A SACRED STONE

Stone lingam and yoni pedestal found in Cát Tiên, Vietnam, circa 8th century

I recently bought a smooth, elliptical stone in shades of mahogany and taupe.  Since I was in pre-school, I’ve been picking up stones, and I have several plates and bowls of them around the house. Larger stones decorate my garden. I could not resist such an interesting looking and fabulous feeling stone.

This is the second stone I purchased at Crafts Without Borders in Connecticut. This time, I was moved to learn more about it.

Zarwani Waterfall on the River Narmada

Shiva Lingam Stones

These are Shiva Lingam stones, natural stones from the bed of the Narmada River, one of the seven sacred rivers of India. These stones are river-tumbled to a smooth surface. No two stones are alike. 

Also known as Namadeshwar Lingam, these stones are said to have sprung from the body of Lord Shiva. According to Britannica, “lingam, लिङ्ग (Sanskrit: “sign” or “distinguishing symbol”) also spelled linga, in Hinduism, a votary object that symbolizes the god Shiva and is revered as an emblem of generative power. The lingam appears in Shaivite temples and in private shrines throughout India.”  People bring offerings of milk, water, fresh flowers, young sprouts of grass, fruit, leaves, and sun-dried rice.  

My Shiva Lingam

My stones are shaped like elongated eggs. The egg represents the female and the male principle.

Lingam from Angkor period on display at the National Museum of Cambodia. Discovered in Battambang Province (Cambodia), made of bronze, quartz, and silver

This stone is jasper, which consists of chalcedony, opal, and quartz.  It provides protection, grounding the body and boosting overall energy. 

Meaning of Shiva Lingam

These stones first caught my attention because of the way they look and feel, but they have a much deeper meaning and history than that.

According to mystonemeaning.com, “People involved in finding water and springs can carry this stone. Shiva Lingam Stone brings courage to resolve conflicts and problems with determination. It helps us think faster, organize better, and turn ideas into action. In this way, we manage to fulfil our obligations.

A 5th-century Mukha-linga (with face)

“When in a relationship, this stone can enhance a sense of intimacy and closeness. Shiva Lingam Stone provides support if you are suffering from a chronic illness or are hospitalized. This stone is great for all those who have problems with blood circulation, digestive tract and reproductive organs. It can balance the mineral content of our body.

Eight faced Shivlingam in Pashupatinath Temple at MandsaurMadhya Pradesh

Shiva Lingam Stone is associated with Earth. It helps us connect with our environment and raise awareness about ecology. Thanks to this stone, we can meditate deeply and discover the karmic causes of all the problems in our lives. Shiva Lingam strengthens the immune system and cleanses toxins from the body.

“Unlike other stones that act on individual chakras, Shiva Lingam acts on all chakras equally. This stone can awaken kundalini energy. We can find kundalini energy in the root chakra, at the base of the spine. The kundalini is wrapped seven times and runs upward. When we stimulate kundalini energy, the chakras gradually open and release through the crown chakra.”

Sphatika (quartz) lingams in the Shri Parkasheshwar Mahadev Temple, Dehradun

Incorporating Shiva Linga in the home is auspicious and virtuous to the family. I’ll keep you posted!

Bottom Line: If you believe in the power of stones, Shiva Lingam’s got you covered.

WHO KNEW?

At birth, a panda cub is smaller than a mouse and weighs only four ounces.

Michelangelo hated painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel so much that he wrote this lovely poem about it to his friend Giovanni da Pistoia:
I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).

I enjoy odd, surprising, or little known bits of information. I hope you do, too, because I have accumulated so much of this stuff, it’s time for a dump!

The (Non-Human) Animal World

A Great Dane named Juliana peed on an incendiary bomb during World War II, earning her a Blue Cross Medal!
  • Zoolingualism is the ability to talk with animals and understand their reactions.
  • One species of jellyfish, Turritopsis dohrnii, is “immortal.” When damaged or traumatized, they can revert to their polyp developmental stage and start over.
  • Snails can sleep up to three years if the weather isn’t moist enough to meet their needs.
  • Hummingbirds beat their wings up to 70 times per second, faster than any other bird. Fast, yeah, but honeybees flap their wings 230 times every second!
  • Giraffes only have seven bones in their necks, the same number as humans.
  • Whales’ earwax forms in layers, so researchers can estimate a whale’s age and development by counting rings in a cross-section, just like rings on a tree.
  • Nine-banded armadillos always give birth to quadruplets, all identical.
  • Dolphins sleep with one eye open.
Domestic dogs have evolved muscles around their eyes that mimic human facial expressions. Wolves do not have these muscles.
  • Frigatebirds fly for months over the ocean, using half their brains at a time so the other half can sleep during flight. They can also engage in regular sleep.
  • Faster than humans: a running grizzly bear, 35 mph; a cheetah, up to 75 mph; and a diving golden eagle, up to 200 mph.
    • Over long distances, humans still win! Huskies most closely rival humans in endurance.
  • Approximately three percent of arctic ice is frozen penguin urine.
  • Mystery writers take note: koala fingerprints are almost indistinguishable from humans’ — so much so, they can taint a crime scene.
  • Gorillas have nose prints as unique as human (or koala) fingerprints. Conservation workers photograph and catalogue the patterns of wrinkles to track individual gorillas.
Elephants, flamingoes, giraffes, horses, and cows can all sleep standing up, but they can only dream when lying down.  Some subway commuters have mastered the former, but I have no info on the latter.

Humans, Both Normal and Not So Much

Abraham Lincoln was also a licensed bartender.
(from Lincoln in Caricature by Rufus Rockwell Wilson, 1903)
  • People who suffer from boanthropy believe they are a cow and will try to live their life as a cow.
  • Before he became president, Abraham Lincoln was an elite wrestling champion. In 300 matches, he only lost one.
  • After serving as president, George Washington opened a whiskey distillery.
  • A duel among three people is called a truel or a triel.
  • Eating enough potatoes and butter, and nothing else, could keep a person alive for an indeterminate length of time—alive but not healthy.
  • One-quarter of all the bones in your body are located in your feet.
  • Human thigh bones are stronger than concrete. 
  • Hugs that last over 40 seconds release oxytocin  and make you trust someone more.
  • Queen Elizabeth always wears second-hand shoes. She employs a professional shoe-wearer to break in her shoes for her, preventing blisters on the royal feet.
Some of the most famous cowboys in history didn’t wear cowboy hats in real life.  Icons like Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid wore what we would today call bowler hats.
  • The average person will spend six months of their life waiting for red lights to turn green.
  • LeMarcus Thompson, a hosiery salesman, invented roller coasters to combat moral degeneracy.
  • Before people said “cheese” to look like they were smiling for cameras, photographers often told subjects to say “prunes” to mimic the desired facial expression—stoic, with a small and refined mouth.
  • Dr. Frederic Whitehurst, a former FBI analyst, demonstrated that more than 90% of all forensic FBI samples are flawed or inaccurate.
  • Humans blink, on average, 12 times per minute. Speed and rapidity of blinking can indicate lots of interesting mental or physical conditions, useful for writers!
    • Stress causes excessive blinking.
    • Strokes may cause erratic blinking.
    • Interest generally causes rapid blinking.
    • Some medications cause slowed blinking.
In 300 B.C., Mayans worshipped turkeys as vessels of the gods, Chalchihuihtotolin.
  • Alfred Hitchcock was an ovophobe, meaning he had a fear of eggs.
    • In a 1963 interview, he said, “I’m frightened of eggs, worse than frightened; they revolt me. …  Blood is jolly, red. But egg yolk is yellow, revolting. I’ve never tasted it.”
  • Cleopatra wasn’t actually Egyptian. Really! Historians have traced the famous ruler’s lineage to Alexander the Great’s Macedonian general Ptolemy. So while she was an Egyptian queen, she was Greek.
  • John Duns Scotus, a thirteenth century philosopher, believed that wearing a pointed hat spread knowledge to the brain and improved intelligence. “Dunsmen” who agreed with his ideas wore “dunce caps” as a sign of intelligence, but social derision eventually led to the dunce cap meaning the opposite.
President Lyndon B. Johnson owned a water-surfing car, called an amphicar.

Weird Miscellaneous Facts

If you start in Argentina, you could theoretically “dig a hole to China.” Reddit user Lokimonoxide demonstrated this idea by making a “sandwich” with bread in Uruguay and South Korea.
  • When the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts opened in 1936, admission was 25 cent.
    • General Admission is now free!
  • The Olympic Games used to hand out medals for arts and humanities. At the time, 151 medals were awarded for architecture, literature, painting, music, and sculpture.
  • What the fork? This pronged utensil was once considered sacrilegious because they were seen as “artificial hands.”
  • The organ music at baseball games originated at Chicago’s Wrigley Field in 1941.
  • Baked” beans are actually stewed.
  • The stage before frostbite is known as “frostnip.”
  • LEGO has made more minifigs than the entire population of China, more than 4 billion.
  • Eating bananas can help relieve negative emotions such as irritability, anger, and/or depression. 
  • Italian police stopped a shipment of Columbian coffee beans because the recipient shared a name with a famous Mafia boss in the film John Wick. In a “stranger than fiction” real life twist, police found that someone had hollowed out each coffee bean and filled it with cocaine.
Big Ben (which is actually the bell inside the Elizabeth Tower) sounds unique because it cracked shortly after being installed in 1859.
  • Spider webs were used as bandages in ancient times.
    • Chemists at the University of Nottingham have synthesized antibiotic spider silk for this very purpose!
  • A cloud can weigh more than a million pounds.
  • A company called Eternal Reefs turns dead bodies into ocean reefs.
  • The largest padlock in the world weighs 916 pounds.
  • In the Philippines, McDonald’s serves spaghetti with McDo, friend chicken.
  • Ethiopia uses a unique calendar, similar to the Egyptian Coptic calendar. It is currently 2014 in Ethiopia.
  • Three Musketeers candy bars got their name because they originally came in packs of three, one each of chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla.
  • The Brazilian team travelled to the 1932 Olympic Games in a coffee ship. They sold the coffee along the way to fund their trip.
    • Two UK speed skaters funded their 2022 Olympic trip by creating and selling their own coffee brand.
Sunsets on Mars are blue.
(photo taken by the Mars Curiosity Rover)

BOTTOM LINE: Sometimes random bits of information are useful, sometimes just passing entertainment.

The internet abounds with interesting “facts” that aren’t actually true. For example, that giraffes have no vocal chords or that the average person swallows eight spiders in their sleep every year. One of my favorite websites is Snopes.com, where I can double check the truth of other websites and learn plenty more fascinating facts that are all sourced and cited.

WHY ONE ISN’T ENOUGH!

I’ve long loved dictionaries, and mine currently crowd seven bookshelves. I can just imagine the gasps, chuckles, and maybe eye-rolls out there about now. 

But think about it. Depending on who and when you ask, the number of English words varies widely, but all agree the number is humongous.

As of June, 2018, according to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) there were 171,146 words currently in use in the English language, plus 47,156 obsolete ones.  The main page of the OED official website said they covered over 600,000 terms.

In June, 2021, the official edition of the Merriam-Webster online dictionary included approximately 470,000 words.

And new words are added daily. In the 20th century, 800 to 1000 new words were added to the English language each year. In 2022 so far, new words include hellacious, fast fashion, supposablyhiggle, long hauler, vaxvaxxer, megadrought, mesovortex, and charging station, and new acronyms, such as EV, HEV, PHEV, etc., etc., etc. And as you no doubt realize, words are included in the vernacular before they make it into any official dictionary.

Clearly, one comprehensive, agreed-upon dictionary isn’t possible. And the sheer scope of the language would make it cumbersome and daunting to navigate.

The Cavalry to the Rescue!

Fortunately, there are (by actual count) a gazillion dictionary makers out there to sort and organize words for us.  Whatever your need or interest, there’s a dictionary for that!

I’m a writer, so my word needs are many and varied. An inspection of my dictionary shelves shows a touching popularity of slang dictionaries. Slang is a true love because it’s the language of much realistic dialogue, and can set time, class, and subculture.

In this regard, Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8th edition) is a classic. I recently acquired Partridge’s Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English edited by Paul Beale as well. Why? Because it’s slimmed down the original and added new material.  

But slang isn’t a unitary thing! Therefore, I have dictionaries of war slang, hippie slang, and many volumes of “American” slang. Some years ago, I was extremely please to find the first two volumes of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.  I am devastated—well, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration—that there will never be a third volume. The project was too time-consuming and expensive to complete.

Speaking of price: dictionaries tend to be big, and specialized ones, expensive. If you want a standard Merriam-Webster for general use, one can be had for very little money, especially used, because they are printed in huge runs and sell widely. 

But if you want something like the Dictionary of American Regional English, in six volumes, the price tag is currently $635 used. I picked up my six volumes one by one, from library discards and secondhand stores, and that can still be done if you are tightfisted and determined. FYI, I find these volumes cumbersome to use, so take that into consideration.

Recently I came across the Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English, on Amazon for $128.35 hardcover and $74.99 on Kindle, the only two formats out there. And these are the lowest prices I found!

These are just two dictionaries recognizing the differences in language across the country. Such differences have long been acknowledged. One of my dictionaries is Yankee Talk Another is Butter my Butt and Call Me a Biscuit. (You can imagine the regional connections of that one.)

Words—Like People—Age 

The OED recognizes “archaic” words. I have a dictionary called The Word Museum, one example of a dictionary of such outdated words. Dictionaries of colonial English or slang by decades inherently acknowledge aging. As a writer, I need to be aware that word choices can easily seem too modern—or too old.

Then there’s the question of which English. During my first trip to Europe, I discovered that I actually speak “American.” Now, more aware, I have on my shelves dictionaries of American, British, Australian, and South African English.

Apart from—or in addition to—the above, I love having dictionaries that give me age-graded vocabulary for children, the meaning of symbols, and abbreviations, and sailing terms. 

Abbreviations are part of virtually every “in-group.” For example, not even all psychologists would recognize that VTE means vicarious trial and error. 

When writing about a subculture not one’s own, Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures is invaluable. Just to tempt you, check out the Table of Contents!

Not dictionaries in the traditional sense… 

Many of these “dictionaries” are books word lovers enjoy anyway. For me, these include dictionaries of dreams, body language, superstitions, proverbs, phrase and fable, and word origins.

Reading dictionaries is not only entertaining, it’s also educational.

For example, people may not know that the following words, among others, not only have Yiddish roots but also came into common usage in the 1930s.

  • Mensch
  • Yenta
  • Bagel
  • Futz around
  • Schlep
  • Schmaltz
  • Schmooze

Not in my wheelhouse… 

Although I do have a rhyming dictionary, I don’t have scrabble or crossword puzzle dictionaries. Nor do I have dictionaries geared toward medicine, architecture, engineering, music, farming, the law…

Should I decide to delve deeply into such professions/topics, the dictionaries are out there.

No doubt there are people out there who believe that one good standard dictionary, and maybe one good thesaurus, suffice. Clearly, I beg to differ! 

Bottom line: Whatever your interests and/or needs, there’s a dictionary for that! Explore!

BOTH SIDES OF INERTIA

What happens when the unstoppable force of Kathrine Switzer meets the (apparently) immoveable object of the 1967 Boston Marathon officials and centuries of sports misogyny? Kathrine Switzer completes the Boston Marathon, the first woman to do so as a registered participant.

Check a thesaurus for words related to inertia. You’ll find plenty of alternatives, from attitude to Newtonian physics. 

  • Apathy
  • Indolence
  • Idleness
  • Languor
  • Lassitude
  • Laziness
  • Lethargy
  • Listlessness
  • Oscitancy
  • Passivity
  • Sloth
  • Deadness
  • Dullness
  • Immobility
  • Immobilization
  • Inactivity
  • Paralysis
  • Sluggishness
  • Stillness
  • Stupor
  • Torpidity
  • Torpor
  • Unresponsiveness

Indeed, the first dictionary definition (n) is a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged. 

If you ask a physicist (or any one in a beginning physics class) you get a less one-sided view:

Inertia noun

In life in general, including one’s writing life, the remaining-at-rest side of inertia is typically a hurdle to overcome. In its simplest form, the longer one goes without writing (or scheduling a doctor’s appointment, sending condolences, making an apology, weeding the garden, etc.) the more effort it takes to make it happen. 

Newtonian and social inertia at work:
Despite all the anatomical evidence available, crash test dummies used in car safety tests are modeled on an average male body from 1976. That might be why female drivers are 73% more likely to be seriously or fatally injured in a car accident.

Procrastination is a bear of not getting off the mark.  Researchers suggest that it takes approximately 18 to 250 days to train yourself to a new habit. The first 21 days are said to be the most difficult, especially for a physical habit (regular exercise, quitting smoking, etc.).

This holds true for habits of thought, too. It’s a little more difficult to get precise numbers in this area, but studies show that you can train yourself to meditate, think positively, stop apologizing to everyone, even improve your memory. The brain, like the body, wants to remain at rest.

For humans, the continuing movement side of inertia, it seems to me, is both rarer and more beneficial. I think of it as being on a roll

If you are on a roll, you may be having a run of good luck. (This expression, which alludes to success rolling dice, dates from the second half of the 1900s.)  Enjoy it while it lasts, but the nature of luck is that it’s beyond one’s control.

Inertia, as explained by Bill Waterson

Alternatively, being on a roll can mean enjoying a success that seems likely to continue. Continuing in the same habits will likely lead to a series of successes. This is true of everything from an athletic success to the first book in a popular series.

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, a French physicist whose postulate for energy conservation in inertia I don’t even pretend to understand.

Being on a roll also means a period of intense activity. This building momentum side of inertia comes to the fore when meeting deadlines, whether work or social (like Halloween preparations).

The outside force part of the physicist’s law of inertia is where a writer’s free will comes into play. There are all sorts of things you can do to overcome inertia in your life. Identify and remove triggers for a behavior you want to change. Set reminders on a timer or a note taped to your wall.

Those outside forces can be the basis for a character’s motivation in your writing as well. Perhaps an overheard comment sparks a character’s curiosity to begin a massive research survey. Perhaps a health scare inspires a character to change jobs and move to the opposite side of the globe. Perhaps new of impending alien invasion encourages an entire planet to move all habitations below ground.

BOTTOM LINE: If you understand both sides of inertia, you can make it work for you!

In honor of International Women’s Day (March 8th), check for biases in your life, in your thought patterns, even in your writing. At its core, bias is often just mental inertia.

MY LIFE AS A WRITER

Abdulrazak Gurnah, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 2021

I’ve accepted that a Nobel Prize, a Pulitzer—even a New York Times bestseller—just isn’t in my future.

Fortunately, I am not writing to put food on the table; I write to feed my soul.

That said, here goes.

The Upside: There’s So Much Of It!

Social Benefits


Good conversation: I’ve never met a boring writer. Some have boring spouses—or occasionally obnoxious ones—but writers themselves are consistently good company. 

Because writers tend to turn up in the same places, over time we get to know each other, and often acquaintances turn into friends.

They’re interesting and varied, and generally we are like-minded. 

Then, too, fellow writers are likely to listen actively when I talk about writing. 

Writers value my short story strengths. I’ve published more than 60 short works in literary journals and anthologies. Writers celebrate these short story publications! They get what it means. Other friends, even family, are likely to offer a polite, “That’s nice,” or, “Congratulations,” without asking so much as the title of the work or the publication! For the general public, “writer” means novels, or other books.

Simultaneously, other writers commiserate with my struggles, setbacks, rejections, etc.

Brain Benefits

Writing boosts my emotional intelligence: motivation, empathy, self-regulation, self-awareness, and social skills.

I’m organized,  think clearly, and process things efficiently and analytically. This includes being able to handle negative events/feelings. No, I can’t measure how much difference writing makes for me personally, but psychological research says that these things are true of writers overall.

In general, writing keeps my brain alive. Focusing only on gardening, cooking, TV, hobbies, etc., doesn’t challenge me to think, reason, or explore.

I’m a researcher by inclination and professional training, so I make sure the facts in my fiction are right. In the process, I’m always learning.

Emotional Benefits

These are self-assessments. Such results would not guaranteed for others!

  • Staves off depression by spending time on something I believe is worth doing
  • Precludes boredom because the options are endless
  • Boosts self-esteem by getting positive responses from peers and journal editors 

I’m very happy and content! Maybe I’m just lucky, but research indicates that being an author is one of the happiest careers in the U.S.

The Downside: There Isn’t Much For Me

Since I started writing, I’ve become a more critical reader. Now I notice that New York Times bestselling author Mary Burton gives nearly all her women characters ponytails and that her favorite adjective is “simple.” Prolific writer L. T. Ryan consistently uses “sat” when it should be “set.” Such things don’t keep me from enjoying these particular authors’ work, but I do notice.

I’m especially irritated by the language burps of “professionals”: newscasters, columnists, politicians… Oh, sigh.

My Writing Habits

I’m a writing class/workshop junkie! I’m perennially enrolled. Why?

  • Creative stimulation, taking me places I wouldn’t have gone otherwise
  • Structure, deadlines, and accountability make me actually produce
  • Appreciation for the work of others, well-published and/or fellow students

I’ve been in critique groups for years. Whereas classes and workshops are great for generating new ideas, they aren’t usually conducive to developing those ideas, or polishing them for submission.

  • I learn what’s working (or not)
  • I find out whether what is on the page is what I intended

I’ve heard horror stories about the destruction wrought by competitive writing groups.  Fortunately, I’ve avoided those. The criticism is intended to make the work better, not to belittle me

I submit something at least every two months If I get more than six per year, great, but six is the minimum.

Although I do write brief diary entries daily, my creative writing is most, not all, days.

Reading fees of any sort turn me off. Therefore, contests do not draw me in. For one thing, there are almost always submission fees. Also, I’m content if my writing is “good enough” for publication. It doesn’t have to be “the best.” 

I listen for fresh language. For example, I recently came across a FaceBook post that included “the I.Q. of a crayon.”

FYI, my writing time is the late hours of the night, wee hours of the morning. And my writing area is a shambles.

BOTTOM LINE: I’m convinced writing is good for me. I’ll keep on keeping on!

DECEMBER, IS IT ANYTHING MORE THAN CHRISTMAS?

Why, yes. Yes, it is. No wonder you wonder, given that we are bombarded with ads, decorations, parties, movies, etc., etc., etc. Even if you don’t observe Christmas in any way, you can’t escape.

Some Places Observe Christmas All Month Long

  • Christmas in the Villages: Van Buren County, Iowa
    • Features a house tour, Festival of Trees, bake sale, Santa visits, holiday dinners, lighting displays, soup suppers, as well as the natural beauty found around the county
  • Christmas New Orleans Style: Louisiana
    • Cathedral Christmas concerts, caroling in Jackson Square, parades with Papa Noel, cooking demonstrations, Celebration in the Oaks, tours of 19th century houses decorated for the season, Réveillon dinners, and traditional Creole holiday dishes
  • Colonial Christmas (Christmastide in Virginia): Jamestown Settlement, Williamsburg and Yorktown, Virginia
    • 17th and 18th century holiday traditions
    • At Jamestown Settlement, a film and guided tour compare the English customs of the period with how Christmas might have been observed in the early years of the Jamestown colony.
    • At the Yorktown Victory Center, you can learn about Christmas and winter in a military encampment during the American Revolution ands holiday preparations on a 1780s Virginia farm.

Christmas Isn’t the Only Religious Observance

Other Christian Observances:

  • Dec. 6: St. Nicholas Day
  • Dec. 8: Immaculate Conception
  • Dec. 12: Feast Day of our Lady of Guadalupe
  • Dec. 16: Posadas Navideñas
  • Dec. 27: Feast of the Holy Family
  • Dec. 28: Holy Innocents Day
  • Dec. 31: Night Watch

Non-Christian Religious Observances:

  • Dec. 8: Rohatsu (Bodhi Day, when Siddhartha Guatama achieved enlightenment), Buddhism
  • Dec. 10-18 in 2021: Hanukkah (anniversary of the rededication of the Second Temple), Judaism
  • Dec. 21: Solstice (shortest day of the year and start of winter), Wicca/Pagan
  • Dec. 26: Zarathosht No-Diso (Death of Prophet Zarathustra), Zoroastrian

Observances That Have Nothing to Do With Religion!

N.B.: Observances that cross categories are listed only once.

Kwanzaa

“Matunda ya kwanza” means “first fruits” in Swahili and is the origin of the holiday’s name. Maulana Ndabezitha Karenga, creator of the holiday, wanted to celebrate family, community, and pan-African cultural traditions. The seven days and nights of Kwanzaa are full of significant sevens. The seven Principles (unity, self-determination, collective responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and joy) and seven Symbols (Kinara candleholder, seven candles, crops, corn, unity cup, gifts, all on a traditional mat) were celebrated by nearly seven million people last year.

  • Food Related
    • Buckwheat Month
    • Cooked Grasshopper Month
    • Exotic Fruits Month
    • National Eggnog Month
    • National Fruitcake Month
    • National Pear Month
    • Noodle Ring Month
    • Quince and Watermelon Month
    • Root Vegetable Month
    • Tomato and Winter Squash Month
    • Tropical Fruits Month
  • Recreation and Leisure Related
    • Bingo Birthday Month
    • National Closed Caption TV Month
    • Read a New Book Month
    • Sign Up for Summer Camp Month
    • Stress-Free Family Holidays Month
    • Write a Friend Month

BOTTOM LINE: December doesn’t have to be all about Christmas! Live a little, along with other like-minded folks.

Happy Solstice!

Say It Aloud; Say It Proud

Addy Vannasy reads aloud to children at a village “Discovery Day” in Laos. Big Brother Mouse, which organized the event, trains its staff in read-aloud techniques.
(photo by Blue Plover)

If you want dialogue to sound real, listen to it. Literally. Longer, more complex sentences are much smoother and more graceful on the page than in the mouth. Reading silently, your brain fills in and evens out. So, when you feel your work is in pretty good shape, read it aloud.

Are the two problems related?
(photo by MemeBoi31)

Any place you stumble needs to be reworked. Reading your work aloud–whether prose or poetry–helps identify rough patches, awkward words, and other problems.

If feasible, it’s even to have someone else read your work aloud for you.  (See what I did there?)

This looks like the worst buffet ever!
(photos from BoredPanda)

But even before you manage to cajole or coerce a friendly bystander, try running your words through a TTS reader. Text To Speech software is becoming more accurate all the time. It improves accesibility for those with dyslexia, vision problems, aural learning tendencies, busy hands, or a myriad other reasons why hearing words is more effective than reading them.

Yet another terrible fate that could have been avoided by proofreading!
(photo by depechelove)

There are several free websites that will convert your writing to spoken words, though they tend to sound like robots.

What these TTS apps lack in cadence, they make up in unrelenting accuracy. There is no friendly human brain to fill in a few words or switch a letter here or there entirely without realizing it.

You’d think such a complicated respiratory system would make pitching more difficult.
(photo from East Oregonian/AP)

(For a superb example of non-robotic reading, check out anything read by Stephen Fry or Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.)

At many tutoring centers and school writing help centers, students are instructed to read their work aloud during sessions. When the brain is forced to process words orally and aurally as well as visually, it’s much more difficult for mistakes to slip through the cracks.

Sometimes, it’s even possible to break free of the “…said …said …said …said” quagmire. When you hear yourself saying said after said after said, you might say to yourself that your characters need to say something else or say nothing at all.

Good listening!

IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING

Sometimes we say—and write—more than is necessary. When we talk in bloated sentences, it often goes unnoticed. But with the written word, it’s right there on the page, weakening the prose and sometimes exasperating the reader.

Find the Bloat

Enough said. Here are several examples close to my heart (and very near my exasperation gland). In each case, words that are unnecessary are in parentheses ( ).

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Sowell, one of the longest books ever written
  • Tell me where you are (at).
  • The (very) start
  • At this point (in time).
    • OR, At this (point in) time.
  • A woman sitting in a chair: She stood (up)
  • He nodded (his head).
  • The (small) ten-by-ten room.
  • They waved (their hands).
  • (Very) unique
  • Walked (over) to the table
  • To face a husband (whom) she didn’t remember
  • Shred it (to pieces)
  • They might have found (out) a way
Artemis, or the Great Cyrus is one of the longest single volume books ever written
  • She took his hand with a smile (on her face).
  • They (both) stopped and turned to face each other.
  • They (both) waited.
  • She led him (over) to a chair and sat (down).
  • They stared at each other till he blinked (his eyes).
  • Her heart was pounding (in her chest).
  • Trying to calm everyone (down).
  • He pointed her out (with a single finger).
  • A (quick) glance.
  • A (brief) second.

And Then There are Excess Words in Specific Contexts

The Voynich Manuscript has never been translated in any way, so perhaps every word is unnecessary.

There are times when every word counts. Some journals or contests have strict word limits, to the point of specifying when and how contractions are counted. Or maybe you have limited space on the greeting card. You could even have a character who never wastes anything, including words.

These are examples of word bloat I’ve collected from the actual writing of best-selling authors. I’ve replaced names with pronouns.

  • (Now) she looked (to her) left and sprinted toward the door…
  • Buy (some) tickets.
  • He pulled her close (and kissed her). His lips met hers.
  • Behind the tenderness was (a) passion.
  • There are (a total of) two.
  • Something tells me you don’t want to draw that kind of attention (to yourself).
  • He went (over) to the table.
  • She held up her hands (in surrender), though she stayed (at the) ready to move in either direction.
  • The true irony (here) was that…
  • He nervously clicked (the back of) his pen.
  • “…he picked up a newspaper clipping. The dated pages (of newsprint) felt brittle (in his fingers)… He stared at it (in his hands,) just as he had a thousand times (before) since that day.”
  • A single tear (fell from his eye and) dropped onto her hand. 
  • She peeked into the room, as she passed (it).
  • He shook his head (from side to side) before he spoke.
  • She didn’t have the same affinity for the ocean as most (other) people.
  • She stopped next to a pickup truck(, got out,) and went into the motel office.


Three Ways to Minimize Word Bloat


1) One good way to decide what words are truly necessary is to try to shorten every paragraph by one line—which is easier done with narrative than dialogue!


2) Check all to-be verbs (is, are, was, were) looking for places where a stronger verb can replace a phrase. For example, “He was standing there” might be shortened to “He stood there.”

Drawing bizarre pictures in the margins is a fantastic way to replace bloated prose!

3) Examine all modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) to decide whether they add anything to the meaning. Often a stronger word choice can eliminate the modifier. For example, walked quickly might better be replaced by rushed, dashed, hurried, or scampered.

Another example: “Her long hair hung to her waist” would better be “Her hair hung to her waist.” Depending on the surrounding text, the whole concept could be encompassed by “her waist-length hair.”

Bottom line: As in poetry, make every word count.

Food Is Everything

flavor sicily anna tasca lanza

I love food. For me, eating and drinking across cultures is one of the main reasons to go somewhere new! Wherever I go, I try to buy a cookbook (written in English!). For me, the danger of writing about food and drink is going overboard. Describing every type of potato at Thanksgiving dinner, listing all the ingredients in Potato Cottage Pie…

food italy waverley root

Unless you are Waverley Root, or your book is actually about food, remember that a little goes a long way. It’s like transportation in that way. 

These are a crime against nature and tastebuds. Perhaps they could be a murder weapon!

So, when people come together over potatoes (or other food), keep the focus on advancing the plot:

Is serving only five types of potato dishes at Thanksgiving Dinner the mark of a sociopath?
  • Who says what while passing the potato rolls?
  • What is the significance of Mama making instant potatoes?
  • What are people thinking and feeling as they dig into the smashed potatoes?

Meals can be extremely important to your plot. They can be a platform for bringing people together.

The best part of cottage pie is the mashed potatoes!
  • Show alliances
  • Awkward or humorous character interactions
  • Illustrate insecurities
  • Demonstrate relative wealth or poverty
  • Highlight grudges
  • Plot world domination
  • Establish alibis
  • Make revelations or confessions
  • Commit murder

But while the dinner table is the platform, keep the focus on the action.

This might be enough mashed potatoes for my family dinner. Maybe. I’ll make more just to be safe.

Another function food and drink can serve is to illustrate ethnic roots—either for the first time, or as a reinforcement. Jacket potatoes are clearly associated with Ireland and England in ways that sweet potato pie just isn’t.  On the other hand, kumpir (baked potato bars) are almost exclusively Turkish!

Kumpir stalls in Istanbul provide plenty of variations on simple street food.

Additionally, food and drink preferences can define your character.

  • Does s/he prefer kumpir with just butter or with all the toppings piled on?
  • Do they mix sausage and beets into the baked potato or eat it in layers?
  • Extra pickled cabbage?
  • Cacik and ketchup on top or on the side?

Drink (and food) choices can say much about your character’s roots, socio-economic status, and self-concept.

Hannukah begins at sunset on November 28 this year. Bring on the latkes!

One way food and drink can poison your prose is by focusing on the food and drink to the detriment of the plot, action, and character. But cliché food and drink is just as hazardous.  

With so many potato varieties, the plot possibilites are endless!

You need to bring two people together to talk. You have them sit down with soda and potato chips. Ho-hum. First of all, try to bring in food only when it’s relevant.

So your first defense against this poison it to get them together over something less stereotyped.

Blue potatoes are surprisingly sweet.
  • Peeling potatoes together
  • Comparing scalloped potato recipes
  • Making French Fries in a fast food kitchen
  • Visiting the Potato Famine Museum
  • Sourcing Russian Blue potatoes for an elegant Mafia dinner
  • Even planting potatoes together!  

Your second line of defense is to add a few vivid sensory images. Consider the coffee and potato bread option. Even if eating and drinking is background to the conversation, make your reader smell the coffee, feel the dense chewiness of the bread, savor the potato flavor in the dough, etc.

Some people are so fixated on potatoes that they can’t even make bread without adding mashed potatoes. It’s a bit sad, really.

Bottom line: Food and drink can be great or deadly—your choice!

If you’re really stuck for ideas, try turning your characters into food!

IT’S GOOD TO KNOW STUFF

Except this. It’s never good to know what this is.

Everything from scintillating cocktail conversation to realistic writing to acing tests depends on it!

Minerals

  • Quartz can scratch glass—easily. It’s one of the few minerals that can. But gem stones topaz and corundum (mainly ruby and sapphire) can mark glass, too, being between the hardness of quartz (7) and diamond (10, the hardest of all).
  • Of course, diamonds can cut glass, and can scratch virtually anything. Is there anyone out there who didn’t know that? I’ve often heard that in years gone by, women would authenticate their engagement ring stone by scratching a name or other inscription into window glass.  Little did they know it might be quartz! Or zircon!
  • Zircon is the oldest mineral found on earth, and it’s the only natural gemstone that can imitate diamond (hardness up to 7.5). It can mark glass, too.

Out of Breath

  • The human body can function without air longer than you think. The current record for voluntarily going without oxygen is 11 minutes, 35 seconds for men and 8 minutes, 23 seconds for women.
  • As a point of comparison, the average person can hold his/her breath for 30-90 seconds. FYI, Japanese pearl divers don’t have super lungs; they hold their breath for about two minutes per dive. And, yes, people can train themselves for longer breathlessness.

Weather: It’s Everywhere!

Russians never let snow get in their way.
  • Chicago has more sports events cancelled because of weather than any other U.S. city—but I couldn’t confirm that just now.
  • Consider how weather could add tension to any sport that is played outdoors. Communities in regions prone to rain, snow, etc., residents tend to be more willing to play soccer in the rain or huddle around fire pits to watch an outdoor hockey game. Don’t forget heat and drought.  And consider the implications of climate change.
Betcha can’t tell it’s below zero!
  • Similar considerations apply for outdoor concerts, plays, and lectures. Some instruments (brass, certain woodwinds, a few percussion types, and [shockingly] harps) can be played in the rain or cold if they are properly prepared and cared for after. The heavy stage makeup actors wear to withstand sweat and theatrical weeping will also stand up to rain.
  • Death Valley is the hottest location in the U.S. (Marathoners have to bring extra shoes to replace all the pairs that will melt on the asphalt during the course of the race!)
  • Phoenix, AZ, is the hottest city in the U.S.
  • Fairbanks, Alaska is the coldest city in the whole country, but Grand Forks, ND, is the coldest in the continental U.S.
  • The Yukon is the coldest region in the U.S. (Most items have to be shipped in refrigerated trucks to prevent them freezing in transit!)
It’s tough to get around when the snow is up to your belly.
  • Mount Rainier has the most snowfall.
  • Syracuse, NY is the snowiest city in the continental U.S.
  • Mobile, AL, is the rainiest city in the continental U.S.
  • All 10 of the rainiest cities are along the southernmost border.
  • For all that Chicago is known as “The Windy City,” the windiest is actually Dodge City, Kansas. Indeed, Chicago doesn’t even make the top 10!
  • The difference between a hurricane and a typhoon is a matter of geography.
    • In the North Atlantic, central North Pacific, and eastern North Pacific, it’s a hurricane.
    • In the Northwest Pacific, it’s a typhoon.
    • In the South Pacific, it’s called a tropical cyclone. In fact, all are tropical cyclones.
    • The weakest of these are tropical depressions; the next level up are tropical storms.

$ and € and £ and ¥

Even scams are subject to inflation.
  • The Value of a Dollar is actually the name of a great reference book. 
    • It gives the cost of goods and services as well as typical salaries/wages by year, starting in 1860 and still updated.
  • Gas in Bath County, Virginia, cost ten cents per gallon in 1935. Ham was ten cents a pound as well.
  • Over the last 20 years, U.S. annual inflation rate has varied between 0.1% (2015) and 3.8% (2008). The highest inflation rates, some in the thousands of percent, occur in third world and developing  countries, including Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Lebanon, and Argentina. Those who know these things blame the lack of a central bank, which allows for easier currency manipulation.
From the Instagram of ceskemapy
  • In 2020, Wichita Falls, TX was the city with the lowest cost of living. The four lowest cost-of-living cities were all in Texas. However, the lowest cost of living state is Mississippi. 

Gender and Orientation

  • 120 males are conceived for every 100 females, but only 105 males are born for every 100 females. Sometimes called “male fragility”, the fact is that at every age and stage, males are more likely to die than females, as well as having more behavioral and developmental disorders.
She’s ready for the Olympic tryouts.
  • Physiologically, a newborn girl is 6 weeks ahead of a newborn boy. Females tolerate heat, cold, famine, and disease better than males.  Speed and strength favor men, but endurance favors women.
  • In 1/1500 to 1/2000 births, the newborn’s genitalia are so noticeably atypical that a sexual differentiation expert must be called in. What used to be called hermaphroditic is now part of a larger category termed intersex: 1 in 100 newborns have bodies that are not standard male or female. 
  • In the U.S., 58% of reported COVID deaths are male (per the CDC as of May 6). In England, Wales, and France, that figure is 60%. In Malaysia, it’s 78%.
  • Research lags sexual identification, but I was able to find that similar numbers of men and women in the U.S. identify as LGB (3.5%). (8.2% report having actually engaged in same-sex sexual behavior.)
  • Among LGB identifiers, a slight majority identify as bisexual, and the majority of those are women.
  • 0.3% identify as transgender. Research in these areas is fraught with hurdles and problems.

Love and/or Marriage

Divorce cakes seem to be growing in popularity. Maybe it’s just because everyone wants an excuse to eat cake!
  • Predictions are that 40-50% of all marriages end in divorce. That number goes up to 60% of second marriages and 65% of third and fourth marriages.  
  • About 6% of couples who married and divorced later remarried each other. 72% of those remarried couples stayed together.
Henry VIII looks almost tame next to Glynn Wolfe.
  • Glynn Wolfe (1908-1997) was a Baptist minister who seems to hold the record for the most monogamous marriages (29). The shortest lasted 19 days, the longest 11 years.
  • Britney Spears and Jason A. Alexander were married 55 hours. Long-time friends, they married on the spur of the moment in Las Vegas and agreed to an annulment just over two days later.
  • But wait! That’s still 1100 times longer than the record (which still holds, as best I could determine). In 2019, a couple in Kuwait probably set the bar for the shortest marriage on record: 3 minutes. Leaving the courthouse, the bride tripped and fell. Her new husband called her ‘stupid.” She returned to the judge who had just married them and demanded a divorce.
Is there a different term for having multiple vampire wives?
  • Vocabulary:
    • A bigamist marries a second (third, etc.) spouse while still married to someone else.
    • Polygamy is the culturally/legally accepted practice of one man having several wives.
    • Polyandry is the same, only it’s one woman with multiple husbands.

Bones

  • The human skeleton renews approximately every 3 months.
  • Human infants are born with 6 cranial bones and 2 holes in their heads (called fontanelles). The fontanelles usually close up within the first two months.
  • In total, human infants are born with more than 300 bones. They fuse with age, resulting in adult bodies with only 206.
  • The hardest bone in the body is the mandible/jawbone.
Children are so weird.
  • Children develop both sets of teeth at the same time. Their baby teeth fall out as their permanent teeth grow downward.
  • The hands and feet have over half of all the bones in the human body: 27 per hand and 26 per foot.
  • The hyoid bone is the only bone in the human body not connected to another bone.
  • Ancient Egyptians (about 3000 years ago) developed the first functional prosthetic bone, a big toe.
  • Humans and other animals with internal bony skeletons are in the minority—only about 2% of animal species are endoskeletal.
Some people have three or four or more skeletons in their bodies.
  • The average number of skeletons in the human body is technically more than one. (Pregnant women skew the numbers ever so slightly.)
  • The femur is the longest bone in the human body, and one of the most researched in both human anatomy and forensic medicine.

Bottom Line: One of my greatest rewards for writing is learning new things. I want my facts to be right. Therefore, I do a lot of research—and therein lies the joy of coming across the unexpected. I recommend it!

Very Important Note: Be mindful of what you’re researching, where you’re researching, and what that research might look like to a stranger. Some topics will throw up a red flag in search engines or on monitorwd networks. You don’t want the FBI knocking on your door just because the explosion scene in your novel is chemically accurate!