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.”

WHEN YOU AND/OR YOUR CHARACTERS ARE NOT WHITE: INFO FOR WRITERS

As everyone should know by now, given recent events and news coverage, who you are and how you look makes a difference across the spectrum of American life. Writing (and publishing your writing) is no exception. I want to thank Kathleen Corcoran—friend, colleague, and occasional guest blogger—for suggesting this topic. In case you missed the photos on the header of my blog, I should clarify that I am a white woman and thus am relying on outside resources.

Surprise, surprise! (Hear the sarcasm dripping.) 

Black Authors Get Fewer and Smaller Advances Than Their White Counterparts

L.L. McKinney

Take a look at the author photos on the shelves of just about any bookstore, and you’re likely to be confronted by an overwhelmingly pale gallery. The science fiction and fantasy shelves tend to be even more monochromatic.

The disparity in pay is one reason Black authors are less likely to be full-time authors. Through the magic of Twitter, people were shown just how wide that disparity is. Here are a few instances from #publishingpaidme, started by Black fantasy author LL McKinney.

  • White American sci-fi author John Scalzi wrote that to the best of his recollection: he received $6,500 for his first two books in 2005 and 2006, then several five-and six-figure advances before a $3.4m deal for 13 books in 2015.
N. K. Jemisin accepting the Hugo Award
  • In comparison, Hugo-winning Black sci-fi novelist NK Jemisin said that she received $40,000 for each book of the Inheritance trilogy, $25,000 for each book of the Dreamblood duology, and $25,000 for each book of the Broken Earth trilogy, each of which won a Hugo award.

.

  • Black American literary novelist Jesmyn Ward said that she wrote her second novel, Salvage the Bones, before securing an advance. “Even after it won the [National Book Award], my publishing company did not want to give me 100K for my next novel.”

Black American author Roxane Gay’s opinion: “The discrepancy along racial lines is very real. Keep your day job.”

Possible explanation: according to a survey earlier this year by Lee & Low Books (publishers of children’s books), 76% of workers in U.S. publishing identified as white. 

Romance writer Jasmine Guillory said, “Publishing is still a business owned by white men,” and “And, you know, the people at the top are all white men.” She made these comments in a Washington Post podcast titled Black Women on Race and Genre, in which Martine Powers talked with N.K. Jemisin, Jasmine Guillory, and Lauren Wilkinson about these issues. 

Lauren Wilkinson

In that podcast Wilkinson noted that in spy novels, from James Bond and John le Carré on, the super spies look very male and very white. So she wrote American Spy featuring a Black woman, Marie Mitchell.

Japanese American author and literary critic David Mura has written extensively about the race, gender, and identity the world of publishing. In his article about changes in the traditional path to publication, Mura identifies another challenge facing Black science fiction and fantasy authors.

The divide between the way whites and people of color see the social reality around them is always there in our society…. 
Creative writing involves the very description of that reality, and so the gulf between the vision of whites and people of color is very present right there on the page. And so, conflict ensues.

David Mura
“The Student of Color in the Typical MFA Program”
Gulf Coast

Science Fiction Definitely Has Problems of Inequality  

Octavia Butler

As far back as 1980, Octavia Butler (afrofuturist writer, “The Grand Dame of Science Fiction”) was asking why science fiction is so white. Transmission Magazine published her essay, “The Lost Races of Science Fiction.” It has been reprinted in GARAGE Magazine, Issue 15, September 4, 2018.

Traditional wisdom held that making a main character a person of color will change the focus of the story. The advice was to substitute some sort of alien for the minority human. These things were actually taught in creative writing classes! Butler maintained that if a writer can see minorities for all their humanity—faults, skills, problems, aspirations—writing minority protagonists won’t derail the plot.  Butler’s essay still seems spot-on to me, and I recommend reading it!

[R]emember when men represented all of humanity? Women didn’t care much for it. Still don’t. No great mental leap is required to understand why blacks, why any minority, might not care much for it either. And apart from all that, of course, it doesn’t work. 

“The Lost Races of Science Fiction”
© 1980 Octavia E. Butler
Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

An Evolution May Be in Progress 

The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind was published in March, 2015. Edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap. I just came across this title and haven’t read it, but it seems to be on point.

Ramón Saldívar received a National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2011

Ramón Saldívar is a professor of English and comparative literature at Stanford University whose scholarly work is with ethnic literature.  Stanford NewsJanuary 17, 2017 profiled Saldívar prior to the publication of his book The Racial Imaginary: Speculative Realism and Historical Fantasy in Contemporary Ethnic Fiction.

Nichelle Nichols – Lieutenant Uhura
Not a well-known writer, but she broke many science fiction b
arriers

He studied works by African, Asian, Mexican, Dominican, and Native Americans. All were born after the civil rights movement of the 1960s. His overall conclusion is that these writers find new ways to imagine and talk about race through fiction.  “They are combining representations of race and racial identity with the wildest literary experimentations one could imagine.” And this is across all genres.

If you want to read what he’s talking about, here are examples of authors he studied, including several prize winners.

  • African Americans: Colson Whitehead, Perciival Everett, Touré Neblett, Darieck Scott
  • Asian Americans: Sesshu Foster, Karen Tei Yamashita
  • Native Americans: Sherman Alexie
  • Latinos/Latinas: Marta Acosta, Michele Serros, Yxta Maya Murray, Salvador Plascencia
  • Dominican American: Junot Diaz 

April 17, 2018 The New York Times Match Book replied to the following query: “I’m hoping you can save me from the literary doldrums. I’m looking for black authors who can both get me excited about reading again and inspire my own writing.” The writer then gave examples of writing she likes, following with, “I need to know that there is an audience out there for mystery, suspense and science fiction written about black characters by black authors, so I don’t feel like I’m writing in vain.” Here are The New York Times recommendations. If you want descriptions of each, check out the post online.

Bottom Line for Writers: the time is long overdue to break the molds and end systemic bias in publishing.

Why Do So Few Blacks Study Creative Writing?

Always the same, sweet hurt,
The understanding that settles in the eyes
Sooner or later, at the end of class,
In the silence cooling in the room.
Sooner or later it comes to this,

And she has to know, if all music
Begins equal, why this poem of hers
Needed a passport, a glossary…

Cornelius Eady  
The Gathering of My Name (CMU press, 1991)

JUST THE FACTS

Below you will find facts, maybe useful in your writing, definitely fun—IMHO. As the title says, this is just the facts. If something catches your eye, you can find more about it online. (Most of these are on multiple websites, so list is just for your convenience.)

Showers really do spark creativity

Five of the ten deadliest poisonous snakes are native to Australia

Many dogs have served US military campaigns, even earning medals, awards, and combat ranking.

  • Sergeant Stubby served in the 102nd Infantry Division in World War I, the only dog to be promoted through the ranks by serving in combat. He was awarded several medals alongside his handler.
  • Rags was a stray terrier mutt picked up by an AWOL soldier who used him to bluff his way back into the 1st Infantry Division commander’s good graces. He delivered messages in the trenches, warned of incoming shells, and replaced field telephone wires. After being injured in a gas attack, Rags and his handler were both honorably discharged and sent home. Rage is buried with full military honors.

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  • Smoky the Battle Dog was found abandoned in a foxhole during WWI and earned eight battle stars in Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, despite weighing only four pounds. In addition to running radio cables, alerting soldiers of incoming shells and gas, and delivering messages, Smoky is unofficially recognized as the first military therapy animal.
  • Chips was part of the Dogs for Defense program initiated in World War II. He was awarded the Silver Star for Valor and the Purple Heart for being injured in battle. (Those medals were later taken back by higher-ups who claimed Chips was “equipment” rather than a soldier, despite the fact that Chips took out several German pillboxes and disabled all the enemy soldiers within entirely by himself. He is buried with his medals, but don’t tell the generals.)
  • Nemo A534 was wounded in combat during the Vietnam War but still guarded his handler long enough for the man to radio for help and receive a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. Nemo was one of the first dogs given an honorable discharge from Vietnam and sent home to retirement.
  • Lucca lost her leg while clearing IEDs in Iraq on her second tour of duty. She was awarded the Dickin Medal by the PDSA and a (unofficial) Purple Heart by one of the hundreds of service members whose lives she had saved.

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The longest wedding veil was the length of 63.5 football fields (6,962.6 m or 22,843 ft 2.11 in)

Superman didn’t fly until 1943 — before that, he could jump 1/8 mile high

The first mechanical computer was invented in the 1822 (by Charles Babbage, not Superman) — the first electrically programmable computer was invented by Tommy Flowers in 1943 (also not by Superman)

Space smells like seared steak or welding fumes

The official state drink for Ohio is tomato juice

The national animal of Scotland is the unicorn

Bees sometimes sting other bees (when bees from another colony or species tries to enter the hive without bringing pollen)

Hmong, Silbo Gomero, Yupik Inuit, Amazigh, Wam Akhah, and Kuskoy are only a few of the more than seventy communities who communicate by whistling

Whistles travel about ten times farther than spoken words, up to five miles

There are about ten thousand trillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) ants on earth

Depending on age, kids typically ask 40,000 (between ages two and five) to 300 (between ages five and twelve) questions every day

The letter E occurs in 11% of all English words

in 1998, twelve hundred human bones were found in the basement of the London house where Benjamin Franklin lived, dating from the time when Franklin was staying there. Whether the constantly curious and observant Benjamin Franklin knew what was in his basement… the world may never know.

The healthiest place to live is Shangri-La Valley in Panama

The first iPhone was made by Cisco

Romanian police officers often take ballet lessons to improve spatial and body awareness

King Pepi II, Egyptian pharaoh, had a slave coated in honey to draw insects away from himself

barreleye is a a large deep-ocean fish with a completely transparent head

Approximately 10-30% (depending on the source) of people have a fabella bone in their knee

Technically, Pringles aren’t potato chips

Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguard (John Frederick Parker) left his post at Ford’s Theatre to go for a drink — he told family members that Lincoln had dismissed him with the valet

Dolphins have been trained to be used in wars: Russia, Ukraine, Iran, and the US have all had Military Marine Mammal divisions at some point

Playing the accordion was once a requirement for teachers in North Korea

Several patent medicines once contained morphine

Donald Weder holds more patents than Thomas Edison

There are approximately 2,000 moving parts in a modern pedal harp

Pouring cold water makes a slightly higher-pitched sound than pouring hot water

Pro baseball once had women players, mostly to keep stadiums full during WWII

One California Highway Patrol officer (Kevin Briggs, “Guardian of the Golden Gate Bridge”) has talked-down over 200 potential suicides

In 16th and 17th century Europe, cannibalism was fairly common—for medical purposes!

Onesimus, an African slave in Boston, was the first person to introduce inoculations to the American colonies in 1706

Koalas have fingerprints

Riding a roller coaster could help you pass a kidney stone (renal calculi passage if you want to be fancy)

Most dogs can learn to recognize about 165 words

Dinosaurs lived on every continent

Bee hummingbirds are so small they are sometimes mistaken for insects (only 0.056 – 0.071 oz)

Sea lions can dance to a beat (though I can’t say much for their taste in music)

The legend of the Loch Ness Monster goes back nearly 1500 years, first spotted in 565 AD

Two-three teaspoons of raw nutmeg can induce hallucinations, convulsions, pain, nausea, and paranoia that can last for several days, and rarely, death

For 100 years, maps (including Google Earth) have shown Sandy Island off the north-west coast of Australia, though cartographers have been demonstrating that it does not actually exist since at least 1974

A Lone Star tick bite can make you allergic to red meat by transferring a sugar molecule called alpha-gal into your blood

It is illegal to allow a dog to fight a pig in an enclosed space in Florida, but perfectly legal to use dogs to hunt wild pigs

Greenland sharks can live for 300-400 years

If a pickle doesn’t bounce, it cannot be called a pickle, according to Connecticut law

The English Monarchy owns at least two private properties, one in the Moors of Shropshire and one in London near the Royal Courts of Justice, addresses unknown

Note to writers: plot lines and/or esoteric knowledge for characters, use as you will!

Snopes.com is an excellent resource for making sure your fun facts are actually factual, and it can also be an inspiration for plots or characters from urban legends. My favorite is the one about the bodies hidden under the motel floorboards!

WHEN LIVING IT ISN’T ENOUGH—OR IT’S TOO MUCH

As writers, we are told to write what we know, but it isn’t possible for anyone to have firsthand knowledge of everything. We turn to secondary sources for an idea of what our characters might have lived through, what they could have seen and felt in situations outside our own experience. Here are some particularly interesting sources relevant to today’s headlines.

Here is a Partial List of Books About Social Protests, Recommended by Goodreads:

  • Demons, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1872)
  • It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis (1935)
  • The Warriors, Sol Yurick (1965)
  • The Gunslinger, Stephen King (1982)
  • Smoky Night, Eve Bunting (1994)
  • Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, Min Young Song (2005)
  • Pages Stained with Blood, Indira Goswani (2002)
  • The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America, Barnet Schecter (2005)
  • Riot, Walter Dean Myers (2009)
  • Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America, Cameron McWhirter (2011)
  • The Black Box, Michael Connelly (2012)
  • Bachelor Buttons, Kathleen L. Maher (2013)
  • Jordan’s Stormy Banks, Jefferson Bass (2013)
  • The Harlem Hellfighters, Max Brooks (2014)
  • Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, Sunil Yapa (2016)
  • A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919, Claire Hartfield (2017)
  • The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas (2017)
  • In Our Mad and Furious City, Guy Gunaratne (2018)
  • I’m Not Dying With you Tonight, Kimberly Jones (2019)
  • Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots, Margarita Engle (2019)

This is a handy guide for safe and legal protesting.

The 20 Best Books About Pandemics, According to Vulture.com:

  • A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe (1722)
  • Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter (1939)
  • The Plague, Albert Camus (1947)
  • The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton (1969)
  • The Stand, Stephen King (1978)
  • Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Márquez (1985)
  • Journals of the Plague Years, Norman Spinard (1988)
  • The Child Garden, Geoff Ryman (1989)
  • Ammonite, Nicola Griffith (1992)
  • Beauty Salon, Mario Bellatín (1994)
  • Blindness, José Saramago (1995)
  • The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson (2002)
  • Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood (2003)
  • The Children’s Hospital, Chris Adrian (2006)
  • The Transmigration of Bodies, Yuri Herrera (translated by Lisa Dillman) (2013)
  • Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
  • Find Me, Laura Van Den Berg (2015)
  • Severance, Ling Ma (2018)
  • The Book of M, Peng Shepherd (2018)
  • The Old Drift, Namwali Serpell (2019)

The CDC has provided information about staying healthy during the COVID19 pandemic.

How to protest safely while staying healthy during a global pandemic.

Note to writers: Everything old is new again! Inspiration and resources can be found in the unlikeliest places.

LOVING OLD BOOKS

This glass-fronted secretary is full of old books—cookbooks and books on household management and helpful hints. When I open the doors, the smell of old books—so different from the smell of a library—always makes me smile.

Instructions For Cookery, In Its Various Branches, By Miss Leslie is dated 1843. This is the 17th edition (!) “with improvements and supplementary receipts.” As far as I know, it is my oldest book. I say, “As far as I know” because not all old books are dated. For example, this 64-page relic was printed in Edinburgh, sometime before 1890.

Books of this sort are my first collection, and still the most numerous. In the beginning I bought books like High-Class Cookery Made Easy by Mrs. Hart for what was on the printed page: how things used to be done. I found the recipes fascinating: instructions to  “assemble the [cake] ingredients in the usual way”; lists of ingredients with no measurements. (Fanny Farmer [see below]first introduced standard measurements in 1896.)

When I open a book of great (by my amateur standards) age, I like to ponder what sorts of women might have owned and used it over the decades. This copy of Mrs. Crowen’s American Ladies’ System of Cookery cookbook is inscribed Mrs. Dr. S.  S. Fitch, May 18th, 1860. It reminds me of the German practice of addressing someone as Herr Doctor Professor So-and-so. Might she be of German background?

The books printed in the 1880s and more recently are much more likely to be in good condition. Then, as now, once one made a name for oneself, more book deals followed.  Miss Parloa’s Kitchen Companion and Miss Parloa’s New Cookbook and Marketing Guide are early examples of this.

Perhaps the best example is Fanny Merritt Farmer. She paid Little, Brown, and Company to publish her Boston Cooking School Cookbook in 1896.  My earliest copy is from 1904. By then, it had been copyrighted 1896, 1900, 1901, 1902, and 1903. The flyleaf of my copy says it is revised with an appendix of three hundred recipes, and an addenda of sixty recipes. (Note the modern spelling of recipe.) She is listed as the author of Chaffing-Dish Possibilities and Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent.

I have a copy of the latter, as well as What to Have for Dinner, copyrighted 1904, 1905, 1907,  and 1905, respectively.  The Fanny Farmer Cookbook is still popular today.

Sir Terry Pratchett

But It’s More Than Just Old Cookbooks For Me

Over the years, I’ve replaced numerous paperbacks with older hard-copy editions of favorite books. I like the worn covers and brittle, yellowed pages.

They remind me of reading books of fairy tales and the Ruth Fielding series from the early 20th Century at my grandmother’s house.  It turns out that I’m not alone. Scent carries powerful psychological meaning for people—and triggers memories that otherwise are not readily available.

Many people, perhaps most, like the smell of old books. Science tells us that as books decompose over time, they emit a smell from decaying volatile organic compounds, very similar to chocolate and coffee! This is one time I really don’t need to know why I like something, just that I do.

My most recently acquired old book, 1904, came along with my most recent obsession: Bird Neighbors!

Bottom line for writers: smell an old book and feel uplifted!

Terry Pratchett’s Younger Readers

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, teacher, writer, editor, favorite auntie, and avid (some might say rabid) fan of everything contributed to the world by the late, great Terry Pratchett.

Sir Terence David John Pratchett, OBE (28 April 1948 – 12th March 2015) was one of the most prolific and popular fantasy and humor authors of all time. His first story was published when he was thirteen years old, and his numerous novels, short stories, and collaborations have since been translated into 37 languages.

Despite leaving school early to work as a journalist, Sir Terry has been awarded honorary doctorates by ten universities. His work has earned him Skylark Awards, Locus Awards, the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Order of the British Empire, and knighthood from the Queen of England.

Of all the honors and recognitions he earned in his career, Sir Terry always said that the one he was most proud of was The Carnegie Medal given for his young adult novel The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents in 2001.

The panel judging the 2001 Carnegie selection was unanimous. Karen Usher, Chair of the Panel, said, “This is an outstanding work of literary excellence: a brilliant twist on the tale of the Pied Piper that is funny and irreverent, but also dark and subversive. It is a rich multi-layered story with a pacy plot and excellent characterisation. Terry Pratchett uses his trademark wit and humour to question our society’s attitudes and behaviour in a way that is totally accessible for children of 10 years and over.

The Discworld series, with books about dragons, police, witches, trolls, the postal system, and werewolves, also contains five stories about a young witch in training. Tiffany Aching is an admirable role model for readers of any age, and she has four Locus Awards attached to her book covers.

One of the reasons Sir Terry’s books for children and young adults are so good is that they are not exclusively for children and young adults. My copies of Nation, Dodger, The Bromeliad, and Only You Can Save Mankind are on the same shelf as my copies of Wyrd Sisters and Good Omens.

Pratchett has other worlds less extensively mined, notably the Earth of the early 1990s. Ostensibly he writes about this for younger readers; the adult books have longer words and the juvenile fiction shorter sentences, but they are otherwise interchangeable….

Rupert Goodwin in The Times 5.3.94

Few authors speak with the same voice to children and grown-ups alike, but Terry Pratchett does. His first novel, The Carpet People, written originally for children, was recently back on the adult bestseller list. In fact, all his children’s books have been on the adult best-seller lists, which must make him unique in publishing annals.

SHE Magazine

Tiffany Aching is not a Chosen One. She has no special birthmark or secret royal lineage. No one gave her a special quest; no mysterious stranger asked her to guard a magic talisman. And that is part of what makes Tiffany Aching such a relatable character for younger readers.

She chooses to fight her battles because no one else will. She earns her place among the witches by being stubborn and paying attention. Wee Free Men, the first book starring Tiffany, discusses serious issues like the death of her grandmother and class divisions. Anyone can grow up to be a Tiffany Aching.
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Many of Sir Terry’s books for younger readers touch on this same theme of paying attention to what is happening and dealing with the problem in front of you. Masklin in Truckers and Mau in Nation are faced with tragedies and then go about finding a way to fix them simply because no one else will. In addition to being incredibly fun to read, Sir Terry’s books for younger readers present them with role models for real problem-solving.

Despite the lessons in his children’s books, Sir Terry never preached to his audience. Characters learned by making mistakes, by suffering (sometimes terrible) consequences, by finding another way to accomplish what they needed to accomplish.

In The Bromeliad, the nome Masklin has to convince an entire colony of nomes that they need to pack up and leave behind everything they’ve ever known. The entire world outside their home is a terrifying idea (that may not even be real), and the hero has to create reasonable arguments and persuade his elders that not following him will result in the death of every member of society. Despite the imminent annihilation, the series is funny to read and ultimately leaves the audience with the idea that looking beyond the horizon, listening to others, and working together might not be such a bad idea.

The function of humour is to help us cope with the dark side of life; Terry Pratchett is worth a dozen psychotherapists. David V.Barrett in New Statesman and Society

I have trouble reading Sir Terry’s books to my nieces because they are so good. Bedtime stories take a lot longer to finish when the orator has to keep stopping to laugh. The entire bedtime routine takes longer when the bedtime story leads to a discussion of why no one wanted to help a certain character or why people are mean when there isn’t even a reason!

As the little readers get older and learn to read the longer books, I expect many more questions I’m not really able to answer. Sir Terry discussed religion, death, prejudice, responsibility, and a million other topics I’m sure I’ll be unprepared for.

Sir Terry has provided hours of entertainment to millions of readers around the world. His work has been adapted for theater, for radio, for television and movies, and for all sort of video and board games. Most recently, Good Omens was produced as a mini-series for the BBC. And he was always happy to help other writers, funding scholarships and first novel prizes, and giving numerous interviews about writing.

He was diagnosed with Posterior Cortical Atrophy in 2007 and passed away in March of 2015. The Glorious 25th of May (a reference to the futile Treacle Mine Road Revolution in the novel Nightwatch) has been designated by fans as a day to honor Sir Terry Pratchett’s work and legacy by wearing lilacs and donating to fund Alzheimer’s research. The ripples he caused in the world are not likely to fade away any time soon.

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WHO KNEW?

My most recent book purchase arrived on my doorstep today, and I immediately went into a flurry of browsing.  It’s wonderful!

This is Sibley’s most recent book, published in April, 2020. When I sought it out on Amazon, it was already back ordered!  Not being particularly patient, I ordered it on Kindle and started reading immediately. 

N.B. It’s better  as a physical book. For one thing, the illustrations are dazzling, and that comes across much better in hardcover. Sibley does his own paintings.

I recently learned that what I’d been calling a purple finch is actually a house finch, so went immediately to the finch section. There I learned that all red, orange, and yellow colors in songbirds come from the carotenoids in their diet, and therefore, the brighter the colors the healthier the bird.  What It’s Like to be a Bird  isn’t meant to be read straight through, cover to cover. And I, for one find it easier to flip back and forth in a physical book

Sibley is well known for his books on birds. His various guides are “must haves” for bird identification. These guides are organized, as most field guides seem to be, for the purpose of identification.  This isn’t my kind of nature book.

Which raises the question, “What is my kind of nature book?”  I easily plucked more than two dozen books off my shelves that, by my classification, are nature books. Here are a few of my favorites.

I acquired this book years ago solely because it was written by a colleague at St. Lawrence University. It is delightful! Robert DeGraaff styled The Book of the Toad as “A Natural and Magical History of Toad-Human Relations.” It’s an engaging mix of toad lore, symbolism, biology, use as hallucinogens, etc. The toad’s role in everything from art to witchcraft is in this book.

I have a similar book about rats. The Rat: A Perverse Miscellany is filled with fascinating (to me) tidbits about rats, including how they live and are treated around the world. You’ll find rats everywhere, in fables, literature gothic and modern, and in film. Of course, Barbara Hodgson included the role they played in plagues.

Having farms in my background perhaps explains why I picked up The Complete Chicken on a bargain shelf once upon a time. As a child, I was afraid to gather eggs for fear the hens would peck me. To this day, I can still “smell” the acrid unpleasantnesses of chicken droppings and the wet feathers of chickens killed for the table being scalded for plucking. But Pam Percy‘s book gave me a whole new appreciation for chickens rooting in trees, the best breeds for eating and laying, and the all-around appeal of buff orpingtons. If you tend to think a chicken is a chicken, browse the breeds around the world, from Australia to Zimbabwe.

Crows fascinate me. They’re smart. They learn from the older generation about which places/people/sites to avoid without ever experiencing them directly. They communicate. They avoid places where a crow has died. And they’ve adapted beautifully to urban living! Candace Savage, among her many other non-fiction works, wrote Crows: Encounters of the Wise Guys of the Avian World.

Given the current concern over the future of honeybees, and thus the world, you might want to pick up a copy of The Queen Must Die (not the young adult historical fantasy novel, though that also looks pretty interesting).  My copy of the book was discarded at some point by the Fond Du Lac Public Library in Wisconsin, and I have no idea how it came to be on my shelf.

According to author William Longgood, “Bees are more than a hobby; they are a life study, in many respects a mirror of our own society.” Longwood presents the life of bees as a “work or die” society, with only collective wealth (honey), each bee so dependent upon the whole that an isolated bee, even with the right food and temperature, will soon die. Lots of interesting (to me) bits of info, such as one hive filled with honey can weigh 80 pounds. Bees were studied and written about by the ancient Greeks.  A queen can lay as many a 2,000 eggs a day. And then she dies.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the above books all deal with animals, and I guess that is a recurring choice—perhaps because they are animate, and thus more likely to have personalities.

But I’ve recently spent more time on flowers and plants than before, and I find there’s more to them than their looks and uses. One of my favorite finds was Who Named the the Daisy? Who Named the Rose? A Roving History of North American Wildflowers.

Here’s a quote from Mary DurantLUPINE, by its own choice, thrives on poor oil. But in ancient days the concept of cause and effect were reversed, and it was believed that lupine destroyed the soil, that it wolfed the nourishment out of the earth. Thus it was named after the wolf—lupus, in Latin. 

I’m now more interested in knowing what I am seeing. There are at least two free plant identification apps available for smart phones, as well as several subscription services for sale. I’m much more likely to snap a picture and find out immediately what I’ve seen than try to remember the details necessary to look it up in a guide.

Mary Roach, though she claims to “fake her way through interviews with experts she doesn’t understand,” manages to write fascinating non-fiction books a wide variety of subjects. The titles say all that is necessary about why virtually anyone would find these books entertaining as well as informative.

Then, too, I have books on earthly things, dangerous things, and invisible things. But this has gone on long enough. Suffice it to say, whatever aspect of nature catches your interest, there’s a book on that!

Before I wrote this blog, I’d never have characterized myself as a nature buff. But now?

UNSTRUCTURED TIME

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

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

Two points made by openlinecounseling.com resonate for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy an elegant tea party with inanimate friends!

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

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

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

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

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