Monday, December 17, 2012

Ways for the World to End: Survivalism and Imitation

Ways for the World to End: Survivalism and Imitation

By Dr. Meg

The New York Times and the Huffington Post are already calling attention to parallels between attacks on school children last Friday, December 14, in both the United States and China. Comments following these articles show that readers follow suit and agree: Parallels are too close to ignore.

Furthermore, these reports of nearly simultaneous events half a globe apart point to Apocalypse Fever, which the Chinese term “Doomsday Rumors.” In America, this frenzy takes a specific form: the Survivalist Movement, or “preppers,” as one of Nancy Lanza’s relatives called enthusiasts.

The UK Telegraph outlines this influence in this report: “Connecticut school shooting: Adam Lanza’s mother was preparing for disaster,” by Jon Swaine in Connecticut and Peter Foster in Washington, and published on December 16, 2012. Swaine and Foster summarize:

“The mother of the gunman who killed 20 children and seven adults in America’s worst school massacre, was a gun-proud ‘survivalist’ preparing for economic collapse, it has emerged. Nancy Lanza…was part of the “prepper movement, which urges readiness for social chaos by hoarding supplies and training with weapons.”

Is it too soon to request that Survivalists need to take extraordinary care with their activities around children and teenagers? The Apocalypse is a subject for study among biblical scholars who research the complex meanings of the book of Revelation. Interpretations include predicting the past, historical analysis of Roman emperors, and symbolic visions enshrined in unforgettable poetry.   

Current fury over the Mayan Calendar’s cycles needs to surrender to objective analysis. The West has seen too many Doomsdays come and go for educated readers to join the fray. Journalists also need to demonstrate responsibility by refraining from whooping up hysteria, which children and teenagers do not need. Children need stability and reassurance that love remains constant. Shakespeare said it best in Sonnet 116:

“O no, it [love] is an ever-fixed mark/That looks on tempests and is never shaken;/ It is the star to every wand’ring bark.” (lines 5-7)

Considering the meaning and wisdom of these lines provides far better entertainment than violent video games. Time spent on the masterpieces of English communication also stretches imaginations into the realms of philosophy and history, where children can become lost safely. All involved need to keep close to their hearts that ancient slogan: Monkey see, Monkey do. Evolutionists can verify that children will imitate their relatives—if we let them. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Climate Change: Culture Change

Climate Change: Culture Change

By Dr. Meg

A lack of snow in Western New York State reveals the adaptation which already becomes necessary for residents. If New York was ever the Empire State, snow seemed the breath of God, raging for half of every year here.

Now that breath appears occasionally as mist when cool air creeps over the warm earth. It comes and goes as Empires do. If a hole has developed in the ozone layer high above this earth, it could hardly be more daunting than confronting a landscape without its weather.

This area was history on the hillside every year. Just as the glaciers once withdrew from this state, dragging their bodies with long fingers, so every spring saw the heavy-weight snowfall withdraw again, releasing human kind and unkind from a beautiful white prison.

Tobogganing allowed that prison to become a playground for children and sprites of every age. The Cassadaga Country Club transformed its golf course into a slick run. There, adolescent boys steered those toboggans so that the girls, riding in front, of course, would feel a whole mountain of snow fall upon them—as the boys drove straight for the drifts, and shrieked with laughter.

As the lakes in this region froze and refroze, creating Olympic quality ice-rinks, whole villages gathered on ice-skates, looping like birds on the loose. Those who clung to hearth and home on such occasions could look out their windows and view Currier and Ives paintings come to life, and know Art was as real as their eyes.

Now, the parkas hang in the closet, along with the hand-knit sweaters, the long underwear, the ski-hats, mittens, and leather boots. Frost bite claims no victims. Nobody complains about chill-blains, or races to the fireplace to snuggle together over hot cocoa. Cars race by as they would in June or July. The year has lost its rhythm.

If this apparent climate change continues, all the songs and poetry dedicated to a Winter Wonder-Land will lose their meaning for future residents. Modern realistic paintings portraying white landscapes here will be as distant from understanding as Bruegel’s “Hunters Returning Home,” evidence of a time when people went over cliffs without knowing why. 

So, now at least we know why people once did rain dances: It wasn’t just for the crops. It was for visions which were real once upon a time. 

Robots: On the Cutting Edge of Labor

Robots: On the Cutting Edge of Labor

By Dr. Meg

While CNN covered Susan Rice and “The Real Women of the CIA” on 121312, China Daily published this report on 121212: “Chinese robot wars set to erupt,” by He Wei. This author quotes a robotics entrepreneur, as he summarizes recent developments in the Chinese robotics industry:

“Sun Zhiqiang says the timing of China’s robot spree is perfect for his business. As managing director of Risong Group, an automation company in Guangzhou, Guangsong province that provides robotic systems, Sun’s company has cashed in on the robotics boom during the past two years. Although he declined to provide details, Sun revealed that the company is making almost 20 times the revenue it did when the business started 15 years ago. “

In short, if Hollywood could get off its Transformers kick, it might make horror films shouting: “The Robots Are Coming! The Robots Are Coming! The Robots Are Coming!”

These afterthoughts should accompany Wei’s announcement, which his article amply supports: Robots work more cheaply than humans. They’re never late. They don’t need health insurance, and they don’t expect day care for their offspring. They also show no interest in equality of any kind; in the labor market, robots are on the rise, and they provide the closest approximation of perfect slave labor which the world has ever known.

It’s critical to realize that Wei is not spouting science fiction. His data not only supports his claims, but it should give union leaders a nervous breakdown.

Wei already can report: “Given the context, it’s easy to calculate the tradeoffs of getting a robot. ‘In fact, industrial robots are already cheaper than workers in China’s eastern regions,’ said Wang Tianmiao, who heads the expert panel of robot technology under the State High-Tech Development Plan. “

Now, claims that training in technology will prepare workers for the jobs of tomorrow should also come under severe scrutiny. No matter how fast workers prepare for the so-called jobs of the future, how can they compete with a machine, once technology has fast-tracked human labor to the junk pile? The truth remains: Humans cannot out-robot a robot.

Modern history reveals that slave labor has never gone 
out of business. The Third Reich’s attempt to reduce Jews to slaves needs no repeating. More recent reports scandalized the world with stories of child laborers slaving for a pittance. China has been in the forefront of these developments, creating whole cities just for massive colonies of workers doomed to slave until they rioted for relief. The United States of America may like to believe that slavery is a political party issue, but robots labor under no such assumption.

Critical thinking requires restating the obvious, perhaps. Robots do not need people to be kind, to empathize, or to speechify on justice. But if people cannot work as efficiently and cheaply as robots, what can they do to justify their existence, and secure their place in cultures which are mechanized from top to bottom? Warnings that robots would replace human workers have been shrugged off as hysteria in the past. The latest news from China says otherwise.

Elders might advise: You’ve made your bed. Now lie in it. But the issue now becomes: When a robot makes your bed, who lies in it? Even poor Goldilocks might wish for bears to be her problem again. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Is Leroy Jethro Gibbs America’s Favorite Father Figure?

Is Leroy Jethro Gibbs America’s Favorite Father Figure?

By Dr. Meg

Family remains uppermost in the plot-lines of NCIS. No question exists here about who wears the pants, or who makes the decisions. Simultaneously, women integrate successfully with men, catching criminals and abiding by the same regulations of the US Navy. So, does it take a military organization to cut the nonsense and cut to the chase, too? Or do viewers just enjoy a first-rate fantasy, no matter their registration?

The major theme of the show is reinforced every time Gibbs gives Abby a hug, every time he defends Ziva, clips DiNozzo with a love-pat, and praises Timmy for his MIT expertise. Regularly, Gibbs returns to his basement workshop, just like a Father Knows Best from the fifties, to work out his frustration in private. He faithfully keeps his cool while negotiating with his new female director (and old girlfriend) just like a responsible parent sharing marital responsibilities for children who perennially need a little growing up.

Yes, Gibbs carries the burden of divorces in his past, but he always saves times to send a child a message: We’re here, buddy, and never forget it. The family theme reaches an apex, however, every time Gibbs’ own script dad turns up. Then, one dad stands right beside another: The famous father figure from the show on surviving hard times during the Great Depression, The Waltons. As Jackson Gibbs, Ralph Waite even carries the same mournful profile. But as Jethro, Mark Harmon even mentors a writer, just like his script dad. So, while the one show circles into the other, each production pays tribute to those who do not forget.  

As fathers go, the two men stay on mission, come hard times, terrorism, or grief. The ship of state stays in the basement. The women know where the men are—and that problems resolve within the hour. If only the US Congress could get this discipline into their system, there just might be more than People’s Choice Awards to celebrate. 

Is China Inviting Immigration?

Is China Inviting Immigration?

By Dr. Meg

While Americans argue over Obamacare, Social Security, 

and immigration policies, Chinese officials are publicly 

addressing the same subjects. The following story in 

China Daily on 121212 announces new rights for 

permanent residents in China, as well as suggesting that 

more benefits may be on the way:
“Foreigners to get key rights,” by Chen Xin, states: “Foreigners who obtain permanent residency will have the same pension, employment and property rights as Chinese citizens, under new regulations announced on Tuesday.
Access to schools for their children will also be on par with Chinese citizens[,] the rules endorsed by central government departments in September state.”
This article concludes with the most tantalizing comments of all:
'If a green card does not bring other basic rights such as employment, pension and children's education, it will not be attractive and will not help introduce global talent,' he said. 'The new regulation will help foreigners have a sense of security….
'Now they can obtain economic and social rights as Chinese citizens do[;] they may ask for political rights if they live in the country for long,' Liu [Liu Guofu, an immigration law specialist at the Beijing Institute of Technology] said.”
The key words here may be “global talent.” If Americans assume they monopolize the international talent pool in technology, or on any other front, they now know that Chinese officials share no such assumption. Indeed, they appear willing to negotiate on the international scene for the best and the brightest.
The final comments in this article would shock Richard Nixon right out of his Watergate blues. What did he start, with his insistence on opening China to the world—and where will it end? 
The American educational systems are in turmoil, too, and nobody is paying more attention to uproars in the United States, it appears, than people half way across the globe, who may spend more time catching up with the American media than US citizens do. Of course, rules are one matter. Invitations are another. 

Animals Marco Polo Saw: Travelogue for Children

Animals Marco Polo Saw: Travelogue for Children

By Dr. Meg

The cover of this children’s book shows exotic travelers winding in an arc which leads to opening this slender volume. The reader’s hand then forms a natural movement, swooping to join the search for the book’s subtitle: An Adventure on the Silk Road. This delightful creation reminds both adults and youngsters: Animals accompanied every step of humans as they swarmed to explore this rocky planet Earth.

The author, Sandra Markle, and illustrator, Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini, have produced the Explorers Series, which also includes Animals Charles Darwin Saw: An Around-the-World Adventure;  Animals Christopher Columbus Saw: An Adventure in the New World;, and Animals Robert Scott Saw: An Adventure in Antarctica. Wondrous beasts peep from every corner of this book’s cover, book jacket, and pages.

This book also gently reminds readers that books become key partners in the enormous adventure humans undertake when they realize they are not alone, and never have been alone on their spinning planet. The text explains:

“After spending years traveling the world, Marco told people about his adventures. His stories were written down, and they became the world’s very first travel guide. What is today called The Travels of Marco Polo describes his travels to Mongolia and the Far East, a part of the world that includes China, Japan, Thailand, and the other countries of East Asia.”

Adults may equally grin with surprise as they recollect that explorers were circling the globe centuries before satellites continued their mission. Illustrations include Marco leaning over his father’s shoulder as they study maps filled with mystery. Immediately, the text adds boxed explanations of silk production, starting with particular moth caterpillars, the unwinding of the moth’s cocoon, and the moths’ contribution to a single yard of shiny fabric.

Animals Marco Polo Saw includes notes on skill sets and key concepts built into the series. It also demonstrates that one book leads to another—in this case, The Description of the World, by a later associate of the first author. Its exquisite planning concludes with a Map of Marco Polo’s Travels, which thus places the reader in the exact position of the boy once looking over his father’s shoulder at mystery which became reality both for him and his awed descendants.

To list this series’ virtues fully would require a book filled with wonder, too. Let young readers begin this project as soon as possible. Their stories of their very own beasts may delight relatives, friends, and teachers alike. And nobody will have to ask them to draw pictures after seeing this series. They may just walk out in the morning, look up, and see the creatures which, a millennium from now, will become participants in volumes they can’t help composing. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Vampires Lite

Vampires Lite

By Dr. Meg

For fans of Ann Rice’s vampire novels, Ellen Schreiber’s Love Bites may be lightweight, but for teenagers yearning for BFs, it may be just right. The high school heroine obsesses over her best friends, repeating that word at least once on every page. The vampire hero proves his honorable intentions by NEVER biting the heroine, in spite of the title.

That is not to say that risky behavior receives no attention here. The hero’s BF shows up uninvited, and he falls in love with the BF’s BF, so vampires share adolescents’ fixations, at least in this book. The battle for individuality and creativity against mundane conformity draws together the least and most popular residents of middle America here, for consideration by all.

This novel may make readers wonder if the term “vampire” does not just serve as a cover for artists like the hero, as well as their admirers, like the heroine. The battle for artistic integrity enjoys a long and distinguished history in American literature, with ripe testimony by Ernest Hemingway, among others. As technology replaces hand work, this battle intensifies.

Love Bites amply illustrates that those seeking popularity above all may have their work cut out for them when confronting individuals with vampires’ determination to go for blood. The trappings of the vampire genre, including deteriorating mansions, wine cellars, garlic, and coffins for sleeping and retreat, will make every vampire fan feel right at home.

The idea that vampires have standards, and those standards may exceed the obsessions of community creeps’, will also appeal to idealists of every stripe. The novel’s characters prove both likable and recognizable. Ellen Schreiber does not hype confrontation; she seeks resolution of social conflicts, and, for that ideal, she, too, deserves encouragement and praise. 

The Most Obnoxious Ad on TV

The Most Obnoxious Ad on TV

By Dr. Meg

The competition for this award is fierce, but the winner is the current advertisement for KFC’s Festive Feast, a large bucket of fried chicken, which the ad demonstrates will rescue men from the stupid chatter of women and children throughout the holidays.

The film shows women shrieking and hooting with laughter, as if that act, all by itself, was the most annoying behavior in the world, not counting mass murders in Syria, as well as genocides around the globe. This ad makes the assumption that Daddy, not Mommy, will stop for fried chicken on the way home from work, so they can silence anything they don’t want to hear at home.

Note: Any adult who expects people in general to say only what s/he wants to hear needs serious help, and s/he won’t find it at home from people whose lives are just as complicated as the food provider’s. That same individual won’t find that surcease from talk at work, either, where communication is the ORDER of each and every day.

The second episode in the film shows children yakking up a storm, too, as they compete with claims of “You did! I didn’t!” as siblings, cousins, and visitors at the holidays inevitably will. In both cases, the man in the middle of the dialogue shuts up the talkers with portions of fried chicken, which, last this writer knew, were NOT on Michelle Obama’s list of preferred cuisine.

So, if you support overfed, stifled families, whose men would rather do anything in the world rather than share conversation with them, you will find this advertisement a guide to happy family life. But, if you hope that men and women will both talk to each other, as well as their kids, who may turn into druggies while waiting for words of wisdom, then get a salad instead.

Everybody in the grouping can add his/her/their favorite ingredients, instead of griping: Why do adults always expect us to talk to them when they won’t—come hell or high water—talk to us? 

Survival with Cats: Rule 2

Survival with Cats: Rule 2

By Dr. Meg

NEVER attempt to punish a cat for misbehavior. That creature will make you sorry every time. Instead, you can distract a feline, or you can provide plentiful toys, providing your dog doesn’t eat them.

Always remember: A cat has a job to do, which means you can either add it to your support staff or find another home with tolerant owners. The domestic cat is a relative of supreme predators.

Don’t ask a predator to be a pack animal, like a dog, unless it’s a Siamese, who MAY allow you to walk it on a leash. It will still never stop hunting, and leashes bring their own dangers.

Cat collars can become snagged on curtains, so paraphernalia which go with leashes are risky, all by themselves. Leashes in turn can become tangled when the cat jumps, and it will.

The end result of attempting to control a cat can too easily bring about its strangling. Cat lovers don’t take that risk, not if they wish to enjoy a long companionship with their favorite animal.

After owning a variety of breeds, I can attest that cats possess a long memory, and they don’t forgive attempts to make them act contrary to their genes, DNA, and every throbbing whisker.

Once, one of my cats deserved discipline for knocking my iron off my ironing board. After I restricted her behavior, she just happened to run straight through an embossed crystal vase.

That cat walked away from the destroyed vase, with no guilt whatsoever. She was my best friend, but that status meant nothing when it came to denying her natural, ingrained instincts.

I could scold until I was blue in the face. She turned a deaf ear to every entreaty to mind her manners, which, for her, meant washing her paws and face like a surgeon after every kill.

So, to keep a cat happy, it is critical to give her something to hunt. If you don’t supply toys, she will find her own prey. These include spiders, ants, flies, and spots on any wall you don’t clean.

Directing a cat toward desired prey, and away from your treasures, will keep you both happy. Yes, she’s a prima donna, but movie stars don’t come to your home every day, do they?

Her favorite toy often is right at hand. Just fold a paper napkin until it looks like a bird. Then tie a string around the bird’s body. Fly her new bird from your hand, and she will love you forever. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree

Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree

By Dr. Meg

If Christmas trees become an expensive, gaudy nuisance, here’s a way to make them come alive again, especially for children. Begin with a trip to a Christmas tree farm, if possible. Take the whole family to participate in the choice, which rarely can be too big, full, or beautiful.

Be sure to place the tree in water the minute you arrive home. Leave it in water for at least 24 hours so it doesn’t drop its needles while you decorate. Always keep that tree well-watered, as a precaution against fires. Be extremely cautious with all electrical lights and candles as well.

Now, this step can begin at any time during the holiday season. Prepare gingerbread and/or sugar cookie dough for your main rolled tree decorations. Choose the most primitive or exotic cutters for different effects, creating cookie boys, girls, camels, angels, bells, fish, birds, chickens, sheep, and bunnies. Don’t forget the tiniest gingerbread houses to hang from the tree, too.

You color scheme determines which color frostings you make to dress your doll cookies. Create a toss-up effect with as many colors as possible, or limit cookies to dressings in white, red, and green to go completely traditional. Possibilities are as limited as your imagination. Jamie Foxx can have a black Christmas tree, if he wishes. No one can tell him otherwise when he makes it himself.

The next step in color choices involves colored sugar to pour on the frosting. This ingredient also comes in red-green-blue in the baking aisle of the local supermarket. Other sugar decorations create tiny silver balls, red and green rolls, donut toppings of all kinds, chocolate chips, chocolate kisses, licorice, cinnamon red hots, and bits and pieces to make cookie faces pop.

Wait for the frosting to set. Then, assemble a darning needle and heavy duty thread. Again, when you do It yourself, all the choices are yours. Do you want to string your cookies in dancing rows to circle the tree? Do you want to do onesies or twosies? Your decisions may emerge as the tree gradually lowers its branches and relaxes, having come in from the cold.

Finally, you can add as many toys and as much candy as you wish to complete your tree decorating scheme. Candy canes are perfect because they come with natural hooks. Popcorn is also perfect in strings, colored or au natural. Create double strings of any item you choose, including cranberries. You can store these decorations in plastic bags, or create a new tree every year.

Economy is one reason to begin this cookie tree tradition, but creativity is the best reason of all. Children can develop a variety of skills as they assist parents with this production. These include rolling dough, cutting patterns, teaming, and sewing with a darning needle, which is as important for homemakers as it is for surgeons. Repeat as often as needed, and enjoy! 

Mind Games and the Media

Mind Games and the Media

By Margaret Curtis, PhD

A Tip Sheet in the December 2012 issue of Psychology Today throws readers on alert. “I Can’t Believe My Eyes: WHAT MAKES US BUY A LIE?” lays out three tools for verification which can backfire.

Psychology Today: Tip 1: Placing photographs beside written material enhances credibility, researchers report.

Dr. Meg:  Question 1: Is this why the public distrusts the press now? The more pictures accumulate in the digital media, the more likely readers may develop immunity to the common belief that a picture is worth a thousand words. Overdose just may constitute the cure.

Psychology Today: Tip 2: Multiple statements by the same eyewitness may also reduce disbelief, according to a study in Acta Psychologica.

Dr. Meg: Question 2: Is this why both the press and politicians bore us to death with talking points? Once we’re on to them, maybe it’s time to schedule unrehearsed appearances, and let the cameras roll while they stammer in the face of confusion, which doesn’t all belong to them.

Psychology Today: Tip 3: Partial understanding of a statement leads to the assumption that understanding is complete, according to “You Can’t Not Believe Everything You Read,” a study prepared by psychologist Daniel Gilbert and co-authors, who warn against rushing and fatigue.

Dr. Meg: Question 3: If speakers who repeat themselves practice an advantage over listeners, why not do them one or two better, and read written transcripts of their speeches multiple times, once for content, twice for strategy, and thrice for implications?

Dr. Meg: Conclusion: Does this Tip Sheet sound like an election guide OR WHAT? Well, we’ve got time to practice up, and then see who’s learned more since the last bafflement—and who’s gotten trickier in the times between one merry-go-round and the next.    

NCIS: Goth Girl Magic!

NCIS: Goth Girl Magic!

By Margaret Curtis, PhD

Has a Gothic character ever touched America’s heart like Abby Sciuto? Yes, she uses the short form of the adjective, a bow to current English usage, but this female leads in popularity because she comes directly from the Middle Ages. Her respect for mortality heads the parade of traits identified with that time misnamed The Dark Ages. Was the screen ever dark when Abby appeared? Hardly.

Her mastery of forensic science perfectly parallels the attention that medieval people gave to magic, beginning with turning lead into gold—and any script writer can count on Pauley Perrette, who plays Abby to a P, to charm her way around heavy verbiage with light humor. Her fondness for music also demonstrates how close her alliance is to the Middle Ages. What would a cathedral be without Gregorian chant?

But her costumes seal the deal for this medieval creation. Her braids become a peaked hood, swaying rhythmically around her cherubic smile. Her bangs lead the viewer immediately to her eyes, which snap with mischief, like a leprechaun’s, troll’s, or elf’s. If Gibbs didn’t have Abby to play his Tinker Bell, what would he do with his morbid self? Every skull she wears turns into a design, signaling the Gothic period’s profound inspiration from glorious Art.

Her respect for the human body verges on that attitude which considers it a temple. Her perfectionism when handling its remains defies the seamy side of life. Her positive spirit speaks for the best of rituals which transform the darkest moments into life-affirming exercises. She doesn’t need to roller skate, although she sometimes does. Her blithe spirit protects her from excess gravity, ill befitting a woman who recalls the excitement of that moment—

that moment when a little girl heads for a Medieval Fair. Abby’s is underground, but so what? She’ll bring all her candles and icons, if needed, just to celebrate life gone merry. We’re alive. Isn’t that always, always more than enough? Hang around long enough, and the discoveries always turn up. It’s just one miracle after another in the Middle Ages with the Abbess Abby.  

Climate Change: Old Man Winter, Where Are You?

Climate Change: Old Man Winter, Where Are You?

By Margaret Curtis, PhD

Ever since I returned to Western New York, the shock has hit me: The snow is gone!

Climate change is not a theory. If the snow can go, where do we go, Earthlings?

After a childhood spent climbing mountains of snow—the famous lake effect snow south of Buffalo—I didn’t conceive of this place without the weather which defined it.

Now an article in Slate Magazine urges scientists to get aboard the Climate Change Movement before Earth becomes unrecognizable, uninhabitable, and horrid beyond words.

This articleScientists Ask Blunt Question on Everyone’s Mind

Why Earth and atmospheric scientists are swearing up a storm and getting arrested.” --breaks the bounds of propriety as it frames the essential question in obscenities.

That phrasing reveals a common quirk in modern grammar. It employs the passive voice, as if the snow had been murdered by unknown parties—like visible bodies left beside the road.

But that usage belies the rant of Yann Martel in Beatrice and Virgil, an insightful novel reviewed recently in this blog. Two-thirds of Earth’s animals have disappeared.

This catastrophe did not fall upon the Earth like an asteroid. It did not result from a shoot-out with aliens.

Who did this—who? Earthlings did it to themselves. They are the aliens to their own existence. They disappeared the animals. They disappeared the snow. Now, what comes next?

Mayan calendar enthusiasts await the End of the World on 122112. Slate’s article makes clear: scientists are now verging on activism. Are they supposed to report the missing forever?

America’s great playwright Arthur Miller predicted that what we cannot imagine will get us in his ironic masterpiece Incident at Vichy. There, Nazis disappeared the Jews, uncounted by neighbors.

It is time to count the snowflakes. It is time to count the birds circling in the skies, searching for Old Man Winter. Is he off somewhere on vacation with his bride, The Snow Queen?

Those who never saw the mountains of snow here may wonder: Have they gone the way of mountains in West Virginia, decapitated by mining?

Does the wonder of Nature go with them? All those spirits whistling in the dark as they whooshed upon us from Canada—are they kidnap victims now, begging for release?

Memo To Whom It May Concern: I don’t care what you plan to do with the snow. It doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to those who can remember a White Christmas

which, once upon a time, lasted for six months in Western New York, clear from Halloween to Easter. It doesn’t take scientists to recognize the obvious. It takes memory and conscience. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Balcony, A Girl, and Nobody Else In Sight

A Balcony, A Girl, and Nobody Else In Sight

By Margaret Curtis, PhD

When Clint Eastwood performed his minimalist stage play with a chair one month ago, he anticipated my recent experience engaging in a self and soul dialogue. An entire audience should have shared my existential moment. It was a perfect set for a grand soliloquy, a monologue maybe, or even a freak-out call to 9-1-1.

Unfortunately, I had left my cell phone in my apartment, behind the glass door, with the dog, the cats, and my answering machine, which wouldn’t have been picking up unless one of my talented cats was answering. So, I considered my alternatives under that squeamish circumstance:

  1. I could take out a rope ladder, and haul myself over the ledge.
  2. I could haul myself over the ledge, risking broken bones when I landed not so lightly
  3. I could attract a passerby to rescue me from my accumulating stupidity.
  4. I could knock on the walls between the apartments, hoping somebody would hear me.
  5. I could scream my lungs out.
After a long, thoughtful meditation on my dilemma, I discarded choice 1. I have never possessed a rope ladder. Next, I really considered choice 2 because I could already see myself finding just the right positions for my feet and leveraging my body over the top and, then, skimming the building like Spider Girl, if there was one, but there wasn’t.

So, I chose Number 3. Unfortunately, a passerby saw me waving blithely from my shivering isolation, and he turned into our parking lot, too. But then, for reasons which will always remain unknown to me, that smiling biker waved—and kept right on going. Is that what you would do, if you had a chance to rescue a girl from a balcony? Shakespeare wouldn’t. I’m sure of that.

Since 15 or 20 minutes had now elapsed—it’s hard to keep track when you’ve forgotten your watch, too, and your cell phone’s gone missing, and the temperature is falling to somewhere south of 43 degrees!—I came to choice 5, not with any particular wisdom, but because that was the only alternative left. So, some squeaky voice that could not be mine called out, “HeLLO!”

I repeated that brilliant greeting for 10 minutes or so. Then, just when I thought I really was about to go over the ledge head first, because what other choice did I have, I heard the loveliest sound in the world: “Meg, is that you?” I admitted that I was the idiot screaming at the top of her lungs for reasons involving animals and doors and locks and missing keys and, mostly, just me.

A marvelous neighbor had heard my unconscionable screaming, and concluded that maybe a human being was at a loss to know how to descend from a balcony without ending up in mid-air, or worse yet, how to get down without landing on her elbow, knee, or upside down head. Can you imagine? She’d heard my dog first. 

He wouldn’t give up on me. Neither would she.

After another series of choices—call maintenance, find keys, get inside the apartment in spite of the dog who never would shut up until his owner was where she belonged—we rounded up those elements in order, and I entered my apartment again, but only with her assistance. The dog immediately expected extra treats. My neighbor expected nothing. She receives my eternal gratitude.

Thanks, Pat! 

Bombs and Basketballs: Cheers for David Baldacci Again!

Bombs and Basketballs: Cheers for David Baldacci Again!

By Margaret Curtis, PhD

For the details of international intrigue—and security nightmares—who compares with David Baldacci? This time he conjures a plot wrapped up in a basketball planted under a tree. If readers start to question what basketballs have to do with landscaping, they’re right on mission with the hero of Hell’s Corner, who happens to work the most famous real estate in the world.

Baldacci’s audience may never see DC the same way again. The simplest tasks become mysterious when they happen in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. The author’s hero comes to his assignment with a long history of conflict between patriotism and loyalty. On his mission to clear his name, he signs on for one last chance to prove his skills haven’t faltered.

The task of Olive Stone, then, is to start out like Prince Hamlet—in the middle of everything—and come out like King Hamlet, minus the dead bodies, including his own. Is he, or is he not, the lone man who can solve a really stupid puzzle? When an explosion occurs with no reasonable objective, he becomes intrigued. When basketballs hide bombs, it’s no time for athletics.

Or is it? Nothing can happen in Lafayette Park, aka Hell’s Corner, without international ramifications. His new alliances involve a British agent who also attempts to avert an unidentified tragedy—when more than basketballs and trees go flying in hell. Stone enlists the assistance, too, of former colleagues whose new loyalties may always remain uncertain.

The test at every turn for Baldacci’s hero remains: As time unrolls, do we remain the people we recognize in the mirror or across the street? When landscapers turn up, why do they have basketballs up their sleeve or on their brain? Who in his right mind would hide a bomb in a basketball, anyway? The history of Hell’s Corner comes down to one man and a clump of earth.

Along the way, Baldacci teaches his readers more than they ever guessed about American real estate. Although the US capital seems etched in stone, its stability can change with a single blast. “The place had changed dramatically,” Baldacci writes in Chapter 3, “since Stone first planted his sign in the ground, the one that read I Want TheTruth.”

His other novels include Absolute Power, Total Control, The Simple Truth and The Whole Truth. So his quest continues, and his major theme remains consistent. Readers of those novels will realize, however, that, for Baldacci, the truth is rarely simple, and perception management means that the simplest way to destroy the truth is to bury it under tons of garbage. 

Romance by Suggestion, not Asphyxiation

Romance by Suggestion, not Asphyxiation: Carla Neggers’ Captivated

By Margaret Curtis, PhD

Carla Neggers can teach you the essentials of successful romance writing. The formula for Captivated, whirls like a waltz: 1-2-3:

One, begin with a conflicted heroine,

Two, locate an intense hero, and

Three, let the plot throw them together.

Neggers does not succeed as a genre writer, though, by concentrating just on what is commonly called “chick lit.” Her bio inside the back cover of Captivated reveals:

“She now has more than fifty books to her credit—ten of them New York Times bestsellers—and has earned raves from critics and readers alike for her unique blend of fast-paced action, suspense and romance.”

Neggers accomplishes this publishing miracle by letting her heroine act out her psychological conflict. As her heroine chases after her hero, while simultaneously trying to avoid his attention, she admits on page 82:

“Certain she had her infatuation with Richard under control, Sheridan drove out across  the Golden Gate Bridge to talk to him at his yacht, where, she assumed, he’d spent the night. But he hadn’t….”

Even this small passage reveals that the stars in her integrated adventure-suspense-romance have begun a pas de deux, a dance for two, where each circles the other, and the two act in concert because, in reality, they already function as one whole, a distinctive pair.

Setting money aside, and there’s a lot of it to set aside, of course, they perform that psychological classic: “Go away, I love you. Come here, I hate you.” Such songs resonate with every American music lover, male or female. Another favorite is “I Won’t Dance. Don’t Ask Me.”

But dance they do, for this is the pattern of opposites which attract, starting with the most famous opposites, the male and female of the human species. All the elements of Fifty Shades of Grey can be found in Captivated—except pain and a secret room and a contract for slavery. 

Cats and Christmas Trees--Need Help?

Cats and Christmas Trees

By Margaret Curtis, PhD

This year’s holiday centerpiece sits on a table, waiting for the cat attack. This tree’s two feet tall; so are the cats, lying down. A revolving disco light sits beside the tree, to segregate temptations. Only one kind of ornament graces the green branches: miniature nutcrackers. If they can’t take care of themselves, we’ll have to research the ballet again.

Previous Christmas decorations included the Red Cardinal tree. Its only ornaments came from a local flower shop, which had dismissed its population of red birds, graced with real feathers. These birds had to be smuggled onto the tree in the middle of the night, since my cats respond primarily to movement, not color or sentiment, although they do favor dancing mice.

So, here are rules I’ve created to get through the holidays with cats, trees, and sanity intact:

1.    Keep the scheme simple.
2.    Forgo round shiny bulbs; they’ll be the first to be 
3.    Keep the schedule of a cat burglar, setting up 
       decorations after midnight.
4.    If cats find boxes lying around, they’ll get the 
       ornaments before they make it to the tree.
5.    But if cats discover a tree already decorated, they may 
       mistake it for furniture.

Felines are due this acknowledgement: The same temperament and instincts which lead them to investigate Christmas trees like squirrels’ nests, also lead them into corners where spiders hide. The same sense of smell which goes after cookies and popcorn will hunt down socks, too. So keep guests’ feet in their socks. Otherwise, they may leave your home without them.

Never leave anything in plain sight which cats might be tempted to hunt and eat. A very long list of cats’ favorite goodies includes eyeglasses, birth control devices, watches, bracelets, rings, pens, pencils, hats, coats (for making into mattresses), fur and tails of any kind whatsoever. So place a tree up somewhere if possible. That way, cats at least have to lose weight as they go after it.