COVID-19 UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

The best thing you can do to help is avoid spreading the virus. This building in South Africa has a subtle hint about how you can do that. (AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht)

By this time, I would bet that nearly everyone on Earth has been touched one way or another by COVID-19. Global pandemics are an unfortunate experience that unites all of humanity. Similarly, medical providers around the world have been called upon to step up, just as they would in any similar event whether historical, fantastic, or science fictional.

We’re all in this together. Let’s not be that guy.

Nurse Green treating consumption patients in a New York sanitorium in 1843, Doctor White treating AIDS patients in Zimbabwe in 1997, and Healer Black treating bubonic plague patients in Constantinople in 546 all have the same general goals and similar biological challenges.

Medic Silver treating space plague in patients on the Third Moon of Alpha Centauri is likely to find xirself facing the same situation.

Doctors, nurses, aids, technicians, assistants, medics, and medical workers of every other kind have been making this plea, posting photos from all over the world.
(Richmond, Maryland)

For most of us, all but urgent care medical appointments have been postponed or cancelled. Even urgent care has changed drastically. I recently had an appointment for a root canal in a nearly empty clinic. The receptionist told all patients to wait in their cars until called, and only the dentist, his assistant, one office worker, and I were in the building the entire time I was in the chair.  Of course, most of us see these changes from the perspective of the patient. What about the providers? 

Philadelphia

A chiropractor who has a one-man practice told me that so many patients are canceling (or not making appointments in the first place) that he is worried about what’s happening to his personal income, and whether he can continue to pay his one office worker. My dentist is the head of a small practice (fewer than 50 employees) and he said the same thing: trying to keep the practice open and employees paid when they are seeing only urgent care cases. A dental assistant, recognizing that the practice is vulnerable, worries that she won’t be able to pay the rent.

Malaysia

These people are the tiniest of samples and most would agree they aren’t front-line workers in this pandemic. For that perspective, I am fortunate to have a colleague who lives in a veritable nest of doctors, nurses, medical students, and first responders, and here are things they had to say.

Israel

Is this sort of thing what you had in mind when you applied to med school?

Australia

 Absolutely not.  When I went to medical school, I thought I wanted to go into surgery, but I realized that I hated rounding and getting dressed up. As far as the current pandemic, I don’t think anyone envisioned something like this.  We haven’t had anything close to this since 1918 with the Great Influenza Pandemic.  And in probably every humans’ mind, medical care has advanced so much since then.  How could anything like that happen again?

Not at all. I had visions of helping patients overcome their physical or medical disabilities so they could live their lives. Now I am at the frontline of protecting about 100 elderly, disabled patients who were recently hospitalized for other reasons and are now at risk for coming down with COVID-19. We have already diagnosed it in quite a few of our patients. It is likely many of the others also have it but only mild or asymptomatic cases. However, they are still contagious, and we must be extremely careful so we don’t spread it around to other patients, ourselves, and our families.

Italy

I always knew working with high-risk patients meant that I would be saying a lot of good-byes, and I thought I was okay with that. I could at least make them feel a little bit better, maybe smile a little. But now I feel like I’m saying that final good-bye every time I leave a patient’s house. Like, will this person even be here the next time I come over?

Pretty much, yeah. I always knew the communities where I wanted to work would be full of infection and contagion, without a lot of medicine or cleaning. But there was always something I could do, yeah? Now there’s no medicine, no vaccine, no ventilators, nothing but me in the same mask I’ve been wearing for a week and trying so hard to convince families that grandmother must stay away from her grandbabies.

Nope. I think a lot of this is media driven.  And people fear arguing against safety. But being too safe can have its own trade off and risk other forms of safety.

If we did not want that responsibility, we would not have chosen this career path.

Chile

In general, how do you avoid bringing work stress or infections home?

Not bringing infections home is easy.  The scrubs I wear for work stay and get laundered at the hospital.  I have separate shoes for the hospital which stay in my office.  And I use hand sanitizer before I leave the building.  We deal with some pretty nasty resistant bugs at work.  I don’t need to bring that home to my wife and daughters. I try not to let work get to me.  I try to make sure everyone is having fun at work, so it keeps my stress level down.  But even with that, it can build up. 

Jordan

It’s been tough, lately. I cry every night. I try not to, but I see so many people sick and nothing I can do. I never let my family see me.

Showers when I get to work and before I leave work. There’s a clean line between my two lives. I don’t bring any of that culture home with me. No stickers or special license plates on my car, just the parking decal.

The key to avoiding bringing infections home is the same as avoiding spreading it at work, always good hygiene and using protective equipment. There really is no difference. And as long as I work as hard as I can and do the best I can, stress is not an issue. Only fatigue, which comes to anybody who works long, hard hours.

Sudan

Do you prioritize symptoms, patients, contagion, contact, etc. differently now?

It used to be mostly elective or scheduled operations, so we had time to make sure patients are prepped and optimized for surgery ahead of time.  On the bus [ambulance], we don’t get to pick and choose our patients.  They call us when they are in their worst time.  There’s a big difference between a sterile operating room, and the side of the road at 2am.  But in the end, a patient is a patient.  It’s about the ABCs and then go from there.

India

Patients have prioritized themselves differently. Nobody will come to the clinic if they can find something else to do. I had a girl come to my house with a broken arm because her parents did not think she should be risk being exposed.

PPE is at a premium.  At work, I’m reusing my N-95 masks between patients because otherwise we’d run out.  But if I have to intubate a known or suspected COVID patient, we are in full protective gear to include a respirator.  We do have new protocols in place for use of PPE on the ambulances when we suspect a COVID patient.

So far we do not have to prioritize anything other than can they leave their room on a closed ward? Should they be cohorted with someone else who also has the virus? Many of our patients have other contagious diseases or infections; we must be careful.

Actually less people are calling 911. Looking at the county stats the call volume has dropped 10-20% over the past month.  Generally you can look at a person and tell if they are in distress or not.  There used to be a lot of people who called for help when they just wanted a ride. I typically deal with one patient at a time. 

Wales

What behaviors in the general public infuriate you from a health care view (at any time, not just now)?

I used to get really worked up with people smoking.  There is so much data about how bad smoking and drugs are for you, yet young people still start using them.  But I realized I can’t change everyone, and it would just cause me undue stress.  So I just focus on who I can help in front of me.  I also realize people are going to make their own choices, good or bad.  All I can do is give them the information and hope they listen to it.

India

There are so many people who are just forgotten about and so they have no one to help them. They are stuck at home because they are old or no one will talk to them because they are weird or whatever. And then they are sick and no one knows because no one thinks to go and check.

People get a little bit of information and then suddenly they’re the expert and telling everyone else what to do and then people actually do it! Or they follow what the aunties say to do, even if it makes no sense, just because no one wants to upset the aunties. Like, drinking fever tea is not going to cure COVID-19, even if it makes your fever feel a little better.

The only behavior that infuriates me is when I see people carelessly congregating and likely spreading the virus but acting as if it is a joke. It’s infuriating because they are then passing it on to even more possibly highly vulnerable people who have nothing to do with their irresponsible behavior.  Otherwise the public’s behavior does not infuriate me. I feel very bad for family members who are not allowed to visit their family members. Must be terrifying being in such a helpless position. When they get obviously upset or even angry, we know it’s understandable.

When a crowd gathers to watch a hospital ship that has come to help with a quarantine, that kind of defeats the purpose….

Passing the liability on to others.  “Oh my insurance or doctor said call 911.” And the fact that life is not sunshine and rainbows. Just because you’re not feeling well doesn’t mean you’re going to die.

Jakarta

Have you changed your routines at home or work in the past few months?

I always believed that the immune system is something that needs frequent practice to be strong, and I still do believe that.  But with COVID-19, the game has completely changed.  I’m now washing my hands much more frequently, or using hand sanitizer whenever I touch something public in the hospital.  I wipe my desk, computer, phone, and ID badge down with a sanitizing wipe before I leave work.  And I always wash my hands when I walk into my home first thing before I do anything else.

Patients who used to come to me for stomach virus and insulin checks stay far away from the clinic now, especially the pregnant ladies. Now I see only people who are afraid they have coronovirus or that their aunties have coronovirus.

Malaysia

I share a flat with other medics, but I’ve moved back into my parents’ house, where the cellar has a separate washroom and entrance. It’s easier to stay isolated there, even if it’s a longer commute.

In the past two or three weeks our entire day has changed. We do not focus as much on the primary reason the patients are with us, which is to be evaluated and treated for various disabilities. Instead, we are more focused on signs or symptoms suggesting that they may be coming down with the virus. We don’t want to miss them for their sake, and for the increased risk of them spreading it to other patients and staff.

I definitely pray a lot more. I’ll admit it’s a little strange to see His Holiness over video broadcast in an empty room, but it’s very nice to know that I’m not alone to say the Rosary even when I can’t go to Mass here.

Stepped up the disinfecting.  And wearing more healthcare protective equipment.  We don’t got in nursing homes unless they can’t be brought outside. And we tell people to meet us outside.

I spend more time at each house because a lot of my patients aren’t having any other visitors. All the community outreach stops at the front door now.

England

Have you seen anything good as a result of the recent insanity?

I try to focus on the good, but it’s so hard when there is so much bad.  I guess… traffic is fantastic now.  I think everyone is trying to do their part to support local restaurants and businesses.  Most people seem to want to do the right thing.

Italy

With so many people made to stay at home, I think a lot of families are spending more time together. And everyone seems to be thinking up some way they can help, kids giving birthday money to shelters and medical students doing childcare for health workers.

Communities are recognizing that shop clerks, drivers, cleaners, they’re all absolutely necessary. It’s not just the politicians and rich folk who matter. Where would we be without rubbish clean-up and food delivery?

Difficult times like this often bring out the best that is already in people. The best has been in them all the time, but now they are expressing it and experiencing it more. 

People are learning that hospitals are disgusting places and that there are risks in going to them. 

Kenya

Is there anything you wish management, government, media, or whomever would do differently?

All those different entities do so many things wrong, it’s hard to know where to focus.  I’ve learned for the most part that there is little that I can affect on a large scale, such as with government or the media.  So I tend to not pay attention to either much.

Armenia

Some countries have been able to mobilize testing of millions of people very rapidly.  It would help us to determine who has already had the virus and is very low risk for acquiring it and passing it on, and is therefore fairly safe working on the front lines. They can also get back to work in what is currently called nonessential businesses. Without enough testing, we are fighting this battle blindfolded.

Why do travel companies keep offering cheap tickets?!

The media has been distorting the message. We keep hearing how certain drugs have not been approved for this virus, but really nothing has been approved. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try. About 20% of all medications used have not been approved for the thing doctors are prescribing them for. This is called off label use and we use this approach all the time for many medications. For a governor to ban certain medications because they have not been approved is the same as practicing medicine without a license.

India

The amount of bad information floating around is so dangerous. I understand that people are scared and no one has all the answers, but I wish people would stop telling things that aren’t true. Washing your mouth with bleach, drinking boiling water, filling your room with smoke… No, don’t do these things.

I wish there was more reliable information available in every language. My neighbours like to assume that, because I speak English, I have all of the answers that are being hoarded by British and American doctors.

It’s become a social and status symbol to say that you’ve been tested or have it. No one cares. Just stay home. 

Hawaii

What keeps you up at night?

The one thing that has kept me up at times is when I have a patient that has a complication, whether I contributed to it or not.  I tend to “Monday Morning Quarterback” every little thing I did and blame myself even when it’s not my fault.

Holland

Nothing currently keeps me up at night. As long as I do my best in my family is okay, I sleep well. It’s been a long time since I’ve been unable to sleep.

I worry about the people no one seems to help – the families who can’t get food, the people stuck behind barricades, the old ones left at home with no neighbors to check on them.

Dead kids tend to make it harder to sleep for a while.

Philippines

The question we all really want to ask: How do you keep your hands from drying out and cracking when you wash them every twenty seconds?

Nantucket

Make sure you rinse really well. Little bits of soap film, especially in the knuckles or between your fingers, can cause irritation.

Soap and water is so much better than hand sanitizer. The alcohol in hand sanitizer is usually what dries out skin. Plus, soap and water is more effective.

Lotion, but make sure it’s not scented.

Healthcare is exhausting!

UNSTRUCTURED TIME

One of the side effects of COVID-19 is that many people have more unstructured time than usual—much more. By unstructured time, I mean periods of time with no plan in place for what one must/wants to get done

Poking everything with a stick does not count as a plan.

Two points made by openlinecounseling.com resonate for me.

(Note:getting into mischief is not a healthy goal.)
  1. Stretches of unstructured time often bring pressure and anxiety, sometimes existential panic.
    • Worrisome thoughts are more easily set aside when busy. But with unstructured time, it’s easy for self-doubts to come to the fore. 
      • Am I too fat?
      • Have I done a good job as a parent?
      • Will anyone remember me when I’m dead? 
    • When we have lots of time available, it’s easy to procrastinate. One can fritter away the time, flitting from one indulgence to another, from reading a novel to online shopping. Come the end of the day, one then feels guilty for not having been productive—or not productive enough. The feeling that one has “wasted time” is uncomfortable.
Lithuanian Military photographed by adasvasiliauskas
  • Being constantly on the go is often linked to self-worth—in which case not being productive leads to low self-esteem, as in “I’m a failure” or “I’m lazy.”
    • Making the most of every minute of every day isn’t recognized as an impossible, not to say unhealthy, goal.
Don’t let fear drive you to hide away in a box.

When deprived of the activities that usually fill our days, we often drift into unhealthy activities.

  • Being physically inactive
  • Drinking and/or smoking more
  • Snacking and/or eating too much
  • Online gambling
  • Binge shopping
Structure can keep you from climbing the walls… or windows.

Being suddenly confronted with unstructured time can be disorienting. This is often true of the newly retired. Regularly scheduled activities—which could be anything from work to volunteering, golf or poker to orchestra rehearsals—make people aware of the time of day as well as days of the week or month.

For me, COVID-19 cancellations make every day feel like Monday, my formerly “free” day. I have to pause and think what day of the week it is. 

Make sure to change out of your pajamas every day. I recommend formal gowns for coloring time.

Also, the “natural” day for humans isn’t exactly 24 hours: it’s somewhere between 24 and 26 hours. We reset to 24 hours based on outside constraints. My personal day is longer than most, and it’s easy to stay up and wake progressively later and later—say 3:00 to noon. For those on lock-down due to COVID-19, with no scheduled activities, the time of day might feel “off.”

The short solution to all these negatives is simple: make plans.  Keep the list of plans brief — say three — and doable. The plans could be relaxing activities such cutting flowers, taking a walk, etc. The idea is that making plans decreases the likelihood that you’ll pass days in haphazard activities or listlessness.

Enjoy an elegant tea party with inanimate friends!

Astronauts, being experts in the field of isolation, have offered some advice to those of us down here on the planet.

  • Keep a consistent sleeping schedule
  • Go outside and get some sun, so long as you do it by yourself
  • Separate work and leisure time, if you still work from home, so that one does not overtake the other
  • Stay in touch with people online or over the phone
These astronauts seem to have missed the rule about staying 6 feet apart.
(Don’t worry; the baby isn’t sitting on the dog while reading to him… not that he’d notice if she was.)

As more people are staying at home, many organizations are creating virtual activities to keep your mind active. You can take a virtual tour of a museum or national park, audit classes in a variety of subjects, join exercise or meditation groups, watch ballets or operas or Broadway shows, even have a cocktail or movie party with your friends! If all else fails, there are ways to help your community from the comfort of your living room.

  • OpenCulture has gathered many of these links to allow people to browse their options.
  • To fix the growing shortage of protective gear among healthcare workers, many people have started making face masks for local hospitals and fire stations.
  • Coursera is currently working with many universities to allow students to earn college credit
  • Many independent, foreign, classic, and documentary films are available to watch online for free
  • All kinds of educational materials for k-12 students are free online
  • The Guggenheim has made 300 ebooks about art available for free

Takeaway for writers: consider the role of structure in the lives of your characters.

The Worst of Times, The Best of Times

One of my favorite guest bloggers has agreed to provide her always unique perspective on current events. With all that’s been written on the current pandemic, we sometimes need to take a step back and look from a (very) different angle. Kathleen Corcoran is a local harpist, teacher, writer, editor, favorite auntie, and tenuous believer in the goodness of humanity.

Whenever society collapses (or maybe wobbles a bit), we seem to see the extremes in people come out. The very best of heroes stand up, and the very worst villains take advantage. As the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett wrote in Good Omens, “Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.” Of course, disaster also sometimes brings out the very weirdest elements…

Note: The examples provided below are by no means a comprehensive list of incidents. They represent my own personal opinions and are not endorsed or promoted by any other entity.

Volunteers at the Sunnyvale Community Services food distribution site
(Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

The Best Side of Humanity

During the Plague of Justinian, the official Court Historian Procopius kept notes on how the plague affected the Roman Empire. In addition to some rather bizarre medical theories, he saw the way the plague brought out the very best of humanity. “[T]hen all, so to speak, being thoroughly terrified by the things which were happening, and supposing that they would die immediately, did, as was natural, learn respectability for a season by sheer necessity.” From History of the Wars, II.xxii–xxxiii translated by H.B. Dewing.

  • One constant in every disaster is the appearance of some form of healthcare worker, whether professional or volunteer, providing care for patients despite personal danger, overwhelming circumstances, inadequate supplies, exhaustion, and every other possible obstacle.
    • As far back as the Plague of Justinian, the court historian Procopious wrote about the exhausting and selfless labors of those who cared for plague patients, though it seems the main job of a nursing aid at the time was stopping their patients from committing suicide before they died from the plague: “When they were struggling to rush headlong out of their houses, they would force them back by shoving and pulling against them.”
    • Elsie Maud Inglis started a women’s medical corps during WWI and established two hospitals on front lines. When the German army advanced, she was taken prisoner with her patients rather than be evacuated. During a later prisoner exchange, Elsie Inglis refused to be released unless her captors also released her patients, saving 13,000 injured Serbian POWs.
    • During the 1918 Influenza Pandemic (sometimes called Spanish Flu), the ease of infection and limited hospital space resulted in incredibly high mortality rates among everyone who worked near the sick. Stories emerged after of nurses working straight through their shifts only to die at the end, of medical students taken out of classes to run entire hospital wards, of doctors continuing to direct care rotas despite being confined to bed themselves.
    • Corporal Desmond Doss repeatedly ran into enemy fire to recover wounded soldiers as a medic in WWII. Despite refusing to carry any weapon as a conscientious objector, he saved nearly 100 wounded soldiers under fire and was awarded the Medal of Honor.
    • After running 26.2 miles, many Boston marathoners who crossed the finish line after the 2013 bombing continued running several more miles to Massachusetts General Hospital to donate blood.
    • Despite having been hit earlier by Hurricane Katrina, Cuba was one of the first countries to offer aid to the US victims of the hurricane, offering to send 1,586 doctors and 26 tons of medicine.
    • Kellan Squire, an ER nurse who ran for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia (in part to fix the healthcare system) has this to say about healthcare workers in the current pandemic: “We’re going to get infected, we’re going to die and get ICUed at a rate a few times above other subgroups, we’re going to charge in without the resources or support we need to do our jobs. It’s just what we do. It’s not like we’re going to stop… especially now.”
  • Despite facing serious threats to themselves or their families, there are always people who are willing to face that danger in order to aid or shelter others.
    • Ninety percent of the Jewish population of Denmark survived the Holocaust because nearly the entire Danish population worked together to hide or evacuate their friends and neighbors when the Nazis invaded.
    • Every part of Harriet Tubman’s life was pretty heroic.
    • In 1943, hundreds of non-Jewish women married to Jewish men who had been deported gathered every day at the Rosenstrass e 2-4 Welfare Office to demand the release of their relatives, risking harassement, arrest, and execution while completely unarmed themselves. The “Rosenstrasse Protest” was successful; all of the arrested men were released, and the protesters faced no repercussions.
    • In Kenya in 2015, al-Shabab terrorists started a pattern of entering an area, separating Muslims and non-Muslims at gunpoint, and then massacring all of the non-Muslims. A bus leaving Nairobi in December was boarded by terrorists who demanded that the passengers separate by religion, but Kenyan Muslims on board refused to move, sheltering their fellow riders in their ranks. The al-Shabab terrorists eventually left without firing a shot.
    • The families of Sarajevo business partners Yosef Kavilio and Mustafa Hardaga wound up saving each other, decades apart. In the 1940s, Mustafa Hardaga and his wife Zejneba hid the Jewish Yosef Kavilio and his family in their cellar. Decades later, in 1992, Kavilio’s descendants in Israel saw on television the danger Zejneba Hardaga faced from Bosnian troops. The petitioned the Israeli government to locate Zejneba and her daughter, who were safely evacuated to Israel.
  • Sometimes doing the right thing means deliberately disobeying laws or going against direct orders from a superior.
    • Dominican Friar Najeeb Michael, who was in charge of digitizing thousands of ancient volumes of Iraqi history, refused to leave his abbey in Mosul when ISIL invaded. Instead of evacuating immediately as his superiors orders, he kept boxing up and moving cases of books to prevent them from being destroyed. Even when he finally started to leave the city, he kept stopping his car to children and disabled passengers on his way to safety.
    • Hugh Thompson was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam who landed his helicopter between American soldiers and the fleeing residents of My Lai, threatening to open fire on the soldiers if they did not stop killing civilians and destroying homes. He then flew dozens of survivors to receive medical care. Despite direct orders to cover up the My Lai Massacre, Major Thompson cooperated fully with the investigation into the incident. He was later ostracized by fellow military members, receiving anonymous death threats and mutilated animal bodies left on his front porch.
    • Tibor Rubin repeatedly broke out of North Korean POW camps to smuggle food back in to fellow prisoners. He also provided medical aid to other POWs, using skills he picked up while surviving Mauthausen concentration camp during the Holocaust
    • In 1944, Nazi ships tried to round up all of the Jews in the Ionian Islands of Greece. When the SS demanded that Mayor Loukas Karrer of Zakynthos provide a list of all Jews on the island, Bishop Chrysostomos handed them a list with two names on it: Mayor Loukass Karrer and Bishop Chrysostomos. Meanwhile, the 275 Jews on the Zakynthos were hidden by residents of nearly inaccessible mountainous villages; every person on the island collaborated in saving their Jewish neighbors.
    • The Edelweiss Pirates was a loosely connected network of ex-Hitler Youth, mostly between the ages of 14 and 18, who did everything they could disrupt the Nazi war effort in Germany, including blowing up railways and helping Jews escape execution.
    • Sergeant Dakota Meyer was ordered to ignore a distress call at Ganjigal and to fall back instead. He drove into the battle zone five times, transporting wounded soldiers in his Humvee and providing cover fire for other military personnel to escape.
    • Dr. Albert Battel was a lieutenant in the German army who stopped the SS from entering Przemysl ghetto in 1942. While the SS was stalled trying to get through the blocked bridge, Lieutenant Battel and his unit moved families out of the ghetto and hid them at his own Army headquarters, preventing the SS from deporting them to the Belzec Extermination Camp.
  • With the stock market practicing pogo moves, kids needing extra childcare, people missing shifts, and every possible industry seeing some kind of disruption, it’s still amazing to see businesses putting the good of the community over profit.
    • Zahid Iqbal has donated and delivered thousands of “coronavirus kits” from his convenience store in Edinburgh, Scotland. He and his employees have made the kits from toilet paper, antibacterial handwash, tissues, and anti-inflammatories and then brought them to retirement homes and the homes of at-risk neighbors.
    • Healthcare workers in America are facing a serious shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), putting them at additional risk of infection while they work. Several medical tv shows are donating PPE used on sets (still sterile boxes of gloves, face masks, surgical gowns, hairnets, etc.) to EMTs, fire stations, and hospitals.
    • Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company in Mississippi has converted its distillery to make spray disinfectant.
  • There are some very creative methods of giving back to the community and helping society that take a specific blend of available talent and courage to perform.creative methods of giving
    • Chef José Andrés closed all of his restaurants in DC to comply with restrictions on social gatherings. With empty kitchens and refrigerators full of food, he decided to go back to work making packaged meals to distribute to people in quarantine, healthcare workers, and anyone else in the area who needs help feeding their families.
    • Other restaurants that have to close for social distancing are donating massive amounts of food (as well as cooking and packaging supplies) to local food banks, shelters, Meals on Wheels, and community kitchens.
    • Chiari Hospital in northern Italy needed ventilator valves to help COVID-19 patients breathe. Engineers from Isinnova collaborated with the 3-D printing company FabLab to produce replicas of the valve quickly, allowing the ventilators to stay in use.3-D printing ventilator valves.
    • Musicologist Ahmad Sarmast graduated from school and then returned to his native Afghanistan to record oral musical traditions he feared would be lost in chaos and uncertainty. Along the way, he started teaching girls to play orchestral instruments in defiance of religious restrictions. He has already survived one bombing assassination attempt and continues to record, notate, and teach despite now being nearly deaf and riddled with shrapnel.
Dr. Ahmad Sarmast with some of his students

The Worst Side of Humanity

Unfortunately, there will always be people waiting to take advantage of any situation. Some betray their neighbors to save themselves. Some see any opportunity for profit or personal gain. Some seem to hurt people for no other reason than the pleasure they feel when hurting people. Again, Sir Terry Pratchett said it best: “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.” (from I Shall Wear Midnight)

  • The phrase “adding insult to injury” comes to mind when reading these next examples. People who are kicked when they are down, sometimes in the most petty of ways.
    • After the students protesting in Tiananmen Square were gunned down in 1989, the Chinese government reportedly charged families of victims a “bullet fee” for the cost of the bullets used to execute their dead family members.
    • During Irish Potato Famine, Sultan Abdul Medjid Khan of the Ottoman Empire tried to donate £10,000 and ships full of food to send to Ireland. British ambassadors told him it was forbidden for anyone to donate more than Queen Victoria, who had only donated £1,000.
    • People running from Hurricane Katrina were turned back at gunpoint when they tried to cross the bridge into neighboring town of Gretna.
    • White Star Line billed the families of Titanic victims for freight shipping cost of having bodies returned, used a weird contract clause to fire every employee the moment the ship started to sink, and billed the families of the band members for the cost of uniforms that weren’t returned (because they were too busy playing to keep people calm as the ship sank to worry about taking off their clothes and stowing them safely on a lifeboat for return to the company).
    • The Mongol army was busy beseiging the city of Kaffa (present-day Feodosiya) on the Crimean Peninsula when they were forced to retreat because their ranks were so depleted by the Black Death. Stories from the time claim that the Mongols catapaulted the bodies of soldiers who died from the plague over the city walls into Kaffa on their way out.
    • At the end of WWII, Soviet soldiers held in German POW forced labor camps were returned to Russia. Trains carrying these soldiers home were diverted to Russian forced labor camps, gulags, where most of the soldiers were sentenced to 10-20 years for the “crimes” of assisting the enemy and having possibly been exposed to Capitalist Western POWs.
  • A scapegoat can always be found for any disaster or atrocity. Xenophobia and bigotry are easier than understanding the facts.
    • Armenians were blamed for the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in WWI, providing a convenient justification for the Armenian Genocide.
    • Jews, Romani, witches, and sailors were all blamed for Black Death at one point or another. Terrified plague mobs expelled, burned alive, deported, stoned, and performed every other imaginable atrocity on whichever group was most convenient at the time.
    • Mentally and physically handicapped Robert Hubert was not in London during the Great Fire of 1666; his ship didn’t even arrive until two days after the fire was extinguished. Nevertheless, he was tried and hanged for firebombing London and starting the Great Fire.
    • Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson went on TV and announced that the 9-11 terrorist attacks were the fault of “liberal civil liberties groups, feminists, pagans, homosexuals, and abortion rights supporters.”
    • The current novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has been blamed on China (especially Wuhan province), Chinese people, people of Chinese descent, people of partial Chinese descent, and people who might look a bit Asian if you tilt your head at just the right angle. Government officials (including those in very high office) have blamed the Chinese government, and it trickles all the way down to children being bullied for “spreading the virus.”
  • It seems there will always be someone willing to take advantage of others’ fear, selling the Brooklyn Bridge and a guarantee to Heaven all in one convenient package.
    • Spiritual leaders” whose primary goal is to raise funds have started asking for donations in return for prayers, going so far as to ask for donations to build a hospital for patients with coronavirus (conveniently leaving out the bit about the hospital being a spiritual place rather than an actual building where medical care is provided.)
    • The prices of everything from face masks to canned food have skyrocketed around the world.
    • Price-gouging of food and fuel became so severe during WWII that enabling price controls was one of the primary reasons the government enforced a rationing system.
    • “Doctors” during the Black Plague in Europe charged extreme prices for very expensive treatments, such as eating a paste of ground emeralds or bathing in the urine of uninfected mothers.
  • People hoard anything they think might become scarce, even if they don’t immediately need it, even if others need it more.
    • While people starved by the millions in 1845-1847, the worst years of Ireland’s Great Hunger, millions of bushels of grain were shipped to England, along with livestock, dairy, and beer. Landlords only allowed the peasants to eat potatoes, which had all been destroyed by blight.
    • In Australia, people with stockpiles of food have received death threats.
    • People panic buying medical supplies, especially in the US, have caused a shortage in hospitals, clinics, fire stations, nursing homes, etc. Doctors and nurses are re-using face masks, making surgical gowns at home, and not doubling gloves in an attempt to make their increasingly limited supplies last.
Soviet POWs got the short straw everywhere.

Um… What?

Fear makes people do all sorts of strange things, like buying loads of toilet paper in preparation for an illness that doesn’t cause any increase in toilet use.

  • City officials seeking to cure the “Dancing Plague” in Strasbourg in 1518 asked medical officials how to help people who were literally dancing themselves to death, flailing and jerking around for days on end until they dropped dead from exhaustion. The doctors decided that these people had a sickness that needed to be shaken off… by forcing them to keep dancing!
  • A strip club in Las Vegas is advertising that the lap dances on offer are guaranteed to be free from coronavirus.
  • People have begun sharing very odd photos and videos of the ways they are passing time while in quarantine or isolation. Pets wearing ties or being unhelpful coworkers are a popular photo subject, as are twitter competitions for things like jumping on the bed or holding one’s breath.
  • The Justinian Plague often began with very high fevers, causing hallucinations. These visions were often interpreted as signs from God of punishment to come or evidence of demonic possession. Exorcism was a common prescription, usually carried out by a tonsured monk. There were also people who believed that the monks were demons and the cause of the plague and fled from the sight of any man who was getting a bit bald on top.
  • According to some reports, the Dutch are hoarding cannabis in preparation for whatever COVID-19 brings, while the French are building stockpiles of red wine.
  • Something the Justinian Plague and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic had in common – people often wore name tags, armbands, toe tags, or some other external form of ID because the illness could kill so quickly that it was often the only way of ensuring your body would be identified if you dropped dead on the street.
  • With the aquariums in Chicago closed to visitors, the penguins have taken over!
Who put these guys in charge?

Be the Best!

You can be one of the good guys. Here are some ways you can show the best of humanity during this pandemic (and at any other time!)

  • Donate blood! The Red Cross really needs blood donations from healthy people to meet the needs of virus patients on top of all their regular needs.
  • Buy vouchers or gift certificates online for local restaurants, bars, shops, etc. Redeem them when things are back to normal. Think of it like a microscopic micro-loan.
  • If you are crafty, make reusable face masks for medical professionals. Here are some instructions.
  • Donate to organizations working to help the most vulnerable people in our societies.
  • Call, text, email, video chat with your friends, family members, work acquaintances, that guy down the street you wave to while walking your dog. Social distancing, while necessary for physical health, is not great for mental health. Make an extra effort to reach out to isolated people and stay connected.
  • https://www.flattenthecurve.com/
The Best: Lines of people waiting for hours to donate blood after the Orlando mass shooting

WRITING PANDEMICS

Beware the Carnosaur Virus!
from the movie Carnosaur

We are currently enduring a coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19).  But perhaps I can tell you some things about pandemics in general that you don’t know! 

Writers note: you will find below several bits of information you absolutely must have if you are going to write a story involving a pandemic—or even an epidemic.

ALZ-113 (Simian Flu) from Planet of the Apes

First you need to know the different levels of the disease’s severity within a community.

  • Sporadic: a disease that occurs infrequently and irregularly (rabies, polio)
  • Endemic: the constant presence and/or usual prevalence of a disease or infectious agent in a population within a geographic area (chicken pox in American schoolchildren, malaria in certain areas of Africa)
    • Hyperendemic: persistent, high levels of an endemic disease occurrence, above the expected “normal” levels
Disinfection of workers at an Ebola clinic, 2016
  • Epidemic: an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area (Ebola in 2014, Zika in 2018)
    • Outbreak: carries the same definition of epidemic, but is often used for a more limited geographic area
  • Holoendemic: essentially every individual in a population is infected, though not all show symptoms (modern occurrences are not common, but one example is hepatitis B in some areas of the Marquesas Islands)
  • Cluster: aggregation of cases grouped in place and time that are suspected to be greater than the number expected, even though the expected number may not be known
  • Pandemic: is an epidemic so big it crosses international boundaries and affects large numbers of people.
Bubonic Plague
Squirrel Army!

Pandemics can occur in crops, livestock, fish, trees, or other living things, but I’ll be sticking with people here.  You may want a plot line that has people battling a pandemic in another species. What happens to the food supply if all the wheat or corn or soybeans die off? How would people protect themselves from an entire population of aggressively rabid squirrels?

A wide-spread disease or condition that kills many people is a pandemic only if it is infectious. E.g., cancer and diabetes are not pandemics.

Until recently, I thought—in a vague sort of way—that pandemics were a thing of the past, mostly centuries ago. Wrong.  Currently, besides COVID-19, HIV/AIDS is an active pandemic world-wide. For example, several African countries have infection rates as high as 25%, or even 29% among pregnant South African women.

Distribution of AIDS cases worldwide

Any given pandemic is seldom one-and-done. Maybe none of them are.

Black Death, Venetian miniature. Middle Ages, Italy, 14th century. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Seattle PD wearing newly distributed face masks to prevent the spread of respiratory disease
  • Plague: contagious bacterial diseases that cause fever and delirium, usually along with the formation of buboes, sometimes infecting the lungs. In past centuries, plagues killed 20%, 40%, even 50% of a country’s population. The first U.S. plague outbreak was the San Francisco plague of 1900-1904. 
    • Writers note: isolated cases of plague still turn up in the western U.S.
  • Influenza (a.k.a. Flu): the first flu pandemic recorded was in 1580, and since then influenza pandemics have occurred every 10 to 30 years
  • Cholera: seems (to me) to be nearly perennial, with pandemics recorded 1871-1824, 1826-1837, 1846-1860, 1863-1875 (in 1866 it killed some 50,000 Americans), 1881-1896, 1899-1923, 1961-1975. 
  • Typhus (a.k.a., camp fever, gaol fever, and ship fever): caused by bacterial Rickettsia prowazekii and characterized by a purple rash, headaches, fever, and usually delirium. It spreads rapidly in cramped quarters, often carried by fleas, lice, and ticks. It’s common in times of war and famine.
  • Smallpox: caused by the variola virus, it raged from the 18th century through the 1950s. Vaccination campaigns beginning in the 19th century led the World Health Organization to declare smallpox eradicated in 1979. 
    • Writers note: it is the only human infectious disease to have been completely eradicated. But for your purposes, maybe not!
  • Measles: historically, before the vaccine was introduced in 1963, 90% of people had the measles by age 15. Measles is an endemic disease, so groups of people can develop resistance. But it is often deadly for those who get measles, and it has killed over 200 million people over the last 150 years. Worldwide, in 2000, measles killed 777,000 out of 40 million cases.
  • Tuberculosis (a.k.a, TB): a very present danger, as new infections occur at a rate of one per second. A quarter of the world’s current population has been infected, and although most of those are latent, 5-10% will progress to active disease. Left untreated, TB kills more than half of its victims.
  • Leprosy (Hansen’s disease): caused by a bacillus, it is a chronic disease. It has an incubation period up to five years, but it can now be cured. It’s been estimated that in the early 13th century, there were 19,000 leper hospitals (leprosariums) across Europe.
  • Malaria: widespread in tropical and subtropical regions around the world. 
    • Writers note: consider the implications of climate change. Once common, malaria deaths became all but non-existent due to drug treatment. However, growing drug resistance is a major concern. Malaria is resistant to all classes of antimalarial drugs except artemisinins.
Yellow fever was vaguely understood to be carried by sailors on long voyages
  • Yellow fever: a viral infection carried by mosquitoes. In 1793, it killed approximately 10% of the population of Philadelphia.
  • Ebola virus: one of several viral hemorrhagic fevers (along with Lassa fever, Rift Valley fever, Marburg virus, and Bolivian hemorrhagic fever) that seem to be pandemics in waiting because they are highly contagious and deadly. On the other hand, transmission requires close contact and moves fast from onset to symptoms, so effective quarantines are possible.
    • And on the third hand, writers note: it could always mutate and adapt.
  • Coronaviruses: a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV, and the current Coronavirus-19, which is a new strain of SARS-CoV-2. Common effects of all of these are fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. 

Historians have identified five (sometimes six) “major pandemics” that have affected enough of the population to cause a significant change in the social order. They are often referred to as plagues, despite not being caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.

  • The Plague of Justinian (541-543) continued to cause famine and death after the primary infection had been contained because the sudden lack of a labor force meant that crops weren’t planted and harvested.
    • The horrific conditions during and after the plague are believed to have created an ideal atmosphere for the rapid spread of Christianity.
    • Though he survived his infection, Emperor Justinian had to shelve plans to consolidate power and expand the Roman Empire.
Plague victim demonstrating a bubos
  • The Black Death of 1347 to 1351 is believed to have killed as much as half the world’s population.
    • Historians have estimated that resulting labor shortage allowed for the end of the feudal system and the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe.
    • The population of Greenland was so diminished that the Vikings didn’t have the manpower to continue their raids in North America.
  • The Colombian Exchange is a general term used to cover all of the species of plants, animals, people, and diseases moved from one continent to another during the European invasion of North and South America.
The worst-hit areas of the Third Plague
Hong Kong
  • The Third Bubonic Plague began in 1855 and reached every part of the world before it died down in the 1960s.
    • Researchers confirmed that the disease was spread by bacteria in flea bites, allowing for major breakthroughs in quarantine methods.
    • Some of those early quarantines involved such draconian measures in colonized areas that they contributed to rebellions in Panthay, Taiping, and several regions of India.
Public information campaigns helped to reduce transmission
  • The 1918 Influenza outbreak, commonly known as the Spanish Flu, infected 500 million people around the world and killed more people than World War I. In 25 weeks, it killed more people than AIDS did in its first 25 years.
    • The close quarters of soldiers involved in World War I contributed to the rapid spread, but the contagion raised public awareness of how disease is transmitted and how to prevent it.
    • Note: The “Spanish” flu was present around the world, but it gained its name because the Spanish government did not censor information on the pandemic. Because most other countries worked to suppress information so as not to disrupt the war, people got the impression that the disease was coming from Spain, the source of their information.
Keith Haring, AIDS activist and artist
  • Though it was first reported in 1981, HIV/AIDS is believed to have originated in a mutated genetic strand of the virus from a monkey in the 1920s.
    • Sex education in schools and sexual practices among some portions of the population (notably among sex workers) changed drastically to focus on safety.
    • Because it was first prevalent among the gay community, many religious leaders claimed the virus was a divine sign that homosexuals were evil.
Leprosy hospitals still exist in India

“Alien” diseases are more deadly than local ones. Writers note: what are the implications of colonizing Mars?

Medieval dead cart
  • In 1529, a measles outbreak in Cuba killed 2/3 of the natives who had previously survived smallpox.
  • Malaria was a major threat to colonists and Native Americans when introduced to the Americas along with the slave trade.
  • In Colonial times, West Africa was called “the white man’s grave” because of malaria and yellow fever.
  • European explorers often had devastating effects on indigenous people—and vice versa. For example, some believe that the death of up to 95% of the Native American population of the new world was caused by old world diseases such as smallpox, measles, and influenza.
  • On the other hand, syphilis was carried from the new world to Europe after Columbus’ voyages.
Attempts to combat typhus after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen

Many notable epidemics and pandemics involve transmission from animals to humans, zoonoses.

  • Influenza/wild aquatic birds
  • SARS-CoV/civet cats
  • MERS-CoV/deomedary camels
  • COVID-19/bats’
  • Avian influenza (bird flu)/birds in Vietnam (a pandemic in waiting)
During the Third Plague, researchers definitively proved that flea bites spread Bubonic plague

Writing about pandemics—or any disease, actually, you need to decide on:

  • Name, fictional or real
  • Disease type/ who’s most susceptible (childhood/ common/ rare) 
  • Cause (bacteria, virus, parasite, fungus, imbalance of bodily humors, witchcraft, divine intervention, etc.) 
  • Transmission (airborne, body fluids, food or water, touch, telepathy, miasma, etc.)
  • Virulence (how likely a person is to catch the disease after coming into contact with it) 
  • Length of the incubation period: a person could be showing symptoms and become infectious almost instantly or it could take years 
  • Symptoms of this disease
  • Whether it’s treatable and/or curable
  • How people react when they encounter someone with this disease
    • For a first-hand idea of what people thought during the Black Death, check out this Eyewitness to History!
Houses with sick inhabitants were marked for quarantine in London

BOTTOM LINE FOR WRITERS: pandemic are tried and true for creative fiction, whether historical or current, sci-fi or known world, mystery/action adventure or romance. Go for it!

Let’s end this on a more cheerful note:
Happy Saint Patricks Day!

GOOD READING ANYTIME

I’ll cut to the chase: when my husband and I talked about Black writers the other day, in the car, the following list rolled off the tips of our tongues. If you search the internet for African American writers, you will find all sorts of lists, from those who made the New York Times Bestsellers list to literally hundreds on Wikipedia arranged into categories. But here is our personal, not-so-big-as-to-be-overwhelming list of our favorite Black authors, and something we especially liked from each. (FYI: we didn’t think of them in alpha order! 😉 )

  • Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart
    • Born in Nigeria in 1930, Chinua Achebe made a splash with the publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, in 1958. Renowned as one of the seminal works of African literature, it has since sold more than 20 million copies and been translated into more than 50 languages.  Achebe followed with novels such as No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987), and served as a faculty member at renowned universities in the U.S. and Nigeria.  He died on March 21, 2013, at age 82, in Boston, Massachusetts.
    • Biography.com Editors
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Americanah
    • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977. She is the author of three novels, Purple Hibiscus (2003), Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), and Americanah (2013), of a short story collection, The Thing around Your Neck (2009). She has received numerous awards and distinctions, including the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction (2007) and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (2008).
    • The Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Website, written by Daria Tunca
  • Ama Ata Aidoo Changes: A Love Story
    • Born Christina Ama Ata Aidoo in 1942, was born in Abeadzi Kyiakor, Gold Coast, now Ghana. Combining traditional African storytelling with Western genres, she writes of the contemporary roles of African women and the negative impact of Western influences on African culture. Her first play, The Dilemma of a Ghost, was published in 1965. Her short stories, collected in No Sweetness Here and The Girl Who Can, and her novel, Our Sister Killjoy, expand on these themes, many of which mirror Aidoo’s own experiences. Her other works include the play Anowa, the poems of Someone Talking to Sometime; Birds; and Angry Letter in January; and a collection of children’s stories. The novel Changes: A Love Story (1991) explores a contemporary African marriage.
    • The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia
  • Maya Angelou I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
    • Born in 1928 in St Louis, Maya Angelou joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild in the late 1950’s. With the guidance of her friend, the novelist James Baldwin, she began work on the book that would become I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Published in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings received international acclaim made the bestseller list. The book was also banned in many schools during that time as Maya Angelou’s honesty about having been sexually abused opened a subject matter that had long been taboo in the culture. Later, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings would become a course adoption at college campuses around the world. Maya Angelou has wrote 36 books, including more than 30 bestselling titles, before her death in 2014.
    • The Legacy of Dr. Maya Angelou
  • Ayi Kwei Armah The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born
    • Ayi Kwei Armah is a Ghanaian novelist whose work deals with corruption and materialism in contemporary Africa. He worked as a scriptwriter, translator, and English teacher in the United States, among other places. In his first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968), Armah showed his deep concern for greed and political corruption in a newly independent African nation. All of Armah’s works are concerned with the widening moral and spiritual chasm that existed between appearance and reality, spirit and substance, and past and present in his native Ghana. He is also an essayist, as well as having written poetry, short stories, and books for children.
    • Encyclopedia Britannica: Ayi Kwei Armah written by Amy Tikkanen
  • Odafe Atogun Taduno’s Song
    • Odafe Atogun was born in Nigeria, in the town of Lokoja, where the rivers Niger and Benue meet. He studied Journalism at the Times Journalism Institute, Lagos and is now a full-time writer. His debut novel, Taduno’s Song, was selected for the BBC Radio 2 Book Club, and he has been compared favorably to Franz Kafka and George Orwell in critical reviews. Following his two-book deal with Canongate, Penguin Random House and Arche Verlag, Atogun’s second novel, Wake Me When I’m Gone, was published in 2017. His work has been translated into several languages.
    • Odafe Atogun press
  • Sefi Atta Everything Good Will Come
    • Sefi Atta was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1964 and currently divides her time between the United States, England, and Nigeria. She qualified as a Chartered Accountant in England, a Certified Public Accountant in the United States, and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Atta was a juror for the 2010 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and has received several literary awards for her works, including the 2006 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and the 2009 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. In 2015, a critical study of her novels and short stories, Writing Contemporary Nigeria: How Sefi Atta Illuminates African Culture and Tradition, was published by Cambria Press. Also a playwright, her radio plays have been broadcast by the BBC and her stage plays have been performed and published internationally.
    • Sefi Atta Official Website
  • Mariama Bâ So Long A Letter
    • Mariama Bâ was one of the pioneers of Senegalese literature. Born in Dakar in 1929, she was raised by her maternal grandmother, who was of Muslim confession and strongly attached to traditional culture. Through the insistence of her father, an open-minded politician, the young Mariama attended French school, obtained her school-leaving certificate, and won admission to the École Normale for girls in Rufisque, from where she graduated as a schoolteacher in 1947. She threw herself into the women’s movement to fight for greater recognition of women’s issues. Throughout her life, she tried to reconcile her grounding in her culture, her Muslim faith, and her openness to other cultural horizons. Towards the end of her life, her literary genius achieved full expression in So Long a Letter, a novel that directly confronted polygamy and the caste-system in Senegal – a predominantly Muslim country, firmly attached to its traditions, yet traversed by profound transformations, and confronted by the challenge of new models of society.
    • UNESCO: Women In African History – Mariama Bâ
  • James Baldwin Go Tell It On The Mountain
    • Born in Harlem in 1924, James Baldwin was the oldest of nine children.  His writing started as a way to escape his stern stepfather.  He graduated from high school in 1942 and moved to New Jersey to begin working as a railroad hand. In 1944, he moved to Greenwich Village where he met Richard Wright and began his first novel, In My Father’s House.  In 1953, he finished his important novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, which stands as a partially autobiographical account of his youth.  The following year he wrote the play, The Amen Corner and won the Guggenheim Fellowship. During the 1960’s, Baldwin became politically active in support of civil rights. Baldwin wrote novels, poetry, essays and a screenplay in the later years of his life. He died of stomach cancer at his home in St. Paul de Vence, France.
    • African American Literature Book Club – James Baldwin
  • Octavia Butler Kindred
    • Octavia Estelle Butler, often referred to as the “grand dame of science fiction,” was born in Pasadena, California on June 22, 1947. During 1969 and 1970, she studied at the Screenwriter’s Guild Open Door Program and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop, where she took a class with science fiction master Harlan Ellison (who later became her mentor), and which led to Butler selling her first science fiction stories. Butler’s first story, “Crossover,” was published in the 1971 Clarion anthology. With the publication of Kindred in 1979, Butler was able to support herself writing full time. She won the Hugo Award in 1984 for her short story, “Speech Sounds,” and in 1985, Butler’s novelette “Bloodchild” won a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, the Locus Award, and an award for best novelette from Science Fiction Chronicle. Other books by Octavia E. Butler include the Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989), and a short story collection, Bloodchild and Other Stories (1995). Parable of the Sower (1993), the first of her Earthseed series, was a finalist for the Nebula Award as well as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The book’s sequel, Parable of the Talents (1998), won a Nebula Award.
    • Octavia Butler: The official site of the Pen Lifetime Achievement and MacArthur award winning writer
  • Charles Chesnutt  The Conjure Woman
    • Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born in Ohio in 1858, the son of free blacks who had emigrated from Fayetteville, N.C. When he was eight years old, Chesnutt’s parents returned to Fayetteville, where Charles worked part-time in the family grocery store and attended a school founded by the Freedmen’s Bureau. In 1872, he began teaching in Charlotte, N.C. but returned to Fayetteville in 1877. Chesnutt married a year later, and by 1880 had become principal of the Fayetteville State Normal School for Negroes. Meanwhile he continued to pursue private studies of the English classics, foreign languages, music, and stenography. In 1883, he moved his family to Cleveland, where he passed the state bar examination and established his own court reporting firm. Financially prosperous and prominent in civic affairs, he resided in Cleveland for the remainder of his life. “The Goophered Grapevine,” an unusual dialect story that displayed intimate knowledge of black folk culture in the South, was Chesnutt’s first nationally recognized work of fiction. Its publication in the August 1887 issue of the Atlantic Monthly marked the first time that a short story by a black had appeared in that prestigious magazine. After subsequent tales in this vein were accepted by other magazines, Chesnutt submitted to Houghton, Mifflin a collection of these stories, which was published in 1899 as The Conjure Woman.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates The Water Dancer
    • Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates is an American author and journalist. Coates gained a wide readership during his time as national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he wrote about cultural, social, and political issues, particularly regarding African Americans and white supremacy. He was born in Baltimore in 1975, a member of a large, close-knit, politically active family. In addition to his nonfiction work, Coates has been a teacher, has written for Black Panther and Captain America comics, and published his first novel, The Water Dancer, in 2019.
    • The Official Website of Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Frederick Douglass Any of his autobiographies
    • Frederick Douglass was an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. At about the age of twelve or thirteen, Douglass purchased a copy of The Columbian Orator, a popular schoolbook of the time, which helped him to gain an understanding and appreciation of the power of the spoken and the written word, as two of the most effective means by which to bring about permanent, positive change. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York. Whenever he could he attended abolitionist meetings, and, in October, 1841, after attending an anti-slavery convention on Nantucket Island, Douglass became a lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and a colleague of William Lloyd Garrison. This work led him into public speaking and writing. He published his own newspaper, The North Star, participated in the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, in 1848, and wrote three autobiographies. 
    • The Frederick Douglass Society
  • W.E.B. DuBois The Souls of Black Folk
    • Scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois was an American civil rights activist, leader, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, educator, historian, writer, editor, poet, and scholar. He was born and raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1895.  DuBois was one of the most important black protest leader in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. He shared in the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He had two children with his wife, Nina Gomer. In 1963, he became a naturalized citizen of Ghana at the age of 95 – the year of his death.
    • NAACP History – W.E.B. DuBois
  • Alexandre Dumas The Three Musketeers
    • Born Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie (1802–1870), also known as Alexandre Dumas père, was a French writer. His grandmother was Marie-Cessette Dumas, a black slave in what is now Haiti. His works have been translated into many languages, and he is one of the most widely read French authors. Many of his historical novels of high adventure were originally published as serials, including The Count of Monte CristoThe Three MusketeersTwenty Years After, and The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later
    • Alexandre Dumas, Two Centuries of Living Literature
  • Ralph Ellison Invisible Man
    • Born in 1914 in Oklahoma City, the grandson of slaves, Ralph Waldo Ellison and his younger brother were raised by their mother, whose husband died when Ralph was 3 years old. His mother supported her young family by working as a nursemaid, a janitor and a domestic. Having earned a degree at Tuskegee University, Ellison was an American novelist, literary critic, and scholar best known for his novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953. He also wrote Shadow and Act, a collection of political, social and critical essays, and Going to the Territory.
  • Yaa Gyasi Homegoing
    • Yaa Gyasi (born 1989) is a Ghanaian-American novelist. Her debut novel, Homegoing, published in 2016, won her, at the age of 26, the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book, the PEN/Hemingway Award for a first book of fiction, the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” honors for 2016 and the American Book Award. She was awarded a Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature in 2020. Homegoing is her debut historical fiction novel, published in 2016. Each chapter in the novel follows a different descendant of an Asante woman named Maame, starting with her two daughters, who are half sisters, separated by circumstance: Effia marries the British governor in charge of Cape Coast Castle, while her half-sister Esi is held captive in the dungeons below. Subsequent chapters follow their children and following generations.
  • Bessie Head When the Rain Clouds Gather
    • Bessie Amelia Emery Head, known as Bessie Head, was a South African writer who, though born in South Africa, is usually considered Botswana’s most influential writer. Bessie Amelia Head never knew her real parents — an unstable white woman and an unknown black man. She was born and raised in apartheid South Africa. After spending several years in the field of education, she decided to work as a journalist for the Golden City Post. She experimented with poetry and fiction, and published her first story in The New African.  Despite the occasional financial aid from friends, the author lived in absolute poverty, forcing her to live in a refugee camp with her son. Her luck changed when a New York editorial offered her to write a novel, When Rain Clouds Gather (1969), in which she tells about the era she lived as a refugee. This book was met with positive reviews from critics, which encouraged her to continue her literary career with Maru (1971). She wrote novels, short fiction and autobiographical works that are infused with spiritual questioning and reflection.
  • Langston Hughes Any of his poetry and/or essay collections
    • James Mercer Langston Hughes was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri.  While working as a busboy in a hotel in Washington, D.C., in late 1925, Hughes put three of his own poems beside the plate of Vachel Lindsay in the dining room. The next day, newspapers around the country reported that Lindsay, among the most popular white poets of the day, had “discovered” an African American busboy poet, which earned Hughes broader notice. Hughes received a scholarship to, and began attending, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in early 1926. That same year, he received the Witter Bynner Undergraduate Poetry Award, and he published “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” in The Nation , a manifesto in which he called for a confident, uniquely black literature. After graduating, he traveled widely in the Soviet Union, Haiti, Japan, and elsewhere and served as a newspaper correspondent (1937) during the Spanish Civil War. Hughes documented African American literature and culture in works such as A Pictorial History of the Negro in America (1956) and the anthologies The Poetry of the Negro (1949) and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958; with Bontemps).  Hughes was one of the most important writers and thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance.
    • Academy of American Poets – Langston Hughes
  • Zora Neal Hurston Their Eyes Were Watching God
    • Zora Neale Hurston was an American author, anthropologist, and filmmaker. She portrayed racial struggles in the early-1700s American South and published research on hoodoo.  During Zora Neale Hurston’s career, she was more concerned with writing about the lives of African Americans in an authentic way that uplifted their existence, rather than focusing on their traumas. Her most celebrated work, 1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, is an example of this philosophy. It follows Janie Mae Crawford, a middle-aged woman in Florida, who details lessons she learned about love and finding herself after three marriages. Hurston used black Southern dialect in the characters’ dialogue to proudly represent their voices and manner.
  • Edward P. Jones Lost in the City
    • Edward P. Jones was born in 1950 and raised in Washington, D.C. A winner of the Pen/Hemingway Award and recipient of the Lannan Foundation Grant, Jones was educated at Holy Cross College and the University of Virginia. His first book, Lost in the City was originally published by William Morrow in 1992 and shortlisted for the National Book Award. Mr. Jones was named a National Book Award finalist for a second time with the publication of his debut novel The Known World which subsequently won the prestigious 2004 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
  • Dinaw Mengestu How to Read the Air
    • Dinaw Mengetsu is a Washington, DC-based American writer born in Ethiopia in 1978. In addition to three novels, he has written for Rolling Stone on the war in Darfur, and for Jane Magazine on the conflict in northern Uganda. His writing has also appeared in Harper’sThe Wall Street Journal, and numerous other publications. He is the Program Director of Written Arts at Bard College.  Since his first book was published in 2007, Mengetsu has received numerous literary awards, and was selected as a MacArthur Fellow in 2012. He is the author of three novels, most recently All Our Names. His debut novel, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, won the Guardian First Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was a New York Times Notable Book of 2007. His novel How to Read the Air, published in 2010, was the winner of the 2011 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence.
    • PEN America – Dinaw Mengetsu
  • Toni Morrison Beloved
    • Chloe Anthony Wofford, (1931-2019) was an American writer noted for her examination of black experience (particularly black female experience) within the black community. When Morrison was two years old, the owner of her family’s apartment building set their home on fire while they were inside because they were unable to afford the rent.  After earning her MA at Cornell University, Morrison taught at Howard University and then became the first black female editor of fiction at Random House Publishing. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. The critically acclaimed Song of Solomon brought her national attention and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 for her novel Beloved.
    • National Women’s History Museum – Toni Morrison
  • Trevor Noah Born a Crime
    • Born in South Africa in 1984, Trevor Noah’s father Robert is of Swiss German ancestry, and his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, is of Xhosa ancestry. Because interracial relations were illegal under Apartheid law, Noah’s mother was jailed and fined by the South African government. Patricia and her mother, Nomalizo Frances Noah, raised Trevor in the black township of Soweto. Trevor Noah has hosted numerous television shows including South Africa’s music, television and film awards, and two seasons of his own late night talk show, Tonight with Trevor Noah. In November 2016, Trevor Noah released his first book Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, which was an instant New York Times bestseller.
    • Official Site of Trevor Noah
  • Ben Okri The Famished Road
    • Ben Okri is a poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, aphorist, playwright, and writer of film-scripts. He was born in Nigeria in 1958 and came to England as a child. He went to school in London and returned to Nigeria with his parents on the eve of the Nigerian Civil War. The war made a defining impact on his life. After finishing secondary school, he wanted to study physics and become a scientist but was deemed too young then for university. He began writing at a very early age, poetry and published articles and essays about the living conditions of the poor in the slums of Lagos. In 1978, Ben Okri returned to London to study comparative Literature at Essex University. Two years later he published his first novel; and in 1982 came his second novel, The Landscapes Within. After a brief period of homelessness, in 1986 he published Incidents at the Shrine, a collection of stories that won him prizes and enhanced his reputation. The Famished Road won the Booker Prize when it was published in 1991.
    • Ben Okri Official Site
  • Alexander Pushkin Eugène Onegin
    • Born in Moscow in 1799, Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin was heavily influenced by his great-grandfather, Abraham Petrovitch Gannibal, who was kidnapped from Cameroon as a child and sold as a slave to the court of Tsar Peter the Great. As a frequent exile himself, Pushkin compared his experience as an outsider to that of a poet’s role as an observer. His unfinished novel The Moor of Peter the Great was meant to be a biography of his great-grandfather, but Eugène Onegin directly refers to Pushkin’s mixed racial background.
    • How Alexander Pushkin was Inspired by His African Heritage
  • Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka Death and the King’s Horsemen
    • Nigerian playwright and political activist Wole Soyinka was the first African recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. He was born in 1934 in Abeokuta, near Ibadan, into a Yoruba family and studied at University College in Ibadan, Nigeria, and the University of Leeds, England. Soyinka, who writes in English, is the author of five memoirs, two novels, and 19 plays shaped by a diverse range of influences, including avant-garde traditions, politics, and African myth. Soyinka’s poetry similarly draws on Yoruba myths, his life as an exile and in prison, and politics. An outspoken opponent of oppression and tyranny worldwide and a critic of the political situation in Nigeria, Soyinka has lived in exile on several occasions. During the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s, he was held as a prisoner in solitary confinement after being charged with conspiring with the Biafrans; while in exile, Soyinka was at one point sentenced to death (the sentence was later lifted). Soyinka has taught at a number of universities worldwide, among them Ife University, Cambridge University, Yale University, and Emory University.
    • Biography of Wole Soyinka
  • Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o A Grain of Wheat
    • Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, was born in Kenya, in 1938 into a large peasant family. In the 1950s, his family was caught up in the Mau Mau Uprising, an experience that influenced much of his later writing. His novel A Grain of Wheat was the first modern novel to be written in Gikuyu; all of Ngũgĩ ‘s work thereafter was written in Gikuyu and Swahili. The play Ngaahika Ndeenda, co-written with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii, was shut down by the Kenyan regime six weeks after its opening, and Ngũgĩ was imprisoned for over a year. While in exile following his release, he worked as a teacher, a writer, and an advocate for justice in Kenya and for native linguistic equality.
    • Website of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
  • Amos Tutuola The Palm-Wine Drinkard
    • Amos Tutuola was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in 1920. The son of a cocoa farmer, he attended several schools before training as a blacksmith. He later worked as a civil servant. His first novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, was published in 1952 and brought him international recognition. From 1956 until retirement, he worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Company while continuing to write. Many of his novels drew elements from Yoruba folktales as well as oral storytelling traditions. His last book, The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories, was published in 1990. He died in Ibadan in 1997.
    • Authors Calendar – Amos Tutuola
  • Abraham Verghese Cutting for Stone
    • Abraham Verghese was born in Ethiopia to parents from Kerala, India, who worked as teachers. He is the Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University Medical School and Senior Associate Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine. He is also the author of three best-selling books, two memoirs and a novel. The novel, Cutting for Stone (2009), follows twin brothers in Ethiopia during its military revolution and in New York, where one of them flees. In 2014, Verghese received the 19th Annual Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities.
    • Website of Abraham Verghese
  • Alice Walker The Color Purple
    • The author of short stories and novels, essays and poetry and activist for racial civil rights, women’s equality, and peace among other causes, Alice Walker brought black women’s lives into primary focus as a rich and important subject for US American literature. Her landmark novel The Color Purple (1982), which drew upon her sharecropper family’s Southern roots, made Walker famous and brought her the first Pulitzer Prize for fiction awarded to an African American woman, as well as the National Book Award. Walker’s introduction of the concept of “womanism” (1983) was an influential corrective to the focus on white women understood by many under the term “feminism;” it helped broaden the women’s movement to include women of color and appreciate their traditional cultural and creative roles. Walker has also been instrumental in rediscovering and promoting other Black women writers, past and present, most notably Zora Neale Hurston (1901-1960), whose work she edited and interpreted. Alice Walker has written seven novels, four collections of short stories, four children’s books, and volumes of essays and poetry.
    • Alice Walker’s Garden – About the Author  
  • Isabel Wilkerson The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
    • Born in Washington D.C. in 1961,  Isabel Wilkerson became the first woman of African-American heritage to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1994, while Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times. She devoted 15 years to the research and writing of The Warmth of Other Suns. Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,200 people, unearthed archival works, and gathered the voices of the famous and the unknown to tell the epic story of the Great Migration, one of the largest migrations in American history. During the Great Migration, millions of African Americans departed the Southern states to Northern and Western cities to escape Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and the failing sharecropping system. The book highlights the stories of three individuals and their journeys, from Florida to New York City, Mississippi to Chicago, and Louisiana to Los Angeles. Wilkerson’s in-depth documentation won her a National Book Critics Circle Award for the nonfiction work.
  • Richard Wright Native Son
    • Richard Nathaniel Wright (9/4/1908 – 11/28/1960) was born in Adams County, Mississippi into a life of poverty, and racial discrimination.  He was quoted as saying, “I was born too far back in the woods to hear the train whistle…” When he was fifteen, Wright knew he wanted to be a writer.  Known as a poet first, through his writing, his goal was to bring two worlds together, one Black and one White, and make them one.  His marriage to Ellen Poplar, a white woman, like his writing was controversial.  His most successful work, Native Son, a Chicago story about a Mississippi boy, Bigger Thomas, in New York had an autobiographical tone.  The author of 16 books, some of which include, Black BoyThe Outsider, and American Hunger, Richard Wright died mysteriously of a heart attack at the age of 52 in Paris, France.
    • African American Literature Book Club – Richard Wright

Bottom line for readers: Choose any of these authors you haven’t yet read and go for it!

THE ORIGINAL TWO-FACE

painting by Tommy Grist

No news here: January is named for the ancient Roman deity Janus

Although the date on which the new year “begins” has bounced around a bit (including Christmas, March 1, March 25, and Easter in the Christian calendar) the month of January has always been associated with Janus, the personification of transition and reflection.

The Janus Gates in Rome were traditionally opened in times of war and closed in times of peace.

In Ancient Rome, Janus was associated with doorways, gates, arches, and temporal transitions. Two faces on a single neck, facing opposite directions, represent his ability to see both past and future. His double face has also been seen as representing the end and the beginning of the year.

Another symbol of the new year from Roman and Greek mythology is the image of Jupiter/ Zeus slaying his father Saturn/ Kronos with a scythe. In doing so, according to legend, he freed his siblings and allowed a new generation of gods to assume control.

In short, there is a long tradition of the transition to a new year being an occasion to review the year(s) past and contemplate the year ahead. 

Writers: consider the character who mourns the loss of the year past, who dreads the year ahead—or both. By its very nature, a transition involves uncertainty, vulnerability, and promise.

Improve your ability to break out of jail, just like the comic book Janus!

Recently, my youngest daughter texted, “I’m not a big fan of resolutions. (In my mind they always seem to a passive aggressive indictment of who you are—you should be better!) But I do like to look back on the past year and set goals for the next. I guess it’s semantics, really.” Semantics or not, I think it says a lot about how one approaches the new year: a time to fix, repair, improve or as an opportunity to accomplish something(s).

And that brings me to the Sankofa bird. (There is a second symbol of Sankofa, a stylized heart, but here I will focus on the bird because of its parallels with Janus.) Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates loosely as “Go back and get it.” The basic elements of the Sankofa bird symbol are a plump bird whose body and feet face forward, long swan-like neck burns the head backwards, and an egg either on the bird’s back or in its mouth.

Even the loose translation from Twi can be interpreted several ways:

  • Go back and get it
  • Look, see, and take
  • Learn from the past
  • Looking back to look forward
  • Recognizing the knowledge and experiences of those who helped you achieve what you have
  • It is not an abomination to return and take what you forgot
  • All of these have basically the same meaning: gather good lessons from the past and use them to achieve future goals.
The Sankofa African Dance and Drum Ensemble

Bottom line for writers: Possible transitions for your characters are infinite: new job, relationship, location, loss of a loved one, landmark birthday, etc. Most years are a mix of good and bad: which weighs more heavily in your character’s review? Is s/he approaching the new year (or the time ahead) with hope and energy? Is s/he learning from the past or stymied by it?

2020 seems a perfect time to bring Janus and Sankofa into your characters’ lives!

GREETINGS!

The first known pre-printed Christmas card was published in London in 1843, for Sir Henry Cole to send to family and friends.

We in the U.S. are highly aware of greeting cards at this time of year—both the receiving and the sending. Dunbar and Hill (2003) conducted a study on social networks by studying Christmas card lists. They found that each household receives about 150 Christmas Cards, and sends an average of about 68 cards. Clearly, people are receiving more than they give! (Don’t ask me to explain how those numbers work.) The study did not include cards for Hanukkah, Solstice, Yule, Kwanzaa, and New Years, but all of these together make for a very busy Postal Service throughout December.

Since holiday-specific greeting cards are so widespread in the US at the moment, it’s worth taking a moment to think of how they might feature in your writing. If you’re already sick of holiday cheer, just wait for St. Valentine’s Day to be shoved down your throat!

Motivation Behind Christmas Cards  

According to my reading, Sir Henry Cole (see above) resorted to creating Christmas Cards because he had too many friends to write individual notes. I venture to assert that the time crunch is still a major factor in sending a greeting card rather than a letter. But that leaves open the question of who gets on someone’s card list in the first place. I seem to recall that once upon a time, cards were for people seldom seen—and thus unavailable to greet personally. Today?

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Neighbors
  • Work colleagues
  • Clients
  • Church family
  • Teachers
  • Students
  • Doctors/ nurses
  • Residents of nursing homes or hospitals
  • Active military
  • Members of social groups
  • Those who sent cards last year
  • That one person you don’t really like but gets a card just so you can use up the last of the 12-pack of cards you bought

This increasingly vague list leaves plenty of room for confusion and accidentally hurt feelings. Consider someone who sends a card but doesn’t receive one in return. Consider a child arguing with a parent over whether online cards are a suitable replacement for paper cards. If you really want to jerk some tears, consider an elderly character sending out cards to peers and seeing the list shrink a little more every year.

What Type of Card?

There is a huge variety of cards available, and the type of card sent could reveal as much about a character as the people they send those cards to. Religious ones, humorous ones, nature scenes, musical ones, pop-up ones. The first personalized Christmas card was sent in 1891 by Annie Oakley. She was doing sharp-shooter exhibitions in Scotland and sent cards back to friends and family in the U.S. featuring her picture—wearing tartan!

Should a character send a generic card with vaguely wintry scenes and vague wishes for general well-being? What about a character sending explicitly religious cards to recipients of a different faith or no faith at all? Why would a character choose to make dozens of cards by hand rather than grabbing a box off the drugstore shelf? Some families include newsletters with the card, letting friends and families know what they’ve been doing since last year’s holiday card. Why would a character send newsletters or photo collage cards?

Meaning of Holiday Cards for the Recipient 

When I was growing up, my mother, aunts, etc., knew exactly how many cards they received and how many they sent—sort of like being able to cite how many trick-or-treaters came by on Halloween. Christmas cards were typically displayed on stair banisters, windowsills, archways, mantels, etc. 

Could receiving holiday cards be a bad or unpleasant experience? What about a character receiving a card from someone they dislike? How about siblings or friends who see messages of boasting and rivalry in personalized cards? What might a character think after sending out dozens of cards and receiving none in return? How would someone who hates the entire holiday season react to all those reminders in the mail?

According to anthropologists, the number of holiday cards you receive reflects how many people care about you. That’s the premise of a 2003 study of social network size carried out by evolutionary anthropologists Robin Hill of the University of Durham and Robin Dunbar of Oxford and published in the journal Human Nature.  “In Western societies…the exchange of Christmas cards represents the one time of year when individuals make an effort to contact all those individuals within their social network whose relationships they value.”

Maybe I’m just being defensive, but I refuse to measure my circle of caring family and friends by the handful of seasonal greetings I receive. Just saying.

Holiday Cards are Big Business

Getting a definite count is tricky, depending on the year and what cards are included in the count. For example, one study asserted that 6.5 billion greeting cards are bought each year, at a total cost of more than U.S. $7 billion.  On the other hand, sales of holiday cards in the U.S. dropped from 1.8 billion in 2009 to 1.5 billion in 2011. Christmas Cards account for 61% of seasonal greeting card sales, followed by St. Valentine’s Day at a distant second of 25%.

And that doesn’t even include the USPS revenue! Imagine what a postal worker, especially a letter carrier, thinks about all that extra volume moving around the country. Both of the holidays most frequently celebrated with extra paper and postage happen during some of the most unpleasant weather. Do the holiday bonuses outweigh the extra weight in the satchel?

2019 UNICEF cards

And FYI: only 15% of cards are bought by men. Millions of dollars are raised for charities by Christmas Cards each year. For example, UNICEF launched their charity Christmas card program in 1949. Schools, research institutions, hospitals, food banks, and lots of other community organizations raise funds by selling holiday cards.

Some organizations also send cards to donors to encourage continued support the following year. Does it really count as a holiday greeting if it’s a reminder to send a check?

Well, I seem to have been caught up in a seasonal issue.  But bottom line for writers: what are your character’s attitudes and behaviors regarding holiday greeting cards?  Any phenomenon as ubiquitous as this can contribute to your characters and/or plots.

It’s the 5th night of Hanukkah!

Christmas Eve Then and Now

A previous version of this blog was posted on December 24th, 2015.

Alan Partridge in a Pear Tree

For centuries, the Christian holiday of Christmas was celebrated as a season rather than a single day. Beginning at sunset on Christmas Eve and continuing through the Eve of the Epiphany, the Twelve Days of Christmas were a time of parties, feasts, and gifts of milkmaids and birds.

Midnight Mass led by Pope Francis in Rome can now be watched online via traditional livestreaming services, as Catholics have done for centuries.

In predominantly Catholic countries (e.g., Spain, Mexico, Poland, and Italy), Midnight Mass is the most important service in the Christmas season. To celebrate the end of the Advent Season and its vigilant fasting, families often share a large Christmas dinner after the Midnight Mass Service. In other countries (e.g., Belgium, Finland, Lithuania, and Denmark), the meal is eaten before the Midnight Service.  

Tradition carried over from pagan days dictated that greenery such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe should only be brought into the house on Christmas Eve. Burning a Yule log, kissing under mistletoe, and guarding the house from evil spirits with holly are all pagan customs that have become entwined with Christmas.

In some European countries (e.g. Serbia and Slovakia), the Christmas tree is brought into the house and decorated on Christmas Eve, as well.  In Norway, the decorating of the tree is traditionally done by the parents behind closed doors while the children wait outside. “Circling the tree” follows, where everyone joins hands to form a ring around the tree and they walk around it singing carols. Gifts are distributed afterwards.  

In Germany, the Tannenbaum (Christmas tree) was traditionally decorated by the mother, in secret, with lights, tinsel, and ornaments. It was lit and revealed on Christmas Eve with cookies, nuts, and gifts under it.  

In the United States, the decorating of trees, houses, lawns, and people begins weeks before Christmas.

It is also common to go caroling on Christmas Eve. (Click here to read about the evolution of Christmas carols.) In the UK, if not caroling, perhaps wassailing or mumming.  

Another wide-spread custom is the hanging of Christmas stockings, preferably on the fireplace, since that’s where Santa Claus is supposed to enter. Traditionally, Christmas stockings are filled on Christmas eve.  

They’re cute, but I reeeeally hope I don’t find one in my stocking!
Saint Nicholas, as depicted in an Orthodox icon

Even the Smithsonian can’t trace the origins of hanging stockings, but clearly it was well-established by the time Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known as “The Night Before Christmas”). In Tuesday’s blog, I mentioned the legend that St. Nicholas provided dowries for three pious but impoverished sisters. One version of that legend has St. Nicholas coming down the chimney at night and putting a gold ball in the toe of each girl’s stocking, recently laundered and hung by the fire to dry.  

Of course families have their own traditions of activities, food, and decoration passed on from generation to generation. But one that is nearly universal is that the bringer of gifts now does so on Christmas Eve.  

Tovlis Babua (Grandfather Snow) distributes gifts and spreads Christmas cheer in many areas of the Caucasus. He is shown here working together with Santa Claus to form an unstoppable force of merriment.

P.S. I have focused on Christmas Eve from the Western Christian perspective. I urge you to explore more broadly, including Eastern celebrations and Jewish Christmas traditions!  

Darwin’s Christmas series

Christmas Trees and Greenery Putting Christmas into Carols How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus

I want to go to Santa School!

SIX FEET UNDER—OR NOT (LEGAL EDITION)

“Fantasy Coffins” are currently a very popular method of burial in Ghana.

Death is a big deal, both in real life and in fiction. And where there is death, there is (usually) a body to be disposed of. Most of us have a pretty clear idea of what happens when someone in the family dies.

In my family, the body is taken from the hospital to a local funeral home. It is embalmed and displayed in an open casket, sometimes a half casket. Relatives and friends gather to reminisce and grieve together during viewing hours at the funeral home. A memorial service is held at the funeral home or the deceased’s church, according to religious preferences. Everyone is then invited to proceed to the cemetery for a brief graveside service and burial in a family plot.  Friends and family are often invited to gather at a relative’s home to eat, drink, and be memorializing.

Fluffy white collars are the standard uniform at medical schools today.
(The Anatomy Lesson by Dr. Sebastiaan Egbertsz by Aert Pietersz)

But families differ. My father-in-law, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law all donated their bodies to medical schools. There was a memorial service near the time of death. When the cremains (cremated remains) were returned to the family (maybe as much as two years later!), there was a graveside service when the ashes are buried in a family plot, attended by immediate family and intimate friends.

I’ve also been involved in scattering the ashes of two friends, one on Cape Cod and one on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. In both cases, there was a memorial service soon after death and the ashes were scattered weeks or months later.

There is a growing trend in some places (Puerto Rico and New Orleans, for example) for “Extreme Embalming.” Rather than being laid out in a casket, the deceased is dressed and posed to be as lifelike as possible. These elaborate presentations are often the main attraction at huge, rowdy parties celebrating the deceased.

Party on!

In my personal experience, dead bodies have been disposed of in pretty unspectacular ways.

But Wait! There Are Options!

The first option comes before the body is actually disposed of: the body can be taken home until time for permanent disposal, as long as it can be kept cool, for example using dry ice.

WAYS TO DISPOSE OF A BODY LEGALLY

Artificial reef made with human ashes.

Watery Graves

  • Burial at sea, traditionally, meant a body wrapped in sailcloth and tied with weights to make sure it sank. Modern whole body burial at sea still occurs, and it involves the entire un-embalmed body being sunk in the ocean to great depths. Laws vary by jurisdiction.
  • Ship burial is a form of burial at sea in which the corpse is set adrift in a boat.
  • Reef casting, for example using Eternal Reefs, involves  mixing ashes with environmentally safe concrete. The resulting reef is placed in the ocean, where it becomes a habitat for sea life. Reefs range in price from $3,000 to $7,500, and there are locations for reef casting along the east and gulf coasts of the U.S.

Cremation And Its Alternatives

  • Traditional cremation is king, in the US and internationally. Although rare in the developed world until the late 19th century, it gained popularity following WWI. The body can be taken directly from the place of death to the crematorium. After the cremation, there are numerous options. Cremains can be scattered, buried, or neither (see below). 
  • Alkaline hydrolysis (aka water cremation): boiling water washes over the body constantly until the flesh, muscle, and organs liquefy. A chemical catalyst, usually potassium hydroxide, causes the decomposition. When complete, bleached bones and liquid human runoff remain.  After the body has been dissolved, the remaining bones are crushed into ash and returned to the family, much like the remains are returned after traditional cremation.  The system is 100% pollution free. It uses 1/10th the electricity of a traditional cremation. Because nothing is burned during the procedure, no toxic gases or air pollutants are produced, according to the Mayo Clinic, which uses the procedure in their anatomy department in Rochester, Minnesota. Check for current availability by state. For example, this option will be available in California in 2020.
Watch your loved ones explode!

Ashes To Ashes… Or To Something Else

  • Cremains from either method can be sent heavenward at a specified place in a biodegradable balloon. The balloon freezes at about 30,000 feet and bursts, releasing the ashes.
  • Cremains can be mixed with gunpowder for fireworks.
  • Bodies donated for medical education benefit physicians, dentists, nurses, and physical therapists. In addition, medical researchers use cadavers to develop surgical procedures. To the best of my knowledge, when the educational possibilities are exhausted, the remains are always cremated.
  • One can chose a facility that recycles heat generated by cremation to generate electricity.
  • Ashes can be launched into space if one has enough money and doesn’t mind contributing to space junk polluting the atmosphere.
Cremation art and jewelry from artists at Sands of Time
  • A portion of the cremains can be heated and pressed to make a diamond, costs varying by size, color, and cut of the stone. 
  • Turn human ashes into a vinyl record for about $3K. AndVinyly will use music or audio of your choice, with or without a photo on the cover.
  • Ashes can be incorporated into handcrafted glass art: jewelry, sun catchers, paperweight, etc., with or without ash showing.
  • Ashes can be stored in an urn or sculpture that looks like the dead person. 
  • Special tattoo techniques will allow a person to embed the ashes of a cremated loved one under their skin.
  • Artists can mix the cremains with paint or graphite to create portraits or murals honoring the deceased.

Buried, But Not Traditionally

  • “Burial” above ground is called immurement. For example, in New Orleans the high water level precludes ground burial; bodies are entombed above ground. But immurement occurs across the country in mausoleums.
  • Burial on private land is legal, but check local zoning laws. A funeral director is usually required to oversee the burial. If the person died of a contagious disease, embalming may be required.
  • “Green” or natural burial means the un-embalmed body is interred in biodegradable coffins or shrouds. There are no headstones, crypts, or even landscaping. Unlike a traditional burial, there are no plastic cushions, metal coffin parts, or embalming chemicals. Many green cemeteries even require metal tooth fillings, screws or plates on bones, pacemakers, etc. to be removed from the body.
  • Un-embalmed bodies can be buried in a suit made from mushrooms and other biodegradable organisms, allowed the corpse to become compost, with zero waste. You can get the suit or the shroud for $1500 or so and be buried in a biodegradable coffin or no container at all.
  • The remains of a cremated body (traditional or water cremation) might put into a biodegradable urn that is then buried with a tree seedling: dig a hole in a sunny place, fill with soil, wood chips, and the seedling. If you use Living Urn’s BioUrn, the urn comes with a proprietary growth agent and the seedling of your choice. Compatible trees include olive, birch, cherry, eucalyptus, and oak.
  • Promession—coming soon? Patented by a Swedish company and touted as an “ecological funeral,” it involves freezing the body with liquid nitrogen, vibrating it into small particles, freeze drying the particles, separating any metals, and placing the dry powder remains in a biodegradable casket in top soil.

Not Buried At All

  • Bodies donated to a body farm (aka outdoor forensic anthropology lab) for research purposes are sometimes not buried at all, but left to decompose naturally above ground. When they are buried, it’s likely to be atypical: for example, wrapped in plastic. The results of their studies help law enforcement agencies determine time and manner of death. They are also used to train cadaver dogs and search and rescue teams. There were seven body farms in the U.S. as of 2017.
  • Plastination is a process by which the body’s water and fat are replaced by plastics, which results in total preservation (i.e., the body doesn’t decay). Such bodies are often used in medical education, much as described above. Recently, hoards of people viewed the exhibit BodyWorlds.
  • Having the body cryonically frozen includes the possibility that, when medical science advances enough, the person can be thawed and revived.
  • Sky burials let animals eat the body. Dead bodies are placed on a mountain top to be eaten by scavenging animals or to decompose naturally. Traditionally practiced by some Native American groups using wooden scaffolding or tree limbs, it is currently common in parts of China, Tibet, Nepal, and parts of Northern India. Vajrayana Buddhism follow this practice because adherents believe the body has no use after death and might as well feed animals.
  • Composting a human body involves putting the body in a mix of wood chips, allowing thermophile microbes to decompose the flash and parts of the bones. At the time of this writing, in the U.S. it is legal only in Washington State.
Talk in class, and he may open the closet door.
  • Taxidermy is chosen by a few people: for example, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who had his dead body stuffed. His head, however, was mangled in a botched attempt at New Guinea mummification techniques and is now stored separately from the body. In accordance with his will, Bentham’s stuffed body (with a wax head) was posed and kept in a closet at University College of London.

Historic Means Of Disposal

Roman Catacombs
  • Mummification
  • Dismemberment, in which the body is divided. Historically, this was a form of execution, but sometimes body parts were separated and disposed of individually.
    • Catholic saints were occasionally dismembered so that multiple holy sites could store a piece of the saint’s body, usually in finely crafted reliquaries.
    • Members of the Habsburg royal family were entombed in the Capuchin Crypt with hearts and heads often stored separately.
    • Several ancient catacombs, including those under Paris and Rome, separated skeletons after death and stored bones by type.
  • Mass graves resulting from war, genocide, or natural disasters.
  • Plague pits to try to stop the spread of disease.

Be Aware Of Restrictions

Jewish funeral law requires that every corpse be buried.
  • Various religions and cultures have funeral rites that govern the disposal of a body. For example, some require that all parts of a body are buried together. Among other things, members of these groups cannot be organ donors.
  • Many jurisdictions have laws regulating the disposal of human bodies. Although it may be legal to bury a deceased family member, the law may restrict the locations in which they can be buried. In some cases, burials are limited to property controlled by specific, licensed institutions.
  • In many places, failure to properly dispose of a body is a crime.
  • In some places, it is a crime to fail to report a death and to fail to report the disposal of the body.

Bottom Line for Writers: Before you kill off a character, consider how you’ll get rid of the body. When I started this blog post, I envisioned a few headings, each with a few bullets below. But it just grew! I hope it held your personal interest and/or generated some plot ideas!

Coming Next Week: How to get rid of a body illegally!

DEATH TRAP

Who doesn’t want people to be safe in their homes? Writers!  Injury and death are bread and butter for writer. But even if you aren’t a writer, you should read what follows to help protect yourself and your family from these dangers. I’ll start with the more innocuous or less common hazards. Consider the following.

Accidents

  • Extension cords:
    • Extension cords cause about 3300 residential fires each year, injuring or killing more than 300 people. If used continuously, insulation deteriorates fast. Even if not in use, extension cords left lying around can present a hanging or choking hazard for children.
  • Mothballs:
    • They are actually little balls of pesticide. They can cause a breakdown in red blood cells in children with certain genetic diseases (such as Glucose-6 Phosphate Dehydrogenase Deficiency). In addition, exposure can lead to nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, headaches, and eye and nasal irritation in humans; kidney and liver damage in pets.  
    • Mothballs can be huffed for a brief high caused by the dichlorobenzene or naphthalene, either of which can lead to addiction, brain damage, and death.
    • NB, not as common in homes as they used to be.
  • Humidifiers: 
    • Water left to sit in the humidifier for long periods of time become rife with mold spores, fungus, and bacteria.
    • Ultrasonic humidifiers can be particularly dangerous, because they aerosolize and disperse as a mist everything that might be in water, including chemicals, minerals, bacteria, and mold.
  • Pressed wood: 
    • Products made from hardwood plywood, particleboard, or fiberboard are often made with formaldehyde. Prolonged exposure can cause watery eyes, burns ins eyes and/or throat, asthma attacks, and cancer in animals and perhaps in humans.
This little party crasher might be hanging around in your living room.
  • Carpeting:
    • New carpet can emit potentially dangerous chemicals  called volatile organic components. Any carpet can trap dust mites, pet dander, mold, dirt, etc., all of which are hard on respiratory systems.
  • Lead:
    • Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over months or years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems.
    • Lead paint was commonly used in homes built before 1978. Toys and furniture made in countries with less stringent health safety protocols may still be covered in lead paint.
    • In very old houses (1920s and earlier), original plumbing may be made of lead, causing all the water coming into the house to be contaminated.
    • Children younger than 6 years are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal.
  • Polycarbonate plastics:
    • This is most dangerous when used to make food storage containers. The problem is the degradation of the chemical bisphenol (BPA) when it comes in contact with water. Health agencies have gone back and forth on the dangers of BPA, but studies have linked it to disruptions in the endocrine system and ultimately to cancer.
  • Flame retardants, which seem like they are good things, actually have a downside: most contain toxins that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, diminished I.Q., and other problems.
  • Space heaters:
    • More than 25,000 home fires every year, especially those that don’t have an emergency tip-over feature and don’t have eating element guards. They are especially dangerous for children and pets.
  • Houseplants:
    • Many common varieties of houseplants, kept for air purification, beautification, or even medicinal purposes, are toxic to humans and animals in the wrong context. While most adults can be trusted not to eat the leaves, chew on the roots, or drink the water from random pots around the house, the same may not be true of children and pets.
    • Philodendron, peace lilies, oleanders, pothos, and caladium are among the most common houseplants, and all are poisonous to humans and pets.
  • Christmas trees:
    • The combination of dry winter air, hot light bulbs, and paper or wooden ornaments make for a perfect storm of conflagration. Add in tinsel, paper-wrapped boxes, and the tendency of many families to leave the tree lights on overnight, and it’s surprising that there aren’t even more house fires and deaths every year.
    • Fires caused by Christmas trees are among the most deadly house fires: approximately one out of every 34 home fires caused by a Christmas tree results in a death.
    • Decorative or scented holiday candles can be quite deadly as well. The top three days for fires caused by unsafe candles are Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
Asbestos removal is a very complicated process.
  • Other possibilities: 
    • Asbestos, carbon dioxide, radon, cuts, slip and fall accidents, carbon monoxide, unbalanced heavy furniture, stairs, throw rugs, icy walkways, mixing up the sugar and the rat poison…
I’m not sure if this counts as a home injury or a vehicle accident.

Leading Causes of Unintentional Home Injury

Children and the elderly are at greatest risk.

  1. Falls: more than 40% of nonfatal home injuries; more than one third of unintentional home injury deaths.
  2. Poisoning: most unintentional home poisoning deaths are of adults and are caused by heroin, appetite suppressants, pain killers, and narcotics. Other frequent poisons are amphetamines, caffeine, antidepressants, alcohol, motor vehicle exhaust gas, etc.
    • Children under 5 have the highest rates of non-fatal poisoning, often from exposure to substances not typically thoughts of as poisonous.
    • “Hidden” poisons can be found in household and cleaning products; personal care and beauty products; medicines, vitamins, plants, and lead paint.
  3. Fires/burns: the third leading cause of unintentional home injury and death. Death rate is highest among senior citizens and —again—children under five. A huge percentage of burns are from hot water. Depending on water heater settings, tap water can be hot enough to cause second-degree burns.
  4. Choking and suffocation: the leading cause of death for infants under the age of one. An average of one child a month dies due to strangulation from a window chord.
  5. Drowning/submersion: 80% are children under age 4, mostly in bathtubs and swimming pools. Because they are top-heavy, a toddler can drown in a bucket, in as little as two inches of water.
Two inches of water or six feet of bubbles!

Intentional Harm

People are more likely to be killed by people they know than by a stranger, and it will probably be in the victim’s home. 

As of 2017, 12.3% of homicide victims were killed by family members, 28.0% were killed by someone they knew other than family, and only 9.7% were killed by strangers. In 50% of cases, the relationship between the victim and the offender were unknown. Chances are, at least some of those were family or acquaintance homicides.

Approximately 39% of victims were murdered during arguments or as a result of romantic triangles. Another 24.7% of murders were committed in conjunction with another crime such as rape, robbery, burglary, etc.

More than 72% of the known weapon homicides involved firearms, primarily handguns.

  • Violence against women—Domestic violence is the #1 cause of injury to women, more than all the rapes, muggings, and car accidents in a given year.
    • One out of every four women in the U.S. will be injured by a husband/lover during her lifetime.
    • 64% of women killed each year are murdered by family or lovers.
  • Violence against children—Calls to Child Protective Services received 3-4 million reports of alleged abuse in 2011: 79% neglect, 18% physical abuse, 9% sexual abuse.
    • Babies under the age of one were assaulted most often. Of child victims in 2011, 82% were younger than four.
    • Children in violent homes have sleeping, eating, and attention problems.
    • Abused children are more withdrawn, anxious, and depressed than non-abused children.
Pictured above: not a neglected or abused child. Still, railings are a good thing.

Bottom Line For Writers: whether accidental or intentional, injury and death are fertile ground for tension, emotion, and upping the stakes. 

This definitely looks intentional.