually invented the pulverizer while still in Mobile in the 1840s.  Parker was one of the few blacks to patent an invention before 1900.

The “Parker-Built McColm Soil Pulverizer” produced from the patent diagrams by Ben Schulte of the University of Cincinnati College of Applied Science.
from Small Farmers Journal

In 1865, Parker and a partner bought a foundry, which they named the Ripley Foundry and Machine Company. “Parker managed the company, which manufactured engines, Dorsey’s patent reaper and mower, and sugar mill. In 1876 he brought in a partner to manufacture threshers, and the company became Belchamber and Parker. Although they dissolved the partnership two years later, Parker continued to grow his business, adding a blacksmith shop and machine shop. In 1890, after a destructive fire at his first facility, Parker built the Phoenix Foundry. It was the largest between Cincinnati and Portsmouth, Ohio.” (Wikipedia)

Family Man

I find John Parker’s personal life as impressive as his business achievements. After buying his freedom, Parker settled first in Jeffersonville, Indiana, then Cincinnati, Ohio. The port city of Cincinnati had a large free black community, with a variety of work available. In 1848, he married Miranda Boulden, free born in that city.  They had a small general store at Beechwood Factory, Ohio, but a year later moved to Ripley.  There they had seven children together, though some sources only include six.

  • John P. Parker, Jr, b. 1849, attended Oberlin College but died before graduating, in 1871
  • Hale Giddings Parker, b. 1851, graduated from Oberlin College‘s classical program and became the principal of a black school in St. Louis
    • Later, he studied law and in 1894 moved to Chicago to become an attorney
  • Cassius Clay Parker, b. 1853 (the first two sons were named after prominent abolitionists)
    • He studied at Oberlin College and became a teacher in Indiana.
  • Horatio W. Parker, b. 1856, became a principal of a school in Illinois
    • He later taught in St. Louis.
  • Hortense Parker, b. 1859 was among the first African-American graduates of Mount Holyoke College
    • After marriage in 1913, she moved to St. Louis and continued to teach music.
    • Her husband was a college graduate who served as principal of a school.
  • Portia, b. 1865, became a music teacher
  • Bianca, b. 1871, became a music teacher

In one generation from slavery, all seven of John Parker’s children were college educated. John and Miranda are noted in local records as owning the area’s largest collection of books, which they frequently loaned to neighbors in support of education.

Interestingly, in his will, John Parker forbade any of his children taking over his businesses. He wanted them to be upwardly mobile in the professions and Black middle class.

Abolitionist

Ripley, OH was in an area of growing abolitionist activity when John Parker moved there, and who is to say whether he would have been as much involved in the movement if he had lived elsewhere? Perhaps not.

But while living in Cincinnati, Parker boarded with a barber whose family was still held in slavery. Parker’s first successful extraction was to rescue the barber’s family from and eventually rescued the barber’s family from slavery—his first successful extraction—and it was launched from and came to a successful close in Ripley.

Ripley, so close to the Ohio River that separated slavery from freedom, was a natural station for the Underground Railroad.

Parker joined the resistance movement there, and for 15 years aided slaves escaping across the river from Kentucky to get farther north to freedom; some chose to go to Canada. Parker guided at least 440 (some sources put the number as high as 1,000) fugitives along their way, despite a $1,000 bounty placed on his head by Kentucky slaveholders. The federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 increased the penalties for aiding escaping slaves.

Freedom Stairway” leading from the Ohio River to John Rankin’s house (John P. Parker’s neighbor) in Ripley, OH

Although he was known for keeping meticulous records of the people passing through Ripley, John Parker was equally meticulous in maintaining the secrecy of his Underground Railroad station. When he received word that someone had reached safety, Parker burned the records relating to that person. He insisted that his photo not be taken, and there is no confirmed photograph of him. When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, Parker dropped his entire book of fugitives’ names, dates, and original homes into the cupola of his own iron foundry.

Parker risked his own freedom every time he went to Kentucky to help slaves to freedom. According to the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune“He would go boldly over into the enemy’s camp and filch the fugitives to freedom.”  During the Civil War, he recruited a few hundred slaves for the Union Army.

But Ripley, like many towns in non-slave states, wasn’t united in support of escaping slaves. Residents on opposite sides of the issue often ended in physical conflict. In Parker’s own words, “I never thought of going uptown without a pistol in my pocket a knife in my belt, and a blackjack hand. Day or night I dare not walk on the sidewalks for fear someone might leap out of a narrow alley at me.” Even so, he helped at least 440 fugitives to flee.

This 1892 photo, of the dedication of the “Freedom’s Heroes” monument to abolitionists John and Jeanne Rankin in the Ripley, Ohio cemetery, is the most likely surviving photo of John P. Parker.
from the Ohio Historical Society and John Parker House

Parker’s Memoir

Parker’s story in his own word—HIS PROMISED LAND: The Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad wasn’t published until 1998. Parker gave interviews to the journalist Frank Moody Gregg of the Chattanooga News in the 1880s, when Gregg was researching the resistance movement. He never published this manuscript, but historian Stuart Seely Sprague found Gregg’s manuscript and notes in Duke University Archives. He edited the document for publication, keeping Parker’s language, and added a detailed biography in the preface.

The documents are still accessible in the Duke University archives online.

I’m calling it a memoir rather than an autobiography because this book is limited to Parker’s early life and his involvement with the Underground Railroad. It’s a fast, gripping read, but if you want to know about his business or personal life, you must look elsewhere.

The John P. Parker House

Parker’s house at 300 N. Front Street in Ripley, Ohio, is a National Historic Landmark. It is a small museum, open to the public Friday-Sunday, May-October.

Daughter of Another Mother

My moms have always been such bastions of dignity and deportment.

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, writer, editor, ESL teacher, luthier, favorite auntie, cookie maker, canine servant, and fortunate daughter of multiple mothers.

Tomorrow is my mom’s birthday, and she won’t be here to celebrate. Like many people, I was raised by a crowd of mother figures. My siblings and I only called two of them “mom.” One of them died last year.

Mom Cheryl and my biological mom were best friends since before I was born. Though they looked nothing alike, they called each other sister.

If anyone was fool enough to question their biology, my moms would reply, “She looks like momma; I take after daddy.”

They met when Mom Cheryl was directing a summer day program at the playground near my house. Biological Mom was a health and PE teacher at a local girls’ high school. As extremely intelligent, exceptionally tall women more interested in sports than makeup, they sort of inevitably became friends.

One played field hockey and watched football; the other played rugby and watched basketball. Both were the loudest cheerleaders for whatever activity my siblings and I did.

My two moms did everything together. They cooked together, handing spoons and spices back and forth without looking, like relay racers with a baton. They maintained order on a field of fifty excited kids with their finely-tuned gym teacher voices.

They were always together for holidays, birthdays, vacations, and funerals. My biological mother’s extended family eventually included Mom Cheryl automatically when planning weddings or baptisms.

Whenever Mom Cheryl was cooking, we all knew to be careful. Instead of following a recipe, Mom Cheryl added whatever looked good at the time. Her end results were always very tasty, but she liked things hot!

My siblings were not the only beneficiaries of Mom Cheryl’s bottomless well of love. Everyone in the neighborhood knew that “Miz Cheryl” could always help with science homework, jump shots, sewing, giving insulin shots, and haircuts.

It was universally agreed that Miz Cheryl’s hugs were the best hugs.

During a hurricane, she climbed out the window of a flooded bus to rescue a nearby driver. Mom Cheryl pulled the lady out the window of her car and lifted her up into the bus just before the woman’s car was swept away.

One of the things I miss the most about Mom Cheryl is the way we could sit and be quiet together. When a chaotic family dinner or crowded wedding party was too overwhelming, Mom Cheryl would step out for a smoke break. Eventually, I noticed that she never actually lit her cigarettes, just held one in her hand so no one would question her. She was a bad influence: I started joining her to “smoke” when I was about twelve.

But then the whole world stopped making sense and Mom Cheryl was gone. This wonderful lady, this pioneer for women’s sports, this unstoppable Amazon of hugs and quiet spaces won’t be here to celebrate her birthday tomorrow.

Ladybug can have the steak. I’ll have the beer.

When Mom Cheryl died, her dog Ladybug came to live with me. Maybe tomorrow we’ll have a beer and a steak in our absent mom’s memory.