The Seated Writer

In this day and age, we hear a lot about exercise.  It’s considered important for overall health.  Get up and get out, we are told.  Walk, jog, bicycle, whatever, but get some exercise.  I suspect that thousands of years ago when the human body first took the form we know today, it developed in a species that still had to struggle everyday just to get enough food to eat.  Early man couldn’t go to the supermarket to get food.  He/she may have had to climb trees to get fruit, or chased down prey to get meat.  In any event, the human body developed with a requirement for some sort of regular exercise every day.

Enter the modern man.  We ride smog-producing conveyances instead of walking.  We sit at a desk or in meetings for hours every day.  We have even gone so far as to develop the remote control for our television viewing so as to allow us to remain seated instead of having to get up and change the channel.  Are we really that lazy?

Writing must be among the most sedentary of professions.  Put butt in chair and write, we are told.  We sit quietly in a chair for long hours, tapping away at a computer keyboard or scratching ink or pencil on a piece of paper.  I’ve heard (I’m not giving away any names here) of writers who claim (brag, even) that they write 24/7.  This implies they actually and literally write twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.   Personally, I’m skeptical.  They say they do that because they love writing, though I doubt they’re in a chair all that time.  I love to write, but not to that extent.  But the existence of these writers does bring up an important point.  I’m certainly not skeptical that there are writers who do spend a lot of time in the chair writing.  But writing to this extent isn’t good.

Sitting that long is bad, not only for your butt, but your overall health.  Sure, the writing has to be done, and the bills have to be paid, but is it worth all that time spent hacking away if you are only going to ruin your health because of it?  Get out of the chair.  Write in short spurts of a couple of hours at a time at the most.  Walking, jogging, swimming, gardening—these are all considered good exercise.  Find out what’s best for you and keep at it.

Exercise is supposed to increase blood flow to the brain, and that’s the organ most seriously involved in writing.  I walk a lot.  I also lift weights, though I do that more to keep the muscles and joints in my upper body from becoming rigid or frozen rather than build muscle mass.  But there’s more to walking than blood flow.  I’ve found a lot of ideas during my walks.  I’ve solved problems with some of my writings.  Walking not only improves my overall health, it gives me time to contemplate.  Walking takes time.  Walking five miles will take slightly more than an hour, and that gives me time to go over my work and think about what’s to come.

So, what do you do for exercise?  Or are you a writer 24/7?

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Measles Vaccine (What? Again?)

Much has been made in the past couple of weeks of Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) comments about the neurological complications of the measles vaccine.  He recanted his ill-advised comments several days later, but they linger on, and many others have commented on his comments.  Ad nauseam.  Some commentators, in an effort to emphasize the safety of the vaccine and encourage people to get vaccinated or get their children vaccinated, have denied that there have ever been any severe side effects (a scientist would call them ‘adverse reactions’) at all.  Strictly speaking, neither is correct.

The measles vaccine has been out since the early 1970’s in the United States, and since that time a number of adverse reactions have occurred in the days, weeks and months after some people were immunized.  I use that convoluted language to emphasize a point.  Adverse reactions can’t occur until the vaccine is given.  You certainly can’t get a bad reaction to a vaccine before it’s given, can you?  Therefore, timing is important.  And just because a person receives a vaccine and gets a bad reaction, that by itself doesn’t prove that the reaction was caused by the vaccine.  That being said, many reactions to measles vaccine have been reported.  Autism is not one of them.  (Measles vaccine is now given either as a trivalent vaccine along with mumps and rubella, or as a tetravalent vaccine: measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella.).  Most reactions have been mild, such as fever or a mild rash.  Some have been more severe, including seizures, joint pain and stiffness, low platelet count.  Some have been very severe, including long-term seizures, even permanent brain damage.  It is this last point to which Senator Paul was probably referring.

The reason these reactions are related to measles vaccine is, again, timing.  They occurred after the vaccine was given.  That doesn’t prove unequivocally that the reactions were due to the vaccine, but with some reactions, such as fever and a mild rash, the sheer number of cases of these reactions pretty well implicates the vaccine.  But the same can’t be said for the serious reactions.  So few cases of seizures and permanent brain damage have been reported we just can’t ascribe them to the vaccine.  There’s not enough data.

The only way to really prove that severe brain damage has been caused by the vaccine would be to take hundreds of thousands of children and divide them into two groups.  That is, it would have to be done as a double-blind trial.  One group would receive the vaccine, the other a placebo.  Then we’d look for adverse reactions.  They should occur only in the vaccinated.  But such a trial would certainly be time consuming, expensive, unnecessary, and most important of all, grossly unethical.  So, all we do is report adverse reactions when they occur.

The reduction in number of cases of measles after the introduction of the measles vaccine certainly justifies the continued use of the vaccine.  Measles is not just a bad cold with a rash.  The disease itself can cause neurological complications, even death.  The only way we’ll ever be free of the scourge of measles will be when it is eradicated from the earth.  I have no idea what Rand Paul will comment on then.


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Measles Vaccine, Part Two

No, the title of this post doesn’t mean I’ve posted before about the measles vaccine.  In fact, I’ve never said anything about measles or the vaccine in these little essays on WordPress.  What I’m saying here is that this posting is about a second reason for getting the vaccine, if you or your children aren’t presently vaccinated.  The primary reason for getting the vaccine is two-fold: to prevent getting the disease caused by the wild virus, and, by extension, to prevent spreading the disease to others.  It is this main reason that measles and the measles vaccine have been in the news so much lately.  But there is also a second reason to get vaccinated.  This has to do with infants and their mothers.

Before the measles vaccine was developed, measles was a common childhood disease, along with mumps, chickenpox and rubella.  (All of those also have vaccines, by the way.)  There were millions of cases of measles every year in the US.  There were very few deaths due to measles, but what is most important for this discussion is that girls and women who got the disease also got a life-long immunity to it.  When these women got pregnant, they passed some of their immunity to the developing fetus, and this immunity helped keep the newborn from contracting the disease for a short time after birth.  An infant’s immune system is not fully developed until about nine to twelve months after birth, and this is why the recommendation is that a child not get his/her first immunizations until he/she is about one year old.  Well, Mother Nature, in her infinite wisdom, took care of that delay in immune system formation and allowed some of the antibodies that the mother possesses after a natural infection to cross the placenta and circulate in the newborn’s blood.  That way the infant was protected.  Well, to a certain extant.  This type of transferred immunity isn’t as good as that after a natural infection, but it is something.

Then, along came the vaccine.  Since the measles vaccine was introduced in the early 1970’s, the number of new cases of measles has dropped drastically.  Now, here in the early twenty-first century, we see very few cases.  But mothers now don’t have that immunity induced by a case of the measles, so they don’t pass it along to their children.  Now we’re beginning to see cases of measles in children under one year old.  And these cases can be severe.  When the child had transferred immunity, if he/she did get infected, the disease was frequently milder.

So now we have a rather un-natural situation.  The vaccine reduced the disease, but it left young women with little or no immunity.  So, it is incumbent on all of us to get the vaccine to help prevent infections that might be transferred to a totally unprotected newborn.  Young women who expect to become pregnant soon are advised to get the vaccine, even if they had the vaccine as a child.  But this is more to help prevent them from transmitting the virus to their newborns, not to boost their immunity.  Vaccinated mothers probably don’t transfer much immunity to their fetus, at least not as much as a natural infection would.

The only way out of this situation is to eradicate the disease from the face of the earth, as has been done with smallpox.  Measles is a good candidate for eradication, too.  Only in that situation can a young mother be sure her infant won’t get measles.  For whatever reason.


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Historic versus Historical


I was at Chaco Culture National Historical Park several years ago to help the Sierra Club do some routine maintenance around the Park.  Things that the regular staff doesn’t get to.  (Clean out brush, make some signs, clean debris out of some of the historic remains, etc.)  After I left, I got to wondering about the name.  The Park is a part of the National Park Service and so is run by the Interior Department.  But the point about the name I was curious about was the word “Historical.”   Shouldn’t it be “Historic”?  After all, the remains of the buildings built by the Chacoan People are certainly historic.  They’re a part of the history of the land that was eventually incorporated into the nation we now call the United States.  They were built between 800 and 1000 AD, and the US made them a part of a National Park that takes care of them and studies them to learn more about the people who built them.  Certainly a reasonable thing to do.  So I looked up the two words in the dictionary.

“Historic” means “famous or important in history.”  “Historical,” though, means “of, relating to, or having the characteristics of history.”  Also “based on history,” or “famous in history.”  I can identify with the definition of “historic,” but the definition of “historical” left me unsatisfied.  The two definitions are almost the same.  Is there a real difference, and if so, what is it?

Actually, I believe the National Park Service got it right.  It should be Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  The reason for using that word is that it’s not the Park itself that’s historic, it’s what’s in the Park that is.  The Park was created well after the buildings it preserves were constructed.  We make a distinction between what’s historic on the one hand, and what preserves history on the other.  For example, the Declaration of Independence is an historic document, but the National Archives where it is stored and displayed is not an historic building (it’s not that old).  The Archives is an historical building because it preserves the document.  Likewise, Chaco Culture Park preserves the remnants of the Chaco Culture.  On the other hand, Independence Hall in Philadelphia is an historic building because history was made there.  Thus, “historic” means “important in history,” where “historical” has to do with preserving or studying or maintaining history.

Another example: the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC is not an historic building.  It was put up well after Abraham Lincoln died, and serves to commemorate the life of the 16th President.  It could be considered an historical building.  So I believe a real difference exists between the two words and we should be careful to use them correctly.  As the Park Service did.

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Books And Fireworks

Have you noticed?  Books are subtle.

Books—and I’m speaking here mostly of novels—don’t come with fireworks.  They don’t come with bands or loud music or spectacular displays or shouting pitchmen.  Granted, a few may be launched by someone giving a fiery speech, especially a political tell-all book by an author with a story to tell or an ax to grind.  In the vast majority of cases, novels are launched with only an announcement and perhaps a short, subdued speech by the author.

But it’s within the book I want to concentrate.  Books are more like symphony orchestras.  You attend a concert by your favorite symphony and they perform and that’s it.  There’s no fireworks display, no yelling, no screaming fans.  The music can get loud, sure, but it’s a controlled, unchaotic loudness.  It’s written into the music.  You rely on the composer to decide what’s loud and what’s soft.  Like Beethoven or Tchaikovsky.  The conductor bows at the end of the concert, and you file out.  All you need to know about the music is contained within.  (I did once attend the Santa Fe Opera to see La Boheme, I believe, where they shot off one rocket, but that was all.  They could do it because the Santa Fe Opera is outdoors.)

So it is with a novel.  Most novels start slowly and build.  But it’s a controlled build, it takes you along smoothly and carefully, and gives you the information you need to digest the plot.  It doesn’t yell at you.  It isn’t a riotous, turbulent display of loud noise and flashing lights and lasers and mirrors.  You don’t have a drummer behind you with an exaggerated sense of his/her importance.  The book is an entity all to itself.  All you need to know is built right into the book.  You don’t need outside or extraneous fireworks to digest the story.  A book is not spectacular; it quietly goes about its business delivering the message one word at a time.  You don’t read a book, you curl up with it.

As I write this, someone in an apartment nearby is playing rock music loud enough to be heard through the walls and floor or ceiling of my apartment.  I feel sorry for someone who has to get his/her stimulation by been bombarded by loud music.  Turn off the stereo or TV and read a book.

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“Wild” and The Author

I went to see the movie “Wild” a few weeks ago and enjoyed it a lot.  If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it highly.  Two Oscar nominations have come from this film, one for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, Reese Witherspoon, and one for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, Laura Dern.  The movie is based on a book by Cheryl Strayed about how she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from southern California to northern Washington state in an effort to revitalize and recharge her life after the death of her mother, a disastrous marriage, and some destructive life choices she made.  Before I saw the movie, I’d heard about the basic plot line, and had some routine expectations about the movie before I ever entered the theater.

It pays not to make too many assumptions.

I expected the movie to start near the beginning of Cheryl’s life and run in a closely chronological order up through the hike, and end at or near the end of the trail.  It didn’t.  The movie started as she was preparing for the hike, and the important incidents that led up to her decision to make the hike in the first place were interspersed at intervals throughout the entire movie.  In a writer’s parlance, this is known as “avoiding an info dump.”

An info dump is when a writer gives a lot of information about a character, or the character’s background, or about a situation, or perhaps even an item of scenery all at once in one big lump.  It’s just a lot of information that stalls the story, adds little or nothing to the plot, and turns the reader off.  What the hell, the reader may ask, is this doing here?  I could care less about how many buttons are on his overcoat.  So often the details in an info dump are unimportant to the plot, and could be eliminated entirely.  That doesn’t mean all info dump information is unnecessary, however.  Many times some of those details really are essential to the story line.  The real problem with an info dump is that the reader can’t tell which details are essential and which are not, and so tends to dismiss them all.  So, the dumping of all of them in one place can really screw up an otherwise good story.  This is what the movie did not do.

Cheryl’s early life (that is, before the hike) was placed in vignettes scattered throughout the movie, not concentrated in any one place, so that the major action in the movie remained fixed on the hike itself.  It wasn’t what I expected, but I was glad to see it was well done.  And writers can (and should) take a message from this.  Make no mistake, the background of a character is almost always important to the story, certainly.  As readers, we want to know what a person did to get himself or herself in this difficult situation.  Background tells us that.  But having it all dumped in our figurative laps all at once is disconcerting and frustrating.  It should come in small spoonfuls as the narrative progresses.  We want to stay focused on the action.  Don’t knock us out of the story.  Talk to Cheryl.

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I got to thinking today (always a bad sign) about how I would start a class on writing.  That is, suppose I had to teach a class on writing to total novices, what would I say at the very beginning of the first class.  Now, being an unpublished writer of science fiction, the thought of me teaching a class on writing is laughable at best, but in my mind I can ignore the fact that I probably don’t have the faintest idea of what I’m talking about and go on to the class itself.  So, where to start?

I’d start by saying that writing is one form of communication.  Granted, that’s not very profound, but it is a necessary beginning.  Every writer is trying to communicate an idea.  He/She’s trying to say something.  Writers are the type of people who put ideas down on paper or on a computer screen so that others can read it.  A very simple idea.

But what we sometimes lose sight of is the necessity of making sure our ideas get through.  It’s a writer’s job to make sure that the idea gets through into the mind of the reader.  It’s the writer’s job to be clear in his expression of the idea he/she’s trying to make.  It doesn’t matter if a writer is writing poetry, fiction, essay, memoir, or whatnot, it’s the idea at the center of the writing that is the important thing.  If you, as a writer, aren’t making your idea clear, then you are a total, miserable, abject, tragic failure as a writer.

Writing is a two-way street, to use a well-known cliché.  In addition to the writer, someone has to read the words, in other words, a reader has to exist to complete the picture.  There are always two (2) people involved in writing.  Writing without a reader is just chicken-scratching and is totally meaningless.  The idea, the concept within that writing, has to get through absolutely.

I suppose this concept applies most strongly to poetry.  I’ve read a lot of poetry that communicates a good idea, but I’ve also read some poetry, experimental mostly, in which the concept, the reason for the poem, is just lost.  At least on me.  But this basic tenant also applies to all forms of writing, and we all need to be sure we’re communicating a good idea, a good concept, with our writing.

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