This Thing Called Love

Did you celebrate Galentine’s Day this year? February 13th has been set aside for celebrating your gal pals. Friendship is an incredibly important part of a healthy support group, and it so often gets overlooked in the media.

Similarly, family relationships (blood or otherwise) are necessary for having a healthy mental support structure. Fiction tends to minimize these relationships unless they fall into specific tropes: controlling or absent parents, in-laws causing friction, siblings held up as an example (positive or negative), eccentric aunts and uncles, siblings in competition for resources.

The updated Frozen, with cameos from Cinderella and The Blue Fairy

One of the most popular films that breaks this custom is Disney’s Frozen. The relationship between sisters is stronger than that with any potential romantic interests. Ultimately (spoilet alert), the power of True Love’s Kiss comes from a sister rather than a convenient prince.

By itself, “love” is another of those weasel words—like rose, dog, snow, beautiful—words that can mean so many different things that it communicates very little. This is clear in the dictionary definition of love.

  • noun
    • noun: love
    • plural noun: loves
  • An intense feeling of deep affection.
    • “Babies fill parents with feelings of love.”
  • verb
    • verb: love
    • 3rd person present: loves
      • past tense: loved
      • past participle: loved
      • gerund or present participle: loving
  • Feel deep affection for (someone).
    • “He loved his sister dearly”

So, in English at least, the meaning of the word must be established by modifying words or phrases, or inferred from context. 

Types of Love

Not so for the Greeks. Some of these are more familiar than others, for example, Eros. Particularly at this time of year, the “love” that is celebrated with flowers, cards, and gifts is almost exclusively Eros.

Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss by Antonio Canova
  • Eros — Romantic Love—illustrates sexual attraction, physical desire, and a lack of control.  It is powerful, passionate, and can fade quickly. Relationships built solely on Eros love tend to be short-lived. 
  • Ludus — Playful Love—is defined by flirtatiousness, seduction, and sex without commitment. The focal point of this love is on the experience rather than attraction or feelings.  Ludus is evident in the beginning of a relationship and includes elements of play, teasing, and excitement.
Owning a country has often been cited by relationship experts as the glue that holds a marriage together.
  • Pragma — Enduring Love—is evident in couples who have been together for a long time.  This type of love continues to develop throughout the years and portrays synchronization and balance. This type of love can only survive with constant maintenance and nurturance. 
The Robber and His Child by Karl Friedrich Lessing
  • Storge —Love of the Child—describes the unconditional love that (ideally) parents have for their children. It is defined by unconditional approval, acceptance, and sacrifice.  It helps a child to develop through attachment, encouragement, and security.
Grandparents often add cookies to storge!
    • When it is between friends, this type of love is sometimes referred to as phyllia.
    • Aristotle defined phyllia in Rhetoric as “wanting for someone what one thinks good, for his sake and not for one’s own, and being inclined, so far as one can, to do such things for him.”(1380b36–1381a2)
No one can ever match the selfless love of a dog
  • Agape — Selfless Love—Agape love is representative of universal love.  Greek philosophers felt that this is the type of love that people feel for other humans, for nature, and for a higher power.  This love can be most easily expressed through meditation, nature, intuition, and spirituality. Agape love can be used interchangeably for charity and care for others.
  • Philautia — Self Love—is linked with confidence and self-worth and is necessary for a sense of purpose and fitting in.  Philautia can be unhealthy and linked to narcissistic behaviors and arrogance, or can be healthy in the sense that we love ourselves before we learn how to love others. Greek philosophers believed that true happiness could only be achieved when one had unconditional love for themselves.  
The myth of Narcissus and Echo illustrates unhealthy extremes of philautia and mania
  • Mania — Obsessive Love—Stalking behaviors, co-dependency, extreme jealousy, and violence are all symptoms of Mania. Clearly, this is the most dangerous type of love.

Triangular Theory of Love

What is the Triangular Theory of Love? As with so much of human behavior and emotion, psychologists have studied love.

Renowned psychologist Robert J Sternbergat Yale University,first put forward his Triangular Theory of Love in 1985. 

The three main components that Sternberg says lie at the heart of most human relationships are passion, commitment, and intimacy. These are the three simplest forms of love – passion alone brings infatuation, intimacy alone equals liking, and commitment alone means empty love. Depending on how these three combine, they form the seven types of the thing we call love. 

The triangular part of the theory comes from the fact that you can combine any two of these components to form more complex types of love – each combination forming a different side of a triangle. Combining passion and intimacy for instance, makes romantic love. Intimacy plus commitment yields companionate love, while fatuous love comes when commitment meets passion.

Sisterly love falls somewhere between love and irritation.

And then there’s consummate love, which is the combination of all three components. It’s often seen as the ideal form of love, for by mixing the fire of passion, the comfort of intimacy, and the security of commitment, you can form a healthy, happy, lasting romantic relationship. It’s important to note that this triangle doesn’t have to be an equilateral shape (indeed, the three components are rarely present in equal measures.)  

Friendship is often more committed than dating and more intimate than marriage.

Even consulate love may not last forever – one of the caveats of the Triangular Theory of Love is that relationships can move from one point to another over time – but it is something that can be worked towards, or that you can work to recover. And it’s worth working for – consummate love is a special type of bliss; the kind of connection that sees people continue to adore each other long into a partnership. 

Bottom line: Love is not a unitary emotion. The first association with the word “love” by itself likely to be Eros. But consider the strength of other forms of love.

And then there are dumpster fire relationships…

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: DOG OR CAT?

Cats and dogs have notoriously different needs and characteristics, but either can be good models for characters. 

The first large dogs appeared in Russia about 15,000 years ago. There were smaller dogs in Western Europe at about the same time, and other wolves were domesticated in China a little later. Modern dogs are mostly a mixture of all three types.  Worldwide, there are 360 recognized breeds, not counting those being created but not yet recognized.

There are 40 recognized cat breeds.  Domesticated cats have been around since 3600 B.C., 2000 years before Egypt’s pharaohs.

Question: Is your character from an old/first family? A pillar of society? A mix of different cultures and upbringings? 

Athleticism

Speed: On average, cats run 50 kph and dogs run 32 kph.  In other words, house cats can run at a speed of 30 miles per hour.

Flexibility: Cats have free-floating bones (clavicles) which allows them to move more freely, making them more flexible.  Cats are able to get through any openings they can get their heads through.

Appetite: Dogs win hands-down in eating contests, sometime gorging a whole meal in just a couple of bites; cats tend to eat more gracefully, and slowly.  (FYI, this is because cats cannot move their jaws horizontally; they can only  open and close.)

Agility: Unlike dogs, cats are able to jump (up to six times its length) and climb, which aids them in hunting and makes it easier to flee from danger. Their sharp, retractable claws provide a distinct advantage when it comes to catching prey and defending themselves from bigger predators. Because of this, cats have no need to work together to care for themselves. It also makes them territorial. 

Balance: Most female cats prefer using their right paw, while males are more likely to be “left-pawed”.

Lifespan: Cats live 25% longer than dogs (15 vs. 12 years).

Question: Are your characters’ strengths and/or weaknesses more cat-like or more dog-like?

Brain Power

Memory: Research under controlled laboratory conditions have demonstrated that both dogs and cats exhibit what’s called episodic memory—i.e., their brains make possible the conscious recollection of events as they were previously experienced. It’s a rare trait in animals.

Cats have a longer-term memory than dogs, especially when they learn by actually doing rather than simply seeing.

Training: Dogs are generally the easier of the two to train. A dog’s pack mentality makes him ready to follow a leader and makes him generally more obedient by nature.  You can teach an old dog new tricks. Although eager puppies soak up information (just like human children), dogs can learn at any age (also like humans).

Cats can be trained, but not as thoroughly as dogs. It requires a lot of patience and consistent practice to get past their willful nature. With cats, it’s best to focus training on establishing boundaries.

A cat’s cerebral cortex (the part of the brain in charge of cognitive information processing) has 300 million neurons. That’s almost double a dog’s.

Emotion: A cat’s brain is 90% more similar to a human’s than to a dog’s. Cats and humans have nearly identical sections of the brain that control emotion.

Dogs don’t feel guilty. They might look guilty at having done something wrong, it’s just their reaction to being reprimanded. Over the millennia, dogs have evolved to mimic human facial expressions to ingratiate themselves and get more treats. However, dogs do feel intense affection for their favorite people. Researchers demonstrated that dogs’ heart rates increase when their owners speak to them or call their name.

Dreaming: Both cats and dogs dream, as evidenced by brainwave patterns similar to humans.

Questions: Is your character more a pack animal or a loner? What are his/her strongest brain functions?

Character/ Personality

Pack or Solitary: Dogs are hardwired with pack instinct that generally makes them social, friendly, and all too happy to belong to a group. Dogs instinctively go wherever their pack goes, which makes them more readily accepting of new experiences, such as travel or moving. Dogs are good followers.

By contrast, with the exception of lions, most cats in the wild are solitary nocturnal hunters. Cats have no need to work together to thrive.  As solitary animals, they are okay alone all day.  Their independence may make them seem aloof.  Cats can be content as long as they have the essentials.  They do enjoy social interaction, though.

Stimulation: Cats would do much better in COVID lockdown or other confinement than dogs!

Dogs need lots of stimulation, fresh air and regular exercise.  Dogs enjoy days out and traveling.  Dogs often tend to be more expensive to care for than a cat (food, toys, accessories, grooming, etc.).

Schedule: Dogs are diurnal; cats are nocturnal and like to roam the house at night. Cats sleep 70% of the times.

Question: what is hard-wired in your character?

Communication

Body Language: A cat’s whiskers pointed forward is a sign of inquiry or curiosity; pointed back is a sign of fright/not wanting whatever is coming its way.

The way a dog wags its tail can tell you its mood. It’s suggested a wag to the right means happy and to the left means frightened. Low wags indicate they’re insecure.

Within a pack, dogs communicate almost entirely through body language. Much of this body language can be copied by humans to communicate with dogs, including eye contact, head position, torso angle, and invading or conceding personal space.

Vocalization: Dogs are able to understand 200 words, the same number as a two-year-old human.

Cats make more than 100 different sounds whereas dogs make around 10. The basenji is the only breed of dog that can’t bark. However, they can yodel!

One study indicated that hungry cats ‘meow’ in the same frequency as a crying baby, hitting the human brain right in the obnoxious evolutionary hindbrain (especially in the middle of the night).

Question: Does your character communicate (send and/or receive) better with verbal, non-verbal, or paraverbal skills?

Sensitivity

Smell: A dog’s sense of smell is up to 100,000 times more than humans.  Bloodhounds are able to trace scents that are over 300 hours old.

Vision: Cats see more colors than dogs do.  Dogs see primarily on a blue and yellow scale; they can’t tell the difference between green and red.  Visual acuity is better for dogs, but cats see better in the dark.

Cats’ whiskers help them detect motion changes.

Hearing: Cats can hear almost a full octave higher than dogs (sounds as high as 64 kHz), and both can hear in the ultrasonic level.  Hearing is the strongest of a cat’s senses. 

The ability of a cat to find its way home is called “psi-travelling.” Experts think cats either use the angle of the sunlight to find their way or that cats have magnetized cells in their brains that act as compasses.

Question: Which of your characters’ senses are most highly developed? Did that come naturally? Was it/them honed on purpose?

Bottom line: Considering your characters’ physical and psychological traits will contribute to a richer, more compelling character.

GLOBAL BELLY LAUGH DAY

Join The Belly Laugh Bounce Around the World:  on January 24 at 1:24 p.m. local time, smile, throw your arms in the air and laugh out loud.

Suggestions for acts and activities can be found at bellylaughday.com
Why bother? Because laughter is good for your physical and mental health! 

According to the Mayo Clinic:
When it comes to relieving stress, more giggles and guffaws are just what the doctor ordered. Here’s why.  

[NB: I’ve changed some formatting and left out some bits, but you can fill those in by going to the Mayo Clinic website.]

Short Term

A good laugh has great short-term effects.  When you start to laugh, it doesn’t just lighten your load mentally, it actually induces physical changes in your body.

  • Stimulate many organs. 
    • Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs, and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain.
  • Activate and relieve your stress response. 
    • A rollicking laugh fires up and then cools down your stress response, and it can increase and then decrease your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good, relaxed feeling.
  • Soothe tension. 
    • Laughter can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, both of which can help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress.

Long Term

Laughter isn’t just a quick pick-me-up, though. It’s also good for you over the long term.

  • Improve your immune system. 
    • Negative thoughts manifest into chemical reactions that can affect your body by bringing more stress into your system and decreasing your immunity.
    • By contrast, positive thoughts can actually release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more-serious illnesses.
  • Relieve pain. 
    • Laughter may ease pain by causing the body to produce its own natural painkillers.
  • Increase personal satisfaction. 
    • Laughter can also make it easier to cope with difficult situations.
    • It helps you connect with other people.
  • Improve your mood. 
    • Many people experience depression, sometimes due to chronic illnesses. Laughter can help lessen your depression and anxiety and may make you feel happier.

How’s Your Sense of Humor?

  • Ask the professionals.
    • Find a few things that make you chuckle, such as photos, greeting cards or comic strips, and hang them up at home or in your office.
    • Keep funny movies, books, magazines or comedy videos on hand for when you need an added humor boost.
    • Look online at joke websites.
    • Go to a comedy club.
  • Find a way to laugh about your own situations and watch your stress begin to fade away.
    • Even if it feels forced at first, practice laughing. It does your body good.
    • Consider trying laughter yoga: people practice laughter as a group. Laughter is forced at first, but soon turns spontaneous.
  • Share a laugh. 
    • Make it a habit to spend time with friends who make you laugh.
    • And then return the favor by sharing funny stories or jokes with those around you.
  • Knock, knock. 
    • Browse through your local bookstore or library’s selection of joke books and add a few jokes to your list that you can share with friends.
    • Retelling jokes or anecdotes that are stale or dated could be a good indicator of a character’s age or social awkwardness.
  • Know what isn’t funny. 
    • Don’t laugh at the expense of others.
    • Some forms of humor aren’t appropriate.
    • Use your best judgment to discern a good joke from a bad or hurtful one.
    • A hurtful sense of humor might indicate a character’s villainous nature before any deliberately villainous acts.

Go ahead and give it a try. Turn the corners of your mouth up into a smile and then give a laugh, even if it feels a little forced. Once you’ve had your chuckle, take stock of how you’re feeling. Are your muscles a little less tense? Do you feel more relaxed or buoyant? That’s the natural wonder of laughing at work.

Dr. Lee Berk and Dr. Stanley Tan (Loma Linda University) have found the following physical health benefits:

  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Reduces stress hormone levels
  • Works your abdominal muscles
  • Improves cardiac health
  • Boosts T-cells
  • Triggers the release of endorphins
  • Produces a general sense of well-being

Humana.com adds the following:

  • Relieves pain
  • Burns calories
  • Increases blood flow

Still not convinced?  Go online and read for yourself!

And while you are at it, better know your laughter!  There are as many words for laughter as there are for types of laughter. Consider the positive and negative connotations of the following: 

  • Guffaw
  • Giggle
  • Snigger
  • Chuckle
  • Chortle
  • Titter
  • Howl
  • Roar
  • Snicker
  • Cackle
  • Shriek
  • Snort

Bottom line: When it comes to laughter, too much of a good thing is still a good thing!

WHAT’S A CAR FOR, ANYWAY?

Parking in front of a fire hydrant is illegal, and this is why. If they need to, firefighters will smash in a car’s windows to attach their hoses effectively. In addition to smashed windows, broken glass, and water all over the car, the driver will also get a ticket.
If you’re reading the driving manual while driving the cab, it may be too late.

I don’t know whether I’m on a roll or in a rut. Having considered the variety of bed activities people indulge in, I was primed to notice what’s going on on the road. The other day, I stopped at a traffic light and saw a woman in the car next to mine was putting on mascara and eyeliner. So here we go!

Besides driving and riding. . .

Please note: Some of these are much better done while riding than while driving! (Or not being done at all…)

Deliberately driving your car into the path of a drunk driver to prevent it running over pedestrians.
  • Catch up on email
  • Brush or floss teeth
  • Needlework, especially knitting
  • Play travel games, such as “I spy…” or rhyming
    • Usually involves at least one child
Drive along scenic or historic routes
Sleep, with or without snoring and drooling
  • Meditate or pray
  • Eat, sometimes an entire meal
  • Drink
  • Read
    • eReader or physical book
    • Listen to audiobook
  • Listen to music
    • Learn music
  • Talk on the phone
  • Text
  • Update social media
  • Apply or fix makeup
  • Comb/style hair
Actively seek death
  • Argue
  • Get a man to really talk
    • Research has established that men driving, eyes straight ahead, are more likely to engage in sustained and/or intimate conversation
  • Translate vanity plates into words
  • Watch videos
  • Work on laptop
  • Catch up on the news
  • Save money on insurance by driving safely
  • Urinate in a bottle
    • Not easily accomplished for females
Hang feet out the window
  • Change glasses
    • Put in contact lenses
  • Change masks
  • Pick nose
  • Trim nose hair
  • Groom fingernails
    • File
    • Glue
    • Polish
    • Clip or polish toenails
  • Prop one or both feet on dashboard
  • Smoke or vape
    • (In many states, it is now illegal to smoke near hospitals or with a child in the car)
Shave
  • Change clothes
  • Steer with knees or forearms
  • Get a massage Some car seats are made for it now
  • Pick up hitch-hikers
  • Suffer road rage
    • Honk the horn
    • Flip someone the bird
    • Turn headlights on/off
  • Take pictures
  • Practice a foreign language
  • Crying or weeping
  • Sing along with the music in your head
  • Ask “Are we there yet?” every thirty seconds

Bottom line: can you spell distracted driving?

PSYCHOLOGY OF CULTS

Cults are nothing new. Indeed, if asked to name a cult, you could probably name a few. In ancient Greece and Rome, a cult was simply the care owed to a deity, the rituals carried out at a shrine or temple. A mystery cult was a religious group that celebrated a minor god or goddess or a lesser-known aspect of a deity’s history. The word “cult” has different connotations today.

Janja Lalich, Ph.D., professor emerita of sociology at California State University, Chico, is a big gun in cult research.  Her website, Cult Research, provides extensive information about the mental mechanics involved in cults. She has also included resources for recognizing signs of a cult and how to help others who may have been impacted by a cult.

Modern Cults

There have been too many cults to count throughout history, but the vast majority have been small and soon forgotten. A post on Insider.com listed the six most notorious cults in history. (These cults have been extensively discussed and researched by people who were kind enough to share their findings online.) 

  • The (Charles) Manson Family famously murdered seven people over the course of two nights. Their stated intention was to start a race war. The Manson Family was formed in the late 60s.
  • Members of Heaven’s Gate were told that their leader was the reincarnation of Jesus, that God was an alien, and that the end of the world was near. In 1997, 39 members died after ingesting barbiturates and putting plastic bags over their heads. It is the largest mass suicide on US soil.
  • The Children of God was founded in 1968 as a system of communal living under the strict teachings of preacher David Berg. Multiple former members have testified that the church used prostitution as a recruitment tool and engaged in widespread child trafficking and sexual abuse. The organization later rebranded to The Family of Love International, and it is still active online.
  • Jim Jones founded The People’s Temple in Indianapolis in 1955 but moved the band to Guyana, and called the place Jonestown, in 1977. Reports of member abuse followed the group from place to place. In 1978, Jones instructed all of his followers to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid. More than 900 people died. This is the origin of the slang expression “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” meaning a person who believes in a possibly doomed or dangerous idea.

From the Wikipedia entry on cults:

“In modern English, a cult is a social group that is defined by its unusual religiousspiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or by its common interest in a particular personality, object, or goal. This sense of the term is controversial, having divergent definitions both in popular culture and academia, and has also been an ongoing source of contention among scholars across several fields of study.  The word ‘cult’ is usually considered pejorative.”

Cults are attractive because they promote a feeling of comfort, and because they satisfy the human desire for absolute answers.

Characteristics Common to Cult Leaders 

Lists of characteristics vary in inclusiveness and contain both personality and behavioral characteristics.

Personality
  • Narcissism shows up on every list
  • Charisma is an essential quality
  • Personal proclivities that shape what’s expected of group members
  • Need for control/maintain power imbalance
  • Psychopath
  • Often delusional, believing their own teachings 
Behavior
  • Offer tantalizing promises
  • Be unpredictable (reactions, appearances, next demands)
  • Organize “love bombs” for new recruits
  • Promote an us vs. them mentality, feelings of superiority
  • Isolate members from family, former friends
  • Public humiliation of established members
  • Demand detailed acknowledgment of individual fears and mistakes
  • Repeat various lies and distortions till members can’t recognize reality
  • Promote paranoia: a group, family or government is out to get members
  • Encourage members to spy on each other

Writing in Psychology Today in 2012, Joe Navarro, M.A., presented his personal list of 50 clues to identifying cult leaders.  Listed below are several of his items.

  • A grandiose idea of who he is and what he can achieve
  • Preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, or brilliance
  • Demands blind, unquestioned obedience
  • Requires excessive admiration
  • Has a sense of entitlement or power
    • Expects to be treated as special at all times
    • Expects to be able to bend rules and break laws without repercussion
  • Arrogant and haughty
  • Hypersensitive to how he is seen or perceived by others
    • Is highly dependent on tribute and adoration and will often fish for compliments
    • When criticized, lashes out with rage
    • Anyone who criticizes or questions him is called an “enemy”
  • Hates to be embarrassed or fail publicly; often reacts with rage
  • Publicly devalues others as being inferior, incapable, or not worthy
    • Habitually puts down others as inferior
  • Ignores the needs of others, including biological, physical, emotional, and financial needs
  • Frequently boastful of accomplishments
  • Needs to be the center of attention 
    • The word “I” dominates his conversations
  • Behaves as though people are objects to be used, manipulated, or exploited for personal gain
  • Is deeply offended by signs of boredom, being ignored, or being slighted
  • Doesn’t seem to feel guilty for anything he has done wrong, nor does he apologize
  • Believes he possesses the answers and solutions to world problems
  • Works the least but demands the most
  • Sees self as “unstoppable” and perhaps has even said so

Characteristics Common to Cult Members

  • Female: world-wide, 70% of cult members are women
    • Explanations for this vary
  • Generally average sorts of people. No trends in location, income, etc.
  • Suffer low self-esteem, making them especially susceptible to love bomb (compliments, etc.)
  • Many have rejected standard religions
  • Intelligent
  • From sheltered environments
  • Blame others for their failures
  • Strive for perfectionistic goals
  • Often have no idea they are in a cult!

Characteristics Common to Religious Cults 

  • It opposes critical thinking
  • Isolates members and punishes them for leaving
  • Emphasizes special doctrines outside accepted scriptures
  • Seeking inappropriate loyalty to leaders
  • Devalues the family unit
  • Crossing boundaries of behavior (especially sexual) set in accepted religious texts
  • Separation from the main religious structure

Common Recruiting Tactics 

  • Target people who are stressed, emotionally vulnerable, have tenuous or no family connections, or are living in adverse socioeconomic conditions.
  • People who were neglected or abused as children may be easily recruited because they crave the validation denied them in their childhood
  • High school and new college students are good targets for cult recruitment since they’re still forming their identity and (in the case of college students) have recently been separated from their families
    • One old (1980) study of 1000 high school students in the San Francisco Bay Area found that 54% reported at least one recruitment attempt by a cult member, and 40% reported 3 to 5 contacts
  • I can only imagine that the rise of various social media platforms would have exploded those numbers.

Damage to Cult Members 

Various research has established that former cult members suffer long-term negative effects. Dr. John G Clark, Jr, of Harvard University works with former cult members and their families identifies the following 

  • Increased irritability
  • Loss of libido or altered sexual interest
  • Ritualism
  • Compulsive attention to detail
  • Mystical states
  • Humorlessness
  • Heightened paranoia

Because these are symptoms similar to temporal lobe epilepsy, it’s reasonable to assume that membership in a cult is a brain-changing experience. 

Bottom line: There is much we can and should learn about cults—possibly in our lives, certainly in the world around us. Many of these qualities and behaviors are present to some degree in people who aren’t actual cult leaders or members. Still, they provide fodder for compatible/consistent constellations of attitudes and behaviors. Think character creation!

Hot Fuzz, in addition to being a great movie, provides an example of two cults working against each other and destroying individuals in the way.

Betrayed by the Tongue

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, writer, editor, favorite auntie, turtle lover, canine servant, and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teacher.

Believe it or not, not everyone speaks English as a native language. To strain credulity further, consider that not every character learned English as a native language. Shocking, I know!

But how to convey through written words that a speaker has an accent?

Otto von Chriek, vampire photographer

One method is to transcribe phonetically the way a character speaks, as the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett demonstrated so well. A vampire in his fantasy universe of Discworld, deliberately emphasizes his accent when he wants to appear odd rather than threatening.

“Vell, I’m not official,” said Otto. “I do not haf zer sword and zer badge. I do not threaten. I am just a vorking stiff. And I make zem laff.”
from Thud! by Terry Pratchett

But what about a subtler signifier of a character’s foreign origins? There could be a million reasons to let your audience know that a character was originally not a member of the “in” group.

  • Signal that a character will have a different cultural perspective when reacting to events.
  • Sign that a character, by virtue of a different upbringing, has insight or expertise others may need.
  • Foreshadowing of any kind of discrimination practiced against a group designated as “others.”
  • Mockery of any slight difference shows the character of the people mocking as well as those standing by and those reacting.
  • Very subtle differences can clue in a reader that something is off, for example a spy or an imposter.

Fortunately for our purposes as writers, English is weird. So many rules have exceptions or no reasonable guidelines of when to apply them…. it’s enough to drive any ESL student mad. If any of these rules (that you probably follow without noticing) are broken, that’s enough to make a reader notice that something is off.

Articles

Should a noun have a definite or indefinite article? Or no article at all? Go ahead and try to explain the rules without looking it up. I’ve been an EFL teacher for years (and occasionally an ESL teacher), and I still mix things up. Like most native English speakers, I tend to rely on what sounds right.

If your non-native English speaker hails from a real country on Earth (as opposed to another planet or a fantasy realm), you can simply have the character follow the rules of their native language. A native French speaker would be likely to overuse articles. A native Russian speaker might skip articles altogether.

Consider these examples:

  • Quick brown fox jumping over lazy dog.
  • The dog, she is lazy. A fox jumps over the dog, no problem.

Of course, if the character learned a language you’ve made up, the rules are entirely up to you.

Word Order

English, like Bulgarian and Swahili, is a SVO language; Subject Verb Object is the typical sentence structure. The meaning of a sentence can be changed simply by changing the word order. The most common word order is SOV– the verb comes at the end of the sentence, after the object. Qartuli and Mongolian are SOV languages.

Other common sentence structures include VSO (Hawaiian), VOS (Malagasy), OVS (Hixkaryana), and OSV (Xavante). Trying to fit English sentences into any of these other structures can create some very awkward conversations.

Just to be contrary, Latin word order makes no difference to the meaning of a sentence and is often jumbled deliberately for poetic effect. (I’m looking at you, Virgil!)

Yoda is one of the most widely known characters who speaks English with inverted word order. Although he has no obvious accent, his speech immediately lets the audience know that he is alien.

Agreement

Some languages have declensions and conjugations and all sorts of ways in which words change form to indicate specifics. Others have separate words to indicate number, tense, intention, etc., though the word itself stays the same. English has both.

Sometimes verbs change when they’re in the past tense (walk-walked); sometimes they don’t (put-put). Just for fun, some verbs change into entirely different words when they change tense (bear-bore).

Nouns are just as bizarre. In kindergarten, the teacher told me I just had to put an S at the end of the word. Then there were geese, children, moose, alumni, crises, and vortices. I still haven’t figured out the rule for the cello.

Naturally, this is an area of difficulty for many people who did not learn English as children. It’s also an area of difficulty for people who have been speaking English since infancy.

Idioms and Connotations

Even if a character speaks English absolutely fluently, there are still a million linguistic tripwires. A native English speaker from Minnesota will still have trouble understanding casual speech in Scotland.

I once watched a Scottish man and a South African man argue about something (I think it was Australian immigration policy, but that’s just a guess). They were mutually unintelligible. As they grew more excited, each slipped further into his native accent and became less understandable by the other. Theoretically, all three of us spoke the same language. In practice, I felt like I was watching a verbal tennis match that gradually turned into frantic hand gestures and facial expressions. It was both surreal and hilarious!

Other Sources

Translators are very useful sources for learning the grammar of a language you don’t know. If you want to have a character be newly arrived in Australia from Siberia, try looking at the translator’s notes in a new edition of War and Peace.

  • Mobi Warren, a translator of Hermitage Among the Clouds by Thích Nhất Hạnh, explained some of the difficulties in translating Vietnamese into English. He wrote, “All this moving between past and present is more easily expressed in Vietnamese, a language in which none of the words have tenses.”
  • Ancient writers can be particularly difficult to translate to modern English, but understanding those difficulties is a great way to highlight changes over time. If you’re trying to invent a language for a fantasy or science fiction setting, try basing the grammar on ancient Egyptian or Shang dynasty Chinese.

Another very useful source for finding ways to indicate non-native English speakers in dialogue is to look at resources for teaching English as a Second Language or English as a Foreign Language. If other teachers point out an area that’s particularly difficult, odds are that a character you write would have trouble with that same area.

Bottom Line: Lack of fluency is not the same as lack of intelligence. Odd speech patterns imply accents without needing to use odd spelling.

SANTAS ARE MADE, NOT BORN

Chocolate Santas with marzipan masks made by Hungarian chocolatier Laszlo Rimoczi.

The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School is the oldest in existence. Before 1937, Santas were pretty much on their own, and any man with a red suit would do.

Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School

OUR MISSION:
To uphold the traditions and preserve the history of Santa Claus while providing students with the necessary resources to improve and further define their individual presentations of Santa and Mrs. Claus, allowing them to enter the hearts and spread the Christmas spirit to everyone they meet.

At the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, more than 200 aspiring Santas gather each year to attend a three-day series of classes where they learn everything from the history of Saint Nicholas to reindeer habits.

In November, 2018, Mental Floss took an in-depth look. Here are several points from their write-up, 13 Things to Know About The World’s Oldest Santa School.

It’s Considered the Harvard of Santa Schools

Each year, about 200 Santas (including a handful of Mrs. Clauses) attend class in Midland—but not everybody who applies gets accepted. Co-Dean Holly Valent rejects Santas who don’t seem interested in children or singing. (In other words, Santas who appear to be in it only for the money.) Additionally, she has to place around 40 prospective Santas on a waiting list each year. Thankfully, the workshop in Midland is not the only Santa school under the North Pole.

Child Psychology is the Name of the Game

The most important aspect of being a good Santa is learning how to genuinely listen to all kinds of children. “[Y]ou have to be on your toes all the time, because you never know what the children are going to ask you,” Mary Ida Doan, who plays Mrs. Claus, told WJRT. (Doan would know: She’s a member of the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame.)

During the workshop, the Santas get schooled in child psychology and learn handy tricks from experts and each other: How to deal with squirmy children, crying children, children who are afraid of you, and more. The Santas even learn basic sign language. “It’s important to be able to spread Christmas cheer to all children,” a Santa named Bill told Reuters.

An organization called Santa America provides extra training for Santas to connect with children who need a different kind of communication to reach all that Christmas cheer. The frenetic atmosphere at a typical Santa’s Grotto can be overwhelming and terrifying for any child. Santas who have trained with Santa America can create a quieter, calmer, slower space. These “Sensitive Santas” are in demand at Christmas for hospitals, very young children, children on the autism spectrum, and many others.

Santa America also connects local Santas and their companions with people who might need a visit from Santa Claus any time of the year: during a hospital stay, after major disasters, when a parent is deployed overseas. Part of their mission is to prove that Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, and the elves never go off on vacation when children need them.

Gaining Background Knowledge Means Meeting Real Reindeer

Since kids are apt to ask Santa anything, it’s best that Santa draws his answers from real experience. What are the reindeer like? To find out, Santa students study reindeer habits and get to meet real reindeer.

How are toys made? The Santas spend quality time learning how to make wooden playthings.

The Santas also attend lectures about St. Nick’s backstory and the North Pole. “Know who you are,” Valent tells an assembly of Santas, according to CNN. “Know your legend. Know where you came from.”

They Have to Practice Their “Ho-Ho-Hos” and Their “Do-Re-Mis”
Despite being blind, this boy was able to see Santa during his visit.

Since each Santa must prepare for radio and TV interviews, much of Santa school focuses on teaching students how to craft an accurate and authentic persona. “For example, they’re advised to create a backstory for their ‘elves,’ pulling names and characteristics from kids and grandkids in their own circles,” Kathleen Lavey reported for the Lansing State Journal. It also means learning how to deliver a hearty but balanced Ho Ho Ho. “You have to do it mild,” Tom Valent explained. “It’s got to be a laugh.” (And to ensure the Santas are really in the Christmas spirit, they’re also taught how to sing with cheer.)

There’s More Dancing Involved Than You Might Think
From Santa’s Boot Camp, 2016

It’s not enough to nail the laugh. Being Santa requires you to be a full-body actor—and that means perfecting the big man’s jolly, bouncing swagger. The school is stuffed with movement lessons. “The school fitness teacher had them dance as if they were wrapping presents, baking cookies and filling stockings to classic Christmas tunes,” Christinne Muschi wrote for Reuters.

Santas also learn how to properly ease in and out of a sleigh and learn yoga and breathing exercises to keep limber. (It’s important work: Hoisting kids up and down from your lap for hours takes its toll.) As Tom Valent told CNN, “Santa is a healthy outdoorsman.”

Being Santa is not for the faint of heart or the faint of sinus. Pet photos with Santa are increasingly popular, often as part of a fundraiser. The Humane Society, Paws for a Cause, Sidewalk Dog, and many local animal shelters ask Santas to pose for photos with dogs, cats, hamsters, snakes, turtles, and any other pet they can safely hold. Better take that Benadryl!

They Receive Financial Advice
The cardboard versions are much cheaper!

At Santa school—which costs $550 for new students—they teach classes on marketing, accounting, and taxes. That’s because being a freelance Santa is not cheap. A Santa with a bare chin is advised to buy a custom beard and wig that can cost up to $1800. And while a generic suit costs about $500, a personalized one can run over $2000. Add to that $700 for a pair of authentic boots. And then grooming expenses. Oh, and makeup.

Santas Get Lessons in Grooming
I don’t think this Yugoslavian Santa was paying attention to the make-up lesson.

At school, Santas also learn how to curl their mustaches and groom their hair and beards (or wigs) to create a windblown I-just-got-out-of-the-sleigh look. They receive lessons in bleaching their hair to get a snow-white glisten as well as lessons in applying makeup.

 According to Lavey, teachers show other Santas all the insider secrets: “How to take the shine off their foreheads with powder, pink up their cheeks with rouge, and add stardust to their beards with hairspray that contains glitter.”

The big secret to making Santa’s beard smell magical? Peppermint oil.

Santa Day School

The Simpsons offer a reasonably priced alternative, but it is only open to two-dimensional Santas with three fingers.

For those who can’t—or won’t—spend three intensive days and nights in Midlands, Michigan, there are options! In-person schools around the country and online for DYIers.

In November, 2018, Business Insider did an article on Santa schools, particularly the finances involved. Here are several quotes from that article.

Santa Doug Eberhardt of the Northern Lights Santa Academy displaying a variety of historical Santa trends.

“There’s two kinds of Santas: There are professional Santas and there are guys in red suits,” Santa Rick, a former mediator and divorce arbiter who runs the Northern Lights Santa Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, told Vox. “And the difference for me is there are those who want to better themselves and learn and master the trade, and there are the others.” This Santa school also has classes for Mrs. Claus and elves.

“I’m very high-energy, so I tend to put on a little bit of a show: The Night Before Christmas, and caroling, and magic,” said Santa Jim Manning, who is the official Santa Claus for Boston’s tree lighting and has covered the Red Sox Christmas card.  “A lot of people think being Santa Claus means just showing up, sitting on the couch, and letting kids sit in your lap. But what I do is a lot more.” To the right, see Santa Jim jumping out of an airplane.

Fashion Santa of Toronto has a slightly different take on the traditional red suit and jolly belly.

Rick, of the Northern Lights Santa Academy, told Vox that high-end Santas can earn up to $25,000 a season, but the cost of travel, lodging, and garb can eat into the pay. A quality Santa costume and accessories costs at least $1,000 and a beard set made of human hair can range from $1,800 to $2,500, he said.”

Only the very bravest Santas are willing to risk turtle bites at the same time as dog fur on their suits.

“Santa Ed Taylor has been running the Santa Claus Conservatory, an online training program with more than 2,300 aspiring Santas, since 2013. The courses range from $97 to $347.”

The International University of Santa Claus

Not only does the IUSC offer courses around the world, they have a degree program recognizing a student’s years of dedication. A Santa or Mrs. Claus can earn a Doctorate of Santaclausology (PhD), with options for further advanced study.

Unfortunately, all 2020 International University of Santa Claus in-person classes have been cancelled. Online courses are available, so aspiring Santas can ask their grandkids for help logging in to Zoom classes!

Santa is a Super-Spreader

2020 is an atypical year. (You heard it here first!) And this is true for Santas and Santa schools as well. Dr. Fauci has assured the public that Santa Claus is naturally immune to COVID-19, but Santa can still spread the virus. Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Grandfather Frost, Sinterklaas, and all other Christmas gift-bringers have been declared essential workers and therefore exempt from quarantine or isolation rules.

Santa Johnny of Hong Kong was proclaimed “Best Santa” at the 2019 World Santa Congress.

The 2020 World Santa Congress was cancelled. Many tree lighting ceremonies and holiday parties have been cancelled. Even the 2020 Santa Mediterranean Cruise has been indefinitely postponed.

Some Santas are adapting with smaller grottos, shorter visits, and lots of hand sanitizer. Others are setting up plexiglass barriers or arranging for children to stay more than six feet away. A few mall Santa Grottos are even setting up holographic Santas for photos.

However, possibly the safest option for Santa and for kids is to visit Santa digitally.

  • JingleRing will allow Santa and Mrs. Claus to speak to kids one-on-one with their very own North Pole TV platform.
  • AirBnB has created virtual visits with Santa as well as the opportunity to tune in to Story Time with Mrs. Claus or with Santa and a rotation of children’s book authors.
  • Macy’s Santaland has gone virtual this year, though there will be no real Santas in their stores. There are pre-recorded video messages from Santa Claus, games to play with the elves, and the option to sign up for a real-time video chat with Santa himself.

Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Awkward Family Photos for sharing the very best of the very worst photos with Santa Claus.

Bottom Line: There’s more to being a good Santa than putting on a red suit! Consider how Santas and Santa schools might broaden your cast of characters and/or plots.

THE UPSIDE OF BAD HABITS

I’ve long maintained that people always do things for a reason—or more than one. Even habits are not “just habits.” There are reasons people repeatedly do something—often non-consciously—and this includes bad habits. At this point, most writing on the topic of bad habits would veer off into a discussion of ways to break them. But this blog is about what people get out of their habits that might not be immediately obvious.

bad habit is that action which causes problems for our health, income, career, or relationships.  Something that is bad is unpleasant, harmful, or undesirable.

Note: Some of the behaviors listed here might not be considered bad habits by everyone.  Anything done to excess can become harmful, after all. Drinking too much water can lead to hyponatremia. Spending too much of your time helping others can lead to ignoring self-care.

Here, in no particular order: 

Smoking

“Smoke Like a Captain”
  • Create an image  
    • Sophisticate with a cigarette holder
    • High roller with an expensive cigar
    • Macho man
  • Pausing to think before responding without obviously pausing
  • Get an energy hit
  • Creates situations for social connections that might not otherwise happen
  • Provides a brief break from work or stressful situations

Drinking 

  • Relax in a socially tense situation
  • Create an image of sophistication, wealth, etc., depending on the drink
  • Regularly drinking heavily increases tolerance, making it less likely the drinker will make a drunken misstep
  • Moderate drinking reduces likelihood of a heart attack by about a third
  • Alcoholic beverages are sure to be free of water parasites in places where other beverages are chancy

Negative Thinking

  • When things go bad, “I told you so”
  • When things go well, pleasant surprises

Eating Junk or Fast Food

  • It’s handy, so no effort
  • It’s relatively inexpensive, so easy on the wallet
  • Service is fast, so it’s an efficient choice
  • Higher levels of fat, salt, and sugar provide temporary dopamine surges
  • Can become family ritual, if eaten infrequently
  • Create positive associations with otherwise negative experiences (lollipop at the doctor’s office)

Anger Outbursts

  • Intimidates more timid people
  • Creates the impression of passion or strong feelings
  • Less likely to bottle anger and turn it inward, resulting in ulcers, high blood pressure, etc.

Indulging a Greedy Nature

  • Gets one more of the good stuff (sometimes)
  • Incite envy/ jealousy in others

Telling Lies

  • “Little white lies” ease socially awkward situations
    • E.g., “Of course your new haircut is flattering…”
  • Avoid punishment
  • Shift blame
  • Keep positive secrets, such as a surprise party

Excessive Screen Time

  • Keep up with news and fads
  • Have the topics for conversation 
  • Avoid boredom
  • Improve hand-eye coordination (video games)

Always Criticizing

  • Builds one’s self-esteem by comparison
  • Intimidate potential critics
  • Temporarily look like a subject expert

Nail-Biting

  • Makes paying for manicures unnecessary
  • Shows intense feelings
  • Is less destructive than other bad habits
  • Occupies hands to prevent other, worse habits, such as smoking

Gobbling Food 

Eating quickly is fairly common in some circumstances. Gulping down a meal within a few minutes is a bit less common.

  • Saves time for other things
  • Demonstrates that food is not important
  • Potential future in speed-eating competitions

Not Maintaining Hygiene and Cleanliness

  • Saves time and energy
  • Saves money on grooming products
  • Allows focus on things other than personal appearance

Procrastination

  • You never have to feel like a failure  because “I could have aced it ill I’d spent more time on it”
  • If you procrastinate but succeed or excel anyway, you’ve saved time to do more/other things
  • If a procrastinator is successful, it’s a big boost to one’s self-perceived capability

Keeping Late Hours

  • Fewer people around to interrupt
  • Hours when no one is criticizing what one is doing
  • Easier to conduct a clandestine affair
  • Boosts one’s self-concept as a non-conformist
  • Minimize hours spent with unpleasant spouse or other family
  • Night shift workers are often paid more
  • Facilitates communication with people in other time zones

Swearing

  • Substitutes for more physically violent anger outburst
    • (E.g., throwing things, punching the wall)
  • If conducted at great volume, it’s good for one’s lungs 
  • Can encourage verbal creativity
  • Is typically a sign of honesty

Fidgeting

Tapping toes, drumming fingers, or other incidental movements

  • Relatively safe way to release nervous energy and creativity
  • Makes it easier to maintain weight, heart and lung health
  • Unconscious form of drilling for musicians and dancers

Avoiding Exercise

  • It saves energy
  • It allows more time for other things
  • If conscious decision, can save money on exercise clothes/ equipment/ memberships 

Humming or Talking to Oneself

  • Self-soothing when anxious
  • Clarify thinking when facing a difficult decision
  • Relieves the silence for those living alone
  • May be the only way to have an intelligent conversation

Interrupting

  • Express more of one’s own opinions
  • Stop an opponent from making points
  • Shows enthusiasm for topic
  • Can prevent someone else accidentally divulging sensitive information

BOTTOM LINE: The downsides of bad habits have been well-documented. But everyone gets something out of every act, especially repetitive acts.

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: SOAP

Soap is incredibly easy to work into a scene or conversation. But, as a writer, why would you?

Because—like everything else—soap choices make an impression.  “Soap” usually refers to what is technically called a toilet or toilette soap, used for household and personal cleaning. Soap choices reflect at least two things: need and personal preference. 

Traditionalists

An exact recreation of the Ancient Mesopotamian soap-making technique

The very first cleaning agents were likely ashes from fires used to cook animals. Fatty acid (which would have dripped from the carcasses onto the fire) and a caustic agent (such as the lye in wood ash) removes dirt from skin and clothing. Soap-making processes have gotten a little more sophisticated in the 5000 or so years since then. I’ll start with two of the oldest soaps made in the United States and still available.

Lava Soap

Ground volcanic pumice works as a mild abrasive, ideal for sloughing off viscous grime without removing the skin underneath. Lava is a heavy-duty hand cleaner in soap bar form manufactured by the WD-40 Company. In addition to the typical combination of fatty acid and salt, Lava soap contains ground pumice, which gives the soap its name. The soap and pumice combination is intended to scour tar, engine grease, paint, dirt, whale oil, and similar substances from the skin.

The Lava Bar is a heavy-duty hand cleaner, developed in 1893 with pumice. Do-it-yourselfers, auto mechanics, coal miners, locksmiths, luthiers, and oil rig workers commonly use Lava to scrub off the traces of their work. The original Lava bar was gray and dried the skin. The modern version looks more attractive and contains moisturizers. 

Anyone with children can make good use of Lava soap.

So, what sort of person/character would keep Lava around the house?  If all you knew about the person was the use of this hand soap, what would you expect regarding age, occupation, gender, education, occupation, etc.? How might those expectations change if it was a well-worn bar of soap or a brand-new bar still in the box? 

Ivory Soap 

The sons of the original Proctor and Gamble were responsible for the creation of Ivory soap. James Norris Gamble developed the soap with the intention of making mild, effective soap inexpensive enough to be widely available.  The name Ivory was created by Harley Procter, who was inspired by Psalm 45:8 in the Bible: “All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces whereby they have made thee glad.”  In September 1879, Procter & Gamble trademarked “Ivory”, the name of its new soap product.

Ivory soap is not for dogs. No baths for dogs!

During production, Ivory soap has air whipped into the solution, making the bars buoyant. James Gamble developed the process of adding air during production. When bathing in a murky lake or river or in a tub of bathwater that has already been used by the rest of the family, having soap that floated was extraordinarily convenient. This gave rise to the slogan, “It Floats!” in 1891. In 1992, Proctor & Gamble marketed a new formulation that includes moisturizers but does not float.

Ivory is ideal for building hair horns.

So who uses Ivory?  This soap has a long-standing image of gentleness and purity. Small children, people with sensitive skin, cleaners who need to avoid residue, and many people who simply prefer inexpensive soap choose it for that reason. What sort of characters might have a bar of Ivory soap in their washroom or liquid Ivory handsoap in the kitchen?

Shaving Soap 
Straight-razor shaving is tricky, so it’s best to start practicing early.

Though it is not typically used as a regular body soap, I’m including shaving soap here for its traditional connotations. Shaving soap is sold as a hard disc or stick that is used with a wet shaving brush to produce lather. The lather softens the hair before shaving and forms a thick, protective layer between skin and blade. Modern shaving cream is more convenient than shaving soap, but it does not work as well for moisturizing or giving a close shave.

It is possible to use too much shaving soap.

So what sort of character prefers shaving soap to shaving cream?  Would you expect old?  Or old-fashioned? And would the shaver choose a basic, inexpensive brand like Williams ($1.49 per cake) or something more exotic, like Molton Brown ($65 for one cake in a wooden bowl)? How much is it worth to get a moisturizing lather blended with coconut oil to prep skin for a clean shave, with a top note of mandarin, heart notes of jasmine and violet, and base notes of musk, sandalwood and vanilla, all in a slick shaving bowl?

And what if it’s a woman using shaving soap? Why? And on what part(s) of her body?

Medically Necessary Soap

I guess the specially important washing doesn’t include after handling raw meat or using the bathroom.

As dermatologists like to remind us, skin is the largest organ in the body. Many skin ailments can be improved or even cured by using particular soaps.

Note: The information provided below is not intended for medical diagnosis or treatment. This is only intended for writing purposes and providing examples.

Dermatologist Recommended
The best way to judge a dermatologist’s qualifications is by the size of her bustle.

Perhaps your character will do their own research, determining their particular needs and methods of treatment. What sort of person does this? For general use, dermatologists recommend AveenoDove, Olay, and Basis. Skin cleansers are better for sensitive skin, such as Cetaphil, CeraVe, and Aquanil. Deodorant soaps are often very harsh and drying.

Treatment of Skin Conditions
It is widely recognized in the medical community that dog slobber is the most effective treatment for every skin ailment. And for depression.

Many skin conditions can be treated topically with soap. Rashes from poison ivy, insect bites, and mild eczema can be relieved with oatmeal soap. Aloe Vera can help with sunburn and acne. Antibacterial soap has been in the news quite a bit lately. There is evidence that the symptoms of severe acne, athlete’s foot, scabies, ringworm, psoriasis, plantar warts can be relieved with prescription-strength medicated soap.

The research on specific drugs and usages is not conclusive for all of these conditions, so be sure to dig around in peer-review medical journals before including details in your writing.

Fancy Soap

Sampling of Soap Types
Me? Nah, I don’t need a bath, thanks.
Aleppo Soap

More information on all of these soaps is available online. Every type of soap has a different texture, smell, weight, and other characteristics that can add sensory detail to your writing. Would your character have a signature soap? Chose to make a statement—to self or others?

Expensive Soaps
You could also leave a whale on your front lawn to let all the neighbors know where you got that amazing soap!

Status symbols only work if other people know about them. Some of the most expensive soaps have distinctive scents. They may provide (mostly subjective) beauty benefits. Prominently displayed wrappers or overseas packaging left ever-so-casually where guests might see them

  • Qatar SoapA bar of this soap produced by a family-run business in Lebanon might make you think twice about washing too often. Infused with gold and diamond powder, a single bar costs $2,800 (£1,700; 2,050 euros).
  • El-Nino (Kenya) Soap: The soap is part of the Kenya government’s strategy to provide aid for victims of El Nino weather catastrophes. Each piece will retail for $375 (Ksh 37,500). However, it is not yet clear if this soap will be manufactured in Kenya, Lebanon, China or Migingo.
Chocolate Mud Mask?
  • Cor Soap: Cor was produced by Plank, a company that manufacturers yoga-themed products. Each bar will set you back $125 (KSH 12,500). The ingredients that made Cor expensive are the following:
    • Chitosan to even out skin tone
    • Sericin — a silk extract — to trap moisture and provide UV protection
    • Four types of collagen to help maintain skin structure.
    • Silver, a known antibacterial agent 
  • Cle de Peau BEeaute Synactif Soap: A facial cleansing soap that removes impurities from pores and lifts away makeup and dead skin to reveal purified skin filled with translucence and suppleness. $100.
  • Erno Lazlo Famous Black Bar: $38 for those who want to go for something a little less high end.
    • Dead Sea Mud: Restores skin’s own mineral levels; infused with 26 minerals and has a signature black color that transforms to white foam.
    • Glycerin: Attracts and holds hydration for a more moisturized, glowing complexion.
    • Palm and Palm Kernel Oils: Regulates skin’s oils and reinforces its defenses against outside stressors.  
Mud Mask!
  • Dragon’s Blood Cold Process Soap: Loaves / Bars for those who want to sound high end on a budget.  Loaves of soap are cut into bars and packed with your own custom label. Dragon’s Blood soap comes in custom sizes, colors, etc. for large orders. The famous fragrance contains “top notes of amber, vanilla, and patchouli. Also has hints of orange and other fruity base notes.” Sample 4.5oz. Bar ($3.50 / unit)

Bottom line for writers: Soap can flesh out a character, either subtly or in a more marked way. Think about it!

SUPERSTITIONS

By definition, superstitions are irrational beliefs that objects, actions, or circumstances not logically related to an outcome nevertheless influence those outcomes. Every Friday the 13th, I think of superstitions. In the past I’ve blogged about superstitions related to Fridays and to 13s. The superstitions below have nothing to do with the date directly, but there is a belief that negative things happening on Friday the 13th are worse than they would be on other dates.

The Superstition Mountains in Arizona

There are myriad ways to slice and dice the universe of superstitions, including by country or by topic (e.g., love and marriage or hearth and home).  Indeed, there are whole books of superstitions out there, and who knows what’s on the internet.  But anyone wishing to pursue the topic can do so easily.

Clearly, this blog can give you only a tiny taste of the superstitions out there. So here you go, alphabetically:

A
Spaghetti harvested on April 1st is full of extra nutrients.
  • April 1, April Fool’s Day
    • To be fooled by a pretty maiden means the man will marry or befriend her.
    • To lose one’s temper over a practical joke will bring bad luck.
    • A wedding on this day means the woman will be the family boss.
    • Being born on this day means lucky in business and unlucky in speculation.
  • Apron Dropping
    • A girl might meet her fiancé.
    • It may signify having two husbands.
    • It might mean illness or early death.
    • It might mean many children or no children.
    • It may mean spinsterhood.
    • Perhaps it portends desertion by a husband.
B
  • Bats are very good omens, denoting happiness, peace, long life, wealth, and virtue.
  • Birds are associated with both good and bad spirits, and are portents of things to come.
    • A bird in the house or tapping on a window is an omen of death.
    • Injuring a robin or disturbing its nest brings bad luck.
      • A friendly robin is a portent of a long, hard winter.
      • The first robin seen in spring portends good luck if it flies up, bad luck if it flies down.
      • A robin’s nest near the house brings good luck.
      • Seeing a robin in the morning portends a visitor the same day.
    • A swallow nesting in the eaves of a house brings good luck.
      • A swallow abandoning its nest is a sign the house will burn down.
      • A swallow skimming near the ground is a prediction of rain.
      • If a sparrow builds a nest under your window, you will take a trip.
    • Turtle doves near the house prevent rheumatism.
    • Eagles are said to carry off lambs and small children.
    • The cry of a peacock under a window predicts a death in the house.
    • Seeing a hawk is an omen of victory or success.
    • Seeing a crow in flight is time to make a wish; if the crow doesn’t flap its wings, the wish will come true.
    • Magpies (or jackdaws or crows, depending on where you live) mean different things depending on how many you see:
      • One for sorrow,
        Two for joy,
        Three for a girl,
        Four for a boy,
        Five for silver,
        Six for gold,
        Seven for a secret never to be told.
    • To break the curse of seeing a lone magpie, salute the magpie.
  • Bread
    • If bread falls butter side down, hungry company will come seeking food.
    • Eating bread crusts will make your cheeks rosy.
    • Two people saying “bread and butter” after someone or something comes between them will break the spell of bad luck.
    • Waving bread and sugar around a wound will make it heal faster.
C
  • Cards
    • A black ace falling on the floor during a bridge game is a sign to stop playing.
    • Singing during a card game is bad luck.
    • It’s unlucky to play cards on a bare table.
  • Cats
    • A cat washing its face is a sign of a visitor coming.
    • A black cat crossing one’s path is an omen of very good or very bad luck, depending on the culture.
    • A strange cat following you or making a home with you brings good luck.
    • If you wake up to a cat on your chest, it means the cat was under the influence of evil spirits and was trying to steal your breath as your slept.
  • Cutlery
    • If a knife falls on the floor you will have a gentleman visitor.
    • If a fork falls, it will be a lady visitor.
    • Crossing knife and fork is a bad omen.
D
Friday’s child
  • Days of the Week
    • Good or bad luck depends on the day of the week.
      • Monday for health
        Tuesday for wealth
        Wednesday the best day of all
        Thursday for crosses
        Friday for losses
        Saturday no luck at all
    • A child’s entire life is influenced by the day of the week on which they were born.
      • Monday’s child is fair of face
        Tuesday’s child is full of grace
        Wednesday’s child is full of woe
        Thursday’s child has far to go,
        Friday’s child is loving and giving,
        Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
        And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
        Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.
  • Dogs
    • A yellow dog happening to follow your tracks is a sign of good luck.
    • A dog howling in the night, especially at the moon, is a harbinger of death.
    • A dog predicts rain by lying on its back or eating grass.
E
  • Ears
    • Sailors held the belief that a pierced ear with a ring in it improved eyesight.
    • More generally, piercing a child’s ears will improve eyesight.
    • Size
      • Small = stingy
      • Large = generous
      • Long = long life
    • An itching left ear portends sadness or bad luck; itching right ear means someone is speaking well of you.
  • Eggs
    • Two yolks in one egg means great financial prosperity is on the way.
    • Refusing an Easter egg is an invitation to lose the friendship of the person offering it.
    • Rabbits lay eggs at Easter time.
    • Eggs blessed at Easter are supposed to ward off illness.
    • When cracking Easter Eggs with a friend, the one whose egg cracks first will have good fortune.
  • Eyes
    • If your right eye twitches, you are going to hear good news. 
    • A twitching eyelid means someone is thinking fondly of you.
    • A person with brown/ blue/ hazel/ green/ grey eyes brings bad luck.
    • A person with heterochromia (eyes different colors) is a witch or a demon.
    • Grey or blue eyes can see the future.
F
  • Fingers
    • Friends crossing index fingers over one another and making a wish will have their wish granted.
    • Crossing your middle finger over your index finger either brings good luck or is a sign of lying.
    • A person with a ring finger longer than the index finger is sure to be wealthy.
    • If a person points a finger in the direction of a graveyard, they must bite their finger to avoid inviting death.
  • Fingernails
    • Broad nails show that a person is generous.
    • Long fingernails reveal a lack of thrift.
    • Short fingernails mark a liar.
    • Specks on fingernails correspond with the number of lies told.
    • Cutting a baby’s nails before the first birthday means the child will become a thief. (Bite them off instead.)
    • Cutting nails on Friday is bad luck.
    • Cutting the nails of a sick person means that person will never get well.
  • Funerals
    • Handkerchiefs used to wipe tears at a funeral must be buried with the coffin or thrown away.
    • Singing, laughing, or talking too loudly at a funeral will wake the dead.
    • Not crying and singing funeral hymns loudly enough will anger the recently departed and wake the dead.
    • A man not wearing a belt to a funeral will bring death home with him.
G
  • Gloves are not good!
    • Picking up a glove is to risk bad luck.
    • Dropping a glove brings bad luck.
    • Giving someone gloves invites the breakup of the friendship.
    • Hitting someone with a glove, even accidentally, means wishing for their death.
  • Graves
    • Dig graves facing east toward Gabriel when he blows his horn.
    • Tools used to dig a grave should be left nearby for several days.
    • If someone shivers for no apparent reason, someone is walking over his/her grave.
    • Open graves are ill omens.
    • Leaving the site of a grave before the gravediggers lower the coffin means another death will follow.
    • Some cultures require a corpse to be buried in a standing position, holding weapons at the ready.
  • Gifts
    • Sharp objects given as gifts will turn on their new owner.
    • Giving certain numbers of objects (such as flowers or cookies) is unlucky, varying widely around the world.
    • In some areas, giving any unreciprocated gifts is unlucky.
    • Most of these gift taboos can be avoided by repaying the giver with a symbolic trifle, such as a penny or a piece of bread.
H
Crossed hands! No more babies!
  • Hands
    • An itchy right hand means money is coming.
    • An itchy left hand means money is slipping away.
      • Rubbing an itchy left hand on wood and wishing for money will break the spell of losing.
    • An itchy right hand means that a friend is coming.
    • Hand itching means you will shake hands with a stranger.
    • Itchy hands also means that you will be entertaining company.
    • Itchy palms means the receipt of unexpected money.
    • Every town and village in the world seems to have a different variation of hand signs to ward off evil.
      • Thumb holding middle and ring finger against the palm with other fingers extended.
      • Holding the hand with the palm flat and all fingers pointed forward, folding each finger against the palm separately and sequentially.
      • Tucking the thumb between the index and middle finger with all fingers pulled into the palm.
    • Binding anyone’s hands together will condemn them to a life of misfortune.
    • Folding or crossing one’s hands causes infertility.
  • Hens
    • Setting a hen on the first Monday of the month brings good luck.
    • Setting hens on Sunday night brings successful hatching.
    • If 13 eggs are set, 12 will be pullets and 1 will be a rooster.
    • Long eggs hatch roosters; round eggs hatch pullets.
  • Hiccups
    • Having the hiccups means someone is remembering you fondly.
    • Each hiccup is an attempt by a demon to draw your soul from your body.
I
Extreme ironing. People do this. Voluntarily. I don’t know why.
  • Ironing
    • If the tail of a man’s shirt is ironed (or starched) will make the man harsh.
    • An ironing board falling across a door is an omen of death.
    • Ironing the backs of clothes is bad luck.
  • Injury or Illness
    • Stepping on a crack will break your spine.
    • Sleeping with wet hair will make you sick.
    • Women sitting on bare cement will become infertile.
    • If your shadow falls on a graveyard or a funeral procession, you will become gravely ill.
    • Blowing in a baby’s mouth will cure colic.
    • The presence of a net beneath a trapeze or high-wire act will cause the performers to injure themselves or fall.
J
  • Jar of water with a knife in it behind the door will protect a building against the devil.
  • July 25, wet or dry, is the day to plant turnips.
  • Jumping
    • Jumping over a baby means they won’t grow very tall.
    • Couples jumping over bonfires together will have peace and good fortune for a year.
    • Jumping exactly as the clock strikes midnight for New Year’s will bring good luck in the coming year.
K
  • Knife
    • If someone gives you a knife it will cut the friendship unless you “buy” it by giving a penny, pin, etc.
    • Leaving a penknife open brings bad luck.
    • Handing an open knife to someone will lead to a quarrel.
  • Knocking on Wood
    • Knocking on wood before starting a project is inviting good luck.
    • Knock on wood after bragging/boasting to prevent future failure.
L
  • Ladybug / Ladybird
    • It’s bad luck to kill a ladybug.
    • A ladybug landing on you will bring good luck.
    • A ladybug flying off you will take away all your troubles with her.
    • More than 7 spots on a ladybug’s wing means famine.
      • Fewer than 7 means a good harvest.
    • Make a wish with a ladybug in your hand and the direction she flies shows the direction your luck will come from.
  • Lips
    • Itchy lips means someone is speaking ill of you.
    • Itchy upper lip, someone tall will kiss you
      • Itchy lower lip, a short person will kiss you.
    • If you bite your lip while eating alone, you have a great kiss ahead.
M
I guess neither of these two will get married. Their dad will be very happy about that!
  • Marriage
    • Unmarried people who sit at the corner of a table will never get married.
    • Girls who want to get married should write the names of three prospective spouses on slips of paper and slide them under their pillow. She then discards one at night, one in the morning, and the remaining paper will have the name of her future spouse.
    • Married women are very lucky wedding guests. The longer she has been married, the more luck she brings to the new couple.
    • A man who walks between two women will have an unhappy marriage.
  • Moles or Warts
    • On the forehead near the hairline is a sign of bad fortune.
    • On the chin or ear is a sign of wealth.
    • On the breast is a sign of poverty.
    • On the throat is a sign of good luck.
    • A mole on your arm, live on a farm.
    • Having lots of moles indicates future wealth.
  • Mirrors
    • Breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck.
    • Looking at your reflection in a broken mirror brings permanent bad luck.
    • Standing between two mirrors allows spirits to steal your soul.
N
  • Nine
    • Count nine stars for nine nights and on the last night one’s lover will be revealed.
    • Find nine peas in one pod, hang it above the door, and the next person through the door will be one’s spouse.
  • Nails
    • A nail dropped on the floor can only build crooked houses.
    • Carrying an iron nail will ward off evil influences and demons.
    • Looking at a coffin nail while carrying a body to a graveyard invites death.
    • A rusty nail stuck through a lemon will keep away the evil eye.
O
Superstitious architects design buildings without a thirteenth floor.
  • Omens of Misfortune
    • Spilling salt on the table.
    • Burning bread.
    • A rooster crowing at night.
    • Killing a spider.
    • Stepping over a snake.
    • Dropping a comb.
    • Stepping on sidewalk or road cracks.
    • Laughing before breakfast.
    • The number 13.
  • Owls
    • Hearing a screeching owl is an omen of bad luck.
    • An owl perched on a house predicts death to someone within.
    • In Wales, the hoot of an owl signaled that an unmarried girl had surrendered her chastity.
    • Owls are sacred in some parts of India because their eyesight is phenomenal.
    • Owls signal approaching death.
P
  • Pearls
    • A ring set with a pearl is unlucky.
    • Pearls signify tears.
    • A gift of pearls will bring tears and sadness to the recipient.
    • Finding a pearl in an oyster is a sign of good luck.
  • Phrenology
    • A high forehead is a sign of a reflective mind.
    • A high forehead is a sign of leadership.
    • Large eyes signify benevolence and wonders
    • A wide skull indicates pugnaciousness.
    • Large heads contain large brains, signifying high intelligence.
Q
  • Saying the word “quiet” will cause all hell to break loose.
  • Quail
    • Seeing a quail is a sign that a goal can be attained only if the seer acts immediately.
    • Seeing a quail in flight is an omen of danger or death.
    • Dreaming of a quail is a sign that love, good fortune, and victory are coming.
  • Quarters
    • Putting a quarter into a pot of black-eyed peas will bring good luck and money.
    • Adding a quarter to a tip jar will make it fill faster.
    • Tucking a quarter into a purse or wallet given as a gift means it will always have money in it.
R
  • Red Hair
    • Redheads are emotionally unstable and of terrible temper.
    • A redhead who tends a cheese vat will produce curd not fit to eat.
    • The appearance of a white horse heralds the appearance of a red haired girl, and vice versa.
    • Seeing a redhead first thing in the morning is a sign of bad luck.
  • Rats
    • Rats leaving a house signifies bad luck.
    • Rats entering a house bring good luck.
    • Rats won’t go through a soaped hole.
    • Catch a rat, paint it garish colors, and release. It will drive other rats away.
S
Indian Rat Snake (Grey and Yellow)
  • Snakes
    • Hanging a snakeskin from the rafters will protect a house from fire.
    • Killing the first snake you see every year will guarantee victory over any foe.
    • Seeing a snake cross one’s path or dreaming of a snake are bad luck.
    • Pregnant women who are frightened by a snake will give birth to a child with a constricted neck.
    • A snake will never bite a pregnant woman.
    • Tying a snakeskin around the waist of a woman in labor will ease childbirth.
    • Feeding women in labor a drink containing the powdered rattle of a rattlesnake will ease childbirth.
    • Carrying a snakeskin is generally beneficial to health, effective against headaches and extracting thorns from the skin.
    • Carrying a snake tooth will ward off fever.
    • Carrying a snake tooth is lucky when gambling.
    • To avoid getting bitten by a snake, wear an emerald.
    • When a snake’s head is severed, it will not die till sunset.
  • Singing
    • If you sing before breakfast, you will cry before the day is done.
    • If you sing before you dress, you’ll have trouble before you undress.
    • If you sing before seven, you’ll cry before eleven.
    • If you sing before you eat, you’ll cry before you sleep.
  • Sailing
    • It is unlucky to have an umbrella bought aboard.
    • It is unlucky to drive nails on Sunday.
    • Whistling aboard ship brings bad luck.
    • If a bee or small bird lands on the ship, it means good luck.
    • If a hawk, owl, or crow lands in the rigging, it means bad luck.
    • A horseshoe nailed to the mast protects against witches.
    • It is unlucky to set sail on Friday, lucky to set sail on Sunday.
T
I think this one is pretty safe. No hideousness here.
  • Thumbs
    • A baby who sucks its thumb will grow up to be hideous.
    • A thumb turned backward indicates an inability to save money.
    • Thumb pricking means something bad is coming along.
    • Thumb itching indicates visitors are coming.
  • Three
    • Closely associated with the Holy Trinity in several world religions: Christianity, Hinduism, Islam.
    • Some pagan traditions celebrate the trinity of land, sea, and air to make up earth.
    • Third time lucky/third time’s the charm.
    • A person will resurface three times before drowning.
    • If three people make up a bed, one of them will fall ill.
    • Good things and bad things come in threes.
  • Theater
    • Shakespeare’s Macbeth is so unlucky that people avoid saying the name in a theater, referring to “the Scottish play” instead.
    • Whistling onstage or backstage is bad luck.
    • Wishing a performer good luck will bring the opposite, hence the common “Break a leg!” wish before going onstage.
    • A terribly dress rehearsal means the performance will be excellent, and vice versa.
    • Failing to salute the resident ghost (every theater has at least one) will cause it to be angry and take revenge.
U
  • Umbrellas
    • Carrying an umbrella will ward off rain.
    • Opening an umbrella in the house is bad luck.
    • Holding an open umbrella over your head in the house will lead to your death within a year.
  • Upside Down
    • Turning a picture upside down brings bad luck to the person or place in the picture.
    • An upside down photograph or picture turned to the wall invites lurking evil spirits to attack the subject of the picture.
    • Turning a photo of a person to face the wall or the floor will protect you from evil influences caused by that person.
    • Slippers or shoes left upside down on the floor will cause trouble on the next journey.
  • Underwear
    • Wearing new underwear on a first date will doom the relationship.
    • Wearing underwear inside out will improve test or exam scores. 
V
  • Visiting
    • Visit on Monday and you’ll be visiting out every day of the week.
    • Guests, like fish, should be thrown out after three days.
  • Violets
    • Violets grow where tears have fallen.
    • Drinking tea made from violet petals cures heartbreak.
    • Dreaming of violets means you’ll come into money or marry someone younger.
    • When violets bloom in the autumn, an epidemic is coming.
W
If only he hadn’t whistled inside, his Mother might be happier…
  • Washing
    • Wash and wipe together, live and fight together.
    • If a woman gets wet while washing clothes, she will marry a drunkard.
    • A woman who wants beautiful hair should wash it in water from March snow.
    • Washing laundry on Saturday or Tuesday is bad luck.
  • Whistling
    • A whistling girl and a crowing hen always come to no good end.
    • If little girls whistle they will grow beards.
    • Whistling in the house invites bad luck.
    • If someone whistles inside a house, they will become financially irresponsible and lose money.
  • Weddings
    • A bride jumping out of bed and landing on both feet on her wedding day bodes well for her married life.
    • The bride and groom seeing each other before they meet at the altar will doom the marriage.
    • An iron horseshoe carried by the bride will bring good fortune to her extended family.
    • A thunderstorm during a wedding is an omen of bad luck.
    • A snowstorm during a wedding is a lucky omen.
    • A Sunday wedding is a good omen.
    • A Friday wedding is a bad omen.
    • Marrying on the last day of the year is especially auspicious.
    • Wearing pearls on your wedding day tempts sorrow, tears, and an unhappy future.
X
Y
  • Yawning
    • Yawning during prayers is a bad omen.
    • Yawning without covering one’s mouth allows the devil entrance.
  • Yellow
    • Giving yellow clothing as a gift will bring bad luck.
    • Wearing yellow clothing to any kind of test will cause a poor performance.
    • When speeding through a yellow traffic light, a driver throwing a kiss to the roof of the car will avoid accidents and police.
Z
  • Zero is a whole number as well as an even one, and thus a lucky digit.
  • Zebra
    • Seeing a wild zebra means you are spiritually safe from harm.
    • A zebra licking your hand can mean danger is coming or someone is holding onto bad memories.
    • The black and white of a zebra indicates good and bad.
    • Dreaming of a zebra means one is facing situations that are difficult to control.
    • Follow a zebra to find water.
    • More stripes on the front legs of a zebra than on the back is an omen of a baby, possibly twin boys
    • One zebra is a sign of good luck and blessings. Seeing two zebras in the morning is an omen of illness and maybe two bad harvest seasons.
    • A running zebras is an omen of an ample harvest.

Bottom line: The superstitions listed here are shared by many people, but every culture and person has different beliefs. Anything can become a personal superstition if something unrelated is associated in time or place with a dramatic event or outcome (such as lucky socks or particular foods). Consider how someone might come to feel anxious and fear bad things will happen if s/he loses a carved wooden heart. If you are writing about an entirely fictitious culture, you can invent whatever superstitions you like!