Living Vicariously

I have noticed that while my daily tarot card pick seldom reflects what I am feeling or doing (possibly because I am not feeling or doing much of anything), it sometimes reflects the situation of someone I’ve been talking to, especially if I empathize with them. Just as often, the card seems to reflect the situation of a character in a book I’m reading.

To the extent that the tarot has meaning, and to the extent that I am not reaching far afield to find any sort of meaning in the card, this does seem to indicate that our brains can interpret a fictional world and a fictional experience as being as real as a real-life experience.

Research does tend to corroborate this idea — people who read fiction are more empathetic than those who don’t read. They think better, connect to new ideas quicker, are more able to comprehend other people’s motivations, can understand and accept more easily the idea that others hold beliefs that are different from one’s own.

When testing readers to see what happens to their brains, scientists have recorded noticeable changes in brain chemistry that seem to bear out the idea that the experiences in fiction are in some way interpreted as real. This makes sense when you consider that a story we read becomes a memory as does everything else we’ve ever experienced, so when the brain isn’t focused on daily tasks — or maybe when it is — it plumbs our memories for clues about what worked, what didn’t, and how to proceed.

There are many things I have done in a fictional world, whether one I created or someone else did, that I would never be able to (and certainly wouldn’t want to) experience in real life, such as be a spy in a hostile country, become an assassin or a victim of an assassin, be a psychic, deal with drug problems.

From a young age, long before most kids started experiencing with drugs and alcohol and smoking, I’d developed a fear of addiction because of the books I’d read (though now, I can’t imagine what I was reading when I was a child to give me these ideas), and so I abstained even when pressured and ridiculed. I never understood how people could be so blasé about experimenting. In fact, I was shocked at people’s ignorance when all the class-action lawsuits dealing with tobacco companies showed people the dangers of smoking. How could they not know? It seemed so obvious to me. Apparently, one doesn’t have to personally go through the trauma of addiction to understand how devastating it can be.

This connection between fiction and real memories makes me wonder what I will remember when I get old. Will I remember my life or one of the tens of thousands of other lives I’ve lived vicariously? And will it matter?

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

A Truly Appalling Novel

I recently finished reading an appalling book, which unfortunately isn’t all that uncommon. What is rare, however is the agitation I’ve been left with. Not only is the premise incredibly silly and the ending utterly nonsensical, but the author went on to bestselling fame. How is that possible? The only thing I can think of is that he either had an in with someone or he was dealing with agents, editors, and publishers who were also men. No woman would have ever countenanced the ignorance rampant in the novel.

(If you are squeamish about the workings of a woman’s body, feel free to decamp. I won’t mind.)

The story starts out with a married woman having an affair and getting pregnant. To cover it up, she makes sure she has lots of sex with her husband so he would believe the baby was his.

Thirty years later, the ensuing daughter falls in love and wants to get married, but her mother hates the fiancé and forbids the marriage, so the daughter elopes. When the mother finds out, she hops on a plane, goes to where the two are honeymooning and tells the new husband she had an affair with his father, that his new wife is his sister, and that neither the girl or her saintly doctor father must ever find out the truth.

Instead of ignoring the mother’s wishes and talking to his beloved new wife, the guy fakes his death, leaving his bride drowning in grief, and then gets plastic surgery. Huh? What sort of idiot does that sort of thing after a single conversation with someone who hates him? Wouldn’t even a halfway intelligent person insist on a DNA test before committing such a folly?

And that’s not the worst. It turns out that the father knew all along about his wife’s affair. He was so incensed, he killed the man, aborted the other man’s baby without the mother knowing about it, then had copious sex to make sure his wife got pregnant by him while thinking she was still pregnant with the other man’s child.

The stupidity of this is mind-boggling. First of all, the affair was in 1960, long before instant pregnancy tests. A woman didn’t know she was pregnant until she’d missed a period, and though she might suspect, it wouldn’t be official until she went to a doctor after missing a second period. So the woman had to be at least two months pregnant. And yet when she gave birth, she was relieved to find out that she had remained pregnant long past her due date so she didn’t have to explain the discrepancy. What, three months past? (Two months before the abortion, another month at least to get pregnant again.) She was okay with a supposed twelve-month pregnancy? No way. And during all this time, she never went to a doctor? Just let her surgeon husband take care of her?

And how in the world could she not know something was wrong after the abortion? She’d been drugged into oblivion, so she wouldn’t necessarily have psychological or emotional problems, but she would know that she’d been drugged and she sure as shooting would have physical issues. After an abortion, the body can go through shock, vast hormonal changes, post-partum depression caused by hormone imbalance, milk production, soreness, and a variety of other biological changes. She could have an empty feeling that has a biological rather than a psychological basis because the oxytocin that was being rapidly produced by the body to ensure the bonding between mother and child is suddenly flowing the other way causing a void where the bond used to be. There can also be something known as microchimerism. Since the mother and baby immediately start exchanging cells, the mother can now have the father’s DNA in her body. And in fact, as weird and improbable as it might seem, that DNA can show up in the next baby. (Which actually would have been a better story than this one.) If nothing else, she could have had a menstrual period after the abortion and before the new pregnancy. That isn’t always the case, but if it was, then for sure she’d have questions about why she was bleeding. And, if her doctor husband had kept her drugged all this time so she wouldn’t be aware of any of this, why wouldn’t she have developed an addiction to the strong drugs, and wouldn’t it concern the doctor that his offspring might be born already addicted?

That’s not all of it, of course. Since it was supposed to be a thriller, it had to do with the doctor going around killing everyone who knew about the affair, the newly plasticized husband going back to try out for his old position with the sports team he’d been a part of, and various and sundry other ludicrous plot points.

A truly appalling story. Now that I’ve passed the horror on to you, maybe I can stop agitating over it and be grateful that at least my books make sense.

***

What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

Click here to buy Bob, The Right Hand of God.

Undead Husband Thrillers

There is a subgenre of thrillers where a woman’s husband dies and then later, sometimes years later, she finds out that he is still alive.

Sometimes the widow is convicted of killing her husband, and when she gets out of prison, she kills him for real. Sometimes the widow killed her husband, and the supposed “sighting” is a hoax to flush her out. Sometimes the husband faked his death. Sometimes it’s the wife and the children who are declared dead, and only later is the husband united with the children, but not the wife.

I think about these stories as I read them, and wonder how I would react if I found out Jeff hadn’t really died. It would be impossible, of course, because I was there when he took his last breath. I even waited a few minutes before I notified anyone. And, I was there when they shrouded his body with a white blanket, covered it with a red plush blanket, and took it out to the mortician’s SUV.

Still, I wonder. What if I hadn’t been there, and they took the body without waiting for me. What if all I had was an urn they said were his ashes? If I had seen him just a few months after his death, maybe even a year or two, I would have been ecstatic. Later, of course, I might have second thoughts as the sense of betrayal set in. If I had seen him five or so years later, my first reaction might be delight, but it would be followed immediately by fury. How dare he let me think he was dead; how dare he abandon me and subject me to years of grief! Still, I’d listen to his explanation, and if it was reasonable enough, I might forgive him, but I don’t think I’d be able to pick up our life where it left off.

Now, if I were to see him, it would be completely different. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d even recognize him. Eleven years is a long time. And if I did, I’m not sure how I’d react. It would seem a betrayal of him — and my grief — not to want him in my life again, but I’m not the same person I was all those years ago. And if he was willing to walk away from me, then he wouldn’t be the person I thought he was.

His story would have to be truly remarkable to get me to believe that he didn’t simply abandon me. What if he did it to save me? He had actually talked about driving away and leaving me when he got too sick; he didn’t want me to spend my life caring for an invalid, and he didn’t want to be cared for. I can see a scenario based on this — he drove off a cliff, survived and was found, though he had no memory. Perhaps the person who found him was able to heal him. And perhaps years later, he remembered who he was but couldn’t find me.

That’s not an unreasonable scenario — there’s no way he’d be able to track me to this town. I haven’t left much of a paper trail. And yet, I still have the same cell number, and he could find me with no trouble on the internet, so he’d be able to contact me. Maybe he found out via this blog that I’d found a modicum of contentment and he didn’t want to disturb my peace.

Come to think of it, this could be an interesting book. So many of the undead husband novels end up with the husband getting dead for real, disappearing again, and — in a very few cases — becoming reconciled with the abandoned wife. But no book that I know of hints at what the reconciled life would be. The only thing similar is one of those stories where a kidnapped child finds his/her way home years later to a not-happily-ever-after ending.

Maybe someday I’ll write the book, but I don’t really want to think about the story. And I won’t until the next time I pick up an undead husband thriller.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Conjuring Literary Genius

I’m reading a book based on the premise that there was a previous version of Macbeth using an actual witch’s spell, but because the spell conjured up real evil during rehearsals, Shakespeare hurriedly rewrote the witches’ scenes. The story also postulates that Shakespeare had observed such a rite, and in fact, the rite was done to imbue him with literary genius.

Despite the pseudo-scholarliness of the book, I doubt there’s any way for anyone to know the truth of the legend — after all, those whose life work is a study of Shakespeare and his writings can’t even decide who Shakespeare was and if he did in fact write all that is attributed to him. Nor is there any way to know if he was divinely inspired, if his gift was an inborn one, or if it was magically conjured up. (Apparently, a lot of cauldron spells and conjuring had to do with gaining knowledge and inspiration.) And not everyone believes he is a literary genius. After all, he wrote for the lowest common denominator in his day, and though that might have conferred a special literary prowess on him, it doesn’t necessarily make him a genius.

All you have to do is look at the writers today who have earned great success by writing rather mediocre or even passably literate novels, to realize that success doesn’t necessarily equate to great writing. (Does anyone think the Shades of Gray books are literary or or even passably literate?)

All of this has led me to wonder about a modern-day Shakespeare wannabe. What if a successful literary hack wants it all — not just the wealth that comes from selling books to the masses, but also wants to be acclaimed as a literary genius. So she tracks down Shakespeare’s spell, and even though it might entail a blood sacrifice, as well as other criminal offenses, she goes through the rite and ends up a literary genius.

The only problem is, who today would even recognize literary genius? Her lowest-common-denominator readers certainly wouldn’t, and in fact, they’d abandon her in droves because they wouldn’t be able to figure out what the heck she’s talking about. To be honest, neither would I. There have been several books over the years that I thought were pure bunk even though they had been hailed as genius and ended up winning all the major awards.

So, in typical fairytale fashion, what would really happen is that the author who wanted it all would end up in prison with nothing because not only would people not find her new style inspiring, they wouldn’t approve of how she got it. Well, some people would think the end justifies the means, but even they wouldn’t appreciate her literary genius.

I guess the moral of the story (at least for me as a writer) is to leave well enough alone. Although it would be nice to be hailed as a literary genius and a brilliant writer, it would be even nicer to be able to sleep at night. Though selling a few more books than I do would be good.

***

What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

Click here to buy Bob, The Right Hand of God.

Blogworthy

I’ve fallen into a weird sort of alter world when it comes to reading. Every book I pick up now seems to be a reflection of other recently read books, or a continuation of a series, no matter who the authors are and how far apart the books were published.

For example, two books I read one right after the other were of the “doctor in peril” genre, with both doctors being plastic surgeons who used the money they made from fixing the faces of rich women to fix various problems of poor kids, such as repairing a cleft lip. In both cases, the doctors were framed for murder by someone who misunderstood them and misidentified them and wanted revenge. Oddly, the doctors in both books had a similar name — in fact there were only a couple of letters difference between the names. A third book I read about that same time was of the same genre, but the doctor wasn’t a plastic and had a completely different name.

I’m not sure how that happened — I certainly didn’t go searching for doctors-in-peril thrillers; mostly when I am at the library, I pick books at random, either because I like the title or it’s by an author I can bear to read. (Though there aren’t any authors I truly like, there are way too many I can’t tolerate.)

The next time I got a batch of books, two of them were about women who “adopted” a fertilized egg from someone who wasn’t going to use them, and so they gave birth but the child wasn’t their genetic offspring.

In that same batch of books, was the story of an athlete who had his career cut short through bad luck. Years later, he found out he had a child. He had donated sperm, and the clerk in the sperm bank wanted his baby, so she got inseminated.

A few weeks later, I read a book in a series about an athlete who got his pro career cut short because of bad luck. Throughout the story, he kept referring to the son he had recently met, a son who’d been conceived by the clerk in a sperm bank. I kept nodding my head remembering that I had read the previous book in the series where he discovered his son, when suddenly I realized the book where the athlete had discovered his son was a completely different series, written by another author in completely different genre. (One was a paranormal/horror version of a fairy tale; one was a thriller. And yes, my reading does range that widely since I read whatever comes my way.)

Every book I read now seems a continuation of all previous books. Normally, I’d consider this to be a case of having misspent my life reading. I’ve read tens of thousands of books — all genres of fiction and all subject matters of non-fiction — so almost all books are familiar in some sense. There aren’t many books that tell completely new stories. (I tried to do that with my books, and not surprisingly, people who read sporadically find them hard to read, while people who read a lot seem to enjoy them.) And yet, these books that seem a continuation of all others are ones I’ve picked up in recent weeks.

It’s not a big deal — it’s certainly not creepy enough to get me to stop reading — but I do find the experience blogworthy.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Rules to Live By. Maybe.

I have been reading the Orphan X series by Gregg Hurwitz about a child who was taken from an orphanage at a young age and trained to be an assassin. The person who trained the orphan who would become “The Nowhere Man” also trained him to retain his humanity as much as possible, and gave him a series of commandments to live by.

I was intrigued by the rules the orphan was taught because most of them seemed to be things that we all should know. (The eighth commandment for most of us would be to never kill anyone, not just a kid, but I suppose if one is an assassin, the distinction is necessary.)

The First Commandment: Assume nothing.
The Second Commandment: How you do anything is how you do everything.
The Third Commandment: Master your surroundings.
The Fourth Commandment: Never make it personal.
The Fifth Commandment: If you don’t know what to do, do nothing.
The Sixth Commandment: Question orders.
The Seventh Commandment: One mission at a time.
The Eighth Commandment: Never kill a kid.
The Ninth Commandment: Always play offense.
The Tenth Commandment: Never let an innocent die.

Honorary mention – Don’t fall in love with plan A.

And from a different series by a different author: Don’t believe everything you think you know.

A couple of these “commandments” really make me think, especially the second one. Is it true how you do anything is how you do everything? If so, it makes sense to pay attention to how you do the simplest thing to make sure when it comes to something important, you act the way you need to act.

And though the final rule about not believing everything you think you know isn’t something Orphan X was taught, but was a precept taught to new cops in another series, it fits with the rest, and it, too, makes me think. We do tend to believe what we think we know, and that is true today more than ever since that’s basically all we can do — from all the various “facts” at our disposal, we choose which ones to believe, though some of those “facts” have to be false since not all of them can be true.

Whether these are rules for us normal, real live humans (rather than characters in a book) to live by, they are intriguing, to say the least.

***

What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

Click here to buy Bob, The Right Hand of God.

Happiness and Contentment

In a book I’m reading, a character described herself as happy but not contented or satisfied. Can you be happy if you’re not content? I thought happiness and contentment were pretty much the same though, though some people equate happiness with a more robust feeling than contentment, sort of like an inner effervescence that bubbles outwardly to affect those around them.

But then, what do I know. I say I’m happy, but what I really am is at peace, contented, grateful, accepting of my life. Anything more than that, at least to me, seems to be overkill. People make a lot of effort to be happy, though happiness was never my goal in life. I was more interested in reading, learning, trying to lead a meaningful life. I do enjoy the moments of effervescence, though there’s always a letdown afterward, but I don’t live for them.

Unless I’m wrong about what happiness is?

(A pause here while I look up “happiness” in an online dictionary.)

Well, that sure was productive! According to the definition I found, happiness is the state of being happy. Sheesh. So I looked up “happy.” “Happy” is defined as an enjoyable or satisfied state of being.

Now, of course, I’m more confused. Or maybe the author of that book was. Unless by “happy” the author meant being problem-free, able to get or to do whatever one wants? The character certainly had that, at least up to the point where she was killed, ostensibly for being too happy.

I don’t suppose it really matters what happiness is, how it is defined, if we pursue it or wait until it finds us. It’s something each of us knows we have.

Actually, no. That’s not true. Studies have shown that happiness is found mainly in retrospect. When someone is involved in a challenging situation that takes all their time and energy, they don’t realize until later they were happy. In fact, often while going through this “happy” situation, people think they are decidedly unhappy.

So what does it all mean? Who knows. I don’t, and that author sure didn’t. Maybe you do?

***

What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

Click here to buy Bob, The Right Hand of God.

Going to the Library

I get much enjoyment from going to the library. There are always books, of course, as well as a chance to find one I have been awaiting. (Today I found Louise Penny’s All the Devils Are Here, which they had recently acquired. Yay!)

And I get to say hi to people, even visit for a few minutes while maintaining my distance. The librarians, of course, are always there and always pleasant to talk to, as is a church organist, who looks up from a computer to gift me with a smile. Today I also chatted a couple of minutes with a city council member and her baby (now a toddler) who had campaigned with her. I also visited for a few minutes with one of my game-playing friends and caught up on all the news. Apparently, things are getting back to normal, because today there was a picnic lunch at the senior center (though I think it was “picnic” in name only since people had to go and pick up their meals) and there is a dinner scheduled for the end of the month at one of the churches.

Although she offered me a ride to the church, I gave my ready excuse of having to work, though chances are, even if the dinner works into my oh-so-heavy schedule (this is irony since my job consists of visiting with an older woman several hours a week), I probably still wouldn’t go. I don’t seem to be able to lose the fifteen or so pounds I gained the first year I was here (I attended too many meal events and ate too much of the things I’m not supposed to), and I’m not sure I want to deal with either gaining more weight or going to a dinner and not eating, though I might stop by to say hi.

Or not. I still don’t have my vaccine, and I’m not sure when I will be able to get it. Besides, the way I look at it, I’m fine temporarily, but that will change if I ever get back into socializing. Which, to be honest, is not high on my agenda at the moment. I would enjoy seeing people, of course, but for now, my perennial conflict of indulgence vs. discipline is leaning more toward the disciplined side, with stretching in the morning, knee exercises, a short walk, a few minutes on the elliptical, as well as eschewing the foods I shouldn’t be chewing, and I’d just as soon not upset my current balance.

And, of course, I am back to trekking to the library on a regular basis, though not the one illustrating this post. The photo is the Prague Library, and someone else took the photo and kindly let me use it.

***

What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

Click here to buy Bob, The Right Hand of God.

Lovely Lazy Day

It rained most of the day, which was very nice because . . . well, because, for one thing, rain means it was warm enough that we didn’t get the snow so much of the state received, and that means I won’t have to spend this evening or tomorrow morning shoveling snow.

For another thing, rain means I don’t have to water my outside plants. It’s been so dry, I’ve been thinking I need to drag out my hoses to prevent everything from succumbing to the drought, but whew! I won’t have to do that chore quite yet. Even better, because of the rain, tulips from last spring that I thought were dead have managed to resuscitate themselves. I still don’t know whether I will have flowers, but the green tips peeping up from the soil are a welcome sight.

And finally, rain means that I can be lazy without having to offer excuses why I’m not out running errands, or cleaning up the yard in preparation for spring, or taking a walk, or any number of things I could be doing. Not that I would be doing these activities, you understand. It’s that I have an excuse not to do them, rather than having to face the truth of my indolence.

I started the day as I normally do, with a some stretching, picking a tarot card to study, folding a few origami cranes, reading (lots of reading!), playing a game on the computer, fixing myself a bite to eat (several bites, actually — I don’t eat much, but even I need more than a single bite for subsistence), coming up with a new password for online banking (the passwords become defunct every six months), and staring out the window at the miraculous sight of water falling from the sky.

I even caught up with a friend via telephone, and now here I am, posting to this blog.

Listing everything I’ve done suddenly makes it seem as if it wasn’t such a lazy rain day after all. But it certainly was lovely for all that.

***

What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

Click here to buy Bob, The Right Hand of God

If Doomsday Comes

I just finished reading a book where all technology, including power grids, were knocked out by a coronal mass ejection from the sun. Checking on the possibility of such a catastrophe, I learned that “scientists,” whatever that means, are concerned about such a possibility, and are trying to create systems that can withstand such powerful ejections from the sun.

Oddly, humans are not affected by any of these CME’s. Supposedly, if we are standing on Earth, within Earth’s atmosphere, we are protected. So if we were to be subjected to CMEs powerful enough to destroy technology, we would be safe. Safe from the sun’s emissions, that is. Not safe from each other.

You’d think that in a worldwide crisis, people would come together with a one-for-all and all-for-one attitude, but I don’t see it. In any emergency, there will be people who look for ways to help, and those who look for ways to capitalize on the mess.

Because of The Bob, and the resulting shortages, and because of the arctic blast we were subjected to, and various other emergencies, you’d think I’d be more concerned about stocking up, but I just don’t seem to see the point. If there were something that would knock out the power grids, the media, transportation, availability of food, gas, and supplies, there’s no amount of things I could stockpile that would get me through months, even a year, of deprivation. It’s a physical impossibility.

Mostly, I don’t care. I’ve lived through a lot of crises that didn’t actually happen. Too often, news folk and politicians titillated us with possible doomsday scenarios that went nowhere. Even with The Bob, even considering as many problems as there were, the end result was nothing like the original projection of 80% of people on earth dying from the disease. (It’s this projection that panicked the various politicians and made them close down cities and towns. I’m not sure what they would have done if they had been given a truthful scenario. Probably shrugged their shoulders and continued as usual. Unless, of course, their reelection was at stake; then we’d hear from them.)

I suppose if I really believed in a massive doomsday rather than a personal one (after all, each of us does have a personal doomsday in our future), I might be more concerned, but even then, I’m not sure what I could do. I am set up for a week, maybe two. I have camping equipment, including a solar cell phone charger, that would help make things easier, but beyond that? I’m not sure it’s worth it. Do I really want to survive in a society that basically has to start over? That’s assuming I could survive. If I had stocked up on anything, chances are, someone with guns and a driving need for survival at all costs would have taken them from me.

I’m sure I’ve talked about this same subject — survival — too many times, but it’s one that seems to come up again and again, either in books, on the news, or even in conversations with people.

If I were young, perhaps I would feel differently, but from what I remember back in cold war years, nuclear threats, Asian flu and swine flu seasons, terrorist attacks, and all the rest of it, I didn’t feel any differently.

Then again, who knows. None of us truly knows how we will act when doomsday comes. Perhaps I will be the one with a shotgun, desperately running around stealing people’s carefully hoarded stocks.

***

What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

Click here to buy Bob, The Right Hand of God