Pepping Up a Blog Post With Visuals

When I started my blogs (janetcobur.wordpress.com and bipolarjan.wordpress.com), I chose simple, clean themes and layouts, with no large pictures or fancy frills – just nice, clear, readable fonts that I liked, with a tiny splash of color. I didn’t want anything that would pull the reader’s focus away from the text. I mean, the words are the important thing, right?

Then one day I did a guest post for my friend Bradley on the subject of cognitive dissonance in bipolar disorder. You’d think that would be a pretty hard concept to illustrate. But to my surprise, Bradley changed the title to “Brain vs. Brain,” which was perfect, and added an illustration of two brains fighting with boxing gloves, which was also perfect.

“Where did you get that illustration?” I asked.

“There’s a service I use,” he replied. “I pay a few bucks for royalty-free photos and illustrations.”

photo by Dan Reily
photo by Dan Reily

Excited at the idea of adding images, I tried inserting one of my husband’s photos into a blog post and discovered that it was easy to do – just click Add Media, upload the image, position it, and voilà! Here’s that first attempt: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-7H.

I was so pleased with the result that I started looking around for an image service. The one I chose was Fotolia (https://us.fotolia.com/), but there are many others such as Adobe, iStock, Dreamstime, and Shutterstock. My subscription entitles me to a set number of images per month, and the price averages out to a little over $2 per image, since I download medium-sized images instead of full-sized ones. I have never yet gone over my monthly quota, and the unused credits roll over.

What do I get for my $2-and-a-fraction? I enter a keyword and instantly see a selection of photos and/or illustrations, then place ones I like in a virtual lightbox. Then I think them over, tinker with my headlines the way Bradley did, ask my husband’s opinion, download an image to my desktop and upload it to my blog. There are various ways to sort the images, but I like to use “undiscovered,” so my blogs don’t look the same as everyone else’s.

Generally, I prefer illustrations to photos. I find that they are more striking and easier to use to reinforce blog post titles or content. Sometimes, however, only a photo will do, if the subject – like ratatouille – is a difficult concept to illustrate. Most of the websites I submit my posts to (SheKnows, Red Tricycle, The Mighty, Medium) prefer photos, though, so I’ve been increasing my use of them to make my posts more appealing to those sites.

Helpless Woman Holding RopeAnother lesson I learned is to choose horizontally oriented images rather than vertical ones. Most of the sites I share to or submit to, like Facebook, present images in landscape (horizontal) mode, often cutting off the top and bottom of an image. That makes it a little harder to select images, and sometimes I have to crop an image to make it more compatible, but I get better, more understandable images that way. (Once I chose this vertically oriented illustration of a woman clinging to the end of her rope. It was perfect for the blog post topic, but it showed up on Facebook as only the middle part – the rope.)

Is my strategy working? It’s hard to tell – but my views and followers have been steadily increasing. And I enjoy the process and the way my blogs look with visuals. It may be extravagant to spend money on pictures when my blogs aren’t monetized, but I’ve spent more money on less satisfying things lots of times. Call this my little indulgence.

Who Needs the Department of Education?

Once when I was traveling with my mother, we met a woman from Australia and discovered that, despite the fact that we all spoke English, we still had cultural differences. My mother told her about this wonderful vest I had with all the pockets so I could keep my money, passport, photo equipment, maps, bus schedules, brochures, snacks, and other gear handy. (It was from Banana Republic.) Slowly I realized that to the Australian woman, “vest” meant “undershirt,” and she was getting a very odd idea of how I carried around my travel supplies.

She also said that she couldn’t understand how there could be a different speed limit in every state, especially since we had 50 of them. (Australia has six.)

“That’s nothing,” I said. “You should see the liquor laws. Those can vary by county or even city or township – when and where you can buy beer, wine, and liquor, if they allow it at all; what days and times liquor stores can be open; and so on.”

That’s not unlike how the education system in the United States works. “Local control” of education is held sacred in many schools and districts, even if it means that students in one state learn about evolution while others don’t, or that school boards have control of curriculum instead of states, or that children in certain states use textbooks the content of which is dictated by people in other states.

It’s a patchwork and a hodge-podge, and a big mess. Attempts to make school funding more fair, to eliminate de facto segregation, and to standardize curriculum are loudly and effectively resisted.

Betsy DeVos, the new U.S. Secretary of Education, is at best a loose cannon. Her nomination was confirmed by only the slimmest of margins – hardly a ringing endorsement for her agenda. And what is that agenda likely to contain?

More patchwork, more hodge-podge, more mess. In addition to waving the banner of local control, Ms. DeVos is a proponent of private and charter schools, which suck students and money away from the public schools. And she promotes the practice of home-schooling, which can be beneficial or not, depending on the skill and oversight of the home-schoolers, and what they teach their children.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we may not have to deal with whatever changes Ms. DeVos would like to make, since shortly after her confirmation it was announced that the entire Department of Education was slated for destruction.

Why do we even have a Department of Education? It was broken off as a separate Cabinet-level department from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now called Health and Human Services). For over 35 years, its function has been to “establish policy for, administer and coordinate most federal assistance to education, collect data on U.S. schools, and to enforce federal educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights.” It had almost no influence on curriculum or standards until 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act. It has been opposed since its inception as being unconstitutional because education is not mentioned in that document.

Most of the Department of Education’s mission has been related to ensuring equal access to education, promoting legislation that particularly addresses access to education for children with disabilities. Under the Department’s aegis, these children have been determined to be entitled to a “free, appropriate, public education.”

Ms. DeVos has expressed opinions at odds with the laws that guarantee these rights for disabled students, especially IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Parents of children with disabilities and educators who work with those populations were particularly vocal opponents of her confirmation.

What this all means for education is a profoundly unsettled question. What will Ms. DeVos be able to accomplish before the Department disappears out from under her? Will the laws regarding access to education be weakened or even repealed? It’s almost certain that more and more matters will revert to local control, with all the confusion and inequities that system fosters. Will parents who want specific educational outcomes for their children be forced out of public schools and into home-schooling or private schools (if they can afford them)? Will families have to relocate to districts or even states with compatible educational programs and goals?

Increasingly, it’s going to be difficult to call the U.S. system of education a system at all.

My (Lame) Attempts at Babytalk

First, let it be noted that I have no idea how to talk to babies. They stare at me like I’m from Mars and I stare back or read them the newspaper or something. Once in a restaurant a woman handed me her baby while she went to the restroom. Said baby and I had a staring contest, as there was not a newspaper handy. I jiggled it a little, which the baby didn’t object to, though I felt ridiculous. My husband took a picture, which I made sure no longer exists.

But with cats, it’s a different story. One conducted almost exclusively in babytalk. (I say “almost” because I do not use babytalk for communications like, “Get down off that shelf before you break the vase we bought in Italy!”)

toby2
Toby (aka Baby Boo)

The rest of the time, I sound like a blithering idiot. The blithering starts with their names. “Dushenka” becomes “Shenka-doodle” and “Toby” becomes “Toto-Booboo” or even “Toto-Booboo Baby.” (And we can’t overlook the geek-inspired “Toby-Wan Kenobi.” Sometimes Dushenka is even “Shenka-doodle-doo.” I knew you were wondering about that.)

I know there are those who feel these are not dignified things to call a cat, but the fact is that cats have no use for dignity. Despite their reputation, cats do the most un-dignified things, from licking their nethers to sneezing in my face. (One cat did this while I was blithering, “Sugar for mama?”)

Then comes feeding. “Does kitty want some noms? Nice noms for the kitty! Om-nom-nom!” And to think I used to make fun of my mother-in-law, who used to call her cat to the food bowl by yelling, “Pussy-Woo! Chickie!” (At least it’s not just me.)

For some reason, babytalk must be delivered in an unnaturally high-pitched voice. Of course, people talk that way to babies, too, but with cats it just adds to the absurdity. Maybe babies process language better at higher pitches, but I’m not really sure cats process language at all. Although I did once know one that would respond appropriately to a cry of, “Hey, you! You with the fur! Get down from there!” That was delivered in a regular, rather than squeaky, tone of voice, which is probably why it was effective.

Maybe the reason that I can babytalk cats but not babies is the fact that I have been around cats for years and years, while that encounter in the restaurant constituted most of the sum of my experience with tiny humans. It can’t be that only babies look at me like I’m from Mars, because the cats do too, when they aren’t just ignoring me.

Somehow, though, I feel that babies judge me and cats don’t. When your sole comment on anything is “mmma-weep!” (that’s a direct quote from Toby), you can’t afford to cop an attitude. (Dushenka has a wider vocabulary, including an assortment of purrs, trills, sighs, and snores. Dainty snores, but definitely different from the purrs.)

It’s ludicrous, I know, and one more sign that I may be turning into an official Crazy Cat Lady. Sometimes it’s even so bad that I make myself want to retch. (Does ittle Toto want snuggles from mama? Can I get the floofy white belly, Shenka-Doo? Does oo want to play with the nice mousie?) I mean, gag me. In either sense of the word.

Of course, it’s my belief that talking babytalk to babies sounds like blithering too. It’s just more socially acceptable. But since I’m seldom out in public with my cats, only my husband and closest friends know my little secret. And another little secret – I sometimes catch my husband cooing at the kitties as well.

Why I Should Get a Say About Raising Your Children

I know that childless people (of which I am one) like to bitch about how parents are raising their kids. I feel confident in saying that virtually every parent has had the experience of going out in public and being chastised for your children’s manners and behavior, your discipline, or the latest theories of child-raising. (Or for that matter, the good ol’ theories of child-raising.)

You’ve heard it all, from praise of Dr. Spock to “Dr. Spock is the root of all evil”; from “those kids could do with a good spanking” to “spanking is child abuse”; from “children should be seen and not heard” to “you’re stifling their creativity.”

The automatic reaction is, “You don’t have children, so you don’t know what it’s like.” And that statement is entirely true.

I don’t – and shouldn’t – have a thing to say about discipline, behavior, and manners (although I do wish your children wouldn’t fingerpaint with the salsa at a Mexican restaurant, especially when it’s at our table and you’ve assured me that the children know how to behave in a restaurant, to choose one example not completely at random).

Unless I see your child actually pocketing the server’s tip or harming an animal, I will keep my big mouth shut. And if I do see those things, I will do my best to respond in a polite, calm, and constructive manner.

What I can’t stand by and see without commenting is children not receiving a proper education. Even though I don’t have children, I still care deeply about – and will act upon – my notion of what is good for your children in school.

Part of this is selfish, I will admit. Your children will be the workers of their generation who will be affecting the quality of life for my generation. I don’t want to be governed by politicians who don’t understand civics, treated by doctors who don’t know the facts about human reproduction, or “informed” by scientists who have not had a chance to encounter the varied opinions of their field.

I also want my health aides, restaurant servers, mechanics, computer programmers, hair stylists, tour guides, garment workers – all workers – to be able at least to read and write basic English and do basic math. This is not entirely selfish – workers who do not have basic literacy and numeracy skills are more likely to be cheated by their employers and less able to negotiate the treacherous paths of bureaucracy that every American, without exception, must deal with. I want these things for children with disabilities as well, or at the very least the presence of well-educated aides and advocates.

For that matter, I want some of your children to grow up to be painters, musicians, singers, dancers, actors, athletes, craftspeople, writers, and animators who will make my future richer and more sustaining as I age.

In order to achieve these things, I have a vested interest in the education system. Just because I have no school-aged children – or any children at all – does not mean I should keep away from school boards, community volunteer programs, decision-making bodies, etc. I will support good education issues with my tax dollars and my votes. I will oppose any that limit a child’s access to good-quality, thorough, well-informed, factual, adequately funded, modern education.

I want your children to be smart, motivated, curious, skilled, artistic, problem-solving, conscientious, well-adjusted, healthy, helpful, effective, competent, confident adults, both for my sake and theirs.

The best way for me to contribute to that is to support, fund, and, yes, influence both the local and national system of education. I will help all you parents who want the same things for your children, and I will oppose those who settle for second best (or worse, given the international statistics).

Give me a well-educated world of your grown-up children and I’ll even overlook the salsa fingerpainting.

 

 

 

Crashing Political Parties

By the time this post is up, President Trump will have been inaugurated and many parties will have held many parties. And a lot of people have a lot to say about that, on both sides.

Because that’s what there are – two sides. Apparently, this is one situation in which there is no middle ground. For or against. Admiring or appalled. People who attempt to take a middle position – wait and see – are derided as “the problem” themselves, or apologists, or pie-in-the-sky dreamers. Any suggestion that we try to understand the other side (whichever that is) and their problems is met with a resounding “No! Why should I?”

I have been steering clear of the fray. I voted, and I have an opinion regarding the outcome. Those who know me well probably have no trouble guessing for whom I voted and what I think of the outcome. But I have avoided posting about it on my Facebook timeline or here (though I did write a few quasi-political posts – http://wp.me/p4e9wS-ol, http://wp.me/p4e9wS-qv, http://wp.me/p4e9wS-o2). I knew that my opinions were not likely to change anyone else’s opinions. I have used sources to refute some misconceptions and fake news, but since the threads went on without anyone noticing my contributions, that hardly counts.

I refused to get involved in the ugliness before the inauguration, and I refuse to now. My decision to stay out of the – I hesitate to call it a discussion –  may have cost me friends. There has certainly been a lot of if-you’re-not-for-us-you’re-against-us thinking, and if I do not declare myself, I become, in some minds, against everyone else.

Many people use the argument that a person’s blog or Facebook page is like a party the person is hosting, and the host is entitled to say anything he or she wants. This is as good an analogy as many others. But its corollary is that I do not have to remain at the party, or accept invitations to future parties. (I do agree that a person who behaves boorishly at a party can or should be ejected, but that tends to lead to really boring parties, with everyone nodding and shouting the same thing.)

When most of the invitations I see are to ad hominem parties (attacking a person instead of her or his relevant behavior, statement, stance, or action) and ones where only one opinion may be shouted, I prefer to play online bingo. I have taken a break from social media (except to post my blogs) a couple of times last year, and I feel another such fit coming on.

I don’t have a problem with online “parties” that involve sharing verifiable information or organizing to oppose a perceived injustice by legal means. But have you noticed how many suggestions are of the “hang ’em high” variety? I’m not talking about just one end of the political spectrum, either. One may be more likely to invoke firearms as a solution, but both are “sharing” in the gloating and finger-pointing and obscene memes and vulgar nicknames. I refuse to engage in dialogue with anyone who says either “rethuglicans” or “libtards.”

I understand the need to vent when one is disillusioned, outraged, insulted, ignored, or otherwise upset. Doing that venting in public, or even at one’s own party (which the virtual neighbors can “hear”) is no doubt satisfying, especially if one is particularly clever at inventing epithets. But it does no good, and only makes the divisions wider.

Yes, yes, I know I can just keep scrolling, but not without seeing hateful memes and pictures at the very least. I feel the same way about them as I do about photos of abused animals: I don’t want to see the carnage even if I support the cause. But I digress.

Blogger Jim Wright (www.stonekettle.com) often says,”If you want better government, be better citizens.”

I would add, “If you want better parties, be a better host. Or guest.”

Why Does Everything Have to Be Fun?

My husband used to accuse me of not knowing how to have fun. And he was right, sort of, in the sense that his ways of having fun and mine were (and are) very different. Now, as I stumble toward the age when the only fun consists of waving my cane at children and telling them to stay off my lawn, I have begun to rethink the whole concept of fun.

And I think fun is overrated. Or at least what is passed off as fun in popular culture.

Brushing your teeth is brushing your teeth. There’s nothing inherently fun about it. It’s just necessary, boring, and repetitive. But apparently we think that if we put Star Wars characters on the toothbrush handles, toothbrushing becomes FUN (how, I don’t know) and kids “may be brushing longer,” a claim that is never backed up by statistics.

Fun flavors like bubble gum also seem to be preferable to good old mint. I enjoy the flavor of mint, but I don’t think it’s fun. And I suspect that associating the act of brushing one’s teeth with the flavor of bubble gum is counterproductive. Just sayin’.

Likewise, there is nothing intrinsically fun about eating a salad, especially if you’re a female and alone. Yet there is a whole meme dedicated to “woman laughing alone with salad,” and now even a play based on the concept. Eating a salad by oneself can be tasty, pleasant, unpleasant, boring, or any number of other feelings. Why then are there so many photos of women laughing (or at least grinning idiotically) while eating salad?

And why are there so few photos of men doing the same thing? Do men not eat salads? Only in the company of others? Only stoically? It seems eating a salad alone is FUN only for solitary females. Poor, poor men, who must find their fun elsewhere.

Men having FUN get to drive cars, not eat salad. Cars provide particular enjoyment when the driver is breaking traffic laws or driving on a closed course where he can’t hit anything no matter how he speeds. This one I get a little bit. Fun is equated with breaking the rules, and without consequences. Fun is being sexy and dangerous. It’s hard to make toothbrushing or salads sexy and dangerous, so we’re left with men risking life and limb, while women and children guffaw and grin, browse and brush.

I know, I know. These are tricks of the advertising trade. FUN equals more sales, If ordinary activities are lifted above the ordinary, they will have more appeal to consumers. This is especially true of children who influence purchase decision-making – which is basically all of them. And fun is apparently the only value that kids value. What other satisfactions are there? Except companionship, warmth, friendship, accomplishment, health, adventure, and satisfaction itself, I mean. But all of those have more than three letters.

But FUN rules not just in advertising. Education is another field rife with fun. Multiplication tables aren’t much fun by themselves, so let’s add clowns and elephants. Then students can put their final reports into their Ninja Turtle backpacks and take them home.

I’m not advocating going back to the days of skill, drill, and kill, but I am of the opinion that genuinely engaging activities such as project-based learning will teach students skills in a manner that is genuinely satisfying, memorable, and indeed fun, without the need for stickers, banners, and class parties.

Preparing students, young adults, and even older adults for constant FUN is unrealistic. Taking out the trash isn’t fun. Polishing the floors isn’t fun (unless you’ve got a roomba and a cat). Creating spreadsheets isn’t fun. Taking out appendices isn’t fun (I assume).

Much of adult life and work will turn out to be not-fun. Especially for those women, eating salads alone. And for those of us who don’t care to wear bright yellow, and sing and dance while taking our vitamins. For us, it’s just a gulp, a swallow, and gone.

 

Who Would Spend Thousands on a Pet?

Me, for one. And quite a few other people I know. None of us is wealthy, but still we have laid out what some would consider extreme – even obscene – amounts on our pets.

First, let me say that these are regular cats and dogs, mostly rescues, strays, and shelter animals, not fancy, purebred show animals. The expense doesn’t come with the initial investment. Vet check, shots, worming, spaying and neutering – though shelters and local organizations sometimes offer lower-cost options on these – are just the cost of entry into pet guardianship.

Likewise, toys, beds, pet furniture, and other accouterments don’t need to be large investments. I’ve known cats that would ignore fancy toys to play with the plastic rings that come on milk jugs. Dogs can be amused for hours with a stick, tennis ball, or Frisbee.

No, the real expense comes with veterinarian bills. When I was a child, hardly anyone took pets to the vet, except to get the mandated yearly shots or to stitch up an injury from an attack by another animal.

My, how times have changed!

We know a lot more these days about heartworm, feline AIDS, urinary or intestinal blockage, fatty liver disease, kidney failure, and a host of illnesses that pets experience. We sympathize because we humans can get many of the same or similar ailments as well (though we don’t generally catch them from the animals).

So how do the costs scale up into the thousands? Well, veterinary training is as rigorous as medical school – perhaps more so because of the number of different animals a vet might be expected to treat. (A cow and a cat have different anatomy, after all.) Veterinary drugs can sometimes the same ones humans take, though usually at different doses. An x-ray is an x-ray and an ultrasound is an ultrasound. And you can expect to pay more for an after-hours emergency clinic visit than a regular office call.

Still, thousands?

Yes. We’ve been through it a number of times. When my cat Laurel had fatty liver disease, she needed, in addition to all the regular medical care, several weeks of intensive treatment – hand feedings, fluids, specially mixed vitamins. The vet actually took her to his home and treated her there for several weeks. I got a raise that year at work, and every cent of it went to that marvelous vet. He didn’t have to do what he did for Laurel – and I suppose not many people would have paid for the personal care. We did so willingly.

When our dog Bridget developed a tumor on her shoulder, the vet was honest. “We can operate on it, or we can do nothing.” Bridget was middle-aged, as dogs go, a formerly feral rescue dog.

“Do whatever it takes,” Dan said. “She deserves a chance.”

“She’s lucky to have you,” the vet replied.

Bridget came through the operation, never had a recurrence and died peacefully at the age of 17.

We’ve learned to give subcutaneous fluids to cats with kidney failure. We’ve taken them to specialty vets who have given them – literally – years of comfortable life with us. (Once we even had a parakeet that needed an operation – and pulled through.)

Every time we pulled out a checkbook or a credit card and paid willingly, though often with a wince. Some vets kindly allowed us, as long-time customers, to pay in installments.

But the question remains, why? Why do we spend this time, energy, care, worry, and especially money on maintaining the health of our pets or making them comfortable in their last days?

I don’t expect everyone to understand this, but these animals have become family to us. And as family members, they deserve our attention, care – including medical care – and love as long as they are capable of benefiting from it.

When the time comes that we have to let them go, when there is nothing we can do medically except prolong their misery, we take them to the vet for that final act of mercy, or let them pass quietly at home.

And the only cost we count is in our hearts.

The Weather Is Not Bipolar. I Am.

Yeah, I get what you’re saying. The weather changes a lot, and sometimes drastically, so you say it has mood swings. And what’s more associated with mood swings than bipolar disorder?

I know, it’s a metaphor – a shorthand way of comparing things to each other, like comparing a choice to two roads diverging in a yellow wood.

The problem is, there are people on one side of this comparison, and they have a mental disorder. Bipolar literally means a neurochemical disorder of the brain that a person cannot control.It isn’t warmth in December and snow in April. It’s not just a matter of feeling happy one day and sad another. Everyone gets that.

Not everyone has bipolar disorder.

I do.

I have no control over whether I will wake up in the morning eager to get out of bed and start my day, or unable to get out of bed at all. No, you can’t control the weather either, but that’s nothing compared to being able to control your own moods, thoughts, and even actions.

Bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other mental disorders are conditions that affect, inhibit, and even ruin people’s lives and relationships. They are not conditions to be made light of, any more than developmental disabilities are. Bipolar is a disorder – a disease, if you will – that can confuse, terrify, and impair you; unsettle, disrupt, and destroy your relationships; shred your memory; take you to the brink of suicide and beyond, if you’re unlucky or untreated.

So, no. Your picky friend probably does not have OCD. OCD is a psychological condition that inhibits a person’s actions based on a complex series of numbers, behaviors, and rituals. It’s lots worse than simply straightening picture frames. Narcissism is not just being vain. Just like high blood pressure is not just someone who avoids salt or diabetic is someone who just avoids sugar. They are medical conditions. We may joke about needing insulin when a new couple overdoes the endearments, but that’s a far cry from really needing insulin. 

Many mental disorders involve neurons and synapses and neurotransmitter chemicals in your brain, and maybe genes. Can you control those by yourself? I thought not. Neither can I.

What I can do is go to a psychiatrist who gives me medications that help control those pesky neurotransmitters. And a psychologist who shares with me ways to cope with the messiness of the life I have to deal with.

And, make no mistake, those professionals and those chemicals do help. They give me more control over my emotions than you have over the weather.

So if you shouldn’t call the weather bipolar or your picky relative OCD, what about public figures? Aren’t they fair game? Can we say, for instance, that Donald Trump is a narcissist? Most likely, yes. Can we say that he has a psychological condition called Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Or Borderline Personality Disorder? Or Sociopathy?

No. The most we might say is that he displays some narcissistic traits, or that he is, in colloquial terms only, narcissistic. But can we diagnose him, say that he has one or another of these psychological conditions? It’s tempting to diagnose from a distance. That’s dangerous. Actual psychological disorders can be diagnosed only by a professional who has actually spoken to the person in question. Anything else is pop psychology and a disservice to the mental health profession. Not to mention a disrespect to people who actually live with those conditions.

I know that psychological terms get tossed around loosely, especially in everyday, colloquial English. I get that they’re shorthand for more complex ideas. Still, it bugs me when someone says weather is bipolar or Trump is a sociopath. I like precision in language. I like it especially when it hits close to home.

What I have is not like the weather. Oh, it comes and goes. But I can’t get away from it just by going indoors. I can’t lessen its effects by putting on or taking off layers of clothing. I can’t turn on the Weather Channel for a prediction of how I will feel later in the week. I can’t move to a place where bipolar is more pleasant.

That would be crazy.

 

 

 

 

Christmas Is Over. Or Is It?

Just because it’s December 26th doesn’t mean Christmas is over. Some Christmases seem to last forever. Here’s a look at some of the ways Christmas can linger.

Christmas the week after Christmas. Didn’t get the cards and packages into the mail? Oopsie! At least we can blame the Post Office or UPS. Not that that fools anyone, but if you’re skilled enough, you can pull off this excuse. Or you can give cakes, cookies, or other gifts of food and know that they will be eaten for at least a few days after the food-rich holiday celebration has worn off. And leftover Christmas cookies make great New Year’s Eve snacks, at least according to my friend Beth. Dunk them in cocoa and no one will ever know they’re stale.

Russian Christmas. All the Easter Orthodox Christians’ celebrations, really. They have Christmas on January 7th. At one office where I worked, our department included one person of Slavic heritage who celebrated Russian Christmas. Our department head decided that we all would too. I think it was supposed to be out of respect for Annie, but I suspect it was really because Carl liked to avoid the whole-office frivolities and have a quieter celebration later. Not that it got us out of the enforced jollity of the Official Office Christmas Party, but it did provide a nice P.S. to the season.

Christmas gifts that keep on giving. One year when I was a teen, my parents were plagued with medical expenses and couldn’t afford elaborate presents. The main present that year was an appropriate magazine subscription for each of us. (Mine was Sky and Telescope, if I remember correctly. It was either that or Analog Science Fiction.) Every month when an issue came, it was like Christmas all over again.

And subscriptions don’t just have to be magazines these days. Wine, fruit, and other foodstuffs can be delivered regularly throughout the year – monthly or quarterly – bringing a breath of Christmas as they arrive. And if the first package arrives in January, who’s to know whether you ordered it the day before Christmas or the day after?

Another long-term gift is the coupon book. Although a book of car wash coupons barely makes it as an adequate stocking stuffer, coupons for home-baked treats, chores (or reprieves from chores), and even erotic activities can be a big hit. Kids can get in on at least the first two of those, either as givers or recipients.

The Christmas-in-the-future strategy. One Christmas my friend Caren gave me a nicely wrapped gift. When I opened it, it proved to be a number of strands of yarn, in various shades of blue, purple, and indigo. There was no card explaining it, and she refused to tell me what it was all about. “You’ll see,” she said.

Later – much later – it was June, I think – Caren unveiled the actual present. It was a lovely knitted blanket, made of panels of the various colors of yarn I had received at Christmas. (Since she was an engineer, the panels were arranged in a specific geometrical pattern.) It was cozy, beautiful, and welcome, even if it was several more months before I could actually use it.

364 days before Christmas shopping. Nowadays, ugly holiday sweaters are the vogue – the tackier the better. But Christmas sweaters used to be badges of pride and belonging rather than objects of ridicule. Once I worked in an office where it was customary for women to wear holiday sweaters, and even sweatshirts “bedazzled” with shiny objects, iron-on appliqués, and embroidery.

Holiday clothing was not a custom I had ever practiced. I was trying desperately to fit in with the others, but I was not about to spend $20-$30  on a sweater I would wear perhaps two times per year, or a sweatshirt, glitter, glue, and sequins that would inevitably end up stuck to my hands and face.

So I started haunting the day-after-Christmas sales. Holiday sweaters were abundant and cheap. (If you wait much longer, all the holiday fashions will have disappeared into back rooms.) I managed to pick up a couple of sweaters and a festive vest at bargain prices. My favorite was a dark blue sweater with a nighttime scene of Santa landing on rooftops. (I look better in blue than red and green.) I packed the garments away in preparation for the next spate of holiday festivities.

Wouldn’t you know it – I left that job to go freelance before the next December came. Now I have all these sweaters and no place to wear them – except the Chinese buffet, where my husband and I usually spend our holidays, among the pagans, Jews, and atheists, chowing down on lo mein, crab legs, and “Happy Family.”

And we can return there, year-round, and celebrate the holidays year-round.

But I feel certain I should leave the Christmas sweaters at home in the dresser.

 

Let’s Talk: Policing My Own Voice

I recently posted a piece on how women’s voices are being criticized and discounted via both voice policing and tone policing. (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-sx)

Now I want to talk about another kind of voice policing – the kind I am learning to apply to myself.Woman covering closed mouth. Speak no evil concept

Over the years, my voice has done things that I didn’t intend for it to do, principally driving away acquaintances, potential friends, and even established friends. I believe that part of this phenomenon has to do with my tone and how I express myself.

Expert linguist (and noted science fiction author) Suzette Haden Elgin described it this way: “For English, more than half of the information is not in the words but in the body language, including the intonation of the voice – the melody of the voice – that goes with the words.” (https://www.scribd.com/doc/78998622/Suzette-Elgin-The-Gentle-Art-of-Verbal-Self-Defense-Overview)

Most people know intuitively what certain vocal intonations mean and how they can be used to alter the meaning of a sentence. In the movie My Cousin Vinny, a character responds to an accusation of murder by saying in a tone of disbelief and horror, “I shot the clerk!!!??” When this part of the interrogation is read aloud in court, in a level tone, “I shot the clerk” sounds like a confession.

The difference is in the “melody” of the two utterances.

The effects of tone or melody can even be recognized in two- or three-word sentences. Here’s an example:

“Don’t do that” simply means not to do something – give the cat a treat between meals, for example.

“DONT do that” means “I know you think that’s what I told you to do, but you’re mistaken.”

“Don’t DO that” means “You’re annoying me.”

“Don’t do THAT” means “That idea is ridiculous, idiotic, or harmful,” and possibly “You’re an idiot.”

Or think about the shades of meaning you can convey with one syllable: “No.” “Yeah.” “Right.” They can mean exactly the opposite of their definition, along with dozens of other shades of meaning: disbelief, denial, offense, uncertainty, questioning, agreement, scorn, and “You’re an idiot.”

Vocal intonation is very difficult to convey in writing without extra punctuation or modifiers like “in a level tone.” My unfortunate inability to understand vocal melody – or to produce the correct one – is likely the reason that my statements are misunderstood. They come out sounding like sarcasm, snark, or know-it-all superiority, none of which is likely to be appreciated by the hearer.

And that’s been my problem. Unintentionally, I have been making verbal attacks on people. To quote Elgin again: “Any time you hear a lot of extra stresses and emphasis on words or parts of words, you should be on the alert.” The hearer may not be able to identify what makes the sentence an attack rather than just rude (which I am also quite capable of accidentally producing), but she or he can tell it’s not pleasant.

Every time I have said, “Don’t do THAT” instead of “Don’t do that,” I have made an impression that I am a snotty, overbearing, judgmental person.

I have a particular memory of doing just that. A person mentioned casually that she wasn’t going to get a flu shot because she had heard they contained the flu virus. “But that’s how vaccines WORK!” I replied. My tone conveyed “Everyone should know that” and “You’re an idiot.”

I shudder to think how many people I have called idiots without meaning to.

And that’s just in regular conversations. When I attempt to be amusing or humorous, I probably get the “music” wrong a lot of the time and offend. Of course, some of my friends like sarcasm and snark, but I forget that not everyone does.

Talking on the phone and in email or chat is particularly fraught with possibilities for misunderstanding and offense. On the phone, vocal melody is all. The other person can’t see your facial expression – raised eyebrows, frown or smile, puzzlement, a nod of approval. Some people suggest smiling even though it can’t be seen – that it makes a difference in your voice. I’ve never been able to get the hang of that, though.

In email and chat, you don’t even have vocal melody to help. Emojis and <sarcasm on> and <sarcasm off> can convey expression, but they’re clumsy and easy to forget. The internet is a place where misunderstanding and giving offense are easy to do.

There is one way I have improved my voice. I have trained myself to listen for and use strangers’ names in phone conversations with company representatives: “Here’s my problem, Jackie.” “I appreciate your help, Keanna.” (This works in person, too. Who wouldn’t rather hear, “Kevin, I have a question” than “Waiter, I have a question”? It’s right there on the name tag. I can remember that for half an hour, especially if I reinforce myself by using it.)

Does it actually matter whether servers and customer service people are offended or encouraged by my tone? I like to think that it does, and that vocal melody makes a difference to the service I get and the next person’s too. And it’s a way of practicing controlling my vocal tone.

I may never have a toned body, but I’m doing my best to have a properly toned voice!