A Holiday Break

Five Christmas tree sculptures in various colors on a mantle against a brick wall. Text: Something for Sunday; December 29,. 2019; A Holiday BreakI’m taking it easy during these holiday weeks, and I hope you are able to do so as well. Whatever winter holiday you hold (Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice, Yule, Kwanzaa, Festivus, or just Let’s Get Together), may it bring you joy, peace, and strength as we go into a new year and a new decade.

This post marks the last time I’ll be updating the blog here on WordWacker. It’s been a wonderful 5 1/2 years, but now it’s time to move things over to my own site: www.celiareaves.com. If you’ve been enjoying my content here, I hope to find you over there, but either way, thank you for visiting me over the years. My followers are awesome and I value each and every one of you. Blessings on you and yours, and peace out!

A Half-Dozen Reflections

Six assorted candles, reflected multiple times in facing mirros. Text: Somethign for Sunday; December 22, 2019; A Half-Dozen ReflectionsThis is the last of my looks back at 2019. The winter solstice, the point where the days are shortest in the northern hemisphere, occurred last night. This is often considered the turning of the year, the point where the world begins to shift from darkness to light. In honor of that event, I’m looking at some key aspects of my life to explore how they did and did not change in 2019.

  1. Family. There’s nothing more important than my family. I’m happy to say that things are good for us as a group, and that this has been a year of maintaining a strong steady state. My husband and I are still together after 44 happy years, our adult children live nearby, our son is a functioning, independent adult (something that was occasionally in doubt over the years, as he has Asperger’s Syndrome), our daughter has a job she likes and she and our son-in-law have a happy home with two cats. We all get together for birthdays and holidays, and enjoy each other’s company. For all this, I am enormously grateful.
  2. Life. Focusing more specifically on my own life circumstances, I see a couple of changes. The biggest one is that I retired six months ago, after 31 years as a college professor at the same institution. I loved teaching, and have always thought of myself as a teacher, but it was time for me to step aside. I find that I also love being retired! I have time to do the things I choose to do, which is wonderful. The other change in my life is that one thing I choose to do is to work out much more regularly. I joined the local YMCA, where I attend classes and use the machines, and I also use a treadmill and weights in my basement. I will never be a fitness champion, but I’m serious about increasing my strength, flexibility, endurance, and balance.
  3. Blog. PhoThe really big change here is happening now. I’ve had my own domain (www.celiareaves.com) for years, but haven’t done much with it. I posted regularly on my WordWacker blog (www.wordwacker.wordpress.com) instead. As of the first of the year, though, the blog will be housed entirely on my own site. I’m going to miss the old blog site, and especially the 358 people who follow me there. I hope they follow me all the way over to the new site, but I’m resigned to losing some of them. The only way to keep followers, of course, is to provide content people want to read. That’s on me! Over the years I’ve experimented with various kinds of content, most recently the Something for Sunday posts, including this one. They’ve been a lot of fun to do, but have not been wildly popular. I don’t expect to continue them as an every-week thing on the new site. What will I be posting? Whatever I think people will be interested in reading about, including the other items here on this list.
  4. Photography. I’ve posted photos regularly on my site for years, and those have been my most popular posts. I participate in two separate challenges at this point: Lens Artists once a week, and Squares, daily for a whole month four times a year. This is exciting and fun, and these are some of my most popular posts, so I will definitely be continuing with them. I may also jump in on some other photo challenges, including Cee’s Fun Photo Challenge or the Tuesday Photo Challenge on Dutch Goes the Photo. I’m a very basic photographer, taking snapshots with my phone, but it’s something I enjoy and occasionally produces something worthwhile!
  5. Haiku. I post haiku on the blog every April as part of the A-Z Blog Challenge (I’ll be on there again in 2020 with my ever-popular haiku puzzles), but most of the haiku I post are on Twitter. I’m very slowly getting better at the whole micro-poetry thing, though I still don’t really understand morae, the Japanese phonological units on which haiku are traditionally based, so I just count English syllables instead. Perhaps I’ll figure that out in 2020!
  6. Writing. Yes, I’m still writing the book. I’ve made great strides in 2019, including two nearly full reviews by my local writers’ group and another review by folks from an online beta group. My best estimate is that I will have one more beta review in 2020, getting critiques on the nearly-final version, and will get a revised, proofed, and polished version ready to query. That will be a huge step, when it happens, and it’s something I would be sure to post about. In other writing news, I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time (working through the latest revision) and reviewed a draft of a novel for one of the other writers in the beta group.

So that’s where I am right now, at the cusp of the year. There won’t be much more from me in 2019 (the weekly photo challenge is on hiatus in the last week and I will just drop short greetings). Look for more in 2020!

Time is running out! If you wish to keep finding my content in 2020, you need to switch to my site (www.celiareaves.com), because starting in January I won’t be updating here any more. I hope to see you there!

A Dozen Haiku

Detail of a delicate watercolor painting of pale iris flowers and bright green leaves. Text: Something for Sunday; December 15, 2019; A Dozen HaikuNow that we’re into December, I’m taking time to look back at 2019 in various ways. This week I’m taking a look at the haiku I’ve posted on Twitter. There have been hundreds of them, so winnowing it down to just 12 proved quite a challenge. I’m going to cheat by first listing some of the categories I won’t include in the final dozen.

The newest haiku challenge I’ve joined is #ReelKu. It invites people to post haiku based on a particular film, chosen each week by @deft_notes (Jonathan Roman). It only began on 11/17, and I’m proud to say I gave it its name! The current film we’re examining is It’s a Wonderful Life. Here is one of my contributions:

a tiny bell rings
skin tears, muscle and bone shift
white feathers unfurl

I’ve been participating in #SciFaiKuSaturday pretty much since it launched. It’s sponsored alternately by @­_Irene_Dreams_ and @HawkandYoung. They post a prompt, and we write haiku in a science fiction vein based on the prompt. Here’s one I did this year:

robot uprising
not born out of secret lairs
but algorithms

By far my largest set of haiku, though, was written for the #HaikuChallenge, hosted by @baffled. It’s daily, so I’ve written 349 of them so far this year! Looking over them, I see there are some themes that come up again and again. One is words, unsurprising since I’m a writer. Here’s one:

humanity’s first
virtual reality
tales by the fire

Many of them relate to the realities of modern life, good and bad. This one, for instance, is especially relevant now that the holiday online shopping season is in full swing:

we’ve come to expect
our dreams delivered on time
in cardboard boxes

For some reason, lots of the haiku I wrote had to do with birds, including this one:

a seagull sails past
how sad that it’s not aware
how I envy it

The dozen haiku I’ve chosen for this post, though, reflect the changing seasons as I followed them through the year. Here they are. Enjoy!

the cold winter sky
a blue so hard it makes clouds
shatter into snow

as the snowflakes fall
they perform a wild ballet
pas de millions

we turn toward the sun
green leaves, flowers, bees appear
earth’s great magic trick

on the summer blooms
bees bumble, tumble, fumble
prospecting for gold

honey on my toast
every golden drop distilled
from sun and flowers

I sit on the porch
in a sweater, sipping tea
and watch autumn fall

the year grows older
dry leaves are caught in the fence
I am not ready

The big tree out front
dancing in the autumn wind
paints the lawn yellow

on a chilly night
a lone tree takes a bite from
a Halloween moon

leaves blaze and fall
earth draws up her white blanket
and lets her scars heal

in the frozen night
trees filter moonlight through nets
of tangled branches

ice on the sidewalk
hear it crack under my feet
I step carefully

One final note, about the headline image for this post. It is a detail from a painting we purchased in Tokyo in 1984. I’m sad to say that I don’t know the name of the artist, but to me it fits well with the elegance, simplicity, and focus on nature embodied in haiku.

Please note that all starting in a few weeks, I will be posting only on my official website: www.celiareaves.com. I hope to see you on my new site!

A Dozen Photos

A Nikon camera with a telephoto lense on a wooden table. Text: Something for Sunday; December 8, 2019; A Dozen Photos

Now that we’re into December, I’m taking time to look back at 2019 in various ways. This week I dug through more than 100 photos I posted on the blog this year and pulled out 12 of them that I especially liked or that meant a lot to me for some reason. My photos were all taken with my trusty iPhone camera (not the Nikon my husband uses, which graces the headline image for this post). The reason I love my phone camera is because I always have it with me, so I can grab a shot wherever I am. Here are the images I picked, in the order in which they appeared. (Click the link in each entry to see the original post.)

  1. New Life: This one is special, because it was the first photo posted this year. I took a couple of months off from the blog, regrouping and trying to find my path forward. This image represents me getting back in the groove.An early spring bud, ready to burst into flower
  2. Get Back Up: This is the first image I posted in my Something for Sunday series, in which I talked about an important way humans differ from many other animals and how this related to the movie Captain Marvel. I’m not going to call out any more of them, because they aren’t simply photos, but have been highly edited and altered and have text on top. I wanted to include this one, though, since it’s the first.Two red tulips against white siding. Text: Something for Sunday; May 5, 2019; Get Back Up
  3. WordWacker is 5: It was fun to take this photo out in the back yard, and then to share and eat the props! It’s bittersweet for me, though, since I’m retiring this blog at the end of the year. I’m not getting out of blogging, though. I’m switching it to my own website, and will keep the posts here for the future.A cake with frosting baloons and the number 5, with text: Happy Blog Birthday
  4. Berries in the Rain: This was the first photo I posted in response to the Lens Artists photo challenge. It’s been going on for more than a year, but it took me this long to find it. The people who run the challenge, and those who participate, are amazing photographers, and I love seeing what they come up with every week. Many of the images in the rest of this list were posted for this challenge.Bright red berries among green leaves, each berry with a drop of rain
  5. Charlotte Pier: I love this dreamy, atmospheric shot, posted for a Lens Artists challenge.Gray day on the water. In the distance, a pier stretches off to a lighthouse, with a few people braving the weather.
  6. Sunset friends: Another Lens Artists photo, one of a set of silhouettes.Sunset over water, with the silhouettes of four young people in the foreground
  7. Lamp: Another photo challenge I discovered this year was the Squares Challenge, which four times a year gives a theme and invites a photo on the theme every day for a month. I posted my photos in batches, one each Sunday. This was one of the photos in my collection featuring straight lines.The shade on this lamp is an interesting pattern of vertical pleats gathered alternately at the top and bottom
  8. Leaf Closeup: This was one of the images for a Lens Artist challenge inviting people to fill the frame, getting close to their subject.Closeup of bright red maple leaves, lookind down on a yard strewn with fallen leaves
  9. Snowy Branches: One of the images posted for the Square Challenge, this time part of a set of photos featuring natural lines.The dense, twisted branches on these trees each carry an inch or two of snow
  10. Cloud Layers: One of the images for a Lens Artist challenge about images showing layers.Fluffy white clouds against a dark blue sky, receding toward the horizon
  11. Creepy Tree: Another image for a Lens Artist challenge near Halloween, asking for creepy photos.A dead tree on the beach, with the trunk chopped off 20 feet up and two twisted branches reaching into the air
  12. Wires: This was in my most recent set of posts for the Lens Artist challenge, so it serves well to round out the collection.A nest of electrical cables in a variety of colors

I have to say that taking and posting photos has been one of my great joys on the blog this year. I’m happy to share a few of them with you.

Please note that all starting in a few weeks, my images will only be posted on my official website: www.celiareaves.com. If you want to see the pictures I post in the future, you’ll have to follow me there. I hope to see you on my new site!


A Dozen Books

A stack of hardcover books with the top one open, plus some ceramic roses. Text: Something for Sunday; December 1, 2019; A Dozen BooksNow that we’re into December, I’m taking time to look back at 2019 in various ways. This week I begin by listing a dozen books I read this year that I really enjoyed. I found I couldn’t rank them from most to least favorite, so they’re in the order in which I read them.

  1. All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault (James Alan Gardner) In this world, Superheroes and Creatures of the Night (vampires, ghosts, demons, and the like) don’t mix well together. This delightfully geeky story throws them into a pot, stirs in a pile of snarky humor and a dollop of pop-culture references, mixes well, and makes it all work. I love characters who are sometimes unsure or confused but always smart and determined, and I give props to the book for featuring a gender-fluid Asian Canadian hero.
  2. Blackbirds (Chuck Wendig) Miriam Black has a horrible magic power. When she touches someone’s skin, she immediately sees a vision of their death. She initially tried to prevent those deaths, but concluded that it was impossible. As you might expect, this made her emotionally unstable, and she’s a difficult character to like: vulgar, violent, and self-destructive. Though her story took me into some uncomfortable places, it was compelling and pulled me right along to a conclusion that was satisfying to a degree but leaves loose ends that pull me into the next volume in this series, where there is now some hope for her redemption.
  3. Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America (Beth Macy) This is detailed, exhaustively researched look at the opioid epidemic that’s killing thousands and tearing apart families and communities. You can’t read it without becoming depressed and infuriated, which is right and proper. You also leave it encouraged by the tireless work of those trying to fight the menace.
  4. Angelmaker (Nick Harkaway) The son of a legendary small-time gangster in London is trying to live a quiet, upright life as a clockmaker, but he gets dragged into a web of intrigue dating back to the 1950s and a near-mythical doomsday device. I loved the humor and the characters, who were simultaneously quirky and realistic. It sometimes slowed down a little too much, sometimes felt a little too tricky, but it always managed to pull itself together in the nick of time, rather like its protagonist.
  5. Spinning Silver (Naomi Novik) In this lyrical fairy tale, two women from opposite ends of their social world must learn to navigate the treacherous magic they’ve been drawn into, to save not only themselves, but those they love and two kingdoms besides. Though it focuses on these two women, each strong and capable in her own way but facing tough challenges, it’s populated by a whole stable full of other characters, with chapters and scenes from a variety of points of view, so that occasionally I lost track of whose head I was in for a moment. It was worth that small degree of fumbling, though, for the rich, deeply explored worlds and compelling characters.
  6. Flex (Ferrett Steinmetz) This is the first of a fantasy series with a fascinating magic system. When someone becomes completely obsessed with anything, from anime to zoos, their passion can grow so great that it deforms reality, and they become ‘mancers. However, the universe objects, and something somewhere else in the fabric of reality has to shift to compensate. For this reason, using magic in this way is forbidden, and ‘mancers are hunted down and “corrected.” This book is a galloping, fun ride through this alternate world, where ‘mancers fight for survival. It’s packed with pop culture references, especially relating to video games, and some wonderful characters who are not stereotypically white, thin, and rich.
  7. An Unkindness of Magicians (Kat Howard) This fantasy about a society of magic users hiding in plain sight in our contemporary world is dark, twisted, and lovely. It explores the nature of power and what some people do to collect it and keep it, and how each person has to decide how far is too far. This world is intricate, with families that intertwine and compete, and by the end of the first chapter I’d gone back to create a web giving all the many, many characters and their relations with each other. It was packed, almost overpacked, like a whole season of Game of Thrones in one book, and rushed through the end, but I loved it.
  8. Spoonbenders (Daryl Gregory) A complicated but ultimately very rewarding story about several generations of a family of people with paranormal powers. They start out as carnival acts, complete with an appearance on Johnny Carson that goes badly, and things go downhill from there. Their powers are the class example of a blessing that’s also a curse, and their attempts to work through how to use them and live with them in the real world is touching, heartbreaking, and hilarious. Some of the reveals I figured out early, but nothing fully prepared me for the stunning three-ring circus of a finish.
  9. Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries (Kory Stamper) The author is a long-time editor at Merriam-Webster, and digs deeply into how dictionaries reflect language. She give an intimate picture of what it’s like to think deeply about how a word is used, the kind of person who spends a life doing that, and what dictionaries do and do not tell us. Stamper is brilliant, funny, and down-to-earth. Recommended for anyone who loves words and English.
  10. Fall, or Dodge in Hell (Neal Stephenson) This is a sprawling story about many aspects of how people relate to technology, focusing largely on a future technology that will allow people to have their brains scanned on their death and uploaded into a virtual system where they can live on in a digital reality. It takes a lot of detours getting there, including a gripping but ultimately unrelated side trip into a future of social media and information feeds, and makes some unquestioned assumptions that don’t always work for me, but it still had me turning pages to find out what happens next.
  11. Omaha Beach: D-Day, June 6, 1944 (Joseph Balkoski) This nonfiction book details in gripping detail the events of that historic day, starting from the planning and preparations and up through that night and into the following morning. It is a closeup look at one small but pivotal piece of the Normandy Invasion that marked the turning point in World War II, focusing on the mostly-American fight for this one particular beach. I’m not a huge fan of military history, but this story was fascinating.
  12. The Curse of Chalion (Lois McMaster Bujold) This is the first in a Hugo Award-winning series of fantasy novels, set in the World of the Five Gods. I loved the world-building, the realistic and distinct characters, and the sense of humanity struggling against great odds to do the right thing. I will definitely read the others in this series.

    ON ANOTHER NOTE: Starting in January 2020 I’ll be posting only on my official author website. If you enjoy my content, please start following me there: www.celiareaves.com. I value every one of my followers, and I hope you stick with me!

So Many Blessings

A burning candle surrounded by vividly colored autumn leaves. Text: Something for Sunday; November 24, 2019; So Many BlessingsThanksgiving in the US is coming up this Thursday, and as usual I will have a small group at my house: me, my husband, our two children, and our son-in-law. All our other family members live too far away to visit, but I’m content. I have so many blessings, more than I can count.

  • My family. Our children both live locally, and come to visit every week. Everyone is healthy and is in a good place mentally, socially, and financially. There is nothing more precious to me than this.
  • My life. I retired this year, and find my new situation very rewarding. Our finances are more than comfortable, we are both in good health, and I’m enjoying the extra time I can spend on things I choose: writing, gaming, and music. I’m also able to work more diligently on maintaining my health into old age, including a much more regular workout schedule. I have a network of friends, in real life and online, and am looking forward to the future.
  • My country. I know that there’s a lot going on here that is, shall we say, less than ideal. Right now it’s hard. But we will get through it, and uphold our core principles: the rule of law, and that nobody is above the law. With all its blemishes, there is no place I would rather live.

I am very aware of how privileged my status as a well-off white person in the USA makes me. I try to be constantly mindful of this privilege, to remember that I owe it to much more than just my own efforts and to do what I can to spread it to others. But today, in this season of thanksgiving, I will give myself wholeheartedly to gratitude for what life has given to me.

Every year at this time, I’m reminded of a saying I’ve seen attributed to Native Americans:

Give thanks for blessings yet unknown, already on their way

I hope you and yours find your blessings, and come to a place where you have the peace, security, and love you deserve.

ON ANOTHER NOTE: Starting in January 2020 I’ll be posting only on my official author website. If you enjoy my content, please start following me there: www.celiareaves.com. I value every one of my followers, and I hope to see you over there!


Through the Looking Glass: Nancy Drew Then and Now

Stack of Nancy Drew books, with Nancy's image enlarged with a magnifying glass. Text: Something for Sunday; November 17, 2019; Through the Magnifying GlassLike every woman I know, I grew up reading Nancy Drew books. Mine were the 1960s versions with the bright yellow spines. I devoured these stories about the intelligent, generous, loyal, and fearless girl detective. She reinforced my conviction that I could be anything I wanted in my life, if I just had the nerve to do it.

I was reminded about this teenage obsession when several things came together recently:

  • A few months ago I read an interesting history of the creation of this venerable franchise, focusing on the two women most responsible for “Carolyn Keene,” the name given to its author: Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women who Created Her, by Melanie Rehak. I enjoyed learning about these two strong, capable women and their fruitful, if sometimes testy, relationship.
  • A new Nancy Drew TV show launched in October that features a very different sort of heroine. The Nancy I grew up with was chaste and upright, for all her spunk. This show opens with a sex scene, and which point I turned it off. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this show, it just doesn’t align much with how I remember Nancy Drew, so it’s too unsettling for me.
  • Last night I rewatched an old episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“Choices,” first broadcast 1999). In it, the young witch Willow has been captured, but gets out of the room she’s held in. Elsewhere in the building she finds the Books of Ascension detailing the mayor’s evil plan and sits down to read them, wanting to solve a mystery more than she wants to escape. When Faith, the Slayer who’s turned to the dark side, finds her, she says, “You just can’t stop Nancy Drew-ing, can you?”

That last event was the third time charm that triggered this blog post, looking at Nancy Drew then and now. (I’m drawing some information from two great sources: an article by Olivia Rutigliano in Crimereads.com, and a Master’s thesis by Jennifer Shaw on how the books addressed issues of gender roles, race, and authority.)

Nancy Drew Then. The original Nancy Drew was born in 1930, at the height of the Great Depression. Although financial hardship never touched her, her family, or her friends, she embodied the cultural expectations of the era of independence and grit. Women in the US had only been able to vote for a decade, and were reveling in their hard-won power. By the 1950s she had morphed into a more sedate, rule-following post-war woman, while still supporting the ideals of female empowerment. This was my Nancy: a “good girl” who was a respected member of her community, one who fought for what was right. She emphasized keeping a cool head and solving problems, not being swayed by fear or worrying what others think. As she never did anything wrong, everyone always thought she was wonderful, except for the bad guys she thwarted. Mainly, she was the preeminent example of a young woman who used her brains and her courage to help others. There was no other cultural icon for young women representing that ideal at that time, or at least not one so widely known.

Nancy Drew Now. One thing Nancy Drew did was start a trend toward media representations of feisty, clever, capable young women. Here is a very scattered, incomplete list of TV shows featuring such characters, based only on my own viewing and interests:

  • The X-Files (1993-2002; 2016-2018) This show had two main characters, but Scully, the woman FBI agent, more than held her own, demonstrating intelligence and courage in facing both paranormal threats and government coverups. She is an adult, obviously, not a teen, but represents the independence of thought young women could strive for.
  • Star Trek: Voyager (1994-2001) This series in the long-running franchise featured a woman in command of a starship. Captain Janeway, another adult, embodied many of the virtues of Nancy Drew: brave, loyal, clever, a respecter of rules but more interested in doing what’s right.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) Though Buffy was not a detective, and never claimed to be clever, she was obviously tough, loyal, and brave. She fought to protect the defenseless and do the right thing.
  • Veronica Mars (2004-2007; 2019) Veronica is the clearest follower of Nancy Drew, since she’s a detective who started out while still in high school, working to solve cases alongside her extremely supportive widowed father (a detective himself, instead of the Nancy’s lawyer father, but still very close).

The modern Nancy Drew is different from the original because she has to be to compete. The ecological niche for smart, brave, and loyal girls has gotten rather crowded, and the cultural mindset of teens and young adults today has clearly progressed in 60 years. The beauty of Nancy Drew is that she is able to be whatever girls look up to as they map out how to become the women they choose to be.

Thank you, Nancy.

ON ANOTHER NOTE: I’ve made a rather momentous decision. I will officially be switching my blog from this free WordPress location to my actual author website. For the rest of the year I will post all my blog entries (including this one) on both locations, and I’ve disabled subscriptions to Word Wacker. Starting in January 2020 I’ll be posting only on the website. If you enjoy my content, please start following me at my site: www.celiareaves.com. I value every one of my followers, and I hope to see you over there!

Brain Stories: Storytelling and Human Consciousness

An image of a reconstructed human skull. Text: Something for Sunday; November 10, 2019; Brain StoriesAs I work on editing one novel and beginning the planning of another, I’ve been reading books about craft. I recently started Story Genius by Lisa Cron, and so far it’s fabulous. I will definitely be working through her process for both stories, and have no doubt that they will be better for it. I’m not surprised: I mentioned her before, with respect to her first book, Wired for Story and how much I loved it. She has a TEDx talk about the importance of story that writers may find valuable:

One of her major points is that our brains are wired to be caught up in stories. When a story is working right, it delivers to the reader a hit of dopamine, a neurochemical related pleasure and addiction. She points out that every human society ever has used story for teaching and building community. Writers can apply this understanding to construct stories that will draw readers in and keep them engaged until the last page. I completely agree with her on this.

Another part of her argument is that the reason stories work this way is that we use stories to develop our understanding of the world, allowing us to develop the responses that will allow us to survive and thrive. Early humans who didn’t pay attention to story, she says, didn’t learn how to be effective in the world and died out. That little pulse of dopamine is there specifically to push us into paying attention to stories so we can learn the lessons they teach us. She may be right about this, but there’s another way of thinking about stories and the human mind that might also be involved. To get there, we have to take a side trip into cognitive psychology (my favorite thing, along with writing).

Cognitive Psychology Digression

We humans possess a conscious awareness of ourselves that not many animals have. That is, we not only know what’s happening around us, but we can reflect on ourselves as something that knows it. We can think back to our own past experiences, instead of simply reacting to what’s here. We have a sense of ourselves as entities with a past history, and can project ourselves into the future, imagining who we might be and how that might come about. Where this conscious awareness comes from and how it emerges from the physical activity of the brain is something cognitive psychologists think about a lot. It’s what philosopher David Chalmers called the “hard problem” of cognitive science. There has been much too much work on this hard problem for me to summarize it in any meaningful way, but here are a couple of accessible resources: a story in Psychology Today addressing the reason why the question is hard and why people are trying to solve it, and an article in Scientific American focusing on some brain regions that may be crucial to consciousness.

The theory I find most fascinating claims that consciousness evolved as a direct result of two related properties of human beings: our social nature, and our behavioral flexibility. (This is related to, though not exactly the same as, a theory of the social nature of consciousness developed by Michael Graziano: see this scholarly article and this more recent popular description.) Here’s how it works.
• Humans live in complex, interconnected social networks, even more than our primate relatives. It is essential to our survival that we are able to interact smoothly with lots of other humans. In order to do that, we need to understand the goals and motives of other people and predict how they will react to any number of situations, including unexpected or unusual ones. From their very first days, babies are focused on understanding and connecting with the people around them, as shown by their strong tendency to look at human faces and, as soon as they have any physical control at all, to respond appropriately to them.
• Humans have very few hard-wired reflexes. Babies are born with a handful fixed behaviors that are necessary for survival, such as suckling, but within weeks their behaviors start to show more flexibility. This is essential, because the way they will be expected to act will vary widely depending on the specific social group they are part of. A baby goose will have no choice but to follow the first moving object they see after hatching; there is almost no behavior humans engage in that they can’t consciously choose.

This is a cognitively demanding situation. People can act in ways that are not determined by their biology, but understanding and predicting how they will act is critical. How do we pull it off? We have to build within our minds little models of all the important people in our lives, keeping track of how they behave and making inferences about their thoughts and beliefs. We have powerful neural structures that evolved for that purpose, and this may be one major reason why we developed such big brains.

If you’ve got a complex brain structure just for the purpose of building little mental models of people, it makes sense for that model to be applied to the most important person in your world: You. In my brain, alongside all the ways I understand my family, friends, and co-workers, there’s something dedicated to understanding me. Keeping track of my past behavior, deducing my motives and goals, and predicting how I will react in future situations. In this theory, that model of me is the source of my conscious awareness.

Meanwhile, Back in the Story

Cron makes the argument that we enjoy stories because they serve real, tangible benefits that help us survive; in an evolutionary sense, they are adaptive. Let me emphasize that this may be completely true. However, there’s something else that may be true as well. Something that was adaptive at some point early in human evolution doesn’t necessarily benefit us today. Think about the drive to consume sweets and fats, which was a definite plus when eating wild plants and animals on the African savannah, but not so much in today’s fast-food world. Or, something that has a real, adaptive purpose may also have another effect that is purely accidental.

When we read a compelling story, we are pulled into someone else’s head. The author leads us to build mental models of the various characters, and their behavior plays out in a series of situations. When the story is well constructed the characters are interesting, their behavior complex but well motivated, and their responses satisfying. In other words, it triggers our ability to model people in a big way.

There is very good reason to believe that our ability to effectively model the people around us is a critical survival skill. As with many critical survival skills, our system has evolved to encourage us to engage in it. Giving us a hit of dopamine when we indulge in that skill is one way to do this. It means that when we get pulled into a story, it feels good.

I’m not suggesting that stories, like chocolate ice cream, are bad for us! But it might be that getting drawn into a story is not really related to survival at all. It could be just a side effect of our social modeling ability, which is definitely related to survival. Even so, it’s a fascinating and very enjoyable side effect. Stories are pleasurable, and indulging in them has essentially no down sides. I still intend to read as much as I can, and to create engaging stories others sink into. Cron’s book looks like a good way to learn how to do that.

ON ANOTHER NOTE: I’ve made a rather momentous decision. I will officially be switching my blog from this free WordPress location to my actual author website. For the rest of the year I will post all my blog entries (including this one) on both locations. Starting in January 2020, though, I’ll be posting only on the website. If you enjoy my content, please start following me at my site: www.celiareaves.com. I value every one of my followers, and I hope to see you over there!

Hello, NaNo: My First NaNoWriMo!

Closeup of a computer keyboard. Text: Something for Sunday; November 3, 2019; Hello, NaNoSince 1999, thousands of writers have signed up to focus on writing by committing to producing 50,000 words during the month of November. The event is called National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, and is hosted by a fabulous nonprofit organization, sponsored by a number of wonderful businesses. I’ve never been able to participate in this event because, as a college professor, my November was already completely packed (though I have done a spin-off event called Camp NaNoWriMo). This year I’m retired, so I planned to do the real NaNo for the first time.

Things got complicated, though, because I’m in the middle of editing my book. Yes, I’ve been editing it for a LONG time, but I’m committed to getting it finished by the end of this year. So I’m not ready to start a new novel now. I worried that this would mean I couldn’t do NaNoWriMo after all.

Guess what – I decided I’m doing it. I will log and track all the work I do while editing, by which I mean I’ll count the final, edited version of each chapter I work on during November. I will also count the notes I write for myself as I work through the revision. If I finish all that and still haven’t hit 50,000, I’ll log the planning on my next project.

This means my first actual NaNoWriMo is kind of a Franken-project, combining editing one book with the planning of another. I figure if it gets me moving more efficiently with my writing, then I’ve met my goal!

Wish all of us diving into the NaNo waters this year good luck!

ON ANOTHER NOTE: I’ve made a rather momentous decision. I will officially be switching my blog from this free WordPress location to my actual author website. From now until the end of this year I will post all my blog entries (including this one) on both locations. Starting in January 2020, though, I’ll be posting only on the website. If you enjoy my content, please start following me at my site: www.celiareaves.com. I value every one of my followers, and I hope to see you over there!

Lines and Squares 4: Perspective

Pattern of pale gray square tiles. Text: Something for Sunday; October 27, 2019; Lines and Squares, Part 4: PerspectiveBecky B runs a photo challenge four times a year for a whole month. In the Squares Challenge, people post an image for each day that meet two criteria; they are based on the month’s prompt, and their format is square. This October, the prompt is Lines. I’ve chosen to bundle my images into four batches and post one batch each Sunday in October.

This batch of images features perspective lines (lines that pull your eye into the distance). This brings me to a total of 32 square photos (eight in each of the four Sundays I’ve posted on this challenge). You can see the other three sets here, here, and here.This has been a wonderful experience, and I’m looking forward to participating in future Squares Challenges. Thank you, Becky!

Click an image to navigate through the gallery. Enjoy!