THE JANUS OF 20-21!

January is named for the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings and endings. He’s depicted with two faces, looking in opposite directions. In any event, this is the customary time of year for people to take stock of what was and what’s to come. 

In the most basic terms, we do know some things about 2021 for an absolute certainty. 2021—MMXXI if you’re particularly old-fashioned— will be a common year (not a Leap Year) starting on Friday of the Gregorian calendar. This is the 2021st year of the Common Era (CE) and Anno Domini (AD) designations, the 21st year of the 3rd millennium, the 21st year of the 21st century, and the 2nd year of the 2020s decade.

2021 Chinese Zodiac Predictions

Metal Ox, not Math Ox

In the Chinese Zodiac, 2021 will be a year of the Metal Ox beginning on February 12th (2020 was a Metal Rat). According to custom, the Ox is very hardworking and methodical.  In the year of the Metal Ox, we should all focus on relationships of all kind (so let’s hope we don’t have to keep social distancing too much longer).

The Ox is also associated with hard work and responsibility, so expect lots of that in 2021 as well. The repercussions of previously made decisions will hit this year (oh boy!), but at least all our hard work will be rewarded.

2021 Angel Number Predictions

Angel Numbers are a branch of numerology based on the idea that groups of reappearing numbers or sequences of numbers are coded messages from angelic protectors.

The Angel Number 2021 symbolizes faith, whether it be in your guardian angels, your relationships, or your own intuition. Don’t doubt that your angels have good plans for you and that allowing change will bring progress. Seeing Angel Number 2021 indicates that you need to control your thoughts more, as they can affect your reality.

As per the Numerology Horoscope 2021, this year will be good for you financially. You will have a balanced and flourishing family life. Though you may face some stressful situations in the middle of the year, you will gradually overcome those challenges with your understanding and wisdom.

What about 2020?

In general Numerology, 2020 is like 1616, 1717, 1818, and 1919, because the first two digits match the second two digits. Being alive in 2020 is special because it is the only year you are likely to live through wherein the first two digits will match the second two digits—unless you believe in cryogenics or reincarnation.

At what point do therapists start offering bulk discounts?

The energy represented by the number 2020 has a resonance of focus and relationships. It also resonates with conscientiousness, pragmatism, and teamwork.

Apparently, the Angel Number 2020 was telling us all to be prepared for what is coming our way. Guardian angels were telling us that extreme changes were about to enter our lives. Had we paid attention, perhaps we would have been more prepared, both mentally and physically.

“The year 2020 ushers in the Universal Year 4 – a number representing stability, organisation, industriousness, convention, and a mini-wealth cycle,” said Gracy Yap, a Singaporean numerologist and author of Secrets Of Golden Numbers.
Jan 3, 2020

It seems everyone said 2020 would be a year of healing and big changes. Well, that was half right.

Interestingly, no one foretold the COVID-19 pandemic or the upheaval surrounding our presidential (and other) elections. Massive wildfires in Australia and California, murder hornets, flesh-eating bacteria in Mississippi, swarms of locusts in Africa, and wide-spread civil unrest in Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, America, Hong Kong, and Sudan… none of these were mentioned in all those 2020 predictions.

Bottom line: We have every reason to believe that 2021 will be a good year, new president in place and COVID vaccinations injected. But don’t count on it!

READING HABITS: EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE ONE!

Most medical professionals agree that a reading habit is much healthier than a cocaine habit or a heroin habit (the ones that don’t are the same dentists who don’t suggest brushing your teeth).  For one thing, reading is good for your physical and mental health.  You probably know at least some of these benefits of reading every day, but just to review briefly:

  1. Improves brain connectivity
  2. Increases vocabulary
  3. Increases comprehension
  4. Readers are more able to empathize with others
  5. Aids sleep readiness (if it’s a physical book)
  6. Reduces stress
  7. Lowers blood pressure
  8. Lowers heart rate
  9. Helps reduce depression
  10. Reduces cognitive decline with aging
  11. Lengthens lifespan 

So, everyone should read, and it should start at an early age. According to doctors at the Cleveland Clinic, parents should start reading to/with their children from infancy through elementary school years.

  • Builds warm, happy associations with books
  • Increases the likelihood that kids will enjoy reading in the future
  • Reading at home boosts school performance later on
  • Increases vocabulary
  • Raises self-esteem 
  • Builds good communication skills
  • Physically strengthens the human brain
  • Builds attention span

What Should You Be Reading? 

Eating a book ensures full absorption and comprehension.

Whatever you can get your hands on!  Even before they know how to read, children will learn reading habits such as which way to hold a book and finding familiar pictures or letters on a page. It’s important to expose kids to books both above and within their current reading ability, in a wide variety of genres.

If you want some guidance on what is age-appropriate for children, you can get advice on-line and/or in actual books.  Each grade level in school typically requires students to pass reading skill tests before passing to the next level. Libraries are an excellent resource for book suggestions for children of any age or reading ability.

Every child learns differently and at a different pace. Whether in real life or in your writing, it is entirely too easy to limit children by expected levels or shame a child for not conforming to expectations.

Types of Readers

When it comes to reading habits, to each his or her own.  To use a biology analogy, the “family” of readers includes numerous “genera.” In some instances, there are even “species.”

Just about every reader belongs to more than one species to a greater or lesser degree. Many people adjust their reading habits as circumstances allow, changing when children are born or a job change requires a different commuting style.

High Need-for-Achievement Readers 
Whoever has to read this should be paid. Well paid.

These readers read almost exclusively within their professional area, e.g., mathematics journals or business publications or medical research papers, etc. These readers may or may not enjoy their reading, but they read nonetheless. Some professions, such as teachers and paramedics, require continual study and testing to maintain up-to-date certifications to practice.

OCD Readers 

If you start a book, you finish that book, no matter what. Anything else feels like failure. For more information about the difference between obsessive compulsive disorder and quirky fixations, check out this post I wrote about the character possibilities of each.

Spiritual Readers 
Alcoholics Anonymous encourages its members to read from a variety of religious and philosophical texts as part of completing the program.

Although this group includes those who read (and study) the Bible, it also includes anyone whose goal is spiritual enlightenment and growth.  Many Muslims read and recite the entire Qur’an during Ramadan every year as a form of meditation. Writings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh are widely read by people of many faiths.

Book Groupies 
The dog is always a receptive audience but usually doesn’t contribute much to the discussion.

These readers want someone to talk with about their reads—which can be more or less academic. Depending on how books are chosen, they are likely to end up reading things they would never have chosen for themselves, which can be good—or not so much. Book groups often have a specific focus, such as current fiction, or botany books, i.e., anything from the genre preferences.

Friends’ Reads 

Much like a book group, except it’s whatever one’s bridge buddies, neighbors, family members, et al. are reading, recommending, and/or lending. Depending on the interests of friends, this can lead to a very eclectic reading list. Reading what friends recommend or enjoy can strengthen social bonds by encouraging discussion of books read in common.

Bestseller Addicts 
Many libraries create their own best-seller (best-borrowed?) collections.

These readers are up-to-the-minute at the water-cooler and/or cocktail hour. They often operate on the presumption that if it appeals to enough people to be a bestseller, a book will appeal to themselves as well. The traditional gold standard here is The New York Times. The Times tracks the following categories:

  • Hardcover fiction
  • Hardcover nonfiction
  • Combined print & e-book
  • Paperback trade fiction
  • Combined print & e-book
  • Paperback nonfiction

Note: These bestsellers divisions take account of readers’ format preferences and allow for combining with one’s genre preferences.

Genre Loyalists 

These people know what they like and stick to it: a genre is characterized by similarities of form, style, or subject matter. Accordingly, pretty much any category of book is a genre—and I’m probably missing some here, but you get the idea:

  • Literary fiction 
  • Mystery/detective fiction 
  • Thriller
  • Horror
  • Historical fiction
  • Romance
  • Humor
  • Western
  • Bildungsroman
  • Science fiction
  • Fantasy/fairy tales
  • Magical realism
  • Biography
  • Autobiography
  • Memoir
  • Exposé/tell-all
  • Creative non-fiction
  • Nature writing
  • Environmental activism
Genre Junkies 

Often read more than one book a day, limited to a specific genre, sometimes a limited number of preferred authors.  Genre Junkies tend to prefer genres in which a plethora of books are available. A fan of books about Arctic Circle Siberian reptile varieties is likely to run out of material much more quickly than a fan of paranormal dystopian romance fantasy books.

Binge Readers

Exactly what it sounds like. These people often skip meals and sleep when a book is particularly hard to put down. Accomplished binge readers may even learn to walk, dress, cook, and feed the dog without putting down the book in their hand.

The Eclectic 

Reads anything and everything: blogs, poetry, nature, non-fiction, fiction, sci-fi, or whatever. An interesting book from thirty years ago is no lower on the list than the absolute latest best-seller. Eclectics are often bright, inquisitive, and frequent readers.

Ping-Ponging

Some readers have multiple books going and bounce back and forth among them. The bedside book, the lunch break book, the evening book, the boring book they know they should read for some obligation but just can’t seem to make it through… I haven’t seen any formal studies on the subject, but I would imagine that ping-ponging readers would be very good at multi-tasking.

Mini-Readers
Mini Reader and Micro Reader?

Some people have such packed schedules, they can seldom read for more than fifteen minutes at a time. A person who is able to keep track of characters and plotlines despite snatching only small doses has to have a pretty-good memory.

Night Readers

Generally caretakers or parents, some readers have to wait until their charges are asleep before picking up a book. Parenting and caregiving are both stressful occupations, and reading during naptime or after bedtime can provide absolutely necessary stress relief for Night Readers.

Self-Rewarders

Some people use reading as a form of reward, much as others might promise themselves a piece of chocolate or pair of shoes for completing an unpleasant task. Anyone who enjoys reading could be a self-rewarder: a doctor can only read the latest sci-fi bestseller after reading the latest medical journals; a parent can only read after finishing the laundry; a binge reader has to put the book down until dinner is finished.

Strugglers
Will Smith is just one of many dyslexics who encourage others to keep reading despite the difficulty.

As a visitor to a blog about writing and reading, you are probably someone who enjoys reading on some level. However, reading is difficult and not enjoyable for many adults. Some researchers estimate that 1 in 7 adults in the US are functionally illiterate; dyslexia, disrupted schooling, dyspraxia, and many other reasons could lead to a person reaching adulthood with only enough reading skill to be able to function in society.

When? Where?

Besides what we read, our reading habits include when and where we read.

  • Transit readers: they read on planes, trains, automobiles, and subways. Very careful transit readers may be able to read while walking; audio books make this much easier.
  • Bed-time readers: exactly what it sounds like.
  • TV readers: while one’s partner/house mate/family members watch something unappealing on TV, they hang out companionably and read.
  • Vacation readers: weekends, holidays, and vacations, kicking back with a good book. 
    • Not recommended because it isn’t daily.
  • Boredom readers: any waiting room or line that goes on forever.

Modern Options

Last but not least, how do we read?  Today there are more options than ever. There’s no reason not to read every day! The three basic options:

This seems a tad irresponsible…
  • Physical books: the traditional option, most researched, with best/most positive effects on health
  • E-books (available on devices from smart phones to tablets to computers to dedicated devices such as Kindle and Nook). Often the choice of people with vision issues (any book can be LARGE PRINT), frequent travelers (who once went abroad with a dozen books or more weighing down the luggage), and anyone who likes having a light-weight, portable library at hand.
  • Audio books: the choice for someone who wants to do something else simultaneously (e.g., go to sleep, knit, make dinner). Can contribute to distracted driving, so don’t do that while behind the wheel. Audio books are also indispensable for people with impaired vision.
Do other formats have the same health benefits of physical books? 
It’s clear from this child’s reckless and dangerous nighttime e-reading that someone has not kept up with their subscription to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

A study by Beth Rogowsky at Bloomsburg University “found no significant differences in comprehension between reading, listening, or reading and listening simultaneously” using e-readers—and the test was limited to comprehension. It’s too complicated to get into here, but you can check it out. By and large, the effects of reading physical books daily are well-documented. E-books offer some but not all of those benefits. Audiobooks are the great unknown.

Bottom line: develop or nurture your daily reading habits. There is much evidence that it’s good for you, and no negative side effects on record.

EDIBLE GOLD: IT’S A REAL THING. BUT WHY?

I was looking up something entirely different.  When I’d entered “history of” several (presumably popular) topics showed up, one of which was “history of eating gold.”  At the risk of revealing just how out of the food loop I am, eating gold was new to me.  So I read more.

According to Wikipedia, pictures of foods with edible gold are all over social media. (So maybe it isn’t just the food fad loop I’m out of!) Apparently this fad started as a viral phenomenon in Dubai, and now there’s a worldwide proliferation of restaurants and pastries using edible gold, including more accessible (i.e., less expensive) cafés and restaurants.

They missed a spot.
(Church of Camarate in Portugal)

Putting gold on food requires a very similar technique to putting gold on fancy furniture, musical instruments, books, paintings, and just about anything else that stood still long for Baroque decorators to gild. Gilders today primarily use oil gilding or water gilding techniques, both of which are virtually identical to techniques used by Egyptian tomb decorators in the 23rd century BCE. (Ceramic objects, large surfaces such as outdoor statues, and metal or glass surfaces are often gilded with other methods, most of which make food entirely inedible.)

Re-gilding the base of a Wurlitzer BB harp
  • The surface to be gilded is prepared.
    • Non-food surfaces are made as smooth as possible. This usually involves coating it with finely sanded gesso or a similar material.
    • Food surfaces are smoothed and settled. Any cooking should be done before applying the gold.
Only the edge of the gilding brush touches the gold leaf.
  • An adhesive is applied to the surface.
    • The smoothed gesso on non-food surfaces is covered with sizing.
      • Oil gilding uses linseed oil boiled with lead oxide litharge.
      • “Water” gilding uses rabbit-skin glue flooded with high-proof grain alcohol. (A friend who worked as a gilder told me she used Everclear; there was usually enough left for a drink when she finished a commission!)
    • Food surfaces are brushed with alcohol or very small amounts of water.
Gold leaf will stick to anything and tear.
  • The gold leaf, which is only a few molecules thick, is lifted using the static on a gilding brush or a special gilder’s knife. Touching the sheet of gold leaf directly will tear it.
  • Gold leaf is laid on the intended surface, gently pressed into adhesive with a soft brush, and left to dry.
    • For non-food gilding, the drying process includes a chemical bond forming between the gold leaf, the sizing, and the gesso underneath.
    • The adhesive water or alcohol used on edible gilding simply evaporates, leaving the gold leaf stuck to the surface below but not chemically bonded.
Re-gilding the column of an Erard Gothic harp
  • Excess gold leaf is brushed off, usually swept carefully into a jar to be used in another project.
  • After thoroughly drying (usually at least a day), the gilding is burnished. Because the gold is still thinner than the width of a human hair, burnishing must be done gently to avoid rubbing it off altogether.
    • Gold leaf applied with water gilding can be burnished to mirror brightness using agate stones.
    • It is very difficult to burnish gilding on food, though some people are just overachievers.
Show-offs
Gold leaf is very common on religious icons.

Most people are aware of gold used for gilding, artworks, architecture, and general beautification. Ancient Indians and Egyptians used gold in many ways: architecture, decoration, ornaments, religious ceremonies, and jewelry. They also used gold for mental, spiritual, and physical purification. They ingested gold in elixirs for medicinal purposes.

Ancient Egyptian braces
(I’ll bet he still forgot his retainer in the cafeteria.)

Medicines and elixirs made by court physicians, as well as the use of gold as a decorative garnish for foods and drinks, have been found in Japan, China, and India.

In Europe during the Middle Ages, gold as food decoration became a marker of extreme luxury and prestige. By this time, court physicians believed that gold could help with arthritis and other problems of sore limbs. During the Renaissance, this gold-as-medicine use got a big boost from Paracelsus (1493-1541), considered the father of modern pharmacology, who used gold in both pills and powders. This focus on gold for health held until the twentieth century.

Science DirectApplication of Gold in Biomedicine: Past, Present and Future
The gold in this jar, if pressed together, would almost be enough to fill a tooth.

But don’t rush out to grind up your gold jewelry. It won’t do anything for COVID-19! In fact, regular gold doesn’t do anything in the body: it isn’t even absorbed. There is some research underway into the use of particularly controlled gold nanoparticles as a system of drug delivery within the body, but that is still a long way from hitting the shelves at your local drugstore. Although edible gold is safe to eat, it has no nutritional value or health benefits. Also, be aware that edible gold must meet strict requirements under the code E 175. You can also find edible gold that is certified to be kosher or halal!

If you’re interested in eating gold, you can find it everywhere in the online market, worldwide, and from WalMart to Amazon. It’s available in gold leaves, flakes, or powders. And because it doesn’t do anything but look pretty, it’s usually used on top of the dish or drink. The New York restaurant Serendipity 3 has created the world’s (presumably most expensive) dessert: a $25,000 ice cream sundae 23-karat gold.

Hard Rock Café menu featuring a “24-Karat Gold Leaf Steak Burger”

A New York City food truck, 666 Burger, offered a “Douche Burger” for $666, to mock this trend. The burger includes Kobe beef, gruyere cheese, champagne steam, foie gras, and optional toppings such as lobster or caviar, all wrapped in gold leaf sheets. 

Franz Aliquo, the owner of 666 Burger said, “We took everything that people socially associate with rich people food and threw it on a burger and made it the most expensive, disgusting burger ever.” It may have been put on the menu as a joke, but the “Douche Burger” is not too far off from actual over-the-top expensive dishes (and burgers) on the menus at other restaurants. At least one person has tried to order the “Douche Burger” from the food truck.

.

.

“It’s a satirical expression of these burgers that people make and try to sell in all seriousness. We took the most offensive pieces from other famous burgers and just took it up a level. I mean, what’s the point of putting gold flakes on your food? It doesn’t add to the flavor. It’s just to be able to say you ate gold flakes.”

Franz Aliquo

Edible gold doesn’t oxidize or corrode. It is inert, has no taste, smell, or nutritional value. So why consume it?  Bottom line: conspicuous consumption.

Nothing says decadent extravagance like mashed potatoes.
Gilded chocolate crickets, anyone?

WRITING LIKE A CHILD

When a writer gets the voice right, it largely goes unnoticed. It’s a “good read” when the language, format, and structure seem more natural than noteworthy.

Writing Children

People often struggle to write from the point of view of a child, keeping the language and thinking consistently child-like. This is especially the case if one doesn’t have young children around spouting examples. One helpful step is to check on the language/vocabulary level by age. And as with everything else, there’s a book for that.

This is perfectly normal.

There are also a variety of resources available online. K. M. Weiland outlined “8 Necessary Tips for How to Write Child Characters” on the Helping Writers Become Authors website, in which she compares Shirley Temple’s characters with Louisa May Alcott’s. Julia Hecht wrote a more in-depth guide for the website All Write Alright. “A Guide to Writing Child Characters Authentically” identifies traits that children display when acting, speaking, and thinking at various ages from infant through teens.

Observing children and copying their behavior and speech patterns into your writing is the most reliable way to ensure authentically childlike characters. However, parents tend to get a bit uneasy when strange adults follow their children around with notepads. Videos online are a much safer method of research.

Children Writing

Less frequently—but equally important—is getting it right when the child is actually doing the writing. Instances might include letters, thank-you notes, notes passed in school, diary entries, etc.

Here for your edification (and enjoyment?) is one example—a short story by a real eight-year-old.

The Panda Thief

Ones there was a family
of Pandas. One day they had
a baby. They were over joyed
with :: but there 
was a person (not a panda)
that wanted a panda more
then anything in the worled.
She promest that if she
got just one panda she
wodent hunt them anymore.

Lukuly there was someone
who loved pandas so much
that she protekted
and her name was . . .
Nalani! She knew about
the theift so she really wanted
to proteked them so one
nite she made a trap
that rodent hert the thift
but keep her frome
comejng back. And she dided
ever again and Nalani said
“Thank you for not hunting 
Pandas in reward I will 
let you keep one that
yo may choose.”

The theft became
good and get a punda
and folowed her promes
and the panda 
she piked was the
newly born baby. The 
parents were sad for
a little but soon got over
it and everyone
lived hapily ever after!

The end

Things to note:

  • Language usage is much better than spelling
  • Spelling is mostly phonetic
  • Spelling is inconsistent (e.g., thief, theift, thift)
  • Lack of logic: there was no theft, and they ended up losing a baby panda anyway
Want to give it a try?

The Cat
Ones there was a cat
who’s oners coulded

Bottom line for writers: it’s easier to write well from a child’s point of view than to write like a child!

Writing examples from a two year old and then a three year old. I believe the one on the left is a shopping list. Fruit gummies were mentioned.

Isn’t It Poetic?

Surprise, surprise: the answer isn’t as straightforward as it might first seem. I’m pleased to share with you Douglas S. Jones’ thoughts on the matter.

Doug  Jones is well known in local writing groups and has taught dozens of students in the Richmond area. Full disclosure: Doug taught and mentored me for years! I especially appreciate Doug sharing his thoughts on what makes writing poetic because, as many of you know, I don’t “do” poetry.

Is it poetic?

When asked to define poetry, I thought: This is my punishment for not writing a dissertation.

Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines poem as “1) a composition in verse, especially one that is characterized by a highly developed artistic form and by the use of heightened language and rhythm to express an intensely imaginative interpretation of the subject.” This sounds like what my high school English teachers probably taught me. But then–rather like graduate school–the second and third definitions contradict and deconstruct the first: “2) a composition that, though not in verse, is characterized by great beauty or expression; 3) something having qualities that are suggestive of or likened to those of poetry: Marcel, that chicken cacciatore was an absolute poem.” So a poem is a composition in verse; a poem is a composition not in verse; chicken cacciatore is a poem (when Marcel makes it).

The same dictionary defines poetry as “1) the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts; 2) literary work in metrical form, verse; 3) prose with poetic qualities; 4) poetic qualities however manifested; 5) poetic spirit or feeling; 6) something suggestive of or likened to poetry: the pure poetry of a beautiful view on a clear day.” So poetry is different from prose, except when it is prose; it is written in verse, except when it is not; it is qualities or spirit or feeling or a beautiful view on a clear day.

I won’t bother listing the eighteen definitions of composition, or the fifteen definitions of verse. But I do think it’s worth noting that the word “verse” can be stretched in service of both “poetry” and “metrical composition distinguished from poetry because of its inferior quality [my emphasis].”  It may be “one of the lines of a poem” or (rarely) “a line of prose.” And verse and composition are both related to structure and music–elements which I suspect have more to do with what poetry is than beauty or elevated thought.

I turned from definitions to word origins. A poem is “something created,” John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins. “The word comes via Old French poeme and Latin poema from Greek poema”–which comes from poiesis, “making.” Writers may enjoy poetic license, bring characters to poetic justice, and aspire to become poet laureate. The latter also comes to us from Greece: when Apollo fell in love with Daphne (the daughter of a river) and tried to seize her, she escaped by turning into a laurel tree–which thereafter was sacred to Apollo. “The god ordered that laurel be the prize for poets and victors,” Robert Hendrickson writes in his Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, “this leading to the belief that laurel leaves communicated the spirit of poetry (the ancients put laurel leaves under their pillows to acquire inspiration while they slept).”

The notion of a “spirit” of poetry raises questions. Among them: Does a poem possess or suggest spirit more or other than that of the poet? Is poetry–as Samuel Coleridge famously suggested–“the best words in the best order”? If so, why should this apply only to poetry? Shouldn’t the same be equally true of good prose?

In his wonderful book How to Read a Poem (And Fall in Love with Poetry), Edward Hirsch writes:

Lyric poetry is a form of verbal materialism, an art of language, but it is much more than “the best words in the best order.” It is language fulfilling itself, language compressed and raised to its highest power. Language in action against time, against death. There are times when I am awestruck by the way that poems incarnate the spirit–the spirits–and strike the bedrock of being.

Other times I am struck by how little the poem has to go on, how inadequate its means. For what does the writer have but some black markings on a blank page to imagine a world? Hence these lines from the splendid Florentine poet Cuido Cavalanti–

Noi sian triste penne isbigottite
le cesoiuzze e’l coltellin dolente.

We are the poor, bewildered quills,
the little scissors, and the grieving penknife.

In his preface to Obra poetica, Jorge Luis Borges writes “the taste of the apple … lies in the contact of the fruit with the palate, not in the fruit itself; in a similar way (I would say) poetry lies in the meeting of the poem and reader, not in the lines of symbols printed on the pages of a book.” Poetry is interactive. Reading a poem completes it, like closing an electrical circuit. Although we can return and refer to it on the page, I think of poetry as fugitive. While you are reading it (or hearing it read) it travels through time and space. Consider the following:

Detail

I was watching a robin fly after a finch–the smaller bird
chirping with excitement, the bigger, its breast blazing, silent
in light-winged earnest chase–when, out of nowhere
over the chimneys and the shivering front gardens,
flashes a sparrowhawk headlong, a light brown burn
scorching the air from which it simply plucks
like a ripe fruit the stopped robin, whose two or three
cheeps of terminal surprise twinkle in the silence
closing over the empty street when the birds have gone
about their own business, and I began to understand
how a poem can happen: you have your eye on a small
elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth
strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.

Eamon Grennan

The poem flies: we follow it from bird to bird to “terminal surprise.”  It begins not with the abstract, but the specific–and the accumulation of specific details is what makes the poem ring true. There is movement in every line: watching, chirping, blazing, shivering, scorching. Even nouns and adjectives move: “a light brown burn/ scorching the air,” “the stopped robin” (my emphasis). The “I” observing the bird becomes the “you” with “your eye on a small elusive detail.” Then the reader becomes both poet and bird, observing and observed: “a terrible truth/ strikes, and your heart cries out, being carried off” (my emphasis). In the end we have not only read or heard the poem: we have in a sense experienced it, flown with and been snatched away by it. The poet meanwhile is self-effacing, claiming only to have begun “to understand/ how a poem can happen.” The poem happens–it is an event, shared between speaker and listener. As Robert Frost notes: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”

Hirsch continues:

Poetry alerts us to what is deepest in ourselves–it arouses a spiritual desire which it also gratifies. It attains what it avows. But it can only do so with the reader’s imaginative collaboration and even complicity. The writer creates through words a felt world which only the reader can vivify and internalize. Writing is embodiment. Reading is contact.

We can teach poetry by reading poems, reading poets, and reading what they write about what they do: from Aristotle’s Poetics and Horace’s Ars Poetica to Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism”; from Wordsworth’s Prelude to Kenneth Koch’s “The Art of Poetry.”

And of course we can also teach poetry by encouraging students to write poetry of their own, to experiment with form, to write poems “in the style of”–and by helping them to find their subjects.  Towards this last goal, consider the following from Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, authors of The Poet’s Companion:

We’ve been told again and again to write about what we know, but we don’t trust that advice…. John Keats wrote to a nightingale, an urn, a season. Simple, everyday things he knew. Walt Whitman described the stars, a live oak, a field. Elizabeth Bishop wrote about catching a fish, Wallace Stevens about a Sunday morning, William Carlos Williams about a young housewife and a red wheelbarrow. They began with what they knew, what was at hand, what shimmered around them in the ordinary world….

The trick is to find out what we know, challenge what we know, own what we know, and then give it away in language: I love my brother, I hate winter, I always lose my keys. You have to know and describe your brother so well he becomes everybody’s brother, to evoke the hatred of winter so passionately that we all begin to feel the chill, to lose your keys so memorably we begin to connect that action to all our losses, to our desires, to our fears of death. Good writing works from a simple premise: your experience is not yours alone, but in some sense a metaphor for everyone’s.

In the end, I think poetry communicates something like Whitman’s barbaric yawp. We are, in fact, not alone on the planet. The ordinary world is, in fact, extraordinary. The spoken word is not how we compare ourselves out of community or fraternity or sorority or society, but rather how we find our place within. As Appalachian poet Charles Boyd writes:

As you are reading
this–now, in the same moment
I am writing it.

Touchstones
  • Aristotle: Poetics.
  • Horace: Ars Poetica.
  • Barthes, Roland: The Pleasure of the Text.
  • Bloom, Harold: Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism.
  • Brooks, Cleanth: The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry.
  • Calvino, Italo: Six Memos for the Next Millenium.
  • Frye, Northrop: Anatomy of Criticism.
  • Heidegger, Martin: Poetry, Language, Thought.
  • Mill, John Stuart: Dissertations and Discussions.
  • Pascal, Blaise: Pensees.
  • Plato: Collected Dialogues.
  • Santayana, George: Essays in Literary Criticism.
  • Sapir, Edward: Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech.
  • Wimsatt, W. K.: The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry.
  • Zumthor, Paul: Oral Poetry: An Introduction.

Douglas Jones has written and seen produced more than forty plays and screenplays, including the musical Bojangles (music by Tony Award-winning composer Charles Strouse, lyrics by Academy Award-winning Sammy Cahn), The Turn of The Screw, and his award-winning Songs from Bedlam–which Backstage declared “a triumph,” and D.C.’s Studio Theatre said “achieves a rare and magnificent balance between brutal reality and sublime fantasy.” His docudrama 1607: A Nation Takes Root plays daily at the Jamestown Settlement & Yorktown Victory Center. 

He was awarded the Virginia Commission for the Arts Playwriting Grant in 2006, the Martha Hill Newell Playwrights Award in 2015, and the Emyl Jenkins Award for Promoting Writing and  Education in 2016. He teaches memoir, playwriting, and other classes at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and The Visual Arts Center, and is a member of The Dramatists Guild. He lives in Richmond with his wife actress Harriett Traylor.

MORE THAN ONE WAY TO SKIN A CAT

(No cats were harmed in the making of this blog.)

Which is to say, there is more than one way to say just about anything. Idioms, slang, and dialect vary greatly by geographic location and by time, so they can be a great way to ground a character in a particular time and place. Here, for your enjoyment and inspiration, are some variations on common concepts.

Drunk

Commode-hugging drunk
  • Inebriated
  • Intoxicated
  • Buzzed
  • Blitzed
  • High
  • Knee-walkin’ drunk
  • Commode-hugging drunk
  • Boozed up
  • Feeling no pain
  • Plastered
  • Ploughed
  • Bladdered
  • Liquored up
  • Under the influence 
  • Seeing double
  • Wall-eyed
  • Goggled
Sloshed
  • Stewed
  • Pickled
  • Battered
  • Blotto
  • Pissed
  • Three sheets to the wind
  • Drinks like a fish
  • Lit up like a Christmas tree
  • Drunk as a skunk
  • Pissed as a newt
  • Tight as a tick
  • Rat-arsed
Legless
  • Under the table
  • Bend an elbow
  • In the bag
  • In his/her cups
  • On Liquorpond Street
  • Away with the fairies
  • Have a load on
  • Well oiled
  • Lush
  • Worse for wear
  • Off the wagon
  • So drunk he opened his shirt collar to piss

Evil/Mean

Covidiot
  • Devil
  • Scum bucket
  • Sinner
  • The second half of saints and sinners
  • Troublemaker 
  • Villain
  • Benighted
  • Snake in the grass
  • Back-biting
  • Oxygen thief
  • Lower than a snake’s belly (in a wagon rut)
  • Sonofabitch 
  • Abbreviated piece of nothing
  • Farging icehole

Frigidity/Arousal/Sex (Female)

Amazons
  • Colder than a witch’s tit
  • Cold fish
  • Like making love to a corpse
  • Enough to make a man choose celibacy 
  • Built like a brick shit-house
  • Body to die for
  • Man magnet
  • Everyman’s wet dream
  • Wanton
  • On the pull
  • Always ready to ride
  • Just call her Eveready
  • Get a bit of sugar stick
  • Make a sausage sandwich
  • Give juice for jelly
  • Little Miss Roundheels
  • Celing Inspector
  • MILF/ GILF
  • No better than she should be
  • She’ll put out for anything in pants
  • She’s had more pricks than a secondhand dartboard
  • Scarlet woman  
  • Cougar
  • Cure for an Irish toothache
  • Go like a herd of turtles

Impotence/Arousal/Sex (Male)

Bro or Dude-bro
  • Can’t get it up/ can’t keep it up
  • Wilts like cut flowers in the sun
  • Drained away like an ice cube in the desert
  • Get a hard on
  • Get his rocks off
  • Carrying a woody
  • Hung like a prize bull
  • Butter her buns
  • Put his little hat on
  • He’s a regular Energizer Bunny
  • Manwhore
  • Roacher
  • Rake
  • Lounge lizard
  • Beau-nasty
  • Dipping his wick
  • Jumping her bones
  • Doing a little front-door work
  • Ring her bells/chimes
  • On the make
  • Jesuit boxer
  • Punk
  • Gym rat
  • Tosser
  • He’d fuck anything with a hole in
  • He gets more ass than a toilet seat
  • All mouth and no trousers

Incompetent

Not the sharpest tool in the shed/ brightest crayon in the box
  • All foam, no beer
  • Doesn’t have all her cornflakes in one box
  • All the cheese slid off his cracker
  • Body by Fisher, brains by Mattel
  • Can’t find his ass with both hands
  • Her sewing machine is out of thread
  • Receiver is off the hook
  • Skylight leaks a little
  • Not up to XXX
  • Not cut out for XXX
  • Out to lunch
  • Just doesn’t have it
  • Can’t walk and chew gum at the same time
  • He would fuck-up a wet dream
  • Not able to hit the ground with his hat
  • Batting zero
  • One step forward, three steps back

Lazy

Permanently set to “Stand-By”
  • Layabout
  • Do-nothing
  • Shiftless
  • Slow as molasses in January
  • Doesn’t have the gumption God gave a turnip
  • His get up and go has got up and gone
  • Too lazy to scratch an itch
  • Wouldn’t even scratch his ass if he could get someone else to do it for him
  • Laggard
  • Goldbrick
  • Freeloader
  • Sponger
  • He counts sawing logs as working

Mentally Unbalanced

Coocoo for Cocoa Puffs
  • Insane
  • Bonkers
  • Crazy
  • Berserker
  • Cracked
  • Lunatic
  • Deranged
  • Mad as a hatter
  • Nut case/job
  • Fruitcake
  • Potty
  • Psycho
  • Mental
  • Unglued
  • Batty
  • Bats in the belfry/attic
  • Looney (Tunes)
  • Has a screw loose
  • Sees the world slant/sideways
  • Has his/her own reality

Stupid

The lights are on, but nobody’s home.
  • World’s only living brain donor
  • Musclebound between the ears
  • Not enough brains to give himself a headache
  • Not the sharpest tool in the shed
  • A few clowns short of a circus
  • A few fries short of a Happy Meal
  • An experiment in Artificial Stupidity
  • A few beers short of a six-pack
  • Dumber than a box of rocks
  • A few peas short of a casserole
  • Has an IQ of 2, but it takes 3 to grunt
  • The wheel’s spinning but the hamster’s dead
  • One Fruit Loop shy of a full bowl
  • Sharp as a corner on a round table
  • One taco short of a combination plate
  • A few feathers short of a whole duck
  • Warning: objects in mirror are dumber than they appear
  • Couldn’t pour water out of a boot with instructions on the heel
  • Fell out of the Stupid Tree and hit every branch on the way down
  • An intellect rivaled only by garden tools
  • As smart as bait
  • His chimney’s blocked
  • She’s so dumb she thinks her bottom is just to sit on
  • Elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top floor
  • Forgot to pay his brain bill
  • Antenna doesn’t pick up all the channels
  • His belt doesn’t go through all the loops
  • If he had another brain, it would be lonely
  • Missing a few buttons on her remote control
  • No grain in the silo
  • Proof that evolution CAN go backwards
  • Several nuts short of a full bar
  • Surfing in Nebraska
  • Slinky’s kinked
  • Too much yardage between the goalposts
  • One of her dogs has slipped the leash
  • Dead from the neck up
  • Only 50 cards in his deck

Ugly

A face like the south end of a horse walking north
  • A face only a mother could love
  • A face not even a mother could love
  • Should have been drowned at birth
  • As for how s/he looks, s/he has a great personality
  • Homely
  • Ill-favored
  • Not much to look at
  • As attractive as hairs on a mole
  • Beaten with an ugly stick
  • Doesn’t need a mask for halloween
  • A face that could crack mirrors
  • Face that could scare the walking dead
  • “If my dog was as ugly as he is, I’d shave his butt and walk him backward!”
The Bard is a very useful friend to those looking for creative insults.

For more feline desquamation alternatives, browse through variations of slang used in countries where English is spoken around the world. Some of my favorites are Irish, Scottish, Jamaican, Kiwi, Australian, South African, and New York English. (Yes, New York English deserves a separate listing.) If you really want be specific about a character’s background, consider idioms and slang distinct to a particular region within a country.

Bottom line for writers: fresh phrases or clichés, take your pick.

FINDING THE LOST GENERATION

The Lost Generation is a term sometimes used for the post-World War I generation overall, but more frequently it refers to a group of American writers who became adults during or shortly after World War I.  They established their literary reputations in the 1920s and 1930s.  In France, these writers were sometimes referred to as Génération du feu, the “(gun)fire generation.”

Gertrude Stein is credited for coining the term Lost Generation, but Ernest Hemingway made it widely known. According to Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964), Stein had heard it used by a garage owner in France, who dismissively referred to the younger generation as a “génération perdue.” In conversation with Hemingway, she turned that label on him and declared, “You are all a lost generation.” He used her remark as an epigraph to The Sun Also Rises (1926), a novel that captures the attitudes of a hard-drinking, fast-living set of disillusioned young expatriates in postwar Paris.

Andre Breton, Manifesto of Surrealism 1924

The generation was “lost” in the sense that it dismissed the values of the older generation no longer relevant in the postwar world. Though the change in artistic expression took place in many creative outlets and focused in several regions, the “Lost Generation” is generally used to refer in particular to American writers living in Paris between the World Wars. Many of these authors felt an alienation from a United States that, under Pres. Warren G. Harding’s “back to normalcy” policy, seemed to these writers to be hopelessly provincial, materialistic, and emotionally barren.  

Max Beckmann The Night (Die Nacht) 1918-1919

The First World War was the first time in history that chemicals and machines capable of inflicting mass carnage were widely used. Instead of charges and sorties like “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” infantry soldiers in trench warfare spent weeks at a time in close quarters with the bodies of their former allies, following futile battle strategies designed for previous wars and weapons. Having seen pointless death on such a huge scale, many lost faith in traditional values like courage, patriotism, and masculinity. Some in turn became aimless, reckless, and focused on material wealth, unable to believe in abstract ideals.

This change in values and social expectations is reflected in the language used by authors between the World Wars. Paul Fussel, author of The Great War and Modern Memory (Fussell, Paul, 1924-2012. © Oxford University Press.) illustrates the difference between “raised, essentially feudal language” used before the War and the more prosaic vocabulary used after. Foe became enemy; perish became die; warrior became soldier; vanquish became conquer; assail became attack; ashes or dust became dead bodies.

George Grosz “Grey Day” 1921

Everything that was traditionally structured or confining was stripped, allowing artists of all sorts to build new styles. Composers wrote without the usual chord progressions and cadences; they experimented with new types of ensembles or juxtaposed odd instruments. Dancers took off their pointe shoes and combined ballet with folk styles from India and South America. Women cut their hair short and loosened their corsets.

In 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald had a big year: he published his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, his first collection of short fiction, Flappers and Philosophers and his story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” was published in The Saturday Evening Post that May.

George Barbier “AuRevoir” 1920

The term embraces Gertrude Stein, Ernest HemingwayF. Scott FitzgeraldJohn Dos PassosE.E. CummingsArchibald MacLeishHart Crane, T.S. Eliot, and other writers who made Paris the center of their literary activities in the 1920s. They were acquainted and crossed each other in Europe, but often had rocky relationships.

Kate O’Connor (Lost Generation by Kate O’Connor, licensed as Creative Commons BY-NC-SA (2.0 UK) identified three themes of Lost Generation work. I quote her here.

Decadence – Consider the lavish parties of James Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or those thrown by the characters in his Tales of the Jazz Age. Recall the aimless traveling, drinking, and parties of the circles of expatriates in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast. With ideals shattered so thoroughly by the war, for many, hedonism was the result. Lost Generation writers revealed the sordid nature of the shallow, frivolous lives of the young and independently wealthy in the aftermath of the war. 

Costumes designed by Salvador Dali for the ballet Mysteria

Gender roles and Impotence – Faced with the destruction of the chivalric notions of warfare as a glamorous calling for a young man, a serious blow was dealt to traditional gender roles and images of masculinity. In The Sun Also Rises, the narrator, Jake, literally is impotent as a result of a war wound, and instead it is his female love Brett who acts the man, manipulating sexual partners and taking charge of their lives. Think also of T. S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and Prufrock’s inability to declare his love to the unnamed recipient. 

Women Tango postcards by Suzanne Meunier

Idealised past – Rather than face the horrors of warfare, many worked to create an idealised but unattainable image of the past, a glossy image with no bearing in reality. The best example is in Gatsby’s idealisation of Daisy, his inability to see her as she truly is, and the closing lines to the novel after all its death and disappointment: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eludes us then, but that’s no matter- to-morrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther… And one fine morning— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

From the television adaptation of Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford

Kirk Curnutt, author of several books about the Lost Generation writers suggested that they were expressing mythologized versions of their own lives.

In an interview for The Hemingway Project, Curnutt said: “They were convinced they were the products of a generational breach, and they wanted to capture the experience of newness in the world around them. As such, they tended to write about alienation, unstable mores like drinking, divorce, sex, and different varieties of unconventional self-identities like gender-bending.”

Bottom line for writers: it’s been 100 years, but their work shouldn’t be lost. There’s a lot of good stuff here. Find yourself a Lost Generation writer to enjoy. 

Gassed by John Singer Sargent

JEWELRY AS MORE THAN BEAUTIFICATION: IDENTIFICATION, INFORMATION, AFFILIATION, COMMUNICATION

I’m a jewelry junkie: even staying home I wear earrings, a necklace, a bracelet (only one, unless we’re talking bangles), and at least two decorative rings. If I didn’t wear a lot of jewelry every day, how could I justify having so much of it? For me, and for those who know me, it’s just my style: sterling silver with stones such as jasper, carnelian, onyx, and lapis lazuli.

Museum visits just aren’t complete until whatever jewelry displays are available have been viewed. There are quite a few you can visit online right now!

Nassarius shell beads found in Turkey
Animal bones that may have been Neanderthal adornments

It might be argued that jewelry has been around as long as humans have. The oldest known human jewelry is 100,000-year-old Nassarius shells that were made into beads. An archaeological dig in Croatia provided some evidence that Neanderthals might have made jewelry from 35,000 years before that!

As you probably know, jewelry has been made from such natural materials as bone, animal teeth, shells, pearls, wood, carved stones, and many combinations thereof—and it still is! The term baroque comes possibly from the Portuguese baroca for a misshapen pearl. Less stable materials have rarely withstood the test of time, but people have and do make fabulous adornments from feathers, animal skins, paint, clay, dried leaves, flowers, paper, and even hair. And consider how many body parts you’ve seen adorned with jewelry—for example hairpins, tiaras, earrings, nose rings, neck rings, finger rings, toe rings…

Ring found in an Aztec tomb

Throughout history, people of high importance or status have historically had more jewelry than others, and often were buried with it. Burial spots of Viking chiefs, Egyptian nobles, and Chinese warlords are identified as such because of the fancy weapon and fabulous jewelry next to the corpse. In Ancient Rome, only people of certain ranks could wear rings.

But I started by saying jewelry can be more than beautification.  In earlier times, jewelry served to pin clothes together, to restrain hair, to hide weapons, and as a method of storing wealth.

Identification

The US military will now allow personnel to list The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM or Pastafarian) as a religious preference on dog tags.

Can we count dog tags as jewelry? Made specifically for the purpose of identifying military, they have a long and erratic history. In English, the term “dog tag” comes from the resemblance to animal registrations.

Signaulum

The earliest mention of an identification tag for soldiers comes in the writings of Polyaenus, who described how the Spartans wrote their names on sticks tied to their left wrists. A type of dog tag (“signaculum“) was given to Roman legionaries at the moment of enrollment: a lead disk on a leather string, worn around the neck, with the name of the recruit and the legion to which the recruit belonged. 

Dog tags were provided to Chinese soldiers as early as the mid-19th century. During the Taiping revolt (1851–66), both the Chinese Imperial Army regular servicemen and rebels wearing a uniform wore a wooden dog tag at the belt, bearing the soldier’s name, age, birthplace, unit, and date of enlistment. 

U.S. military personnel have worn dogtags since 1918, primarily for the purpose of handling casualties and deaths. (FYI: There were no official dog tags during the American Civil War. Some soldiers pinned pieces of paper with identifying information to their clothes. A few enterprising jewelry makers started making custom-ordered identification pins for soldiers to buy.)

French or Danish signet ring, unknown owner

Consider other types of ID jewelry: ID bracelets, pendants that spell out a name (usually only a first name). In some places, slaves were made to wear permanent bracelets or necklaces identifying their position and owner. In the days before photographic IDs, people used signet rings to prove their identity when giving orders or sending letters.

Information

Fancy medical alert bracelets

Dog tags show more than just identification; they now include basic medical details like blood type and inoculations as well as religious affiliation.

Staff Sgt. Ivor Griffin with the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor he earned for his service in World War II, finally presented to him at 92 years old

The military is big on jewelry to convey information: number of stripes, number of stars, Purple Hearts, and other medals proclaiming one’s expert standing or honors.

Medical alert jewelry (typically bracelets) to proclaim diabetes, a heart condition, serious allergies, etc., in case medical treatment is needed for someone who cannot talk.

In past years, “mourning jewelry” made of jet or the woven hair of the deceased proclaimed one’s grief—often for a specified period of time, depending on relationship. Malaysian, Aztec, Chinese, Indian, Zulu, Egyptian, and Celtic funeral traditions all include specific jewelry for the corpse or the bereaved. The Victorians (of course) had incredibly detailed and strict rules about what type of mourning jewelry was to be worn, by whom, for which occasion, and for how long after a loved one died.

Traditionally, Japanese women’s hair and hair accessories were practically a résumé in code. The type and placements of a woman’s kanzashi (簪) hairpieces signified marital status, age, profession, social class, training level, etc. The most elaborate hairstyles and kanzashi were worn by geisha, courtesans, and women studying arts such as flower arrangements and tea ceremonies. Kanzashi were originally worn to ward off evil spirits, and they often doubled as weapons.

Maasai women communicate similar status messages in traditional bead-work. Traditionally, every woman learns how to weave together the intricate bead patterns and designs. The jewelry design and color indicates the family a person is from and how wealthy the family is. It also indicates the status of a Maasai woman, whether she is single, engaged or married.

Claddagh rings are common in Irish weddings, signifying love, loyalty, and friendship

And, of course, wedding rings signaling that (presumably) one is not available for romantic or sexual relationships. (FYI, wedding rings for men are relatively recent: by the mid-1940s, 85% of weddings included rings for both bride and groom.) Throughout most of Europe and America, wedding rings are worn on the left hand. In some countries, particular in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, wedding rings are worn on the right hand.

Affiliation

This may be the most common use of jewelry of all (except as pure adornment). On college campuses, Greek fraternities and sororities each have their unique “pins,” worn by members. Consider the jewelry Masons wear, and the rings worn by “Eastern Star” members, the group for women affiliated with a Mason. Other fraternal organization that have nothing to do with college campuses abound, along with their identifying jewelry.

Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts have pins declaring their rank and troop number, but other pins and badges are earned through service and awarded like military honors. Nurses, doctors, firefighters, paramedics, dentists, and many other professionals are presented with pins when they graduate. The pin is a sign of certification and of membership in the group.

The United States Congress has an entire system of jewelry for members. Lapel pins, ribbons, and necklaces show which party a Senator, Representative, spouse, or page belongs to and which Congress they are a member of. Each Congress designs a new design and color scheme.

Mayan nobility may have worn as much as 20 pounds of jewelry while dancing

Jewelry made of precious metals and precious gems, especially designer jewelry, clearly proclaim wealth, and sometimes status.  Societies that are very conscious of class divisions are more likely to place importance on specific types of jewelry worn in public.

Ancient Egyptians used symbols on their jewelry to show territorial pride. The white vulture represented Nekhbet, patron of the Upper Egypt, and the red cobra stood for Wadjet and Lower Egypt.  When the kingdoms were combined, the Pharaoh signified leadership of Upper and Lower Egypt by wearing a crown with a both the cobra and the vulture.

During the Medieval period in Europe, royalty and nobility considered the wearing of fashionable clothing and jewelry a special privilege reserved for themselves. To enforce this idea, sumptuary laws were initiated, primarily in the 14th century. Such laws were meant to curb opulence and promote thrift by regulating what people were allowed to wear. The English sumptuary laws forbade clothing and jewelry of certain materials, above certain price levels, of certain sizes, etc.

Ring with vodun veve sign

Religious affiliation can be signaled by jewelry, usually with symbols of the faith itself, though sometimes with the presence or absence of the jewelry or by what is covered by the jewels. The Star of David for Jews, a crucifix or a stylized fish for Christians. Buddhists may wear a lotus blossom or an image of Buddha. People who fervently believe in the power of Hogwarts may wear the Sign of the Hallows or a symbol of their House mascot.

Communication

Madame Secretary says, “I think this room is bugged.”

All of the above involve communication of some sort. The Smithsonian has a traveling exhibit on jewelry as a form of language and expression, particularly the pins of Madeleine Albright. The former Secretary of State loaned her extensive collection of brooches, many of which had specific messages for those in the know. Queen Elizabeth Tudor is rumored to have had a similar system of jewelry signals for her vast network of spies, but nothing has ever been proven (probably because historians are not spies).

From the Smithsonian National Museum of American History exhibit: Illegal To Be You

Secret messages can be communicated through jewelry even if the wearer is not a politician. In communities where homosexuality is illegal, LGBTQ people will often develop among themselves a discreet code of earrings or particularly colored necklaces. In America before the 1970s, this often took the form of a ring on the pinkie finger or a single earring in the left earlobe. During the American Civil War, abolitionists in Confederate States wore a red ribbon or string to signal that they would help escaping slaves move to safety.

Small squares of colorful beads known as Zulu Love Letters are gaining popularity in South Africa again. Like Maasai necklaces, each bead’s color and its placement in relation to others has a meaning. Together, the beaded designs send a message of love or affection.

Protea, shown here in a corsage, worn for compassion, integrity, or peace (depending on the location)

Perhaps the most ephemeral jewelry of all—flowers—have a very long history of communicating when worn as adornments. Flowers and greens mean different things in different cultures, but they nearly always mean something pleasant when worn on the body. Hawaiian orchids woven in a lei with jasmine blossoms, carnations, or kika blooms are given as a sign of welcome or farewell. The Victorians had such a specific flower code that people could have entire conversations without saying a word, just by wearing combinations of blooms at various times.

Protection

Sign against the Evil Eye

In addition to wearing a religious symbol as a way of declaring one’s membership in a group, many people wear religious amulets or reliquaries for protection from evil influences. In the Middle Ages in Europe, ecclesiastical rings worn by clergy and laymen as sacred emblems, were one of the few exceptions to the nobility’s limits on jewelry.

Curative rings, meant to cure ailments and diseases, were another exception to Medieval sumptuary laws. Necklaces with pouches of herbs, hair ornaments made of holy or lucky materials, and bracelets blessed by clergy are just a few of the ways people have used jewelry in an attempt to guard their health.

Many cultures allow women ownership only of her jewelry, given to her as bride gifts or a dowry. This can give women some degree of financial freedom. She will have ready access to cash if there is an emergency or if she needs to leave her home.

Jewelry can also double as weapons! Roman women wore hairpins that were long enough to be used in self-defense. Rings can double as a variation of brass knuckles or contain poison. Necklaces and very long bracelets can be turned into garrotes or used to tie up an enemy. An enterprising magic user can attach hex bags or cursed amulets to necklaces given as gifts. All sorts of useful methods of assassination can be hidden in lockets, brooches, arm cuffs, or anklets.

Domination

Jewelry that contains part of your soul may seem extra intimidating, but it will likely to be an eventual liability.

One of the first requirements of becoming an Evil Overlord is to acquire some piece of jewelry (usually a ring) that provide power or subdue the will of enemies. Otherwise, all the other Evil Overlords will laugh.

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,

Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,

Nine for Mortal Men, doomed to die,

One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

Bottom Line for Writers: As with everything about your characters, consider their jewelry choices and the whys therefore!

FIFTY YEARS OF PROGRESS

“It Was Beautiful” by American painter Doug Blanchard

Note: Many older sources reference LGBT. I’ve taken the liberty of adding Q.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled 6/3 that LGBTQ people are covered by Title VII and cannot be discriminated against in the workplace. This ruling coincides with the 50th anniversary of the organization of Gay Pride events in the U.S.

A Brief History of LGBTQ Rights in America

The 1960s was a time of civil protest in general (you heard it here first!), including protests and demonstrations seeking civil rights for lesbians and gays. In 1965, homophile organizations started Annual Reminders pickets, reminding Americans that LGBTQ people did not have basic civil protections.

At the time, both gay and lesbian people were classified as mentally ill in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) used throughout the mental health system. Not until 1987 did homosexuality completely fall out of the DSM!

Compton Cafeteria Riots

Veteran activist Scott Hix provides context for the beginning of the national push for equality. “Stonewall was not the beginning of gay rights. It was just the tipping point of our continued pushback because of the exposure from the New York Times.”

For years before the raid of the Stonewall Inn in New York, Hix worked to get respect for the LGBTQ community on the West Coast, including the Compton Cafeteria Riots in San Francisco. “Scott worked in bars as a drag queen at the time and he vividly remembers the times when the cops would raid the bars, throw everyone in jail for a night, and destroy drag queens’ wigs by setting them on fire or flushing them down a toilet, then they would make the queens wash their faces with dirty mop water.”

Stonewall Riots

The seminal event for LGBTQs occurred in June, 1969. Police raided a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn in New York City, triggering spontaneous riots by LGBTQ people there. An organized march on June 28, 1970 marked the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. This is now seen as the first Gay Pride march in U.S. history. 

At the time of the Stonewall Riots, it is estimated that there were 50-60 gay groups in the country.  By 1972, that number had grown to 2500, and marches took place in Atlanta, Brighton,  Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Miami, Milwaukee, New York, London, Paris, Philadelphia, West Berlin, Stockholm, and Washington, D.C.

By now, the entire month of June is celebrated as LGBTQ Pride Month. It has been recognized by three U.S. presidents: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama via official proclamations, and Donald Trump in via Twitter. Events range from marches to festivals, nationally and internationally.

Stonewall Inn and the Christopher Street Park were declared a National Monument by President Obama in 2016.

More detail can be found on Wikipedia (of course) and by accessing the Library of Congress and Smithsonian portals. Irene Monroe has provided a first-hand account of the events at Stonewall in The Advocate.

Why Bother? 

Because any realistic group of characters that are even remotely representative of the population as a whole is likely to include LGBTQ characters. Because far too many authors write gay characters who have no personality except being gay. Because, even when LGBTQ characters are included, they are often killed off quickly as nothing more than a plot device.

Because (even if you don’t know it) you almost certainly have friends, colleagues, and family members who identify somewhere along the LGBTQ spectrum. Because people who identify as LGBTQ are still more likely to face harassment and discrimination, even in the US, even in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling. Because LGBTQ children and teens are far more likely to deal with bullying, discrimination, homelessness, and suicide from a lifetime of being told by media that they are not normal and a source of shame.

Stonewall Monument after the massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando

Because LGBTQ People are All Around

Though accurate numbers are difficult to estimate, a significant portion of the U.S. population is LGBTQ; 4.5% overall, 5.1% of women and 3.9% men.  The number who identify as transgender is estimated at 0.6%. In addition, be aware that these percentages are not evenly distributed across states, cities, or countries.

The five “gayest” cities, in rank order by % of population are:

  • San Francisco, 15.4
  • Seattle, 12.9
  • Atlanta, 12.8
  • Minneapolis, 12.5
  • Boston, 12.3

Because Others Can’t Be Proud Without Fear

Major advances in equality in have been made recently in Europe, Canada, the US, and India, among other countries. However, in many countries, LGBTQ people face significant danger of jail or even death if their orientation becomes known. Still, people turn out for Pride celebrations despite the danger.

Because Pride Is the Perfect Time to Propose

Because Pride Has All the Best Fashions

There is more LGBTQ literature available than you might think. Wikipedia has a 44-page list. Here are some examples of well-known authors you may not have known are or were LGBTQ.

  • Edward Albee
  • W.H. Auden
  • Sir Francis Bacon
  • James Baldwin
  • Honré de Balzac
  • Rita Mae Brown
  • William S. Burroughs
  • Lord Byron
  • Truman Capote
  • Sue-Ellen Case
  • Willa Cather
  • John Cheever
  • Colette
  • Noel Coward
  • Hart Crane
  • Emily Dickinson
  • John Donne
The LegoLand Pride Parade is the smallest in the world!
  • Daphne du Maurier
  • T.S. Eliot
  • E.M. Forester
  • Allen Ginsberg
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins
  • A.E.  Housman
  • Sara Orne Jewett
  • Jack Kerouac
  • D.H. Lawrence
  • Thomas Mann
  • Daphne Marlatt
  • W. Somerset Maughm
  • Carson McCullers
  • Val McDermid
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • John Milton
  • Anais Nin
  • Mary Renault
  • Adrienne Rich
  • George Santayana
  • May Sarton
  • David Sedaris
  • Edith Sitwell
  • Susan Sontag
  • Gertrude Stein
  • Valerie Taylor
  • Gore Vidal
  • Alice Walker
  • Walt Whitman
  • Oscar Wilde
  • Thornton Wilder
  • Tennessee Williams
  • Virginia Woolf
Stonewall Monument

Bottom line: This month you can support LGBTQ colleagues by marching, celebrating, or (amid COVID-19) by reading LGBTQ literature.

THE UPSIDE OF NOT WHITE AND STRAIGHT

Everyone reading this blog knows that reading is a good thing (I hope), but just how good is it? Let us count the ways.

I’m not saying that getting her college degree first helped Anissa Pierce become the superhero Thunder (one of the first Black lesbian comic book heroes), but I’m fairly sure all that reading didn’t hurt.

1) Activates existing neural pathways in the brain. Complex poetry, in particular, keeps the brain active and elastic. For example, reading 30 pages of a book the night before having an MRI resulted in heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, associated with language and intelligence.

2) Maintains and improves brain function. Frequently exercising the brain by reading decreases mental decline in the elderly by 32%. Elderly patients who regularly read or play mentally challenging games are 2.5 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s. Memory is improved at every age.

3) Reading is good for mental health. Depressed patients who read—or have stories read aloud to them—report feeling better and more positive about things. Research has indicated that reading can reduce stress by around 68%. Making a habit of reading a physical book before bed can improve sleep. (Reading on e-readers or tablets can actually keep people awake longer.)

4) Reading is highly beneficial for children. A children’s book exposes the child to 50% more words than watching a TV show. Children who are exposed to reading before preschool are more likely to do well at all levels and in all facets of formal education. Children who read are better able to grasp abstract concepts, apply logic, recognize cause and effect, and use good judgment.

5) Identifying with characters in books creates an empathic experience for the reader much like real-life. In fact, people who read do exhibit more empathy in real life.

That last bit is the primary point of this blog. As recent events have made abundantly clear, people born straight with white privilege experience the world differently from “others.” And I’m not the only one to make that point.

Sunili Govinnage

Writing in The Washington Post (4/24/15) Sunili Govinnage wrote, “I read books by only minority authors for a year. It showed me just how white our reading world is.” Finding books by nonwhite authors wasn’t easy.  “Research shows . . . a systemic problem in the literary and publishing world.” (See also my blog from Friday, When You and/or Your Characters Are Not White.) 

Campaigns such as We Need Diverse Books, launched in 2014, are making a difference. Annual lists of POC/BAME lists are published by The Guardian, The Telegraph, Bustle, and others.  But making something available isn’t enough.

I recently heard a sound bite from a protestor who objected to white protestors being called “allies” because everyone should be just people protesting a common problem.  But whatever the label, straight white people who want to work against prejudice (the attitude) and discrimination (the practices) that have unfairly and harmfully impacted minority and LGBTQ people need to understand at a gut level what it’s like to be “other.”  They need empathy

And that’s where reading comes in.  Individuals still must make the effort to diversify—one might say “normalize”—their own experience through conscious reading choices.  Author Gail Carriger credits Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar books with validating her experiences as child and influencing queer representation in her own books. On her blog, Carriger writes, “Her books were/are important because in them queer wasn’t a big deal. It just was.

Sadie Trombetta at Bustle Magazine recommended 23 LGBTQ books with a person of color as the protagonist. She writes, “We need to share, read, and talk about diverse stories now more than ever. There is an entire population of the country continually underrepresented or misrepresented, misunderstood, and straight up discriminated against, and we need to hear their voices.”

As recently noted by Marsha Mercer in the Richmond Times-Dispatch (6/12/20), people are grappling with these issue: 5 of the top 15 books on The New York Times list of nonfiction bestsellers (6/14/20) deal with “white privilege, how to be antiracist, how to talk about race, the new Jim Crow era, and white supremacy.”

More time at home during COVID-19 presents a great opportunity to read some of that nonfiction. Maybe start with Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. This is a book I can personally recommend. James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son is an excellent collection of essays.

A number of websites have more suggestions for expanding your understanding and supporting diversity. “Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian” posted a list recently of 12 (Mostly) Canadian Books about Racism, Anti-Blackness, and Anti-Racism, Plus Places to Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is. Anna Borges at Self.com put together a list of 31 Resources That Will Help You Become a Better White Ally, including suggested reading, ways to support equality, community resources, and helpful organizations. TimeOut.com has compiled suggestions from multiple contributors: These Black Women are Sharing Anti-Racism Reading Lists on Instagram as well as Black-owned bookstores where you can find these books.

And it is tough. During the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, in an exchange with a friend from college—i.e., a friend of decades—I said that he (my friend) had the benefits of white male privilege. He claimed I’d insulted him. Even though I elaborated—said that I was not saying he hadn’t worked hard, hadn’t deserved what he earned, etc., only that he hadn’t had to overcome his gender or his skin color to be successful—he hasn’t spoken to me since.

Although nonfiction is a great source of information, facts, and talking point ammunition, there’s still a huge need for fiction’s contribution to our awareness and empathy. Reading suggestions can be found online in their multitudes. Queer Books for Teens has a list of books with Black main characters. Weird Zeal offers a list that includes books for multiple age ranges. Study Break has a list of books supporting Black and queer authors, as well as links to resources supporting both. On August 2nd of last year, Bitch Media published 7 Books by Queer Black Writers to Read in Honor of James Baldwin’s Birthday. See also book lists in Friday’s blog.

And while we’re at it, let’s go international. The U.S. doesn’t have a lock on racism, discrimination, and oppression. Several times a year, The New Yorker publishes short stories by international authors. Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian posts suggested reading lists of Canadian Black and First nations authors several times a year. These themes can be explored around the world, as shown by the rallies in cities around the world.

Bottom line: in the words of Sunili Govinnage, “People of all cultures and backgrounds have valuable experiences and universal ideas to share, and we all stand to gain when those voices are heard.”