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.

THE JOYFUL SIDE OF THE SEASON: TRADING HALLOWEEN FOR THE DAY OF THE DEAD

For more than a month, people have been bombarded with ads, displays, and commercials about things to buy for Halloween: costumes, candy, house decorations, yard displays, etc., etc., etc. Indeed, more money is spent on Halloween than any other holiday except Christmas—which I find pretty horrifying in and of itself. 

This insanity is what inspired Tim Burton to write Nightmare Before Christmas.

But that’s just the tip of the horror: evil witches, vampire bats, the walking dead, haunted houses, werewolves, and not-nearly-as-friendly-as-Casper ghosts. The scary side of the season is why the previous four blogs on this website have been about evil twins, being buried alive, satanism, and vampires.

Hard on the heels of Halloween comes Dia de Muertos, The Day of the Dead (though it seems to me it ought to be Days, plural). It begins at midnight on October 31 and continues through November 1 and 2.

  • Writers please note:although November 1 and 2 coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day, respectively, the Day of the Dead is not now tied to any particular religion. It is more of a cultural holiday than a religious one. 

Scholars have traced the modern holiday back hundreds of years, particularly to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. People can, and have, personalized it, integrating elements into their own cultural and/or religious practices. It is nearly opposite of all that Halloween stands for.

A representation of Mictlantecuhtli, also known as the Divine Mother or Santa Muerte Narco

In Aztec mythology, Mictlan was the underworld and after-death destination for the majority of people. The ruler of Mictlan was
Mictlantecuhtli, who held the bones used to create all of humanity.
Mictlancíhuatl was his wife, who watches over the souls of the dead.

A popular costume is La Catrina, a character that was created by Mexican lithographer and illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913). La Catrina is a female skeleton who is dressed in the style of upper-class women of the period.

Dio de Muertos is celebrated throughout Mexico, especially the central and southern regions. It is also celebrated by people of Mexican heritage worldwide. Although the details of the celebration vary by location, the central elements are the same: celebrating the lives of those who have died with feasting, parties, costumes, and activities the dead enjoyed in life.

October 31 is usually devoted to preparing to welcome the souls of loved ones. A home altar is created, decorated with candles and lots of food and drink: fruits, peanuts, turkey mole, tortillas, and Day of the Dead breads (pan de muerto) ; sodas, cocoa, and water. These offerings are called ofrenda, though that can also refer to the altar itself. The breads often have icing that resembles and bones across the top. Buckets of flowers, especially wild marigolds (cempasúchitl), are used as well.


Copal incense was burned in Mesoamerica in ancient times.
The word copal is derived from the Nahuatl word copalli, which means “incense.”

Traditional altars include very specific elements, each with a distinct purpose.

  • A candle for each relative remembers, so that the light will guide them.
  • Flowers to represent the fleetingness of life.
  • Salt and water to purify and refresh the souls tired from the journey.
  • Copal incense to raise prayers to God.
  • A photo or drawing of each relative, often with a favorite piece of clothing or toy.
An ofrenda for a young child

The holiday begins when the souls of dead children and miscarried babies are allowed to return to their families for twenty-four hours, on Día de los Inocentes. Toys, candies, and miniature skulls are added to the home altars for these angelitos.  On November 2, the spirits of adults arrive. The miniature skulls are replaced by full-sized ones. For adults, the altar includes cigarettes, shots of mezcal, and/or the favorite drink of the dead person(s).

A small
calavera de azucar (sugar skull) for a small child’s ofrenda

Sugar art was learned from Italian missionaries in the 17th century, who made sugar lambs and angels to adorn altars in Catholic Churches at Easter. Clay molded sugar skulls, angels, and sheep date back to the 18th century. As described on mexicansugarskull.com, “Sugar skulls represented a departed soul, had the name written on the forehead and was placed on the home Ofrenda [altar] or gravestone to honor the return of a particular spirit.”  According to the same source, “Sugar skull art reflects the folk art style of big happy smiles, colorful icing and sparkly tin and glittery adornments.”

Now they are represented by jewelry and masks.

Typically, the holiday activities includes a trip to the cemetery/graveyard where loved ones are buried. Besides clean-up and maintenance of the gravesite, these visits include a party, often with local music, games, card playing, feasting, and decorating the graves.

Families at a cemetery in Oaxaca

Although a Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead is celebrated worldwide. In the United States, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona feature pretty traditional celebrations.

These Catrinas dressed like Adelitas, women who fought in the Mexican Revolution.

California, too, has strong historical ties to Mexico and Dia de Muertos is celebrated widely across the state—though the celebrations sometimes add a political element, such as an altar to honor the victims of the Iraq War.

The parade in Mexico City this year honored migrants who have died.

Virtually every big city has a festival and events. For example, the historic Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood hosts an annual festival celebrating the cycle of life and death. People bring food, flowers, pictures, and mementos to add to a huge decorated altar. It includes traditional music and dance.

Jamaica Plain, Boston

Bottom line for writers: consider a scene involving Day of the Dead celebrations. Perhaps it is a tradition for one or more characters, or perhaps the protagonist just happens to be in a city where the celebration is taking place. Think broadly!


SEE SOMETHING, DO SOMETHING—MAYBE

Kitty Genovese

The March 13, 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese led to an entirely new field of research in psychology.  Genovese was attacked while walking home from work at 3:20 a.m. in Queens, New York.  She was stabbed, sexually assaulted, and murdered over a period of 30 minutes.  Subsequent reports said 38 witnesses watched the attack from nearby apartments but neither intervened nor even called the police until the attacker fled.  Kitty Genovese died on the way to a hospital.

 

Two psychologists, Bibb Latané and John Darley, conducted extensive research to examine and try to explain such apparently callous indifference to the suffering of another human being.  Over time, these and other researchers teased out several factors that will affect the likelihood of bystander intervention.

 

  • Diffusion of responsibility is one of the earliest and most powerful variables identified: the more people who are bystanding, the less likely it is that anyone will intervene.  Responsibility is diffused among all.
    • Contrarily, Philpot et al. just this year published the results examining real-life video recordings from three countries and found that someone intervened in over 90% of cases.  Even if the likelihood of any one person responding was infrequent, someone in the crowd intervened.

 

Note the lack of assistance offered by the bystander

  • Emergency vs. non-emergency situations. The following conditions are relevant.
    • Notice that something is going on.
    • interpret the situation as an emergency.  Others not reacting provides social influence against acting,
    • Feel responsible: does the victim deserve help, is the bystander competent, what is the bystander’s relationship to victim.
    • The form of assistance needed (e.g., medical emergency, harassment protection, etc.).
    • Implement the action choice.

CPR? Thermal blankets? Take away the vodka?

  • Ambiguity and consequences: ambiguous situations take up to five times as long to respond to, and even then bystanders will often not intervene until after assessing their own safety.

 

No one will slip or fall. There is no room to land.

  • Cohesiveness and group membership: the more cohesive a group, the more likely it is that the norm of social responsibility will lead to helping.  Bigger cohesive groups are quickest to react.

 

When punching a small child is perfectly acceptable

  • Cultural differences affect intervention—both broad/national culture and subculture.

 

Taking a photo is far more important than looking for survivors.

  • Digital interference is a relatively new phenomenon.  With the spread of cell phones and social media, bystanders at a scene are becoming more likely to try to film the incident (whether as “armchair activism” or simply to attract online attention) than they are to intervene or call for help.  This has the doubled impact of overloading nearby cell towers so that actual phone calls to emergency services are not connected.

Plus, it makes you look like a total jerk!

Bystander apathy can be counteracted by raising awareness of bystander effects ad consciously taking steps to overcome it and help; and victims can overcome the diffusion of responsibility in groups by singling out a single member and asking for help from that one person.

 

In 2011, Muslims and Christians in Tahrir Square took turns forming protective circles to allow the others a safe place to pray.

Bottom line for writers: make your readers understand why your character does or does not intervene!

 

Any kind of intervention was clearly doomed.

Revisiting Obedience

immigrant camps texas
[Source: OIG]

Last night I heard interviews with lawyers who recently visited the immigrant detention centers along the U.S./Mexico border. The conditions they reported were deplorable—inhumane, even. But what i want to focus on here is their observations that the border agents trying to do their jobs are massively stressed. So why do they stay there, doing what they’re doing?

 

This seems an appropriate time to remind writers that human motivation—and thus characters’ motivations—are complex things. What sort of SOB would do such things?

More than 1,000 people gather at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, to protest President Donald Trump's order that restricts immigration to the U.S., Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017, in Seattle. President Trump signed an executive order Friday that bans legal U.S. residents and visa-holders from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S. for 90 days and puts an indefinite hold on a program resettling Syrian refugees. (Genna Martin/seattlepi.com via AP)
[Source: Concord Monitor]
You can find stories all over the internet of people increasingly being treated inhumanely while trying to enter the U.S.—preschoolers being handcuffed, weeping mothers and young children separated for hours at a time, people held for twenty hours without food… Sometimes such stories suggest that it’s because of the things Pres. Trump says and does. His supporters are likely to reply, “No way in hell would he order such things! These are the acts of a few sick individuals.”

 

As writers, we don’t need to prove or disprove either of these causes. As writers, we know that almost anyone is capable of almost any act if the motivation is sufficient. What we may not have considered is just how easily ordinary people can be led to do extraordinary things.  
 
[Source: Harvard Psychology]
In 1963 Stanley Milgram first published his research on obedience to authority figures. The beginning of his research (1961) was with the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. He started with the question, “Could it be that Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders?”
 
The short answer is “Yes.” A very high proportion of people would fully obey the instructions, even if reluctantly, even if the acts ran counter to their own consciences.
 
[Source]
[Source]
The basic paradigm was that the subject thought he was the teacher, assisting the experimenter by delivering electric shocks to a learner whenever the learner gave a wrong answer. With each wrong answer, the apparent shock level was increased, finally to a point where the shocks—if real—would have been fatal. In the initial experiment, 65% of subjects gave the maximum shock level at least three times.

 

sadist sob stanley milgram
[Source: Pacific Standard]
The important thing to remember is that the experimenter had no real authority over the subject delivering the shocks. The experimenter wasn’t a parent, a supervisor, a friend, a lover. The subject was not physically restrained from leaving. You can read all about it, in detail, in his 1974 book.

 

stanley milgram book 1974
[Source: HarperCollins]
Variations on the original experiment revealed that a less official looking setting decreased obedience slightly. When the teacher was physically closer to the learner, the level of compliance decreased—but even when the teacher had to physically hold the supposed learner’s hand on what was supposed to be a shock plate, 30% completed the experiment. When the experimenter was physically farther away, compliance decreased. For example, when the experimenter gave instructions over the phone, compliance dropped to 21%. There was no significant difference in results when all women were used.

 

To write convincingly about obedience, it’s important to note that the people were greatly stressed by what they were doing. They objected verbally, questioned the experimenter, and reported high levels of distress when debriefed.
 
So, can we conclude that someone is telling people to get rough with those trying to enter the United States? NO! 
 
[Source: TED]
Enter Philip Zimbardo. In 1971 he conducted The Stanford Prison Experiment. It was specifically intended to investigate issues of the relationships between prisoners and guards. Did the behaviors of prisoners and guards reflect inherent personality differences between the two groups?

 

Volunteers for a two-week prison experiment were screened and those with criminal backgrounds, psychological impairment, or medical problems were excluded. The research team chose 24 men they deemed most psychologically stable and healthy. Participants were paid $15 per day (the equivalent of $92.91 in 2018).

 

The subjects were randomly divided into prisoners and guards.

 

stanford prison experiment
[Source: HowStuffWorks]
The guards were instructed not to physically harm the prisoners or withhold food or drink, but Zimbardo emphasized that “…in this situation we’ll have all the power and they will have none.” Guards were told to call prisoners by their assigned numbers rather than their names. But otherwise, guards improvised their roles. Prisoners were given no instructions.

 

prison experiment
[Source: SF Gate]
On the second day the three prisoners in one cell rioted, blocked the door with their beds, tore off their caps, and refused to come out or obey the guards. Guards from other shifts agreed to  work overtime to quell the riot and eventually they attacked the prisoners with fire extinguishers (while not being supervised by research staff).

 

sadist stanford prison experiment
[Source: Daily Maverick]
The experiment was terminated after only 6 days. By then, about a third of the guards had exhibited “genuine sadistic tendencies”; prisoners were emotionally traumatized and five of them had to be removed from the experiment early. You can read about this experiment in any social psychology textbook. Online you can also view video clips.

 

Arguably, the most important outcome of the study is that the behavior of two equivalent groups diverged dramatically after one was labeled “guards” and the other was labeled “prisoners.” 
 
To answer the initial question of what sadistic SOB would do such a thing: the perfectly ordinary, likable, friend, colleague, or neighbor.
 
As a writer, keep that in mind as you create characters behaving badly.

Besides the Cake: A Successful Book Launch Party

On Saturday I attended a great launch party for Deadly Southern Charm. Since then, I’ve mulled over what made that event such a success. Yes, there were refreshments, but that was just the icing on the cake, so to speak.

 

Before the main event. This book is an anthology, with stories by eighteen authors, so there was lots of online hype leading up to the event itself: Facebook, Twitter, etc. In this case, the authors did guest blogs as well. One way and another, invite anyone and everyone you know! The book’s contributors were actively engaged in this, and most were present to celebrate their success.

 

This launch was held at Libby Mill Library—just the right venue: not too big and cavernous, not cramped, with plenty of free parking. Libraries seem an obvious place for book launches, but depending on the book and author(s), it could be a school, bookstore, rented space, or private home.

 

Door prizes, while not strictly necessary, added to the party atmosphere. If I am recalling correctly, all of the giveaways were books, mostly by the authors who contributed to the anthology. The prizes were handled by Frances Aylor, president of the Central Virginia Chapter of Sisters in Crime. As it happened, my name was the first one drawn, and I came away with a mystery by Lisa Scottoline that I’m greatly looking forward to reading.

 

Actually, for me, the meat of the event was the prepared remarks. In this case, it wasn’t the author(s) saying a bit about the work—although that’s a classic program. It was a panel of three experienced, successful writers examining the length of the work as it relates to publication.
Left to right: Lynn Cahoon focused on novellas and shorter novels; Barb Goffman discussed short stories; and Mary Burton addressed issues of longer novels. They provided lots of insights and shared experiences, everything from creating series characters to whether one needs an agent to how productive one must be to earn a living as a writer. Cahoon and Goffman contributed to the anthology and Burton is a co-editor.

 

The panel was well organized. Kris Kisska, program chair for SinC/CVA, moderated, presenting each panelist with questions appropriate to the area she was presenting. Between the great questions and the thorough answers, there were few questions left for the audience to ask! She also recognized and thanked everyone who worked behind the scenes to make the event such a success.

 

besides cake successful book launch party
There were plenty of books available for purchase. Fountain Bookstore is an indie here in Richmond that’s well-known for supporting local writers. They handled book sales at the launch. The most in-demand book was, of course, Deadly Southern Charm, but they also had other books by SinC members.

 

Last but not least, signing tables were set up around the periphery of the room so that all the contributors present could comfortably participate.

 

Bottom line: there you have it, a model for a successful launch party!
 
And if you want more options, including on-line book launch, just Google it.

Need Help with Summer Reading?

Last week I wrote about some of the classic books that PBS suggested people read (or love) the most. But if you’re looking for a new book or genre to read, Goodreads has a list of suggestions for you.

[Source: Goodreads]
Goodreads has brought in Lori Hettler, the founder and moderator of The Next Best Book Club, to put together a couple of curated lists of summer reading challenges. The two lists are broken up into sub-categories to help you make it through the challenge.

List 1: Beginner Level

  • Summer-related tasks
  • Tasks to stretch your comfort zone

List 2: Expert Level

  • June Reads
  • July Reads
  • August Reads
  • What to read during any month to stretch your reading comfort zones

These two lists include broader challenges (i.e., reading a book of poetry) to more specific tasks (i.e., reading a book that features a yellow, green, or “sandy” cover).

This could be a great challenge for people who feel like their reading list is lagging or that they’re stuck in a rut, reading in the same genre.

Have you started this Goodreads challenge? What list are you using and what reading task are you most looking forward to?

need help summer reading