‘Zat You Santa Claus?

The subtle, quiet displays of merchants in the area may have hinted at it, but just in case you didn’t notice: Christmas is coming! Yes, I know, it’s easy to overlook the slight adjustments in advertising décor and to miss the odd carol or two playing on radio stations. Santa Claus will be coming to town in approximately twenty days (depending on when you read this).

But did you know that St. Nicholas is also coming? And that Father Christmas is coming? Grandfather Frost will be here with his granddaughter the Snow Maiden. If you’re very lucky, you might even get a glimpse of Befana, Joulupukki the Yule Goat, Amu Nowruz, or Olentzero. The evolution of modern Christmas customs, including Santa Claus, has been discussed on this blog before.

If you’re very lucky and have highly refined literary tastes, you may catch a glimpse of the Hogfather.

Krampus, Belsnickel, Pere Fouettard, Knecht Ruprecht, the Yule Lads, and other Companions will probably be coming to town as well, but you should probably hope you don’t run into them.

But why should you care about all these visitors wandering about your town? (Besides the tendency to trespass and child beating, of course?) If society is reflected in its myths, then the writer can illustrate society by mentioning the myths.

Real World Gift-Givers

As discussed before, humans tend to follow the sun. When it goes away, we tend to get a little anxious and want it to come back. The tendency to mark the solstices appears in almost every part of the world that sees the effects of axial rotation. Giving gifts is a common theme at this time of year, often contrasted with giving coal or beatings to the deserving.

Writing teachers are always telling us to “show, not tell.” Referring to a culturally specific Santa-esque figure is a great way to show where and when a story is set. Consider some of these holiday figures with a habit of giving sweets, money, and gifts to deserving believers. Many of them are accompanied by a darker foil who comes to punish those who have been “naughty” during the preceding year.

Father Christmas

Today, Father Christmas is often depicted as simply the English version of Santa Claus. Look back a few hundred years, however, and you’ll see a very different figure. Oliver Cromwell’s puritan government cancelled Christmas during the English Civil War; the public brought it back during the Restoration of 1660. At that time, Father Christmas was the personification of Medieval customs of feasting and making merry to celebrate Yule. The evolution of Father Christmas since that time follows the changes in common Christmas celebrations in England.

Sinterklaas/ Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas Day is almost upon us! Dutch children will leave their shoes on the doorstep or by the fire so that Sinterklaas can fill them with candy and toys. If children have been naughty, Sinterklaas’s assistant Zwarte Piet beats them with a stick or throws them into his sack and sends them to Spain. The historical Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey) and patron saint of children and travelers. He arrives by steamboat and parades through town on a white horse, wearing his traditional bishop’s attire, accompanied by his assistants. Sinterklaas carries a huge, red book with a list of all the naughty and nice children in the area. The modern American Santa Claus owes much of his current fashionable ensemble to Sinterklaas.

Zwarte Piet, Black Peter, is a very controversial figure in modern Sinterklaas festivities and worthy of a separate discussion all his own.

Three Kings or Three Wise Men

In many traditionally Catholic countries, gifts are brought by three figures: the Wise Men from the East mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew. On their way to bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Baby Jesus, the Wise Men take a break to deliver gifts to good children in Venezuela, Spain, the Philippines, and many other countries. Very few specifics are actually given in the Bible, but traditions have filled in plenty of details. Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar may have come from Persia, Arabia, Pakistan, India, China, Tibet, Mongolia, Armenia, or Babylon, depending on local custom. Gifts are often given to children on January 4th, the Feast of the Epiphany, instead of December 25th.

Amu Nowruz

Uncle Nowruz gives gifts to children at the Iranian New Year, which occurs at the Spring Equinox rather than the Winter Solstice. He spends the year travelling the world with Haji Nowruz, a soot-covered minstrel. While Haji Nowruz dances and sings, Amu Nowruz gives coins and candy to children.

Seven Lucky Gods (Shichifukujin)

Ebisu, Daikokuten, Bishamonten, Benzaiten, Juroujin, Hotei, Fukurokuju bring their treasure ship Takarabune to Japan on January 2, the beginning of the New Year. Like the early Father Christmas, the Seven Lucky Gods bring good cheer and prosperity to everyone. Those who sleep with a picture of the Shichifukujin under their pillow will have good fortune in the coming year.

Fictional Gift-Givers

Pretty much any setting for a story on Earth has a celebration of midwinter or year’s beginning, complete with a figure who rewards or punishes believers according to their behavior the previous year. But what if the story doesn’t take place on Earth?

Drifty the Snowman brings music to children every year at the Swift Creek Mill Playhouse.

Once again, those who have gone before can show us how it’s done. Articles on io9, tv.tropes, and Goodreads show just how commonly a winter festival centered around gifts and the return of light occur in other universes. Tallying the previous year’s sins and distributing charity are common themes.

For a writer, midwinter festivals offer a chance to showcase family bonds, strengthen relationships, demonstrate local superstitions, or just have characters party.

Moș Gerilă

Honestly, I wasn’t sure whether to include Moș Gerilă as a real gift-giving figure or a fantasy. This “Old Man Frost” was created by the Romanian Communist Party in 1947 as part of an attempt to shift Christmas celebrations from the Orthodox Church and the private family to the state. Moș Gerilă was portrayed as a handsome, bare-chested, young man who brought gifts to factory workers. All celebrations were held on December 30th, the national Day of the Republic. Festivities with decorated trees and patriotic music were held in public spaces, and Moș Gerilă would come bearing gifts of nuts and sweets from the Communist Party to well-behaved children. The fate of badly-behaved children is not clear, but I would imagine a gulag was involved. After the fall of the Romanian Communist Party in 1990, Moș Gerilă disappeared and Moș Crăciun (Father Christmas, similar to the Russian Grandfather Snow) took his place.

Xmas

Futurama, set in the year 3000, has an Xmas episode each season. Celebrants decorate a palm tree with lights and barricade themselves indoors. Santa Claus has been replaced by a robot with a programming error. He judges everyone to be naughty and attempts to exterminate everyone on Earth every year. Kevlar vests and body armor are common gifts.

Life Day

According to fan gossip, George Lucas attempted to find and destroy every copy of The Star Wars Holiday Special after it aired for the only time in 1978. Life Day is a Wookie holiday centered around the Tree of Life, celebrating children and death. The holiday is traditionally observed by family gatherings, preparing special foods, singing in red robes on Kashyyyk, and exchanging gifts. Also, Bea Arthur runs a cantina on Mos Eisley for some unexplained reason.

And she sings!
Hogswatchnight

Terry Pratchett’s 20th Discworld novel, Hogfather, is essentially a satire of modern Christmas customs. Hogswatchnight is described by the narrator as “bearing a remarkable resemblance to your Christmas.” The Hogfather rides his sleigh pulled by magically flying boars around the Disc delivering toys by climbing down chimneys. Children leave pork pies and brandy for the Hogfather, essentially a wild boar dressed in Father Christmas robes, which raises some disturbing questions about why he eats pork pies.

In the beginning, “Most people forgot that the very oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood. Later on they took the blood out to make the stories more acceptable to children, or at least to the people who had to read them to children rather than the children themselves, and then wondered where the stories went.” Over the course of the book, there are zany hijinks and wacky shenanigans involving Tooth Fairies, elegant parties, the Auditors of the Universe, a governess, the Death of Rats, and various other Terry Pratchett wonders. Ultimately, Death (a seven foot tall skeleton with glowing blue eyes and a scythe) has to save the day. In doing so, he explains to his granddaughter (genetics are complicated) why celebrations of the sun’s return and surviving through winter are so important.

LET THERE BE LIGHT

Candlelight Vigil in Seoul, Korea

As the Winter Solstice approaches, many people are feeling a little low—or a lot.  Fortunately, there are several holidays and celebrations around this time of year to add a little light to your schedule. Here are just a few:

Diwali or Deepawali is a festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains. It is celebrated in mid-October to late November, according to a lunar calendar.

Hanukkah is a Jewish festival of lights celebrated in November or December, according to the Gregorian calendar.

Kwanzaa is a celebration of culture and community celebrated in late December. An important part of the celebration involves lighting the kinara.

Lussevaka or Santa Lucia Day is a celebration of light, community, and the triumph of good over evil. It is primarily celebrated in Sweden, but St Lucia festivals are also held in Croatia, Italy, France, Germany, and Norway on December 13.

Yule is celebrated in many different ways by Pagans and Wiccans. It is the celebration of the Winter Solstice, the return of the sun. This is often symbolically represented by burning a Yule log, signifying the rebirth of the Oak King and waning of the Holly King.

Don’t Be SAD

Daylight Sky Light Therapy by MTS Medical Device

There is a term for those who suffer most when the days grow short: SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).  SAD increases in higher latitudes where the winter days are short. Light therapy, where you arrange a special wide-spectrum light therapy box device at an angle to your face. Using such a device for several hours at the same time every day can be used to treat SAD. It can also help treat those who have depression all year round, improving their overall well-being.

Anger management therapy can sometimes be combined with light therapy.

Scientists have also discovered that light therapy can lower nighttime agitation in Alzheimer’s patients and reduce symptoms in Parkinson’s patients, including sleeping problems and tremors.

Whether sick or healthy, light definitely affects your mood. According to research, one in four people in Alaska suffers from depression – and it’s mainly caused by a lack of sunlight.

Sunshine Cures Everything

Superman may have had a bit too much sunlight.
“No One Can Save Us Now”
by Mojoko and Eric Foenander
Singapore Art Museum

Sunshine can also help with pain control. Research shows that patients whose beds are on a sunny side of a hospital experience less pain than those whose rooms are in the shade. As well as reduced pain, patients in sunny rooms tend to recover sooner, use fewer painkillers, and feel less stressed. One theory is that exposure to sunlight releases serotonin: a feel-good chemical in the brain.

High solar activity has been found to increase fertility rates. Furthermore, light can also give men a boost in the bedroom. Research has shown that higher testosterone is boosted by Vitamin D. The biggest source? The sun. A light box would have the same affect, but is possibly less romantic than a sunny picnic or stroll along the beach.

As far as I can tell, the health benefits of sunlight are all attributed to Vitamin D effects on/in the body.

Fake Light

Aside from the health benefits of light, many practical applications have lead to the creation of light when there is no sun—primarily the benefits of being able to see in the dark! 

Over the centuries, we’ve seen many advances in created light.

Campfires really create a sense of community!
(Thanks to H.R.Joe Photography)
  • Fires, the first source of created light
  • Torches
  • Oil lamps, precursors to candles
  • Candles (beginning around 500 BCE in Rome) 
  • Lanterns
  • Matchsticks
  • Flashlights
  • Fluorescent lights
  • Incandescent lights
  • LED’s 
  • Plasma Lightsabers
Traditional oil lamp for Diwali

Until the 20th century, candles were most common in Northern Europe. In Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, oil lamps predominated.

Besides providing light, candles were used for the purpose of measuring time, usually in hours. The Song Dynasty in China (960-1279) used candle clocks.

Kerzenhur- Candle Clock

A version of a candle clock is often used to mark the countdown of the days leading to Christmas. This is called an Advent candle.

Note: This term is also used for candles that decorate an Advent wreath.

Among the earliest forms of created light, candles have had the greatest staying power into modern times for numerous uses. An estimated 1 billion pounds of wax are used in the candles sold each year in the United States.

FYI: No candle wax has ever been shown to be toxic or harmful to humans.

Advent Wreath
  • Holiday decorations
    • Shaped candles for specific holidays
    • Candles for tree decorations
    • Menorah candles for Hannukah
    • Kinara candles for Kwanzaa
    • Nine candles in a lingonberry wreath for Santa Lucia Day
    • Advent wreath candles (marking the four Sundays leading up to Christmas)
    • Candles for windowsills (to guide the Holy Family in their flight to Egypt) 
Loy Krathongs – Thai Floating Lanterns
  • Lighting paper lanterns
  • Lighting and lifting sky lanterns
  • To produce a romantic mood
  • To make a dinner table more formal 
  • As backup for a power failure
  • To dispel unpleasant household odors
  • To test for drafts
  • Scented candles for pleasure and/or aroma therapy
Very Formal Dining Table

As the days grow shorter and night falls like a rock earlier and earlier, many people light candles around the house, even when they have electric lights, simply because the warm glow is cheerful. Which brings us back to human craving for light!

Cold Light

Gas lights were developed in the 1790s and were in common use in large cities by the middle of the nineteenth century. Streetlamps made the night safer (in wealthy areas) and gas piped into houses allowed (wealthy) homeowners to ignore the setting sun.

Too bright!

The invention of the electric-powered incandescent light bulb was even more effective in making the sun obsolete. Since electric lights have become nearly universal, ideas like a 24 hour workday and cutting sleep to work more have become nearly as universal.

Newborn incubators, refrigeration, pacemakers, surgical lighting, heated houses, underground ventilation, and electric harp string tuning meters are undoubtedly beneficial to human society. However, humans in general have become increasingly sleep-deprived and overworked since the spread of electricity. Heated and lighted houses have also made humans more likely to stay indoors all winter, avoiding direct sunlight. This leads right back to the beginning of this blog – Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Bottom line: Humans need light for a multitude of reasons, and in a multitude of forms.

Massive forest fires can’t stop Oregoners from playing golf. Maybe it’s not giving off enough light.

THE UPSIDE OF BAD HABITS

I’ve long maintained that people always do things for a reason—or more than one. Even habits are not “just habits.” There are reasons people repeatedly do something—often non-consciously—and this includes bad habits. At this point, most writing on the topic of bad habits would veer off into a discussion of ways to break them. But this blog is about what people get out of their habits that might not be immediately obvious.

bad habit is that action which causes problems for our health, income, career, or relationships.  Something that is bad is unpleasant, harmful, or undesirable.

Note: Some of the behaviors listed here might not be considered bad habits by everyone.  Anything done to excess can become harmful, after all. Drinking too much water can lead to hyponatremia. Spending too much of your time helping others can lead to ignoring self-care.

Here, in no particular order: 

Smoking

“Smoke Like a Captain”
  • Create an image  
    • Sophisticate with a cigarette holder
    • High roller with an expensive cigar
    • Macho man
  • Pausing to think before responding without obviously pausing
  • Get an energy hit
  • Creates situations for social connections that might not otherwise happen
  • Provides a brief break from work or stressful situations

Drinking 

  • Relax in a socially tense situation
  • Create an image of sophistication, wealth, etc., depending on the drink
  • Regularly drinking heavily increases tolerance, making it less likely the drinker will make a drunken misstep
  • Moderate drinking reduces likelihood of a heart attack by about a third
  • Alcoholic beverages are sure to be free of water parasites in places where other beverages are chancy

Negative Thinking

  • When things go bad, “I told you so”
  • When things go well, pleasant surprises

Eating Junk or Fast Food

  • It’s handy, so no effort
  • It’s relatively inexpensive, so easy on the wallet
  • Service is fast, so it’s an efficient choice
  • Higher levels of fat, salt, and sugar provide temporary dopamine surges
  • Can become family ritual, if eaten infrequently
  • Create positive associations with otherwise negative experiences (lollipop at the doctor’s office)

Anger Outbursts

  • Intimidates more timid people
  • Creates the impression of passion or strong feelings
  • Less likely to bottle anger and turn it inward, resulting in ulcers, high blood pressure, etc.

Indulging a Greedy Nature

  • Gets one more of the good stuff (sometimes)
  • Incite envy/ jealousy in others

Telling Lies

  • “Little white lies” ease socially awkward situations
    • E.g., “Of course your new haircut is flattering…”
  • Avoid punishment
  • Shift blame
  • Keep positive secrets, such as a surprise party

Excessive Screen Time

  • Keep up with news and fads
  • Have the topics for conversation 
  • Avoid boredom
  • Improve hand-eye coordination (video games)

Always Criticizing

  • Builds one’s self-esteem by comparison
  • Intimidate potential critics
  • Temporarily look like a subject expert

Nail-Biting

  • Makes paying for manicures unnecessary
  • Shows intense feelings
  • Is less destructive than other bad habits
  • Occupies hands to prevent other, worse habits, such as smoking

Gobbling Food 

Eating quickly is fairly common in some circumstances. Gulping down a meal within a few minutes is a bit less common.

  • Saves time for other things
  • Demonstrates that food is not important
  • Potential future in speed-eating competitions

Not Maintaining Hygiene and Cleanliness

  • Saves time and energy
  • Saves money on grooming products
  • Allows focus on things other than personal appearance

Procrastination

  • You never have to feel like a failure  because “I could have aced it ill I’d spent more time on it”
  • If you procrastinate but succeed or excel anyway, you’ve saved time to do more/other things
  • If a procrastinator is successful, it’s a big boost to one’s self-perceived capability

Keeping Late Hours

  • Fewer people around to interrupt
  • Hours when no one is criticizing what one is doing
  • Easier to conduct a clandestine affair
  • Boosts one’s self-concept as a non-conformist
  • Minimize hours spent with unpleasant spouse or other family
  • Night shift workers are often paid more
  • Facilitates communication with people in other time zones

Swearing

  • Substitutes for more physically violent anger outburst
    • (E.g., throwing things, punching the wall)
  • If conducted at great volume, it’s good for one’s lungs 
  • Can encourage verbal creativity
  • Is typically a sign of honesty

Fidgeting

Tapping toes, drumming fingers, or other incidental movements

  • Relatively safe way to release nervous energy and creativity
  • Makes it easier to maintain weight, heart and lung health
  • Unconscious form of drilling for musicians and dancers

Avoiding Exercise

  • It saves energy
  • It allows more time for other things
  • If conscious decision, can save money on exercise clothes/ equipment/ memberships 

Humming or Talking to Oneself

  • Self-soothing when anxious
  • Clarify thinking when facing a difficult decision
  • Relieves the silence for those living alone
  • May be the only way to have an intelligent conversation

Interrupting

  • Express more of one’s own opinions
  • Stop an opponent from making points
  • Shows enthusiasm for topic
  • Can prevent someone else accidentally divulging sensitive information

BOTTOM LINE: The downsides of bad habits have been well-documented. But everyone gets something out of every act, especially repetitive acts.

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: SOAP

Soap is incredibly easy to work into a scene or conversation. But, as a writer, why would you?

Because—like everything else—soap choices make an impression.  “Soap” usually refers to what is technically called a toilet or toilette soap, used for household and personal cleaning. Soap choices reflect at least two things: need and personal preference. 

Traditionalists

An exact recreation of the Ancient Mesopotamian soap-making technique

The very first cleaning agents were likely ashes from fires used to cook animals. Fatty acid (which would have dripped from the carcasses onto the fire) and a caustic agent (such as the lye in wood ash) removes dirt from skin and clothing. Soap-making processes have gotten a little more sophisticated in the 5000 or so years since then. I’ll start with two of the oldest soaps made in the United States and still available.

Lava Soap

Ground volcanic pumice works as a mild abrasive, ideal for sloughing off viscous grime without removing the skin underneath. Lava is a heavy-duty hand cleaner in soap bar form manufactured by the WD-40 Company. In addition to the typical combination of fatty acid and salt, Lava soap contains ground pumice, which gives the soap its name. The soap and pumice combination is intended to scour tar, engine grease, paint, dirt, whale oil, and similar substances from the skin.

The Lava Bar is a heavy-duty hand cleaner, developed in 1893 with pumice. Do-it-yourselfers, auto mechanics, coal miners, locksmiths, luthiers, and oil rig workers commonly use Lava to scrub off the traces of their work. The original Lava bar was gray and dried the skin. The modern version looks more attractive and contains moisturizers. 

Anyone with children can make good use of Lava soap.

So, what sort of person/character would keep Lava around the house?  If all you knew about the person was the use of this hand soap, what would you expect regarding age, occupation, gender, education, occupation, etc.? How might those expectations change if it was a well-worn bar of soap or a brand-new bar still in the box? 

Ivory Soap 

The sons of the original Proctor and Gamble were responsible for the creation of Ivory soap. James Norris Gamble developed the soap with the intention of making mild, effective soap inexpensive enough to be widely available.  The name Ivory was created by Harley Procter, who was inspired by Psalm 45:8 in the Bible: “All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces whereby they have made thee glad.”  In September 1879, Procter & Gamble trademarked “Ivory”, the name of its new soap product.

Ivory soap is not for dogs. No baths for dogs!

During production, Ivory soap has air whipped into the solution, making the bars buoyant. James Gamble developed the process of adding air during production. When bathing in a murky lake or river or in a tub of bathwater that has already been used by the rest of the family, having soap that floated was extraordinarily convenient. This gave rise to the slogan, “It Floats!” in 1891. In 1992, Proctor & Gamble marketed a new formulation that includes moisturizers but does not float.

Ivory is ideal for building hair horns.

So who uses Ivory?  This soap has a long-standing image of gentleness and purity. Small children, people with sensitive skin, cleaners who need to avoid residue, and many people who simply prefer inexpensive soap choose it for that reason. What sort of characters might have a bar of Ivory soap in their washroom or liquid Ivory handsoap in the kitchen?

Shaving Soap 
Straight-razor shaving is tricky, so it’s best to start practicing early.

Though it is not typically used as a regular body soap, I’m including shaving soap here for its traditional connotations. Shaving soap is sold as a hard disc or stick that is used with a wet shaving brush to produce lather. The lather softens the hair before shaving and forms a thick, protective layer between skin and blade. Modern shaving cream is more convenient than shaving soap, but it does not work as well for moisturizing or giving a close shave.

It is possible to use too much shaving soap.

So what sort of character prefers shaving soap to shaving cream?  Would you expect old?  Or old-fashioned? And would the shaver choose a basic, inexpensive brand like Williams ($1.49 per cake) or something more exotic, like Molton Brown ($65 for one cake in a wooden bowl)? How much is it worth to get a moisturizing lather blended with coconut oil to prep skin for a clean shave, with a top note of mandarin, heart notes of jasmine and violet, and base notes of musk, sandalwood and vanilla, all in a slick shaving bowl?

And what if it’s a woman using shaving soap? Why? And on what part(s) of her body?

Medically Necessary Soap

I guess the specially important washing doesn’t include after handling raw meat or using the bathroom.

As dermatologists like to remind us, skin is the largest organ in the body. Many skin ailments can be improved or even cured by using particular soaps.

Note: The information provided below is not intended for medical diagnosis or treatment. This is only intended for writing purposes and providing examples.

Dermatologist Recommended
The best way to judge a dermatologist’s qualifications is by the size of her bustle.

Perhaps your character will do their own research, determining their particular needs and methods of treatment. What sort of person does this? For general use, dermatologists recommend AveenoDove, Olay, and Basis. Skin cleansers are better for sensitive skin, such as Cetaphil, CeraVe, and Aquanil. Deodorant soaps are often very harsh and drying.

Treatment of Skin Conditions
It is widely recognized in the medical community that dog slobber is the most effective treatment for every skin ailment. And for depression.

Many skin conditions can be treated topically with soap. Rashes from poison ivy, insect bites, and mild eczema can be relieved with oatmeal soap. Aloe Vera can help with sunburn and acne. Antibacterial soap has been in the news quite a bit lately. There is evidence that the symptoms of severe acne, athlete’s foot, scabies, ringworm, psoriasis, plantar warts can be relieved with prescription-strength medicated soap.

The research on specific drugs and usages is not conclusive for all of these conditions, so be sure to dig around in peer-review medical journals before including details in your writing.

Fancy Soap

Sampling of Soap Types
Me? Nah, I don’t need a bath, thanks.
Aleppo Soap

More information on all of these soaps is available online. Every type of soap has a different texture, smell, weight, and other characteristics that can add sensory detail to your writing. Would your character have a signature soap? Chose to make a statement—to self or others?

Expensive Soaps
You could also leave a whale on your front lawn to let all the neighbors know where you got that amazing soap!

Status symbols only work if other people know about them. Some of the most expensive soaps have distinctive scents. They may provide (mostly subjective) beauty benefits. Prominently displayed wrappers or overseas packaging left ever-so-casually where guests might see them

  • Qatar SoapA bar of this soap produced by a family-run business in Lebanon might make you think twice about washing too often. Infused with gold and diamond powder, a single bar costs $2,800 (£1,700; 2,050 euros).
  • El-Nino (Kenya) Soap: The soap is part of the Kenya government’s strategy to provide aid for victims of El Nino weather catastrophes. Each piece will retail for $375 (Ksh 37,500). However, it is not yet clear if this soap will be manufactured in Kenya, Lebanon, China or Migingo.
Chocolate Mud Mask?
  • Cor Soap: Cor was produced by Plank, a company that manufacturers yoga-themed products. Each bar will set you back $125 (KSH 12,500). The ingredients that made Cor expensive are the following:
    • Chitosan to even out skin tone
    • Sericin — a silk extract — to trap moisture and provide UV protection
    • Four types of collagen to help maintain skin structure.
    • Silver, a known antibacterial agent 
  • Cle de Peau BEeaute Synactif Soap: A facial cleansing soap that removes impurities from pores and lifts away makeup and dead skin to reveal purified skin filled with translucence and suppleness. $100.
  • Erno Lazlo Famous Black Bar: $38 for those who want to go for something a little less high end.
    • Dead Sea Mud: Restores skin’s own mineral levels; infused with 26 minerals and has a signature black color that transforms to white foam.
    • Glycerin: Attracts and holds hydration for a more moisturized, glowing complexion.
    • Palm and Palm Kernel Oils: Regulates skin’s oils and reinforces its defenses against outside stressors.  
Mud Mask!
  • Dragon’s Blood Cold Process Soap: Loaves / Bars for those who want to sound high end on a budget.  Loaves of soap are cut into bars and packed with your own custom label. Dragon’s Blood soap comes in custom sizes, colors, etc. for large orders. The famous fragrance contains “top notes of amber, vanilla, and patchouli. Also has hints of orange and other fruity base notes.” Sample 4.5oz. Bar ($3.50 / unit)

Bottom line for writers: Soap can flesh out a character, either subtly or in a more marked way. Think about it!

SUPERSTITIONS

By definition, superstitions are irrational beliefs that objects, actions, or circumstances not logically related to an outcome nevertheless influence those outcomes. Every Friday the 13th, I think of superstitions. In the past I’ve blogged about superstitions related to Fridays and to 13s. The superstitions below have nothing to do with the date directly, but there is a belief that negative things happening on Friday the 13th are worse than they would be on other dates.

The Superstition Mountains in Arizona

There are myriad ways to slice and dice the universe of superstitions, including by country or by topic (e.g., love and marriage or hearth and home).  Indeed, there are whole books of superstitions out there, and who knows what’s on the internet.  But anyone wishing to pursue the topic can do so easily.

Clearly, this blog can give you only a tiny taste of the superstitions out there. So here you go, alphabetically:

A
Spaghetti harvested on April 1st is full of extra nutrients.
  • April 1, April Fool’s Day
    • To be fooled by a pretty maiden means the man will marry or befriend her.
    • To lose one’s temper over a practical joke will bring bad luck.
    • A wedding on this day means the woman will be the family boss.
    • Being born on this day means lucky in business and unlucky in speculation.
  • Apron Dropping
    • A girl might meet her fiancé.
    • It may signify having two husbands.
    • It might mean illness or early death.
    • It might mean many children or no children.
    • It may mean spinsterhood.
    • Perhaps it portends desertion by a husband.
B
  • Bats are very good omens, denoting happiness, peace, long life, wealth, and virtue.
  • Birds are associated with both good and bad spirits, and are portents of things to come.
    • A bird in the house or tapping on a window is an omen of death.
    • Injuring a robin or disturbing its nest brings bad luck.
      • A friendly robin is a portent of a long, hard winter.
      • The first robin seen in spring portends good luck if it flies up, bad luck if it flies down.
      • A robin’s nest near the house brings good luck.
      • Seeing a robin in the morning portends a visitor the same day.
    • A swallow nesting in the eaves of a house brings good luck.
      • A swallow abandoning its nest is a sign the house will burn down.
      • A swallow skimming near the ground is a prediction of rain.
      • If a sparrow builds a nest under your window, you will take a trip.
    • Turtle doves near the house prevent rheumatism.
    • Eagles are said to carry off lambs and small children.
    • The cry of a peacock under a window predicts a death in the house.
    • Seeing a hawk is an omen of victory or success.
    • Seeing a crow in flight is time to make a wish; if the crow doesn’t flap its wings, the wish will come true.
    • Magpies (or jackdaws or crows, depending on where you live) mean different things depending on how many you see:
      • One for sorrow,
        Two for joy,
        Three for a girl,
        Four for a boy,
        Five for silver,
        Six for gold,
        Seven for a secret never to be told.
    • To break the curse of seeing a lone magpie, salute the magpie.
  • Bread
    • If bread falls butter side down, hungry company will come seeking food.
    • Eating bread crusts will make your cheeks rosy.
    • Two people saying “bread and butter” after someone or something comes between them will break the spell of bad luck.
    • Waving bread and sugar around a wound will make it heal faster.
C
  • Cards
    • A black ace falling on the floor during a bridge game is a sign to stop playing.
    • Singing during a card game is bad luck.
    • It’s unlucky to play cards on a bare table.
  • Cats
    • A cat washing its face is a sign of a visitor coming.
    • A black cat crossing one’s path is an omen of very good or very bad luck, depending on the culture.
    • A strange cat following you or making a home with you brings good luck.
    • If you wake up to a cat on your chest, it means the cat was under the influence of evil spirits and was trying to steal your breath as your slept.
  • Cutlery
    • If a knife falls on the floor you will have a gentleman visitor.
    • If a fork falls, it will be a lady visitor.
    • Crossing knife and fork is a bad omen.
D
Friday’s child
  • Days of the Week
    • Good or bad luck depends on the day of the week.
      • Monday for health
        Tuesday for wealth
        Wednesday the best day of all
        Thursday for crosses
        Friday for losses
        Saturday no luck at all
    • A child’s entire life is influenced by the day of the week on which they were born.
      • Monday’s child is fair of face
        Tuesday’s child is full of grace
        Wednesday’s child is full of woe
        Thursday’s child has far to go,
        Friday’s child is loving and giving,
        Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
        And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
        Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.
  • Dogs
    • A yellow dog happening to follow your tracks is a sign of good luck.
    • A dog howling in the night, especially at the moon, is a harbinger of death.
    • A dog predicts rain by lying on its back or eating grass.
E
  • Ears
    • Sailors held the belief that a pierced ear with a ring in it improved eyesight.
    • More generally, piercing a child’s ears will improve eyesight.
    • Size
      • Small = stingy
      • Large = generous
      • Long = long life
    • An itching left ear portends sadness or bad luck; itching right ear means someone is speaking well of you.
  • Eggs
    • Two yolks in one egg means great financial prosperity is on the way.
    • Refusing an Easter egg is an invitation to lose the friendship of the person offering it.
    • Rabbits lay eggs at Easter time.
    • Eggs blessed at Easter are supposed to ward off illness.
    • When cracking Easter Eggs with a friend, the one whose egg cracks first will have good fortune.
  • Eyes
    • If your right eye twitches, you are going to hear good news. 
    • A twitching eyelid means someone is thinking fondly of you.
    • A person with brown/ blue/ hazel/ green/ grey eyes brings bad luck.
    • A person with heterochromia (eyes different colors) is a witch or a demon.
    • Grey or blue eyes can see the future.
F
  • Fingers
    • Friends crossing index fingers over one another and making a wish will have their wish granted.
    • Crossing your middle finger over your index finger either brings good luck or is a sign of lying.
    • A person with a ring finger longer than the index finger is sure to be wealthy.
    • If a person points a finger in the direction of a graveyard, they must bite their finger to avoid inviting death.
  • Fingernails
    • Broad nails show that a person is generous.
    • Long fingernails reveal a lack of thrift.
    • Short fingernails mark a liar.
    • Specks on fingernails correspond with the number of lies told.
    • Cutting a baby’s nails before the first birthday means the child will become a thief. (Bite them off instead.)
    • Cutting nails on Friday is bad luck.
    • Cutting the nails of a sick person means that person will never get well.
  • Funerals
    • Handkerchiefs used to wipe tears at a funeral must be buried with the coffin or thrown away.
    • Singing, laughing, or talking too loudly at a funeral will wake the dead.
    • Not crying and singing funeral hymns loudly enough will anger the recently departed and wake the dead.
    • A man not wearing a belt to a funeral will bring death home with him.
G
  • Gloves are not good!
    • Picking up a glove is to risk bad luck.
    • Dropping a glove brings bad luck.
    • Giving someone gloves invites the breakup of the friendship.
    • Hitting someone with a glove, even accidentally, means wishing for their death.
  • Graves
    • Dig graves facing east toward Gabriel when he blows his horn.
    • Tools used to dig a grave should be left nearby for several days.
    • If someone shivers for no apparent reason, someone is walking over his/her grave.
    • Open graves are ill omens.
    • Leaving the site of a grave before the gravediggers lower the coffin means another death will follow.
    • Some cultures require a corpse to be buried in a standing position, holding weapons at the ready.
  • Gifts
    • Sharp objects given as gifts will turn on their new owner.
    • Giving certain numbers of objects (such as flowers or cookies) is unlucky, varying widely around the world.
    • In some areas, giving any unreciprocated gifts is unlucky.
    • Most of these gift taboos can be avoided by repaying the giver with a symbolic trifle, such as a penny or a piece of bread.
H
Crossed hands! No more babies!
  • Hands
    • An itchy right hand means money is coming.
    • An itchy left hand means money is slipping away.
      • Rubbing an itchy left hand on wood and wishing for money will break the spell of losing.
    • An itchy right hand means that a friend is coming.
    • Hand itching means you will shake hands with a stranger.
    • Itchy hands also means that you will be entertaining company.
    • Itchy palms means the receipt of unexpected money.
    • Every town and village in the world seems to have a different variation of hand signs to ward off evil.
      • Thumb holding middle and ring finger against the palm with other fingers extended.
      • Holding the hand with the palm flat and all fingers pointed forward, folding each finger against the palm separately and sequentially.
      • Tucking the thumb between the index and middle finger with all fingers pulled into the palm.
    • Binding anyone’s hands together will condemn them to a life of misfortune.
    • Folding or crossing one’s hands causes infertility.
  • Hens
    • Setting a hen on the first Monday of the month brings good luck.
    • Setting hens on Sunday night brings successful hatching.
    • If 13 eggs are set, 12 will be pullets and 1 will be a rooster.
    • Long eggs hatch roosters; round eggs hatch pullets.
  • Hiccups
    • Having the hiccups means someone is remembering you fondly.
    • Each hiccup is an attempt by a demon to draw your soul from your body.
I
Extreme ironing. People do this. Voluntarily. I don’t know why.
  • Ironing
    • If the tail of a man’s shirt is ironed (or starched) will make the man harsh.
    • An ironing board falling across a door is an omen of death.
    • Ironing the backs of clothes is bad luck.
  • Injury or Illness
    • Stepping on a crack will break your spine.
    • Sleeping with wet hair will make you sick.
    • Women sitting on bare cement will become infertile.
    • If your shadow falls on a graveyard or a funeral procession, you will become gravely ill.
    • Blowing in a baby’s mouth will cure colic.
    • The presence of a net beneath a trapeze or high-wire act will cause the performers to injure themselves or fall.
J
  • Jar of water with a knife in it behind the door will protect a building against the devil.
  • July 25, wet or dry, is the day to plant turnips.
  • Jumping
    • Jumping over a baby means they won’t grow very tall.
    • Couples jumping over bonfires together will have peace and good fortune for a year.
    • Jumping exactly as the clock strikes midnight for New Year’s will bring good luck in the coming year.
K
  • Knife
    • If someone gives you a knife it will cut the friendship unless you “buy” it by giving a penny, pin, etc.
    • Leaving a penknife open brings bad luck.
    • Handing an open knife to someone will lead to a quarrel.
  • Knocking on Wood
    • Knocking on wood before starting a project is inviting good luck.
    • Knock on wood after bragging/boasting to prevent future failure.
L
  • Ladybug / Ladybird
    • It’s bad luck to kill a ladybug.
    • A ladybug landing on you will bring good luck.
    • A ladybug flying off you will take away all your troubles with her.
    • More than 7 spots on a ladybug’s wing means famine.
      • Fewer than 7 means a good harvest.
    • Make a wish with a ladybug in your hand and the direction she flies shows the direction your luck will come from.
  • Lips
    • Itchy lips means someone is speaking ill of you.
    • Itchy upper lip, someone tall will kiss you
      • Itchy lower lip, a short person will kiss you.
    • If you bite your lip while eating alone, you have a great kiss ahead.
M
I guess neither of these two will get married. Their dad will be very happy about that!
  • Marriage
    • Unmarried people who sit at the corner of a table will never get married.
    • Girls who want to get married should write the names of three prospective spouses on slips of paper and slide them under their pillow. She then discards one at night, one in the morning, and the remaining paper will have the name of her future spouse.
    • Married women are very lucky wedding guests. The longer she has been married, the more luck she brings to the new couple.
    • A man who walks between two women will have an unhappy marriage.
  • Moles or Warts
    • On the forehead near the hairline is a sign of bad fortune.
    • On the chin or ear is a sign of wealth.
    • On the breast is a sign of poverty.
    • On the throat is a sign of good luck.
    • A mole on your arm, live on a farm.
    • Having lots of moles indicates future wealth.
  • Mirrors
    • Breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck.
    • Looking at your reflection in a broken mirror brings permanent bad luck.
    • Standing between two mirrors allows spirits to steal your soul.
N
  • Nine
    • Count nine stars for nine nights and on the last night one’s lover will be revealed.
    • Find nine peas in one pod, hang it above the door, and the next person through the door will be one’s spouse.
  • Nails
    • A nail dropped on the floor can only build crooked houses.
    • Carrying an iron nail will ward off evil influences and demons.
    • Looking at a coffin nail while carrying a body to a graveyard invites death.
    • A rusty nail stuck through a lemon will keep away the evil eye.
O
Superstitious architects design buildings without a thirteenth floor.
  • Omens of Misfortune
    • Spilling salt on the table.
    • Burning bread.
    • A rooster crowing at night.
    • Killing a spider.
    • Stepping over a snake.
    • Dropping a comb.
    • Stepping on sidewalk or road cracks.
    • Laughing before breakfast.
    • The number 13.
  • Owls
    • Hearing a screeching owl is an omen of bad luck.
    • An owl perched on a house predicts death to someone within.
    • In Wales, the hoot of an owl signaled that an unmarried girl had surrendered her chastity.
    • Owls are sacred in some parts of India because their eyesight is phenomenal.
    • Owls signal approaching death.
P
  • Pearls
    • A ring set with a pearl is unlucky.
    • Pearls signify tears.
    • A gift of pearls will bring tears and sadness to the recipient.
    • Finding a pearl in an oyster is a sign of good luck.
  • Phrenology
    • A high forehead is a sign of a reflective mind.
    • A high forehead is a sign of leadership.
    • Large eyes signify benevolence and wonders
    • A wide skull indicates pugnaciousness.
    • Large heads contain large brains, signifying high intelligence.
Q
  • Saying the word “quiet” will cause all hell to break loose.
  • Quail
    • Seeing a quail is a sign that a goal can be attained only if the seer acts immediately.
    • Seeing a quail in flight is an omen of danger or death.
    • Dreaming of a quail is a sign that love, good fortune, and victory are coming.
  • Quarters
    • Putting a quarter into a pot of black-eyed peas will bring good luck and money.
    • Adding a quarter to a tip jar will make it fill faster.
    • Tucking a quarter into a purse or wallet given as a gift means it will always have money in it.
R
  • Red Hair
    • Redheads are emotionally unstable and of terrible temper.
    • A redhead who tends a cheese vat will produce curd not fit to eat.
    • The appearance of a white horse heralds the appearance of a red haired girl, and vice versa.
    • Seeing a redhead first thing in the morning is a sign of bad luck.
  • Rats
    • Rats leaving a house signifies bad luck.
    • Rats entering a house bring good luck.
    • Rats won’t go through a soaped hole.
    • Catch a rat, paint it garish colors, and release. It will drive other rats away.
S
Indian Rat Snake (Grey and Yellow)
  • Snakes
    • Hanging a snakeskin from the rafters will protect a house from fire.
    • Killing the first snake you see every year will guarantee victory over any foe.
    • Seeing a snake cross one’s path or dreaming of a snake are bad luck.
    • Pregnant women who are frightened by a snake will give birth to a child with a constricted neck.
    • A snake will never bite a pregnant woman.
    • Tying a snakeskin around the waist of a woman in labor will ease childbirth.
    • Feeding women in labor a drink containing the powdered rattle of a rattlesnake will ease childbirth.
    • Carrying a snakeskin is generally beneficial to health, effective against headaches and extracting thorns from the skin.
    • Carrying a snake tooth will ward off fever.
    • Carrying a snake tooth is lucky when gambling.
    • To avoid getting bitten by a snake, wear an emerald.
    • When a snake’s head is severed, it will not die till sunset.
  • Singing
    • If you sing before breakfast, you will cry before the day is done.
    • If you sing before you dress, you’ll have trouble before you undress.
    • If you sing before seven, you’ll cry before eleven.
    • If you sing before you eat, you’ll cry before you sleep.
  • Sailing
    • It is unlucky to have an umbrella bought aboard.
    • It is unlucky to drive nails on Sunday.
    • Whistling aboard ship brings bad luck.
    • If a bee or small bird lands on the ship, it means good luck.
    • If a hawk, owl, or crow lands in the rigging, it means bad luck.
    • A horseshoe nailed to the mast protects against witches.
    • It is unlucky to set sail on Friday, lucky to set sail on Sunday.
T
I think this one is pretty safe. No hideousness here.
  • Thumbs
    • A baby who sucks its thumb will grow up to be hideous.
    • A thumb turned backward indicates an inability to save money.
    • Thumb pricking means something bad is coming along.
    • Thumb itching indicates visitors are coming.
  • Three
    • Closely associated with the Holy Trinity in several world religions: Christianity, Hinduism, Islam.
    • Some pagan traditions celebrate the trinity of land, sea, and air to make up earth.
    • Third time lucky/third time’s the charm.
    • A person will resurface three times before drowning.
    • If three people make up a bed, one of them will fall ill.
    • Good things and bad things come in threes.
  • Theater
    • Shakespeare’s Macbeth is so unlucky that people avoid saying the name in a theater, referring to “the Scottish play” instead.
    • Whistling onstage or backstage is bad luck.
    • Wishing a performer good luck will bring the opposite, hence the common “Break a leg!” wish before going onstage.
    • A terribly dress rehearsal means the performance will be excellent, and vice versa.
    • Failing to salute the resident ghost (every theater has at least one) will cause it to be angry and take revenge.
U
  • Umbrellas
    • Carrying an umbrella will ward off rain.
    • Opening an umbrella in the house is bad luck.
    • Holding an open umbrella over your head in the house will lead to your death within a year.
  • Upside Down
    • Turning a picture upside down brings bad luck to the person or place in the picture.
    • An upside down photograph or picture turned to the wall invites lurking evil spirits to attack the subject of the picture.
    • Turning a photo of a person to face the wall or the floor will protect you from evil influences caused by that person.
    • Slippers or shoes left upside down on the floor will cause trouble on the next journey.
  • Underwear
    • Wearing new underwear on a first date will doom the relationship.
    • Wearing underwear inside out will improve test or exam scores. 
V
  • Visiting
    • Visit on Monday and you’ll be visiting out every day of the week.
    • Guests, like fish, should be thrown out after three days.
  • Violets
    • Violets grow where tears have fallen.
    • Drinking tea made from violet petals cures heartbreak.
    • Dreaming of violets means you’ll come into money or marry someone younger.
    • When violets bloom in the autumn, an epidemic is coming.
W
If only he hadn’t whistled inside, his Mother might be happier…
  • Washing
    • Wash and wipe together, live and fight together.
    • If a woman gets wet while washing clothes, she will marry a drunkard.
    • A woman who wants beautiful hair should wash it in water from March snow.
    • Washing laundry on Saturday or Tuesday is bad luck.
  • Whistling
    • A whistling girl and a crowing hen always come to no good end.
    • If little girls whistle they will grow beards.
    • Whistling in the house invites bad luck.
    • If someone whistles inside a house, they will become financially irresponsible and lose money.
  • Weddings
    • A bride jumping out of bed and landing on both feet on her wedding day bodes well for her married life.
    • The bride and groom seeing each other before they meet at the altar will doom the marriage.
    • An iron horseshoe carried by the bride will bring good fortune to her extended family.
    • A thunderstorm during a wedding is an omen of bad luck.
    • A snowstorm during a wedding is a lucky omen.
    • A Sunday wedding is a good omen.
    • A Friday wedding is a bad omen.
    • Marrying on the last day of the year is especially auspicious.
    • Wearing pearls on your wedding day tempts sorrow, tears, and an unhappy future.
X
Y
  • Yawning
    • Yawning during prayers is a bad omen.
    • Yawning without covering one’s mouth allows the devil entrance.
  • Yellow
    • Giving yellow clothing as a gift will bring bad luck.
    • Wearing yellow clothing to any kind of test will cause a poor performance.
    • When speeding through a yellow traffic light, a driver throwing a kiss to the roof of the car will avoid accidents and police.
Z
  • Zero is a whole number as well as an even one, and thus a lucky digit.
  • Zebra
    • Seeing a wild zebra means you are spiritually safe from harm.
    • A zebra licking your hand can mean danger is coming or someone is holding onto bad memories.
    • The black and white of a zebra indicates good and bad.
    • Dreaming of a zebra means one is facing situations that are difficult to control.
    • Follow a zebra to find water.
    • More stripes on the front legs of a zebra than on the back is an omen of a baby, possibly twin boys
    • One zebra is a sign of good luck and blessings. Seeing two zebras in the morning is an omen of illness and maybe two bad harvest seasons.
    • A running zebras is an omen of an ample harvest.

Bottom line: The superstitions listed here are shared by many people, but every culture and person has different beliefs. Anything can become a personal superstition if something unrelated is associated in time or place with a dramatic event or outcome (such as lucky socks or particular foods). Consider how someone might come to feel anxious and fear bad things will happen if s/he loses a carved wooden heart. If you are writing about an entirely fictitious culture, you can invent whatever superstitions you like!

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: ELECTION 2020

What would (or wouldn’t) your character(s) do? And just as important, why? This particular election has been unusual in several dimensions. When considering your character(s)’ behavior, also consider whether it might reflects a general or stable level of political activism/ involvement or is it specific to this election (or fictional elections with similar circumstances). If the latter, is that because of the pandemic, the candidates/issues of this particular election, or both.

Social Media Activity

  • Following candidates, pundits, campaigns
  • Passively lurking
    • Replying or reposting to boost signal
  • Researching candidates’ policies or campaign news
  • Sharing information with others within a social group
  • Contacting candidates or campaigns through social media
  • How carefully would a character ensure that information is factual and unbiased before believing it or sharing it?
    • If a character has verifiably true information, how much effort would they put into combating falsehoods?
    • Would a character knowingly spread disinformation?

Before Election Day

  • Register voters
    • Provide forms to register to vote at the DMV or other locations
    • Help voters obtain documents needed to register to vote
    • Check registration status for voters
    • Campaign to expand voting access or challenge flawed registrations
  • Manage a candidate’s campaign 
  • Vote early
    • Mail in
    • Absentee drop off
    • In person early
  • Campaign for a local, state, or national candidate
    • Phone calls
    • Postcards
    • Canvasing
    • Delivering flyers
    • Collecting signatures
    • Donating money to a campaign or political party
  • Sign petitions and share on Facebook, Twitter, etc.
  • Attend a rally
    • In person
    • Drive-by
  • Advertise his/her support
    • Yard sign
    • Bumper sticker
    • Clothing (hat, T-shirt, etc.)
  • Try to convince friends/family to vote
    • Encourage voting in general
    • Persuading to vote for particular candidates

Election Day

  • Vote
    • Only if the weather is good
    • If the lines aren’t very long
    • Regardless
  • Work for the elections board
    • As a poll worker directly interacting with the public
    • As a ballot counter for early or mail voters
    • Helping voters contact election clerks to resolve problems
  • Volunteer as an election monitor
    • Officially representing a campaign, being a silent presence in the background while ballots are counted
    • Challenging potential voter fraud outside of a polling place (unofficial)
  • Carry signs or flags supporting one candidate or party
  • Distribute campaign literature or sample ballots to those far enough away from the polling place
  • Provide assistance to those waiting in long lines
    • Drinks and snacks
    • Folding chairs
    • Umbrellas or parasols
    • Playing music, dancing, entertaining
    • Hand sanitizer and masks
    • Driving voters to the polls
  • Providing childcare so parents can go vote
  • Planning vote time around work requirements
    • Taking time off during the workday
    • Getting to the polling site at 4am to vote before work
    • Going after work and potentially staying in line until late at night
  • Follow the media
    • All-day hype
    • Early evening only
    • Late into the wee hours
    • Not at all

Post Election Day

  • Follow results
    • Popular vote
    • Electoral college tally
    • State or local races only
  • Check results
    • Every few minutes
    • Hourly
    • Daily
    • Only on the 6:00 news
  • When results are in
    • Accept
    • Deny
    • Protest the outcome
  • If unhappy with outcome
    • Grumble
    • Peacefully protest/rally
    • Protest with violence against property/people
  • If celebrating
    • Have a quiet glass of champagne
    • Party with family/friends
    • Dance in the streets
    • Binge on chocolate cake
  • Remove all visible signs of political support
    • Only if his/her candidate lost
    • Regardless
    • Yard signs but not bumper stickers
    • Not at all
  • Try to pretend it never happened

How the Character(s) Felt—Check All That Apply

  • Excited
  • Eager
  • Trepidatious
  • Suspicious
  • Fearful
  • Relieved
  • Depressed
  • Disbelieving
  • Angry
  • Exhausted
  • Cheated
  • Numb
  • Elated
  • Encouraged
  • Helpless
  • Betrayed
  • Disgusted
  • Joyful
  • Vengeful
  • Resigned
  • Proud
  • Gratified
  • Hopeful
  • Determined to run for office in the next election
    • To continue momentum from the current campaign
    • To correct future errors of the recently elected
  • Consider whether your character’s behavior would be consistent with his/her feelings. Why or why not?

Bottom line for writers: Though your plot may never involve an election at all, this exercise should shine light on your characters’ level of civic involvement and activism.

1:57 AM

And it hit me: I hadn’t written a blog! Where did the days go since Friday Tuesday?

Fauna

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I had a chance to enjoy the acrobatics of Stanley and Ollie at the bird feeder.  They’re better than a professional circus troupe, but without the spandex and sequins! (For more about their antics, check out an earlier blog I wrote about the behaviors and habits of squirrels in my yard and elsewhere.)

Flora

Visiting yard plants is always interesting this time of year (sometimes a bit confusing). I found that a purple baptisia anemone planted by the front back door has migrated to a side garden near the back—clearly the work of fairies.

I have a single rose bud opening (although my neighbors’ roses are hanging heavy) Christmas rose hellebore loaded with buds and a few blooms .

I have a single rose bud opening (although my neighbors’ roses are hanging heavy) Christmas rose hellebore loaded with buds and a few blooms .

The rhododendron has its first bloom, and azaleas are going wild. I think this weather is confusing them. Irises Daffodils are so heavy-headed that they are resting on nearby azaleas. My peonies camellia sasanqua aren’t as far along as they were three years ago, but they’re showing lots of buds for the future.

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The patio pots have flourishing mint, chives, oregano, thyme, sage, and—surprisingly—dill and parsley that wintered over.

My mums are going crazy! I love their colors, and I wish I could convince mine to be perennials.

Fiction

Then, too, there were writing tasks. I wrote the first draft of “Pandemic.” I’m involved in an online writing class, and this week was my turn to present.

Fraternizing

All of that doesn’t even touch on communications with family and friends. Like many in the US (and around the world), I’ve been a bit preoccupied with the election results this week.

I’ll try to get out of myself for Friday Tuesday!

Bottom line for writers: Life happens.

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BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: ALPACA OR LLAMA?

Surely, somewhere along the line, you’ve done the getting-to-know-you exercise in which each participant answers the question, “If you were an XXX, what would you be? And why?”

XXX can be anything—from trees to historical figures and beyond. In this variation, the question is “Would your character be an alpaca or a llama?” Although they share many similarities, they are quite distinctive in several ways.

Size

Alpaca to the left, Llama to the right

The size difference between llamas and alpacas is obvious even from a distance. Llamas are big: as much as 4 feet tall at the shoulder, and tipping the scales up to 400 pounds.  Alpacas are around 3 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh up to 150 pounds.

So, is your character tall for his/her gender? Muscular? Overweight? Or more petite?

Color

Llama

Think clothing, hair, and skin. Both llamas and alpacas grow thick coats of hair, that can vary in color from white or pale yellow to various shades of brown and black, to  piebald, but. . . 

Alpaca

Alpacas are more likely to have one consistent hair color.

Would your character be more likely to wear flashy clothes (llama) or conservative clothes (alpaca)?

Personality

One Llama

Both llamas and alpacas are herd animals, i.e., sociable. But overall, alpacas are more laid-back than llamas. A llama can move up or down the social ladder by picking fights—usually among males, to establish dominance. These involve spitting, ramming each other with their chests, neck wrestling, and kicking to knock the other off balance.

Two Llamas

Females usually spit as a means of controlling other herd members. When overloaded or maltreated by humans, llamas spit, kick, lie down, or refuse to move. Llamas take care of each other by issuing a loud, shrill sound that rhythmically rises and falls to alert others to a threat. They also hum to each other.

Apex alphas frequently turn into beer, most often a Tripel style Irish craft beer from Hillstown Brewery. I hear it’s quite good.

Alpacas are typically shy and polite. Although they can play herd politics with the best of them, they seldom do so. They live in family herds, which typically consist of an alpha male, several females, and their young.

Is your character tough, competitive, ready to throw down, like a llama? Or a peacemaker?

Llama (and very fast zookeeper)

Emotional Displays

A llama’s degree of upset is revealed in what they spit: the more irritated, the more digested the food that is spit. If they groan or go “mwa” it is a sign of fear or anger. When unhappy or agitated they lay their ears back. Ears perked upwards is a sign of happiness.

Alpacas spit when they are distressed or fearful. Their warning of danger is a sharp, noisy inhalation that sounds like a high-pitched bray. When a male is defending his territory, his ears are laid back and they turn sideways. Alpacas are amenable to petting as long as it’s not around the head or neck.

Alpacas sing!

Communication is both verbal and non-verbal. Sometimes the meaning is unclear, just like people. For example, alpaca mothers and babies hum constantly, but all alpacas also hum as a sign of distress, curiosity, happiness, worry or caution! They also snort, grumble, cluck, scream, and screech. From what I’ve read, it appears alpacas are more vocal than llamas. 

What emotional “tells” does your character display? To everyone, or only close friends and family?

Refinement

Alpacas look smoother than llamas. Alpaca hair is silkier, each strand being half or less the diameter of llama hair. While it might not perfectly reflect refinement, llamas are used for food and as beasts of burden. Alpacas are herded for their hair, to make expensive textiles, and seldom kept as food animals.

Is your character smooth and sophisticated or a little rough around the edges?

Usefulness

Pack Llama

Llamas can be trained to a lead quickly when young. Alpacas are also very trainable using food as a reward.  Llamas can carry heavy loads over long distances and are more likely to be pack animals. Both can be guard animals for other species, such as sheep. Here again, it’s more likely that the guard will be a llama.

Riding Llama

Sometimes, llamas even guard herds of alpacas! When guarding other species, males are most likely to hold their posts alone. If more than one male llama is put on guard duty, they might fraternize with each other and neglect their charges (just like humans!).

Guard Llama

Nanobodies (part of the antibody) of llamas and alpacas are particularly useful to molecular biology research. Alpaca and llama nanobodies have a very strong ability to destroy viruses like HIV and influenza. Currently, researchers are looking into the possibility of a vaccine for COVID-19.

Does your character care for—take responsibility for—others?  When, how, and why?

Attractiveness 

Llama rocking a traditional Peruvian bridle

As with humans, much depends on the eye of the beholder.

Llamas have pointy, protruding faces and long, banana-shaped ears. Alpacas have smaller ears, shaped like elf ears, and a pug-like face.

Alpacas all dressed up for Christmas

Does your character share any physical characteristics with llamas or alpacas? Does s/he meet the cultural standards of beauty? And is it important?

World Travel

Prior to the last ice age, llamas inhabited large parts of North and Central America. Now llamas and alpacas live primarily in parts of Peru, Equador, Bolivia, and Chile. As of the 20th Century, both alpacas and llamas have been reintroduced into the U.S.

Ceasar the No-Drama Llama in Portland, Oregon

Is your character a rolling stone or a homebody?

One interesting tidbit about alpacas: They use a communal dung pile where they do not graze.

One interesting tidbit about llamas: In Aymara mythology, the Heavenly Llama is said to drink water from the ocean and urinates as it rains. According to Aymara eschatology, at the end of time, llamas will return to the springs and lagoons they came from.

What is one interesting or unexpected tidbit about your character?

Bottom line: better know your character by looking at her/him slant!

Not these lamas. Buddhist lamas are not known for their skills in riding pizzas through space.

EARLY BIRDS AND NIGHT OWLS

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

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

More coffee, please!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately, adjusting by an hour is fairly easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least the ambulances are pretty comfy for a nap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gemma Correll understands me!

READING HABITS: EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE ONE!

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

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

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

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

What Should You Be Reading? 

Eating a book ensures full absorption and comprehension.

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

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

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

Types of Readers

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

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

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

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

OCD Readers 

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

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

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

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

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

Friends’ Reads 

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

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

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

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

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

Genre Loyalists 

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

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

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

Binge Readers

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

The Eclectic 

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

Ping-Ponging

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

Mini-Readers
Mini Reader and Micro Reader?

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

Night Readers

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

Self-Rewarders

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

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

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

When? Where?

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

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

Modern Options

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

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

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

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