WHEN PEOPLE ARE STRESSED OR ANXIOUS

And who isn’t, these days? But a pandemic isn’t the only trigger for defense mechanisms.  For example, the death of a loved one, loss of a job, life-threatening illness, relocation, demotion . . . the possibilities are endless. So, for you reading pleasure and maybe your writing of believable characters, here’s a quick overview of ways people cope with thoughts, feelings, or acts that are too psychologically painful to tolerate.

Hulk throws the ultimate temper tantrums.

Acting Out 
Performing an extreme behavior when a person cannot otherwise express thoughts or feelings. A child’s temper tantrum would be one example. Hurting oneself is one form of acting out—cutting or burning oneself, literally banging one’s head against a wall.

Aim Inhibition
Rather than admit to failure, a person accepts a more modest goal. Think of someone who had hopes for a career in the NFL who becomes a high school coach.

If he can’t be the Flash, at least he can be Whizzer!

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Altruism
Rather than admit having no control over a situation, a person copes by helping others, perhaps compulsively. This is a person who needs to be needed and may promote helplessness in those close to him/her.

The Angel had such a strong compulsion to help everyone that Dr. Charles Xavier of the X-Men diagnosed him with “heropathy” (not an actual disease).

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Avoidance
Refusing to deal with the situation. In the current pandemic, choosing not to watch the news, read the newspapers, or respond to online postings.

Deadpool has been using running and laughing to avoid his horrible life situations since he was a child.

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Compartmentalization
Keeping different parts of one’s life in separate compartments, often with different moral guidelines. For example, someone who lies, cheats, steals, or hurts others to make a living but is unfailingly kind, helpful, and loyal to family and loved ones. Another example would be someone who enjoys extramarital sex but would never have “an affair” because that involves emotional intimacy and thus would be “cheating.”

Matt Murdock is a blind defense lawyer by day and the superhuman illegal vigilante Daredevil by night.

Compensation
Overachievement in one area because of failure in another. For example, throwing oneself into professional achievement because of failure of a marriage or intimate relationships. Or the opposite: not making it professionally and then becoming a helicopter parent.

Hartley Rathaway was born deaf and became obsessed with sound manipulation, eventually becoming the Pied Piper.

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The Amazons on Themyscira spent centuries denying the existence of any world outside their island paradise.

Denial
Basically, this is saying it isn’t so.  “There is no pandemic. It’s all a hoax—or an exaggeration.”  “It isn’t that dangerous.” Addicts often deny that they have a problem.

Displacement
Taking out frustrations, feelings, or impulses on people or objects that are less threatening. It usually applies to displaced aggression. The classic example is the boss criticizes the employee, the employee yells at his/her spouse, the spouse scolds the child, and the child kicks the dog. Of course, the person might just abuse the child or pet. Or one might smash a fist into the wall or break something.

Reed Richards “Mr. Fantastic” frequently expressed his frustrations with the world by beating his wife and children. This panel occurred immediately after such an outbreak.

Dissociation
Mentally separating oneself from one’s body or environment in order to keep an overwhelming experience at a distance. An example would be someone unhappy with his/her job has trouble concentrating at work, frequently “daydream” or finding his/her mind wandering.

Trance used her astral projection ability to escape the demonic Limbo pocket dimension and get help.

Fantasy
Retreating to a safe place in one’s mind. If one can’t find relief in fantasizing about being turned into a movie star or whatever, you can get much the same effect by binge reading or tv watching or gaming.

Michael Jon Carter hated his life in the 25th century, so he traveled back in time with stolen gadgets to live out a fantasy life as the superhero Booster Gold in the 20th century.

Humor
Seeing the funny or ironic side of any situation. This is actually a pretty adaptive way to handle stress and anxiety. For example, wearing a face mask with giant mustache attached or creating silly photo shoots of pets in quarantine.

Spiderman is a master of using bad jokes to torture his enemies.

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Dr. Manhattan is so brilliant that he loses all touch with humanity.

Intellectualization
Focusing on the problem/problematic thoughts in a cold, factual way. For example, putting the current pandemic into the context of  pandemics through the ages, how devastating they were, how they were transmitted, how they were dealt with, etc.

Passive Aggression
This is often the refuge for someone who can’t express anger or aggression directly (by scolding, hitting, etc.). For example, a teenager who is assigned a chore, such as mopping the kitchen floor, who begins by asking a gazillion questions about where to find and how to use the necessary equipment, then doesn’t sweep before starting, then mopping around the table rather than under it, and finally leaving soap scum behind.

Emma Frost generally straddles the line between passive-aggressive and aggressive-aggressive, depending on her allies.

Projection
Ascribing one’s unacceptable qualities, thoughts, or feelings to others. Think Donald Trump accusing reporters of being rude.

Harley Quinn projected her brainwashing and Stockholm Syndrome onto Flash and tried to “cure” him.

Rationalization
Basically, this is making excuses. You did it, you aren’t denying that you did it, but you give rational or logical reasons for it. What makes this a defense mechanism is that the stated/acknowledged reason isn’t the real motivation. For example, you pawned your mother’s wedding and engagement rings and claim you needed the money when you really wanted to hurt her—or you hated your dead father and don’t want the reminder around.

Gin Genie can create seismic shock waves in direct relation to the amount of alcohol in her system. To be a powerful superhero, she also has to be an abusive alcoholic.

Kamala Khan wants to fit in and avoid trouble but goes out of her way to stand up and confront super villains and terrorists when she shifts into Ms. Marvel.

Reaction Formation
Replacing an unacceptable feeling, impulse, or behavior with the opposite. For example, subconsciously wishing a sibling would fail and so going out of one’s way to be helpful and promote success — the perfect fan.

Regression
A person reverts to a pattern of behavior that worked when one was younger. Think thumb-sucking, crying, sulking, or temper tantrums.

Zatanna feels such guilt over using her powers to erase the memories of her enemies and friends that her powers revert to a level she had when younger.

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Repression
I like to think of this as motivated forgetting. Things that are too painful are kept out of consciousness awareness, but may have a powerful effect on behavior. For example, a victim of early childhood sexual abuse who doesn’t remember the event(s) but has difficulty becoming intimate.

Jessica Jones has years of repressed memories thanks to brainwashing and mind control.

Suppression
Much like repression, but one consciously decides not to think about or remember something. This is fairly tough to pull off!  Every time it comes to consciousness, one distracts oneself with something else. One example: having an obsessive thought running through one’s head is a way to block other scarier or more stressful thoughts from surfacing.

The Red Room training forced Natasha Romanoff to remove all empathy and mercy and become the Black Widow. She had to retrain herself to join the Avengers.

Sublimation
Act out unacceptable impulses by transforming them into a more acceptable form. For example, aggressive impulses channeled into martial arts. Someone who likes looking at naked bodies takes up figure drawing.

Batman has turned the anger and grief from watching his parents’ murder into a drive to fight crime.

Undoing
Closely related to Reaction Formation but usually on a more conscious level; trying to make up for unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or behaviors — sort of like an unstated apology. For example, a child who is jealous of a younger sibling and wishes s/he were dead might make a point of giving that sibling toys, one’s cookie, etc.

Tomorrow Woman is an android created to destroy the Justice League. She achieves artificial consciousness and sacrifices herself to destroy her creators instead.

BOTTOM LINES FOR WRITERS: Everyone uses defense mechanisms. It’s how we cope. Choose defense mechanisms for your characters that are in line with his/her character in general. So, for example, a scientist is unlikely to use denial and more likely to use intellectualization.

Although using defense mechanisms is natural, normal, and helpful on an episodic or “acute” basis, long-term or “chronic” use can lead to emotional problems because the underlying threat or anxiety is never actually addressed.

The most emotionally stable superhero out there seems to be Zephyr aka Faith Herbert, from Valiant Entertainment. We should all be as awesome as Zephyr!

PANHANDLING 101

Why would you have a character panhandle?  I can think of several reasons just off the top of my head.

Buddhist monk in Thailand with a rice begging bowl
  1. S/he really is down and out and desperate
  2. It requires less training, credentials, etc., than a regular job
  3. To win a bet or meet a dare
  4. To put one over on the gullible
  5. To conduct undercover surveillance
  6. To collect research data
  7. Funding a backpacking tour (“beg-packing”)
  8. Several religious orders are mendicants and depend on donations from devout followers

Thanks to wikiHow, we have a clear recipe for successful panhandling—or failure, depending on the needs of your plot. Here’s the basic recipe, taken largely from the wikiHow panhandling page, but visit Marginal Revolution or Prepper Press for more detail and the rationale behind recommendations. See also Inc.com, Bill Murphy, Jr. on sales techniques.

Location

  • Choose a place with lots of foot traffic:
    • Subway stations
    • Metro stops
    • Truck stops
    • Urban campuses
    • These places may require talking
  • Alternatively, a place with lots of auto traffic:
    • These places need a clearly visible sign
    • Doesn’t work as well in cold, rainy weather
Panhandlers in Shanghai have gone high-tech!
  • If feasible, move location to take advantage of changing seasons and weather
  • Stick to downtown commercial district and middle-class neighborhoods
  • Don’t use the same location more than once a month
  • Choose medium to large cities
  • Do not beg near ATMs
  • Don’t walk in the street
  • Don’t block traffic

The Big Ask

  • Ask politely
  • Say thank you
  • Be believable, whether truth or fiction
  • Make the story fit the location, with props if appropriate (see notes on animals and children)
  • Ask for a specific amount of money, e.g., the precise subway fare
  • Keep it simple: I need XXX  for YYY
This may be a little too specific
  • Alternatively, spew something long and convoluted, hoping for money to make you go away
  • Make signs easy to read at a glance
  • Evoke sympathy (a homeless veteran, a disabled person, etc.)
  • Be funny, make a joke, especially with college students
  • Remember the regulars; greet people by name if feasible
  • End politely, even if you don’t get any money

Safety

  • Know the local laws about panhandling (locations, times, during events)
  • Stay on good terms with businesses and other panhandlers
  • Obey No Soliciting or No Loitering signs
  • If told to move, just move
  • Don’t panhandle after dark
  • Stash money frequently, and/or spread it around your pockets, etc.
  • Be aware that panhandling is actually hard work and dangerous
  • Women need to be especially cautious

Miscellaneous Bits

  • Having a baby or child with you increases vulnerability exponentially
  • Never bring a sick or malnourished animal with you
  • Do not wear fashionable or expensive clothes
  • Disheveled is okay, dirty isn’t
  • Don’t smoke or drink anything while panhandling
  • Don’t take money from people after the light turns green
  • Use language and body language that is non-threatening

If you want your panhandler character to fail, break all the rules!

Writers note: If your character is panhandling because s/he really is down and out, consider community services, churches, soup kitchens, shelters, etc.

A row of beg-packers in Hong Kong next to an elderly man digging through trash to find food

“Beg-packing” is a fairly recent phenomenon. Tourists, often college students, hitchhike and panhandle as they travel, allowing them to spend very little money on the way. Some see this as a way to open up sight-seeing opportunities to people outside the ultra-wealthy.

Others see it as a drag on local economies, with tourists begging for money from already impoverished communities without actually contributing anything. Some countries have outlawed panhandling tourists; police arrest beg-packers and drop them off at their respective embassies.

The St. Paul’s station on the London Tube is in particularly high demand for buskers

Street performers, technically, aren’t panhandlers.  The definition of panhandling is seeking money without providing anything in return. Street performers are (presumably) providing entertainment and therefore are busking. From a writer’s point of view, it may make little difference. 

Depending on local ordinances, street performers may need to be licensed or scheduled by a central authority. For example, busking at platforms on the London Tube is so profitable that performers must audition and apply for time slots.

N.B. writers: Money made by street performers is taxable as tips; begging/panhandling income is not taxable.

Ghostly white women selling flowers in Stockholm are one of the creepier variations of this activity

Another variation is “selling” worthless trinkets or single flowers for an exorbitant price.  For example, braided bracelets offered in exchange for $10. Selling flowers is common, particularly to tourists seated at outdoor cafes. Because so many panhandlers have begun taking flowers from funerary wreaths in local cemeteries, many florists in cities where this is common now deliberately snip the stems of funeral flowers just below the bud.

Consider Other Characters

Dominican and Franciscan orders were both founded as mendicants in the Twelfth Century
During Ramadan, panhandling becomes so common that several majority-Muslim countries remove all beggars from public spaces to channel charity through official groups – a somewhat controversial move
  • What motivates people who do or do not give money. Is giving money satisfying a “customer” need?
    • Many religions encourage or require charitable giving of some sort.
  • What are the attitudes of others toward panhandling?
    • Sympathetic, disdainful, hostile, etc.
  • Does the panhandler have family or friends?
  • What about a boss who “runs” panhandlers the way a pimp runs prostitutes?

Bottom line for writers: Regardless of monetary success, panhandling is a rich opportunity for writers!

ALCOHOL: OTC MEDICATION?

Stress and alcohol go together like peanut butter and jelly—a burger and fries, mac and cheese, bread and butter, mashed potatoes and gravy, milk and cookies, or any other iconic duo you can think of. Yes, they can be separated but—oh, so often—you don’t have one without the other.

I started thinking about this when the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a front page story (above the fold!) about liquor sales in Virginia. You will recall that ABC Stores have remained open as “essential” services. And according to numbers from the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, sales now hover around $22 million a week. 

In March, as the social distancing began, the ABC stores had more than $30 million per week.  Sales in April 2020 were up about 15% over a year ago. The article goes on to identify the top selling brands for the state and for the Richmond Planning District (City of Richmond, Henrico, Goochland, Hanover, Chesterfield, and Powhatan counties). I was less interested in the rankings than in the sheer volume!

Alcohol consumption is up all over the country. To look at one other location, in Tulsa, OK, one liquor store reported that looking at sales March 15 to April 15, liquor sales were up 56% and beer 48%. Compared to a similar date in April of 2019, one-day sales in April 2020 were up by 100%. 

According to one store owner, buying habits are changing in that people are buying more at a time, shopping more during the day and less in the evenings and on weekends.

In order to facilitate buying alcohol, providers are offering digital ordering and delivery, curbside pick-up, hosting, hosting virtual tastings and/or cocktail hours. And some are branching out by stocking hand sanitizers and face masks. Virtual cocktail parties among friends and families are now common.

If your aim is absolutely perfect, your cocktail parties with neighbors don’t have to be virtual!

Estimates of the increase in U.S. alcohol consumption from now to the same time last year vary from 25% (WHO) to 55% (Healthcare Home [//healthcare.utah.edu]).

The uptick in alcohol consumption is not solely a U.S. phenomenon. The World Health Organization has issued statements urging countries world-wide to try to curb drinking during the current pandemic. They cite several health reasons to try to control excessive alcohol consumption. No matter how bad a situation is, excess drinking can always make it worse!

Magic Snowman Tea is guaranteed to be 100% alcohol free.
There are other substances one can turn to in times of stress. This is one of my favorites.

Also according to WHO, alcohol-related deaths number 3 million every year—before the pandemic.  And the WHO now has the added difficulty of trying to quash the misinformation that has circulated to the effect that drinking can make someone immune to the COVID-19 virus and/or cure one if infected. The presumed medicinal value of alcohol has a long history (see below), perhaps with roots in the dulling of physical pain.

Jackie Chan is a master of Drunken Fist Kung Fu ( 醉拳 )

The link between stress and alcohol consumption is so well established that it’s actually called “self-medication.” In fact, such self-medication can be pretty effective, at least initially, in relieving anxiety and depression. Alcohol is a “downer” (i.e., a system depressant) so if people are wound up, rapid heart beat, etc., alcohol can definitely make those symptoms of stress go down. But as mentioned above, alcohol also depresses inhibitions, increases risk-taking, decreases logical decision making, increases violence, and — after all that — is still likely to interfere with restful sleep.

Being home all day with bored and curious toddlers is a very stressful circumstance.

COVID-19 presents a set of circumstances that are problematic with regard to alcohol consumption.

  • High levels of anxiety associated with the unknown
  • Isolation from one’s usual support system
  • Loneliness
  • Economic distress/job loss
  • Food insecurity
  • Fear of infection/death
  • Mourning the loss of a loved one
  • Stress at having to work from home
  • Stress of having to work in an “essential” job interacting with the public

COVID-19 is dominating today’s headlines, but it is far from unique. Research indicates that alcohol use and abuse increase during and after “violent conflicts”—e.g., wars, periods of martial law, government coups. Other psychotropic substances are also used to deal with psychic strains and trauma, but alcohol is generally the most likely to be readily available, legal, and (at least within limits) socially acceptable.

Totally non-addictive!

During the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, bootleg whiskey was viewed as a respectable medicine. At the time, more than half the states in the U.S. had passed Prohibition laws and thus were “dry.” But for medicinal purposes, some officials decided to tap the vast stores of liquor that had been confiscated initially to aid the military, although the Army mostly remained silent about using it. In Richmond, Virginia—reportedly—two railroad cars of confiscated whiskey arrived for the benefit of Camp Lee. Over time, confiscated whiskey was distributed to civilian hospitals, too.

Medical isopropyl alcohol is now available at vending machines in Moscow.

The United States Pharmacopeia dropped whiskey, brandy, and wine from its listing of therapeutics in 1916. In 1917, the American Medical Association resolved that “the use of alcohol as a therapeutic agent should be discouraged.” Even so, more than half of physicians believed it was “a necessary therapeutic agent.” It continued to be available by prescription in dry states. To this day, strong alcohol is prescribed for medicinal purposes in some areas, even by doctors!

Besides the demand for alcohol, the Spanish Flu pandemic shared other characteristics with COVID-19:

  • Wearing masks
  • Social isolation
  • Use of disinfectants
  • Limiting group gatherings, including churches
  • Hospitals and funeral homes were overwhelmed
  • During Spanish Flu the treatment of choice was aspirin, up to 30 grams daily which is a toxic dose; currently, think ingesting bleach or disinfectants.
Bootlegger tunnels in Miami during Prohibition

Bottom line for writers: people use alcohol to self-medicate for stress. The current stressor is COVID-19 BUT consider all the other stressors out there, which might occur alone or in combination with COVID-19: death of a loved one, job loss, divorce, physical illness, mental illness, physical disability, too little money, going hungry, being homeless… Do you have a character who does—who could—self-medicate with alcohol?

RATS: WHO KNEW?

And who would want to?  

The Country Rat and the Town Rat

Writers, that’s who. Rats have long been characters—sometimes major—in literature old and new. Fables from around the world feature rats/mice and the moral usually relates to survival in one form or another.  In these fables, rats are often presented as clever and resourceful. Aesop’s Fables, the Fables of Bidpai, and Panchatantra all feature rats involved in moral lessons.

In some languages, rats and mice are interchangeable. When there is a distinction made, rats usually come off worse. In fiction and in popular consciousness, rats are almost always portrayed as more devious or dirty than mice.

Rats are extremely important in Chinese mythology. The rat is the first of twelve animals in the Chinese Zodiac, corresponding to Sagitarius.  Both are assigned the traits of creativity, hard work, generosity, and optimism.

The Year of the Rat is reputed to be one of prosperity and hard work. FYI: 2020 is a year of the rat.  The rat rules daily from 11:00 p.m. till 1:00 a.m. and its season is winter. 

N.B. writers: if you are inclined to write a rat fable, this might be the place to start.

The German cover is so much more horrifying.

Often rats are included in stories to add a touch of horror to scenes involving dungeons, torture chambers, vampires, the unknown… Authors from Edgar Allen Poe (“The Pit and the Pendulum“), to George Orwell (1984) to Stephen King (“Graveyard Shift” and “1922,” for example) have made effective use of rats. Shakespeare included rats in eight of his plays. Perhaps the epitome of horror would be The Coming of the Rats by George H. Smith (1961), suggesting the aftermath of the H-bomb.

And of course, if it’s in books, it’s in movies as well. Think Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  Some movies, such as Ratatouille, Chicken Run, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Flushed Away, include rat characters who are funny and likeable in addition to being clever. Willard, Of Unknown Origin, and The Missing are Deadly are horror movies that focus on twisted relationships between humans and rats. Many films, especially The Food of the Gods, Deadly Eyes, Rodentz, and Rats: Night of Terror, focus on swarms of rats pitted against humanity.

Rats and mice are depicted very differently in The Secret of NIMH.

If you do write about rats, it may help to know the terminology.

  • A group of rats — a mischief
  • Male rat — buck
  • Female rat — doe
  • Infants — pups or kittens
  • Musophobia (suriphobia) — fear of rats and mice

Rats have such a horrific reputation that threats of being eaten, taken, overrun, etc., by rats are a common tool used around the world to frighten naughty children into better behavior. In Canada—Newfoundland—rat threats were second only to bear threats, and twice as frequent as big fish (in third place out of seven). 

Writers consider the possibilities: “I’ve got an attic/cellar full of rats for naughty little girls and boys like you.”

As mentioned above, rats are often depicted as smart, and turn up in unexpected places. Consider this poem by Emily Dickinson:

The rat is the concisest tenant.
He pays not rent—
Repudiates the obligation,
On schemes intent.
Balking our wit
To sound or circumvent,
Hate cannot harm
A foe so reticent.
Neither decree
Prohibits him,
Lawful as
Equilibrium.

Emily Dickinson

Rat Facts 

A Rat King was a group of rats whose tails were knotted together, often ascribed mystical powers by rat catchers.
  • Rats are everywhere in the world except Antarctica, where it’s too cold for them to survive outside and there are too few humans to provide for them.
    • In some places, especially islands, aggressive rat control policies have reclaimed the land.
  • Rats are one of the world’s worst invasive species.
    • Transported around the world on ships, rats have been credited with the extinction of untold number of small native animals and birds.
New York City rats can take down pigeons.
  • Rats often live with and near humans (commensals).
  • Rats carry many zoonotic pathogens, all sorts from The Black Death to foot-and-mouth disease.
  • Many rats in the wild live only about a year due to predation.
  • By and large, rat vocalizations are pitched beyond the range of human hearing.
  • Rats have been kept as pets at least since the late 1800s, most often brown rat species, and are no more of a health risk than cats or dogs.
  • Rats are omnivorous.
    • Rats are cannibals.
Rats made of food?

Rats as Food 

The Bible forbids eating rats, and  parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East, consider rat meat to be diseased, unclean, and socially unacceptable. Islam, Kashrut, the Shipibo people of Peru and the Sironó people of Bolivia all have strong taboos against eating rats. However the high number of rats and/or a limited food supply have brought rats into the diets of both humans and pets worldwide.

  • Human food
    • Rat meat is part of the cuisines of Vietnam, Taiwan, and Thailand.
    • National Geographic (March 14, 2019) featured Vietnamese rat meat.
    • In India, rats are essential to the traditional Mishmi diet, for women are allowed to eat only fish, pork, wild birds, and rats. In the Musahar community, rats are farmed as an exotic delicacy.
    • Aboriginal Australians’ diet regularly included rats, as did traditional Hawaiian and Polynesian cultures.
    • Rice field rats were an original component of paella in Valencia (the rat later replaced by rabbit, seafood, or chicken). These rats were also eaten in the Philippines and Cambodia.
    • Rich people ate rat pie in England in Victorian times, and others ate rats during the World Wars when food was strictly rationed.
    • Alcoholic rats trapped in wine cellars in France became part of a regional delicacy – grilled rats, Bordeaux-style.
    • Rat stew was (and maybe still is) eaten in West Virginia.
Remy insists that rat food of any kind must be properly seasoned.
  • Animal food
    • Snakes, both wild and pets, eat rats and mice. The rats are available to snake owners both live and frozen. However, in Britain, feeding any live mammal to another animal is against the law.
    • When included in pet food, rats are counted as “cereals” in the ingredients list.

Rat Contributions to Science 

The first rat research I know of was conducted at Clark University (Worcester, MA) in 1895. Since then, rats have been used to study disease transmission, genetics, effects of diet, cardiovascular conditions, and drug effects. 

Psychologists have studied rats to further our understanding of learning, intelligence, drug abuse, ingenuity, aggressiveness, adaptability, and the effects of overcrowding (the “behavioral sink”).

Working Rats

Besides acting in movies, rats are good a sniffing out gunpowder residue, land mines, and tuberculosis. They also can be trained for animal-assisted therapy. 

N.B. writers: consider a PI or amateur detective who has a trained rat sidekick!

The stereotypic rat: Besides the horror aspects of ratness, their image is mainly that of pest. 

They infest urban areas, particularly multi-family housing. They like areas with access to food, water, and a moderate environment, such as under sinks, near garbage, in walls, cabinets, or drawers.

In rural areas, rats are a threat to both grain supplies and small birds. (Think chicks.) They live in fields, barns, cellars, basements, and attics. 

And as with so many things, rats are a bigger bane for the poor, whether rural or urban.  Picture this: a baby crib is set in the middle of a room, all four legs in buckets of water to try to keep rats and mice from climbing into the crib. Meanwhile, beady eyes stare from darkened corners.

Rat in Everyday Language 

Any way you cut it, rat is not positive.

Rats shredded nearly $19,000 worth of rupees in a safe in India in 2018.
  • Noun: backstabber, betrayer, blabbermouth, canary, deep throat, double-dealer, fink, informant, sneak, snitch, source, squealer, stoolie, stool pigeon, tattler, turncoat, whistle-blower.
    • In unionized workplaces, anyone who doesn’t pay dues and/or crosses picket lines is called a rat.
  • Verb: the act of doing any of the above.
Master Splinter is living proof that rats can train turtles and fight ninjas!
  • Rats!—exclamation of surprise, frustration 
  • Drowned rat
  • Gutter rat
  • Mall rat
  • Rat’s ass (as in, I don’t give a…)
  • Rat faced
  • Rat fink
  • Rat hole
  • Rat king
  • Rat’s nest (hair or residence)
  • Rat pack
  • Rat race
  • Rats from a sinking ship
  • Rat tail (hairstyle)
  • Rat tail comb
  • Ratted hair
  • Rat trap
  • Ratty
  • Smell a rat

Bottom line for writers: it’s worth your while to know about rats!

ARE ANY OF YOUR CHARACTERS BIRDS?

Some people I know could definitely be harpies!

During more than fifty days of staying at home, I’ve become increasingly attentive to the flora and fauna in my yard.  Is this happening to you? 

Wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca) and mock strawberry (Potentilla indica or Duchesnea indica)

For the first time I bothered to identify the wild strawberries invading my flower beds as Indian or mock-strawberry, not the luscious Virginia wild strawberry. (Big clue is the white vs. yellow flower.)

Stanley jumps from the bayberry tree onto the bird feeder several times a day.

But in spite of Stanley, we are gifted with a wide variety of bird visitors, too. As I watch them day after day, noticing patterns is inevitable. (To all the bird lovers and watchers out there: I realize that this reveals a certain—shall we say—naiveté. But there are more of us around than you might believe.) Watching our feeder, one of the main characteristics I’ve noticed is, for want of a better term, sociability.

Bluebirds always come in pairs or with their young.
Catbirds come one at a time.
Goldfinches come in small groups.
And grackles, crows, and starlings tend to flock.

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Writers: Based on sociability, what sort of bird would your character be?

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Perhaps a King Vulture?

While finches are happy to share the feeding stations, and linger for communal eating, bluejays tend to chase other birds away, and they don’t settle. They dart in, grab a bite, go back to a tree, and repeat.

I’ve always been interested in birds in a casual sort of way. I have three daughters whom I’ve associated with white throated sparrow, goldfinch, and bluebird based on their coloration and behavior. 

My grandson is a cardinal, theatrical and flamboyant.  My older granddaughter is a crow, based on her black hair, her preference for wearing black and her keen intelligence. My younger granddaughter is a chickadee, based on her liveliness and sociability.

And my husband is a red bellied woodpecker, because that bird has red, black, and white markings and links the three grandchildren together.

So, I have my own personality profiles of various birds. Do you?

Although I’m convinced that birds—typically by nature of their species—have personality types, being a scientist at heart, I wanted a bit of authority to back me up here. But while searching online for bird personalities, again and again I came up with the same question—“Which one are you?” And the answer was a multiple-choice of four, the DOPE model: dove, owl, peacock, or eagle. 

So, writers, for what it’s worth, here it is.

Emerald dove

DOVES are associated with terms such as neutral, loving, and kind. Although passive in communication, they are highly emotional. Dove people exhibit a long list of personality traits, both positive and negative.

Laughing dove
  • Positive traits
    • Patient
    • Giving
    • Trustworthy
    • Introverted
    • Avoids risk-taking
    • Respectful
    • Honest
    • Reliable
    • Easygoing 
Mourning dove
  • Negative traits  
    • Dependent
    • Predictable
    • Follower
    • Gullible 

.

.

Spotted owl

OWLS are perceived as logical and intelligent, but conservative, introverted and not communicative. 

.

.

Great horned owl
  • Positive traits  
    • Calm
    • Meticulous
    • Just
    • Mindful
    • Determined
    • Detail-oriented
    • Careful
    • Curious 

.

Barn owl
  • Negative traits  
    • Distrustful
    • Self-centered
    • Indecisive
    • Vindictive
    • Short-sighted

.

.

Peahen with blue peacock

PEACOCKS are showy and outgoing, very active communicators—i.e., talkative—and possess high “emotional intelligence.” These are competitive, emotional birds. 

Red peacock
  • Positive traits  
    • Open-minded
    • Energetic
    • Charismatic
    • Social
    • Enthusiastic
    • Adventurous 

.

.

Brown peacock
  • Negative traits  
    • Scattered
    • Selfish
    • Controlling
    • Dominating 
    • Power-hungry

.

Golden eagle

EAGLES are bold, decisive, and aggressive. They have high logical intelligence and are very active communicators.  Within the general population (allegedly) 29% of people are eagles.

Black eagle

.

  • Positive traits  
    • Charismatic
    • Honest
    • Initiator
    • Independent
    • Driven
    • Motivated
    • Compelling
    • Fearless 

.

Philippine eagle
  • Negative traits  
    • Blunt
    • Unsympathetic
    • Egotistical
    • Controversial
    • Impatient
    • Pushy
    • Stubborn

You can take the 40-question, 4-bird, DOPE personality test online. Click here

Writers note: Be aware that any given personality trait could be either helpful or not, positive or not, depending on the demands of the situation.

Writers’ option: identify a bird of your own choosing and research it, finding how/whether it reflects one of your characters.

Why bother? Assigning birds to your characters helps keep them consistent and distinctive.

WRITING ISOLATION

Sleuth of Bears

There is a whole cadre—Heidegger (1889-1976) arguably the most famous—who argue that being-with-others is part of the “structure of human existence.” In other words, we are hard-wired to socialize. Whether you believe that or not, there are a gazillion (by actual count) studies that have found isolation to be harmful to humans, both physically and psychologically. 

Litter of Puppies

(Editor’s note: Including photographs of isolated and lonely people was too depressing, so I invite you to enjoy these photos of animals not social distancing instead.)

For writers, bad is good

Pod of Dolphins

How bad is it?  Some researchers posit that social isolation and loneliness are twice as harmful as obesity. Others compare the effects on mortality to be equal to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Others say the magnitude of risk is right up there with physical inactivity and lack of access to health care.

N.B.  Degrees or levels of isolation are difficult to define and measure.  Perceived isolation is what produces feelings of loneliness. In many ways, it is easier to study social isolation, though they are closely linked.

Pandemonium of Parrots

As a writer, the first question is, “Why is your character isolated?” Your options may be more numerous than you think. Here are a few examples.

  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce
  • Move to a new place
  • Researcher in isolated places, like Antarctica 
  • Mission/mission training, e.g., astronauts
  • Immune compromised
Leap of Leopards
  • A child/infant in understaffed orphanage
  • Being shunned for any reason  
    • Behavior  
    • Appearance 
    • Membership in a marginalized subgroup
  • Medical quarantine
  • As a form of torture
    • Solitary confinement in prison (currently about 80,000 in the U.S. each year)
Tower of Giraffes

The second set of questions for a writer:

  • How complete is the isolation?
  • How long does it last?
  • Is it repeated?
  • In general, the more complete the isolation, the longer it lasts, and repetition all increase the number and seriousness of the effects. 
Mob of Kangaroos

The third question is, which effects will your character display? 

Parliament of Owls
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Sweaty palms
  • Heart palpitations
  • Lowered immunity
  • Increased inflammation 
  • Trembling
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pains
  • Lack of appetite
  • Drastic weight loss
Stand of Flamingos
  • Muscle pains (esp. neck and back)
  • Oversensitivity to sensory stimuli
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Distorted sense of time
  • Severe boredom
  • Impaired memory
  • Inability to think coherently
  • Apathy
Conspiracy of Lemurs
  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Feelings of inferiority
  • Irritability
  • Withdrawal
  • Rage/anger/aggression
  • Confusion
  • Paranoia
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Hallucinations

Many of these effects mimic PTSD and, like PTSD, can last for years after the event.

Bale of Turtles

In the last couple of months, researchers are finding that COVID-19 isolation tends to evoke one of two responses.

Smack of Jellyfish
  • Those who hunker down and enjoy it—take it as a time to relax, read, bake, pursue a hobby, accomplish things around the house. In short, they’re getting along fine.
  • But for others—especially extroverts—the isolation can be harmful to both mind and body.

Not surprisingly, the effects of COVID-19 isolation are many of the same effects as other reasons for isolation.

Drift of Pigs
  • Boredom
  • Lethargy
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Distorted sense of time
  • Poor sleep quality
  • Develop or increase unhealthy habits

Dr. Samantha Brooks wrote in The Lancet: “A huge factor in the negative psychological impact [of isolation] seems to be confusion about what’s going on, not having clear guidelines, or getting different messages from different organizations.” In addition, not knowing how long isolation will last exacerbates the negative effects of isolation. Think of the current differences within the U.S. and how similar circumstances could be applied to a fictional setting.

Obstinacy of Buffalo

People who are at increased risk from COVID-19 isolation are those at heightened risk for social isolation in the first place:

Gang of Elk
  • Older adults, especially with physical limitations and/or poor family support
  • Men who didn’t develop social networks outside work
  • Being non-white is a bigger risk factor than sex
  • Lower income people who may not afford the technology for distance socializing
  • Anyone who is marginalized (LGBTQ, survivor of domestic abuse, living in an isolated rural area)
  • People incarcerated for any reason
Cete of Badgers
Shiver of Sharks

Evidence of stress is apparent in the increased number of calls to suicide prevention (1-800-273-8255) and addiction (1-844-289-0879) hotlines.

Bottom line for writers: consider isolating your character and/or increasing his/her loneliness. You can take it almost anywhere.

Murmuration of Starlings

HAIR IN THE TIME OF COVID-19

A while back, I posted a blog on hair and what it says about a character—or at least what impression it makes on others. So what can we glean from how a person (or character) deals with hair now that beauticians and barbers are deemed “nonessential”?

As best I can tell, there is a big divide in hair care priority between those who are deemed essential in jobs that require working onsite and those who are staying home. The former are under more pressure to keep up appearances. But both groups include essentially three subgroups: those who are happy to let it all flow, those who try to recreate professional techniques on their own, and those who create entirely new styles to fit the situation.

Go With the Flow

Theses people are doing nothing beyond washing and brushing their hair. The result may be tri-color—for example, dark chestnut coming in, the remnants of highlights, and gray in front or at the temples. Such people may resort to caps or scarves. Over time, ponytails, braids, barrettes, bands, and ties come in handy. And think wigs! They can be ordered online.

Some would claim this choice is tougher for a man to carry off, to the extent that many men are simply shaving their heads. Women are less likely to choose this option.

Choosing to do nothing is sometimes characterized as “giving my hair a break” from chemical treatments and elaborate coiffures.

DIY

Technically, shaving one’s head might be a form of DIY for people who hadn’t already adopted that look. A close alternative is men who have their spouses or partner’s cut their hair, even if they have never cut hair before. Some women opt for this option as well

Some women are cutting their own hair—definitely easier with some styles than others.

But not all households have the basic equipment—hair scissors, clippers, a mirror that allows a steady view of the back of the head. In such situations, what are the alternatives? Think kitchen shears, pinking shears, nail scissors, and safety razors.

Those who color their hair have denuded the shelves of supermarkets and drug stores of home dye. Professionals strongly recommend against DIY color, saying one may severely damage one’s hair. But, hey, it’s only hair. It’ll grow back, right?

A friend suggested to me that I could color the tips of my hair with red food coloring. She said that my hair is so short, it would be cut off soon. It reminds me that when I was in seventh grade a redheaded friend and I experimented with food coloring. She chose green and I chose blue. We (erroneously) thought it would wash right out. So, no red tips. But blue to match my eyes? Maybe.

And that reminds me: so-called temporary hair color is permanent if you have previously had your hair lightened.

DIY may be exceptionally difficult for Black women. The importance of hair care has resulted in a massive industry, worth $2.5 billion at least, including chemical relaxers, braiding services, hair pieces, and so forth. Women may feel uncomfortable wearing “natural” hair, and many more are unable to create their customary look from home.

Rebels

These are the people who have decided hair care is essential and therefore defy the stay at home/social distancing injunctions. Either the client goes to the home of her/his hairdresser or the practitioner comes to the home of the client. Both greatly increase the risk of spreading the virus, of course.

Getting Help

I’m not a YouTube fan, but there are a gazillion (by actual count!) options for videos of home hair care. Recently, salon experts have been posting and advising their clients to take a look. Some salons are delivering professional supplies and equipment to their clients’ homes in sanitized packaging. And some practitioners are setting up video chats with clients to talk them through coloring or braiding their own hair.

Bottom line for writers: How a character responds to the hair care crisis is a clear reflection of personality. Use it!

FINDING JOBS THAT FIT YOUR CHARACTERS

They say there is an ideal job for every person, and in an ideal world every worker would find a job that absolutely suited their skills and interests. The world we live in is, alas, not an ideal world. The world you create through your writing can be as ideal as you choose, and the jobs held by characters can be a perfect fit. Or not.

Is being Scottish a career?

A perfect job match for a character can demonstrate their talents and background. An imperfect job match can be a source of conflict, humor, or even plot development. The ways in which characters find a career path can be just as revealing as the job itself: some people join the family business whether they have the aptitude and interest or not; some people slowly work their way up the ladder to the job they actually want; some people have an innate talent, honed by practice. Some careers are dependent on the setting (such as a snowshoe maker or dinosaur wrangler), but most types of work have some equivalent in every genre.

Jobs for people who love working with their hands.  Educational requirements, apprenticeships, licenses, etc., vary by job. Some have no requirements beyond on-the-job training. Both introverts and extroverts can find tactile jobs to suit their interests (in theory, at least).

  • Carpenter
  • Casino dealer
  • Chef/baker
  • Construction worker
  • Electrician
  • Hairstylist
  • Massage therapist
  • Mechanic
  • Sign language interpreter
  • Stagehand
  • Welder

High-paying, low-stress jobs for introverts.  These are jobs for characters who prefer independent tasks and interactions with smaller groups of people/coworkers. They typically require post secondary education. Apart from convenient plot devices, these jobs are unlikely to include terrifying catastrophes and world-ending deadlines. Usually.

  • Atmospheric scientist
  • Computer and information research scientist
  • Electronics engineer
  • Software developer
  • Technical writer
  • Technical translation

High-paying jobs with good work/life balance.  Education/training varies, but a common thread is that these jobs typically don’t require on-call or emergency response. (Actually, most writers earn very little from their writing, but the possibility is always there.)

  • Physical therapist
  • Dental hygienist
  • Web developer
  • Postsecondary teacher 
  • Writer/author

Jobs that require good observational skills.  Educational requirements vary, as do salaries. Despite high demands on the personal time and physical strength of people working in these fields, many have salaries significantly below the U.S. median.

  • Registered nurse
  • Veterinary technologists and technicians
  • Sociologists
  • Police and sheriff’s patrol officers
  • Private security
  • Environmental scientists and specialists
  • Childcare workers

Jobs that offer the possibility of frequent crises. Some people are perfectly suited for staying calm and doing their job in the middle of an adrenaline rush; some people simply love the adrenaline rush. Contrary to what television would have us believe, these professions are not a constant stream of accidents and terror. However, characters working in these jobs could be a very handy source of action to drive a plot.

  • Firefighter
  • Paramedic or EMT
  • ER surgeon
  • Personal security
  • Test pilot
  • Stunt driver
  • Middle school teacher
  • Parent of a toddler

Jobs that do not require reading.  Approximately 800 million adults worldwide are functionally illiterate; in the US, 36 million adults cannot read or write above a third grade level. The reasons for illiteracy are almost as varied as the people affected by illiteracy: inadequate or inappropriate education, poverty, social prejudice, learning disability, mental disability, physical disability, poverty, gender bias, etc. There are few jobs that require absolutely no reading, but there are several that don’t rely heavily on that skill.

Side Note: Functionally illiterate adults develop a variety of methods to get around in society; consider how you might write such a character.

  • Animal care and service workers
  • Crafts artists
  • Dancers
  • Fishing and hunting workers
  • Photographers
  • Agricultural work
  • Musicians/singers

Jobs that require little or no prior training. The eternal question “How can you get job experience if no one will hire you without experience?” applies in just about every career you can choose. Being born into a family of royals, subsistence farmer, or reincarnated dragon whisperers kind of limits career choices. For the rest of us, we have to start with anything we can find. That does not mean these jobs are any easier or less vital.

  • Dishwasher
  • Waiter or tables busser
  • Retail customer service
  • Housekeepers
  • Home delivery
  • Window washers
  • Shelf stockers
There’s always one…

Bottom Line for writers: if you are creating a new character, consider jobs that fit!

Public Service Announcement: The Red Cross is in desperate need of blood donations right now. Please take a trip to your nearest donation center if you possibly can.

JOBS YOU PROBABLY NEVER THOUGHT OF

In these days of the pandemic, I spend my days going to doctors’ appointments, watching my flowers bloom, and wandering around the internet. I recently browsed several jobs lists, and thought you might be interested in the following. 

Writers note: Maybe they could contribute to characters or plots.

  • Scuba Diving Pizza Delivery 
    • Yes, there is such a job. An underwater hotel in Florida (a bit of an oddity itself) offers pizza which is brought in a watertight case by a scuba diver. (Although food delivery is still allowed, I doubt the hotel has guests just now.)
Yum.
Mr Marmite
  • Marmite Taster 
    • Why not? After all, there are tea tasters, coffee tasters, wine tasters, etc. Indeed, there is a whole team of Marmite tasters who check for texture, consistency, and flavor.  Marmite—6,000 tons a year of yeasty by-product of beer brewing that very strange [British] people like to spread on toast—is made in Staffordshire, England, and has been since 1902. A taster might eat the equivalent of about 100 jars per year. St John Skelton, also known as Mr. Marmite, retired in 2016 after 42 years as the head of Marmite’s tasting team. He estimates he’s eaten the equivalent of 264 jars over the course of his career.
  • Stunt Taste Tester
I this this pet is confused.
  • Pet Food Taster 
    • One might expect dog foods–including canned food, dry food, bones, chews, etc.—to be tested by dogs, and maybe they are. But they’re also sampled by humans who rate the flavor and texture compared to rival brands and human food. Indeed, pet food tasting is mostly pet food testing and development. These tasters usually hold doctoral degrees, and do a lot of things besides tasting, but in the end they must smell and taste the products. Smell may be as important as taste, given that pet owners are very picky about smell—and probably don’t taste the product themselves.
  • Nose 
    • And speaking of smell, being a “Nose” is an actual job in the perfume industry (and in other industries, though not as commonly) . Also known as a perfumer, a Nose must have an extraordinary sense of smell, used to select and combine elements to create designer fragrances. This job requires more talent than training. Although primarily identified with perfume fragrances, Noses in the food industry create synthetic and natural aromas to be added to prepared foods. The salary range is very broad, but the median salary (in 2010) was $68,320.
  • Dice and Card Inspector 
    • Gambling is a highly regulated industry. Part of the process is having someone measure all the sides of the dice to ensure that they are equal, that the corners are square, and that they haven’t been manipulated to land on a certain number. They are also in charge of periodically destroying cards and dice. They may be employed by state authorities, casinos, or manufacturers. Best estimates of pay range from low 5- to low 6-figures.
Those gloves don’t look thick enough to stop any fangs.
  • Snake Milker 
    • Technically, only mammals produce milk. So what do snake milkers collect? Venom of poisonous snakes, such as asps, vipers, cobras, corals, mambas, kraits, and rattlesnakes. This is hands on—right behind the head, getting the snake to release venom into a jar, beaker, etc. The venom is used to make anti-venoms and other medicines. 
Ancient Egyptian mourners rarely had a well-established pricing structure for their services.
  • Professional Mourner 
    • In many parts of the world, both Ancient and Modern, a loud funeral is supposed to help the dead travel to the afterlife. (It is also a sign of respect from the surviving family members and a chance to display wealth.) Therefore, the crying and weeping of family and friends is augmented by the weeping and wailing of people paid to do so. Modern mourners, technically known as moirologists, can be found online and often charge per service, such as having hysterics and trying to jump into the grave.
    • You can also hire yourself out as a wedding guest or bridesmaid, with extra charges for making fantastic toasts or getting the dancing started.
  • Train Pusher 
    • As far as I know, this job exists only in Japan. These people, “oshiya,” are paid to push passengers into subway cars in order to reach maximum capacity before the doors close.
Pizza and beer not provided. Pizza shirt possibly provided.
  • Full-Time Netflix Viewer 
    • Yep, people are actually paid to do that. Before content is released to the public, an employee views it and assigns a tag, which aids viewers in finding exactly the type of program they want.
  • Drying Paint Watcher 
    • Someone can actually earn a living painting sheets of cardboard to test how long new paint takes to dry, watching for whether it changes color or texture. Hmmm… I wonder whether a colorblind person could do that.
Not creepy at all
  • Living Mannequin
    • For those who have very precisely proportioned bodies and dreams of making everyone’s deepest nightmares come true, working as a living mannequin is the ideal profession. They wear selected clothes and accessories, sometimes with very specific makeup and hairstyles, and pose as part of the store display. Staying very still, staring blankly into the distance, ever-so-subtly shifting as they breathe… And now I’m off to have nightmares!
    • Human Scarecrows are also available to make sure no one ever runs out of nightmare fuel. They’re technically paid to keep pests out of crop fields, but that’s really just a side gig.
Some agencies offer the service for free, but they tend to shed all over the blankets.
  • Professional Sleeper 
    • This is my personal favorite, though I don’t know how many hotels actually have such a person on the staff. Basically, the sleeper sleeps in a different bed each night and makes an evaluation of the bed’s comfort and how satisfying the night’s sleep was. But don’t quit your day job. A professional sleeper earns about $15,000 a year. If paid by the hour, it’s about $10.
    • Professional Bed Warmers perform an essential service for the most discerning hotel customers – huddling under the covers until the patron is ready to go to bed, ensuring there is no shock of cold mattress and chilly sheets. Hot water bottles and electric blankets lack that personal touch.
  • Professional Cuddler 
    • These people aim to make people feel respected, accepted, and worthy by one-on-one, fully clothed, platonic cuddle sessions. Depending on the level of contact, cuddling may also be an effective treatment for skin hunger, the human need for physical contact with other people. Cuddle sessions may be preferable to professional sleeper, for cuddlers earn about $80 per hour.

Bottom line for writers: novelty and variety are good things!

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!