Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Joys of Mixed Metaphors and Family Sayings

"Many hands make a tall horse."

Every family has those sayings which aren’t quite the norm. The grandmother of a childhood friend used to come out with a stack of them, including the wonderful, “They’re all daubed with the same stick.” And:

"It's the thin end of the iceberg."
There is a certain joy to be derived from a really good mixed metaphor. My father’s favourite is:

"Let's burn that bridge when we come to it."
By far the easiest way to demonstrate this phenomenon is the illustrate it, so read on and enjoy.

"Like a duck out of water."

"A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle."

"You appear to have bitten off the wrong end of the stick."

"It's important to get all your ducks in a rowboat."

"Grab the bull by the horns and run with it."

"'Close' only counts in hand shoes and horse grenades."

"A mixed metaphor is like killing two birds without a paddle."

"You've made your cake, now you must lie in it."

"Never try to burn the midnight oil at both ends."

"It's not exactly rocket surgery."

"Any teacup in a storm."

"Trying to thread a needle with a haystack."

"You're skating on thin eggshells."
And, probably my personal favourite:

"If you've nothing good to say about anyone, come and sit next to me."
Please add your own favourite nonsensical family saying or mixed metaphor in the comments!

This week’s Word of the Week is zugzwang, which is a word well-known to chess players. It means you have to make a move, because it’s your turn, but you know that any possible move will be to your disadvantage. From the German zug, meaning move, and zwang, compulsion.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Find Your Own Voice



Last week, I wrote a post here sharing my take on the “Ingredients of a Mystery Novel”:  Characters, Dialog, POV, Plot, Setting, and Tension–six ingredients common to the genre. 


In light of the many comments I received for that post, and in keeping with the adage, “no kind word shall go unpunished,” I’ve decided to follow up on that (freely borrowing again from the brilliance of others) with how to make those ingredients work for you in creating your unique masterpiece. 


Think of it as finding a chef to create signature dishes from universal ingredients, or an artist painting a classic from common paints.  We writers do it with voice.


I guess the obvious place to start is with what I mean by “voice.”  The answer is really quite simple to state, for it’s what distinguishes each of us from everyone else on the planet. It’s shaped by your generation, your media and music, your life experiences, your very being.  That doesn’t mean you can’t be a man writing as a woman or a woman as a man, just be what you see that person as being, not what you think someone else would expect that person to be.


Let us never forget that writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar, and that what you are—as opposed to what you know—ultimately will determine your style.  Put differently, your voice takes its final shape more from the attitudes of mind than from principles of composition.


I can’t tell you how to find your soul, but finding your voice is about as close as you’ll ever come to doing just that. That’s why you want a style that suits you as an expression of yourself, one that is satisfying to you, not simply some trend you think your reader might like.  Chasing trends will doom you by drawing you away from your unique center as a writer, even though it might make you a good living.


Having peppered you with generalities, I do have a few suggestions on how you might go about finding your own voice, learning more about it, and even training it.


—Study the work of authors you think you write like, or people say you do. Read their work, learn how they come to do what they do, and by osmosis you’ll find yourself gaining hints. It’s a way to train your voice. But it must be a voice you’re comfortable with.  And for those of you who have no idea whom you may write like, I suggest taking a gander through a book like Making Story which reveals the very different styles of twenty mystery writers and may give you a hint of your own, as it has for many of my students (Yes, I’m one of the authors, but the royalties play no part in the recommendation—and no student ever picked my style as a favorite).


—Seek out the voice of great poets and playwrights; great poetry for introducing rhythm to your prose, great plays to see how dialog and movement carry the story along.


—Abandon what you thought was the way you should write and go with how you feel you should write. Say what must be said and damn the torpedoes.  Unless libelous.


With all that said, the bottom line inevitably returns to you finding your own way to being comfortable with yourself and natural in your voice. Do not try to be someone else, but concentrate instead on making your natural voice sharper, clearer, more understandable.


Finding your own voice takes time, a long time, for it comes with confidence acquired after a lot of reading, experimenting, criticism, and keeping the faith. But if you persist, at some point comes that WOW moment when your entire being shouts out, “I’ve got it!”


I know, because it happened to me.



Friday, August 7, 2020

There may be trouble ahead.....


"Scottish exam bosses DOWNGRADE 25% of results after teachers tried to give pupils the best pass rate ever when COVID cancelled tests - so will the rest of Britain's teenagers suffer the same fate?

·        Moderating authority had to mark results down after teachers gave highest ever 

·        Scottish pupils got the results today, which still showed a rise in pass rates

·        Marks were estimated after coronavirus pandemic meant that exams were axed

·        Education Secretary John Swinney insisted teachers had acted professionally"


 That was the headlines in many of the newspapers this week, as the results of non exams were published. The Scottish educational system is very different to the English one.

I think it's fair to say that a Scot coming out of Secondary School, age 17, ready for uni, has a slightly broader based education than the English counterparts, as well as being year ahead.

To get to study medicine, you'd need  five straight A passes at the highers or the modern equivalent ( they do keep changing the name ) at the first sitting. In England, you'd need Three A levels, all passed at grade a.

This amounts to the same academic achievement but the English system lends itself to being either language or science based, whereas up here, you need to take one science if you are a linguist, and one language if you are a scientist.

 During the last two years of school, we sit prelims either in December or January. ‘Mocks’ as they are called elsewhere. These are exams set by the school, not by the education board,  and can be used for evidence of appeal if the candidate is ill during the real exam or just makes a complete mess of it. Some teachers set the prelims at a much more difficult level than the  real exams to frighten the cruisers into actually doing some work. But that can backfire, if the result of the prelim is then used to appeal.

 This year, the exams were cancelled. The teachers were asked to predict an outcome for each pupil and give them a grade accordingly. I’m sure it was based on the prelim result, course work, a general knowledge of the pupil's ability.

 With any marking process, some results are pulled to be verified,  amd exactly the same happened here. The results came out on Thursday and the political outfall could be  very significant

 The government admit they took 25% of the papers and downgraded them, as the overall percentages showed that too many pupils were passing. They didn't down grade them all, just the 25% they looked at. My manager's son was tracking for an A, got an A in his prelims, an A for all course work. And was awarded a C ??

Confusion rules. Dreams are shattered,  students  on course to study medicine  suddenly don’t have to results to get into uni, after having been given a conditional acceptance. but only if they were one of the  one who were downgraded... another pupil might be sailing in on a falsely high mark if the logic is followed.

 Of course they can appeal, but in my day, an appeal could only move one grade, no good if you have been downgraded by two!

My other friend is a head teacher. He was warned well in advance that lawyers were on standby. And he thinks the kids and the parents, and his teachers  have a good case to argue. 

The whole situation is a mess, made  much worse by rumours,  that seem to be born out by fact, the the schools in deprived areas were subject to testing much more so than the schools in the more affluent areas. 

 "But politicians and activists have branded the handling of pupils’ exams a “fiasco” and “tantamount to discrimination based on wealth”.

It came after it emerged teenagers in Scotland’s most deprived areas saw their pass rates reduced by 15.2 per cent compared to 6.9 per cent for those in the richest areas."

And an open letter  from another  newspaper

"School pupils have been asked to cope with a lot in uncertain times.

A lethal pandemic wiped out months of class work and their annual exams.

But they’ve still had to come through it all and make further education and career plans.

They are rightly furious that many from poorer areas were more likely to have their estimated results adjusted down by the SQA than those from well-off areas.

Today, they will demonstrate loudly and clearly that enough is enough.

They are gathering in George Square one day after Nicola Sturgeon was asked to imagine how she would have felt if her grades were knocked down at school.

The First Minister said she would probably have joined the protest. But in office, she is not planning to change the system.

Coronavirus has allowed Scots to peek behind the curtains and see past the theatre of government.

Already the country has seen systemic problems in care, and now the social scandal of inequality is there for all to see.

Scotland’s children have worked hard and they deserve better.

They must not be defined by a rigged system that puts obstacles in their way. We wish them well in their protest."

And so do I.

Caro Ramsay


Thursday, August 6, 2020

A very short blog

Stanley - Thursday

I don't want to write another blog about COVID-19. I don't want to write about how both reasonable laws in South Africa (no alcohol sales or transportation) as well as unreasonable ones (a ban on the sale of cigarettes) have turned a huge number of normally law-abiding citizens into criminals. Both booze and smokes are readily available for sale, sometimes at exorbitant prices, sometimes for a bargain. I know of a winery, for example, that will deliver unlabelled wine to your door, free of delivery-charges, for US$4 a bottle. Better than nothing, they say. (I haven't bought any!) And I don't want to rant about leadership idiocy or citizen stupidity.

So I won't do any of that.

Watching television news is nearly enough to drive me to throw myself off the nearest cliff. Not only is it increasingly depressing, it is also awful journalism. Talk about putting words into the mouths of the people being interviewed! And if quality is not enough to send you scurrying for the cliff, the endless repetition will. CNN, for example, is so short of anything new to say that they keep repeating the same fillers - possibly interesting the first time, maybe the second as well, but the forty third? 

So I'm going to take a break and give you one too from the madness and sadness that surrounds us.

However, in all the gloom there is one bright ray of light. I'm packing to head to the bush with Michael. We have police permission to cross all the provincial borders because the thatch on Michael's bungalow apparently needs urgent attention. I'm going along because Michael claims he is scared of ladders and heights and has employed me to do the grunt work. As for the pay ....

I suspect Michael's blog next week will not be about COVID-19 either. Maybe some of these?

Kubu (Photo: Aron Frankental)

African Fish Eagle (Photo: Stan Trollip)

Please keep healthy; please keep safe.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020



Manslaughter is everywhere--and by a perpetrator you might not have expected 

President Trump, who is guilty of negligent manslaughter, is giving a speech with a distressed, slightly crazy look and his arms spread out wide; in front of several US flags 


In the era of Covid-19, physicians confront the daunting challenge of saving patients who are on the brink of death. Entrusted with the lives of others, these doctors carry a heavy burden and a sacred responsibility embedded in the Hippocratic oath.

President Trump Is Guilty of Negligent Manslaughter, article shows Bust of Hippocrates, "Father of Medicine, possibly marble against black background
Hippocrates, ancient Greek physician and "Father of Medicine" 

 The sixth paragraph of the modern version of the Oath states: “. . . Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty.” Contrary to conventional belief, nowhere does the Oath state, “First, do no harm.” Nevertheless, it makes a high commitment to caring, which is why we feel outrage over doctors who appear indifferent or even callous about the suffering of their patients.

As an example, let’s imagine a physician, Dr. X, caring for Covid-19 patients in an at-capacity ICU. A nurse alerts him that several patients are in impending respiratory failure, urgently needing intubation as their oxygen levels plummet. “I don’t agree with you,” Doctor X responds. “The patients don’t need intubation. They’re doing just fine and will soon recover on their own. If you would just stop using the oxygen meters, none of these patients would have low oxygen.” And he turns away and walks out of the unit.         

tPresident Trump Is Guilty of Negligent Manslaughter; Article shows elderly white Covid-19 patient on a ventilator in ICU 

          Covid-19 patient on a ventilator in ICU (Photo: Shutterstock / Photocarioca)


In this scenario, Doctor X abandons his patients and fails to fulfill his sacred duty. At a minimum, he should lose his license to practice medicine, but if patients die as a result of his actions or lack thereof, he could be guilty of manslaughter by recklessness or gross negligence. Recklessness is knowingly exposing another to the risk of injury and being willing to run that risk, but in criminal negligence, there is a failure to foresee danger and thereby prevent it from occurring. It becomes "gross" when the failure entails a "wanton disregard for human life."

President Trump did not take the Hippocratic Oath, but he did take an oath that is every bit as profound—perhaps even more so. In his inaugural address of Friday, January 20, 2017, Trump proclaimed, “. . .The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans . . . We will face challenges. We will confront hardships. But we will get the job done . . . The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. . . This American carnage stops right here and stops right now . . . I will fight for you with every breath in my body; and I will never, ever let you down.” [My emphasis added.]

The last line is a promise not only to serve the American people, but to uncompromisingly uphold them. But what has Trump done? He has minimized the Covid-19 pandemic from the very beginning, one of his most infamous claims being that of February 26, 2020: “You have fifteen people, and the fifteen within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” Stunningly, seven months later as the pandemic spins wildly out of control in the US and has killed nearly 19 times as many Americans as have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he continues to say, “I think at some point that’s going to sort of just disappear, I hope.”

Like Doctor X, who dismissed the alerts of the alarmed ICU nurse and told her, “The patients don’t need intubation. They are doing just fine and will soon recover on their own,” Trump has not only ignored the warnings of epidemiologists, he has actively disagreed with expert advisors like the renowned Dr. Anthony Fauci. Trump’s asinine assertion that, "If we stop testing right now, we’d have very few cases,” is like Doctor X suggesting that all oxygen monitors be switched off to make the problem of patient hypoxia go away. Just as the doctor walked out on his unit, staff, and patients, so has President Trump abdicated all efforts to control the pandemic, which has had predictably deadly consequences, and torn people from their loved ones. Like the doctor, Trump has displayed appalling recklessness, gross negligence, and willful blindness. He has failed his oath, let the American people down, and in an open display of wanton disregard for human life, allowed thousands to die.



Monday, August 3, 2020

Aftermath: Mohandas Gandhi and The Spanish Flu

Annamaria on Monday

Eighteen to twenty million people died in India in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-20 - the worst death toll of any country in the world.  (In fact, ten percent of the total of all countries).

Under the yoke of British colonialism, some Indians believed that their oppressors were causing people to perish, by poisoning the wells to rid the subcontinent of unwanted population.  A writer in one newspaper claimed that the deaths came because poison gas from the trenches of France had drifted to India and killed thousands.  (If you think those people of old were a bunch of ignoramuses, think about how the ignoramuses of last April were retweeting the news that Covid-19 was the result of a chemical warfare agent escaping from a lab in Wuhan, China!)

In 1918, the real culprit was, of course, the H1-N1 virus, but the world knew nothing of such a critter in those days.  The bug first came to India with Indian troops returning to Bombay (now Mumbai) from service fighting with the British in Mesopotamia and East Africa.  On 29 May 1918, they disembarked and went home.  A few days later a policeman serving on the waterfront fell ill. Then in another three days, the illness had spread to more policemen, and eventually to many others who worked in the dockyards.  Soon it was laying people low throughout the country.

At this point, Mahatma Gandhi had been traveling by train around India, encouraging his countrymen to join the British in their war.  To his way of thinking at the time, Indians had become soft.  Becoming fighting men would harden them up.  Also, their helping to win the war would encourage the British to take a more beneficent attitude toward their Indian subjects.

Meanwhile, the flu was spreading and beginning to take lives.  Gandhi, too, fell ill.  On 17 August 1918, he wrote a letter that began, "I am on my back."  One might have said the same thing about his country.

And so the Mahatma and his country suffered in the ensuing months.

Bodies began to pile up around India, and when trains entered stations, the people descending were outnumbered by the corpses being carried off.  The colonial overlords could or would do nothing to stop the carnage.  Certain he was facing imminent death, Gandhi wrote many letters telling his wife and his friends and colleagues about how his thinking was changing.

"The more I contemplate this illness, the more deeply I realize what love of man to man must be.  And love of God...Nature is God, and God is love..My suffering is my own fault.  We get what we deserve...What have I done to bring this on....recruiting for the war effort.

"One need not  assume that heroism is to be acquired only by fighting in a war.  One can also do so by keeping out of it...We can cultivate manliness in another way, not to fight for the British but against them with non-violent means...Defy laws that are unfair..."

In those letters one can see Gandhi's thinking change and his commitment to nonviolence solidify.

He survived.  And though deeply wounded, India did too.  By January 1919, he was ready with a powerful message that would bring his countrymen to his way of thinking.  By the time of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, also known as the Amritsar Massacre, he had convinced thousands to stand up non-violently for their right to independence.

On Sunday, 13 April 1919, Reginald Dyer, an acting Brigadier General in the British Army, ordered his men to fire on a crowd of unarmed Indian civilians.  At least 379 were killed and more than a thousand injured.  More corpses.  But this time, they died for the cause of independence.

It took another twenty-eight years and a great deal more work to reach their goal.  But it came.  On the 15th of August 1947.

We have no way of knowing for certain that the disease Gandhi suffered was the Spanish Flu, but his illness hit him at the exact time that the pandemic was spreading.  His daughter-in-law and her child died because of confirmed cases.

Two things we know for certain: it was during this illness that Gandhi's own thinking changed.  And the suffering from the pandemic and the societal ills of colonialism it laid bare awoke the will of the people to stand up and demand justice and freedom.

Let's contemplate what this lesson means to us.  In the face of our current woes.  And what we might achieve, in the next years, if we all stand up non-violently for justice. 

The memorial to Gandhi in Union Square that I salute
 several times a week.  These are the kinds of statues we
need to erect.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

In Japan, the Food Can Cook Itself

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Japan is a land of culinary wonders.

From spiral French-fried potatoes on a stick:

to candied grapes:

to chocolates shaped like the planets of our solar system:

Japan has a snack for every appetite and every occasion.

I've blogged here before about my favorite food in Japan--the traditional Buddhist temple cuisine known as shojin ryori--but today I'd like to take a lateral step in the culinary world and tell you about a more unusual kind of Japanese fare: an o-bento (literally "honorable boxed lunch") that cooks itself.

Bento are a common, portable meal option sold in every convenience store across Japan, as well as many grocery stores and restaurants.

They come in almost as many variations as there are kinds of food, and many towns, cities, and regions in Japan have "regional specialty bento" available for purchase in train stations and other local shops.

One of my favorite places to eat obento is on the shinkansen (Japan's high speed "bullet train"). Eating is not permitted on most local trains, but on the high-speed super express, it's A-ok. There's even a special shop with branches in most shinkansen stations that sells a wide variety of bento meals, including regional specialties.

Three years ago, while searching the shop for the perfect meal to enjoy on an evening train to Kyoto, I noticed a sign that said "Special Bento! Steak - Self-Heating!"

As an avowed fan of gadgets (and of steak) I had to check it out.

I purchased the bento, which the clerk placed into a bag along with a printed instruction and warning sheet. (Nothing like a meal that comes with large-print disclaimers.)

Once I reached my seat, I removed the box, took hold of the rip cord, and pulled it out.

The box did not explode. However, within a few seconds, it did get remarkably hot to the touch, and steam began to emerge from beneath the lid on both ends. A lot of steam.

Sadly, it didn't show up in the photograph:

As promised, five minutes later, I had a thoroughly heated dinner of steak and rice with a side of vegetables.

While it may not look like a five-star meal, I can assure you it was actually delicious. The beef was tender and nicely cooked (a little better done than I usually eat it, but surprisingly, still pink in the center). The vegetables retained enough integrity to offer a little snap, and the rice was delicious--as always, in Japan.

Since then, I've had this bento several times. I don't eat meat very often anymore, and it makes a nice night-before-the-mountains treat when I'm outward bound on the bullet train for another climb.

The novelty still hasn't worn off, either. Every time I get that ripcord in my hands, I'm five years old, amazed and delighted by the fact that in Japan, sometimes your dinner knows how to cook itself.

So...would you give a self-heating bento box a try? Yes or no?