Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

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Artist Anne Taintor combines an advertising image from the 1940s or 50s of a woman at a stove with the caption, “Why, I’d be delighted to put my needs last again.”

Not Meant That Way

By Jan S. Gephardt

This week I read something that stopped me in my tracks with its unconscious bias. It hit me wrong immediately. I realized it actually was quite offensive. But ever since then I’ve been puzzling through the reasons why. Because it clearly was not meant that way.

What did I read? In this case it was a pair of 42-year-old microaggressions. What made it nag at me so much was that I wanted to be fair, combined the fact that they were not meant that way.

We’ve all heard about microaggressions and unconscious biases by this time. That is, we have unless we’re living under a rock or militantly Not Paying Attention. But unpacking exactly what counts as a microaggression – or how we can become aware of our unconscious biases (pro tip: we all have them) – isn’t clear for most of us. It all seems kinda hard to pin down.

That’s because it is hard to pin down. And that’s usually because we sense that something about it is offensive, even though it’s not meant that way.

Author David Brin, with his early novels “Sundiver” and “Startide Rising.”
David Brin has been an important voice in science fiction (and in science) for decades. Like every intelligent being, he has learned many things since he wrote the unintentional microaggressions quoted in this post. (World of David Brin).

The Origin Story for These Particular Microaggressions

The passage that made me stop and do a double-take came from Sundiver, David Brin’s first novel. That’s the one where he set up the universe for the “Uplift” series. The book dates to 1980 (Startide Rising, the sort-of sequel and the one that made the big, er, splash, didn’t come till 1983). I was reading it because I’ve been going back in time to read or re-read a lot of “vintage” science fiction lately.

Also, since I’m writing about an “uplifted” species, I thought I should refresh my memory of the novels that put that term into widespread science fictional use. I’d gotten roughly a third of the way into the book when I encountered the introduction of the character Helene DeSilva.

She’s been pre-introduced as “the best commandant a Confederacy outpost ever had.” When she first walks into the book, protagonist Jacob Demwa describes her as athletic, blonde, tall, and slender. She opens with a happy announcement in “geek-speak” about the mission. She is presented as a well-educated, capable, intelligent – even extraordinary – person. So far, so good. Brin is clearly bent on following a radical break with tradition in science fiction at that time: presenting female characters as, like, full-fledged, competent people. (You’re shocked, I know).

L-R, the covers for “The Other Side of Fear,” “What’s Bred in the Bone,” and “A Bone to Pick,” by Jan S. Gephardt.
The XK9s are uplifted police dogs who live on a space station. (Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. Cover art, L-R, is ©2020 by Lucy A. Synk, and ©2019 and 2020 by Jody A. Lee).

Insert Foot Into Mouth

Then her (male) boss introduces her this way: “this is Helene deSilva, Confederacy Commandant here on Mercury, and my right-hand man. Couldn’t get along without her.”

A little later, after Jacob learns her age and his reactions to her shift, she says, “I’ve worked too hard at becoming a woman, as well as an officer and a gentleman, to jump from ‘jail bait’ into Social Security.” She also makes it clear that, because he’s the only attractive man on the base who’s not subordinate to her, she’s interested in him sexually.

Oh, my. Where should I start? First of all, he didn’t mean it that way. (How many times have we heard have we heard that before?)

Microaggressions: Brief, everyday indignities that are verbal, behavioral or environmental, that they may not be intentional or unintentionally communicated to women, to people of color, to gay/lesbians that have an insulting message behind them that often time causes severe psychological distress and harm.” – Laurete Education, Inc., 2011
Microaggressors may say or do things that were “not meant that way,” but they’re microaggressions all the same. It’s not the intent, it’s the cumulative effect. (Terry Clarke Blog).

Trying to Imagine What That Would Look Like

Let me state right off the top that the purpose of this post is NOT to beat up on David Brin. I’m reasonably sure he had good intentions. In his daring first novel, which also involved many other complex scientific ideas and dramatic tasks to accomplish, the young author tried to walk what was still an extremely unfamiliar line in 1980.

Among all the other challenges, he sought to portray a woman as a confident, competent leader who was three-dimensional enough to also have “a female side.” But like many white, male science fiction writers of that period, he’d spent his life immersed in the overwhelmingly white and male world of “hard science.”

He probably had never been consciously aware of meeting a real live self-actualized professional woman of the sort he wanted to portray. Hypothetically, he thought they could exist. But he clearly wasn’t sure what such a being would “look like.”

In a Renaissance interior, a man holding a book and woman with embroidery in her lap sit in an elegant room with a younger woman standing nearby. The caption says, “You might have a Ph D in the subject, but according to this Wikipedia article I briefly perused . . .”
In a second Renaissance room, a man and woman stand behind a clerk sitting at a table holding a small scale. The caption says, “Let him finish showing you how it works, dear. Scales can be difficult.”
Nicole Tersigni creates satirical images of mansplaining and other belittling behavior. (Nicole Tersigni/NYTimes).

Unpacking the Part that was Not Meant That Way

But the unconscious assumptions embedded in these lines torpedoed his best intentions. Like many early attempts to do something unfamiliar, it was – perhaps awkward is the kindest way to put it. (And yes, I’m aware of the microaggressions embedded in that comment).

Let’s first talk about the odd uses of male characterizations that we almost never hear anymore: “right-hand man” and “an officer and a gentleman.” Used as they are here, both would today be seen as microaggressions. The assumption that underpins them is that a man (implicitly understood to mean “white, male, and well-educated”) is the ultimate standard by which everything else is measured.

If you’re metaphorically a “man,” you’re being praised as “best-quality,” even if you’re biologically not a man, and therefore (by inferred definition) inferior. It’s the obverse of the assumption that gave us “run like a girl,” “throw like a girl,” “drive like a woman,” and “scream like a little girl.”

In the first picture an old man sits in a chair with a young woman standing behind him. The caption says, “Careful with that equality talk. You don’t want to grow up and be a feminist.”
In the other a young peasant woman with a basket, a child and an older man confront a young gentleman in a top hat. The caption says, “I can see you’re very busy, but I just had to tell you that you’d be so much prettier if you smiled.”
Here’s more of Nicole Tersigni’s wry wit on obnoxious, condescending men. (Nicole Tersigni/NYTimes).

What Lurks Under the Words?

“My right-hand man. Couldn’t get along without her” sounds archaic to most of us today. That’s for good reason. Very few men these days remain unwary (or oblivious) enough to publicly refer to a powerful, competent woman as their “right-hand man.” Not if they expect to survive her wrath, that is.

I should note that the phrase “right-hand man” has a military origin. It dates to the 17th and 18th centuries. Also, it’s often equated with “my man Friday.” That one’s been in the vernacular since 1719, when Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe. As you might recall, in that story Friday was an Indigenous man who acted as a servant to the shipwrecked Crusoe. A “man Friday” has been understood ever since as meaning a (racially inferior) servant or assistant. Doubly demeaning in its subtext is the appellation, “Girl Friday.”

“Couldn’t get along without her” is, if anything, even more condescending than the supposedly-flattering elevation to male status. It implies that she exists to ease his way. From there it’s a very short walk to the limiting traditional status of (and the often-unreasonable demands placed upon) a “helpmeet.”

Artist Anne Taintor combines an advertising image from the 1940s or 50s of a woman at a stove with the caption, “Why, I’d be delighted to put my needs last again.”
Anne Taintor comments on traditional women’s roles using mid-20th century ad pictures and biting sarcasm. (Anne Taintor/Bored Panda).

Military Missteps

The “an officer and a gentleman” example just piles it on higher and deeper. It again uses a phrase layered with military tradition. Also, it once again equates being superior (an officer) with being a man (which, of course, used to be literally true). And it lifts “man/gentleman/privileged being” up as the ideal thing to be.

If at this point you’re thinking those phrases really didn’t seem all that obnoxious to you, say hello to your own unconscious bias. Yes, I’m going on and on about a couple of stupid little phrases that weren’t meant to offend anyone. They were not meant that way. Just the opposite, probably. But that’s my point. These are microaggressions because while they may not be meant badly, when you open up the hood on them, they’re monstrous. They “merely” take it for granted that men are better than women. That’s all. Where could the harm possibly lie in that?

Confronting one’s unconscious bias is uncomfortable. It’s exhausting to be more mindful of the subtext that lies within the things we say. A whole bunch of the unconscious stereotyping has been baked into our understandings. So it’s normal to feel overwhelmed and defensive. Especially if people are offended, even though our words were not meant that way.

This is a succinct variation on the sound privilege makes when it gets pinched. (Quotemaster).

Exhaustion Happens, But it’s An Excuse with an Expiration Date

The first response of those who’ve lived their whole lives in a place of privilege, only to find it being challenged now, is often to push back. Aside from that, thinking is hard work. It’s exhausting. It takes a lifetime to build the habit of mindfulness. Worse, we’re going to get it wrong. A lot. Especially at first.

People who’ve always previously had the luxury of not having to worry about who they may offend won’t like this. It’s terribly inconvenient and uncomfortable. So much easier and simpler to attack others by complaining that they are “too woke” and unreasonably “politically correct!”

But most of the world, throughout most of history, hasn’t had such luxury. They’ve been forced to think about every word they say and everything they do in the presence of those with greater privilege. Now demographics are changing. Some population groups are growing. Census experts say the United States will lose its white majority and become a “majority minority” country by 2045. Parts of it have already gone that route. Other parts of the world are experiencing similar shifts.

“Microaggressions add up. No matter how confident people from marginalized or underrepresented communities feel about their identities, microaggressions create unsafe spaces and make individuals feel like perpetual outsiders.” – Mira Yang
Words from someone who can speak on the matter with authority. (The Daily Northwestern, Mira Yang).

Privilege Won’t Let People off the Hook Forever

The handwriting is on the wall. Currently-privileged, dominant-culture white people will become one of the minority groups in the country by mid-century. And unfortunately, contemporary trends give us little hope for a peaceful transition. It’s more likely entitled, privileged white people with power will fight any erosion of their privilege (and their license to offend others without consequences).

But microaggressions add up, and they can be stifling to the recipients. Decades-long trends tell us they’re growing less and less tolerant. Less willing to submit meekly to abuse. Given the kind of demographic shifts we face, it’s not hard to foresee more awareness about microaggressions. And that means the time will come when “it was not meant that way” will no longer be any defense.


The covers for David Brin’s novels and his bio photo all came from his website, “Worlds of David Brin.” Learn more about Sundiver here. Learn more about Startide Rising here. The covers of my (so far) three “XK9 books” about uplifted police dogs on a space station are courtesy of Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. Cover art, L-R, is ©2020 by Lucy A. Synk, and ©2019 and 2020 by Jody A. Lee.

Many thanks to the Terry Clarke Blog for the definition image for “microaggressions.” I’m doubly grateful to the New York Times and Nicole Tersigni for the wonderful glimpses into her book Men to Avoid in Art and Life. Thanks again, Bored Panda and Anne Taintor, for the “Put My Needs Last” image. Some readers may recall that I also used it in G. S. Norwood’s post “A Spotlessly Beautiful Home” last August.

I appreciate Quotemaster for the quote-image from Charleton Heston. And I deeply appreciate Mira Yang’s perspective as one who has been on the “receiving end.” Read her op-ed in The Daily Northwestern for a deeper look at her experiences.

Francis X. Tolbert, his book cover, and a Texas-style bowl of red.

A Bowl of Red

By G. S. Norwood

We are in the middle of what passes for winter in Texas. Not like the deep freeze we had last winter, thank goodness. A typical Texas winter means we have many days when the temperatures hang in the mid-fifties during the day, sometimes dropping into the twenties overnight. And when temperatures drop in Texas, Texans make chili.

Frost on the grass in Dallas, with “Forrest Gump” meme: “And just like that everybody was making chili in Texas.
When temperatures drop in Texas, Texans make chili. (See credits below).

A Bowl of Red

Chili looms large in Texas mythology. Cue the image of cowboys sitting around the campfire, eating bowls of chili while someone plays a harmonica in the background. Back in 1966, beloved Dallas journalist, restauranteur, and historian, the late Frank X. Tolbert wrote what remains to this day the definitive work on chili. In A Bowl of Red, Tolbert offered up recipes, profiles of chili masters, and lots of tasty historical tidbits, all collected on his way to founding what is now called the Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff, held every November in Terlingua, Texas.

For more than 50 years now, folks have been flocking to Terlingua, or simply starting their own chili cookoff competitions, in pursuit of the best, the ultimate, the absolutely perfect bowl of red. Along the way, the Terlingua competition has spawned many legends and inspired at least one classic outlaw country recording—Jerry Jeff Walker’s ¡Viva Terlingua!—all of which have only added to chili’s mythic stature.

Please note that ¡Viva Terlingua! has nothing to do with chili and was actually recorded in Luckenbach, Texas. But the wide-open craziness of the Terlingua Chili Cookoff has resonance in Texas, and somebody must have figured the name would sell a lot of records. Which it did. (Luckenbach is a whole ‘nother story.)

Wide views of vehicles, tents and people at the Terlingua Chili Cookoff, 2021, over a map of the Terlingua area.
Photos from the 2021 Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff. (See credits below).

Beans? No Beans?

Chili con carne is a basic of Tex-Mex cooking, but modern Texas chili has evolved far beyond a simple sauce of chili peppers and meat. Traditional Tex-Mex cooks treat chili con carne (chili pepper sauce with meat) more like gravy than a hearty stew than can make a meal all by itself. Chili con carne, like chili con queso (chili pepper sauce with cheese) is ladled over enchiladas and added to huevos rancheros. You can slit open an individual size bag of Fritos corn chips, drizzle a little chili over them, and add a whole pile of shredded cheese for Frito Pie. Uses like these give rise to the scornful snort you’ll often hear from chili purists: There are no beans in chili.

But c’mon. Let’s flash back to those cowboys, gathered around the campfire, out on the rolling plains. If you’re the camp cook and you have to provide a hearty meal for some hungry ranch hands, what are you going to do to make that chili pepper sauce with meat stretch? Add more expensive meat? Or throw in a bunch of beans?

That’s right. You go for the beans. Beans are cheap. When dried, they’re easy to transport from Beaumont to the trailhead in Abilene or Fort Worth without going bad. Your cowboys, whether Anglo, Black, or Hispanic, all grew up eating beans. It beggars the imagination that pintos, red kidneys, or navy beans never found their way into a pot of chili until folks from up north or back east started messing around in the chili pot.

Two historic photos of cowboy and chuck wagons.
“Cookie” had to feed a lot of hungry men out of that little wagon. (See credits below).

Man Mysteries

But that protest from the purists is a clue to another aspect of the chili saga. Like barbeque chefs, chili cooks are often men, and they raise the act of making chili to the level of a men-only sacred ritual. No girls allowed.

They do this by turning chili into Man Food, which is generally hotter, more complicated, and more extreme than the kind of food mere females create for mundane purposes like feeding the family. You think jalapeños make your chili hot enough to start brush fires? the chili men ask.  Try adding habaneros or ghost peppers. Wait! How about habaneros AND ghost peppers!

I firmly believe that food should not be painful but then, I’m a girl.

The meat in chili con carne also begs for masculine refinements. Beef is only a starting point. Some chili cooks swear by pork, others by highly spiced sausage. Or, hey! Why not a combination? Beef, and pork, and sausage! Or venison! Yeah! That’s the ticket. There’s probably even a cult following for Varmint Chili, using rabbit, raccoon, opossum, or rattlesnake as sources of meat. I wasn’t able to find a link for it, but you know if I thought of it, the manly chili connoisseurs are way ahead of me.

Francis X. Tolbert, his book cover, and a Texas-style bowl of red.
Frank X. Tolbert put Texas chili on the map with his classic cookbook, A Bowl of Red. (See credits below).

My Personal Chili Odyssey

Do you remember last week’s blog, where I said my mother thought Italian food was too spicy? Well, that went double for chili. It was a forbidden food at our house when I was a child—so much so that it became a bonding opportunity for my father and me. Several times when I stayed home sick from school, Dad took me to the doctor. Mom was a full-time high school teacher, but Dad, a college professor, had a more flexible schedule. It became our little secret that, on the way home from the clinic, we would pick up a can of Hormel and some saltine crackers and have a clandestine lunch of chili.

As an adult, I switched from Hormel to Wolf Brand—the preferred chili of Texas if you have to eat it out of a can. And, while Warren was very much a devotee of the Man Mysteries school of chili cooking, I discovered that he sometimes took a shortcut. He’d buy a Wick Fowler’s Two Alarm Chili kit, which is a prepackaged collection of herbs and spices for your chili-cooking pleasure. Wick Fowler being the legendary chili cook who upheld Texas pride in that very first International Championship Chili Cookoff in Terlingua.

After Warren’s death, when I became the sole chili cook in the household, I fell back on Wick Fowler’s False Alarm Chili, which turns out to be a dead simple recipe for delicious chili that won’t burn the back of my throat away. Did I mention that I don’t think food should be painful? I’m not a chili purist, and I’m definitely a girl, so I feel no shame. Now, when the weather turns cold and I’m hungry for that bowl of red, I pull out the Wick Fowler’s, a can of Ranch Style Beans, and my big red cast iron Dutch oven. Because when the temperatures drop in Texas, even transplanted Missouri girls make chili.

Beef and tomato sauce, Wick Fowler’s chili kit, and Ranch Style beans make tasty chili.
A transplanted Missouri girl makes chili. (G. S. Norwood).


All montages are by Jan S. Gephardt. The frosty Dallas lawn photo is courtesy of LawnStarter, and the meme came from America’s Best Pics & Videos. Many thanks to Ghost Town Texas for the panoramic views of the 2021 Terlingua chili event (it’s worth a look at all the photos on their page – especially if you thought sf convention-goers wore weird costumes!). Thanks also to Google Maps for the satellite view of the area.

We deeply appreciate the archive of historical chuck wagon photos by Erwin E. Smith at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas! Jan used a little “Photoshop magic” to make the details easier to see on The Shoe Bar Outfit in for Dinner (1912) by Erwin E. Smith. That one is definitely from their collection. We found the other photo, Erwin E. Smith stops for a cup of coffee on the LS Ranch (1907) on Pinterest. The Pinterest poster attributed the photo to Erwin E. Smith (he did take several photos of himself) and the Amon Carter Museum – but we couldn’t find this exact photo in the Amon Carter’s online collection of photos, letters, and other materials by Smith.

Thanks very much to Alchetron, for the photo of Frank X. Tolbert. Amazon provided the cover image for A Bowl of Red, and the delicious-looking Texas-style “Bowl of Red” photo came (with a recipe) from Dad Cooks Dinner. Finally, G. S. Norwood herself photographed the stages of her own “Bowl of Red” recipe.

Cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere from the mid-1970s.

Real and Fictional Space Stations

By Jan S. Gephardt

I love both real and fictional space stations. Anyone who’s read my books, or the blog posts I’ve devoted to this topic will probably roll their eyes and say, “No. Really?”

Yeah, really. You got me. I love the whole idea, and I’m endlessly fascinated by the many visions of what a space station—or space habitat—could be.

Why? I’ve enjoyed science fiction for decades. When I was a kid I thought of sf books as “the books that give you stuff to think about.” (Perhaps I should clarify: I considered that a good thing). I was interested in how we humans might someday live somewhere other than on Earth.

Throughout human history, there’s always been a healthy exchange of life influencing art, which then influences life. In the case of real and fictional space stations, that’s definitely true.

When it comes to space exploration, the “art part” came first. From flip phones to satellites to space stations, visions cooked up by science fiction writers, artists, and filmmakers electrified and inspired several generations of 20th-Century rocket scientists, engineers, and designers.

Buzz Aldrin on the Lunar Surface July 20, 1969.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, stands on the surface of the moon near the leg of the lunar module, Eagle, during the Apollo 11 moonwalk. Astronaut Neil Armstrong, mission commander, took this photograph with a 70mm lunar surface camera. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons).

Living Somewhere Other than on Earth

I was a schoolkid when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, so I remember the excitement (and the setbacks) of the Space Race.

But that timing means more than just that I’m now “older than dirt.” It means I was an idealistic art major who embraced the environmental awareness of the 1970s. Concerned as I was about Earth’s future, I hated dystopian sf stories in which humans left a dying, poisoned Earth for supposed “greener pastures” (to, um, . . . poison and kill those, too? Great legacy, humans!).

Back then, a lot of us feared the “population explosion” that was supposedly going to devastate the planet. This was the era when Harry Harrison wrote his 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!, from which the 1973 movie Soylent Green was adapted.

Space habitats interested me, but not as places to flee after the earth dies. I was interested in their potential to ease some of the environmental pressure on our natal planet.

The "Earthrise" photo.
Earthrise, taken on December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons).

Digging into the Details

I wasn’t the only one interested in what were then called “Space Colonies.” NASA commissioned multiple studies into the feasibility of space-based habitats for humans.

Rana Station’s design origins came from those studies. The idea is a surprisingly old one, but interest at NASA proliferated, starting in the 1970s. The differentiation between real and fictional space stations got kinda thin when the ideas came from the space agency.

That is, until a Senator named William Proxmire made a big fuss about them as a waste of taxpayer money, and gave the programs a Golden Fleece Award. Publicly humiliated, the powers-that-be swiftly shut down that line of inquiry.

I felt wary of the “space colonies” idea, in any case. Colonialism was rightfully beginning to receive a lot of pushback. The idea of being a colonist dependent on corporate control smacked way too much of being trapped in a “company store” scenario.

Cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere from the mid-1970s.
Two classic paintings by Rick Guidice, showing cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere. (NASA via Space .com).

Real and Fictional Space Stations

“Space colonies” may have received a decades-long black eye, but we clever apes didn’t stop thinking about space. Nor have we stopped studying it, nor longing to explore space in person, as well as with our robots.

And in the name of exploring it in person, we started building space platforms where we could experiment. When I went into high school, the only kind of space stations anywhere that we knew about were those in science fiction.

The year before I graduated, the Soviet Union successfully launched Salyut 1. The early history of the Salyut series, Almaz (Soviet military) stations, and US Skylab included a lot of problems. Even so, ever since April 19, 1971 we have lived in an age of both real and fictional space stations.

I’m not sure it’s possible to explain how huge that step still seems. Nor my pleasure that I was privileged to (vicariously) see it happen.

Early space stations SALYUT 1 (rare photo), SKYLAB, and MIR.
Early space stations, L-R: Salyut 1, a rare photo of the first-ever-space station; Skylab; Mir. (See credits below).

Real Space Stations

The earlier stations weren’t as large or long-lived as the later Mir (1986-2001) and the International Space Station (commissioned by President Reagan in 1984 the first pieces went up in 1998, and development is ongoing to this day.

Are you old enough to remember when the ISS first went up? Or has it always been out there, hanging out in space since you’ve been alive?

Have you ever glimpsed it passing overhead? I’ve seen it—or at least I’ve thought I saw it—several times. But I usually can’t, because I live in a brightly-lit city with lots of trees. That means light pollution and an obstructed horizon. Thus, even when it’s a clear, cloudless night, station-spotting is a challenge. But when I can glimpse it, I’m always delighted.

Life Influences Art

The conversation between real and fictional space stations continues. Rana Station and I owe a long string of debts of gratitude to the International Space Station.

I’ve watched hours of videos showing the inhabitants of the ISS demonstrating various aspects of living and working in microgravity. I hope that’s helped me create more realistic depictions of things that happen in and around Rana Station’s Hub.

It’s from NASA information that I began to learn about the physical havoc human bodies undergo in any environment that strays too far from Earth-normal gravity.

These findings are the basis for my novels’ limitations on the hours one may spend “up top,” in the microgravity of Rana’s Hub. There are set lengths of time beyond which characters are not allowed to work in microgravity. These are my best guesses, based on what I’ve been able to find in available literature.

Infographic: women and men have different bodily reactions to microgravity.
This diagram shows key differences between men and women in cardiovascular, immunologic, sensorimotor, musculoskeletal, and behavioral adaptations to human spaceflight. (NASA/NSBRI).

Lessons from a Real Space Station

Making babies in something other than Earth-normal gravity? I find it hard to swallow the idea that we could do that without danger to both mom and baby (it’s hard enough, here on earth!). Mouse sperm is one thing, but there haven’t been nearly enough studies of the entire process and long-term effects, even in smaller animal species, to reassure me.

Meanwhile, the bottom line is clear, based on more than two decades of research (including a certain fascinating twin study)on the ISS. If we ever want to live and produce future generations any place besides on Earth, we’ll need to do one of two things.

Either we must change our biology, or we must create non-terrestrial habitats that support the biology we’ve got. There’s already ample science fiction that explores either choice. Art points to problems and opportunities with each direction.

I imagine genetic modifications may form a part of our future. But on the whole, I’m betting we’ll prefer the second option, and build to suit our biology. The “conversation” between real and fictional space stations continues!


I owe a ton of thanks to NASA for the vast majority of the imagery in this blog post. Not only do they have an inside scoop on “all things space,” but their imagery is blissfully in the public domain (and also my blog posts normally fall under the “fair use” exclusion).

I also owe a massive debt of gratitude to Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Commons, which provided easy-to-find source information for the photos  I used. Makes giving credit where credit is due lots easier!

Specifically, the MOON LANDING PHOTO of Buzz Aldrin by Neil Armstrong is courtesy of NASA, NASA Image and Video Library, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. The iconic “EARTHRISE” photo, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders is courtesy of NASA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The NASA CUTAWAY VISUALIZATIONS montage features two paintings by Rick Guidice: Cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere from the mid-1970s. Via

Credits for the photos in the “EARLY SPACE STATIONS” montage: Salyut 1, an extremely rare photo by Viktor Patsayev (fair use), via Wikipedia. Final Skylab Flyaround, by crew of Skylab 4, courtesy of of NASA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Mir, from the Space Shuttle Endeavour, courtesy of NASA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The video about the assembly of the International Space Station components was created and published by ISS National Laboratory, and shared via YouTube. The “Women and Men—In SPACE!” infographic is courtesy of NASA and NSBRI, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. Many thanks to all!

Minneapolis police in riot gear advance in a line through billowing blue tear gas smoke, with their batons out.

With disrespect for all:

When authorities shut down journalists and protesters

American authorities attack journalists and protesters? That just ain’t right! As the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of . . . the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Hyoung Chang’s press badge identifying him as a Denver Post photographer looks as if someone or something took a bite out of it. It’s still legible, but Chang says it was broken when a police officer’s projectile struck him.
Hyoung Chang, a Denver Post photographer, took this photo of his broken press pass after police fired “a projectile” at him. USA Today later reported the “projectile” actually was “two pepper balls [fired] directly at him.” (Hyoung Chang, via the New York Times)

Freedom of the Press has met The Right to Peaceably Assemble in the streets of many cities all over the USA, this summer. And both provisions of the First Amendment have too often been trampled by authorities who should know better.

When police themselves break the law

Don’t believe it? Watch this short video from VICE News.

No, these were clearly members of the press. Licensed and trained sworn officers should have known they had a right to be there. Law enforcement agents who knowingly break the law vividly illustrate why so many people have begun to protest that they need to be defunded, abolished, or at least redefined. If they themselves can’t be trusted to follow the law, why are we paying them and maintaining a police force at all?

Unfortunately, these aren’t the only documented cases. Journalists from two different agencies, The US Press Freedom Tracker and Nick Waters of Bellingcat, who created a Twitter thread to count incidents, each independently identified about 100 instances, just in the first weeks of protests. By June 6, Forbes reported “328 . . . and counting.”

As I write this, The US Press Freedom Tracker’s count is considerably higher: “600+ aggressions against the press during national Black Lives Matter protests,” 157 journalists attacked, and 51 journalists arrested. Their equipment hasn’t been spared, either. The US Press Freedom Tracker says police damaged equipment 43 times, and have searched or seized it 10 times.

The next video, from The Washington Post, shows new examples, in addition to some shown in the previous video.

I’ll share a link to one more video, to offer an even more comprehensive overview, and an international perspective. Although the video is in English, DW is a German news agency (hint: the part about attacks on the press ends 2 minutes before the video does).

How much harm are they doing?

When authorities attack journalists and protesters, it does a lot of harm. Trampled Constitutional rights are serious breaches of the law and deeply un-American. But these attacks also can do serious physical and psychological harm.

Most of the protests have been peaceful. And journalists should be completely off-limits. But this summer police have freely used a variety of so-called “less-lethal” weapons on both groups.

What is a “less-lethal” weapon? Police have a variety at their disposal. They used to be called “nonlethal,” but that turns out to be wrong. They can and have caused death.

This Washington Post illustration shows the kinds of projectiles a “less-lethal” weapon may fire. From left to right they are a 40 mm sponge grenade, with a note that says the foam tip detaches when fired; a 40 mm shell, and some of the kinds of things that can be loaded inside: a beanbag, a “baton” round, AKA “rubber bullets,” a “fin-stabilized round,” and smaller rubber balls. A silhouette of a human hand is shown for comparison. The 40 mm shell appears to be longer than a man’s palm is wide. (Washington Post)
(Washington Post)

Projectile weapons can leave bruises, lacerations, broken bones. If you’re hit in the eye like photographer Linda Tirado, you can be blinded. That’s why the American Academy of Ophthalmology called for a nationwide ban on the use of rubber bullets against protesters.

In a recent article USA Today quoted Charlie Mesloh, a certified instructor on the use of police projectiles and a professor at Northern Michigan University, who said, “On day one of training, they tell you, ‘Don’t shoot anywhere near the head or neck.’ That’s considered deadly force.

Eye doctors are no fans of tear gas or other chemical irritants, either. Neither are experts on respiratory diseases—especially in a time of COVID-19 pandemic. Tear gas causes a variety of effects. Most go away after a while. But people with respiratory problems can struggle with the effects for a long time.

Minneapolis police in riot gear advance in a line through billowing blue tear gas smoke, with their batons out.
Minneapolis police advance through tear gas toward a group of protesters. (Scott Olson/Getty Images, via NPR).

Why are the police acting this way?

This kind of police aggression toward journalists is not only unconstitutional. It’s also not normal. Why act this way? Why now?

As I discussed in previous post, it’s very difficult to hold police accountable in the current legal climate. But perhaps they feel more empowered than usual. Many commentators point to the president as part of the reason why that might be.

He’s been an outspoken critic—to the point where he’s used inflammatory, authoritarian phrases such as “enemy of the people” when speaking of the press. Various groups have protested this treatment, to no avail.

I don’t mean to say the president is the only reason for this change. Am I his fan? No. Is he the first president to have issues with the press? Hardly! Speaking truth to power is dangerous. But there’s something at work here that goes beyond Mr. Trump.

Police officers and police departments feel empowered to lash out against journalists as they never have before this summer. All too predictably, many of the journalists targeted also appear to be BIPOC and/or women.

When American authorities attack journalists and protesters, this is new in the Twenty-First Century. This is disturbing.

This  is dangerous.


I really want to thank Hyoung Chang, via the New York Times, for the photo of his broken press badge. I appreciate YouTube and VICE News for the first video, YouTube and The Washington Post for the second video, and YouTube and DW for the third. Many thanks also to the Washington Post for the excellent illustration and article on “Less-Lethal” police weapons and their dangers. And to NPR and photographer Scott Olson for the image of Minneapolis police in riot gear, striding through billows of tear gas smoke.

A magical moment for a LEGO wedding

Creative amusements

Will you invent creative amusements, or run screaming berserk? I’m sure that’s a real question for many people confined to quarters until further notice. Pandemic lockdown is a challenge, no matter who you are.

Families confined together get into each others’ space and onto each others’ nerves. Telecommuters struggle to balance work and family–or work and utter solitude.

Essential workers don their masks each day like armor, then venture into a dangerous landscape where one thoughtless cough, like a ticking time bomb, could kill them this or next week.

Desperate times, they say, call for desperate measures. Or, sometimes, for creative amusements.

Two views of the same Brooklyn scene: congested traffic is normal (top), but streets are empty during the lockdown.
Above: Brooklyn’s 7 Train and traffic below in pre-pandemic times. (uncredited photo from Medium). Below: Almost the same scene, but with empty streets during the lockdown (Juan Arredondo for the New York Times).

A recipe for . . . ?

Creativity happens when divergent thinking runs up against a problem to solve. And oh my, do problems ever abound right now. I’m blessed to be one of the back-bench folks on this lockdown. I cheer from the cheap seats, but stay well out of the way while the real heroes do epic battle on the front lines. 

And I have plenty of creative work to do–I’m deep in final revisions on A Bone to Pick, the second book in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. And when I want to take a break there’s always paper sculpture. But what about people confined to their homes or apartments, whose creative work is based somewhere else?

Weird Sisters Publishing has 3 titles as of March 2020.
Our first three books are just the beginning. I’m working on A Bone to Pick now. (Weird Sisters Publishing)

I recently discovered two examples of just such people, and two very creative amusements. In each case they “made lemonade” from their less-than-ideal situations. I thought you might enjoy what they came up with.

A wedding photographer with no weddings to shoot

Chris Wallace of Carpe Diem Photography needed a wedding to photograph, but he had none. So he made up his own. Out of LEGOs. 

The resulting photo shoot not only gave a grown man an excellent excuse to play with plastic bricks and miniature figures, but when he posted the photos on his website he garnered memorable media and social media attention.

From his account of Florence and Fred’s “magical day,” and the assortment of wedding guests (who include, among many other notables, Chewbacca and Eleanor Twitty, the Library Ghost from Ghostbusters), it’s clear Wallace had as much fun creating the event as we have viewing his photos.

See all these LEGO Wedding photos and many more by Chris Wallace, from My Modern Met and Carpe Diem Photography.

An artist, a museum curator, and two very cosmopolitan gerbils

It started as a Sunday project to mark a London-based couple’s 14th day of quarantine. Before they were finished, artist Marianna Benetti and independent curator Filippo Lorenzin had turned it into an elaborate little gerbil-sized museum gallery.

They even created gerbil-centric masterpieces for the display (Oddly reminiscent of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl EarringMunch’s The Scream, Klimt’s The Kiss, and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa), and posted a highly futile “Please Don’t Chew” sign.

Their two gerbils, Pandoro and Tiramisù, found plenty of interesting things to inspect, as documented in both still photography and a cute short video.

Rude gallery patrons that they were, however, they not only chewed up a chair, but briefly gnawed on the “Don’t Chew” sign itself. After all, gerbils just gotta chew.

Here's the gerbil-size art gallery before the gerbils arrive, with a good view of all four "masterpieces."
One gerbil seems more art-conscious. She gets up close with the "Gerbil Scream" painting.
The more "art conscious" gerbil examines the "Gerbil Mona Lisa" image.
The gerbils have now destroyed the miniature chair, and appear ready for other adventures.
These four “gerbils in the gallery” photos are from Marianna Benetti and Filippo Lorenzin, featuring their gerbils Pandoro and Tiramisù, via My Modern Met.

What creative amusements have you invented?

Here in Kansas City, we just got the word that we’re probably going to continue on lockdown another three weeks beyond its original end-date. Schools are closed on both sides of the state linethrough the end of this school year.

We should have lots more time to get cabin fever, go stir crazy . . . and maybe think up some creative amusements, too. How about you?


Many thanks to Medium for the view of Brooklyn’s 7 Train and traffic below, pre-pandemic; almost the same scene after the lockdown photo is from the New York Times/Juan Arredondo.

The three Weird Sisters Publishing book covers (with artist credits) are from Weird Sisters Publishing’s Our Books page.

The four photos of “Florence and Fred’s” LEGO wedding are by Chris Wallace of Carpe Diem Photography, via My Modern Met. Many thanks!

The four “gerbils in the gallery” photos are from Marianna Benetti and Filippo Lorenzin, featuring their gerbils Pandoro and Tiramisù, via My Modern Met. Deepest gratitude!

Signs, books for sale, and badge ribbons, bookmarks, and postcards for the taking, on Jan's Capricon 40 autograph table.

Creating S.W.A.G.

Capricon 40 kicked off my “con season” for 2020 on a high note. Time to get the rest of the reservations, plans, and itineraries in place. And time for creating S.W.A.G.

What is S.W.A.G., you may ask? It is Stuff We All Get (also abbreviated SWAG, without the periods, or spelled with lower-case letters). It’s the “freebies,” the samples, the advertising novelties that are handed out to people at conferences, conventions, and similar events. The stuff designed to help people remember our products and services later, after the event is over. 

S.W.A.G. makes a presence at every science fiction convention. And lately I’ve been handing out a lot of it. 

Jan with her autograph table display
I offered all manner of S.W.A.G. during my autographing at Capricon 40. (Photo by Tyrell E. Gephardt)

SF conventions and sales

It’s hard to measure whether freebies actually sell books. I’ve handed out what feels like bushels of bookmarks and barrels of badge-ribbons, often to enthusiastic recipients–so there’s at least the initial impression that’s positive.

Does that sell books? Maybe. I think both convention-going in general and S.W.A.G. in particular is a brand-building effort, more than a retail opportunity. I did notice a small up-tick in my book sales after Capricon (thank you!!), but even if you count in my art show sales, the cons don’t pay for themselves by the end of the weekend.

That’s okay by me, because I go to conventions for a lot of reasons besides selling books and art. Idea-gathering, networking, seeing old friends, finding material to blog about, discovering new artists and writers, and more fill out my list of reasons. 

Best of all, for me, are the panel discussions, readings, and chances to interact with fans and readers.

"Detectives in the Wild" panel at Capricon 40
I like to participate in panel discussions at sf cons. “Detectives in the Wild” panelists at Capricon 40, L-R: Jan S. Gephardt (Moderator), Deirdre MurphyMark H. Huston, and Clifford Royal Johns. (photo by a kindly audience member who didn’t share his name).

Creating S.W.A.G.

If I’m honest, creating S.W.A.G. is fun. I undoubtedly have too many different badge ribbons, but I’ll keep giving them out (I have lots). Coming up with the slogans to put on them is a creative exercise. My sister discovered that this winter while we were creating S.W.A.G. for her.

I generally like to create three kinds of S.W.A.G.: Postcards, bookmarks, and badge ribbons. Each fulfills a slightly different function.


Jan's current postcard, featuring her novel, "What's Bred in the Bone."
This is my blank postcard before adding the label with specific info about my reading, autographing, and the dealer who carries the books at that convention. (Design by Jan S. GephardtWhat’s Bred in the Bone cover art © 2019 by Jody A. Lee). 

I have a generic postcard that’s been professionally printed, which I customize for each convention. Every year, each convention schedules me for different things at different times. There’s a place designed on the postcard for a label that’s printed with that convention’s specifics.

My postcards generally list when and where my reading is scheduled, when and where I’ll be signing autographs, and (if I can work out a consignment deal ahead of time) what dealer is carrying my books at that convention. 

I hand out postcards everywhere I can, especially in the early part of the convention, because if I can convince interested readers to come to those events and places, I have a better chance to sell them books!


Bookmarks from Weird Sisters Publishing: back and front sides of the two current bookmark designs.
Both sides of both current bookmarks: Left for What’s Bred in the Bone by 
Jan S. Gephardt
, and right is Deep Ellum Pawn, a novelette by G. S. Norwood. (Design by Jan S. GephardtWhat’s Bred in the Bone cover art © 2019 by Jody A. LeeDeep Ellum Pawn art © 2019 by Chaz Kemp.)

Bookmarks are probably my best overall S.W.A.G. sales tool. And if I do say so myself, my bookmarks are beautiful. 

Yes, I know the vast majority of books I sell are ebooks. But people do still buy the “dead trees” versions, and when you’re reading a physical book you need a bookmark.

For a writer, artist, or other creative professional, a bookmark functions much the same way as a business card, but in a number of ways it’s harder to lose and more practical

Maybe I’m weird, but I keep a large collection of bookmarks that also are a little memory trove. Some date back decades–but the ones I tend to keep, use, and enjoy the most are ones I especially like to look at

Bookmarks aren’t just for sf conventions, either. Lately I’ve had a slew of annual checkups, etc. At most of them I’ve found someone who likes science fiction and happily takes my bookmarks. All literate people can use bookmarks. I’m happy to supply them!

Badge ribbons

5 badge ribbon designs inspired by Jan's book, "What's Bred in the Bone."
Here is this year’s crop of What’s Bred in the Boneinspired badge ribbons. (preview images courtesy of P C Nametags).

As I said above, I undoubtedly give out too many badge ribbons. They’re not exactly cheap, and not all of the designs clearly remind people what book they’re promoting.

But I get a kick out of creating them, and many people get a kick out of wearing them at conventions.

Too many badge ribbons on a badge can be impractical–but people adapt. Pro tip: Duct tape on the back can keep a long string from breaking apart. Come prepared!

Even though they’re impractical, they’re quixotic. The silky texture and varied colors are pretty. They add a touch of whimsy. Many are funny, some are cryptic, and they’re altogether fun.

Seriously! What more excuse do you need?

5 badge ribbons inspired by G.S. Norwood's story, "Deep Ellum Pawn."
Here are the badge ribbons my sister and I brainstormed, based on her story Deep Ellum Pawn. (preview images courtesy of P C Nametags).

See you at the convention?

As you see, there are lots of reasons for creating S.W.A.G., and it can be fun to use. If you come to one of the conventions I attend, look for my postcards on the freebie tables and my Art Show display. 

Then come to my reading and/or autographing session, where I’ll have ALL the S.W.A.G.!

And if you’re a creative professional, perhaps you should consider creating S.W.A.G. of your own.

Photo of Jan's autograph table display, with signs, copies of her book, along with badge ribbons, bookmarks, and postcards for the taking.
Here’s another view of my Capricon 40 autograph table display. (Photo by Tyrell E. Gephardt).


The photos of me with my S.W.A.G. offerings and books at my Capricon 40 autographing, and the detail-photo of the S.W.A.G. and books display, are both courtesy of Tyrell E. Gephardt. Please acknowledge him as photographer and provide a link back to this site if you re-post or reuse it. Thanks!

The photo of the “Detectives in the Wild” panel at Capricon 40 was taken by a kind audience member who did not give me his name–but whom I thank anyway! Please feel free to re-post or re-use it, too, but with an acknowledgement and link back to this post, if possible, please!

The cover art for What’s Bred in the Bone is © 2019 by Jody A. Lee

The cover art for Deep Ellum Pawn is © 2019 by Chaz Kemp

The images of the badge ribbon designs are previews generated by the P C Nametags Custom Badge Ribbons webpage. Many thanks to all!

A police officer defends a medic who is trying to help his wounded partner.

Daniel Sundahl’s artwork about first responder stress

When I first stumbled across Daniel Sundahl’s artwork about first responder stress, it left a resounding impression. A major theme in my upcoming novel A Bone to Pick is first responder stress and the marks it can leave on a person. (A Bone to Pick is the second book in the XK9 Trilogy. Its projected pub date is in August 2020). 

Post-traumatic stress is a huge problem for first responders

The toll that traumatic events can take on professionals who are regularly exposed to blood, gore, violence and death is huge. The first responder community is beginning to understand it’s impossible for people to “tough it out” indefinitely and continue to thrive. Not without help and support. But cultural change is slow. It’s hard for “tough guys” of both/all genders to admit they need help.

In his public appearances, Daniel Sundahl uses his artwork to get people talking about hard-to-discuss issues. (This December 2019 photo is currently Daniel's Facebook profile picture.)
In his public appearances, Daniel Sundahl uses his artwork to get people talking about hard-to-discuss issues. (This December 2019 photo is currently Daniel’s Facebook profile picture.)

Unfortunately, it also can be hard for them to find help once they realize they need it. That culture of denial can go all the way to the top. And the US has never been a great haven of enlightenment when it comes to mental health.

Daniel is a firefighter and paramedic as well as an artist. He’s also an activist on the topic of first responder post-traumatic stress. He pours his passion on the subject into both his artwork and his speaking engagements.

With that introduction, I hope you’ll be moved and fascinated by Daniel Sundahl’s artwork about first responder stress. He depicts scenes featuring all types of first responders. In this post I’ve shared one example each from Communications/Dispatch, EMS, Fire, and Police

But you can see much more of his work on his website and his Facebook page. All images are © by Daniel Sundahl and DanSun Photo Art, and have been used with the artist’s permission. Please do not reproduce or re-post them without express permission from Daniel!

Communications Departments

A uniformed woman sits in an emergency dispatch call center station with an exhausted look on her face, while the faint, ghostly images of people in danger or pain float around her.
The Ghosts of Dispatch © by Daniel Sundahl. Of this image, he writes, “Speaking with someone as they kill themselves or hearing someone pleading for help as they’re being murdered is something the rest of us just don’t understand. This one is for all the dispatchers. Stay safe brothers and sisters.” 

My first encounter with Daniel’s art came when I discovered The Ghosts of Dispatch while searching for images to illustrate my blog post “Merry Christmas, and be careful out there.” It took my breath away the first time I saw it, for a multitude of reasons. 

Emergency Medical Services

Is there anything I can say that’s more eloquent than what Daniel himself has written about this next image?

An EMT holds a shrouded baby in his arms, against a black background. One tiny, bloodless arm dangles from the wrapping, but the ghostly image of a living baby reaches up to touch his face.
Children of Heaven © by Daniel Sundahl. “I often hear from fellow Paramedics of the terrible calls they’ve had involving children. . . . Calls involving children are the ones that affect us the most. . . . I still have many calls in my head that I can’t get out that involve children. . . . I call this image Children of Heaven. It brings me peace thinking where these kids are now instead of thinking of what happened to them. “

First responder stress probably can’t get much worse than a murdered baby. But then, it also seems there’s an unimaginable range of horrors it is possible to confront, and the folks who’ll confront them are first responders, God help them.


Artwork about first responder stress among firefighters is a recurring theme from Sundahl.

A group of firefighters in full gear confront a blaze and billowing smoke. At the heart of the flames an angry dragon's head spews fire at them.
Fire Fight © by Daniel Sundahl. “Fighting the Dragon…my fellow firefighters know what this means.” As a fantasy artist myself, I absolutely could not resist this one.

Firefighters stand between the rest of us and that dragon. Whether it’s a raging structural fire,  vehicle-turned-inferno, or a wildfire roaring up a steep hillside, they stand between it and us. All too often they pay a steep price, as well.


Police officers never know what’s coming, but like all first responders their lives are spent on call. Their schedules exist at the mercy of the next emergency. A day can be fairly uneventful, and then turn suddenly deadly. 

In a wintry landscape with a city at sunset behind them, one officer kneels and fires a gun. Nearby a female medic bends over to render aid to his partner, who has been shot.
Officer Down, © by Daniel Sundahl. “Would you enter a live shooting event to treat the injured and help take them to safety? What if it was someone you knew? The medic and fallen officer in this image are close friends in real life. They work on the same shift so this situation is a real possibility for them. I have no doubt she would risk her life to save him.”

hope you’ve been inspired by these images and the brave people they represent. Daniel Sundahl’s artwork about first responder stress is real and authentic because he has lived the situations he portrays. They all fight the dragon for us, one way or another. They all stand between us and that unimaginable range of horrors.

IMAGE CREDITS: All images are © by Daniel Sundahl and DanSun Photo Art, and have been used with the artist’s permission. Please do not reproduce or re-post them without express permission from Daniel!

Winter Solstice is December 21.

A month of holidays

December is a month of holidays. For several years, I’ve labored to create blog posts about the holidays that fall during this month. When I realized I was focusing exclusively on December holidays but no others, I started my “Holidays Project” last summer.

At this point I’ve done feature posts on nearly every major religious holiday that usually falls in December, as well as several more minor ones and at least two that are secular in nature. Why so many holidays in one month?

Winter Solstice is December 21.

Blame it on the Solstice. 

The astronomical event of the Winter Solstice creates the shortest daylight of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. It falls on December 21, nearly every year. Combine that fact with the nature of humans, and a holiday of some sort is near-inevitable

We humans have a psychological and spiritual need seek out hope and a cosmic picture of the Universe that makes sense. And we probably need it most of all when food is short and we’re in danger of freezing to death. That’s why December is a month of holidays.

I explored Solstice traditions in some depth, in a blog post from 2016 that still gets many hits every yearGet drunk, eat dumplings or fruit, and party down. It’s traditional! 

Festivals of light

Not surprisingly for holidays that originated during a month of long nights, a lot of December holidays feature candles or fires. 

A Solstice festival of light/fire is YuletideIn a 2013 post, I focused on the Yuletide legend of Krampus, but the tradition of burning the Yule Log (originally a whole tree, or most of one) is probably more well-known to those of us whose ancestors hail from the British Isles, where the related custom of Wassailing also originated. Of course, many people prefer their “Yule Logs” to be made of cake, rather than wood!

Winter Solstice bonfires are a feature of a celebration in Maine, in this photo from Bangor.
Winter Solstice bonfires are a feature of a celebration in Maine. (Bangor Daily News/Eric Michael Tollefson)

Last year, the first Sunday of Advent and the first day of Hanukkah both fell on the same day, December 2. This year Advent started on December 1, but Hanukkah doesn’t begin till sunset on December 22.

Compared with Yom Kippur and several of the others, Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday that has gained a greater following because of its proximity to the Christian holiday of Christmas, celebrated on December 25 each year.

Christmas originated as a religious holiday, and it still is one of the most important holidays of the Christian year, preceded by the Advent season and smaller holy or feast days such as St. Nicholas Day, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and St. Stephen’s Day.  If you think about it Christmas is a month of holidays, just by itself.

Secular observations

Especially in recent years, many individuals, cultures and traditions have embraced some of the more glamorous elements of Christmas, including Santa Claus, Christmas trees, holiday lights on buildings, and Christmas presentswithout much interest in the Christian religious aspects.

There will likely always be people who decry a “war on Christmas” (meaning a minimization of the religious aspects), it seems unlikely that these exuberant and sometimes garish secular holiday traditions will go away anytime soon. They’re too darn much fun.

The colorful lights outline each building and go on for blocks and blocks each year on Kansas City's Country Club Plaza.
The granddaddy of municipal Christmas light displays is the annual display in Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza (unattributed photographer/KC Kids Fun)

One, somewhat peculiar spin-off of Christmas is Festivus, inspired by a TV show and celebrated with greater or lesser levels of devotion by aficionados.

considerably more spiritual, but not religious, celebration is Kwanzaa. I explored the days of Kwanzaa in some detail, back in 2017. Although the first day had to share billing with Boxing Day, the secondthirdfourthfifth, and sixth days got their own posts. The seventh day of Kwanzaa is also New Year’s Day.

However you celebrate this month of holidays, I hope you find love, joy, and peace among the hectic pace and the welter of traditions!

IMAGES: I created the “Winter Solstice” composite with help from Ksenia Samorukova (Ukususha) and Rawpixel at 123RF. Many thanks to the Bangor Daily News and Eric Michael Tollefson, for the photo of the bonfires in Maine, and to KC Kids Fun (and their unsung photographer) for the photo of the Kansas City Country Club Plaza holiday lights.

Ann Friedman's office is an example of several things that make it an ideal writing space.

An ideal writing space

The Artdog Image(s) of Interest

In this month of NaNoWriMo, a lot of writers will be parking themselves in chairs, curling up in nooks, stretching out on carpets, or clearing off their desks to participate. We know that some writers can write anywhere, but others are a lot more particular about their surroundings. Is there really such a thing as an ideal writing place?

It isn’t hard to find ideas online. Do you prefer a rustic look? Chrome and glass? Are you a minimalist? A connoisseur of clutter? Do you like wooden seating? Upholstered padding? Chintz? Leather? Plaid? Several other bloggers have addressed this topic. Here’s a sampler from their ideas.

Two windows for light and a lot of books and binders make this bedroom-turned de facto office a less-than-ideal writing space.
The Artdog’s less-than-ideal writing space is currently (mostly) on her bed. Thank goodness, that’s temporary.


The blogger for “Papersmashed” lamented in a 2015 post that her only real writing space was on her bed. Oh, my, can I relate to that! I, too, do most of my writing currently while sitting on my bed with my back supported by a pile of pillows against my headboard. 

It’s far from an ideal writing space, for many reasons (just ask my creaky bones). Thank goodness, in my case it’s temporary. But the changes I’m planning for our home’s library require thought. What’s the best way to carve out space to write, run a small press, and also make art–while still maintaining the library’s original function?

In her 2015 post, “Papersmashed” explains that there is a desk in her room, but “it’s just not that inspiring. I am surrounded with blank walls.” So she resorts to her bed, as the lesser of evils. But she’d recently encountered the concept of the “She-Shed,” and posted some wishful images.

"Papersmashed" blogged about these photos. There's a "she-shed" idea on each end, with a rustic interior writing space at center. See Image Credits below for sources and more information.
Papersmashed” blogged about these photos. There’s a “she-shed” idea on each end, with a rustic interior writing space at center. See Image Credits below for sources and more information.

Yelena Casale

Urban fantasy and romance writer Yelena Casale blogged about the question of what makes an ideal writing space, too. In her 2011 post, she wrote, “Having an appropriate and cozy work space is important to about anyone. However, nobody needs it more than someone who creates.”

For Yelena it seemed to be all about the view: forested mountains, ocean-views, even a panoramic city-scape, though that wouldn’t be her first choice. The room itself could be small, she said. “Small spaces can be open and light. It’s all about the design and the feel.”

Here are three of the images Yelena chose, to accompany her post. Each definitely has its own “feel.”

The image at left may be Yelena's own photo. Center: Kevin Crossley-Holland's writing office. Right: the minimalist urban vibe of "Rephlektiv's" writing office. See Image Credits below for sources and more information.
The image at left may be Yelena’s own photo. Center: Kevin Crossley-Holland’s writing office. Right: the minimalist urban vibe of “Rephlektiv’s” writing office. See Image Credits below for sources and more information.

Ploughshares at Emerson College, and The Freelancer

In an undated guest post for Ploughshares, poet-teacher Aimee Nezhukumatathil describes her own writing space “I have an office at home painted my favorite shade of robin’s-egg blue with red accents,” and adds, “My favorite space to write has a glass-topped table with my Grandfather’s old typewriter that still works.” In the guest-post she also shares thoughts on writing spaces from several writer friends. She does not, however, identify whose office is shown in the photo she shared (NOTE: It belongs to the photographer Vadim Scherbakov).

The Freelancer’s Connor Relyea interviewed five top freelance writers, for his 2015 post “What Would Your Ideal Writing Studio Look Like?” The answers to each of his questions are varied and interesting. They definitely qualify as food for thought, for anyone interested in designing or adjusting their own office.

Relyea illustrated his interviewees’ comments with two photos that provide a study in contrasts. One is a nicely designed, rather conventional setup that looks comfortable and functional, while the other reminds me of a monk’s cell (or perhaps a dungeon?). Turns out (although there’s no caption to tell you), they are the offices of two of his interviewees, those of Ann Friedman and Noah Davis. Read their interviews, and see if you can guess which office belongs to which.

At left is the office of Ann Friedman, who's one of Connor Relyea's interviewees. The center office is also from that article. It belongs to Noah Davis. The third office belongs to photographer Vadim Scherbakov. See Image Credits below for sources and more information.
At left is the office of Ann Friedman, who’s one of Connor Relyea’s interviewees. The center office is also from that article. It belongs to Noah Davis. The third office belongs to photographer Vadim Scherbakov. See Image Credits below for sources and more information.

So, then, what makes an ideal writing space?

There are some interesting ideas in those interviews and photos. But the most striking thing to me is the way basic ideas can be made to seem quite different. When we come right down to it, the primary and most salient thing about any “ideal writing space” is how it makes you feel.

This quote from Nicole Appleton is presented as a sort of poster. It says, "Any room where you feel a good vibe is a good place to write."

What’s your idea of an ideal writing space? Do you already work in one, do you dream of having it someday, or is it a whimsical fantasy that actually couldn’t exist in the mundane world where we live? Please share thoughts, ideas, photos, or critiques in the comments section below.


The photo of the Artdog’s current writing place (her less-than-ideal bedroom) is by Jan S. Gephardt, all rights reserved. 


This blogger posted the trio of images collected into the montage at the end of  her section.”The greenhouse” she-shed originated in 2013 on a website from York, Ontario that no longer exists. “Papersmashed” apparently found it somewhere on Heather Bullard’s website. The rustic interior writing space at the center appears to have originated on a profile of a rustic Boston-area home office featured on Houzz. The the photo of the pink-windowed garden shed was attributed to “Via Wooden House,” (guess how successfully I Googled that) but TinEye Reverse Image Search helped me track it down. It’s 2010 the creation of quilter and gardener Laurie Ceesay

Yelena Casale

Yelena Casale posted her photos without attributions. However, with some help from the indispensable  TinEye Reverse Image Search, I discovered that there doesn’t seem to be an alternative source for the photo Yelena posted of a table set up on what looks like a screened-in back porch with a garden view. It might be one she herself took. The center photo in this montage dates to 2009 or earlier. It is identified by Zoë Marriott as the office of British Writer Kevin Crossley-Holland. The sleek urban office at right originated on Lifehacker as “the Skybox,” a Featured Office. In that short piece, the owner (who calls himself “Rephlektiv.” I couldn’t for-sure identify him, to provide a link), describes his quest to pare his space down to the essentials.

Ploughshares and The Freelancer

The two photos from The Freelancer‘s post belong to interviewees Ann Friedman (at right) and Noah Davis (center). Without the invaluable  TinEye Reverse Image Search, I probably would not have found The Freelance Studio’s “24 Designers Show Off Their Actual Work Spaces Without Cleaning Them First!” That was the source for the office photo on Ploughshares. Though unidentified in Aimee Nezhukumatathil‘s undated guest post for Ploughshares, the office belongs to photographer Vadim Scherbakov.

And finally, send up a shout-out to PictureQuotes, for the nugget of Nicole Appleton’s wisdom on the illustrated quote. Many thanks to all of them, and most especially to TinEye Reverse Image Search!!

The Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery Alabama creates a much-needed space to think about and remember a profoundly formative period in U.S. history, a period whose echoes remain strong today. The emotional power of a memorial is hard to quantify, but it fills an essential human need. Photo by Audra Melton/New York Times/Redux.

Remembering matters

All Souls Day, because remembering matters

The words "All Souls Day" and "Los Días de los Muertos" float above a fabric pattern of dog "muertos," skeletons of dogs in the style of Mexican Day of the Dead skeletons.

Yesterday’s post questioned who “the saints” in All Saints Day are. And we found the answer varies.  Today, however, the festival is “for the rest of us.” This is because, no matter who we are or who we love, remembering matters.

Some traditions roll All Souls up with All Saints. Some particularly focus on the “innocent souls” of deceased babies or (a more recent take, which informed my choice of a background design for the header) animals.

Many Christian traditions see All Souls as the day to commemorate the “Faithful Departed.” In other practices, and in non-Christian traditions, we generally commemorate ancestors, departed friends and honored family members whom we personally remember during this season. In other words, All Souls is for “the rest of us.

Rontisha Brown holds a memorial candle and wears a memorial t-shirt for her brother Rahkeem at a New Year's memorial vigil for murder victims in Liberty City, FL in 2019. Photo by Maria Alejandra Cardona.
Rontisha Brown holds a memorial candle and wears a memorial t-shirt for her brother Rahkeem at a New Year’s memorial vigil for murder victims in Liberty City, FL in 2019. Photo by Maria Alejandra Cardona.

How do we commemorate a deceased person?

One way is with an album or display of photos or videos, or small items the person used or liked. I’ve seen many commemorative albums or slideshows at funerals or memorial services that would be equally appropriate for today

One of my most enduringly popular blog posts described the idea of creating a virtual ofrenda, patterned on the memorial displays set up for the Day(s) of the Dead ceremonies.

Some families create a memorial wall inside their home, where photos of deceased relatives or friends are displayed. There’s also a brisk trade done in memorial items, such as statues, candles, jewelry, Christmas tree ornaments, or other items. 

Some people create memorial T-shirts, especially the families of those who have died by violence. I’ve seen memorial statements placed on cars, too. Another way is to create a landmark. You could plant a tree or donate a memorial bench or other feature to a public area. Many create memorial websites.

Archaeologists excavated the bones of two women, along with shells, necklaces, and antlers, in a Middle Stone-Age grave in Téviec, Brittany.
Archaeologists excavated the bones of two women, along with shells, necklaces, and antlers, in a Middle Stone-Age grave in Téviec, Brittany.

Why create a memorial?

The need to create memorials for deceased family or group members is one of the oldest human impulses we know about. And that’s precisely because archaeological excavations of ancient graves imply so many memorial practices. The contents of ceremonial burials, have yielded many clues about early cultures. 

Throughout time, humans have had to grapple with the reality of death, since eventually it comes to us all. We deal with grief and loss in part by creating memorials. The creative and restorative process of a healthy grieving cycle is a painful, essential reality of our existence

The memorials may be different. The lengths and intensities of grief may vary. But the basic human need remains the same. It is embedded in the idea that to be forgotten is to truly be annihilated

Whether it be collective memory or individual memory, remembering matters. This is why we have funerals, create grave markers, hold vigils, and create public spaces such as the Holocaust Museum or The National Memorial for Peace and Justice

No matter how we remember, and no matter who . . . very simply, remembering matters.

The Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery Alabama creates a much-needed space to think about and remember a profoundly formative period in U.S. history, a period whose echoes remain strong today. The emotional power of a memorial is hard to quantify, but it fills an essential human need. Photo by Audra Melton/New York Times/Redux
The Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery Alabama creates a much-needed space to think about and remember a profoundly formative period in U.S. history, a period whose echoes remain strong today. The emotional power of a memorial is hard to quantify, but it fills an essential human need. Photo by Audra Melton/New York Times/Redux.

IMAGE CREDITS: Many thanks to’s “Timeless Treasures Day of the Dead” fabric design collection, which I used for the background of my header image for today. This one is called “Pups Black.” Many thanks to PressFrom and Maria Alejandra Cardona for the photo of Rontisha Brown memorializing her murdered brother Rahkeem Brown. The image of the ancient burial is courtesy of Red Ice. The Audra Melton photo from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is from The New Yorker. I deeply appreciate you all!

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