Ten Things To Do Instead of Writing

Top Ten Things To Do Instead of Writing:

1. watch old episodes of The Animaniacs

2. help daughter melt hot glue so that she can make incredibly complex jewel bauble for cosplaying obscure anime/manga character

3. research bicycle trips through Italy/Denmark/Ireland (after driving to supermarket less than a mile away)

4. unpack fall/winter clothes in triple-degree heat because magical thinking is a thing (I ❤ autumn)

5. let dog out

6. check Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr (need to build platform, right?)

7. let dog in

8. read blogs about productivity and daily schedules of famous writers

9. let dog out

10. drink wine.

(Here’s a video from The Animaniacs in case you’ve forgotten–or never knew–how brilliant that show was.)

Great Globs of Glowing Urine

The Alchemist in Search of the Philosophers Stone (1771). Joseph Wright of Derby [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Many fields define themselves by specialties. Doctors are not just doctors—they are podiatrists or pediatricians or surgeons. Restaurant workers are baristas or pastry chefs or sommeliers. Writers are novelists or poets or “content providers.” So it is for academics, as well. When I’m wearing that hat, I define myself as an early modernist.

But even within narrow academic confines, we find ways to shrink our focus (for better and for worse). I trained in early modern English literature with an interest in the history of early modern science and medicine. Recently, because of a novel I’ve written, I’ve become a little obsessed with alchemy, as well.

By definition, such a narrow focus means few people are interested in (understatement) what makes my clock tick. So imagine my surprise when, on a long car trip last month, my teenage daughter turned to me, looked up from the book she was reading, and said, “Hey, Mom, this is cool. This is the sort of thing you like.”

And she was absolutely right. She was pointing to a picture of Hennig Brand, a 17th-century alchemist from Germany who spent his life searching for the philosopher’s stone, that elusive substance capable of turning lead into gold. Brand was a soldier with the valuable talent of marrying well—he burned through (pun intended) two wives’ handsome fortunes in his alchemical pursuits.

While Brand never did find/create/uncover the Philosopher’s Stone (that we know of…), he certainly hit the mother lode by successfully isolating phosphorous. To do so, he, ummm…well….let this video show you first:

Brand collected around 60 buckets of human urine, waited for it to ferment to the point of turning black, and then boiled it down into a syrup. That syrup was distilled and cooked over very high heat. He then took the cooked substance—minus the salts that had formed alongside—and submerged it in water. (Excellent descriptions of the process can be found here and here.) The substance he’d discovered–phosphorous–was chemiluminescent, emitting a soft light that at the time must have seemed magical indeed.

Brand, like most other alchemists, kept his discoveries to himself, but he was able to sell his secret later (and recoup at least some of his wife’s money). Other folks, including Robert Boyle, later discovered the process independent of Brand. (They were tipped off, most likely, that the phosphorous had been made from urine. Boyle made the process more effective by also using the salt that Brand threw away.)

And because I’m deficient in gravitas, I couldn’t resist adding this video. If you can’t get enough of pee puns (or if you love to see Anderson Cooper giggle):

Feeling crabby

Sidney Hall [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Urania’s Mirror, Sidney Hall [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Happy birth-month to me!

My birthday was last week, and, as per usual, I was out of sorts.

I’ve never really enjoyed my birthday, to be honest. It’s not that I mind getting older. Heck, I have Gratiano’s line from The Merchant of Venice–“with mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come”–etched onto a mirror in my bathroom. And it’s not because of past experiences. The last 40+ birthdays have been pleasant enough.

No, I think the reason I dislike my birthday so much is that it come in JULY, which is HOT, and MUGGY, and SLOOOOOOW. I vastly prefer the crisp busyness of October, or the sparkly excitement of December, or the stinging promise of April.

The other reason I dislike having a birthday in July is that it makes me a Cancer. As a child, I was always looking out for markers of my identity (most of us do that, right? I’m not alone, right? Gulp). The easiest and therefore most popular way to do that is to look up your zodiac sign, and I always hated the descriptions of “me” (the Cancer “me”).  I still do. This description is an excellent example of NOT me.  (I especially love this: ” Cancers often find that a robust workout session is just the tonic for their touchy feelings.” Snort.)

I’m a Cancer. And I thought that sucked.

I got that the crab symbol came from the constellation—unlike some of the other zodiac signs, it kind of fits (if you squint). But I still hated it. First: who wants their zodiac symbol to be a crab, a synonym for a grouchy malcontent? Second: the Crab was the mascot for our local minor-league baseball team, and I would see the cranky and dissatisfied look on his ugly little crustacean face everywhere. Third (luckily I only learned this as a teenager): “to have crabs” = (ahem) not exactly socially acceptable.

But the worst and most confusing part of “being a Cancer”: what did it have to do with the horrific disease people whispered about, the menace that terrified my parents enough that they almost stopped smoking, that prompted me and my friends to put on sunblock in the anemic Northern California sun?

For a while as a child, I even thought that being a Cancer meant I would, eventually, get cancer. In kid logic, that kind of makes sense, right?

A few weeks ago, I read an excellent article entitled “Wombs, Worms and Wolves: Constructing Cancer in Early Modern England” by Alanna Skuse that finally answered the question I’d forgotten I’d had: what is/was the connection between Cancer, the zodiac sign, and cancer, the terrible disease?

According to Skuse, a Wellcome Trust Scholar at the University of Essex, the tumors that came to be recognized as cancer were named after their appearance:

“Not only were they [tumors] peculiarly gruesome even by the standards of the age, but, crucially, they evoked the very name of the disease, a derivation of the Greek karkinos, or crab. Round and red, the tumour appeared like the body of that creature, whilst the blood vessels extending outward were ‘verie like unto the feete of crabbes, descending from the round compasse of their bodies’.”

The connection then—the resemblance of the constellation and the tumors of physiological mutation to a crabby little crustacean—is just coincidence.

I am very relieved.

Virgos: you are on your own.

Of Milton, Genesis, and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

For five years, I’ve been attending meetings of my public school district’s curriculum council. Five years of reviewing testing data, kindergarten schedules, and proposed changes in nutrition guidelines–all sorts of drudgery.  Nothing terribly interesting ever happened.

Well, I missed last month’s meeting, and that’s when it all went down. The council decided to recommend that the school board remove Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian from the high school curriculum.

(Note: time for a major mea culpa. I could have voted on the issue over e-mail but I forgot to do so. I realize that was a pretty sucky thing to have forgotten.)

We had discussed other books in other years—Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, most notably—but the most draconian the council had ever gotten was to approve a text with restrictions, which I could live with.  But this time, they voted to remove the text from the curriculum altogether (and yes, I’m still kicking myself for missing the blasted vote).

I greatly respect the other parents on the curriculum council. I truly believe that, to a person, they are doing what they think is right for their children and for our district.  However, I couldn’t disagree more with the decision that was reached.

According to notes from the meeting and an article in the newspaper, reasons given for the removal of Alexie’s book included violence, profanity, and sexual content. Objections were also made to the alcohol consumption in the book.

But the thing is, violence, profanity, and sexual content are laced throughout the entire literary corpus. Indeed, based on those objections, I don’t see how the district can justify the inclusion of the Bible (which is used in a bible-as-literature class) or any of Shakespeare’s tragedies in the curriculum. Consider:

  • Objections to discussion of masturbation in Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian:

How is the story of Judah’s son Onan in the first book of the Bible that different? Judeo-Christian exegesis often considered this story to be an injunction against masturbation and any “spilling of seed” whatsoever (from whence we get the word “onanism”).

“Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.  And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him” (Gen. 38:8-11)

  • Objections to violence:

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth urges her husband to murder Duncan using the language of infanticide.

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.


Is that better than the description of a school fight?

  • Objections to the consumption of alcohol

Consider Gen. 9: 20-23, in which Noah becomes so drunk that he passes out naked.

“And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.” (Gen. 9: 20-23)

  • Objections to sexual and violent content:

Consider Hamlet’s decision to wait until his uncle Claudius is no longer at prayer to kill him because if he waits until his uncle is drunk or has just had sex with Hamlet’s mother, Claudius will go straight to hell:

“and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes.” (Act 3, Scene 3, 88-95)

But, of course, I would never argue that Hamlet, Macbeth, or the Bible should be banned. Nor should The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian. These are all works that engage the mind and the conscience, asking us to grapple with preconceived ideas and imagine new possibilities.

In his pamphlet Aeropagitica, John Milton argued against pre-publication censorship of writing.  For Milton, a mind that has read widely and had unfettered access to all manner of thought is a mind that is trained to discern true things:

“Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.”

Our students should have the freedom to read an discuss difficult ideas in the safety of a classroom with the support of a well-trained teacher.

Or, as Milton put it, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”


Update: 9/22/14

The matter was put before the members of the Grants Pass School Board, who requested that the issue be tabled for one month so they could read the book. At the next meeting, they voted to approved Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. 

You guys, I am so proud of my school board for insisting they be given a chance to read the book before taking action, and I’m absolutely thrilled that they voted to keep it.

Should I Burn This Book?

So far I’m only three chapters into Bruce Holsinger’s newly released novel, A Burnable Book, but already I can see that it has one major, tragic flaw:  I didn’t write it.

It’s fantastic.

I should have known better than to start in on this book just a day after giving a second draft of my novel to my wise and wonderful beta reader, Teresa. I should have known that I would compare my writing to Holsinger’s, that I would wish I were as adept at conjuring the past. It made me feel like burning A Burnable Book. (Not really, of course–more like putting my bookmark in chapter three and relegating it to the bottom of my Sisyphean “to-be-read” pile.)

The mature and commonsensical part of me knows that I should reading MORE writers of historical fiction, that I should consider it an apprenticeship, honing my craft by adopting successful techniques and learning to avoid the genre’s pitfalls.

But despite that knowledge, the insecure little scribbler inside of me quakes when I read authors whose work I hope to emulate. Geraldine Brooks. David Liss. Matthew Pearl. (Dear God, Iain Pears. Just looking at Instance of the Fingerpost can give me a panic attack.)

I’m trying, though, to keep this panicky sense of inferiority tamped down. The little voice that whispers to me of my shortcomings, the voiceover to my Imposter Syndrome narrative, would like me to give up in the face of such daunting talent.

But I won’t.

I like what Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, The Gifts of Imperfection, and The Power of Vulnerability (and She of the Much Downloaded TED Talk) has to say about comparison, shame, vulnerability, and creativity in this talk given at a 99U conference (for what it’s worth, Brown gave this talk a much more evocative title than that listed here–she called it “Sweaty Creatives”):

So I’ll return to some of my favorite advice from the lovely Neil Gaiman:

“Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Because [as a] starting writer, you always start out with other people’s voices — you’ve been reading other people for years… But, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell — because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you.”

Once more unto the breach.

Of Sloths, Demons, and Palindromic Numbers

When I hear the word “sloth,” I generally have a Kriston Bell moment. And I’m not alone. Sloths are enjoying a cultural surge, with sloth memes, sloth fan clubs, and even sloth socks (yes, I own a pair).

Culturally, though, we pay more attention to the cute little critter than we do to the other sloth, that of the Seven Deadly Sins.

The idea of sloth as a sin is complicated. Is sloth laziness? Sluggishness? Apathy? Is it a sin of omission rather than commission?

Scholars have pointed out that sloth has an antecedent in the medieval monastic term acedia,which referred to a sort of spiritual malaise. It was also termed the “noonday demon.” The nomenclature is perfect. We’ve all faced the noonday demon: that ennui that hits right around lunch, when our bellies are either rumbling with hunger or full and happy–either way, our thoughts go wandering and no work gets done. (For a modern take on the phenomenon, see this article from the New York Times“Their Noonday Demons, and Ours,” ; and in this interview with Kathleen Norris, author of Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life,)

But whether sloth was characterized as spiritual torpor or a conscious decision to be a couch potato, the consensus was that sloth was A Very Bad Thing, worthy of its own demon. And, of course, the early modern period was happy to provide one.

According to the 16th-century German witch-hunter Peter Binsfeld, who classified the “Princes of Hell” according to the Seven Deadly Sins, the demon who best represented sloth was Belphegor (the name likely originates from the Moab god Baal-Peor).

Belphegor, from J.A.S. Collin de Plancy, Dictionnaire Infernal, Paris : E. Plon, 1863. Wikimedia Commons

(Note to readers about images of Belphegor:

  1. The image above is actually from the 19th century, not the early modern period. Sorry, it was the only one I could find.
  2. Belphegor is very big in anime and in the role-playing game Megami Tensei, where he appears in a modified version of the image above as a purple demon sitting on a toilet.
  3.  if you do a Google image search for “Belphegor,” you’re going to get a LOT of pictures of really kind of sad-looking death metal bands.)

Okay, so now here’s where things get a little weird. The demon Belphegor is also associated with a special kind of palindromic number called “Belphegor’s Prime”:


Note the “666” in the middle with 13 zeros on either side.

I have been unable to find any source explaining why this admittedly terrifying number would be associated with Belphegor. Obviously the number 13 and the 666 are considered to be “demonic,” but why that particular demon? Why not Satan, or Beezelbub, or Mammon? Does it have anything to do with the association between Belphegor and sloth, and if so, why?

Couldn’t resist throwing in these tidbits:

  • Simon Singh, author of the brilliant The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, has quasi-nominated Belphegor’s prime for a future Simpson’s Halloween appearance.
  • Thanks to Mary Catherine for this gem of a meme and to the conversation between her and Kriston that prompted me to dust off this forgotten blog post.


New Post at The Recipes Project: “Little Shop of Horrors, Early Modern Style”

I have a new post up at The Recipes Project about a wickedly beautiful, carnivorous plant and the (mostly useless) cordial that’s made from it: Little Shop of Horrors, Early Modern Style.

Also contains this jaw-droppingly cool artwork by Allison Sommers (check out her other stuff at http://www.allisonsommers.com/)

Painted by Alison Sommers for Gallery 1988’s “Crazy 4 Cult 5.” Image used with permission of the artist.

A Cure for “The Kink”

Treatment for "chincough" or "the kink" might have included medicinals derived from works like this, an 11th-century copy of the “Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius” (4th century); Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 130, fol. 50v: Lily and Spurge (via Points: The Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society
Treatment for “chincough” or “the kink” might have included medicinals derived from works like this, an 11th-century copy of the “Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius” (4th century); Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 130, fol. 50v: Lily and Spurge (via Points: The Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society)

(Okay, right off the bat, I’m going to admit that the title of this blog post is link bait. But it worked, right? You’re here? Sorry, “the kink” is probably not what you think it is–keep reading to find out more!)


I live in Southern Oregon, a region with the dubious distinction of having dangerously low rates of immunization against childhood diseases.

As a writer/researcher with an interest in the history of science and medicine, I have a hard time listening to anti-vaccination arguments. One only needs to skim the historical record to find gruesome descriptions of childhood diseases like diphtheria, smallpox, and measles to know that vaccinations are one of the great mercies of modern parenting.

One of the most horrific of the childhood diseases, whooping cough (pertussis), is a particular nemesis here in Southern Oregon. While the average rate of vaccination exemptions for kindergarteners in the state is 5%, there are population pockets in my region where the rate is closer to 25%, which effectively decimates any chance of herd immunity to pertussis.

This public health threat in my own region must be why, when one of the main characters in my novel-in-progress encounters a deathly pediatric disease, I thought of whooping cough rather than plague or smallpox. My protagonist’s husband,Will, the son of a non-University-trained doctor in the town of Colchester in the 17th century, sees a young mother seeking help for her infant, who has a distinctive, tortured coughing pattern (you can hear an example here). Will listens in horror as his father gives the dreaded diagnosis: chincough.

In the early modern period, whooping cough (pertussis) went by a variety of names: chincough, hooping cough, the kink, kinkcough, kingcough, and quinta were just a few.

An aside: The word “kinkcough” and its variations derive from the obsolete word “kink” (Middle English origins), which meant convulsive fits of laughing or coughing. Helpful hint: Do NOT wonder if this meaning of “kink” is the root of the word “kinky” and then Google it only to realize that your computer is still logged on to your daughter’s Google account—her SCHOOL Google account. Just don’t. (Although when I ‘fessed up to my middle-school daughter, she laughed and said, “Oh please, Mom, it’s just word origins. I see kids at middle school Google worse stuff than that every day.” Gulp.)

Okay, back to whooping cough.

As for almost every condition in the early modern period, cures for pertussis varied greatly by practitioner, from simply drinking cold water (p. 113), to (from folklore) “begging a piece of bread- and-butter from a married woman who had not changed her surname on marriage.” There are recipes that involve herbs to those involving unfortunate animals, such as this recipe from the recipe book of Jane Jackson (1642), in which the following helpful advice is given:

“Take mice flea them & cut them in halves take out the entrails and fry them in butter to eat them up.”

In the 18th century, some practitioners evidenced a laissez-faire attitude to whooping cough. In his “Animadversions on a late treatise on the kink-cough” Thomas Kirkland references one “Dr. Willis’s” observation that “old women are oftner consulted in this disorder than physicians,” since, as Kirkland explains, “people seldom apply to physicians, on account of the expence, as they do not apprehend danger, and they know the disease will commonly get well of itself in time.” (This does not, however, stop Kirkland recommending the use of hemlock in every single variation of whooping cough he lists.)

In my novel, we never find out what happens to that young child Will’s father treats, but based on primary sources, there was likely a treatment of purges and nasty medicinals followed by months of horrific fits of coughing like this (warning: upsetting):


And that, my friends, is why my children are vaccinated against pertussis. Now if I could only find a way to protect them from middle school Google searches…


Further sources:

Click here for downloadable pdf of Robert Weston’s excellent article on the history of pertussis, “Whooping Cough: A Brief History to the 19th Century.” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History/ Bulletin canadien d’histoire de la médecine / Volume 29:2 2012 / p. 329-349

Of Hedgehogs, Whale Vomit, and Fire-Breathing Peacocks

Hello all!

I have a post up at the Recipes Project blog: “Of Hedgehogs, Whale Vomit, and Fire-Breathing Peacocks.”

The Recipes Project is a fascinating site to browse around in. Here’s the description:

“We are an international group of scholars interested in the history of recipes, ranging from magical charms to veterinary remedies. Old recipes can tell us a lot about the past, such as how medicines were prepared, when certain foods became popular, or why ingredients might be magical. Join us as we explore the weird and wonderful world of recipes!”