Monthly Archives: November 2015

Five Topics Which Used to be ‘Off-Limits’

     Social media seems to bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. We’ve all noticed that some people use Facebook, for example, in a positive way while others become weirdly competitive, snarky, or even abusive.
     Not long ago there was an unspoken rule that certain topics were, quite simply, off-limits. My parents, members of the “Greatest Generation,” certainly conducted themselves in that way. When I was a little girl, I considered my parents’ dinner parties to be so boring that it wasn’t even worth trying to eavesdrop. Nothing juicy was ever said outright. Euphemisms were employed with such delicacy and skill that I was left completely in the dark. I know this sounds very “Downton Abbey” but it was generally-accepted behavior throughout America until a generation or so ago.

     Here are the 5 no-no’s as I remember them:

Money. You never talked about your salary, or how much money you had in the bank, or how much you spent on that new car sitting in the driveway. And, it was considered the height of rudeness to ask.

Physical intimacy. In other words, the word that starts with “s” and ends with “x”. That included anything related to childbearing. Pregnant women were said to be “expecting.” (I remember as a kid thinking, expecting WHAT?)

Death. People passed away. Sometimes they were said to “go to Glory.” They didn’t “die” and deceased persons were not said to be “dead.” I often had the impression that people vanished, flew up into the sky like a bird, or simply left the room. No details were forthcoming.

Religion. You didn’t bring it up, period. The most you might say is that your church had a new minister and he seemed like a swell guy. But that was about it. The last thing you wanted to do was offend someone, so if you were Protestant and one of your guests was Catholic or Jewish, you would never put him or her on the spot by asking for an explanation of religious beliefs. In “polite company,” you were aiming to make your guests feel comfortable, not awkward.

Politics. Oh my, never! Off-limits! Radioactive! You didn’t ask who someone was voting for, and you didn’t tell, either. Why? Because it was considered divisive. And divisive was not a good thing!

The goal was to find common ground. Once you knew a person well, you might have a one-on-one conversation about something in the “off-limits” category. But you did not – ever – put someone on the spot in front of others.

Of course, one might wonder, what on earth did they talk about? Acceptable topics included travel, weather, novels, films, music, home improvement projects, gardening, cooking, children (in general terms; bragging was in poor taste), vacations, new technology (e.g., power windows in cars, the Space Race), sports, hobbies, and taxes (because everyone hates taxes).

I don’t think we should go back to the old ways, even if we could. I’m all for freedom of speech, speaking out for what you stand for, sticking up for yourself, and so on. But sometimes it seems a slippery slope, and all we end up with is people shouting at each other. While we can laugh at the old ways, maybe there is a time and a place to be more reserved, after all.

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A Novel’s Character: Peculiar, or Charming?

Pelicans in St. Petersburg, Florida

Do you ever talk to wild birds or animals (or critters, as we say in the South)?

I thought this was an unusual hobby until I was in Florida last week, when I flat-out asked people. I was surprised at the number – one out of every ten, I would venture to guess – who raised their hands.

I was in Florida as part of my book tour for my latest Miss Dreamsville novel in which one of my characters – the eccentric Dolores Simpson – talks to a heron that has built a nest in a nearby tree. Dolores is a middle-aged woman who suffered from acute “man trouble” in her youth and retreated from the world. She lives in an old fishing shack on the edge of the Everglades. Her son – her only companion – has gone off to seek adventure, so Dolores finds herself pouring out her heart to the heron. She confides in the heron, and eventually gives it a name: Peggy Sue.

Peggy Sue, I should note, has been immortalized on the cover of my new novel by an astute book-cover designer – no doubt, someone in the art department at Simon & Schuster who just so happens to talk to critters.Final Cover Dreamsville 2

When I was writing the book, I wondered if Dolores’s chit-chat with the heron was a little over the top.

And yet, it felt true to me, so I left it all in. I’ve known people who talked to critters, and, truth be told, I do it myself.

For example, a blue heron I call “Big Guy” has been visiting our property for years, always in the exact same location. I would know that bird anywhere. He is cranky if another bird gets too close to his turf. His arrival signals the start of Spring, and I always go out on the deck to welcome him home.

Then there’s “Mr. Kingfisher,” who spent entire summers perched on the same slender branch of a willow, bobbing up and down in the breeze. When a hurricane knocked down his favorite spot, Mr. Kingfisher was irritated and looked at me as if to say, “Hey, who moved my tree?!” I told him, “Don’t worry!” and planted a new tree that very afternoon.

Now, I know there are people out there who think this is silly, or even downright nutty. Others would say it’s peculiar, while some might find it charming.

In the weeks since my novel was published, I’ve learned that readers truly like my character Dolores and her bird-talking ways.

Collier County egret (Copyright Amy Hill Hearth)

And I’m finding it kind of fun to ask an audience, once the subject has been broached, if anyone confides in wild critters.

One man said he talks to an alligator every day. My sister-in-law admitted that she talks to squirrels.

But by far the most common are people, like me, who converse with birds. While traveling in the Sunshine State last week, I remembered that it was while living in Florida that I picked up the bird-talking habit. After all, birds in the Southeastern part of the USA all seem like characters. Sandpipers are adorable, mockingbirds are a hoot, pelicans are goofy, herons are curious, stately, and appear to be wise.

And, just like Dolores, I’ve always found them to be good listeners.

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