Adventures in the Not-So-Deep Woods

The bird stopped chirping.

That was not a good sign.

All day my husband and I had been playing a game of “Where’s the damn bird?” and the cats had been playing “I wanna bite the birdie!”

Dushenka scored a point when she managed to get a tooth on it, leaving for us a lone feather and a spot of blood.

On our bed. It was an indoor game. And when the bird stopped chirping, the game was over.

How did the bird get into the house in the first place? It was a mystery. It could have taken advantage of a torn window screen or come down the chimney of the wood stove. It might even have squeezed in when the deck door was open a few inches for ventilation.

Various critters, some more welcome than others, visit us fairly regularly. We live in a house on an acre-and-a-half wooded lot with a tiny creek and a plethora of flora and fauna. (My husband believes it’s over three acres, but you know men and measuring.)

Our house is not really what you’d call rural. The property backs up to an off-ramp and is a mile and a half from a shopping mall. But tucked in our little corner of the plat is an isolated patch of green with few neighbors, except for the non-human kind. We’ve seen deer, squirrels, chipmunks, spiders, snakes, assorted insects, cats, dogs, frogs, and fish. The most problematic ones are those that make it inside the house.

Most of those critters are mice and moles, which the cats love to play with, eat, and leave half for us as a gift. (One cat was even so kind as to dispatch his prey in the bathtub, where at least the crime scene was easier to clean up.) A snake that made it indoors also proved a fun toy for flipping in the air, until we deprived the cat of it.

Another indoor visitor was a bat, which I discovered in the middle of the night in the downstairs hallway. I screamed for Dan, not because I was frightened of the bat (except for the knowledge that bats can carry rabies and few (well, none really) are vaccinated). But I knew I couldn’t capture it on my own, even if it was wounded. Dan threw a shirt over it, nabbed it, and escorted it outside.

Dan escorts most of our visitors outside (if they make it past the cats), except for stink bugs, which we catch in pill or water bottles and forget about. But spiders, bees, wasps, mice (the ones that survive, that is), and snakes all get a second chance at life on the outside.

When Dan’s away, I’m a little less Buddha-like. Bees and wasps terrify me (see “How I Faced My Fear…And Failed” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-7H) and if I must deal with them, they get mashed or stomped or hit with a wet towel and then mashed or stomped. Possums can also be a problem (see “How to Get Rid of a Possum” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-46), but fortunately rarely come calling.

But, at any rate, the only remaining question about our invasive, game-playing bird: Did it exit the way it came in? Or did one of the cats dispatch it to the great beyond? And if so, did it leave the whole carcass or part of the carcass or even an eaten-and-spit-up carcass for us to find? (One of our cats would kill mice and save them “for later” in his little pantry, also known as the springs of the sofa bed. I suppose I need not tell you how we discovered his secret stash.)

Living in the almost-woods is nice. We don’t get many trick-or-treaters and Dan doesn’t have to mow or plant grass. He plants wildflowers and I sit on the deck and look at them and the animals that are polite enough to stay where they belong. We can’t see the off-ramp and pretend the sound is a rushing stream.

I’m just thinking we should invest in a heavy-duty butterfly net for the next time an avian visitor comes to call.

Field of Female Dreams: Reimagining Films

There has been a flurry of “gender-swapping” in movies lately. In particular, women are now playing superheroes and more active roles in action films – roles that would formerly have been taken by men.

The most obvious example is the recent Ghostbusters movie, in which the heroes played in the original 1984 film by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson were in 2016 reenvisioned and played by Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones.

(It’s beside the point whether the film should have been remade, when the original film is now a classic and was nearly perfect just the way it was. I hate movies that are treated like that: See Bedazzled, Psycho, Ben-Hur, The Pink Panther.… but I digress.)

Action and comedy films seem to be the usual targets of this treatment, and there’s a reason for that. Action and broad comedy are at heart fantasy movies, about things that could never happen in the real world. When you’ve got things that can’t happen anyway, the gender of the person they can’t happen to is largely irrelevant.

But let’s take a look at a more “serious” fantasy movie – Field of Dreams. To recap briefly, the story involves an Iowa farmer who is suddenly compelled to build a full-size baseball field on his property so that the ghosts of a baseball team can play out their redemption. There is a small part for a female, who gets one incidental subplot as an activist at a school board meeting. But her main role is to be supportive and say things like, “I don’t know, honey,” but quickly come around to enabling his ridiculous dream, even though it means nearly losing their home and land.

It was a wildly popular movie, especially with men and baseball fans.

And it could never be gender-swapped.

Imagine a film in which a wife has a crazy fantasy dream that requires giving up everything the couple has been working for all their lives, with no guarantee of ever getting it back. Now imagine that the husband stands steadfastly by, encourages her, signs the mortgage papers, and supports not simply her decisions, but her fantastic delusions.

You can’t do it. The movie couldn’t be made. No one could write it and make it believable (even within the parameters of a basically unbelievable plot).

A man with a crazy dream is an underdog hero who deserves a stand-by-your-man woman. A woman with a crazy dream is – just crazy. She wouldn’t get past turning under the first crop before being carted off for psychiatric help. At some point in the movie, divorce would ensue.

Of course there are women in real life who accomplish great things and men who support and encourage them – take Amelia Earhart, for example. But these are different situations from Field of Dreams. Wealthy magnate bankrolls wife’s brave struggle is a different trope altogether, especially when it happened in real life.

Nor can female “Cinderella” movies be gender-swapped. Just try to envision Pretty Man instead of Pretty Woman. You can’t argue that American Gigolo is the opposite-sex version, either. Richard Gere’s motivation in that one is clearly not to find an ideal wife (or to find a woman and make her into a perfect wife). It’s a gritty murder mystery with lots of sex, not a lighter-than-popcorn whore-makes-good success story. Richard Gere is the fantasy “prize” in Pretty Woman, not an accused murderer.

Note: This is not true of all rom-coms. You could make a case for Working Girl/Working Boy, in which the mailroom clod gets a makeover and lands a top job and the luscious female reward. In fact, it’s been done.

But do this exercise: Take any of your favorite movies and see if they could even remotely be envisioned gender-swapped. Lord of the Rings? Chicago? Beauty and the Beast? It tells you something about the movie.

Of course, there are plenty of movies that could be gender-swapped: It’s a Wonderful Life has been. Avatar, possibly could be. Beverly Hills Cop, hell yeah!

Not that I’m saying all these films should be gender-swapped. I’m just asking you to think, “What if they were?”

 

What I’ve Learned About Publishing From Lack of Success

I have been an editor. I have rejected lots of manuscripts.

I have been a writer. I have been rejected by lots of editors and agents and magazines and ezines.

Right now I have two books in the works: a memoir based on my other blog (bipolarjan.wordpress.com) and a mystery novel hovering around 40,000 pages (60-75,000 would be a reasonable length).

Here’s what I’ve learned.

BOOKS

I’ve learned one queries nonfiction with a proposal and fiction with a completed manuscript. However, I spent so long contacting agents and publishers about the memoir that I actually finished it while I was waiting to hear back.

At some point, you will reach the “This book is crap” stage. Do not give up. This is natural and to be expected at least once or twice. The thing to do is pause. Go read a book about how to plot or write description or whatever it is that made you say “This is crap.” Or work on another project for a while. You do have at least two going, don’t you? Or at least a great idea for another one? Or you could join a writers’ group and see if any of them can figure out the reason for the crapitude.

Note: The first draft is not a manuscript and should not be submitted. That’s why it’s called a first draft. You will need at least another draft or three before it’s ready to release into the wild.

Yes, you need an agent. Probably. Only a few publishing companies look at proposals and manuscripts that don’t come from an agent. There used to be editorial assistants who had to read those submissions, but budgets are tighter than tight in the publishing industry. You don’t need an agent to submit smaller pieces of work like short stories and articles.

Which brings us to:

EZINES and MAGAZINES.

I write blog posts of 600-1000 words and, if appropriate, submit them to online magazines. (Most of this applies to print magazines too, if you can still find one.) A large part of the time, it’s like dropping my writing down a proverbial well. But again, I’ve learned a few things.

First, a heresy: You will have to write for no money. At first, anyway. People who say not to write for free are coming from a position of privilege. They are at a stage in their careers when they can get actual money (at least a little). If you’re just starting out, you’re not. There are reasons for this.

Some editors will want to see work that you’ve had published, just so they can tell you can write, meet deadlines, and be professional. The other reason is exposure. Yes, I know starving artists die of exposure. Yes, I know that exposure doesn’t pay the rent. But it does help in other ways.

An agent or an editor will look at a query more seriously if it says, “I am a regular contributor to X website and have been published on Y and Z.” Or “I have had short stories printed in Publication A and B.” Even if you only got six copies of the magazine as pay, or a byline and a bio, these are credits. They indicate that you’re more than just a wannabe. After you’ve got a few credits to your name, you can start pitching to sites that pay.

Do you really need to pitch? Or can you just send a story or article? Publications differ. The website will have a page helpfully called “How to Submit” or “Submission Guidelines.” Follow these instructions exactly. If they say query first, do that. If they say send completed story, do that. If they say paste it in the body of an email, do that. If they say attach your file as a Word doc, do that. Whatever they want, give it to them. It takes longer than blasting out a flurry of identical query letters or submissions, but it increases your chances of getting favorable attention.

I have either made all of the above mistakes or seen them made by people who submitted work to my publications. I can’t guarantee that any of this advice will get you published. This business doesn’t come with guarantees. But you can piggyback on my failures and those of others on your way to becoming a success. Good luck. Even if you’re a terrific writer, you’ll still need it!

 

 

 

Romancing the Body

Romance novels have changed since I used to read them. (Yes, I am here publically admitting that I did once read what I called “tempestuous” novels because the cover blurbs always started, “The tempestuous saga of an innocent young woman and the pirate she couldn’t live without.” Hey, I was 16. But I digress.)

The covers of the novels, which were also called “bodice-rippers” back then, usually featured a picture of a man and a woman, with him ripping open her bodice (duh). The man always looked like Fabio (or a fair imitation), with lovely flowing locks, a square chin, an intent gaze, and an irresistible (apparently) sneer. The woman was slim, beautiful, and wearing a dress with a bodice (again, duh). She could be soft and yielding or, more often, fiery and tempestuous. If you knew about such things, you could sometimes guess the era in which the tempest played out by the details of the clothing, but usually not. An open, puffy-sleeved shirt and a ripped bodice don’t really convey that much information.

The point is, the cover art generally featured two figures, a man and a woman, with some indication of conflict and/or passion between them.

Not anymore.

I’ve noticed that these days, romance novels tend to have cover art that features a man only.

And not just any sort of man. He will have the physique of a bodybuilder, a hairless chest (I wrote about that once: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-9P), no shirt (or one that exposes the entire torso), tight jeans, and not much else. He could be a bodybuilder or a cowboy or a firefighter or a musician or (I suppose) a beach bum, or even – remotely possibly – a business tycoon on his day off.

But he has no face.

Where a face should be, there is a shadow, or a hat. Or the picture is simply cropped so that the cover doesn’t involve even a hint of a face.

What does this say about women and the men they are attracted to?

In sexual politics, there is a thing called “the male gaze.” It refers to how television and movies and advertising and just about everything else present females that will be pleasing to a man who is looking at them. How women react to the images doesn’t matter. (This can also be called “heteronormative,” but you didn’t come here for a sociology lesson.) The “male gaze” reinforces the idea that stereotypical males value women only for what’s between their neck and their navel, as the saying goes. (Or their neck and their knees, to be more accurate.)

Now, on the covers of romance novels, we have images that are meant to appeal to the female gaze. And what do they show? Besides torsos, I mean?

They show that publishers – or at least their marketing departments – are trying to appeal to the “female gaze.” And they think that gaze rests on the same areas as men’s gazes. To appeal to the romance reader, they think, men should be manscaped and body-sculpted, physical as all get-out. And anonymous.

It may be true that some women do long for anonymous sex these days and that romance novels increasingly sell sex. And it may be that the female gaze is as superficial and body-conscious as the male gaze. Maybe that’s the way it is for women who read romance novels. Maybe the publishers know their audience.

As for me, the things I look for in a man are all above the neck – bright, witty, creative men with facial hair. (In fact, three of those qualities are not just above the neck, but above the eyebrows. And I’ll disregard a guy’s lack of facial hair if the other three qualities are strong.)

That’s what’s romantic as far as I’m concerned. And sexy. But I suppose it doesn’t sell books.

 

 

BOLO: The Word Crimes Just Keep Coming!

“Word Crimes” was a big hit for Weird Al Yankovic, ttto “Blurred Lines,” a song that needed the Weird Al treatment if one ever did. But there are lots more word crimes that never made it into the song, likely because to get radio play, a song has to be under four minutes long. In my life as an editor, I see word crimes that are 182 pages long.

Now back to that “ttto.” It may be fairly easy to decode that as “to the tune of,” just from context. IMHO, AFAIK, BTW, and IIRC are becoming common enough online acronyms, but what are we to do with TH:TBotFA? Or THGttG (sometimes written as THHGttG). I know we all could sit here for hours and make up things that they could stand for, but there are better things to do, like petting the cat or helping the needy.

If you are at all familiar with geek culture, you may know that these acronyms are movie and book titles – The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies and The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, respectively. It’s bad enough that you sound like a noob (newbie) (neophyte) if you ask what ST:TOS means (Star Trek: The Original Series – you know, the one with Captain Kirk). But we fancy literary types don’t inflict acronyms on others. We don’t say FftMC when we mean Far from the Madding Crowd or TCoL49 for The Crying of Lot 49.

Perhaps the most annoying acronym of all is STFUATMM (or more politely, SUATMM. STFU is familiar to all but the most genteel, who abbreviate it as SU, but ATMM is more problematic, since this time no one bothers with lowercase letters to help you guess articles, conjunctions, and the like. No, this phrase is “Shut (the fuck) Up And Take My Money,” which means, “You don’t have to say another word; you had me at ‘buy.'”

Full disclosure: I must admit that in my other blog (bipolarjan.wordpress.com), I do use the acronym YMMV, or “Your Mileage May Vary,” to indicate that my experiences should not be generalized to everyone.

Another language trend which has gotten out of hand is “portmanteau words” –two words squashed together to make a new word with a meaning that combines them both.  (A portmanteau is a cross between a trunk and a suitcase.) Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, was, if not the inventor, surely a most prolific coiner of portmanteaus. The appear everywhere in his classic poem “Jabberwocky” – “slithy,” meaning “lithe” and “slimy,” for instance, or one that the English language has retained: “chortle,” from “chuckle” and “snort.” It’s just so damn useful.

“Brunch” and “motel” are useful portmanteaus too, but advertising has taken such words too far. I suppose it’s too late to kill off “sale-a-bration,” but can we call a moratorium on “transfarency” (airline usage) and “unjection” (prescription medicine)? Bon appe-cheese? Trucksicle?  And anything that ends in “-licious” or “-tastic”?

And while we’re on the subject of advertising, can we please stop having Washington and Lincoln dancing around for Presidents Day sales? It’s undignified, first of all, and there is no known connection between the leaders of our country and linens, unless you credit the rumors that Washington slept virtually everywhere.

You could, I suppose, make a connection between Washington and nurseries that sell cherry trees, but even that would be bogus and nurseries’ advertising budgets are not huge. (They spend it all on catalogues.)

Not to worry, though. Even if we manage to eliminate these heinous crimes, there are plenty of others in existence and soon to be created. Among the ones that make me shudder are weather-related portmanteaus like “Snowpocalypse” and “Snowmageddon”; “gifted” to mean “gave someone a present”; and most words that end in “ize.” And don’t even get me started on the way my husband pronounces “foliage” when he reads those nursery catalogues. Or how “catalogue,” “dialogue,” and “doughnut” are spelled these days. Or…or…or…

 

Survival Tips for Deadly Boring Meetings

Deadly boring meetings are one of the hazards of office life. They don’t actually take your life (most of the time), but they can make you wish they would. (There have been stories about office workers who died in their cubicles and went undiscovered for days, but these are largely untrue. No matter how rancid the office refrigerator smells, a decomposing body surely out-ranks it. Though too-energetic air conditioning can delay the process. But I digress.)

One meeting that I was in was so memorably boring that I became fascinated with the ear hair of the man sitting next to me. I couldn’t imagine how the individual fibers got so long while escaping his notice as well as his ears. They weren’t just protruding from inside his ears; they had migrated to his earlobes and whatever the technical term is for those folds and channels of the ear. I thought that he might be turning into a werewolf and that, being within chomping range, I would be his first victim. Needless to say, I didn’t pay much attention to the agenda.

Aside from werewolf-watching, though, there are plenty of activities to keep you alert – or, more importantly – looking alert during those agenda-setting meetings, pre-meeting meetings, meetings, and post-mortem meetings (especially appropriate if someone actually has died of boredom), not to mention stand-up meetings, which will be mercifully short if there is a quorum of women wearing high heels. (I mistakenly typed “high hells” there, which is a slip you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to figure out.)

So what can I recommend to keep you breathing in and out while that guy from IT rattles on about bandwidth and the CEO decides bandwidth actually means how much work she can get out of each of you? Take up a new career. Here are some suggestions.

Take up poetry. This has the added advantage that you look like you are actually taking notes. Of course, you can always draw boxes and weapons on your legal pad or play Candy Crush with the sound off on your tablet, but your arm and hand motions will give you away. No, you should be writing down actual words. Pay attention to the office smarty-pants and write down words he uses like “deleterious” (and other words of three or more syllables). By the end of the meeting, you’ll have some serious free verse. Maybe you can even get it published!

Take up sculpture. There are usually paper clips and coffee stirrers available at every meeting. If not, BYO. Then twist and sculpt away. This has the advantage of keeping your hands busy so you don’t strangle anyone. After a bit of practice, one man I know was able to make a recognizable figure of Don Quixote and a windmill. (OK, we were in a bar and they were margarita stirrers, but the idea is the important thing.) As the meeting ends, subtly slide your sculpture in front of someone else’s chair. If you’re caught, claim that you have a more appalling nervous habit (I recommend rhinotillexomania) and your therapist suggested you try this instead.

Take up musical theater. This is one of my favorites, and can also be made to look like you’re taking notes. Take any musical you’re particularly fond of (I like The Mikado), and recast it using only the people sitting at the table. Would the CFO make a good Pooh-Bah? Would the comptroller do well as Katisha? Then imagine them playing the roles. Afterward, you can recast it with the worst possible employee playing each role. (A variant of this is to recast an old musical with current actors – Kevin Kline and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Man of La Mancha, for example.)

Take up psy ops. This is just plain fun, although it doesn’t result in any notes on your pad or tablet, so perhaps you might combine it with one of the other techniques. Stare attentively at whoever’s speaking, but focus your gaze not on her eyes, but slightly above her left ear (aim for the tip). Or at the knot on the marketing manager’s tie. This can cause distraction – even actual twitching – and no one can tell that you are doing anything. (I understand this is an actual interrogation technique meant to throw the subject off balance.)

You could, I guess, go back to Office Bingo and mark off squares when anyone says “synergistic” or “incentivized” or “skate to where the puck will be,” but when you all yell “Bingo!,” at the same time, the game is over.

Coloring: Inside or Outside the Lines?

The other day, my husband gave me a little gift with which to amuse myself while he was out of town – a paint-n-bake coffee mug with an intricate mandala sort of design on both sides and a set of four special markers. The idea is that when you finish coloring it, you bake it for 45 minutes and the color becomes permanent. (More or less. You are advised to hand-wash the mug.)cup3

A while back, Dan had given me several coloring books and assorted colored pencils, the latest fad in relaxation techniques. Presumably, focusing on the coloring keeps your mind off your troubles. One of the coloring books I later obtained let you color a bunch of swear words, which are very satisfying to contemplate. (I think the book is English, because it contains epithets like “wank stain,” which I guess is equivalent to American “jerkwad.”)

Anyway, I wrote about the coloring craze some time ago in a blog post (“Color My World” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-jP), in which I said,

I don’t know anyone who admits to coloring within the lines when they were kids. Coloring outside the lines … was a badge of freedom and creativity and, for some, poor fine motor skills. It was how the more inhibited of us let our freak flags fly.

The coffee mug, however, was clearly intended to be colored within the lines, unless done as an art project by a five-year-old for Father’s Day.

This presented a little problem for me. I have “essential tremor,” which is doctor-speak for “We don’t know why your hands shake; they just do.” With coloring books, this wasn’t much of an issue, because the pages never even made it as far as the refrigerator door. A coffee mug, however, is meant to be used, though, so conceivably other people might see it. (Not that I’m a great one for having koffee klatches, except by phone with my mother-in-law.)

As I started coloring the first side of the mug, I discovered something useful – until baked, the colors were far from permanent. They could be rubbed away easily with a fingertip or a Kleenex. Or the heel of your hand as you rested it on the mug, trying to get the top half colored. Finally, I decided that the teensy white spaces within the itty-bitty black lines were just suggestions, and colored the larger shapes, staying vaguely between the lines and leaving those little accents of white, just for contrast.

By the time I had accomplished that, my hands were well and truly shaking. I could have stopped there and finished the mug later, on a day when my tremor was less troublesome. (It comes and goes, aggravated by fatigue or stress.) But I wanted to get the damned thing over and done with.cup1

I decided that I would purposely let my freak flag fly on the other side. I would not even try to stay within the lines. Instead I took the markers and colored in bright diagonal streaks of different lengths and widths, with reckless disregard for any and all black lines. It was, in its own way, very satisfying, even if it did resemble the aforementioned Father’s Day gift. It was bright and cheery, and it looked absolutely nothing like the mandala pattern or the other side’s more constrained coloring.

I had warned Dan that I didn’t intend both sides of the mug to look the same, but I think he just supposed I would use different colors for the different parts of the identical design. We’ll see what he says when he gets home. As a child of the sixties, he should appreciate my rebelliousness, and as a fan of the Impressionists, he ought to admire my emotionally free style.

And if he doesn’t, I’ll just use the mug myself. It’s quite a large one, big enough to contain both my outer adult and my inner child. And lots of coffee.

 

P.S. Thanks to Ellen Kollie, friend and former coworker, for suggesting I turn this Facebook post into a blog post. If it doesn’t work, it’s all your fault.

Why Don’t Conservatives Support the Right to Privacy?

Privacy lawThe right to privacy, as defined by the historic Roe v. Wade decision, ought to be something that conservatives could get behind.

Okay, not when it comes to abortion, marriage equality, transgender persons in bathrooms, and other sex-loaded topics. There conservatives appear solidly anti-privacy. As they so often point out, the right to privacy is never mentioned in the Constitution. (Neither is education, which leads some to say that the Department of Education is not legitimate.)

But think about other issues near and dear to conservatives’ hearts and minds. At least to some degree, many of them can be framed as privacy issues.

Gun Ownership. Certainly the main argument here rests on the Second Amendment to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights. But if you look past the basic right to bear arms, matters of privacy begin to be involved.

Take gun registration. Many gun owners fear that registration of firearms is a prelude to confiscation of guns at some future date. Opposition to gun registration can be seen as a right to privacy in that context – gun owners want to have privacy regarding the number and kinds of firearms they own, and they believe the government has no business knowing that information.

Property Rights. Land owners, particularly in the Western states, feel they are entitled to make their own decisions about land use privately, without government interference and regulation. Water use, mineral rights, livestock conditions, and other factors, they feel, should be up to the individual farmer or rancher. In these days of drought, for example, why should anyone else get a say in how much water (that exists on his or her own land) the family farmer should be able to use? Who has the right to put restrictions on that and other practices? Aren’t those private decisions?

Medical Decisions. Leaving abortion aside for the moment, conservatives had major problems with “Obamacare” (aka the Affordable Care Act) because they believed that the government should not come between a patient and his or her physician. Of particular concern were the so-called “death panels,” which, if any had been implemented, might have led to government personnel having a say in “when to pull the plug on grandma,” or whether a disabled child was ever going to be a “productive citizen.”

Surely end-of-life decisions and those regarding the amount of treatment a person receives are sacrosanct, the ultimate in discussions that should occur privately between physician and patient.

Looking at topics on which conservatives might wish for a right to privacy, many are usually framed as “freedom from government regulation,” or “freedom from government.” In other words, the conservative position is that government should have no say in private decisions made by private citizens. In these and other cases, freedom from government interference is basically a variation on the right to privacy.

Some religious families, for example, believe that they have the right to privacy when it comes to how – or whether – to treat their children with conventional medicine. Is that freedom of religion? Or is it also freedom from government interference – that is, privacy – in decision-making?

Education, corporal punishment, divorce, and even Social Security numbers and other forms of ID are also seen by some as matters of privacy, and calls for freedom from government intrusion are heard.

Matters get murky, however, when we turn to issues of sex and family. You’d think that what happens in the bedroom (or motel or wherever) ought to be the most private moments there are. But until recently, specific sex acts and even the use of contraceptives were matters in which the government had its say.

Now complicated modern sexual issues are under discussion. The line between public and private behavior is less clear when you think about marriage equality, public bathrooms, HIV status, and gender identity.

The problem is, of course, that the reproductive rights movement has already laid claim to the phrase “right to privacy,” and it has become the basis of their political and social position. The doctor and patient, according to Roe, have the right to privacy when making decisions about the medical procedure of terminating a pregnancy.

And, however much they value privacy, that’s something that conservatives can’t or won’t include in their definition.

 

 

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.