Category Archives: Articles

The Renaissance Value of Crafts

When you hear the word “crafts”, what comes to mind?  Is it a positive or a negative connotation?  Is it a waste of time, or something only people do who have too much time to kill? Or is it thought of in terms of hourly wage, selling at craft fairs or online at sites like Etsy or Ebay, and otherwise it’s just a hobby? Are crafts merely frivolous decorations, or can they also be practical?

The dictionary actually has a lot to say about the word; here are some of the terms used to describe it: Skill; art; ability; skilfulness – especially in making plans and carrying them into execution; ingenuity in constructing; dexterity; work or product of art; a branch of skilled work or trade, especially one requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill.

In the past decades, there have been many schools that have cut crafts from their curriculum due to budget constraints; such an act reflects society’s general opinion of the activity. But what educators fail to realize is that when they cut out teaching crafts, they cut out a few life skills that cannot be learned in mathematics class or history class or English class: Crafts teach decision-making skills, planning and execution skills, hand-eye coordination, the ability to see or detect possible alternative solutions to a challenge, and above all, the self-confidence that such skills can be learned. Creativity begets creativity – not just for crafts, but those skills translate into life on many levels. With this generation spending an unhealthy amount of time staring at their phone screens (as of 2017, the average was over 4 hours every day), these skills are necessary to be taught during school hours now more than ever.

I also see a vital historical aspect that is quickly disappearing from society: Skills passed from one generation to the next – the wisdom of experience that’s being lost in the mists of time, with even some skills being lost altogether.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that a global internet crash happens; with it goes online connection, but also online commerce – many businesses rely on the internet for advertisements, sales and networking with suppliers, or buying and selling their component parts from here to Timbuktu. If there were a breakdown of the global market, how many of us know how to plant, tend and harvest a crop to feed our families? How to preserve foods over the winter? How to make something needed out of something on hand, like a basket, or altering clothes, or a meal out of random ingredients that are seasonal? Crafts cover a wide range of both practical and decorative areas that touch every aspect of our lives, whether we realize it or not.

The good news is that we still have the internet (woo-hoo!), and because of it, we live in a global village. If you want to learn a skill, a few clicks on YouTube can find you teachers from Spain to Russia to India to Hawaii to Maine to Timbuktu.  Whether or not you speak their language, chances are they can show you how to do something; they can teach you how to sew, weave, crochet, knit, turn bramble vines into baskets, which wild plants are edible and how to use them, how to make an earthen flooring (whether for a house, or a summer shack) and what advantages that kind of floor has over carpet or wood. You can learn survival skills, cooking skills, life hacks for just about anything, and so much more.

If creativity begets creativity, curiosity begets knowledge, which begets curiosity, which begets skills. That is also known as a renaissance man/woman – someone with an extraordinary broad and comprehensive knowledge.  The fundamental flaw of our modern society is that people have become specialists; they get a degree in law but can’t cook; they become a chef but can’t keep a houseplant alive… you get the idea. But the more we expand our personal knowledge base, the more we will benefit personally, become a benefit to society and eventually the next generation, by passing on our skills – whether we have children or not. And if, God forbid, there ever is a global market crash, such craft skills can be used to barter for the crops you haven’t grown, or the butter, or bread, or whatever it is you’ll need. The more renaissance people, the better off we’ll all be!

“To know how much there is to know is the beginning of learning to live.”

Dorothy West

Da Vinci Vitruvian Man

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The Art of Diatom Microscopy

 

John Quekett.jpg

John Quekett

Recently, I came across an interesting piece of history:  During the Victorian Age, people were fascinated with nature, excursions, and technology.  Microscopes were becoming accessible to the rising middle classes of England, and one man, John Quekett, was fascinated by both microscopes and phytoplankton. He wrote a book called Practical Treastise on the Use of the Microscope, which was a hit among the Victorians, and they began discovering a hidden world of tiny creatures known as plankton and diatoms.

 

Plankton is what makes the ocean waters green, or aqua-blue – the differences are not only the sand or rock colour of a particular region, but also the density of microscopic life in the water. The denser the population, the lower the visibility. A teaspoon of seawater can contain a million living creatures. Regardless of their size, they underpin the marine foodchain, and indeed, all life on earth: Diatoms, which is the most common type of plankton, number in the trillions (there are over 100,000 known species to date), produce more than 20% of all oxygen on earth, and contribute nearly half of the organic life in the oceans. The shells of dead diatoms can cover the ocean bed as deep as half a mile in places, and they fertilize the Amazon basin to a tune of 27 million tons annually.

The Victorians knew very little of all that; they were at the dawn of discovery, and modern sciences owe a lot to those early intrepid explorers – women and men who braved the weather, cliffs and oceans in (heavy skirts and) leather shoes to discover, explore, and appreciate nature.  Not only did they discover it, but they began making beautiful arrangements from the various shapes – they would display their microscopic artwork to friends, much like we might look through someone’s holiday photos today.  These were known as Rosette Slides, and there is still one famous artist keeping this art form alive today: Klaus Kemp, known as the Diatomist. Here are just a few of his masterpieces; to see more, just google his name. The two links in this article will take you to two short videos on the topic.  Enjoy!

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Postcard from Lugano IV

Greetings from Lugano!  Between my last postcard to you and this one, we’ve managed to emerge from the Dark Ages here and get internet in the flat.  We’re here for another week, and are being spoilt with perfect skies, crystal blue waters on the lake, and sunshine.

Before I let photos speak for themselves, I’d like to share an interesting story that happened today: My husband and I took a ferry to a small town on the lake, called Morcote, and we happened to sit next to an older couple the same ages as my in-laws. I find people fascinating, and so we started talking; before long, I learned the origins of their family names, about accidents when the husband was a small boy, their children and grandchildren, their careers, and a lot more. When they told me their first names, I mentioned that my husband had an older cousin with the same name, whose father was killed in a train accident in 1948 in Einsiedeln. It turned out that the woman’s cousin and uncle were on that same train, one car back from my husband’s uncle; they were severely injured, but both survived.  What are the odds of someone else from Zurich being on the same boat on Lake Lugano today, sitting next to us, whose family had also been affected by the same accident 70 years ago? It just goes to prove how small the world is, and that we just might have something (or a lot) in common with the person sitting next to us on a ship, or in a train, or on a subway, or in a concert, or in a classroom – we just have to break out of our own little bubbles and reach out. And it also reminded me that sometimes the smallest actions can change lives forever: Joseph Hüsler had wanted to bring his children (2 and 4 at the time) candy after visiting his aunts in Einsiedeln; he forgot, got off the first train he’d been on, and spent more time with the aunts after he’d purchased the candy, until the next train departed. That was the train that crashed. Curious, I found a couple archive photos from the time of the accident; here they are (both images, credit – http://www.waedenswil.ch):

1948 Zugunglück Wädenswil-Einsiedeln - 22 Februar 1948, 22 Starb - waedenswil.ch1948 Zugunglück - Wädenswil-Einsiedeln - 22 Starb - waedenswil.ch

We had a wonderful visit with the couple, and then waved goodbye as we went our separate ways. So, as promised, here are a few images of Lugano, Morcote, and surrounding towns:

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Life & all that Jazz: Flash Flood

LimmattalerZeitung May 2018

Credit: © KEYSTONE/EPA MTI/PETER KOMKA

For weeks, my husband and I had marked in our agendas this past Friday as the evening to do a bit of cleaning in our cellar – getting rid of bits & bobs we no longer use.  Nature gave us a helping hand in the decision process (you know the sort: Do we really need this? Should we chuck that?) when our town was hit by a flash flood last Wednesday.  To have a (muddy) tour of our area, just click here. A waterfall came pouring in around the frame of our cellar window, flooding the entire level; every neighbour had the same problem, so we’ve seen a lot of each other this week! Fortunately, our micro-geography kept us from getting a mudslide from the nearby (higher) agricultural and forest areas, and the water only reached 4-5 cm.  Others were not so well-situated, and several underground parking garages were buried in mud baths up to the car roofs; some people had hurried home to avoid hail damage to their cars, only to have them totalled as they were parked inside…

 

The company that handles our property’s administration organized de-humidifiers and large fans for each cellar room, but we had a busy few days trying to assess damage, getting things dried off or off the floor to let it dry out; the only things potentially disasterous were the small freezer we had there (fortunately, we didn’t have much in there at the time!), and boxes of one of our music CDs (ironically, titled “Plausch im Räge” – “Fun in the Rain”!); only the bottom boxes were affected, so I only had to hand-towel-dry 300.  When Friday rolled around, it was quick and easy to downsize our storage! It’s liberating to simplify; we tend to collect things over the years – large plant pots, picture frames that we used to have hanging in our old flat but which have had no wall space here (because of odd-shaped walls in every room), an assortment of hardshell suitcases that weigh more than half of today’s luggage allowance when empty, and so on and so forth. What we could, we gave to a charity shop, and the rest was quickly disposed of at a nearby collection service.  There’s still more to sort out, but we’ll have to wait for the floor to dry completely before we can move things back into place to get to the other half.

I was reminded once again what great neighbours we have; everyone pitched in together, and asked if they could help, or were concerned if others had suffered loss; all of our cellars have been open and drying, and everyone trusts each other with that; everyone is in and out of the other cellars, emptying the dehumidifiers’ tanks when they need them, checking window seals, etc. I’ve lived in areas (e.g. in Paisley, Scotland) where that would simply not have been possible – a nearby neighbourhood, Ferguslie Park, was one of the roughest in the UK, and if you left a bike outside of your flat inside your building, even with a lock, it would be gone within a few hours – or sometimes even minutes.  I hadn’t realised how used to the sound of gunfire I’d become until I moved to Switzerland; when the first national holiday approached and people started setting off fireworks a few days early, I’d just assumed they were gunshots.  Here, neighbours pull together; people greet each other, even strangers, in the streets; and though modern society tends to isolate each of us in our own, busy little bubbles, sometimes it’s a good thing that those bubbles of self-sufficiency, routine and agendas get popped.

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Thoughts about Props

The past fortnight I’ve been doing something that requires occasional brain-power but mostly just time, hands and space:  I’ve been making props (see below) – to be precise, a stage-prop sized crown (that will serve as a piñata, and then an offering basket), and a life-sized helmet, shield, and sword (the latter is still in progress).  In between those times of brain-work, I started to wonder where the word prop came from, and where it’s gone over its lifetime in English. And when did props become another word for congratulations, good job? It’s a noun, a verb, and an entire phrase or concept.

As an object used in a play, it came into English as properties and was in use in that theatrical context from the early 15th century; it became props around 1840 (we’re not the only generation to shorten words for convenience). In German, the word is “das Requisit” which is related to the English word “requisite” (indispensable, required, essential) which is kinda the point of theatre props.  Prop can also be used to mean support, both literally (for plants and the like) and figuratively (e.g. when a person is in a position of either authority or notoriety for no reason – yet not quite the same as a goldbrick, shirker, malingerer, or tool).  It can be the shortened term for a propeller (e.g. prop plane or turboprop), or proposal (e.g. a political issue up for vote). Props as a shortened slang for proper respect due for (a job well done) started popping up around 1999. In that context, it’s closely related to kudos (an uncountable noun meaning praise or accolades), which entered English as university slang in 1799, and comes from the Greek kydos meaning glory or fame (in battle).

That’s what I love about English – a simple word can have quite a pedigree!

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History Undusted: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks, Immortal HeLa CellsIf you’ve ever taken any medication stronger than an aspirin and benefited from it, chances are that you owe your thanks to an African American woman who never lived to hear your tale.

Born in 1920 as Loretta Pleasant, when her mother died giving birth to her 10th child and the father could not support the family, the children were divided among relatives to be raised.  Loretta, who became known as Henrietta, was sent to live with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks, who lived in a two-storey log cabin (former slave quarters) on the tobacco plantation of her white great-grandfather.  After having five children with her first cousin, whom she married after their first two children were born, she died at the age of 31 of cervix cancer.

What is most remarkable about her life is something she never knew:  During the diagnosis of her cancer, done at Johns Hopkins (the only hospital near her home that would treat black patients), her doctor, George Gey, was given samples of her cervix for biopsies. Before this time, any cells cultured from other cells would die within days.  Dr Gey discovered that her cells were remarkably durable and prolific.  A selection of her cells was isolated and cultured (without her knowledge – back then, permission wasn’t necessary for what was considered tissue waste) into the immortal cell line that became known as HeLa Cells; they are still in use today worldwide, being the first human cells to be cloned successfully, in 1955.

HeLa cells are so prolific that if they land in a petri dish, they will take over; they have been used to create the vaccine against Polio, in research for AIDS, gene mapping, cancers and countless other projects; to date, scientists have grown over 50 million metric tonnes of her cells*, and there are nearly 11,000 patents involving these cells.  Her name should be known, and as the godmother of biotechnology, her history deserves to be undusted!

For a fascinating book on this topic, see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. I’ve read it, and had trouble putting it down!

*For a more detailed article in the New York Times, click here.

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Life & All that Jazz

I’ve been silent awhile; sometimes I just need a change of pace from daily writing, and blogging, to retank creative energy.  Life has been full in that time, so it’s not as if I’ve been sitting around in a toga eating grapes and reading a book… the whole time.  I’ve been doing crafts; I do a lot of all kinds of crafts, and my craft room has a bit of a reputation – it’s packed neatly with more supplies than any craft store I know of in Switzerland, literally.  People come to me when they need things repaired, or when they don’t know how to make something, or when e.g. their school class needs party decorations on a large scale, or large paper maché stage props. Here’s a small corner of my craft room… (just click on any of the images below to enlarge and have a snoop!) – everything you see is practical; the bear on the shelf is a ratchet screwdriver with 6 heads tucked into the belly; the grass blades are pens; the wooden bowls are great for sorting bits & bobs… you get the idea!

  Craft room, April 2018

And here’s our front door sign; the sign itself is decoupaged with the inside of security envelopes, and the large beads are made of paper.  This is our current sign, though the straps and dangles are interchangeable, as I have several sets (dangling from the metal ring in the photo above), depending on the season and my mood.

Spring 2018 Welcome Sign

I do a lot of practical crafts for our home – from coasters to tea caddies to curtains; here are a few images of things I’ve made from paper and cardboard:

Tea Caddy 1 - SmallCraft Cupboard, April 2018 1 - SmallCraft Cupboard, April 2018 3 - SmallLibrary Shade 1

Electrical Plug Prop, April 2018 - Small

The colourful doors are on my craft room book shelf; each cubby holds a world of crafts supplies! The giant electrical plug & socket are stage props for an upcoming musical production based on my husband’s first CD; that week, I’ll be busy as well, vocal coaching the soloists as well as the choir.  On the final evening, the plug will reveal that it is actually a piñata, stuffed with bags of toys and chocolates. Peeking out from behind the socket is the neck of a paper maché ukelele case I made and then doodled, as well as a bouquet of paper rolls ready for another project similar to the library’s round window shade…

Besides crafts, we’ve had a party and a few evenings with guests; the party was for part of my husband’s work gang and their partners, and I made a Mexican fiesta (here’s my menu, for those interested).

Kitchen Sign.JPG

This magnetic sign is now on my stove; I found it in a quaint little vintage café in Bremgarten, when my husband took me out for a day of surprises for our 25th wedding anniversary!  He’s good at keeping secrets… he’d invited two couples to celebrate with us: One for lunch in Bremgarten in a restaurant along the river, and one for dinner, at the Wörth Schlössli Restaurant at the base of Rhein Falls. We had a great day together, as always! In between, we went to downtown Zürich to spend a gift certificate I’d received from friends on my birthday; it was, of course, in an art shop!

So, that’s just a glimpse of some of the things I’ve been doing (when not in my toga eating grapes and reading).  Now that my mini hiatus is over, I’m tucking back into writing and all the bits and bobs that turn “writing” into novels!

 

 

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What’s in a Name?

The topic of names could cover quite a wide variety of areas, such as naming babies, place names, collective names of animal groups, or translations of names into languages such as Elvish or Runes; but I’d like to focus on the naming of characters for fiction writers.

Choosing character names can be fairly straightforward if you’re writing contemporary fiction; having said that, be sure to choose names that are not too similar from one character to the next. Unless there is a reason for close names, such as Sandy and Brandi for twins, the names need to stand apart to help readers keep straight who’s who, especially if there are multiple characters in a scene.  In Lord of the Rings, however, JRR Tolkien uses names to comical effect when naming the dwarves: Bifur, Bofur & Bombur; Dori, Nori & Ori; Kili & Fili; Balin & Dwalin; Gloin & Oin; only Thorin stands out as leader and king with a unique name.

When choosing names for modern characters, consider their place, time and age:  If you’re writing a grandfatherly character, he can have a name that was popular in the ‘30s or ‘40s; but if your character is in their 20s, then don’t name them Mildred or Frank.  If you are writing children’s fiction, keep the names modern and simple to pronounce when reading aloud.

If you’re writing historical fiction, consider the era and country in which you’ve set your characters.  For my 18th century trilogy, I compiled a list of names from parish records in southern England from the early-to-mid 18th century, and then condensed it down according to frequency; that gave me a list of the top 20 male names and top 20 females names from which to choose.  Back then, children could only be christened with Christian names approved of by the church; names of kings and queens were popular, such as James, William, Charles, Anne, Charlotte, or Elizabeth.  Biblical names from the New Testament such as Timothy or Mary were also popular, but Old Testament names, such as Jacob or Rachel, were only given to Jewish children.  If you’re setting your story in the ancient Middle East, then find out what names were common then and there; just make sure that whatever you name your characters, they’re easy to read.  Combinations of consonants that are difficult to read will be skipped over – a pity, if your main character is saddled with a forgettable name, such as Cthulhu (Lovecraft), or Tylwyth or Tleilax (Dune).  In my 18th century trilogy, I also had a few characters’ names which emphasized their general character:  Mrs Stacklesprat was a prickly, withered, gossiping, sour woman, while Mrs Huddlepoke was a cuddly, motherly, soft & jolly woman.

For Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, names can be drawn from sources such as planets, galaxies or stars (Andromeda, Galaxus, Draco), or objects such as trees or flowers, or natural occurrences (Vortex, Sparkle, Wave, etc.)

There are so many resources available for choosing names these days:  Online you’ll find dozens of sites for baby names and what they mean; a great place to find names is in film credits – I watch those with pen in hand, and when I find an interesting first or last name, I jot them down; you can combine them randomly and come up with some great fictional names.

Things to consider when choosing your names:

  • Culture: Don’t assume a name is Japanese when it might be Chinese – research!
  • Era: Don’t choose a modern name for a character set in the 1920’s, and vice versa.
  • Age of character: Give age-appropriate names to each character, especially for modern fiction.
  • Combinations with other characters’ names: Unless you’re going for the comical effect of JRR Tolkien and have the language chops to carry it off, choose names that differ from the others in your story.
  • Occupation: Don’t name your murderer Fluffy…
  • Ensure it’s fictional: Don’t name a character and publish your book, only to find out it’s a real name (unless it’s John Doe – then I’d say, go back to the drawing board with choosing a good name)! Google it to see if it exists…
  • Be cautious: If a character is closely based on someone you know, choose a name unrelated to your (soon-to-be-ex) friend or relative…!  Also, there are certain names that are taboo due to historical events; I’d never recommend naming your character Adolf, or Hitler, or Stalin.
  • Personality: If your character is a sturdy, reliable, powerful personality, don’t give them a wimpy name!  And if a character is a wimp by nature, don’t give them a powerful-sounding name – unless they’re going to grow into the name over the arc of the story.
  • Meaning: A name’s meaning might have bearing on your character; it could also add a double meaning.  In the story I’m currently writing, a character is called Janus; this was the name of a Roman god who was two-faced – one looking to the past and the other to the future; it is also the name of one of Saturn’s moons.  As the story is Science Fiction, either meaning applies to my character.

I hope these thoughts help you on your way to choosing memorable character names for your own projects.  Whatever you do, keep writing!

Names 1Names 2Names 3Names 4Frank

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Upgrades & Technostalgia

Computer UpgradeThere’s no denying the fact that computers are huge blessings – combined with that little invention called “internet” they’re an unstoppable pair… until they stop, and life comes to a screeching halt.

That happened last week, as our main office computer gave up the ghost, after fighting a long, painful demise.  My own laptop, from which I write, has been limping and is in need of repair, but it was our only lifeline to ordering a replacement… done, and three days later, the packages arrived!  I’ve spent the better hours of 5 days sorting out things like transfer of emails and contact lists, programmes, updates, software and hardware setups, and patch-jobs to get old programmes to understand the new ones and vice-versa!

Instead of the “old fashioned” desktop computer with a huge processor that either stands on the floor and collects cat hairs and dust bunnies or stands on our desk and collects dust bunnies and cat hairs, we decided to go with a laptop hooked up to a docking station and two screens.  Sweet!  And yes, I can use both… it’s great when I’ve got research documents open while writing, or doing translations or editing two documents simultaneously.  Now, to get my laptop repaired.

It’s amazing how we’ve become so dependent on computers, isn’t’ it?  Personal computers didn’t really begin to enter households in any significant way until around 1990; technically, they hit the market in the early ’80’s, but the products were mostly limited to electronics geeks and university libraries.  We got our first home computer in 1993, and it had RAM of a whopping 256 MB!!  How could anyone ever use THAT much??  Now we’ve passed Gigabytes, and we’re into terabytes (TB, 10004 ), and it won’t be long until we’re into petabytes (PB, 10005), exabytes (EB, 10006 ), zettabytes (ZB, 10007) and yottabytes (YB, 10008).  I remember writing business letters in DOS – back before Windows, virtual desktops or virtual wallpaper had even been dreamt of.  I remember floppy discs – the latest in technology, now used as drink coasters somewhere in the world, I’m sure.  5-inch floppy discs became passé with the advent of (gasp!) 2-inch version… how could anything that small have so much space on it (1.44 MB).  Imagine – back in the advent of computers, there was no Microsoft, no Amazon, no internet, no cloud storage, no dropbox, no websites, no Skype… they were essentially an information processor, with transfer of information only possible through a floppy disc or good ol’ fashioned printouts and photocopies (we won’t even go into the whole issue of the love-hate relationship most secretaries had with the first few generations of photocopiers).

Do you remember cassette tapes?  Polaroid cameras?  Now music is on a cloud or virtual shelf, and selfies and Instagram have made physical print photos nearly obsolete, except as an art form.

20 years later and these things all fit in your pocketMobile Phone History

 

These images show how far we’ve come in less than 40 years.  But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  Check out these up-and-coming products or concepts that are in the making:  Just hover your cursor over each image for more information.

 

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Short Story: The Stranger

Below is a short story written by an old friend, and I’d like to share it with you, by kind permission.

“A few years after I was born, my Dad met a stranger who was new to our small town. From the beginning, Dad was fascinated with this enchanting newcomer and soon invited him to live with our family.

“The stranger was quickly accepted and was around from then on. As I grew up, I never questioned his place in my family. In my young mind, he had a special niche.

“My parents were complementary instructors: Mom taught me good from evil, and Dad taught me to obey.

“But the stranger… he was our storyteller. He would keep us spellbound for hours on end with adventures, mysteries and comedies.  If I wanted to know anything about politics, history or science, he always knew the answers about the past, understood the present and even seemed able to predict the future! He took my family to the first major league ball game. He made me laugh, and he made me cry. The stranger never stopped talking, but Dad didn’t seem to mind.

“Sometimes, Mom would get up quietly while the rest of us were shushing each other to listen to what he had to say, and she would go to the kitchen for peace and quiet. (I wonder now if she ever prayed for the stranger to leave.)

“Dad ruled our household with certain moral convictions, but the stranger never felt obligated to honor them.  Profanity, for example, was not allowed in our home – not from us, our friends or any visitors. Our long time visitor, however, got away with four-letter words that burned my ears and made my dad squirm and my mother blush.

“My Dad didn’t permit the liberal use of alcohol, but the stranger encouraged us to try it on a regular basis. He made cigarettes look cool, cigars manly, and pipes distinguished.  He talked freely (much too freely!) about sex. His comments were sometimes blatant, sometimes suggestive, and generally embarrassing… I now know that my early concepts about relationships were influenced strongly by the stranger. Time after time, he opposed the values of my parents, yet he was seldom rebuked… And NEVER asked to leave.

“More than fifty years have passed since the stranger moved in with our family. He has blended right in and is not nearly as fascinating as he was at first. Still, if you could walk into my parents’ den today, you would still find him sitting over in his corner, waiting for someone to listen to him talk and watch him draw his pictures.
“His name?  We just call him ‘TV’.”

by Larry Ellsaesser

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