Friday, April 9, 2021

Book Review: Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All

Title: Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All

Author: Allan Gurganus

Date: 1989

Publisher: Ballantine

ISBN: 0-8041-0643-6

Length: 875 pages

Quote: “But they tells me: we gone inherit Mother Earth, us meek. Well, semi-meek.”

There’s nothing even semi-meek about this super-sized satire. It’s a historical novel set in an alternate history. The last real Confederate Widow lived into the 1980s and this story, only in the vaguest way even a travesty of hers, can seem like a tasteless jab at a woman whose only distinction was longevity, while she was dying.

However: Lucy, Mrs. William Marsden, has all the stories people wanted to imagine a Confederate Widow who’d survived into the 1980s would tell. Thirty or forty years younger than her husband, of course. Probably a second wife, though Will Marsden’s true love seems to have been an older soldier who was killed. Will Marsden lives with post-traumatic stress until he’s old enough to develop Alzheimer’s Disease, which can produce violent insanity. He’s never much of a treat to live with, although Lucy was impressed by his size and strength before she knew better. Eventually he has to be euthanized and who’s to do it...

Well, actually there are several possibilities. He’s lived with two women, one his legal wife and one his inherited slave housekeeper. After marriage he dismisses the housekeeper, but it’s a small town, the woman’s domestic odd jobs never call her very far away, and the three grow old together. Old and weird.

Castalia, the housekeeper, is an African “princess.” “King” is the title she gives her father although what she meant by it is more like “elder,” in a “tribe” of forty people, all enslaved after the international slave trade in our world was banned. Her tribal religion is the ultimate example of the Power of Positive Thinking: it leads her people into slavery without resistance, brainwashing them to see their enslavement as an expression of inferior people’s need for their guidance. If there were such religions in Africa it would explain a lot of things, including why such religions have died out. Castalia’s passivist self-worship guides her through a horrific life with her self-esteem intact. She repays non-fatal slights in kind, promptly, and carries on being helpful, even generous, while despising everybody.

Lucy is that rarely documented creature, a Southern girl who never aspired to be beautiful, brilliant, popular, charming, or much of a “lady” in the sense of a moral example to humankind. The sexual pleasure to which she admits is lesbian, but she never goes all the way with a woman. She does her duty, gives birth to nine children, admits no special affection for any of them but does melt down when one of them is blinded in a hunting accident.

I got as far as the meltdown scene thinking that this book was a collection of short stories about The Way Things Might Have Been But Weren’t, and then I recognized that it’s not meant to be either historical or a novel. It’s a bitter, satirical re-visioning of the Southern States’ historical lore. When Lucy’s emotions blow up, they take the form of blaming the object involved in an accident. She doesn’t weep over poor blind Ned, nor does she have much to say about helping him, apart from a throwaway line about most of the Marsden money being used to send the children to college. About her children, generally, people of the readers’ grandparents’ generation, she has remarkably little to say. But she wants to burn up Will’s whole gun collection, except for the guns he and Ned were carrying and the one she wants to point at Will’s head when she says, “Manners.”

Yes, “hysterical” is the word that comes to mind, for Lucy and for the book...but it’s relevant hysteria. The things that didn’t happen, wouldn’t have happened, in the real nineteenth century are statements about things that were happening in the twentieth century. Lucy compares Civil War veterans to Vietnam veterans, a group that were receiving very wary and tentative kinds of respect in the 1980s. Her gun grab and Castalia’s slave story, or Positive Thinking story, express the author’s opinions on contemporary political and religious discourse, and also on women: Lucy and Castalia are strong all right, even magnificent, but they’re not intelligent. 

Not that men are more intelligent; the men in this novel all seem to be coping with insanity in their various ways. Will wasn’t even half grown during the war (it would have taken some intensive lying to get him legally recognized as a Confederate veteran in our world) and wasn’t sent into combat; his claim to fame is having walked all the way home from Appomattox (home is in eastern North Carolina) but he rejected lifts he was offered. In the psychological news of our 1980s, researchers tried to determine whether punishment works as a deterrent to crime at all; in the family legends of this fictional world’s 1850s, a runaway slave is beaten and left in the cellar, then dug up from a tunnel she dug, working northward from the cellar.

A case might easily be made that all historical fiction consists of projecting our own present-time thoughts onto the past, that Jean Plaidy’s meticulous reconstructions of historical documents in novel form were shaped by her immediate concerns almost as much as Gurganus’s having Edwardians talk about “a gene” (instead of “something in the blood”) or slaves brought from Africa in 1860. The counterargument would be that, if most historical fiction represents a patchwork of current and recreated thoughts, and if a seam always shows somewhere, still, in most historical fiction the seams aren’t as predominant a feature as they are here.

In any case, if read as a deliberate use of images from historical fiction to represent present concerns, the way anthropomorphic teddy bears represent present concerns in children’s stories, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All makes sense, in a mordant and cynical way, and is worth reading once. As history it is, of course, worse than useless. Now you’ve been warned and, whether or not you find it entertaining, this work of fiction can do you no harm.

If 875 pages of snarky satire with extensive adult content, longwinded build-ups, and intensive disrespect for Our Past appeals to you, you probably already have this book. If not, you want it now. Allan Gurganus is still alive 

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Beloved Companion Loretta

Here's another free-verse thingie in response to a prompt at Poets and Storytellers United, where other people are undoubtedly posting better animal stories...When my brother and I were growing up, we had a dog of our own for a few months, boarded a pony, and bonded with other animals, but our main pets were bantam chickens. 

I always write about cats. Today 
I want to be different and remember the hens,
who, like my social cats, were most interesting
in their relationships with one another. 
Loretta was my last pet hen, and closest,
the one who used to mimic the sound of speech
and briefly managed to say the word "freebie." 
Loretta knew her male kin, and ignored them.
Also ignored full-sized chickens, male or female,
as being a different species she disliked.
(Bantams are miniature chickens. Loretta's body
was a perfect fit in the palm of my hand.)
At intervals she met a bantam rooster
from outside her own family, and became
flirtatious, even eager. Handicapped
by black-rose instead of bright red on her face,
she called and coaxed and showed no shame.
In spring, outdoors, in a family, she might have laid
eight or ten eggs a year; never very many,
and she never tried to raise a brood of her own.
Every feather she ever had was black.
We joked that they'd mistake her for a crow
if she didn't insist, in every way, she was a hen.
In fact her whole breed was developed for a look
produced by low levels of estrogen, low fertility.
When bantam roosters were not in the neighborhood
she tried to take the social role of one
by crowing in the morning and flirting with hens.
But she knew friendship, loyalty, generosity
with Silver, Sandy, Blanca, and with me.
Animals bond by sharing food. Loretta
would eat off my plate any time she could
and show me yummy pebbles, leaves, or beetles.
As a fledgling she used to snuggle in my pocket;
when cold or scared she'd fly on to my shoulder
but, like most birds, preferred not to be held.
The family kept her while I was at school,
isolated, to prevent lesbianism, and because
they didn't want to keep another whole flock.
Nobody cared about trained chicken shows
after my brother died. So Loretta was
often without companions, but she never
complained in any noticeable way; only
trilled happily when we could be outside together.
Most hens live three or four years. She lived six.
She'd become a burden on my young womanhood
but still I missed her, after her long life.

A Fair Trade Book: Sailing

Title: Sailing 

Author: Henry Beard

Date: 1981

Publisher: Workman

ISBN: 0-89480-144-9

Length: 96 pages

Illustrations: cartoons by Roy McKie

Quote: "The knowledgeable sailor does not 'get on' a boat or 'climb in' a boat--he boards a boat. And the prudent individual...remains ashore."

This is a book for people who recognize the similarities between sailing and tearing money into small pieces while standing in a cold shower, yet they "have heard the call of the sea" and enjoy sailing anyway. The book defines "deviation" as this "unnatural love of the sea." 

William F. Buckley, Jr., was known as a wit, but he recognized Henry Beard as a funnier humorist. (It was one of those lefthanded compliments. Buckley thought more of his own work was serious than many of his readers did.) He rated Sailing "the funniest book I have ever read." Meh. Some prefer Beard's Cooking, a similar "dictionary" that skewers the joys and futilities of a popular hobby. Neither book, however, should be read in any place where you can't share the joke. Both may cause coffee to be inhaled in inappropriate ways.

Born in June 1945, Beard was either the last of the war babies or the first of the baby-boomers. He is still alive so, although the badly water-damaged copy of Sailing I currently have for sale is the one to throw in if you're buying books for ten dollars a dozen, new copies are Fair Trade Books, and ten percent of the current price according to Amazon will go to Beard or the charity of his choice.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Book Review: Mirro Matic Pressure Pan

Title: Mirro Matic Pressure Pan 

Uploading: 147375 of 458344 bytes uploaded.

Author: none specified

Date: 1961

Publisher: Mirro Aluminum Co.

ISBN: none

Length: 58 pages

Illustrations: line drawings

Quote: "The very first time you try the recipes in this book, whether you have cooked previously or not, you are going to have some very gratifying results." 

Probably most of the homemakers who kept this book had cooked before, but not in a pressure cooker. The Mirro Matic Pressure Pan (Economy Model) was a basic model. Anything it could do, your pressure cooker can probably do better. So you can still use these recipes.

Probably the book will appeal most, though, to collectors of vintage cookbooks. The copy I have for sale has been thoroughly and lovingly used, and shows it, but it's complete and legible inside. 

Recipes begin with timetables for basic cooked vegetable dishes, starting with raw or frozen veg, and stewed meats. They progress quickly, however, to things like potato salad, hasenpfeffer, Swedish meatballs, Irish stew, baked beans, tamales, pheasant, steamed brown bread, curries, and other traditional dishes that adapt well to pressure cooking. If you have a pressure cooker and enjoy using it to get slow-cooked flavors and textures in relatively short amounts of time, this book is for you.

I thought I was posting another review of a curiosity nobody else has. Wrong! Amazon has a copy, with a color photo on the cover that my copy does not have. Though used, the copy sold on Amazon has gone into collector prices, so the price of this book online will start at $10. It's not even a Fair Trade Book. Go ahead and buy it directly from Amazon if you prefer.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Five Things Social Workers Say That Are Almost Always Wrong

Real, professional social workers say the wrong things because they are social workers. That is to say, they are trained and required to work as part of a system that doesn't help the people it's supposed to help. But anybody can learn to say the things social workers say--perhaps from watching a TV program where someone says these things and does help somebody, or hearing a teacher or church worker say these things and at least sound very "professional"--and be surprised and hurt by the reaction they get in real life. Let's consider a few specific things people often say, with the intention of helping others, and analyze some of the reasons why they don't work.

1. It's All About You

Here's one that popped up in the Twitter feed of someone I visited this morning. We know this Twit was feeling successful, because he retweeted:

God didn’t create you 2b a failure or to just get by in life, your decisions did that. He did bless you will free will, that free will allows you to make the changes necessary 2 become successful! So remember U have nobody to blame for your failures or successes except yourself.

Wow. Considering this thought from the perspective of someone who feels like a failure, can you see why this kind of tweet might be considered to violate Twitter's rule against encouraging suicide?

(Twitter wanted me to paste in the whole tweets and give credit to the people who posted this tweet and the one below. I prefer to spare them from blame.)

Why would anybody ever say this? Because in the context of a long-term counselling relationship with a "life coach," where there's time to work out what changes may be necessary for the person to feel that he has become successful, it might encourage the person to ask for more advice. This is possible since the person has already entered this relationship of his own free will, so presumably he has more faith in the counsellor than it would be prudent for anybody to place in human beings generally. 

Where does this one break down in reality? In real life, our actions have consequences. So do the actions of other people. One thing leads to another, but sometimes those other things intersect and interact. Everyone, whether they feel like successes or failures, acts in ways that succeed and in ways that fail every day. 

When the general balance of the immediate consequences of our actions seems to be successful, we tend to overlook our "little" failures. Most of us are good at focussing on the aspects of our lives where most evidence that "we are successful" can be found. 

When the general balance of the immediate consequences of our actions seems to be unsuccessful, we tend to feel discouraged and overlook our "little" successes. Most of us don't stay in this kind of deeply discouraged mood for very long. People who get stuck in discouragement are likely, these days, to be labelled "depressed" whether they have that physical condition (which is a symptom of a physical disease, often an easily cured one) or not. If they talk to someone who is being encouraged to hand out certain popular medications, they can add dependency on an expensive drug with nasty side effects to the list of things that make it less likely that they'll succeed. 

In hope of speeding up the progress of a long-term counselling relationship, many counsellors were taught what turned out to be a very antisocial attitude towards "blame," or recognizing the way the consequences of different people's actions interact. The general idea the counsellors absorbed was "Ignore the effect all external circumstances have on your patient's life and focus on whatever effect her voluntary actions have. After all, as her counsellor you can only recommend voluntary actions to her." The effect on those who listened to them was more like "Counsellors think we should all agree to pretend that everything everyone does is 'okay.' They think we should just blithely 'accept' our cars being stolen or our children being molested." This was part of a widespread backlash Against Therapy.

What can we say instead? Even for the Twit who finds it encouraging to think that he is solely responsible for his current success, it may be useful to balance his self-encouragement with a few humbling reflections. No doubt he did make good decisions that contributed to his current success. He is right to encourage himself to make good decisions but he should be aware that events outside of his control not only may, but will, eventually outweigh the effect his good decisions have on his life: No matter how good he is at his business, old age and ill health will eventually remove him from the business world. 

If he wants to help someone who might want his advice because she is failing to emulate his success, he should avoid generalizing. She may be doing something wrong. A change from one valid business decision to another might be the cause of her current lack of success or her future success. (I used to know a restaurant that served a chicken dish that became famous all over the city, but they employed one preachy vegan and several vegetarians who insisted on switching to vegetarian meals only. I wonder why their traffic slowed down?) 

Or her difficulties might come from real competition or opposition from other people. Nothing useful can be generalized about that; we have to know the situation. Someone else may in fact be supplying the demand for a certain kind of product or service, and her best move might be to try a different line of business or a different city. Someone else may in fact be sabotaging her business, or may just be draining her energy ("relationship problems" are the biggest drain on women's productivity). In real life it is probably more useful to acknowledge the difference between blameworthy and merely inconvenient things other people do to us, rather than try to sweep them all under the rug. Someone who actually stalks and threatens your customers (I had an enemy who did that) deserves blame; someone who merely drains your energy, as it might be by being your parent and having Alzheimer's Disease, does not. Either one can interfere with your ability to succeed. It's saner to admit that obstacles in the road to success may exist, while working around them, than to pretend that we're building our own road through a solipsistic world in which others exist only to reflect our energy back to us. We're not. They don't. 

2. Go, go, go! 

Another "motivational" tweet popped up in the same stream, right beside the one above: 

NEVER STOP LEARNING. Determine the skill you need to acquire to get to the next step in your journey. Successful people have figured out how to reach their goals through trial & error. Never let up, go go go!

Why do people say this? In its original context of athletic training, this kind of thing was said by and to people who were physically fit to push themselves to the limits of their strength. When everyone present routinely runs a mile in four and a half minutes, there seems to be no harm in pushing themselves toward a time below four minutes. 

A little "go, go, go" won't hurt us as long as our "going" feels good, overall. A habit of pushing ourselves, "go, go, hurry, push it, now, faster, never stop," becomes fast-moving cardiovascular disease. Go, go, go! Have that heart attack before age forty!

Why is this one false to reality? Life is not the Roman Arena. While I personally see more people who look undertrained than people who look overtrained, in terms of physical athletics, I still see the stereotype that may be most dangerous of all playing itself out in real life. That's the pattern where people abandon all physical training and just apply all those pre-game pep talks to business, personal time, even family life. "Win that conversation! Make that person buy one thing more than he came in to buy! The best never rest--shop till you drop! Bag those bargains! Get the best cabin at the lake! Push that kid through that math course!" They lose the ability to feel their blood pressure rise. Before long it just stays high all the time. 

What can we say instead? In real life, good coaches and trainers tell athletes when to stop pushing themselves and relax. A well exercised heart actually achieves a slower, steadier resting rhythm sooner than an underexercised one. In real life, unfortunately, few adults could find a competent coach to tell us when to push the working, studying, or whatever, and when to rest. We have to learn to do that for ourselves. 

One tool that works for some people is a home blood pressure kit. You can learn to use a traditional cuff and stethoscope, which never wear out, or buy a cute little electronic gadget that will do all the work for you until it wears out. When your resting or morning blood pressure reading is high, it's time to back off and pinpoint the source of stress. For that purpose, eliminating all "go, go, go!" thinking can help.

3. Focus on the Feelings 

Last night I felt sick. I was sick. I still am sicker and more tired than my younger self, or most young people, could imagine its being possible to be. I don't like to endorse any general slogan for everyone, because mine is probably as susceptible to misuse as anyone else's, but the thought that's worked for me in all of my hard times has consistently been, "FIX FACTS FIRST: FEELINGS FOLLOW." 

After long hard thought I decided to post exactly what I was feeling, what was going through my mind, because I think people need that information. When you disappoint someone who is ill and/or disabled, you physically aggravate their disease. You trigger emotional moods that make it more likely that they'll become sicker than they already were. Not all elders or people with disabilities want company all the time, but whenever one of them wants and expects your company, there is no alternative. Go ahead and tell the White House social secretary that you're not available because you promised to spend that day with your grandmother. I don't know about some Presidents, but the good ones have publicly commended people who did that. Rock stars and supermodels have been known to fall in love with people who made them wait, too, for good reasons.

But as I typed the post before this one I was mentally bracing for somebody to spew out the TV movie approach to anyone who says anything like "I feel too tired to get up and eat if someone brought me my favorite food." That is a physical symptom--a fact. TV movies and social workers have unfortunately conditioned some of us to treat it as an emotional feeling.

Which leads to messes like, "Ohhh, dear, but you have so much to live for (I don't know what that might be, exactly, and I don't care, but it's what I'm supposed to say)! Let's get you some help to FEEL better! Try some nice pills...they cause intense pain in about one of three patients and violent insanity in one of twenty patients, but ANYthing's better than FEELing that you don't CARE about staying alive!" 

In real life I got up this morning, nibbled at a little healthy food, and felt better. That's NOT because I am saner than someone who might have felt the same way, been older and sicker with less ground to lose, and actually let perself die of dehydration (with water in the house, which the person was too weak to get up and drink). It's because I started out stronger than that person was, physically. You never know how strong people are, so you never know whether their feeling too weak to eat and drink is just a passing symptom or a permanent condition. Their sanity and intelligence has nothing to do with it. Grandma Bonnie Peters was renowned for her sanity and intelligence, and part of that was that, toward the end of her life, she knew that the day would soon come when her body would not be able to digest food or water if she was able to swallow it. You never know when that day is going to come for any individual, but before it arrives, you need to know that it is a physical condition, not a psychological one.

Why people say this: They are scared. They have no real reason to suspect that other people have suicidal depression as a disease, but they may have it, or have had it, themselves, or known someone who did. Sometimes they've learned the lines they repeat from someone at the hospital where one of their parents was treated for a drug overdose. Sometimes they're very, very young--not only too young to have anything useful to say, but too young to have the discipline to shut up and listen to what someone else is saying.

Why it's false in reality: TV movies may have succeeded in teaching the young different speech patterns, but for baby-boomers and the older generation, nine times out of ten, "I feel tired of living" does not mean anything like "I have suicidal depression." It has meanings like "I feel overwhelming fatigue and/or weakness and/or pain and/or nausea." Not only do serotonin boosters not treat this symptom--they often aggravate it. Efforts to help someone "feel better" while living through the original disease process can compound the disease process and increase the odds that the person will commit suicide. A pattern associated with one kind of medication used for neurological pain creates an obsession with suicide. A pattern associated with serotonin boosters, specifically, can also create delusions that the pain actually caused by the drugs has been caused by other people's evil acts (y'know that teacher has beaten and tortured students in front of whole classes before!) and an obsession with killing other people before committing suicide. 

It was bad enough when chronically ill patients my age vented "I wish I could just end all of this," on the way into or out of another painful medical procedure, and were rolled into the psychologist's office for useless talk about their emotions and their early childhood. That discouraged them, but it didn't kill third parties. But the overprescription of antidepressants has killed hundreds of third parties, including children.

What to say instead: If you personally can offer the person more in the way of "something to live for," go ahead and make that commitment now; it may or may not be medically necessary, or even medically relevant, but you probably will outlive the person and you will feel better whenever that happens. If you can't, zip your lip. Even people who have suicidal depression do not need more lies and liars in their lives.

Focus on the facts. The facts won't be the same for one person as they are for another. The facts may include this fact: there's nothing you can do. Or they may include this fact: there's something you can do, and it involves your back and/or your pocket, but it does not involve your mouth. Face the facts, and act on the facts you have.

In this kind of situation the facts can be incredibly hard to face. Be honest with yourself about the emotional feelings that may be complicating your response--your feelings. If you need someone to talk to about the fact that your disabled parent needs for you to remodel your ground floor and help him or her to roll around your home in a wheelchair all day, do not feel ashamed of asking for the help you need.

People's ability to discuss and work with all of their disabilities varies depending on the kind of disability they have. I've been using a bedpan. I can talk about that because (1) I don't expect to use it much longer, and also (2) I'm still strong enough and well enough coordinated to be able to use it efficiently. Reasonable people who don't even feel discouraged about being able to use a bedpan efficiently during a few weeks of acute illness might reasonably feel that having to be lifted out of a filthy bed, regularly, was more than they wanted their children to have to live through with them. Or their wives. 

Between waking up in their Heavenly Home and waking up in a filthy bed, any reasonable person would choose the former. If the person of concern to you is unable to keep perself clean, the only useful thing you can say is that you, personally, don't mind cleaning the person's bed. Which may or may not even help.

4. Counting Someone Else's Blessings 

I found an instructive example of this yesterday. A fellow Blogspot blogger posted this:

Reading the first few lines, I had the thought, "Yes, he's reminding all of us in the English-speaking countries" (the poem's been linked to blogs in at least the big six, and India!) "of a blessing we tend to forget--most of us have never been on a real battlefield." For me those lines are enough to evoke the awareness that this is indeed a blessing.

Right below the poem, a typical well-off yuppie writer, from Australia I believe, complained that "So many [people] do not lead blessed lives." Well, she might have been thinking of the ones whose homes have become battlefields. It is also, however, totally typical of well-off writers in the big six English-speaking countries (US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, NZ), all of whom are still filthily rich by global standards, to forget about the fact that we're not living in war zones and feel that, because our writing hasn't put us on the Forbes 500 list yet, because many of us have minor disabilities (or acute temporary ones like my current one), because those of us who married for money and/or extrovert charm have had miserable marriages and divorces, and so on, we do not lead blessed lives. Well, in some ways we don't. But we have had the blessing of not living in a war zone.

So some of us blather: "Oh, count your blessings! You're alive!" (This, at the moment, may not feel like a blessing. See above.) "The weather is nice! Flowers are blooming--well, somewhere. The world has puppies in it!" (And if the person was hoping to adopt a puppy and has just realized she's too ill, that thought might make her cry all day and long into the night.)

Why people say this: They sincerely believe that they are expressing their faith and gratitude for their Higher Power. Often they're whistling in the dark--trying to earn more blessings when, in fact, their own ratio of blessings to non-blessings is running low. It's easy, and if you have sadistic tendencies it's fun, to deflate their little emotional balloons. It's also cruel; in real life, as discussed in Bright-Sided, some of these people are cancer survivors desperately hoping that Positive Thinking will extend their remissions.

Why it's false to reality: If God wanted you to feel blessed, you would feel blessed. Many of the basic facts of most of our lives--our homes are not in war zones, the weather in North America happens to be the kind most humans like best today, the world has puppies in it--probably are pleasant if we think about it. But a basic fact is not a special blessing. When people receive blessings, they'll tell the rest of the world. We cannot tell, before the fact, what anyone's blessings, even our own, may be.

What we can say instead: See "fix facts first," above. Most of the things people complain about are physical facts that exist in the physical world. They may or may not be subject to change. That change may or may not involve our backs or our pockets. It does not involve our mouths. If the only thing we believe we can do is to run our mouths, good things to say might include "Tell me more" or "I'm really grateful that you took the time to talk to me. I don't want to waste too much of your energy, so if you're feeling tired I'll go away." 

If you live with someone who read Winnie the Pooh as a child and took Eeyore as a role model in life, you might try just talking about the pleasant facts of life--the flowers, the scientific discoveries, the social breakthroughs, even (if the person has not just realized he is too ill to adopt a pet) the puppies. I'm all in favor of that. I'm actually launching a weekly e-newsletter full of pleasant things. (My original name for it was GAN: The Fluff, but for those who came in late, I'm calling it The Tuesday Revue.) Sometimes cheerful thoughts can boost the flow of serotonin for some people who have problems with that.

People should understand, however, that at a deep level some people believe that talking about the good things in our lives attracts evil, so when they want to receive more blessings they'll talk as if even their grandchildren were big disappointments. There may still be traditional Chinese elders whose idea of showing gratitude for being healthy and successful and having beautiful grandchildren is to growl, "Bah, useless girls and an empty-headed boy who'll never get anywhere in life." What they really mean is "Long may these blessings continue," but they'd never dare to say that.

5. Someone Else Is Worse Off 

While typing yesterday's post I dismissed a few thoughts that came to my mind. Thoughts like, "Have you forgotten how many people find time to read blogs because they are going through chemotherapy for cancer? While writing about the misery of food poisoning have you given any thought to how idiotic you sound to chemo survivors?" I chose to write what I did because chemo survivors are not strong enough to write about what they are feeling while they're feeling it, and nobody would have the fortitude to read it if they did. So, reading about food poisoning, which is something young people can imagine happening to them, may give them as much of a clue as they can possibly understand.

A lot of baby-boomers first heard the "Someone Else Is Worse Off" line of unhelpful talk when they didn't like something served at dinner. "Look at these pictures of hungry orphans in Europe or India who would be glad to have those carrots! Now eat your carrots and try to be grateful!" 

I even heard it when I was new to widowhood. "Otto Frank lost his wife and his children and his friends in the concentration camps! How can you feel discouraged when you've only lost your husband?" 

To that, the only reasonable reply is, "Worse than losing my husband, I find myself living in a world that has you in it." And if I were on the jury trying someone who had followed that reply by doing what antidepressants suggested to her mind, that person would...have to spend at least two actual fifty-minute hours talking to a therapist. About easing off the pills, mainly.

For most of us, it should be enough to note the logical fallacy of this line of babble. Anyone still spouting it should have to copy the entire Bible by hand before being allowed to talk to another human being.

Why people say this: They're badly scared, they're desperate for something to say (probably because they know it's time to shut up and activate the back or the pocket or both), and they're also stupid. They are not people in whom we should ever confide or to whom we should ever listen. 

It should be noted that in a few cases, like the carrot situation, this line was a badly distorted, useless, and counterproductive version of a valid appeal to some legitimate cause. To adults who can understand the situation it may still make sense to say "We've raised funds for a gala dinner with expensive food, and we're eating a local farmer's supermarket-reject carrots, in order to send more money to those hungry orphans. Let's eat our carrots and give thanks."

In the typical carrot situation, the carrots actually cost more than some of the junkfood the children would have preferred would have cost, and there may be baby-boomers who don't understand why anyone ever told a child "Eat those carrots because of those hungry orphans," to this day.

Why it's false in reality: If you care about someone who is worse off than you are, adding that person's pain to yours makes you feel worse

If your goal is to cheer and encourage someone, never be the first to mention those who are even worse off. Sometimes sick patients will do this. Sometimes they actually mean, not just "Go away and don't talk to me, idiot," but "The patient across the hall might really benefit from more company." But don't you be the one to mention it. Wait for them to bring up the subject of anyone being sicker than they are.

What to say instead: Anything. Nothing. Just don't ever say anything like this. 

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Status Update: Missing That First Little Snack

That would be the sips of soup or smears of peanut butter you were planning to use to reintroduce your shrunken stomach to the concept of food, after fourteen days.

Not much of a meal. After fourteen days you do not want a real meal. 

Recap: That was the first day of glyphosate poisoning when I thought it might be a cold and wanted to starve it out, a Monday. And the second day when I grabbed some food from Food Lion, the store that's known mainly for tacky pricing strategies and rude employees but still has a reputation for salmonella also. I did swallow that, but I did not digest it. And the middle of the night before day three, when I woke up with acute pain all through the midsection that has gradually subsided, but never for a minute gone away, since then. And the rest of the week before last, and the rest of Holy Week, inclusive

I am by nature a person who does not have serious reactions to bacteria like salmonella. If I notice them I take some charcoal and water, and poof, they are gone. Except that the glyphosate reaction was still paralyzing my digestive tract, so for the first four days water didn't get down. 

If you are going to be sick for a week or less, eating as little as possible is a good idea. If you are sick for more than a week, reactions to starvation start to offset the reactions to whatever was wrong with you in the first place. At this point doctors start attaching IV's and nurses start coaxing you to sip soup.

Last week someone took me to Wal-Mart. I walked through the store and accomplished my main purpose, but while standing in the checkout line behind somebody who had two full carts, I became faint, after my fashion.

I'm one of those people whose pulse, respiration, blood pressure and so on can fluctuate enough that, under stress, I could just crash to the ground and give myself a concussion, the way Hillary Clinton described herself doing. Only I'm not trying to look tough enough to be President of the United States, so when I feel as if that might happen, I forget about dignity and etiquette and just sit down, on the floor or the ground or wherever. If necessary I might proceed to lie down. I've never lost consciousness while lying down. In a few minutes I usually feel safe standing up again.

So in Wal-Mart I sat down on the floor, and then got up and ran into the bathroom.

Today someone different was supposed to have taken me to Wal-Mart. I was looking forward to the trip, trying to decide between cold soup and peanut butter, but while staggering about the yard I thought, "No walking in Wal-Mart. I'll have to use one of those motorized carts, instead." I no longer have the strength to walk across Wal-Mart.

The person did not arrive. 

I thought, "I am not going to try to walk across the front yard again. I didn't think I'd reached an age where life had become painful to me and burdensome to others, but hello, for two weeks I've been in pain and if others wanted me to live I'd be eating now. It is time to stop trying to stay alive. It is enough, God. Take back my life and let me be among my loved ones tomorrow." 

I do not want to stop trying to stay alive. That is just part of the starvation reaction I have been observing. The fat that was doing the most good melted off first. My now fat-free lower back has formed abrasions, but so far not pressure ulcers, from lying down all the time. I have pins and needles everywhere, all the time. Both ears have locked up so I hear only about half of what I know is there to be heard. I'm losing some ability to focus my eyes, also. Any form of non-success, like the Googlitch that occurred when I was typing the first line of this post, makes me want to lie down and howl out loud like a baby. 

There are actually things to eat in the front yard. It's just that, up until yesterday afternoon, I would not have been able to eat them, and this afternoon, going out to graze seemed more trouble than it could possibly be worth. I was thinking very carefully about the amount of effort needed to mix the liquids off canned chicken and canned beans to make a safe soup, versus the amount needed to eat peanut butter.

So although a part of me still knows that missing one more meal won't make much difference in the long run, and that at least a few relatives would have squeezed a visit into their busy schedules if we hadn't expected this person to take me to Wal-Mart, the disappointment still drained off a lot of what energy I had. 

Maybe youall can do Glyphosate Awareness all by yourselves. Maybe you should. I do not have the energy to care. 

I do not want anything remotely like "professional help." Not even the Life Saving Crew bringing me food, which might be glyphosate-tainted and make things worse. When a simple medical procedure can fix things, I'll take it. When staying alive becomes more painful than it's worth, I want to be left alone.

The one thing that would make me positively suicidal would be anybody rushing around to offer "help for suicidal depression." I do not have suicidal depression. I have glyphosate, salmonella, and starvation--three completely different things. 

A person who wanted to motivate me to try to survive today might say, "Please tell me exactly what you would buy if you were at Wal-Mart or any other stores you like., I will leave it at the front gate. I will not step onto your property but will leave the food and go away. Nobody would be watching if you were to crawl across the yard in an undignified manner, as very sick people do." 

Also, "Please don't even worry about buying a truck, even if you get a grant for that specific purpose. Please let your friends and well-wishers buy the Nichols Building for you. Please stay alive long enough to enjoy the one thing you had left ahead of you in this life, now." 

Also, "Glory be to God that we should live to see anyone as sick as you are who is so incredibly kind and thoughtful as not to want to spew salmonella onto us. We certainly won't have a critical word to say about you again in this lifetime! Whether God makes any value judgments among the saints or not, we will certainly never let anyone speak to you as if you were in any way less than Teresa of Calcutta."

That might help. That's the sort of thing we say to older people when they are ready to join the ones they loved best, and we want them to stay in this world with us.

I was always taught that anything we tell other people we are going to do, we must do, or fail miserably and shamefully trying to do. In any case. Even children; even animals who understand enough words to have an idea what we meant. But it is especially important not to disappoint older, sicker people.

Now I know why.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Morgan Griffith's Holiday Message

From U.S. Representative Morgan Griffith (R-VA-9):


And So It Goes: Writing and Reviewing

You know someone who is about to have a book published. You are thrilled for this person; you want to share her or his excitement. The call goes out for obscure writers to review the new book. These writers get to see the book weeks before other people do, so their reviews can be in the papers, if possible, when the new book is displayed in the stores. You agree to be one. Happily sharing your friend's excitement, you watch the mail until the book arrives--or even agree to read it as an "e-book," which is basically a bad idea. You rush home and curl up with this book. It is not just another book. It is Tracy's book. It is "for you, from me." It is your chance to help the world discover what a wonderful person and writer Tracy is.

Not much can be said for the experience of reading an "e-book" unless the book itself happens to be great, so let's say that the publisher and author have invested the money to send you a real book, free of charge. The book probably cost ten or twenty dollars just to print, let alone start rewarding Tracy's work and the local booksellers' work, but for you it's a gift, because you are one of the obscure writers who will be boosting their own name recognition by writing clever, insightful things about Tracy's book.

So you savor this evening with Tracy's book, don't you? You sniff appreciatively at the paper and wonder whether to mention the scent of new books as one of life's pleasures. (Probably not in the version you plan to send to the literary magazine; for that audience it's a cliche.) You take time to admire the type font and any illustrations. Publishing crews need love too so, although there's no room for it on Amazon, in reviews that leave more room to ramble it's nice to warble about the beauty of a new book's design.

What kind of book is it, anyway? If it's the sort of "genre fiction" that sells steadily and well, detective stories or romantic comedies or Gothic horrors, probably the best way to read it is to dive in and read for the story alone. Genre readers want to know whether a novel delivers the kind of experience they like, so you want to note: "The plot kept me guessing." "I couldn't put it down." "I loved the heroine and I could just see the quaint little town she grows to love in the course of the story, too." You would not say these things if they weren't true. The fact that many people say them when they're not true does not, however, need to keep you from saying them when they are. 

If it's a more challenging read, you might give it multiple readings to check for nuances and symbolism and other fun stuff. It's worth doing this even with what appears to be a romance that doesn't quite fit the pattern. When fictional romances don't fit their patterns there is a reason. Often that reason involves extra layers of meaning you can enjoy discovering. 

How long do you normally take to read a book? For your first reading of Tracy's book, plan about twice that much time. You are not reading just to make sure that Jack and Jill resolve their differences. You want to savor the details that are now becoming part of your friendship with Tracy. Why did that sort of dog cross Jack's path? Why did Jill choose that color...

For about a week, anyway, Tracy's book is the guest of honor in your house. If you finish it in less than a week, see whether other family members can read it, too, and what they think of it. 

Meanwhile, of course, you're writing those reviews. Knowing that each of the major review venues markets books in a different way to a different audience, you will probably write different ones. Amazon likes them short and pithy, enough to give buyers the information they need on a small computer screen. Goodreads is chattier and offers room to ramble and quote. Literary 'zines tend to like "long form" reviews, 1500 to 2000 words, with lots of quotes and some references to other books. Your own blog is whatever you've made it; your social media will of course need to be condensed--one good sentence from a review is ideal for Twitter. You want each review to be a gem of its kind, of course, but from the publisher's point of view what's really crucial is that you get'em up where people can see them before they walk into a bookstore and see the book. 

Sometimes you might feel that haste hurts a book review. I consider my experience reviewing Wayland and Hiding Ezra, about a year ago. Hiding Ezra had been on my wish list for years but I hadn't bought and read it yet, and then suddenly a storekeeper wanted to throw a book party and wanted reviews of both books up, like yesterday. She thrust the books into my hands. "Read them! You'll not be disappointed! And review them in time for the party!" That was on a Tuesday; the party was on the Saturday. I got those books back to their owner and those reviews online in time for the party, all right. Every time I revisit those reviews I think the books deserved more thoughtful reviews that would have taken more time to write. 

Publishers and booksellers do not share your concern about writing a flawed book review. They want a bulletin board covered with different reviews that put the author's name and title in front of prospective buyers. They like star ratings but mainly they like a lot of attention at the right time.

This is not to say that you can't get into interesting and review-enriching discussions of books with publishers. Daniel Yeo's Impermanence of Lilies is that sort of book. I like it, Jee Leong Koh liked it, Kendrick Loo liked it, but dang if any of us could say exactly why other people would like it. It's historical, but the history is scrambled. Its plot is basically a sweet romantic comedy, but in the course of that sweet romance the characters witness some of the great tragedies of history. It's whimsical and funny, except in a few spots where it may cause some readers to cry. It's an interesting book on many levels. Read it yourself and see. 

Whatever you end up saying about a book, you must get those reviews of Tracy's book in front of readers in time. Anything less than that is STEALING. You got the book in exchange for those reviews, just as you get gas in exchange for money. Unless you can truthfully say that you were taken to the emergency room on the way back to the post office and never had a chance to read the book, there is no way you can pay the publisher for that book, now, other than writing reviews that will sell copies--to somebody, however different from you those somebodies may be. You will write those reviews. If the book disappointed you, you will read and reread until you come up with a plausible way of telling readers what their expectations of it ought to be, to avoid disappointment. You will get that information to those readers on the day appointed for each venue. Come flood come fire.

--That, at least, is my approach to reviewing e-friends' books. I had assumed it was everybody's. At least, the people who tweeted for review copies of Iris Yang's novels seemed to get reasonably good and timely reviews of them up...I'm still waiting to collect the money with which I've promised to buy the third book in the trilogy. I expect it to be a hard sell because, currently, China's ruling political party is about as popular in the United States as rabid skunks are, but people need and deserve to be reminded that China was our ally in the 1940s. But I will get that book and I will post those reviews. For those who've not read Yang's first two books, the two of them are good enough that you jollywell ought to pay for the third one. 

But apparently writers further up the sales hierarchy than Iris Yang are encountering less ethical would-be reviewers. Hope Clark recently shared with everyone on her list that she sent out review copies of one of her detective novels to 44 e-friends, and of the 44, only 22 actually wrote reviews. 

I read those words and wanted to take a few people by the collar and shake them. I personally do not happen to be a huge fan of detective stories, other than Dorothy Sayers', which are serious novels with plots like detective stories, and Rita Mae Brown's, which are deliberately laugh-out-loud goofy. Clark's novels seem to be selling steadily without my help. I'm pleased. I read and review detective stories but, as readers may have noticed, my reviews of them tend to be tepid. But a lot of people Out There like to "solve a mystery" (my husband was one) and they deserve to know when there's a new, good one that has the Carolina coast in it, and what other delights it contains besides the Carolina coast. 

Some people who would never go into Wal-Mart, fill a cart, load the whole cart into their van, and drive away without paying for anything, did the moral equivalent of that to Clark.

I hit "reply." I hit the exclamation mark key, rather hard. I typed a hasty, harsh reply explaining that I don't do credit cards, so Amazon is out, and I'm not famous enough to get into the Washington Post Magazine, but if I say I'll write a review, at least on Goodreads, on Twitter, here, and in that Tuesday Revue newsletter I'm launching er um next week, I will write that review if I am alive. 

Clark replied promptly, too, making excuses for her friends who just let other things crowd her book out of their consciousness...

You don't LET other things crowd your friend's book out of your consciousness when that review copy is the guest of honor in your home, dingbats!

She thought Amazon was now limiting reviews based on how much money people had spent there recently, rather than whether or not they used credit cards. Amazon doesn't work with Paypal so you might ask what other way anybody managed to spend money there. The answer is giftcards. I used to have recurring gigs that paid in Amazon giftcards, and this led to enough purchases to get some of my Amazon reviews live on Amazon, where several people voted them helpful. Then those reviews all disappeared, just when a deserving publisher was looking for some more of them, because we hadn't used the wretched credit cards. If Amazon has gone back to the only question that makes sense--"Do we know that this reviewer bought this particular book, or the publisher did?"--that would be good news. I've not heard that they have. 

But the most interesting thing she had to tell me was why publishers do not drop the thieves from their lists of potential reviewers and reach out to more conscientious people. Amazon is the biggest venue, she said, therefore the one they consider first. If obscure writers don't do Amazon, they need to have large followings on Goodreads, the social media, and their blogs. "Thousands of daily page views" were required...

This web site determined, some time ago, that "It's All Right to Be Little-Bitty." We like high numbers of page views but we don't want to pursue them at the cost of anything else, and so, although some posts here get thousands of views, most get hundreds. Or dozens.

Well, if publishers don't want to bother with really obscure writers who are conscientious about writing reviews on time, and prefer to throw away money on (oh all right, if they're Clark's friends I'll say slackers, but if they had been claiming to be friends of mine I'd say thieves), that is their problem in a nutshell. 

Meanwhile, Gentle Readers, I'm glad I started out at Associated Content because that site built in a system that encouraged writers to boost one another's signals. I'm always glad to boost anyone else's signal if they deserve it. So, I hope, are you. If you don't want to buy a bot army, the honest way to raise your page-view count is to get more views and referrals from your friends' friends, and their friends.