Tag Archives: fear

Book Review: The Warded Man

fantasy, epic fantasy, Peter Brett

The Warded Man was released in the US in 2009, Harper Voyager imprint

The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett came out in 2008 in the UK (as The Painted Man) and 2009 in North America. It’s the first of the Demon Cycle. Yes, there are spoilers.

This fantasy takes place in world that once had the age of science but something happened and demons from the core (of the world) materialized every night, bent on destroying humans. Small villages and hamlets use wards on posts and homes that keep the corelings at bay. Everyone knows how to ward, but some are better than ever. If a ward is drawn wrong, or gets marred, it leaves a way in for the corelings to destroy everything. Larger towns have warded boardwalks  so one can cautiously get place to place but pretty much the night is owned by the corelings.

The “free” cities are encircled by huge stone walls, with the streets lined with stone. Everything is warded with sigils by the guild of warders, and demons rarely get in. But still people only very carefully venture into the night. This leads to an isolated society, where travel more than a day is difficult and people must ask for succor in another place before the sun goes down. The centuries of isolation has lead to various places jealously guarding the wards they use, as opposed to sharing. News and merchandise must still get from town to town and this is left to Messengers and Jongleurs. The jongleurs bring the news and tales and a respite from the terror, with their songs and acrobatics. The Messengers are combinations of merchant, knight and postman and hardened souls used to the vagaries of the night world. They carry portable ward circles, warded shields, weaponry and a host of scars.

The elemental air, rock, wood, sand, water and fire demons. While the wind corelings seemed similar to pterodactyls they are terrifying creatures of nightmare. The story begins with eleven-year-old Arlen, a good warder who witnesses the coring of his mother. The subsequent search for healing lead him on a journey to one of the free cities where he apprentices as a warder and messenger. Over ten years pass in the span of Arlen’s life as he hones his skills, faces betrayals and alienates himself from humankind in his relentless search for the old battle wards and artifacts, and his vengeance against the demons.

Leesha is a young girl, unjustly marred by a braggart fiance and spiteful mother. She apprentices to the extremely old, cranky and mean herb gatherer Bruna. Leesha’s gains independence and eventually travels to help neighboring towns. But she runs into her own hardships and terror when she returns to help her village and the Warded Man rescues her and Rojer.

Rojer lost his family at a young age and was raised by a drunkard jongleur. With his damaged half hand he’s never very good at juggling but is a passable acrobat and plays a mean fiddle. On the road with his master they meet calamity and then Rojer meets Leesha. He has found that the sound of his fiddle can repel the demons and Leesha knows how to make a burning liquid that can injure the previously thought indestructible demons.

While these two have their own threads as they grow and learn their strengths and fears, Arlen is the main focus.He ends up in desert city Krasia, the only place where they actively fight to repel the demons. Arlen hopes to pass on his discoveries of the battle wards but is betrayed by a culture where he is considered an outsider.

Overall I found the story engaging and it kept me reading. The action is clear, but I would have preferred descriptions of the characters to come more as part of the story as opposed to exposition. But the exposition is light. Most of the logic for the warding works. Demons can’t go through stone but can go through wood. The wards have to be in a circle to work on buildings, but you can repel with a ward on an object such as a shield. The battle wards were lost because the demons had been expunged and people forgot. I just don’t quite see how three centuries can go by where people put wards on shields but never put them on swords or spears.

There are two aspects I disliked about this book; one is endemic in many medieval fantasies. Game of Thrones suffers from it as well, even if Aria and Brienneare are exceptions. But they are exceptions in a patriarchal world where women are still chattels and brood mares and expected to be good and silent wives. In many cases, these worlds are styled on our own history, if given different trappings such as species, magic or geography. But I’m getting heartily sick of the role of women always being virgin, mother, whore or sacred warrior (Joan of Arc anyone?). In this way it’s still a man’s world. While Leesha and Bruna are strong women, they don’t step outside the traditional roles. If exploring a patriarchy and the liberation of women was the goal, then this would have been more acceptable.

The other aspect I really hated was the Krasians. They’re a desert nation who put no god before the Creator and the Deliverer is his prophet, where their women are veiled head to foot and outsiders are considered dirt. They eat figs and dates and dress in baggy pants. Medieval Middle East, with not even a veil to disguise it. At this point I threw up my hands. Do terrorists always have to be Middle Eastern? Yes, there are plenty of white-skinned bad guys in this book, but the thin veneer of our world’s cultures made me sigh in exasperation. I knew what the second book was going to be about. The betraying Krasians steal the magic spear and decide to take over the world, delivering people from demons but changing them into believers of the new faith. And the Warded Man must stop the holy war.

I find it annoying to have our world with just a touch of different icing for fantasies. I liked the book well enough and the overall premise of battling these corelings, but I don’t think it went far enough. I’d be tempted to read the second book but I’m not dying to. I saw enough of this world to feel I had a complete story. I’d give The Painted Man three and a half wards.

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Tesseracts 17 Interview: J.J. Steinfeld

poetry, satire, horror, dread, fantasy, Canadian writers

J.J. Steinfeld harkens from PEI, where he chases his muse. Photo by Brenda Whiteway

Happy New Year’s, everyone. The year, as is every day, full of promise and possibility. I fell behind in finishing all the Tesseracts 17 interviews before the old year ended. But the good thing about books and stories is that they don’t go bad. Without further ado, I bring you J.J. Steinfeld.

CA: “Unwilling to Turn Around” speaks to that dread that horror movies build on. It’s a very human feeling. Why do you think it is we sometimes don’t want to see what’s following us?

Whether it is in the dark of night or in the darkness of an wavering mind, when we are going through unfamiliar or unchartered terrain, physical or psychological, vulnerability of one’s body and senses became amplified, more apparent,  and perhaps we are frightened to confront something following us that might  be strange and out-of-place, and potentially dangerous. In a frightened state, seeing something we may not be able to thwart or cope with, makes confronting our fears all the more potent.

CA: Your piece speaks to a very human part of us, yet is also as a sly, light note, make it more satirical than horrific. Why did you choose this angle?

There is a fascinating world just outside our everyday reality and comprehensible definitions, and that world is often mired in the absurd and the incomprehensible. Attempting to confront or chart that absurd reality pulls me strongly to the satirical as to the horrific.  In the attempt to either deal with or break free from the absurd and the incomprehensible, the satirical somehow becomes a little more muscular than the horrific.

CA: Would you rather know what lies ahead, no matter how wonderful or terrible, or you would prefer the surprise, no matter the outcome?

I would prefer to be wandering in the cinematic land of surprise and infinite possibilities,

anthology, speculative fiction, SF, fantasy, Canadian authors

Tesseracts 17 is now out with tales from Canadian writers that span all times and places.

rather than see the film’s ending beforehand, especially if the special effects tamper with my sense of the absurd and wonder and baffling existence.

CA: What do you think is your most effective tool, or technique, when it comes to writing poetry?

 I don’t know if I have any effective tools or techniques for writing poetry, unless you want to count lively synapses and a curious psyche as creative tools.  Actually, it’s more a strategy of speed, that is, going outside and walking quickly after my sometimes elusive and too often mischievous and cantankerous Muse. The attempt to grab hold of that fleeing Muse, whether the attempt is successful or not, often leads to new ideas and the start of a poem, which will be developed and written when I get back to my hidden-away writing room.

CA: What other projects do you have in the works?

I’m always working on something creative, whether it’s poetry or fiction or plays… My imagination tends to bounce from one creative “project” to another and after a period of time, I start to gather together creative pieces that adhere to my synapses and psyche and put them together into a collection or then attempt to find someone who might want to put on one of my plays. Currently I have two short story collections and a poetry collection, products of my bouncing imagination, that are looking for publishers, and several scripts in search of a theatrical home. As I wait to hear from publishers or theater companies, I polish up and tinker with the contents of these hoping-to-see-the light-of-literary-day manuscripts and stage plays.

 Fiction writer, poet, and playwright J. J. Steinfeld lives on Prince Edward Island, where he is patiently waiting for Godot’s arrival and a phone call from Kafka. While waiting, he has published fourteen books, along with five chapbooks, including Forms of Captivity and Escape (Stories, Thistledown Press), Disturbing Identities (Stories, Ekstasis Editions), Anton Chekhov Was Never in Charlottetown (Stories, Gaspereau Press), Should the Word Hell Be Capitalized? (Stories, Gaspereau Press), Curiosity to Satisfy and Fear to Placate (Short-Fiction Chapbook, Mercutio Press),  Would You Hide Me? (Stories, Gaspereau Press), An Affection for Precipices (Poetry, Serengeti Press), Where War Finds You (Poetry Chapbook, HMS Press), Misshapenness (Poetry, Ekstasis Editions), A Fanciful Geography (Poetry Chapbook, erbacce-press), and A Glass Shard and Memory (Stories, Recliner Books). His short stories and poems have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies, in every Canadian province and internationally in fifteen countries, including in Tesseracts Fifteen, Sixteen, and Seventeen, and over forty of his one-act plays and a handful of full-length plays have been performed in Canada and the United States.

 

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Brushes With Poverty

Creative Commons: psd via Flickr

Because CBC recently continued its program about poverty in Canada, or those of low income, I thought I would also continue to talk about how poverty has affected me in the past. I’m also extremely busy at the time with several freelance projects so this will be in point form.

There are single parents, single people and even couples with children who struggle to survive and keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. I’ve never been dirt poor but I have often lived one paycheck away from being on the street. That’s scary enough, and with the rising costs of everything from rent to gas, the future is a place of scary possibilities of which I hope I won’t have to visit.

  • As a child I never had a bike. I’m not sure if it was for some other reason or that around the time I would have got one my parents divorced. All of my other siblings had one. So I can barely ride one to this day.
  • With the divorce, my vindictive father cut my mother off from all medical, which meant the kids as well. I should have had braces and now have a few resultant and expensive problems because of it.
  • When  there were field trips or trips for skiing in school, I and only a few others could never go nor afford to learn how to ski. It helped make us outcasts.
  • While my friends had cars (albeit used ones) that their parents had bought them, I eventually bought a very used one from my friend’s parents for art college.
  • I put myself through college as there were no savings that my single parent mom could give.
  • I paid off a rather small student loan over an exceedingly long time because I ended up on unemployment and welfare in the first recession.
  • Welfare was a demeaning situation and I only survived because I shared a house with three other people.
  • Food banks are not nutritionally balanced. You are lucky to get any vegetables, which would be limp at the best of times. At one point all of us in the house were on welfare because there were no jobs (50 applications a month).
  • The most income tax I ever paid was when I was on welfare. The second most I ever paid was when I was on unemployment, which coincidentally is taxed, as if you’re getting a huge income.
  • I stopped buying food so I could pay my income tax while on welfare.
  • I worked under the table, as a means to make enough to survive upon because welfare wanted to deduct everything from what they gave, which does not encourage people to even work a few hours or more and get established.
  • As I wrote about before, I was expected to turn in my $3,000 RRSPs before getting $300 from welfare, so that in the end I could tax the system more when I was elderly.
  • I seriously had to consider prostitution to make ends meet, which no one should have to do. Of course, stealing things could be an option as well.
  • I have lived in pain for months on end because I could not afford the extended healthcare to get the problem looked at.
  • I have lived with broken teeth and cavities because I could not afford dentistry.
  • I have watched friends go on vacations while I had a staycation.
  • I have literally, sold my secondhand goods on a street corner so that I could go to India, borrowing money from a friend for a flight and paying her back over a year. That’s ingenuity and not everyone can travel but it meant scrimping because of low wages.

I mention this last because while I have been poor I have always managed, sometimes just. I have not yet had to live on the streets, or forego eating for long, or go cold. Many people in India live in dire destitution, as do some people here. But I mention these things because I have experienced aspects of poverty and doing without. I’m doing okay now but the realities of such a future are so close it takes my breath away with fear at times. And don’t think I’m not trying to find ways to cushion the future. I work more than one job. I make my own lunch, I save frugally so I can have some nice things, and as my brother once said, I could get money from a stone. I’ve learned ways to conserve and use everything. If I cook a chicken I always make chicken stock. If I buy lipstick, I use a brush to get to the last of the tube. I don’t change my clothes with every season’s fashion picks. There are ways to survive but still, there are those who do not have those ways.

Everyone should probably experience poverty (and third world countries) so they come to appreciate and understand the freedoms they do have. But being impoverished wears the soul down and there are too many people worrying themselves into stress-related illnesses because they’re not sure how they’re going to make ends meet. Every civilization falls and if we’re not careful, ours could just be around the corner.

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How Witch Hunts Came to Be

witch hunt, witch, bigotry, prejudiceWhen I used the term witch hunt, I am in fact using it in its broadest sense. That is, where a group sets out to get specific people.  Witch hunts have happened throughout history for various reasons.

Here are a few of the more notorious ones:

  • The people of Navarre around the 14th century pitchforked, chased and killed the Gypsies (Rom), itinerant wanderers who were different and were blamed for the plague.
  • Hitler’s pogroms in WWII, caused the death of millions of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals, the three groups he targeted.
  • Canada’s internment camps for the Japanese in WWII in fear that every Japanese-Canadian would turn against Canada.
  • The Salem witch hunts in Massachusetts.
  • The Spanish Inquisition and its infamous tortures.

Some of these were classified as actual witch hunts, but in fact they were rarely about witchery or supposed magic or cavorting with the devil. They were about property and jealousy and conformity. In some cases, every time something went wrong, a person grew ill, cattle sickened or crops failed, people who had been farmers for generations took leave of their senses and blamed anyone who was different. In many cases it was the single women, whether widows or unmarried, that suspicion landed upon.

In Europe many of the supposed witch hunts began as ways to get property from a woman who had no husband. The church had many ways of gaining property off of the people. It had very little to do with the supposed power someone wielded in consort with the devil or forces unseen. It had to do with gaining power.

As I’ve said before, many cases of witch hunts come from ostracization or a need to blame the “other” when things go wrong. It doesn’t matter if the events that happen are caused by stupidity, weather, fear, greed, hatred, bad luck, illness, acts of nature or some other unforeseen accident, there is a great number of people who will need to find a specific thing or person to blame.

There were cases throughout the middle ages where animals were put on trial. Hence came the term scapegoat, which came to be given to a person being blamed for ills that befell others. Scapegoat, fall guy, they all mean the same thing. If you are other or different, then you are under suspicion for anything that goes wrong. If your skin is a different color than those around you, or you believe in a god different than those in your village, or you walk or talk or look differently, or your traditions are unknown, or your lifestyle is to live alone when everyone else is couples–then these are all reasons for suspicion and doubt and blame.

Dr. Frankenstein knew this well. In Mary Shelley’s book it is not just that the doctor creates a monster, it is also that he is “other,” living differently than the village. The monster is other as well and because it is different, an abomination (though maybe it’s misunderstood) it too is the scapegoat. It strikes out when attacked but otherwise is much like the village idiot in innocence and ability to perceive.

So, how does all this happen? Some ostracizing happens because people are afraid, and they crave a reason for the unexplainable ills that befall them. And some blaming happens because people let it. This comes to the other side of the coin of the witch hunt, that of “If it’s not my house burning, then it doesn’t affect me.” It’s called turning a blind eye.

Many of those witch hunts, of those Jews, of those Gypsies or various groups being banished, hunted, burned, murdered would not have happened if people stepped up to say something. But humans as a whole seem to be notorious cowards. Or, even worse, they’re not cowards but they just don’t care if it doesn’t affect them. Maybe we are all selfish, self-centered creatures.

I heard a little phrase recently, which I will paraphrase. When they came for the Jews I did nothing because it wasn’t about me. When they came for the black people I did nothing because I wasn’t one of them. When they came for the (put in any group for any of these) I did nothing because it didn’t affect me. When they came for me, there was no one left to help. So what are you going  to do the next time you seem someone being unfairly singled out, whether verbally or physically? Will you turn a blind eye and let them be the scape goat. Will you stand by and watch or will you do something?

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Terror of the Air: Cold War Memories

When I was a child growing up in Calgary, there was an air raid siren in our neighborhood, at the corner where the Chinese store was. Yes, we did call the little corner store the Chinese store, as it was run by Chinese, yet this was never a derogatory term. I believe the air raid siren was across the street by the gas station. It was very tall, with a thick pole about the width of two light standards. It had to be about 25-30 feet high, with a big megaphone shaped horn at the top and all of it painted bright silver (or maybe that was the metal).

The top of ours was something like this, though the pole was round.

Ours was similar in style though the pole was round.

This Cold War artifact was very present in our memories and daily life. For one they would test it yearly and it sounded just like those WWII sirens you hear in the movies. I think. I was a kid so it’s hard to remember exactly. But the testing didn’t continue through every year.

Yet I remember that we were told to hunker down should a bomb drop and hide under our desks. There was a film they showed us, grainy black and white. I think it was sometime before grade 4 and I remember it being about bombings, maybe about Hiroshima because people were running from bombs dropping and the only image that seared into my brain was that of someone being vaporized by the bomb and leaving a skeletal imprint on the building behind them.
 
We were a generation growing up with fear of a world war, reminded by our parents and grandparents who may have lived through the horrors. We were after the generation of love and peace, the anti-war movement but were influenced by it nonetheless. Love and peace and hippy power had invaded and surely we were protected from the terrors of war. Yet we had those ever present reminders like the air raid siren.
 
My mother also had a gas mask, one of those old style ones with a corrugated rubber tube and
Almost exactly like my mother's except it was a black hose and mask.

Almost exactly like my mother's except it was a black hose and mask.

then a red tin at the end. What that tin was for, I’m not sure. It couldn’t hold air and I had no faith that it had ever filtered anything. Maybe it was just to convince people they were safe. The mask could have been hers from the war but I it might also have been a second hand one she bought when she was spraying insecticides on her plants. We would play in it and pretend we were monsters but not that often, because it was hot and steamy in there.I think for awhile there was an old army jacket hanging around, either my mother’s or my father’s. Most of these items disappeared by the time I was twelve except for the gas mask that no one used, and the air raid siren, now silent and ominous of a former era.

One day, when I was a teenager the siren went off. I don’t know if it was a test or some valve or button failing after all the years. But that terrible wail filled the air. Most of us ignored it, after a glance to the clear blue sky, but I remember these two little kids, about seven, who crying in sheer terror ran helter skelter for home, sure that the bombs were about to drop. I don’t know what they’d been told about wars, what mind curdling films they had been shown, but obviously the horror of war was a real thing for them.

When I was sixteen and in school, we heard the siren go one day. We were at least ten blocks diagonal away from it, yet it was pretty clear. No one bothered paying attention. After all, where do you go if the bombs are dropping? There were no bomb shelters that had ever existed in our area, bombs were more lethal from what we knew, and radiation would get us no matter what. Shortly after that, the air raid siren disappeared.

I would have off and on through the years, nightmares that were end of the world scenarios. Sometimes the bombs had dropped, sometimes it was just deadly radiation and sometimes the Nazis were chasing and persecuting me. They obviously were a form of stress  dream but one that would wake me in the middle of the night.

We are a generation that has seen war mostly from afar (except those in the military) yet that terror is a reality for some people every day. War is still not the thing of the past and it is more deadly than ever before. Perhaps that’s why my dreams are still spattered with war scenarios and movie realities. It would be nice some day that war is just a make believe thing but I think it will be a long time until humanity evolves to that next level.

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Society and Death

We have moved into a period in this culture where death is not part of life, nor the every day. Although death continues to happen to young and old, ill and hale, through accidents, disease and murder, still we talk about it in an all-encompassing way but ignore it in the intimate of the every day.

There may be somebody who will say death is not part of life and for the person who dies, life indeed is no more part of them. But for those who know someone who has died, death is very much part of their lives. It used to be that in small communities, such as mining or fishing towns, when someone died they were laid out upon the table in the family home. A table is where people break bread, eat of the earth, communicate and come together, and it is a place big enough to lay a body. Where it will be cleaned and dressed by family members. A place where a person lays in state for people to pay their last respects before being taken to the church and then buried. Funeral parlors weren’t in every small town.

Death now is the last great taboo of the Western world. When someone dies, people have no idea what to say and so say nothing at all. They’re uncomfortable with the concept of death and avoid it like the plague. Veer around the person whose loved one has died, maybe send an innocuous card. A brave soul might say, I’m sorry to hear about your mother/brother/wife.

The griever is expected, after missing a few days of work, to act normal, to show no emotion that may be seen as sad, maudlin, angry, or grief-stricken. Crying is verboten. After all, people will feel edgy and avoid the grieving. So act like it’s life as normal.

The truth is, grief takes time. There is no set limit but it often takes a year to process through a person’s emotions. People who deny their grief and don’t go through the process can actually do physical damage to themselves. The storing up of such emotions, rather than releasing them through a natural process, can also affect the person’s psyche for the rest of their lives. Studies have shown that you can’t put off your grieving for too long, that there is a crucial period when the grieving should take place.

And yet our society tries to make everyone a stoic, free from any emotions except those that are uplifting and bright. By doing this, we cauterize ourselves from the full range of what it means to be human, effectively castrated from all but the most superficial feelings. You cannot have joy without experiencing pain. A constant state of euphoria cannot last and becomes the norm on which a person then judges bad or good, happy or sad. What would normally be sad becomes huge trauma and depression, with no end in sight to it.

I believe it is this unhealthy avoidance attitude that society has to death and negative emotions which have caused an increase in drug use, both recreational and with anti-depressants, to handle what once our bodies could do on their own. We have fewer ways to cope naturally and must go to the drugs. Drug addicts cannot find that constant euphoria so they hunt it in the addiction, afraid to face a life that encompasses happiness and pain.

And death–we can’t avoid it. It will happen. I never knew what to say to anyone when their family member or friend died. We don’t hug our coworkers, we don’t pat them on the shoulders. We maintain distance. We don’t wail at funerals and beat our breasts. And yet we should, for in those acts we express the grief that otherwise builds up in us. We have an outlet that lets us return to a healthy mentality faster.

I regret that when my sister-in-law’s parents died (at different times) that I didn’t know what to say and said nothing at all. How callous. How ignorant. It took the death of a friend for me to experience the grieving process and to understand how people can feel, and just how long it can take to think of that person without crying and feeling as if someone has crushed your heart. I began to understand that a person grieving can feel very cut off and alone, and as if no one cares.

It is almost like being shunned, when someone has to grieve. Letting a person or a community grieve publicly, sharing memories, talking about the person who passed can help. It validates the feelings and a person will recover faster from mourning if they are allowed to express themselves. And yes it can take a year or longer. I have only lost friends and that affected me greatly. I can’t imagine the depth of the pain and loneliness that their spouses felt.

We can all change this debilitating trend by not being so scared of death and the process that we pretend doesn’t exist. The TV show Six Feet Under took a black humor look at death, from the death that opened each episode to the dysfunctional and very real lives of the mortician family that dealt with their own issues and the mourners for the dead. It was an adventuresome show because it touched on death in a very real way that we shy away from. And the show was a hit; witty, tender, irreverent, strange and examining some aspects of life we would rather avoid.

Now, when I know someone who has lost a loved one, I try to let them grieve, to make sure they know it’s all right, to help them and to express my condolences so that they don’t feel isolated. It is the best way to make life more meaningful, by acknowledging the death of friends, family and coworkers.

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Swine Flu? When Pigs Fly

Okay, that’s a little joke but I think we need to keep a few things in perspective when it comes to the spreading fear of swine flu. Fear is spreading faster than the flu and though it is a serious enough illness, it should be treated with level headedness, not paranoia. Panic can be a demon that brings on an epidemic of hysteria.

If the media had existed in its current form in the 14th century when the Black Plague first reared its deadly head, probably more people would have died from fear, from fear mongering, from ostracization than those already-high numbers. The Black Death killed an estimated 30-60% of Europe’s population, decimating society and economy for many years to come. Some 75 million people are believed to have died from the bubonic plague.

These days, we may not get to those numbers because medical care is better. Yet we might get to higher numbers because there are far more people than Europe in the Middle Ages. And many cities are overcrowded, not to mention that many nations still have poor levels of sanitation and health. An estimated 500,000 people die yearly from seasonal flus. Mexico City has 22 million people but the flu has shown in a few other areas of Mexico as well as in Texas. Still, there are only 7 confirmed deaths by the WHO as of yesterday.

That’s not many yet. In fact, 150 people out of a population of 110 million is a pretty small percentage. However, every death is a rent, a loss of life and grief for loved ones; that should matter. We do have to be cautious but not crazed. People aren’t getting these from pigs, no matter what the name indicates. Eating pork won’t make a difference. However, one thing that humans learned over the centuries that cut down on the spread of disease and infection was that cleanliness makes a difference.

We’ve moved out of the polite era, when everyone was taught manners, coughed and sneezed into handkerchiefs, washed behind their ears and washed their hands because parents instilled it into their kids. We’ve become lackadaisical in this modern, free age, but what you can’t see can indeed hurt you. When it comes to hygiene we must still be diligent.

Here’s the best thing to do to avoid swine flu, any flu or illness in general: wash your hands well, often, and with soap and water. Cover your mouth with your arm or a tissue if you cough. Use tissues for your nose. Wipe down surfaces with disinfectant. If you cough or sneeze, don’t do it on others. Wash your hands often. Don’t kiss pigs.

Usually influenzas hit the very young and the very old. So far, this flu has killed men in the 25-40 (or 50) age range for some reason. Tomorrow I fly to LA. I’m not worried. After all, I’m healthy. I don’t have a compromised immune system or any illness that weakens me. My lungs (the area to worry about most) are very strong. I’m not flying to Mexico. Even all the people that the flu infects each year do not die from it. Planes are very good incubators of infections/colds in general. A closed space with a lot of people. It’s best to be vigilant about hygiene whenever flying.

There have been questions why the mortality rate would be higher in Mexico than elsewhere. If it’s Mexico City, well, there are 22 million people, as I said. When I was in Mexico in the late 80s, the smog was so bad that birds were dropping out of the air and you could taste it. Add that on top of other respiratory problems and a flu that attacks the same area and it’s not surprising that more people may die in Mexico City (and any other overpopulated, polluted city center) than in other cities.

Flu shots have been given for quite a few years now, optional but encouraged for the young and old. I predict we’ll see more people getting flu shots this year in general. However, a viable vaccine for this current flu would take a few months to work out and perfect. If this doesn’t turn pandemic, then it will have abated by then.

Symptoms are similar to other flu symptoms, fever, runny nose, coughing, sore throat, nausea, possible vomiting and diarrhea, lack of energy and appetite. (More severe cases may deal with respiratory problems and death.) Don’t jump to conclusions if you develop some of these. If you have been to Mexico or in contact with someone who has, watch your symptoms, call  your doctor’s office if you’re worried, or if it is a child or elderly person who is ill. If the fever goes beyond a few degrees or you have trouble breathing, then you will probably want to get checked out. Children and the elderly are always at risk. Eating healthily, drinking plenty of water and getting adequate sleep will keep your immune system strong.

Becoming crazed with fear is a more likely way to get sick than just taking sensible precautions. And when the latest scare is over, continue following good hygenic habits. After all, in many ways we don’t want to go back to, or repeat the Middle Ages.

Update as of 10/15/09: There is an awful lot of hype about this flu and to this date there are fewer people who have died from it than from other flus. However, the high-risk group does seem to be 20-year-olds and early 30s. Each person will have to decide if they need a flu shot or not but as a healthy female, who isn’t pregnant nor in that age group, I’ll forego the shot and take my chances.

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Phobias, Or: Spider Spider Burning Bright

Yes, I am misquoting a William Blake poem in the title. The actual line reads, “Tiger, tiger burning bright…” Yet it speaks just as well to anyone who has ever experienced a spider phobia, known as arachnophobia.

My progression into arachnophobia started as a child. There were two incidences that I can think of that may have been the beginning of my fear of spiders. I’m not sure which came first. We used to live in a house that was a split level. My sister and I shared one of the basement bedrooms and the room was mostly below ground, with 2-foot high windows at the top. Below these windows was a ledge that ornaments sat upon.

I remember I had this plastic bubble bath container in the shape of Pinocchio as well as a plastic piggy bank that I’ve talked about in an earlier post. One night I dreamt that the top popped off of Pinocchio and out poured hundreds of spiders. One other night as I was falling asleep I heard a “plop” upon my pillow. I don’t know if I actually found the spider or imagined it but after that I feared spiders.

Calgary had daddy longlegs mostly, which, depending on where and how they’re described, may be called Harvestmen and are arachnids but not spiders. Still, they’re spidery enough for any fear. The phobia was manageable while I lived in the colder clime that controlled the spider populations. Then I moved to Vancouver.

The first year I moved in with a friend and she was gone through the summer to Greece. And the spiders came a visiting. There were so many creepy crawlies in Vancouver because of the warmer climate that my phobia escalated. The worst were the wolf spiders; large, hairy (at least I think they were) and fast. I was completely freaked out and like a true arachnophobic, I could not kill them because it meant getting too close to them. So my place was littered with plastic containers that trapped spiders beneath them. I put a book on each container for fear that they would get out. When a friend came to visit, he had to dump them for me.

When I vacuumed I’d moan and shriek as the spiders hung from the edge of the long nozzle. Every once in a while I’d dropped the vacuum cleaner’s wand and run back if I thought the spider was crawling down the pipe. I’m sure it would have looked hilarious to anyone watching but the phobia was very real. Camping was a real issue. My tent was zippered tightly shut and if there was a spider someone had to get it out or I couldn’t sleep.

The worst that first year was this monstrous wolf spider that lived in a hole in the wall of the house, right next to the door knob. It was all I could do to get the key in the lock and at night I was terrified. (Note, that people with severe phobias can die from fright. One should never find it funny to chase the person with the phobic producing object.) This spider was one of those granddaddy wolf spiders, with a body as long as my thumb. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolf_spider

One day I couldn’t take it any longer. I loaded a spray bottle with super hot water and went out to the spider’s home. I started shooting in sprays of hot water…and all the wolf spider did was leap out to attach the water. I couldn’t kill the bugger. Years later I read that some wolf spiders live in warm underwater currents.

My phobia became so bad that I couldn’t go near any spider. It could be the size of a pin dot but if it landed on me I was shrieking and batting it away, in full hysterics. It wasn’t funny and it was getting so bad that I was about to go to my doctor. In a coastal rainforest you can’t avoid spiders and sometimes they fly through the air on their strands. Even staying indoors wouldn’t help because spiders are everywhere. So yes, the spiders burned very brightly in my life.

Along the way I spent a year upgrading hiking trails. I had to hike in and out an hour each way. I started the job wearing gardening gloves and carrying a stick so I could knock the webs out of the way. Imagine being in the forest and keeping watch for spiders. That meant checking every branch I was under, every log I sat on, every piece of foliage I had to grab.

Then one day, about six months later, a spider was on my hand and I flicked it off, calm as you please. It took a few minutes for it to sink in. My phobia was gone. One form of therapy for phobias is a slow introduction to the phobia inducing item. I’d been doing this by being in the forest every day. I no longer freak out or cry. I still don’t like wolf spiders but I’ll leave other spiders hanging in the window and watch them spin and eat. Somehow that natural therapy probably did the job faster than months of counselling ever would have.

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Dare to Remember

This was originally published when I wrote for Fearsmag.com. It had to do with our fears and memory.

For everyone, memory is an important aspect of our personalities as well as our culture. Many people are proud of their lineage, and how far back they can trace their ancestors. History is what makes the world. What happened in the past? Did we learn from our mistakes, did we repeat them? Without memory we would be simpler creatures and our world, our inventions and our differences would not be so great.

Science fiction author Gene Wolfe wrote a book called Soldier of Arete, which is about a man whose memory is only a day long. Unless he writes every thought and event down he does not remember from one day to the next what happened in his past, what he accomplished, how he failed or whom he liked and loved.

Amnesiacs must blunder about feeling a certain panic, not knowing how they lost their memories or what they liked or who they were. For some it might be a freeing experience from who they were, but then, they wouldn’t remember so how would they know? For most it would be the cutting loose of identity that would be frightening, suddenly in a world that you know you are part of, but not knowing in what way to act nor what you thought.

November marks the month of remembrance. In Canada it’s called Remembrance Day, in the U.S. Veteran’s Day (once Armistice Day). This day, Nov. 11th was chosen originally in the U.S. by Woodrow Wilson to commemorate the end of World War I. To commemorate means to bring to memory, to remember. Marked forever in our calendars is the day the war ended, when we are to remember all those who lives were lost so that we could keep our freedom.

Just think, without memory we would have no ceremonies—no birthdays for who could remember when they’re born, no Valentine’s Day for who could remember who they loved, no Easter or Christmas for who would remember the significance of a religion started two thousand years ago, no Hallowe’en, no Presidents’ Day, no Mother’s Day, no Father’s Day. Without memory, would God or religion, life or death matter in the same way? No one would remember your accomplishments so fewer would strive for fame. Movies might still exist, if someone could remember how to make them from day to day, but after you saw a film, you would forget it and the stars would be ciphers once again.

As much as our personalities make up who we are by framing our world in a particular perspective and in how we react to any given situation, our memories also make up who we are. Memory is described as the mental processes that modify our behavior in light of previous experiences. We are the sum of our parts. What we remember and how we remember it makes us who we are today. I remember having a small, metal fridge as a child. I loved that fridge; there was nothing special about it but one year it was replaced with a big, shiny new fridge and many little plastic vegetables. Yet, I wanted that old fridge and to this day remember it. Did my parents know how significant the first fridge was? I doubt it. They probably don’t even remember the fridge at all. I, myself, can’t remember why I liked the first fridge so much but I will never forget it. Memory’s a tricky thing.

So here we are, in November and we should remember. Remember what was lost and what was gained. Remember what war does so that it won’t be repeated. Well, we see how well that’s going and how long that memory sticks. For many people not old enough to have relatives in any war it’s hard to think about what we should remember, unless we’re taught it in school. But what exactly, should we remember? The good times? The bad times? And what should we forget? Past slights, embarrassments and failures?

In the course of selecting the memories that are important, we also order them as to the most significant. My fridge memory is not too significant today. The painful memory of being teased at school left a deeper wound and made my personality shift. I used to be shy but learned you had to be tough and louder and laugh first if you didn’t want to get hurt. That’s what I remember.

People who have been abused often have blocked their memories. That horrendous event is far too painful or frightening to bring up and their psyche cannot cope with it. It’s still in there, buried behind some neuro-synaptic door and only the right key can trigger the lock. The person with the buried memory may still have a very screwed up life because of what happened but the psychological detectives have to uncover the secret before they can find a cure. And of course, there’s that risk of implanted false memories. Through hypnosis, psychotherapy and brainwashing, the mind can be reprogrammed to believe something did happen the way it was suggested. Our memories after all are only electrical zaps stored in our brains.

I know someone who suffers from multiple personalities. She’s got quite a few, from a boisterous tart to a sinister old man. The severe abuse she suffered through her young life fragmented her memory and her brain made up different personalities to deal with various situations. What does she remember and what do her other five personalities remember? Is any particular version more truthful or are they all? Like our sight, our memories can play tricks on us. Do we question, “Did it really happen the way I remember?” Some memories fade so that we really can’t quite remember what we did on a particular day, what someone said, or where we were. Yet, other memories are as sharp as broken glass, waiting to stab us with the poignancy of a mortifying or an ecstatic moment.

November might also be a time for many to reflect on what we’ve accomplished through the year. Often the year seems to have flown by. Oh migod I never did finish that novel. I forgot to call so and so for the third month running. Why do we remember and why do we forget? The workings of the mind are still a mystery for all the studies that have been done. Although there are many memories I would rather forget (and damn that mind of mine, it’s not letting me) I’m still grateful I have a choice of memories and that I haven’t forgot what’s important in my life. Now, if I could just remember where I put my keys….

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