The (Virtual) Perennial Student

A year and a bit ago, I wrote about the importance of continuing education and peer review for a writer. Though in-person classes and critique groups are more difficult these days, challenging yourself to write is just as important. As with so many other areas of life, the internet can help with that!

Writing classes are notoriously rowdy. Teachers may even welcome the relative calm of online classes conducted via web cam.

It’s practically a cliché that writing is a lone activity. For the past few months, pretty much everything has been a lone activity. Classes and writing groups add the social dimension to writing, especially during quarantines, lockdowns, and isolations. I never met a boring writer! I meet interesting people with similar interests and (usually) similar world views. Thus there is the potential to develop new friendships as well as keeping in touch with current friends.

Why Classes?

When you happen to live with a writing partner, social distancing and masks are probably not required.

Classes stimulate me to write in new directions.  Yes, I write when I’m not in class, but it tends to get habitual, not to mention sporadic.  An extra bonus of online classes is the ability to connect with teachers and fellow writers in all over the world. The variety of cultural perspectives is almost guaranteed to shine light on some of those new directions.

Drawing up a calendar schedule isn’t necessarily required, but it certainly helps to avoid last-minute writing crunches.

Classes are structured to make me write regularly. The VMFA studio classes meet regularly, with a variety of schedules to suit any writing lifestyle. Tuition is a real bargain, when one looks at dollars per hour of instruction! Just saying.

When I write regularly, I also submit regularly, at least six times per year.  This leads to lots of rejections, but without submissions there are no acceptances. Submissions, thankfully, are almost entirely online.

Typed submissions are much easier to send to online classes, but some people still prefer to write a first draft with pen and paper.

Most of my life has been spent in classrooms, as a student and/or teacher. Classes are my natural environment, the one in which I thrive.  Classmates and/or teachers praising my writing is extremely gratifying. Every time I get something published, it’s like an A on my report card or a star on my forehead. With more than 50 publications in literary journals and anthologies, my writing life is sufficiently star-studded to make me smile.

Why Critique Groups?

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

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

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

Online critique groups have additional logistics to consider.

  • To avoid pandemonium, there should be a recognized leader for each meeting.
    • The leader could be the meeting host, the original organizer, the most senior author, a regularly rotating position, or any other generally agreed person.
  • Web meeting courtesy should be observed, including muting microphones when not speaking, avoiding distracting background action on video, and not having side conversations.
  • Because all submissions will be digital, participants must share files in a format that can be opened and read by everyone.

Find Your Group

Here are just a few of the many options for classes online:

Peer review groups or partnerships can be formed by anyone. Perhaps some of your friends from past classes or workshops would be up for regular critiquing. Social media is a great way to connect with other writers you may never have met in real life. There are also more formal groups:

ALCOHOL: OTC MEDICATION?

Stress and alcohol go together like peanut butter and jelly—a burger and fries, mac and cheese, bread and butter, mashed potatoes and gravy, milk and cookies, or any other iconic duo you can think of. Yes, they can be separated but—oh, so often—you don’t have one without the other.

I started thinking about this when the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a front page story (above the fold!) about liquor sales in Virginia. You will recall that ABC Stores have remained open as “essential” services. And according to numbers from the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, sales now hover around $22 million a week. 

In March, as the social distancing began, the ABC stores had more than $30 million per week.  Sales in April 2020 were up about 15% over a year ago. The article goes on to identify the top selling brands for the state and for the Richmond Planning District (City of Richmond, Henrico, Goochland, Hanover, Chesterfield, and Powhatan counties). I was less interested in the rankings than in the sheer volume!

Alcohol consumption is up all over the country. To look at one other location, in Tulsa, OK, one liquor store reported that looking at sales March 15 to April 15, liquor sales were up 56% and beer 48%. Compared to a similar date in April of 2019, one-day sales in April 2020 were up by 100%. 

According to one store owner, buying habits are changing in that people are buying more at a time, shopping more during the day and less in the evenings and on weekends.

In order to facilitate buying alcohol, providers are offering digital ordering and delivery, curbside pick-up, hosting, hosting virtual tastings and/or cocktail hours. And some are branching out by stocking hand sanitizers and face masks. Virtual cocktail parties among friends and families are now common.

If your aim is absolutely perfect, your cocktail parties with neighbors don’t have to be virtual!

Estimates of the increase in U.S. alcohol consumption from now to the same time last year vary from 25% (WHO) to 55% (Healthcare Home [//healthcare.utah.edu]).

The uptick in alcohol consumption is not solely a U.S. phenomenon. The World Health Organization has issued statements urging countries world-wide to try to curb drinking during the current pandemic. They cite several health reasons to try to control excessive alcohol consumption. No matter how bad a situation is, excess drinking can always make it worse!

Magic Snowman Tea is guaranteed to be 100% alcohol free.
There are other substances one can turn to in times of stress. This is one of my favorites.

Also according to WHO, alcohol-related deaths number 3 million every year—before the pandemic.  And the WHO now has the added difficulty of trying to quash the misinformation that has circulated to the effect that drinking can make someone immune to the COVID-19 virus and/or cure one if infected. The presumed medicinal value of alcohol has a long history (see below), perhaps with roots in the dulling of physical pain.

Jackie Chan is a master of Drunken Fist Kung Fu ( 醉拳 )

The link between stress and alcohol consumption is so well established that it’s actually called “self-medication.” In fact, such self-medication can be pretty effective, at least initially, in relieving anxiety and depression. Alcohol is a “downer” (i.e., a system depressant) so if people are wound up, rapid heart beat, etc., alcohol can definitely make those symptoms of stress go down. But as mentioned above, alcohol also depresses inhibitions, increases risk-taking, decreases logical decision making, increases violence, and — after all that — is still likely to interfere with restful sleep.

Being home all day with bored and curious toddlers is a very stressful circumstance.

COVID-19 presents a set of circumstances that are problematic with regard to alcohol consumption.

  • High levels of anxiety associated with the unknown
  • Isolation from one’s usual support system
  • Loneliness
  • Economic distress/job loss
  • Food insecurity
  • Fear of infection/death
  • Mourning the loss of a loved one
  • Stress at having to work from home
  • Stress of having to work in an “essential” job interacting with the public

COVID-19 is dominating today’s headlines, but it is far from unique. Research indicates that alcohol use and abuse increase during and after “violent conflicts”—e.g., wars, periods of martial law, government coups. Other psychotropic substances are also used to deal with psychic strains and trauma, but alcohol is generally the most likely to be readily available, legal, and (at least within limits) socially acceptable.

Totally non-addictive!

During the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, bootleg whiskey was viewed as a respectable medicine. At the time, more than half the states in the U.S. had passed Prohibition laws and thus were “dry.” But for medicinal purposes, some officials decided to tap the vast stores of liquor that had been confiscated initially to aid the military, although the Army mostly remained silent about using it. In Richmond, Virginia—reportedly—two railroad cars of confiscated whiskey arrived for the benefit of Camp Lee. Over time, confiscated whiskey was distributed to civilian hospitals, too.

Medical isopropyl alcohol is now available at vending machines in Moscow.

The United States Pharmacopeia dropped whiskey, brandy, and wine from its listing of therapeutics in 1916. In 1917, the American Medical Association resolved that “the use of alcohol as a therapeutic agent should be discouraged.” Even so, more than half of physicians believed it was “a necessary therapeutic agent.” It continued to be available by prescription in dry states. To this day, strong alcohol is prescribed for medicinal purposes in some areas, even by doctors!

Besides the demand for alcohol, the Spanish Flu pandemic shared other characteristics with COVID-19:

  • Wearing masks
  • Social isolation
  • Use of disinfectants
  • Limiting group gatherings, including churches
  • Hospitals and funeral homes were overwhelmed
  • During Spanish Flu the treatment of choice was aspirin, up to 30 grams daily which is a toxic dose; currently, think ingesting bleach or disinfectants.
Bootlegger tunnels in Miami during Prohibition

Bottom line for writers: people use alcohol to self-medicate for stress. The current stressor is COVID-19 BUT consider all the other stressors out there, which might occur alone or in combination with COVID-19: death of a loved one, job loss, divorce, physical illness, mental illness, physical disability, too little money, going hungry, being homeless… Do you have a character who does—who could—self-medicate with alcohol?

WRITING ISOLATION

Sleuth of Bears

There is a whole cadre—Heidegger (1889-1976) arguably the most famous—who argue that being-with-others is part of the “structure of human existence.” In other words, we are hard-wired to socialize. Whether you believe that or not, there are a gazillion (by actual count) studies that have found isolation to be harmful to humans, both physically and psychologically. 

Litter of Puppies

(Editor’s note: Including photographs of isolated and lonely people was too depressing, so I invite you to enjoy these photos of animals not social distancing instead.)

For writers, bad is good

Pod of Dolphins

How bad is it?  Some researchers posit that social isolation and loneliness are twice as harmful as obesity. Others compare the effects on mortality to be equal to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Others say the magnitude of risk is right up there with physical inactivity and lack of access to health care.

N.B.  Degrees or levels of isolation are difficult to define and measure.  Perceived isolation is what produces feelings of loneliness. In many ways, it is easier to study social isolation, though they are closely linked.

Pandemonium of Parrots

As a writer, the first question is, “Why is your character isolated?” Your options may be more numerous than you think. Here are a few examples.

  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce
  • Move to a new place
  • Researcher in isolated places, like Antarctica 
  • Mission/mission training, e.g., astronauts
  • Immune compromised
Leap of Leopards
  • A child/infant in understaffed orphanage
  • Being shunned for any reason  
    • Behavior  
    • Appearance 
    • Membership in a marginalized subgroup
  • Medical quarantine
  • As a form of torture
    • Solitary confinement in prison (currently about 80,000 in the U.S. each year)
Tower of Giraffes

The second set of questions for a writer:

  • How complete is the isolation?
  • How long does it last?
  • Is it repeated?
  • In general, the more complete the isolation, the longer it lasts, and repetition all increase the number and seriousness of the effects. 
Mob of Kangaroos

The third question is, which effects will your character display? 

Parliament of Owls
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Sweaty palms
  • Heart palpitations
  • Lowered immunity
  • Increased inflammation 
  • Trembling
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pains
  • Lack of appetite
  • Drastic weight loss
Stand of Flamingos
  • Muscle pains (esp. neck and back)
  • Oversensitivity to sensory stimuli
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Distorted sense of time
  • Severe boredom
  • Impaired memory
  • Inability to think coherently
  • Apathy
Conspiracy of Lemurs
  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Feelings of inferiority
  • Irritability
  • Withdrawal
  • Rage/anger/aggression
  • Confusion
  • Paranoia
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Hallucinations

Many of these effects mimic PTSD and, like PTSD, can last for years after the event.

Bale of Turtles

In the last couple of months, researchers are finding that COVID-19 isolation tends to evoke one of two responses.

Smack of Jellyfish
  • Those who hunker down and enjoy it—take it as a time to relax, read, bake, pursue a hobby, accomplish things around the house. In short, they’re getting along fine.
  • But for others—especially extroverts—the isolation can be harmful to both mind and body.

Not surprisingly, the effects of COVID-19 isolation are many of the same effects as other reasons for isolation.

Drift of Pigs
  • Boredom
  • Lethargy
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Distorted sense of time
  • Poor sleep quality
  • Develop or increase unhealthy habits

Dr. Samantha Brooks wrote in The Lancet: “A huge factor in the negative psychological impact [of isolation] seems to be confusion about what’s going on, not having clear guidelines, or getting different messages from different organizations.” In addition, not knowing how long isolation will last exacerbates the negative effects of isolation. Think of the current differences within the U.S. and how similar circumstances could be applied to a fictional setting.

Obstinacy of Buffalo

People who are at increased risk from COVID-19 isolation are those at heightened risk for social isolation in the first place:

Gang of Elk
  • Older adults, especially with physical limitations and/or poor family support
  • Men who didn’t develop social networks outside work
  • Being non-white is a bigger risk factor than sex
  • Lower income people who may not afford the technology for distance socializing
  • Anyone who is marginalized (LGBTQ, survivor of domestic abuse, living in an isolated rural area)
  • People incarcerated for any reason
Cete of Badgers
Shiver of Sharks

Evidence of stress is apparent in the increased number of calls to suicide prevention (1-800-273-8255) and addiction (1-844-289-0879) hotlines.

Bottom line for writers: consider isolating your character and/or increasing his/her loneliness. You can take it almost anywhere.

Murmuration of Starlings

W.H.O. Let the Dogs Out?

These dogs are better at social distancing than most humans I know.

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, teacher, writer, editor, favorite auntie, turtle lover, and dutiful servant of a fluffy tyrant masquerading as a dog.

By this point, most of us have seen something in our lives change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we understand (at least a bit) why things have changed. Our animal companions just see that the humans’ behaviors are suddenly different.

“Humans are staying in these circles, so I guess I’ll stay in a circle. Do I get treats now?”

Despite various quarantine and lockdown orders around the world, animals dependent on humans still need care. Many zoos and animal parks house animals that cannot be released into the wild because they were born in captivity, they are still recovering from injuries, their homes have been destroyed, or other circumstances that prevent them being able to thrive. Animal shelters, zoos, rescue and rehabilitation centers, and emergency veterinarians have adjusted to provide food, socialization, attention, playtime, and everything else to keep their charges happy.

Zoos have closed to the public, but zookeepers are still reporting for work. Some keepers have temporarily moved into the zoos themselves to be closer to their charges and to avoid any chance of carrying any infections into the zoo or home to their families. They’re camping in the cafeterias and staying in veterinary isolation huts.

In Cornwall, England, four keepers at Paradise Park have moved into the original house of the family that owned the property. Other keepers rotate in and out to assist, maintaining a strict schedule so that they are not in the zoo at the same time.

Without visitors around all the time, zookeepers have more freedom to take animals to visit their friends in other areas of the parks.

Because most zoos are making do with skeleton crews, keepers don’t have as much time as they’d like to play with the animals in their care. Many animals have been taking their own tours around zoos to see each other and keep each other entertained. (That doesn’t mean that bunnies have been jumping into the lion pens to say hello.)

The tamer animals have been allowed to wander the parks freely while there are no visitors. Territorial animals like geese have taken over bridges and tried to block keepers from crossing to feed other animals. Many zookeepers report that the more social animals still follow them around during rounds, without any leads or harness.

Some animals have left the zoo altogether and gone to explore the world. Peacocks from the Bronx Zoo took a stroll through Prospect Park.

Police in a closed park in Houston helped a gaggle of ducklings find their way back to their mother.

This cockatoo learned how to sing “Row row row your boat” and loves to sing along with kids who come by her enclosure. Without her backup singers, she has started humming to herself in the quiet. Zookeepers report that they can sometimes hear her start the song by herself but trail off sadly when no one joins in.

Without visitors to interact with, many animals are behaving differently. Keepers try to give each animal extra attention during feeding and rounds, but it’s hard to replace a steady stream of admirers. Some animals miss the interaction and get very excited to see anyone. Other animals feel more comfortable without an audience and venture out of hiding spaces more regularly.

Zookeepers come up with activities to keep animals entertained and socialized. Gorillas who regularly mirror gestures and pose for selfies with visitors are shown videos of people talking to them. Leopards at Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, NY have to “hunt” for food in cardboard tubes to keep teeth and jaws strong.

Polar bear cubs at Ouwehands Zoo Rhenen in Holland didn’t have to worry about public crowds when they left the maternity den for the first time.

Snakes, alligators, stingrays, etc. haven’t shown any sign that they’ve even noticed a change. However, one zookeeper noticed that some types of fish have become very attention-seeking.

Veterinarians at the Dubai Camel Hospital in Abu Dhabi have kept their enclosures open to treat their patients. After surgery, the very large patients need plenty of space and lots of help to get over that first hump in their recovery. (Ha! I crack myself up!)

Q: Where does the 800 lb gorilla sit for surgery?
A: Wherever the anesthesiologist wants.

Most veterinarians are only open for emergency cases to lessen the chances of spreading COVID-19. The CDC has confirmed that two pet cats have tested positive for COVID-19, but both showed mild symptoms and are expected to make a full recovery. Updated guidelines for interacting with cats and dogs have been posted on the CDC website. Although pets cannot become infected, there is a chance that they could spread virus surviving in droplets on their fur or paws.

There have been no reports of tortoises catching or spreading the virus, which makes them the perfect quarantine buddies!

One of the positive side effects of this awful pandemic has been the emptying of animal shelters. All over the world, people are adopting or fostering quarantine buddies. Shelter managers warn that permanent adoption may not be the best choice for families who will not have the time and resources to continue to care for pets when lockdown restrictions are lifted.

Some pets are not excited about constant supervision.

Some shelters are offering to cover food or vet bills for adopted or fostered pets as an incentive. While we’re all stuck inside, what could be better than spending extra quality time with our favorite furry buddies? They must be loving it, too. People home all day!

Mental health experts recommend furry, feathery, or scaly companions to mitigate the feelings of loneliness and depression some people are bound to develop while self-isolating. Pets can also be a huge help to parents trying to keep children entertained while they are out of school and have no place to run off all that energy.

Depending on the intelligence and motivation of the pet you adopt or foster, they may be able to help you complete some of your work at home.

Therapy dogs who can no longer visit patients in hospitals and nursing homes are sharing their affection and calm over video.

Some therapy dogs are so calm, they sleep through their own swearing-in ceremonies. This is Brody, the newest and sleepiest member of the Bristol, RI police force.

Several localities are under extremely strict lockdown measures that residents are only allowed outside for specific errands, such as walking the dog. If walking the dog is the only opportunity you have for going outside, you might as well do it in style.

Don’t put a facemask on your dog. It doesn’t help anything, and it annoys the dog.

While the zoos and aquariums are closed and everyone is staying home, take a virtual trip. Many parks and zoos have installed virtual tours and live-feeds of animals. These are a few of my favorites.

The World Health Organization has announced that dogs cannot contract COVID-19. All dogs previously held in quarantine will now be released. To be clear, WHO let the dogs out!
Who? Who? Who?who!