EARLY BIRDS AND NIGHT OWLS

Folk wisdom would have us believe that we all should be early birds: they get the worm, after all, and they are healthy, wealthy, and wise. Indeed, research indicates that there are real differences between the early-to-bedders and the late-to-bedders.

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Being up and ready for the day correlates with EBs getting better grades and having a better chance of getting a good “regular” job. 

More coffee, please!

In one way, at least, early birds (EBs) have a big advantage: most social life takes place during the day, and EBs can take full advantage of that. Getting to medical appointments, grocery stores, and business breakfasts are not hardships.

In addition, at least one study found that EBs anticipate problems and try to minimize them. Being proactive in this way is linked to better job performance, greater career success, and higher earnings. They set goals and plan to meet them.

Mixing coffee with beer makes it perfect for breakfast! Thanks, Coronado Brewing!

Overall, EBs are much more likely to exercise, and as a result are less prone to health problems, everything from obesity to depression. Perhaps that’s partly because most outdoor activity takes place during the day anyway!

However, not everything is roses for EBs. For one thing, their days are all downhill. They get no “second wind” late in the day. As sleepiness pulls, an EB’s performance lags. In addition, EBs need more sleep, and if they don’t get enough, it really drags them down.  Still, it seems a small price to pay for all the good stuff I just talked about.

So why wouldn’t everyone want to be an EB? First of all, what one wants isn’t always what one gets. People are biologically predisposed to be either an EB or a Night Owl (NO). Frederick Brown (Penn State psychologist) refers to EBs as early risers and NOs as late setters and comes out strongly on the side of genetic determination. In fact, in 2003, researchers discovered a “clock “ gene. EBs were more likely to have a longer version of this Period 3 gene.

And there is a real downside to being a NO—including being more prone to a whole host of mental and physical health problems, especially depression and obesity. Not surprisingly, they tend to die sooner than EBs.

Not bedtime. We’re not tired. Definitely not… tired…

Perhaps the increased likelihood of mental health issues are a byproduct of being generally and literally out of sync with society’s rhythms.

NOs struggle with social activities. Yes, there are all night restaurants,  gyms, and movies, but if NOs’ family and friends are on a different schedule, they face the choice of pressing/stressing themselves to accommodate or suffer from self-imposed isolation and loneliness.

It sounds like being a NO is a total bummer, but not so! Research has discovered several benefits to getting up with the owls.

Changing one’s sleep pattern often requires large amounts of caffeine.

Somewhat surprisingly (to me), NOs have more sex—which could lead to being productive in non-work-related ways! 

“It’s almost midnight. Let’s order pizza!”

One’s sleep patterns and preferences are expressions of one’s circadian rhythm: this is the rhythm of one’s body processes over the course of approximately 24 hours. In fact, the word “circadian” comes from the Latin words circā (approximately) and diēs (day). All living things—even plants—have them. (If there is life on Mars or Venus, then all bets are off!)

Left to their own devices (i.e., with no external cues as to time of day), humans tend to settle into a “natural” cycle of about 25 hours within a waking/sleeping day.

Fortunately, adjusting by an hour is fairly easy.

On the issue of enduring wake/sleep rhythms, there is lots of variability. Approximately 1% are diehard EBs and another 17% are diehard NOs, with everyone else being somewhere in between. The “tweeners” have an easier time making bigger adjustments in their sleep cycles.

It’s 2am. Time for everyone to wake up because I’m hungry!

There are age-clustering effects, too. High school and college age people, regardless of bio-rhythms, tend to stay up late and sleep in. The opposite is true of the elderly.

All sorts of outside factors have major chunks of control over when we wake and sleep, regardless of preferences. Many NOs must adapt to workplace schedules, or demands due to spouse or children. Consider how one’s body’s preferences would adapt to these work schedules.

  • 9-5:00ers
  • Night shift workers
  • Swing-shift workers
  • Parents
Sleep deprivation in fire fighters can be very dangerous. They get cranky when they’re tired.

People do what they have to do, sometimes for years at a time. Not surprisingly, swing-shift workers have the hardest time of it, and the more often their shifts change, the more disruptive it is. (If one’s work shifted by an hour a day, it would be easy to handle… but I don’t know of any examples.) If one works 7-3:00 followed by 3-11:00 followed by 11-7:00 and then repeats the cycle at lengthy intervals, the adaptation is easier than random shifts and/or short intervals.

At least the ambulances are pretty comfy for a nap.

Sleepers following a swing-shift work schedule face additional mental and physical hurdles. Researchers have identified a sleep disorder specific to employees on these schedules: Shift Work Sleep Disorder.

  • Prone to chronic sleep deprivation
  • Slower reaction time
  • Decreased focus
  • Impaired decision making

Many of the people whose jobs require focus, speed, high-level decision making, and operating under extreme stress also have to work on swing shift schedules.

Plus, hospitals are super creepy at night. So are power plants.
  • Power plant operators
  • Emergency medical technicians and paramedics
  • Doctors and nurses
    • Emergency room staffers and residents are more likely to work night shifts and swing shifts
  • Emergency hotline operators (911)
  • Police
  • Military personnel

Whatever structures are imposed, our NO or EB tendencies endure, even into old age. Remove external structural constraints/demands and one’s true nature comes to the fore again.

Bottom line: You’ll be happier and perhaps healthier if you can shape your life to extract as many benefits as possible from your natural tendencies!

Gemma Correll understands me!

CAN COVID CAUSE OCD?

Someone coughed. Just burn it down and start over.

Last Sunday I talked with a woman who said, “COVID is making me so OCD!”  She’s been working from home for months, in a state that is tightly locked down.  With her normal summer activities disrupted, her isolation has been filled with painting the baseboards and other wood trim, hanging her growing son’s clothes hooks higher, and weeding flowerbeds for hours.

“I get down on the floor to exercise and all I can focus on is the pulled place in the rug.  And then I look out the window and feel like I ought to be out there raking leaves, even though they’re only half down.  And this morning, I rearranged books size and color as well as type.

“See?  Completely OCD.”

Ready to go outside to fetch the mail!

OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) is a label that’s tossed around loosely, like beautiful or crazy. The woman I talked to is a good example.  OCD is casually applied to people who are finicky or particular about some one thing (e.g., straightening picture frames) rather than people with serious mental health problems that interfere with living a healthy, comfortable life. 

Technically, OCD applies only to people who use obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors in an attempt to deal with anxiety and fear. It’s a coping mechanism—another way to get through the day.

Dropped the mail. Better burn it.

Today, OCD is viewed by researchers as a spectrum, much like autism. It often develops in people with a genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders and mental illness, and this is the group most likely to develop true OCD in response to COVID. For these people, when the threat diminishes, the attempts to reduce the threat do not go away—and may worsen.

Not a healthy coping mechanism

Ideally, people with OCD receive treatment (usually a combination of medication and behavioral or exposure therapy) to deal with the condition. One of the major goals of treatment is learning not to try to avoid their fears. Instead, patients with OCD work to balance exposure to triggering conversation and information with healthful activities such as exercise, spending time outside, developing good sleep habits, etc., while doing things in line with personal and work-related goals.

It’s always important to coordinate the princesses on one’s dress with the princesses on one’s mask. The mask works better that way.

The spread of COVID has caused a spike in anxiety and fear for everyone (with the possible exception of some diehard deniers). The constant need for vigilance has forced nearly everyone to change daily habits, focus on ways to stay safe and well, and then to act on them. People who compulsively watch the news or spend hours on social media typically are more fearful.

Very young children do not need to wear masks. They are sticky petri dishes of germs and no mask could ever help with that.

Many people previously diagnosed with OCD are suffering greatly. Medical experts’ advice to wear a mask, wash hands thoroughly and often, avoid touching their faces, avoid being around sick people, disinfect surfaces most often touched, and socially distance requires a lot of attention throughout the day. People with a germ phobia may be unable to attend to anything else!  

Ideally, the OCD sufferer will do but not overdo: for example, to wash hands for twenty seconds and no longer—to focus on having done the hand washing, not on feeling clean. Tip: if you wonder whether you are over-doing it, you probably are.

A germ phobia as related to OCD is obvious. But according to Dr. Rachel Ginsberg of Columbia University, there are several possible impacts of the pandemic on OCD patients.

“Other types of OCD that can be triggered by this pandemic include somatic obsessions (concerns with illness or disease, such as headaches), sensory-focused symptoms (obsessing over sensations in the body or perceived feelings on the skin’s surface), feelings of over responsibility and inappropriate guilt (e.g. related to spreading the illness), and harm OCD (e.g. fear that one will be responsible for something terrible happening, such as unknowingly causing others’ death).

Umm… This doesn’t seem quite right.

Additional OCD symptoms might include magical thinking, superstitious fears, fear of harm coming to self or others because of not being careful enough (fear of spreading germs if you were unknowingly COVID-positive or asymptomatic), and religious obsessions or excessive fear of right vs. wrong.

Moreover, OCD symptoms may include needing to know or remember information related to updated guidelines, and related excessive information gathering and checking. In addition to handwashing and cleaning, compulsions that might present or worsen could include mental reviewing (of where you have been, how far you stood from someone else, what you might have touched), needing to tell/ask/confess to others, superstitious behaviors, and health-related compulsions (e.g. asking for excessive reassurance from doctors about health symptoms).”

Dr. Rachel Ginsberg
Some people just refuse to change their hygiene habits for any pandemic!

For some people, the pandemic is just proof that they were right all along: the world is truly a dangerous place. For mentally healthy people, this danger will pass when the pandemic passes: they are highly unlikely to develop lifelong OCD. In non-OCD people, when the threat diminishes, the compulsive threat-based behaviors will diminish.

Bottom Line: People are different. (You heard it here first!) In this instance, people will vary widely in the extent, severity, and duration of COVID-triggered obsessions and compulsions.

NIGHT TERRORS: MORE THAN DREAMS, MORE THAN NIGHTMARES

The Pooka (or Poukha or Puca), an Irish nightmare

A character’s “night life” can provide depth to the characterization and understanding for the reader. Nightmares and night terrors are both frightening, but the two sleep disorders are frightening in different ways to very different audiences. Knowing the distinctions will help you use them effectively in your writing.

Pity by William-Blake 1795

Adequate sleep, with all the different stages and cycles, is a crucial part of overall physical and mental well-being. Dreaming is absolutely necessary to good mental health. There is far too much detail to get into here, but research is clear. Indeed, repeatedly waking someone to prevent dreaming is a well-known form of torture.

What Are Nightmares?

Job’s Evil Dreams by William Blake

Nightmares are vividly realistic, disturbing dreams that rattle a person awake from a deep sleep. They often affect the body in the same way waking danger does. Adrenaline spikes, heart rate and respiration rate increase, and the body increases sweat production.

Rakshasa, a Hindu demon causing nightmares

Nightmares tend to occur most often during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when most dreaming takes place. Because periods of REM sleep become progressively longer as the night progresses, people experience nightmares most often in the early morning hours.

A Dream of Crime & Punishment (1847) by JJ Grandville

Some people wake from nightmares crying, while others may wake shaking from fear. After a nightmare, people often have trouble falling back to sleep. The combination of the stress hormones flooding through the body with whatever lingering images from the nightmare are stuck in the mind make it very difficult to relax enough to fall back asleep. Particularly disturbing nightmares can cause sleep disruptions for days and stick around in the brain for years.

What are Night Terrors?

Night terrors are recurring nighttime episodes that happen while a person remains asleep. They’re also commonly known as sleep terrors. When a night terror begins, a sleeper will appear to wake up. They might call out, cry, move around, or show other signs of fear and agitation.

Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking by Artus Scheiner

Other common reactions:

  • Screaming or crying 
  • Staring blankly
  • Flailing or thrashing in bed
  • Breathing rapidly 
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Becoming flushed and sweaty
  • Seeming confused
  • Getting up, jumping on the bed, or running around the room
The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch

A sleeper may become aggressive if a partner or family member tries to restrain them or keep them quiet. The episode can last for a few seconds or up to several minutes, though the sleeper typically doesn’t wake up. Most people fall right back to quiet sleep after a night terror.

Takagi Umanosuke Confronts the Ghost of a Woman
by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Night terrors are more common in young children, but they can disturb adults as well. An estimated 2 percent of adults also experience night terrors. In reality, this number may be higher, since people often don’t remember having night terrors. 

Night terrors usually happen earlier in the night, during the first half of the sleeping period. This is when a sleeper is in stages 3 and 4 of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, also called slow-wave sleep. It’s uncommon to have them twice in one night, though it can happen. 

What is the Difference Between Night Terrors and Nightmares?

Dream-Land etching (1883) by S.J. Ferris after a painting by C.D. Weldon

Night terrors may might seem similar to nightmares, but the two are different. In addition to the immediate mental and physical effects, the effect on witnesses or other members of a household are very different for night terrors and nightmares.

The Last Judgment (detail) by Jan van Eyck

When a sleeper wakes up from a nightmare, they will probably remember at least some of what the dream involved. Come morning, the sleeper is quite likely to remember the episode, though the memory may be vague.

During night terrors, the sleeper remains asleep and usually doesn’t remember what happened when they do wake up in the morning. The sleeper might remember a scene from a dream they had during the night terror episode, but it’s uncommon to recall any other part of the experience. 

The Orphans Dream (ca. 1900) by James Elliott

A partner, roommate, family member, or other witness to a night terror episode is likely to remember the experience quite well. The daughter of a friend has fairly frequent night terrors, during which she will wander out of the house in her pyjamas or physically attack her partner in his sleep. In the morning, she occasionally has grass on her feet or bruised knuckles but no memory of how she got them.

What Causes Sleep Disorders?

Nightmare by Eugene Thivier
SPECT Readout of a Sleepwalking Patient, from the Lancet

Many adults who experience nightmares or night terrors live with mood-related mental health conditions, such as depressionanxiety, or bipolar disorder.  Night terrors have also been associated with the experience of trauma and heavy or long-term stress

Physical factors can also contribute to the frequency of night terrors and nightmares. Sleep apnea is a very common cause of other sleep disorders. Some other possible causes

Khumbhakarna, a bringer of nightmares, in a temple in Bali

Frequent disruptions to sleep cycles (such as night terrors or nightmares) cause fatigue and, eventually, sleep deprivation. Fatigue and sleep deprivation increase the likelihood of having night terrors or nightmares. There’s no escape!

Nightmare (1810) by Jean Pierre Simon

Bottom Line for Writers: Characters can be just as interesting when they sleep! Why would your character have disrupted sleep, and how would they react? Would the sleep disruption be more effective if experienced by the narrator (nightmare or confusion after night terrors) or by someone close to the narrator (night terror or discussing remembered nightmare)?

Sleepwalker a rather odd statue put up in Boston in 2014 by Tony Matelli

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: FITNESS

Some people, I’ve heard, actually like to exercise. These people are probably playing games such as tennis, golf, basketball, etc. Maybe biking, hiking or kayaking. There are also people who enjoy lifting weights just for the sake of lifting weights. Is your character one of these? If so, how good is s/he?  And when did s/he take up the game?

Then there are activities that some people do for fun and others do as a means to a specific end. In this category I’d put swimming or water aerobics for a bad back, running to relieve stress, boxing as a form of anger management, yoga to relax. Some people bike or walk for fun; for many others, walking and biking is a primary mode of transportation.

This group also would include those people who work out primarily to get or keep a body beautiful.

For most of human history, the vast majority of people have gotten plenty of exercise just trying to stay alive. Farming, hunting, and gathering food require activities people pay big money to recreate in a gym today. Building defense structures, making tools and weapons, chopping wood, washing clothes, and travelling are all much more physically demanding without machinery to help. In almost every part of the world, there are still cultures today that rely primarily on human or animal labor rather than technology.

Some people exercise simply because they have to. Physical therapy can be done to prevent a future injury as well as to treat an existing injury. Martial arts practice can people alive in crisis situations, but regular practice has also been helpful in the treatment of mental illness. A home might only be reachable by strenuous hiking; a job might require frequent lifting and carrying.

At the other end of the spectrum are people whose preferred activity is reading novels while snarfing chocolates or swigging scotch. Or maybe that’s watching TV while munching chips and chugging beer. Sound like any characters you know?

But even these people have probably heard “sitting is the new smoking” when it comes to being detrimental to one’s health. This group of people will find the easiest or least painful way to stay minimally fit.

  • Go to the gym with a friend and enjoy the socialization
  • Join an exercise class that’s nearby
  • Hire a personal trainer
  • Get up for jumping jacks during commercial breaks
  • Lifting the coffee mug to take a sip counts as doing bicep curls

For some, getting dressed and going somewhere is too much effort—not to mention those who don’t want anyone to see them doing whatever it is they are doing.  And in these times of COVID-19, many people don’t want the exposure. These people are likely to choose a stay-at-home option.

  • Buy equipment to use at home:
    • Balance ball
    • Exercise bands
    • Graduated weights, hand-held or strapped to wrists/ankles
    • Heavy-duty weights, barbels, etc.
    • A multi-purpose machine such as Bowflex
    • NordicTrack or similar treadmill
    • Rowing machine
    • A compact elliptical trainer
    • Stationary bicycle
    • Some version of a vibrating plate

Note: Jugs of water, broken swivel chairs, flat-surface furniture, paper plates, and compliant dogs or small children can provide the same benefits as all of these expensive gadgets for almost no money at all!

3.1 How likely is your character to show up at the gym wearing only a towel?

Bottom line for writers: Know your characters’ fitness habits, particularly main characters. There are three components to a person’s/character’s exercise decisions

  1. How does s/he feel about fitness/exercise?
  2. What does s/he think about fitness/exercise?
  3. What does s/he actually do?

WHO’S IN CHARGE HERE?

In Vrindavan, India, a group of widows break social taboos and celebrate Holi, the festival of colors

Invictus by William Ernest Henley: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Compare that to “Life happens.” In essence, these are examples of internal locus of control and external locus of control, respectively. Most protagonists—for good or ill—have an internal locus of control.

Locus of control is a psychological concept regarding an individual’s belief system concerning the causes of experiences, successes, and failures. Psychologists have been studying locus of control for approximately 70 years, and a lot has been discovered. 

Note to writers: Be aware of what usually goes along with locus of control and how that might drive your characters.

Internal Locus of Control People

  • Are more likely to take responsibility for their actions
  • Tend to be less influenced by the opinions of others
  • Often do better when they are allowed to work on tasks at their own pace
  • Usually have a strong sense of self-efficacy
  • Feel confident in the face of challenges
  • Tend to work hard to achieve the things they want
  • Tend to be physically healthier
  • Report being happier and more independent
  • Often achieve greater work/professional success

Internals Say Things Like

  • “I know it’s up to me.”
  • “I have to learn how to become more successful at X.”
  • “I’m responsible for what happens in my life.”
  • “If I want better grades, I have to start working sooner.”

External Locus of Control People

  • Blame outside forces for their circumstances
  • Often credit luck or chance for any successes
  • Don’t believe they can change their situation through their own efforts
  • Frequently feel hopeless or powerless in the face of difficulties
  • Experiencing tasks as exceptionally difficult and consequently failing often can lead to developing an external locus of control as an ego defense mechanism

Externals Say Things Like

  • “It’s too hard to succeed these days.”
  • “The competition in my field is killing me.”
  • “Just when you think you’ll get ahead, fate kicks you in the ass.”
  • “The teacher had it out for me.”

Things to Keep in Mind When Determining Your Characters’ Behavior, Attitudes, and Feelings

  1. Locus of control is not an absolute, it’s a continuum.
  2. Men tend to have a more internal locus of control, women more external.
  3. When men fail, they tend to attribute the failure to luck or other external circumstances. When women fail, they are more likely to attribute the failure to their own abilities or efforts.
  4. When confronted with truly uncontrollable circumstances, externals are likely to suffer less psychological distress than internals.
  5. People who are externals are likely to experience anxiety because they believe they have no control over their lives, no predictability.

Roots of Locus of Control 

While there’s a tendency to assume a person was born that way, there’s lots of evidence that early life experiences have a strong effect.

  • Internals are more likely to have parents who encouraged independence.
    • Internals have parents who help them see the connections between their actions and the consequences.
    • Internals are likely to be healthier, less likely to be overweight, less likely to report poor health and high levels of stress.
  • Externals grew up seeing no relationship between what they did and what happened. 
    • Even worse, externals who were “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” suffer learned helplessness.

Bottom line for writers: Use locus of control and situational variables to up the stakes for your characters.

THERE’S KISSING, AND THEN THERE’S KISSING

When writers write about kissing, it’s almost always in the spirit of Klimt: love, passion, romance, sexual attraction, sexual activity, and/or sexual arousal. These kisses are often described in great detail: lips, tongue, involuntary reactions like breath and pulse, all taste, and smell. The reader is told whether it’s tender or demanding, hard or seeking, along with related sensations of hair, hands, body positions, and eye contact.

FYI, Kissing is the second most common form of physical intimacy among U.S. adolescents (after hand-holding). About 85% of 15-16-year-old have experience kissing. (At least, they say they do; one of the only things worse for a 15-16 year old to be caught doing than lieing on an anonymous survey is being shown to have less experience than their peers in any kind of sexual activity or exploration.)

Affection

Affectionate kisses are presented very differently. While not denying that affection can be a part of romantic/sexual kissing, it often has no erotic component at all.  Although seldom mouth-to-mouth, affectionate kisses are much broader, and can express loyal affection, gratitude, compassion, sympathy, joy, or sorrow. 

Affectionate kisses are common among family members, especially parents and children, and others who are “like family.” These are often cheek kisses accompanied by hugs. But affectionate kisses typically are not described with the sensory detail of erotic kisses. It is as if, given the context (of wedding, funeral, leave taking, illness, etc.) the act itself says it all.

Consider the possibilities of sensory description of affectionate kisses. A great-aunt’s overly strong perfume and clouds of fine, white hair obscuring vision as she leans in for a slightly whiskery kiss at a funeral. An exuberant friend hugging hard enough to squeeze breath out or lift someone off their feet entirely while smacking loud kisses on the cheek. A young child inadvertently pulling hair or scratching while pressing slobbery, banana-scented open-mouthed smears of affection to the face.

Greeting

Pro-forma kisses of friendship are common in Northern Africa, the U.S., Europe, and South America as a ritualistic form of salutation. Though occasionally given on the hand, most pro-forma kisses are on the cheek (or in the air next to the cheek). Think French cheek-kissing or Russian back-pounding hug accompanied by multiple kisses on both cheeks. Such kissing is very culture bound. The “rules” are different for every occasion in every society.

Joseph Stalin kissing pilot Vasily Molokov in congratulations, 1937

The Socialist Fraternal Kiss is a complicated bit of political theater, usually involving multiple kisses on the cheeks and lips combined with back-slapping and hand-shaking. Originally, it was a sign that all members of society should greet each other as equals rather than subjects kissing the hands or feet of a ruler. After World War II, the custom spread from Russia to Communist areas of Eastern Europe, Asia, and Cuba. The duration and intensity of the greeting kiss largely depended on the global standing of the country involved and the number of cameras in the area.

The Meeting at the Golden Gate by Giotto di Bondone

The Holy Kiss was an important part of early Christian ceremonies. Apostles were instructed to ‘salute one another with a holy kiss’ in several books of the New Testament, including St. Paul’s letters. This was later replaced with a handshake in Catholic services; in these days of COVID-19, congregants are encouraged to wave over the internet.

The Oceanic Kiss is not technically a kiss but is common in many cultures where actual kissing is not commonly practiced. Both parties approach and pass each other with their mouths slightly open but do not touch. Sniffing may be involved, so avoid the onions in these cultures.

Ritual

Ritual kissing has a long and varied history. Here again, the sensory detail is usually nil. Perhaps dwelling on the specific smell of feet or trying hard not to think of how many lips have rubbed that ring before yours.

Religion: kissing a temple floor, a religious book or icon. It conveys devotion, but also indicate subordination, or respect. Examples include kissing the Pope’s ring, or the foot of someone to show total subservience.

Joan of Arc Kissing the Sword of Deliverance by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The kiss of peace: while part of religious ritual, it was also long a tradition to signify reconciliation between enemies.

Pope Francis greeting Holocaust survivors

The kiss of death: a signal from the leader of a group that the receiver of a kiss on the cheek is marked for execution.

The Godfather, Part II

Learning to Kiss 

Contrary to common belief, kissing does not “come naturally.” Although some anthropologists hold that kissing is instinctual and intuitive, evolving from suckling or pre-mastication—and others maintain that kissing evolved from tasting the saliva of a potential mate to determine health—these are contradicted by societies where kissing was unknown prior to exposure to Europeans. These include indigenous people of Australia, the Tahitians, and many tribes in Africa. 

Some people learn a little later than others.
from The 40 Year Old Virgin

Perhaps the most convincing—and entertaining—evidence is when infants and young children are taught how to kiss.  Starting with the wide-mouthed cheek lick. They are taught who to kiss, where, and when it is an appropriate occasion for kissing, with plenty of hilarious trial and error. These vary widely across cultures and time periods.

The Lovotics Kissenger, a cell phone attachment that allows people to kiss while on opposite sides of the planet!

Kissing doesn’t happen in approximately 10% of the world’s population.  Some believe it is dirty. Others have superstitious reasons, as in the mouth is the portal to the soul, so kissing can allow one’s soul to be taken and invites death.  Some cultures see kissing purely as a form of greeting or a sign of platonic affection rather than being associated with sex at all. Researchers at the University of Nevada have found that societies near the equator are less likely to equate kissing with romance than with affection or greeting.

Health Benefits of Kissing

There’s a moratorium on a lot of kissing just now because it can transmit some infectious diseases (COVID-19 as the newest, mononucleosis and herpes simplex, to name a couple of oldies). But overall, kissing is good for one’s health.

Maybe it’s just safer to blow kisses.

Kissing stimulates the production of feel-good hormones such as endorphins and dopamine. Regular kissing protects against depression and stress. Married or cohabiting couples who increased their frequency of kissing reported less stress, and increase in relationship satisfaction, and—wait for it!—lower cholesterol levels.

Another possible meaning of the Kiss of Death is an infection of the herpes simplex virus in infants. An infected person kissing a newborn can easily pass the virus on, sometimes proving fatal to the baby.

History of Kissing

Graves found in Teppe Hasanlu, Iran and Valdara, Mantua, Italy indicate that humans have been kissing for at least 6,000 years.
Sanskrit Vedas

However kissing got started, it’s been around for a long time.  Kissing is believed to have originated and spread from India. The earliest documentation of kissing comes from Sanskrit scriptures important to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, around 3,500 years ago. It is present in Sumerian and ancient Egyptian love poetry, in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. 

Romans had separate words for kissing the hand or cheek (osculum), kissing relatives on the lips with closed mouth (basium), and passionate kissing (suavium). The French have at least 5 nouns for a kiss and at least 10 verbs for to kiss, depending on the sort of kiss being referenced. There are at least 12 German words for kiss.  Using the wrong word for the occasion in any of these languages can lead to very embarrassing linguistic

This blog has just skimmed the surface, raising things a writer might want to consider whenever kissing is part of a scene—or could be. If you are truly intrigued, check out The Kiss and its History, by Kristoffer Nyrop.

Bottom Line for Writers: the types and meanings of kisses are nearly infinite. Enrich your writing by giving each kiss the level of sensory details usually reserved for erotic kisses.

So much sensory detail!

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!