When Your Character is Prejudiced

character prejudiced
Prejudice is an unjustified or incorrect attitude (usually negative) towards an individual based solely on his/her membership in a social group. In my opinion, prejudice is relatively benign for the target person if the prejudiced person does not act on the negative attitude. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case.

 

Discrimination is an action or behavior (including verbal)—usually negative—towards an individual or group of people on the basis of the prejudice. This is where the bad happens. Employment opportunities foreclosed. Inequality in lending practices. Lack of access to educational opportunities. Denial of goods or services (e.g., refusing to make a wedding cake for the wedding of a gay couple). Hate crimes.

 

A classic example of prejudice leading to negative behavior:

 

character prejudiced
So, one big question for you as a writer is what your character does as a reflection of his/her prejudice.
 
Although prejudice is an umbrella term for all sorts of -isms (as seen in the image above) it is also a subset of attitudes. And prejudice includes all three components of an attitude: cognitive, behavioral, and affective—how one thinks, behaves, and feels about a person, object, or act.

 

But before you can write realistically about a prejudiced character, you need to decide what function the prejudice serves for this character.
 
Cognitive adjustive: Lacking other information, one accepts stereotypes and/or prejudiced views as a way of knowing how to think and behave with a stranger.

 

Social normative: Holding attitudes—including prejudice—that allow the person to fit into a group or social setting. This might be family, gang, town, workplace, social class—any group the person wants entry to.

 

Ego-defensive: The person is basically insecure and adopts a prejudice to bolster feelings of self-worth. If a person has perceived lacks or failures, one way to feel better about oneself is to develop negative attitudes toward a whole group of people who, by the nature of who they are, can be viewed as inferior.

 

So, do you want your character to change? Depending on the function served, prejudice may be more or less entrenched. If it is based on lack of information, education and factual data will result in attitude change. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting to know members of the group. If it is based on group membership or conformity, changing reference groups will lead to attitude change. For example, moving to a different part of the country, changing schools or jobs, marrying into a family with differing attitudes, etc. The ego-defensive function is the most difficult to change. A person might suppress expression of deeply held biases when they are socially unacceptable (i.e., politically incorrect) but allow them expression when the atmosphere is right. Hate speech, hate crimes, and the rise of white supremacist groups are examples easily tracked online.

 

character prejudiced
The ego-defensive function is highly robust. Prejudice serving this function is immune to factual evidence to the contrary, simply not believing the data. If, somehow, the facts cannot be denied, then one or more other groups might become targets of his/her prejudice. Eliminating prejudice for such people often involves psychotherapy because the cause is rooted in self-esteem, self-concept, and other deep psychological needs.

 

Often prejudice is negatively related to the mental health of the prejudiced person. For example, racism is a symptom of lack of psychological integration, self-esteem, and inner security. Similarly, sexism is unhealthy. Psychologists looked at 10 years of data from nearly 20,000 men and found that those who value having power over women and who endorse playboy-type behavior, and who hold traditional notions of masculinity (such as self-reliance), were more likely to experience depression, stress, body image issues, substance abuse, and negative social functioning. So if your character’s prejudice is racism or sexism, consider giving him/her some of these other characteristics as well.
 
Last but not least, consider how your character’s prejudice might bring him/her into conflict with others.
 
westboro rally richmond
“Costume-clad kazoo players and drummers jubilantly respond to the Westboro Baptist Church.” [Source: Style Weekly]
 
Bottom line: Prejudice is a rich resource for writing your characters!

Throwback Post: Helpful and Hazardous Critique Groups

I’ve been writing a lot, but it’s something other than a blog post! For today’s post, enjoy a throwback article on the pros and cons of critique groups, originally posted in November 2016.

Last week I wrote about editing yourself. For most writers, self-editing is necessary but not sufficient to make the writing its best. That’s where critique groups and reading partners come in. Personally, I prefer a small group, four or five seeming ideal to me. The strength in numbers is that having multiple readers with different strengths can cover more of the territory: some might pick up on word choices and sentence structure, while others look more at the big picture of character and plot development.

 

helpful hazardous critique groups
Regardless of number, good readers have much in common:

 

1. They want your writing to be the best possible version of your work.
2. They are frank, but kind in their delivery.
3. They don’t get pissed if you don’t make a change they suggested.
4. If the group is unanimous in a certain point (e.g., a weak opening paragraph), believe it.
5. They can help you realize that some vital information is in your head but not on the page, especially with memoirs.
6. They can tell you when the impression you intended to create isn’t the one you did create.
7. They understand the expectations of your genre.
8. They make specific comments, so that you know how to fix what doesn’t work.
9. They don’t try to compete to be the best in the group.
helpful hazardous critique groups
Bad groups can be hazardous to your writing health in numerous ways.

 

1. It’s all about the competition.
2. They confuse critiquing with criticizing, and so don’t offer praise.
3. They give vague feedback that gives you no direction (e.g., “This is great” or “This doesn’t do it for me”).
4. They try to get you to write like them.
5. They socialize, eating up meeting time with too much chit-chat.
6. They get so involved with agreeing or disagreeing with your premise that they lose sight of the quality of the writing. This is especially the case when the topic is politics or religion—or any sort of opinion piece.

 

There are some things that will help a group to be good. There are online resources and guidelines you might adopt. In my experience, here are a few basics:

 

1. Set down the group guidelines in writing.
2. Be clear about what types of writing will be acceptable (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir, opinion essays, etc.) and stick to them.
3. Be clear about how feedback will be given.
4. Specify when the work is due, in what form, and what length.
5. Decide what happens when someone misses a meeting: Are they expected to send comments on others’ work? Can they send work anyway?
6. What if someone comes without having written anything?
7. Stick to a regular meeting time and schedule.
8. Get the group’s consensus when changing any of this.
9. Keep the group small enough that everyone can have sufficient and equal time.
10. Meet at least twice a month.

 

helpful hazardous critique groups

You need to feel comfortable, supported, and helped. This is a very personal thing. If you find yourself in a “bad” group, get out!

Celebrating New Year’s: Why December 31?

This blog post was originally published on December 31, 2015. 


Currently, most people around the world begin New Year’s celebrations on December 31, the last day of the Gregorian calendar. But as with so much in the modern world, it wasn’t always so. Although people have celebrated the beginning of a new year for millennia, astrological or agricultural events typically marked the new year.

 

Where did the holiday begin?

The earliest recorded celebration of the beginning of a new year was in ancient Babylon, some 4,000 years ago. For Babylonians, the new year began with the first full moon following the vernal equinox, a date falling in late March. It was a massive religious festival that required a different ritual every day for 11 days.

chinese new year
[Source: NPR]
Chinese New Year was tied to the second new moon after the winter solstice. In Egypt the new year began with the annual flooding of the Nile, coincident with the rising of the star Sirius.

For early Romans, each new year began with the vernal equinox. A year had 304 days divided into 10 months. Over time, the calendar year deviated significantly from the sun year. In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar consulted astronomers and mathematicians to solve the problem. He added 90 days to that year, adjusted the length of months, and declared January 1 as the first day of the year. January honors the Roman god of beginnings—Janus—who has two faces that look forward and back. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII established January 1 as New Year’s Day for Christians.

julius caesar
The Tusculum portrait, possibly the only surviving sculpture of Caesar made during his lifetime. [Creative Commons]

New Year’s Traditions

We’re all familiar with New Year’s celebrations that involve eating special foods for good luck on New Year’s Eve and/or New Year’s Day: legumes, such as lentils or black-eyed peas, signaling financial success; pork, associated with prosperity; ring-shaped cakes and pastries, because the year has come full circle; sometimes cakes or puddings with something hidden inside, to bring especially good luck to the one who gets the nut or prize. Sometimes the number of courses (3, 5, 7, 9, or 12) are specified. In several Spanish-speaking countries, eating 12 grapes, accompanied by 12 wishes, as the clock strikes 12 is traditional. (In Portugal, it’s 12 raisins.)

Making a lot of noise—shooting guns, banging pots and pans, blaring car horns, playing loud music, setting off firecrackers—is supposed to scare away bad luck and evil spirits. Partying with family and/or friends is common, as is fireworks displays or other ritual midnight activities.

In the U.S., the dropping of the giant ball in Times Square, begun in 1907, is now watched by millions. Spin-offs involve publicly dropping items that represent an area’s culture, geography, or history: the Peach Drop in Atlanta, GA; Pickle Drops in Dillsburg, PA, and Mount Olive, NC; the Possum Drop in Tallapoosa, GA; Wylie the Walleye Fish Drop in Port Clinton, OH; the Bologna Drop in Lebanon, PA; a Watermelon Drop in Vincennes, IN; the Midnight Muskrat Dive in Princess Anne, MD; a Big Cheese Drop in Plymouth, WI; a Pine Cone Drop in Flagstaff, AZ; a Grape Drop in Temecula Valley, CA; a Donut Drop in Hagerstown, MD; a Flip-flop Drop in Folly Beach, SC; a Wrench Drop in Mechanicsburg, PA; Beach Ball Drop in Panama City Beach, FL; the Music Note Drop in Nashville, TN; Chile Drop in Las Cruces, Mexico. Surely I’ve missed some! Please feel free to comment on your favorites.

times square new years

In England, the national icon is the tolling of Big Ben. Similar striking clocks or bells are widespread in Europe. In Albania, people watch a lot of comedy shows because one should enter the new year laughing and full of joy. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, playing the Czechoslovak national anthem at midnight honors the time they were one nation. In Turkey and Russia, New Year’s involves many of the traditions of Christmas in other parts of the world. In Costa Rica, running across the street with luggage is to bring travel and new adventures in the year ahead. But in Venezuela, only those traveling in January pull a suitcase around the house. In Japan, people clean their homes and Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times, representing the mental states that lead people to take unwholesome actions.

In the Philippines, many wear new, bright, colorful clothes with circular patterns. In Brazil, wearing white on the beach to ring in the new year is supposed to bring good luck. In Italy, wearing red underwear on New Year’s Eve is traditional. Spanish tradition holds that wearing new red underwear brings good luck. In Venezuela, the underwear is yellow.

In Scotland, Hogmanay is celebrated with First-Footing (going to each other’s houses with gifts of whiskey and sometimes a lump of coal); Edinburgh hosts a 4 or 5 day festival, beginning on December 28th, including cannon fire and fireworks displays.

first footing
[Source: Flickr]
North and South Korea celebrate New Years twice, a Lunar New Year which varies, and a Solar New Year which is always January 1.

The practice of making resolutions for the new year is thought to have been popular first among the ancient Babylonians.

And thus we come full circle—a fine New Year’s tradition! What are your favorite traditions?

December 21: More than the Winter Solstice

There is a joke (based on stereotypes, as so many jokes are) that goes like this: on the Winter Solstice, the English woman says, “Oh. The shortest day of the year.” while the French woman says, “Oooh, la la, the longest night of the year.” My point is that this date means many things to many people.
 
chase calendar of events
[Source: Amazon]
I love this book! Just browsing it is entertaining. For the specifics of the importance of this date, I am heavily indebted to Chase’s. But to start with the solstice, in the northern hemisphere winter begins on this day. (Of course, in the southern hemisphere this is the beginning of summer.) This means 12 hours and 8 minutes of daylight at the equator and zero at the Arctic Circle.

 

Holidays

Celebrate Short Fiction Day: Established in 2013, short stories have been around as long as people have been able to spin a tale about people, places, or things. So, on this first day of winter, when the days are shortest, take advantage of the long night and celebrate short fiction by reading a short story—or two or three! Totally self-serving, consider my collection Different Drummer.
 
Different Drummer - a collection of off-beat fiction
 
Forefather’s Day: Celebrated mostly in New England to commemorate the landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Plymouth Rock, the legendary place of landing since it was first “identified” in 1769 has been an historic shrine since.

 

Fogg Wins A Wager Day: From Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, in 1872, Fogg walked into the saloon of the Reform Club in London, and said “Here I am, gentlemen!” exactly 79 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds after starting his trip. He won a 20,000 pound wager.

 

Humbug Day: Those preparing for Christmas can vent their frustrations on this day. Indeed, twelve “humbugs” are allowed.

 

Yalda: The longest night of the year is celebrated by Iranians in a ceremony that has an Indo-Irianian origin, where light and good are considered to struggle against darkness and evil. With fires burning and lights lit, family and friends stay up through the night helping the sun battle against darkness. They recite poetry, tell stories, and eat special fruits and nuts till the triumphant sun reappears in the morning.

 

yalda night
A family celebrates Yalda [Creative Commons]
Yule: This is one of the “Lesser Sabbats” during the Wiccan year. It marks the death of the Sun God and his rebirth from the Earth Goddess.

 

On this day…

1804: Benjamin Disraeli was born. British novelist and statesman, born in London and died there April 19, 1881. “No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition.”

 

1824: James Parkinson (born in 1755) died. He was a remarkable English physician and paleontologist who first described the “shaking palsy” that was later named for him, Parkinson’s disease.

 

1860: Henrietta Szold was born. She is best known as the founder and first president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. She established the first night school in Baltimore, focused on teaching English and job skills to immigrants. She died in 1945.
1864: Sherman took Savannah, despite the defense of Confederate general William Hardee. By marching from Atlanta to the coast at Savannah, Sherman cut the lower South off from the center.

 

1879: Joseph Stalin (whose family name was Dzhugashvili) was born in Gori, Georgia. He was one of the most powerful and most feared men of the 20th century. He died of a stroke in Moscow, 1953.

 

1913: The first crossword puzzle (created by Arthur Wynne) was published in a supplement to the New York World.

 

1917: Heinrich Böll was born. He was a German novelist, winner of the 1972 Nobel Prize for Literature, author of 20 books. Born in Cologne, Germany, he died near Bonn on July 16, 1985.

 

1937: The film of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered. It was the first full-length animated feature film, also the first Technicolor feature. It was 4 years in production and involved more than 750 artists and 1500 colors. It featured the songs “Some Day My Prince Will come” and “Whistle While You Work.”

 

Snow White 1937 poster
Original theatrical poster for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren [Source: Walt Disney Productions]
1968: Apollo 8 was launched. It was the first the first moon voyage, orbited the moon, and returned to earth Dec. 27.

 

1970: Elvis Presley met with President Nixon. He offered to be “a Federal Agent-at-Large” to fight drug abuse and the drug culture. The meeting was cordial but he was not made a federal agent. Surprising (to me) the picture of them shaking hands is the most requested reproduction from the National Archives (more than the Bill of Rights or the US Constitution).
elvis presley richard nixon
[Source: Time]
1972: Joshua (Josh) Gibson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was the greatest slugger to play in the Negro Leagues, perhaps the greatest ballplayer ever. His long home runs are the stuff of legends, and he starred with the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Born in 1911, he died in Pittsburgh June 20, 1947. His recognition was a long time coming!

 

1940: Frank Zappa was born. He was a rock musician and composer, noted for his satire and for advocating against censorship of music. He formed Mothers of Invention. He died in 1993.

 

1988: Pan Am flight 103 exploded mid-air and crashed in the heart of Lockerbie, Scotland, the result of a terrorist bombing. Those dead included 259 passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground. It eventually became known that government agencies and the airline knew that the flight was possibly a target of a terrorist attack.

 

2005: The United Kingdom allowed same-sex civil unions. Pop star Elton John and his partner, filmmaker David Furnish, were among the first to wed on this day.

 

same sex marriage uk
[Source: CNN]
People born on this day:  Among others, Phil Donahue, Chris Evert, Ray Romano, Michael Tilson Thomas.

 

What makes this day special for you?

Bradley Harper: The Man Behind the Writer

knife fog bradley harper

VL: I’ve often said that I’ve never met a boring writer. Here to prove that point is my interview with Bradley Harper, mystery writer and so much more!


VL: Let’s start with your debut novel, A Knife in the Fog. I loved it!  I have been a fan of Sherlock Holmes mysteries since my college days, and when I read your book I found you had the tone spot-on. You evoked the time and the place in a way that took me there—which is no small feat. What drew you to writing a murder mystery in the first place?

BH: Doctors love mysteries in general, as the diagnostic process is much like solving a mystery. You collect data points and, after testing various hypotheses, arrive at a plausible diagnosis. A Pathologist does practically nothing else. Also, I fell in love with the Holmes stories the summer I discovered them at age 13. If you’re going to spend hundreds or thousands of hours writing a novel, it should be in a genre you know and love.

 

VL: So that’s why you are drawn to mysteries, and why this sort of mystery, but how did you come up with this particular plot?

BH: I discovered the four-year gap between the first and second Holmes stories, and that the Ripper murders occurred in the middle of that period. I became excited at the idea of a novel involving Doyle in the hunt for the killer, and explaining why he returned to Holmes after being soured on crime fiction due to his meager payment (twenty-five pounds), for the first one.

 

VL: I admire the way you combined real people—i.e., Doyle, his real-life influence Joseph Bell, and Margaret Harkness, a real woman of the time—and wove this wonderful fiction around them.

bradley harper author
Reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes himself!

 BH: I’m glad I found Miss Harkness. She was an author and Suffragette who lived in the East End of London for a while to do research for her novels featuring the working poor.

 

VL: I like her character a lot. I hope to see more of her! But let’s change gears here, and look at your work before you retired and started writing fiction. Where did you attend med school?

BH: Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, 1979-83.

 

VL: Well, that answers my next question about whether your medical training preceded joining the Army.

BH: I started as an Airborne Qualified Infantry Officer and at one time was a platoon leader in a Mechanized Infantry Battalion. Due to the draw down after Viet Nam, I was transferred to the Transportation Corps and ran a motor pool in Izmir, Turkey, as part of a NATO Headquarters there. One of the four walls of my motor pool was the remnant of a Roman aqueduct. Thirty-seven years later, I retired as the Deputy Assistant Surgeon General for the US Army in the Pentagon.

bradley harper man behind writer
In Padua, Italy

BH: During my Army years, I enjoyed many extraordinary experiences. This picture was taken shortly after receiving an award from the Knights of Malta for my assistance to the Italian Army in their preparation for deployment to Afghanistan as part of a NATO mission. The advanced first aid course I helped found has since become mandatory training for all Italian land forces prior to deployment, and was recently taught to the Italian Presidential security detail.

I also had the unique experience of serving as the acting commander of the US Army Hospital in Heidelberg, Germany, on the fiftieth anniversary of General Patton’s death there. I presided over the commemoration ceremony involving both US military and local German dignitaries.

 

VL: Wow. Quite a progression! Congratulations. But hold on. If you didn’t join the Army to go to medical school, why did you join? 

 BH: My draft number was 84, so I knew as soon as I graduated from college I was going into the military. I decided to take an ROTC scholarship for my last two years. (My original goal was to be a high school Spanish and History teacher). One day relatively early in my service I went on sick call for an injured ankle, and the doctor who saw me was such an unpleasant person I decided that I and my soldiers deserved better care. So I went to med school with the goal of seeing to it that soldiers and their families got the care they deserved.

 

VL: What made you stick with it?

BH: I discovered I liked being part of something larger than myself, and found living abroad an amazing experience.

 

VL: What were the best and worse things about your time in the military?  

BH: I enjoyed being reassigned every two to three years into a new job. That allowed me to take on various roles and to develop a wide skill set. Frequent moves did limit my social circle, however, and I didn’t have what I would consider a close friend as an adult until after I retired. Fortunately, I had the love and support of Chere, my wife of 45 years.

what santa taught me

BH: In the five years since I retired, she has joined me in my Santa gigs as well. She’s wonderful.

bradley harper sisters crime

VL: When you addressed the Central Virginia Chapter of Sisters in Crime—an excellent presentation, by the way—you mentioned having a $1.5 million bounty on your head at one time. Tell me about that.

 BH: While serving as the Command Surgeon for U.S. Army South, I spent time in Colombia overseeing a joint training course with the Colombian Army. That’s when the bounty was offered.

 

VL: I never expected to meet anyone wanted-dead-or-alive!

 BH: You still haven’t! The bounty was for anyone who could deliver me to the FARC alive. As the highest ranking U.S. officer in the area, I was considered very valuable as a live hostage to ransom. (Offer no longer valid, by the way.)

 

VL: Hmmm. If there’s no longer a profit in kidnapping you, I might as well get on with the interview. You are Board Certified in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology, and you said you’ve conducted over two-hundred autopsies. What sorts of forensic autopsies did you perform that subsequently informed your writing?

BH: All military pathologists undergo forensic training. We are often sent to remote locations, and are the only game in town. I am not Board Certified in Forensics, however, so any cases which might go to trial would be sent to the nearest military forensic specialist. The cases I did were crib deaths, training accidents, motor vehicle accidents, suicides, or people who died on the job unexpectedly. Two suicides by standing in front of a train and one accident involved being run over by light rail informed my writing in one of the final scenes in A Knife in the Fog. I was involved in one case while in Germany which had mixed jurisdiction between the German civil authorities and the US, so I attended the autopsy performed by my German colleague, and my notes were used to prosecute the US serviceman involved.

 

VL: You’ve told us quite a bit about your work as Santa. But I’m curious about something you mentioned in the SinC-CV presentation. What prompted you to volunteer in Galicia? Apparently it wasn’t a one-off. Do you do this annually? How long does that take? Are you actually walking the pilgrims’ route?

way st james

BH: After I retired from the Army I walked the Camino to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. It is an ancient pilgrimage route begun in the ninth century, and millions have walked The Way to the bones of St. James as an act of atonement or contrition. I did it to give me some time to ponder what direction my life would take after thirty-seven years in the military. After a transformative experience I have written about and shared on a local radio program—which is too long to go into here—I wanted to give back, and to help others realize their dreams. I speak five languages other than English, and being functional in so many tongues allowed me to assist pilgrims from most of Europe and, of course, the English-speaking world. I got back as much as I gave. This is the first year I have not volunteered after five consecutive summers. These were fifteen-day stints—with my wife—first in the pilgrim office, and later as a hospitalero, or host, in a pilgrim hostel.

 

VL: Surely you realize that mentioning a transformative experience more or less in passing means I’m likely to come back to you for more about that! But forging ahead for now, what about your personal life? Do you have hobbies or pets?

 BH: I read incessantly, and swim for fitness when my shoulder allows. No other hobbies to speak of, and no pets. I travel a lot, still. Perhaps when I go from the “go-go” phase of life to the “go-slow” or the “no-go,” I’ll add a pet to my life.

author bradley harper
Still traveling

VL: I’d like to end with info on your future project(s). What are you working on now?

 BH: I am fortunate to have a two-book contract with Seventh Street Books, and am involving my heroine from book one, Margaret Harkness, in trying to stop an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria during her Diamond Jubilee ceremony. It will be titled Queen’s Gambit.

 

VL: When might fans hope to have Queen’s Gambit in hand?

BH: It’s scheduled for release in October of 2019, on the one-year anniversary of the debut of my first book.

 

VL: What, if anything, would you like to share with other writers about how you balance family life, Santa duty, volunteer activities, and your writing life?

BH: I don’t multi-task. I don’t believe anyone can accomplish their best work unless they are entirely focused on the task in front of them. So when I write, I go all-in. I do ponder plot points and issues when I’m not writing, but when I am playing Santa, for example, I am totally focused on the people who have come to see Santa. These encounters are brief, but if I can communicate to them that I genuinely wish them well, they will remember that for a long time after.

The best advice I got in med school was: when the body is tired, work the mind. When the mind is tired, work the body. Eat well, walk, laugh, engage with those around you, be grateful for every day, and life will sort itself out.

bradley harper author

VL: Let’s end with those words of wisdom! Thank you, Brad, for sharing so generously of your time, your experiences, and your thoughts. I look forward to wrangling another blog sometime down the road!

Follow Bradley Harper online at bharperauthor.com. You will find pictures and notifications of appearances, as well as bits of off-beat information about Victorian England, forensics, and whatever strikes his fancy! You can even get info about Harper’s compilation of four short stories.

 gallery death bradley harper

What Santa Has Taught Me

by Bradley Harper
what santa taught me
VL: My fellow writer Bradley Harper has graciously agreed to share the wisdom he has acquired in his second career as Santa Claus! I believe you will find this blog as moving as I have. Thank you, Brad!

After I retired from the Army, (37 years, 4 months, and 9 days, and yes, someone WAS counting!) I grew a beard because, hey, I could! It came out white, which at my age was no surprise. My wife began hinting that I should try being a Santa. I was very unsure about that suggestion, but over time decided that when she was eight she decided she wanted to marry Santa Claus. So, if she was to become Mrs. Claus … you get the idea.

I auditioned for a local park, and to my surprise, and more than a small amount of panic, I got one of the slots. Now I was in for it. I began walking through the toy section of stores. I memorized “The Night Before Christmas.” I speak various languages to differing degrees of proficiency, so memorized how to say “what would you like for Christmas” in Spanish, French, Italian, and German, (the park gets a fair number of international visitors.) I didn’t have to understand the reply. A smile and knowing wink is universal.

Day three in the throne. I got this! It’s kinda fun. As long as I don’t promise more than “I’ll look into it,” I’m golden.

Then life, as it is known to do, threw me a curve ball. One of the young ladies serving as an elf comes up to me and says, “Santa, you’re about to see three kids. They’ve been orphans for the past year. The foster parents keeping them have just been approved to adopt them, and they want YOU to tell them!”

I took about one deep breath, and there they were. No pressure, right? The girl was the oldest. Around twelve, she was obviously a non-believer by now, but playing along for her younger brothers. The ten-year-old was unsure. That phase where they don’t really think you’re real, but don’t want to blow their chances, just in case. The eight-year-old still had the faith. His eyes were large, brown, and round.

Unsure what to say at the moment, I fell back on the old stand-by, “What would you like for Christmas?” They said something, but honestly I didn’t hear a word, thinking to myself, “What can I say? What CAN I say?”

Then it came to me. I took another deep breath and said, “Those are great ideas. I’ll look into it, but I have something for you today.”

“What’s that Santa?” the oldest asked, obviously the spokesman for the group.

“A family,” I said.

They looked puzzled, but when I explained they would not have to leave the foster family, that they could stay together, well, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Yeah, I teared up just now, again, though it was six years ago.

So what did I learn? In the Hero’s Journey, the Hero comes back changed by their Quest. Though I didn’t leave my throne, I had just been on quite a ride.

I learned that I wanted to be Santa Claus more than anything else in the world. I fully embraced the role after that. Santa has made me a kinder, and more patient, man. With my beard, I stand out anywhere I go. I have to be careful what I say and how I act. I never know where or when a child might see me. I have to be in tune with “the better angels of my nature,” whenever I am in public. (OK, I can’t eat ribs in public anymore. But it’s worth it!)

Santa has made me a better person. When I put on my super hero costume and go forth to fight for happiness, I never promise a toy, but I always offer a hug.

I have a photo of my back side as I am hugging an elderly black man. His name was Walter, and I met him at a gift exchange at an Alzheimer’s day care center. Every patient got a gift bag selected for them by the staff. I handed them out and hugged each one. Walter’s face is beaming, and a trick of the lighting perhaps, but I see a small halo around his head.

what santa taught me

I got the photo from his daughter who tracked me down. She said her dad had been abandoned as a child, and had never had a visit from Santa his entire life.

The next year I was told that Walter had passed. His daughter told the director of the daycare center the photo of me hugging him had become his favorite, and at his funeral his daughter had that picture blown up and placed on an easel beside his open coffin.

That taught me how powerful even one moment can be in another person’s life. Don’t hold back. This moment may never come again.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said that a man can never cross a river twice, for each time both he and the river will have changed. Every time I assume the role, it may be the first time for whoever I come into contact with. I may define Santa for the rest of their life.

No pressure, right? But here’s the thing. Just like Dumbo and his magic feather, the magic is not in the robe. It was inside me all the time. I just needed the license the costume gave me to tap into it.

You may not wear a red suit, but I hereby deputize you to share love and joy, wherever you go. You can do it. Find that better angel that has been inside you all along, and let them breathe. You, and all those around you, will be the better for it.

Hugs!

PS: Three nights ago, a little girl around five came up to me with her letter to Santa. On it were several letters carefully inscribed but not forming any words I could discern.

Me: “What does it say, Dear?”

Little Girl: “I don’t know, Santa. I can’t read!”

The adventure continues.

what santa taught me

PPS: My wife was hired the following year as Mrs. Claus. Adventures are more fun with the right companions.


Bradley Harper‘s writing credits include a short story sold to The Strand and The Sherlock Holmes Magazine of Mystery, as well as his debut novel, A Knife in the Fog, featuring a young Arthur Conan Doyle, Professor Joseph Bell (Doyle’s inspiration for Holmes), and Margaret Harkness. Miss Harkness was an author and Suffragette who lived in the East End of London for a while to do research on her novels featuring the working poor. Together these “Three Musketeers” assist the London Metropolitan Police in the hunt for the man who became known as Jack the Ripper, until he begins hunting them!

 

knife fog bradley harper

Why Writers and Readers Should Vote

why writers readers vote
Today I’ll start with the bottom line: every eligible voter should exercise that right, duty, and privilege! In a democracy, voting is the strongest way for political representatives to know the will of the citizens.

 

This chart is difficult to read, but it essentially says that even now, the president is elected by less than 45% of the U.S. population. Granted, some people are too young to vote, or ineligible for other reasons. But even in the best years, only about 60% of eligible voters did so.
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When I say voting is a privilege, I say so in light of the history of voting rights in the United States. Here is a list of the major milestones.

 

1789: The Constitution granted states the power to set voting requirements. Generally, states limited the right to vote to property-owning or tax-paying white males, approximately 6% of the population.

 

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1790: The Naturalization Act of 1790 allowed white men born outside the U. S. to become citizens with the right to vote.

 

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1792-1838: Free black males lost the right to vote in several Northern states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
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1792-1856: Abolition of property qualifications for white men, from Kentucky in 1792 to North Carolina in 1856, the periods of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy. However, tax-paying qualifications remained in five states as late as 1860 (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and North Carolina). They remained in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island until the 20th century.
why writers readers vote
1868: Citizenship was guaranteed to all persons born or naturalized in the United States by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, setting the stage for future expansions of voting rights.
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1870: Non-white men and freed male slaves were guaranteed the right to vote by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Disenfranchisement after the Reconstruction Era began soon after. Southern states suppressed the voting of black and poor white voters through Jim Crow Laws. During this period, the Supreme Court generally upheld state efforts to discriminate against racial minorities; only in the 20th century were such laws ruled unconstitutional. Black males in the Northern states could vote, but the majority of African Americans lived in the South.

 

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1887: By the Dawes Act, citizenship was granted to Native Americans who were willing to disassociate themselves from their tribe, making them technically eligible to vote.
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1913: The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution gave voters the right to elect Senators, rather than state legislatures doing so.

 

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1920: The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote. The same restrictions that hindered voting for poor or non-white men also applied to poor or non-white women.
vote women
Women have had the right to vote for less than one hundred years. Many polls reveal gender gaps on issues and candidates. Don’t waste this opportunity to express your values!
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1924: All Native Americans were granted citizenship and the right to vote, regardless of tribal affiliation. By that time, approximately two thirds of Native Americans were already citizens.
why writers readers vote
1943: Chinese immigrants were given the right to citizenship and to voting by the Magnuson Act.
why writers readers vote
1961: Residents of Washington, D.C. were granted the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections by the Twenty-Third Amendment to the Constitution.
 
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1964: The Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution prohibited poll taxes from being used as a condition for voting in federal elections.

 

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1965: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 protected voter registration and voting for racial minorities. This was later applied to language minorities. This has been applied to correcting discriminatory election systems and districting. (Updated in 1975.)

 

why writers readers vote
1966: The Supreme Court prohibited tax payment and wealth requirements for voting in state elections.
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1971: The Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution granted the right to vote to those aged 18 through 21. This was in response to Vietnam War protests, which argued that soldiers who were old enough to fight for their country (and maybe die) should have the right to vote.
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I’ve read that this age group is the least likely to vote. Some put the figure at 20%.

 

1986: U.S. Military and Uniformed Services, Merchant Marines, and other citizens overseas, living on bases in the U.S., abroad, or aboard ships were granted the right to vote in the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.

 

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2013: The Supreme Court (in a 5/4 vote) struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. The core of the winning argument was that racial minorities no longer continued to face barriers to voting because “Our country has changed” (Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.). The majority determined that specifying states that must receive clearance from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington before they changed voting procedures, moving polling places, or redrawing electoral districts was unconstitutional.

 

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This year, major outcries have arisen about everything from ID requirements to relocation of polling places that have a disproportionate effect on minorities. For example, suppression of African American votes in Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, and Texas; Hispanics in Kansas; and Native Americans in North Dakota. Make the effort to vote in spite of obstacles!
vote 2018

Elements of Halloween

halloween decorations

Halloween is second only to Christmas in money spent specifically for the holiday. Americans spend almost $10 BILLION per year on candy, costumes, and decorations. But how many people have considered the meanings of things associated with Halloween? Here, for your edification, is Halloween deconstructed. Many Halloween traditions have their roots in ancient Celtic harvest festivals, especially the Gaelic festival of Samhain. Halloween came to America with the Scottish and Irish immigrants in the 1800s, and was widely popular by the early 1900s. But some modern Halloween traditions were first practiced approximately 4,000 BCE, so it’s no wonder that meanings and traditions have morphed over time.

skulls

Skulls, Skeletons, and Bones

Skulls serve as reminders of death and the transitory quality of human life (a reference to Golgatha in Christian tradition). A skull is often depicted with cross bones (St. Andrew’s Cross), a symbol of spiritual perfection.

A skeleton is the personification of Death and sometimes the devil. In alchemy, it is the symbol of blackness and putrefaction which precede transmutation.

In some instances a skeleton symbolizes death in general and the brevity of human life.

Druid priests would throw bones of cattle into the flames and thus bone fire became bonfire. Also, see CATS below.

One superstition is that if an unmarried woman sits in a darkened room and peers into a mirror on Halloween, she will see her marriage future. If a face appears, it will be her future husband. If a skull appears, she will die unwed.

In the United States’ Deep South there lingers a belief that white moss taken from the skull of a murdered man has special magical and medical properties.

Currently skulls represent courage and rebellion, embraced by bikers and others.

Skulls carved from crystal and mineral rocks are thought to be strongly protective and healing.

witch doll

 

Witches

The word witch comes from the Old English wicce, meaning wise woman. Wiccan were highly respected at one time.

According to popular belief, witches held one of their two main meetings, or sabbats, on Halloween.

Witches and warlocks were regarded as priestesses and priests of devil worship.

In medieval Europe, owls were seen as witches, and have historically been one of the most popular Halloween images.

At various periods in history, witches were believed to be in league with the Devil, and anyone (mostly women) associated with unexplained occurrences was suspected of witchcraft, leading to hunts and trials.

At one time, all cats were thought to be familiars of witches, and witches were believed to be able to turn themselves into cats at will to carry out their evil intentions

elements halloween

Halloween Animals

Cats. During the ancient celebrations of Samhain, Druids were said to throw cats into a fire, often in wicker cages, as a means of divination. From their association with Samhain, and later witches, cats are now an integral part of Halloween, especially black cats. (see above and below.)

There is a worldwide superstition that a black cat crossing your path will bring good luck. (Be sure to make a wish if it does.) In America, black cats are generally thought to be unlucky—although black and white—and grey—cats are said to be lucky. The international good luck belief in black cats dates back to Egyptian times when one of their most important goddesses was Bast, a female black cat. So, a black cat walking into your house is an omen of good fortune, particularly of money to come.

(Other aspects of cat luck depend on whether you own it or meet it, whether or not it crosses your path, and how many cats are involved.)

Not directly related to Halloween, but in both America and Europe, a white cat is looked upon with some suspicion, and a gray tortoiseshell coming into your home is a bad omen.

Black cats are thought to have curative powers. A little blood from the tail is reputed to heal many minor wounds if rubbed on the affected area. They are also used in rituals to appease the gods, but never killed. To kill a black cat is extremely bad luck.

During the Middle Ages, Satan was believed to take the form of a black cat while consorting with witches.

Cats are not just cats. Druids believed that cats were humans who were being punished for evil acts during their lives. Opposite: Buddhists believed that cats were the temporary resting places of extremely spiritual people. Related: In Japan, it was believed that spirits of the dead sometimes take the form of female cats. Cats have long been believed to be the familiars of witches. (See above.)

A cat on top of a tombstone signals that the soul of the body buried beneath was possessed by the devil.

sri lanka bats

Although in the East, bats are a good omen, in the West, they are considered harbingers of evil. It’s a creature of mystery and darkness, coming out at night and mysteriously disappearing at dawn (as witches were also thought to do).

In the Middle Ages bats were believed to be in league with the devil and in partnership with witches. A bat was called the witches’ bird.

Bats were thought to be able to transform themselves into human form or that of a wolf or other unrelated species.

owl night

Owls are associated with both wisdom and doom. There are lengthy myths and beliefs going back to the Greeks and Romans and probably earlier. For Halloween purposes, I’ll focus on the doom beliefs. One superstition is that hearing an owl’s call is a sign that someone is about to die.

In Vedic mythology of the Hindus, Yama, the god of the dead, had owls and pigeons as his messengers.

An owl shrieking during the day heralded an impending defeat in battle, a plague, sickness, or death. In rural communities, the owl is still seen as an evil omen.

Native Americans believed the owl wasn’t a real bird but the spirit of the dead, taking that form to warn of approaching death. In addition, the hooting of the owl was sometimes the dead communicating with the living. The owl was supposed to be the heartbeat of the dead person who came to tell news in the gloom of midnight.

A Seminole Indian who hears an owl call whistles back. If the owl doesn’t answer the whistle, s/he believes s/he has received the summons of approaching death.

When a single crow caws near a house it is announcing an approaching calamity. If it flies to the left, it is a sign of bad news.

When a crow is seen immediately before or after a wedding ceremony, the unhappy couple will divorce.

ghosts halloween

Ghosts and Ghouls

Although Celtic folklore is full of ghosts, driven by both good and evil intentions, generally it’s unhealthy to meet a ghost.

Ghosts embody, and in a sense symbolize, fears of beings who dwell in another world.

The Druid Thanksgiving for harvests occurred on October 31. It was the feast of Saman, lord of Death, who called together the souls of all the wicked ones who had been condemned to inhabit the bodies of animals during the year. The good souls were believed to take human form, but it was impossible to tell the real human beings from the ones inhabited by ghosts.

Good souls entered the body of another human being for the occasion, but wicked ghosts had to roam around in search of an abode.

It was believed that any harm that might be inflicted by a wicked soul could be lightened by gifts.

Medieval people believed that cats and rabbits were inhabited by evil souls. When these animals were seen on the ground where the dead were supposed to rest forever, they were taken for ghosts in disguise.

scary jack o lanterns

Jack-O’-Lanterns

Originally, a jack-o’-lantern was intended to light the way of a wandering spirit, denied entry into either heaven or hell. Carved pumpkins are a New World variation on an old Irish tradition.

The Irish Celts invented the jack-o’-lantern. According to folklore, Stingy Jack was out drinking with the Devil and convinced him to turn himself into a coin to pay for their drinks without spending money. He put the devil coin in his pocket with a silver cross which kept the Devil from changing back. He promised to free the devil if the Devil wouldn’t bother him for a year, and if he died, the Devil could never claim his soul. Subsequently, he tricked the Devil another time or two. When Jack finally died, God found him unfit for heaven, but the Devil had promised never to claim his soul for hell. So Jack was sent to roam the earth with only a burning coal for light.

Stingy Jack put the coal in a turnip and became Jack of the Lantern. The Irish carved jack-o’-lantern from turnips, beets, and potatoes to scare away Stingy Jack and any other spirits.

trick treaters

Halloween Costumes

Halloween costumes are an offshoot of an ancient Celtic belief that dressing up as ghouls and other spooks would allow them to escape the notice of real spirits roaming the streets during Samhain. Traditional Halloween costumes reflect supernatural beings such as vampires, ghosts, skeletons, witches, devils, or other monsters.

According to ancient Roman records, people in today’s France and Germany wore costumes of animal heads and skins to connect to spirits of the dead.

One belief was that people who wear their cloths inside out and then walk backwards on Halloween will see a witch at midnight.

masquerade

Early celebrants of Samhain often disguised themselves as evil spirits by simply blackening their faces. This may be the earliest form or “false faces,” as masks in Ireland were known.

Among the Iroquois, their False Face dances originate from Flint, the evil one of their Twin culture-heroes, who rules over darkness.

Masks sometimes carry magic power which protects their wearers against sorcerers and those who would harm them. On the other hand, members of secret societies use them to impose their will through fear.

Masks are agents to control the movements of spiritual energies scattered throughout the world and all the more dangerous for being unseen. Masks are designed to subjugate and control the invisible world. Trap them to stop their wandering.

Halloween Colors

Orange is known as a symbol of strength and endurance, often represented today by pumpkins, carved or not. FYI, A New Hampshire man has grown the largest pumpkin ever recorded in U.S. history – weighing in at an incredible 2,528 pounds. Steve Geddes of Boscawen, N.H., won $6,000 in prize money at the Deerfield Fair for his first place pumpkin on September 29, 2018.

As a color midway between yellow and red, it’s primary symbolism is that of the balance point between the spirit and the libido.

Black is frequently seen as a symbol of death and darkness, a reminder that Halloween festivals once marked the boundaries between life and death.

Black is most often seen as cold and negative, nothingness and chaos, confusion and disorder, a symbol of evil, and the color of death.

Black is the color of melancholy, pessimism, sorrow, and misfortune.

Brown and gold are typically the symbolism of autumn and harvest. Corn stalks and hay bales are common representatives today. Scarecrows symbolize the agricultural roots of Halloween.

Brown is the color of earth and excrement. At various times, in various cultures, it has been the color of melancholy, humility, poverty, and sadism.

In Ireland, brown shared all the underworld and warlike symbolism of black.

Gold and light are symbols knowledge leading to immortality. If it is used well, in the search for knowledge, it brings happiness. Otherwise it brings disaster. The color gold and the pure metal are solar symbols, but “minted gold” is a symbol of perversion and the exaltation of unclean desire, the spiritual degraded to the level of the material, the immortal to the mortal.

In Greek tradition, gold is associated with the sun—and thus fertility, wealth, dominion, a center of warmth, love and generosity, the fire of light, knowledge and radiance.

sweet sour candy

Halloween Treats

In ancient times, the Celts put treats on their doorsteps and in the streets to provide offerings to placate the spirits who roamed the streets at Samhain, a sacred festival that marked the end of the Celtic calendar year.

“Souling” is a medieval Christian precursor to modern trick-or-treating. On “Hallowmas” (Nov. 1) the poor would go from house to house, offering prayers for the dead in exchange for soul cakes.

Early door-to-door begging involved the poor seeking coins.

Some trace trick-or-treating to the practice of mumming or guysinging, which involved costumed people going door-to-door performing prepared dances, songs, and plays in exchange for treats. This was common in Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Wales.

The first known mention of trick-or-treating in North America was 1927, in Canada.

Halloween Superstitions

October 31 is traditionally the time when the spirits of the dead are allowed a last fling before winter sets in. In Ireland, it’s said that if you hear footsteps behind you on that night, it is one of the dead following you and you never look around lest you see him or her and soon become one of them.

During celebrations of Samhain, bonfires were lit to ensure that the sun would return after the long, hard winter. Even earlier, worshipers of Baal, the Syrian sun-god, built fires in his honor about the same time of year as Halloween. Around 837, when Pope Gregory IV declared Nov. 1 as All Saints Day, people believed that ghosts and goblins were abroad on the eve of All Saints Day and built great bonfires to keep them away.

To banish evil spirits, walk around your house three times backward and counterclockwise before sunset on Halloween.

The Name and Associated Tidbits

Hallowe’en dates back to about 1745 and is of Christian origin. Halloween is short for Hallows Eve, which was the evening before All Hallows (sanctified or holy) Day, also known as Hallowmas on Nov. 1.

In Mexico, people dress up like ghouls and parade in the streets to celebrate The Day of the Dead on All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2).

Teng Chieh (Lantern Festival) is one Halloween celebration in China in which dragon and other animal lanterns are put out to guide spirits back to their earthly homes. Food and water to honor their deceased loved ones are placed by ancestral portraits. In Hong Kong Yue Lan (Festival of the Hungry Ghosts) includes fires, food, and gifts to placate angry ghosts looking for revenge.

San-Apple Night and Nutcrack Night are names derived from the ancient Roman Festival of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds. Halloween customs and games that feature nuts and apples (such as candied apples and bobbing for apples) have their roots here. Apples are strongly associated with the otherworld and immortality, while hazelnuts were associated with divine wisdom.

In some American towns, Halloween was referred to as Cabbage Night, and the use of cabbage in a Scottish fortune-telling game. BTW, there are many old traditions in which girls can “see” their future husbands on Halloween. Several other fortune telling activities involve apple peels, pairs of hazelnuts near open fires, salty oatmeal bannocks, or items symbolizing the future hidden in food (e.g., a cake), or stones around the remains of a bonfire.

Besides those mentioned above, Halloween has been called Witches Night, Lamswool, Snap-Apple Night, and Summer’s End.

BOTTOM LINE: Everything associated with Halloween has deep roots and multiple meanings. Know what you’re symbolizing! And incidentally, make your characters know, too.

FYI: Samhainophobia is the fear of Halloween!

elements halloween