Betty Crocker: The Dear Abby of Cooking

Just this past weekend, I typed the words “The End” on the first draft of my paranormal romance novel set in 1955.

Writing a story set in a different time period comes with a special set of problems, not the least of which is the research necessary to get things right. Frequently I’d have to mark text with the intention of looking up a phrase or piece of technology to confirm its use in the 1950s. Sometimes I’d wind up down the rabbit hole of research, discovering interesting tidbits that had no bearing on the story but fascinated me anyway.

For me, setting a story in another time period is more than just learning the slang or studying the clothing, however, both of which I did. It’s about attempting to understand the mindset of the people of that time, what their hopes, dreams, and fears might be. What makes them tick. That’s one of the greatest appeals of writing historicals for me. 

I tend to do a lot of background reading as a result, even if the material never ends up in the story itself. It’s there in the structure of the story, how the characters act and think. To me it’s as important as costume design or a soundtrack is to a movie. It sets the stage for the characters and for the reader to enter their world.

In addition to the Internet, I rely a lot on books about the various periods I’m interested in, hence the photograph above. One of my late purchases arose out of my research (and I’m still trying to justify it to myself): Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook.

Did you know there was never any such person as Betty Crocker? She was the brainchild of an advertising firm hired by a flour-milling company that eventually became General Mills. She was created as part of a 1921 ad campaign to solve a puzzle and win a pin in the shape of a bag of Gold Medal Flour. The response to the contest was unexpected–in addition to the 30,000 women who solved the puzzles, the company was flooded with letters asking baking questions. Betty Crocker was created to answer those questions and by 1950 was an amalgamation of the forty-eight women who worked for the Home Service Department of General Mills, the largest  customer-service department in the industry, fielding up to 2,000 letters a day to help homemakers solve a wide variety of cooking and baking problems.

The first Betty Crocker cookbook was published in 1950, became a runaway bestseller, and has been a favorite ever since. When I opened my copy, I recognized both in the layout and the nature of the recipes within all those old timey comfort meals I’d grown up with copied from those “Church Lady cookbooks” that every major church I’ve ever been associated with has published at one time or another. The recipes I associate with my grandmother and the holidays. Truth be told, that was the real reason I bought this copy of the original Betty Crocker cookbook, complete with all the salt, sugar, and fat of the old recipes. On her death, I discovered that my mother had given away all the treasured church lady cookbooks, and many of those recipes were lost to me as a result. Now I have them again. And with them, a little piece of my past.

By the 1950s, Betty Crocker was a callback to the past, a font of maternal advice that was missing in the lives of many post-war young women widowed or settling down with former soldiers to build families in communities such as Levittown.

Isolated in suburbia from the generational women who would have taught them the ins and outs of the homemaking, modern brides were leaving behind their mother’s old-fashioned ways and complicated recipes–and prepackaged mixes were replacing traditional baking. It only made sense for General Mills to produce a cookbook using General Mills ingredients and Betty Crocker as their substitute mother.

Another brilliant marketing move by the company was to remove powdered eggs from the mixes, instead having the homemaker provide her own eggs, which allowed the baker to feel as though she were ‘making the cake from scratch’ by contributing to the creative process. I confess, when I make brownies or cakes from a mix, I consider them “homebaked” desserts, and pat myself on the back as though I’d grown the wheat and ground the flour myself. Such is the rarity of my having the time to cook for my family these days. And that’s what Betty Crocker allows us to do.

That iconic red spoon and that readily identifiable signature was part of the brand that helped homemakers recognize the advice they trusted. The irony here is that my fictional heroine might be an even worse cook than I am–so she would definitely need this cookbook. Ah well, maybe in the next installment of the series.

 

The Power of Re-inventing Self

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a new set of characters. My heroine has been through some tough times and has come out the other side not liking herself very much and looking to rewrite her story from this point out. I’ve started a notebook just for these characters and this new series, but it’s still mostly blank. I’m in the homestretch of a WIP with a June-July deadline and I can’t allow myself to get distracted by the new-shiny right now. But her story seems more interesting to me than the one I’m working on and it wasn’t until this morning that I realized why.

I’m in the same process myself.

Yesterday, I did something highly unusual for me. I went shopping.

I dislike shopping in general. I tend to get sensory overload fairly easily, so an hour in a large shopping mall has me screaming for the exits. I also resent the time-sink. I have so little free time on a given day that to waste hours in a department store is just mind-boggling to me. I’d much rather shop online, which can be done at my convenience. The biggest downside to online shopping is returning something that doesn’t fit, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay so that I can pick out a pair of boots at midnight. Truth be told, I don’t do much shopping no matter what. I tend to make do with utilitarian clothing that suits my lifestyle.

Only I’m not so sure what that lifestyle is anymore.

For years, my life has been dominated by my work–both professionally and at home on the farm. I’m most comfortable in boots and jeans. I wear a lot of graphic T’s. I have jewelry, makeup, and dresses I rarely wear. I don’t really need to shop.

But like the first shoots of green breaking through the ground in spring, I find myself after several years of heartache contemplating change. I’m also realizing that colors and styles that worked for a young brunette with long hair no longer work as well for an older woman with a blonde pixie cut.

And yesterday, instead of coming home from work and starting in on the endless list of chores to do around the house, I remembered I have This Thing at the end of the month and decided to go shopping instead.

I didn’t have any expectations of finding anything I liked. To be honest, the mustard and olive green colors that seem to be in fashion this year don’t do a thing for me. Part of the reason I’ve always disliked shopping was because my Inner Critic has always been so mean on these outings. Not thin enough. Not pretty enough. No sense of style.

Well, the last one is a fair assessment. I don’t have a good sense of style. I’ve always chosen value over fashion, which means sturdy materials, doesn’t show the dirt, and can be worn at the barn without changing clothes first. A quick view of my closet looks as though I shop at yard sales. I’ve thought about trying one of those box set things where someone sends you a ready-made outfit, including accessories, each month. Kind of like meal plans, but for clothes. Given the lack of success I’ve had with the meal plan kits, however, I decided the clothing kits would be wasted on me.

But yesterday, not having any expectations going into it, I didn’t restrict myself when it came to trying on things. I tried on outfits I wouldn’t normally consider and found myself buying something that unexpectedly pleased me. I also bought clothing because it was comfortable and looked nice, not caring or stressing about the size on the label, which is pretty remarkable, considering a couple of hours in front of a full-length mirror usually reduces me to tears. Even more remarkable is that I’m significantly heavier and older than that young, critical version of my self used to be, and that alone should have been enough to make me despise the process. It didn’t. This new me didn’t give a rat’s ass. Remaking myself held more power than destroying myself, it would seem.

I also bought new makeup, refreshing my color palette and replacing products that should have been tossed years ago. I topped off the shopping trip with a stop by the ice cream parlor, walking out the door with a cone. To my surprise, I’d spent hours at the mall and didn’t begrudge a single minute of it. In fact, I came home in a good mood, better than it’s been in a long while at the end of a work week. Finally, I understand the phrase ‘retail therapy.’

This morning I spent an hour or so going through my closet and pulling out everything I knew I’d no longer wear, no matter how much I’d liked it when I bought it *cough* twenty -some-odd years ago. Or worse, the clothing mistakes: items with tags still in place that never quite made it off the hanger. Off with the old. Bring on the new.

It took me time to reach this point. I didn’t just wake up one morning and think, “I love shopping!” and want to be a fashion plate after years of being a tomboy. I’m not convinced I do love shopping or that I’ll wear my new clothing more than once or twice a year, only that I had a lovely afternoon focusing on doing exactly what I wanted without having to answer to anyone else. I suspect it could have been any activity that I chose solely for myself.

But the fact it was part of a re-imaging of myself was a scoop of ice cream on a hot spring day. No regrets.

Pets in My Stories: The Joy and Heartbreak

Trigger warning for the loss of a pet

I’m in the homestretch of the current WIP, and I couldn’t resist adding a dog in the story.

Not just any dog, but this one. This ridiculously cute terrier who is a cuddlebug and the sweetest little guy you could ever hope to meet–unless confronted by vermin, in which case he’ll turn into a ferocious killer in the blink of an eye.

The dichotomy of his behavior is intriguing–and just a little amusing–to me. And since it suited the nature of the story, Captain makes an appearance in the upcoming Bishop Takes Knight, and if he has any say so in the matter, will be a series regular. I can’t wait to share him with you!

You’re going to find dogs, cats, and horses in most of my stories. Not just because my stories are set in shifter universes, but because animals are a big part of my life and I want to include them in my storytelling.

At the same time, I tend to get nervous when I read about animals in other stories or see them in movies. Killing the pet seems to be a common way of ratcheting up tension or creating emotional impact. Let me say up front that this is something that I don’t do as a general rule. I won’t say never because I believe in writing the story that needs to be told. But since so many times I’ve stopped reading a book or series because of the casual extermination of a pet for the purposes of creating angst, I’m extremely unlikely to do that myself. As a matter of fact, if an animal appears in a story, I frequently read ahead to make sure it doesn’t die or else I get someone else to read the book for me first.

There’s a website called DoesTheDogDie.com, which describes itself as crowd-sourced emotional spoilers for movies, TV, books, and more. It has icons which indicate what stories include pet death, which ones end happily, and which ones seem to indicate the pet dies, but in the end, doesn’t. I routinely check this site out for movies, but haven’t spent as much time on it for books. I’m definitely going to do that more in the future.

But one of the things I hadn’t counted on when giving my pets roles in my stories is how sometimes it hurts when you lose the namesake–not in the book, but in real life.

Recently, I released Ghost of a Chance, in which the eponymous Ghost is a stray German Shepherd taken in by my heroine after her previous owner dies. The German Shepherd in the story was based on my very first dog, Abby, who’s been gone more years now than she was alive. I gave the dog in my story her personality, her courage. Having lost her so long ago, it was easy to give my fictional dog Abby’s traits and smile while doing so. But I chose the name from a little feral cat I’d started feeding and eventually trapped, neutered, and tamed.

He was still a wild animal, but he’d come running whenever I left the house with the dogs, and join us on our rambles around the property. He’d let me pet him, as long as I didn’t try to pick him up. Making him a house cat wasn’t an option. He wasn’t that tame.

Ghost rapidly became a favorite of mine, despite knowing how risky it is to give your love to a feral cat. Sadly, six months after I published Ghost of a Chance, my favorite wild cat was hit by a car. I knew he’d been crossing the road at night sometimes. I did everything I could to encourage him to hang around and not leave the property. I blamed myself for the disruption to the general environment with the heavy construction we’d undertaken, that probably threatened him enough to make him wander. In short, I was devastated.

For many weeks afterward, I found it hard to look at the book I’d so joyfully written. I couldn’t think about it without remembering the shy little cat I’d loved and lost.

It wasn’t until I re-read another story in which I’d included a cameo from another pet now deceased that I was able to see this with new eyes. I’d written a little fluffy piece of fanfic and included my dog, Sampson, for the fun of it. I lost Sampson two years ago to cancer, but in my story, he was alive, tongue lolling, tail wagging, eyes alight with mischief, ready to go for a walk (or to chase a bear up the side of a mountain). 

When I wrote that story, I had no idea I’d be losing him so soon. I also didn’t give much thought to how I might feel years later, coming across that story again. When I began reading, that same emotional wrench of loss was there–but as I read on, I became fiercely glad I’d included him.

It was no different from taking a photo or video that I could look back on with a teary smile, remembering the joy he brought me. I’d captured his essence, and it would always be with me.

As Abby the dog and Ghost the cat live in Ghost of a Chance. As Captain will live in Bishop Takes Knight.

Being immortalized in that manner isn’t such a bad thing after all.

 

A Cultural Inability to Focus: What it Means for Authors

Lately, I’ve been battling the fear that I’m becoming–I don’t want to say stupid.  Let’s say cognitively impaired. That I’m losing my ability to process a reasonable amount of information. I find myself having difficulty reading a lengthy article, or wading through a basic legal document. Most books fail to hold my attention, and I lay them down never to pick them up again, something that never used to happen to me. When I do read, it’s usually on my Kindle, and I find myself skimming, in part because it’s just so easy to tap, tap, tap and turn the pages.

I’ve been writing the same scene for weeks. I’m lucky if I peck out 300 words in a writing session. I wouldn’t mind if they were 300 fabulous words, but they aren’t. I look at my WIP and think it’s stilted and cliched. Most writers cringe when they look back on their earlier works. I do too, but it’s because part of me believes my earlier work showed more promise. I should be getting better and this, right?

Instead of hashing out the scene and moving on, I find myself picking up my phone and cycling through my various social media sites. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. When I’m done with that, I scroll through my email, read forum digests, and check out my lists. And when I’m done, I start at the beginning and go through them all again.

My inbox is filled with links to articles on marketing and publishing that I never read. I sign up for online seminars and coursework I never take. Sometimes, in a fit of desperation, I delete them all just to whittle my emails down to something less than 400 notifications.

I could blame this on being exhausted most of the time–I am. I work long, hard hours. Chronic pain makes sleeping problematic. Healthy food choices and exercise is always on tomorrow’s To Do list. I can’t keep running on fumes and expect to remember the lyrics to a song I didn’t particularly like that I haven’t heard in twenty years or the name of my next-door neighbor whom I only know to wave to. (I know his dog’s name. I have my priorities right) But I don’t think that’s the biggest factor in my inability to focus.

I think our cell phones are to blame. 

I no longer know anyone’s phone number–I don’t have to–all my contacts are in my phone. Wikipedia is at my fingertips. Google will find me those song lyrics, direct me to that business I went to last year, remind me who said that clever quotation, and more. I don’t have to remember anything.

I’m never without entertainment, either. I can a read one of nearly a thousand books on my TBR list, watch a TV show, see the latest Avengers trailer, laugh over a viral cat video, or check out the latest drama in my writer’s forum. It used to be if I was out walking the dogs or tending to the horses, I used that time brainstorming for my stories. I’d come back from my activity on fire ready to write. Now I check Twitter.

It used to be if I had a few minutes to spare while waiting to do something, I’d open a book. Now I pick up the phone–and it’s not unusual for me and my husband to be sitting across from each other, phones or tablets in hand, concentrating on our screens instead of each other. We’re both introverted, so there was a time when that felt comfortable.

Now it feels like an addiction.

Our attention spans are getting shorter because we are being bombarded with information constantly. We bring it with us wherever we go. Work can reach us 24/7 (that’s another post for another day) and so can any friend or member of our family. Gone is the time when going for a walk meant you were temporarily out of contact. Sure, there are benefits to this–the most important of which is safety–but we’re never unplugged now. It means we can feed the streaming monster: be it TV shows, news feeds, or our Twitter timeline.

And if I struggle to put my phone down–picking it up first thing in the morning, sneaking glances at it at stoplights, opening social media at work when I want a break–if I struggle with the addiction of scrolling, having come to it late in life, what about the generation of people who grew up with a cell phone in their hands from day one? You have to wonder if the plasticity of young minds are being modeled to be incapable of concentrating on anything longer than a three minute video.

I’m sure when television first came into people’s homes, there were a lot of people who bemoaned the loss of family activities such as puzzle solving or reading aloud. I’m certain there were people who decried the bad influence TV had on young minds then, too. They were probably right to a certain degree, though not all the dire predictions came true. But now we have our TVs with us all the time.

When I was serving as one of my dad’s caretakers, I temporarily developed aphasia. I’d be in the middle of a conversation and start snapping my fingers, unable to think of the word I wanted to say. For someone who’s been an avid reader with a massive vocabulary most of her life, this was kind of terrifying. It didn’t occur to me I was worn out from working 12 hour days and then caring for my dad from six pm to midnight every night. Since he was struggling with dementia, it was no great stretch to fear I was developing serious cognitive dysfunction as well.

Back then, I ran across one of those ‘assess your memory’ tests in a magazine that asked you to look at a list of ten unrelated words for one minute, and then read the rest of the article. At the end of the article, you were unexpectedly asked to list as many of the ten words as you could remember. I could remember all ten because I’d made up a little story about them.

Years later, I still remember eight of those words. So I don’t really think the problem is memory loss or cognitive dysfunction. The aphasia resolved when my life stress improved. I’m under a tremendous amount of stress right now, so that’s probably the reason my eyes glaze over when I try to read something meant to enlighten and educate, right?

But maybe not. Maybe I need to spend less time scrolling on the phone and more time making up stories.

I came across this great post How to Focus on Writing Right Now by Rachel Thompson of BadRedHead Media, and I’m taking it to heart. 

If you’re finding it difficult to concentrate on a specific task or simply in general, consider cutting yourself off. Unplug. Put the phone in a drawer or lock out your social media apps while you’re working. Take a walk without talking on the phone, listening to tunes, or playing a game. Put your brain on an information diet.

Your creative side will thank you.

A Thousand Little Goodbyes: The Loss of a Personal Library

I’ve mentioned in the past that the home renovations have been a great motivator for applying some of Marie Kondo’s principles in my life. Some of you may be aware that she’s come in for some marked criticism for saying she only keeps 30 books on hand–which allows her the space to move older books out and make way for newer ones. Bibliophiles everywhere reacted strongly to this idea, but nowhere did Kondo say you should get rid of books that sparked joy for you. That’s the whole principle behind her philosophy. What sparks joy for you. Not anyone else.

Before the reno, I’d made a point of paring down our extensive book population. Shelf space was going to be at a premium after the remodel. We wanted to consolidate my husband’s library with mine (we’re extensive readers) and eliminate the books that no longer brought us as much joy–which for me usually means, “Will I read this again?” or “Is this a piece of my childhood I treasure?”

I was pretty pleased with how much I’d weeded out my own cache of books, ruthlessly donating ancient sci-fi anthologies and obscure British murder mysteries to Goodwill and the like. Since paying for storage was going to cost a fortune, I got rid of as much as I could and stacked the boxes of books in the garage, as they weighed the most.

I did more pruning while unpacking. The realization there were some books, despite the fact they held fond memories, I’d never read again, made me put more of them in the “donate” pile.

Then I began to wonder what that musty smell was.

Then I realized what I thought was simply dust was actually mold.

Then I recalled that the reno had taken months longer than promised–and those months held the wettest winter in my memory.

And I am violently allergic to mold.

Naturally, the most seriously affected books are the oldest–and the ones most precious to me. I suspect mold spores were present in low numbers on them all along, but given the extremely damp conditions, exploded into active growth. A closer examination showed it’s not just books–many of the pieces of furniture and collectibles are also dusted with mold. But those items can at least be cleaned. Ridding the books of mold is far more problematic.

I did some research and came up with several treatment options. The first involves putting books in ziplock bags with baking soda as a deodorizer/desiccant and freezing them a week or more. I’d have a buy a freezer to do this–or else empty out my small one and choose only the books most valuable to me. The second method is to microwave the books 5-10 seconds, which will kill mold and silverfish, but may also damage bindings and glue, not to mention the risk of microwaving anything with gilded edges or print. In fact, almost every post on microwaving says don’t do it. A third method suggests gently brushing the books with a dilute solution of bleach and placing them outside in the sun. Given we are still in the temperamental days of early spring, that means waiting for a day when it’s not likely to rain and bringing them in well before dark so they don’t collect dew or frost. Tricky when most days I go to work and come home while it’s still dark. 

And none of the methods actually remove the mold spores–they just inactivate them. The mold can reappear under the right circumstances again and can remain toxic no matter what treatment you perform. The other night, I was congested and reactive–it’s no coincidence it was the first night the book boxes had been opened.

Many of these books are childhood favorites now out of print. Some are delightful favorites I will re-read again. Even if they are available in digital format, I’m likely to find a better price on them in used bookstores than as ebooks. But it still means cutting my collection to the bone in order to replace the ones that are the most important to me.

I feel as though I’ve been a bad steward to my books. That I’ve been a bad friend to treasured friends that have gotten me through tough times. I can’t even in good conscience give them away. If I have to throw them out in the trash, I know I’ll cry.

My current plan is to photograph the favorites and upload images to social media, thus enlisting my friends in helping me locate replacements (or even soliciting replacements from friends looking to reduce their own book collection). At the moment, I have a dozen or so books packaged with baking soda in ziplock bags stacked in the freezer. I’ve selected one book (of which I have multiple copies and know is still in print) to lightly spray with Lysol and leave outside in the sun. I’m told for this to be effective at killing mold, it has to be Lysol containing bleach, and so far, I haven’t been able to locate that. As soon as we get a break in the April showers, I’ll make a dilute bleach solution and mist a few others to set in the sun. I suspect that will damage the covers and print a bit, but we’ll see. I’ll also select a sacrificial victim to microwave. Of all the methods, microwaving is the one that’s the most time effective, and the one I trust the least. I’ll let you know how it goes.

The freezer method with baking soda does seem to be working, but unless I buy a freezer for this purpose (and I’m not sure I trust the wiring in the garage to power a freezer–one potential disaster at a time…) this will simply take too long. Besides. I’m not sure how I’ll get the baking soda out of the books…

In the end, getting rid of the books and starting over may be the best solution after all.

Spring: Rebirth, Renewal, and Transformation

I’ll be the first to admit spring is not my favorite season. Mostly because these days, spring is heralded by weeks of high winds and heavy mud, and when we finally get them, those mild, pleasant days segues all too quickly into the oppressive heat of summer.

The one thing that makes up for it here in the South is how pretty it is.

After weeks of cold, soaking rain interspersed with occasional sleet and snow, the first buds popping through the ground have me grabbing my camera for a quick macro shot. Robins appear in the yard. Mockingbirds trill their heart-breakingly beautiful spring mating songs. Spring peepers optimistically begin chirping even while frost still limes the ground at night. The grass comes in with the bright emerald green of Ireland. Leaves unfurl, and the forsythia begins to bloom.

The Appalachian mountains always strike me as a kindly grandmother, as opposed to the rocky grandeur of the mountains out west. Our mountains are rounder, softer. We don’t get the spectacular color change in autumn the way they do in New England, either. But what we do get is gorgeous springs. Starting in March, the mountains begin to green up, and redbud and dogwood dot the hills with their pink and white blooms. Mountain laurel peeks out of forests still dark with the deadfall of winter. Our Appalachian Grandmother wears a crocheted shawl done in delicate pastels.

Crocus burst through the soil, sometimes even when there is still snow on the ground. They aren’t alone, however, and are followed shortly by daffodils and irises. My personal favorite is hyacinth–there is something heavenly about their waxy blossoms and their rich scent. Phlox and periwinkle blanket banks and flowerbeds. Bradford pears lining driveways shower white petals like snowflakes whenever the wind blows. Azaleas and crepe myrtle come into flower. Lilacs and hydrangeas send out their siren call to bees, who bumble around them with a lazy drone in the balmy air. Honeysuckle fills the air with the promise of summer.

I take pictures of them all–and every year, too–as though I hadn’t taken pictures of the same emerging flowers spring after spring. There’s something heartening and encouraging about these first signs of spring. The promise of rebirth. The hope of renewal. The encouragement of transformation.

I can’t imagine living in a place without distinct seasons. The older I get, the more I appreciate the signs of spring. My mind turns toward outdoor projects and plans to go hiking, camping, and horseback riding. I need that connection to the earth in such a very real way, it’s hard to explain.

I scrape back the bark on a tree I thought was dead, and see the bright, green quick of life that tells me, no, it was just dormant. It gives me hope that I too will come out of hibernation. Something inside me unfurls with the warming rays of the sun, and I turn my face toward it with a smile, eyes closed.

So while spring is not my favorite season, it’s a close second. Because we all need to be renewed each year.

Fighting “Productivity” Culture

I work weekends, and my husband doesn’t, which frequently leads to me coming home on Saturdays and asking how his day went and what did he do? Often, he sheepishly tells me he didn’t do anything, and then he apologizes.

“What are you sorry for?” My asking about his day isn’t meant to make him feel bad. I’m just showing interest in how he spent his time while I was gone.

Invariably, he says, “I feel like I should be doing something productive.”

I know what he means.

I work 10-12 hour days. My “free” time is so constrained that I feel I must get the most out of it. The dogs have to get some exercise every day, and if I don’t ride the horse enough each week, it’s not safe for either of us. I want to finish my current WIP (and I’m so close! Nearly there!) but I also need to write blog posts, work on my newsletter, schedule social media postings, write some Bookbub reviews, and read or watch all those marketing posts and videos jamming my inbox. Weekends are when I try to do a little meal prep for the coming week, which usually means a grocery run, and then there’s trying to cram in yoga and meditation to manage my stress levels. I have so much to do on any given day, I feel as though I can’t waste any of it, especially if that means just sitting around watching TV or reading a book, or God forbid, taking a nap.

Too often I come home from work completely fried, unable to make healthy dinner choices because my decision-making capacity is used up for the day. Sometimes I can barely muster enough energy to watch TV or read a book. Because of my tight schedule, I have to plan everything pretty far in advance, and sometimes I resent the hell out of that. Most days I have to pick and choose what I’m not going to get done, and I feel resentment and guilt over that, too. 

This morning I was scheduled to meet friends to go horseback riding, but I’d slept badly the night before, and had only just dropped off to sleep when the alarm went off. The day dawned in the upper 20s with the threat of light snow–and it would still be close to freezing by the time we mounted. Normally I love riding in brisk weather, but I couldn’t make myself get out of bed. I texted my friends and weenied out. I just didn’t want to go.

More and more, this is becoming a default choice for me, even for things I love doing. I realize it isn’t necessarily a good thing–I’m missing out on activities I enjoy and spending time with people I like–but the truth of the matter is many of the things I do for fun don’t feel like fun right now. They feel like another obligation, another task that Must Be Done. Sundays can be the worst because I’m all-too conscious of the coming work week ahead and am already dreading it.

I’m reminded of the article I read about a Search and Rescue dog whose handler inadvertently burned him out by taking him to the golf course every weekend and letting the dog search for missing golf balls. The handler thought he was giving his dog a little fun, but the dog took searching for the missing balls as seriously as his ‘day job.’ In short, the handler never let his dog take a break and just be a dog.

That’s how I’m starting to feel about the things I do for fun. It’s my cue that I’m overbooked, over-committed, and completely exhausted.

This past weekend, a friend of mine confessed she was feeling guilty for not doing anything except sitting on the couch watching TV. The thing is, I know (like me) life has thrown her a series of hard blows in a row, finishing up with a debilitating illness. That sort of thing takes it out of you, and yet we live and work in a culture that expects us to shake off everything and keep going. This is so ingrained that we expect it of ourselves as well. We expect to be doing something “productive” at all times and feel bad when we don’t.

Especially here in the US, we burn the candles at both ends, scrape up the wax, slap it back on the wick, and burn it some more. We’re penalized at work if we take sick days and we’re weirdly proud of how little vacation time we take. You’d think if anyone understood the value of keeping the staff healthy and minimizing the spread of disease, it would be medical professionals, but I once had a conversation with a nurse at my doctor’s office about the fact there was an employee’s notice on the wall about staying home if they had a fever–and yet she pointed out to me they got written up if they missed too much time off work.

We’re a culture of do more with less means and yet we don’t understand why our bricks are substandard because we ran out of straw a long time ago.

This weekend, my friend needed to sit on the couch and veg out with some comfort-level movie-watching. Mentally, emotionally, physically, that was exactly what she needed to do. Know what happens to fields that constantly bear the same crops without letting the soil go through fallow periods? The dirt becomes depleted of nutrients, the quality of the crops goes down, and eventually, nothing grows.

So stop beating yourself up for those “lazy” Sundays. Doze on the couch with the cat. Read a book. Take a long walk or lie in a hammock and do nothing. It’s not a sin. It’s allowed. More importantly–it’s necessary to your mental and creative health.

Sometimes you climb the mountain. Sometimes you admire the view.

 

The Right Dog for the Wrong Reasons

A friend of mine lost his dog a while back. After a prolonged search for the ‘right’ pup to replace his beloved Max, he finally brought home a gorgeous little Aussie female a few weeks ago.

And has been bending my ear with complaints about her ever since.

She’s too energetic. She’s mouthy. She’s being difficult to housebreak. She’s not cuddly. Max was never this bad.

I get it–I do. It’s hard when everyone you see on social media with a new puppy seems totally besotted with it–and you’re not feeling that same joy. It’s hard to get back into puppy mode when you’ve had 14 years of not-puppy mode. Time tends to blur your memory of how difficult the last puppy was and grief over your loss places the previous dog on a pedestal.

But after constant texts and phone calls from my friend, my stock of patience is used up.

Probably because I’m annoyed with myself as much as I am with my friend.

See, I did the same thing. My beloved Sampson was diagnosed with cancer less than a month after my mother died of a heart attack. I had to say goodbye less than a month after that. And though I knew better, I made an emotional decision to get another puppy right away rather than waiting until I was ready.

After telling everyone I’d never have another big, energetic dog again–that it was time to downsize–that’s exactly what I got. I found myself impulse-buying a puppy after I’d brought my husband with me to look at the litter for the sole purpose of preventing me from doing just that. And it probably would have been okay, only the cycle of loss in my life wasn’t done. I took hit after hit that year and into the next.

I didn’t neglect the puppy. I worked hard at socializing him–both with people and other dogs. He met over 100 people by the time he was four months old, and I set up scores of play dates with appropriate dogs to teach him the skill set he needed to get along. We went through Basic Obedience 1 and 2, and when he was old enough, I started him in agility classes. He even passed his Canine Good Citizenship test (admittedly by the skin of his teeth).

I love him. How can you not love that face? But with all my grieving, and then the subsequent depression, I withheld the one thing he needed the most: me.

I didn’t give him my whole heart. I was still protecting that.

It took listening to my friend gripe about his Not-Max puppy for me to fully realize what I’d done. Remington turned two recently, and I’m only now recognizing that for all the dogs I’ve had, he’s one of the calmest, most “adult” puppies I’ve ever raised.

I don’t think I could have dealt with anything more energetic than he is. He is extraordinarily gentle in nature. I’m so very lucky to have him.

I don’t deserve him.

He came into my life when I was mentally, physically, and emotionally unable to connect. I based my decision to get him on a gut feeling without giving it the full commitment to make the choice a good one.

But as I said in the previous post about Sampson, I believe specific dogs come into our lives to teach us specific lessons. While Sampson’s final lesson seemed to be to teach me how to live in the moment, Remington’s lesson right now is about commitment. That you only get out what you put in. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about puppies, or relationships, or that story you’ve been working on.

I told my friend he needed to commit 100% to his new puppy. Right now. And don’t look back. Because sometimes you get the right dog for the wrong reasons.

Finding Joy in Loss

We’re nearing the end of the extensive renovations, but the work just keeps going on. It’s like one of those house flipping shows where they start in with a tight budget and big plans but discover rot in the walls, and one thing leads to another. Sometimes the unexpected expense is a delightful revelation—like when we discovered that hooking up to town water was an option—and now was the time to do it. After living with impossibly hard water for the ten years we’ve been in the house, along with the low water pressure, bad taste and odor of the well water, and the fact the water turned brown when it rained too hard, investing in the hookup to town water was a no-brainer. In addition to adding to the resale value of the property should we ever sell, I now enjoy showers with the water pressure of a luxury hotel. And like Goldilocks, this water is just right. Not so hard it limes up the coffee maker and not so soft it feels slimy—like you can never completely rinse clean. Just blissfully right.

One of the unhappy expected expenses was is the realization that the heavy construction has chewed up the yard around the house, creating huge ruts that weeks of rain have left with standing water. We have built a walkway out of plywood, plastic tarps, straw, and cardboard, but the sea of mud surrounding the house is steadily working its way inside. We hadn’t factored landscaping, or the need to rebuild the concrete patio, into our remodel plans.

As much as I’ve been looking forward to the desperately needed remodel (honestly, it’s a wonder the house passed inspection when we bought it, and a miracle it didn’t collapse or burn down around us), coming on top of everything else in the last year, it’s been stressful. Even good stress is tough to deal with at times.

I was already struggling a bit emotionally. One of the remodeling decisions we made was to take out a wall, and while it made for a lovely open space where the living room used to be dark, small, and cramped, it severely cut down on my space to hang pictures. I love pictures. Be they photographs I’ve taken myself, images of my various fandoms, or reminders of some place I’ve traveled, I tend to collect and post images that—to borrow Marie Kondo’s phrase—bring me joy. Only during the unpacking process, I’d found myself tearing off protective paper to stare down at a beloved image and have no earthly idea where it should go—or if it should even go back up again.

The remodeling process has definitely triggered my desire to go Marie Kondo on my life (I should point out this is not something new since the Netflix show but something I’ve been considering for some time now—ever since I first read her book and resisted its tenets). Both when packing things for storage and unpacking them now, I’ve been taking a hard look at everything and trying to decide if it still brings me joy or not.

So when I was unwrapping our photographs and prints, trying to decide which to put where, I was devastated to discover the glass on one of my oldest prints was cracked.

I was already in a fragile state of mind when I discovered the damage to my print. Worse, the print was something my mother had picked up at an antique store when I was a child and I’d been carting around from house to house ever since. It has literally been a part of my life as long as I can remember. See, I identified with that beaming little girl and her gentle giant of a dog. It could have been a portrait of me at the same age.

Behind the glass, you could see the ravages of time. One of the reasons I’d never reframed it was that the print was coming to pieces in places, and that removal from the frame would likely cause the whole thing to disintegrate. Now I had no choice. I couldn’t hang a picture with broken glass. So I held my damaged print in my hands and wept. One more thing to add to the things I’ve lost in the past year. And this time, it felt like I was losing me as well.

My husband, quick to respond to my distress, suggested taking it to a framing shop to see what they could do. I didn’t see the point at first—in my mind it was already a total loss as any attempt to remove it from the frame would result in the final destruction. But we went to the framing store anyway, and an incredibly empathetic woman there not only appreciated the degree to which the damage upset me, but she treated my print with the care one would bestow on a living thing. She managed to get it out of the frame without destroying it, a painstaking process that made both of us sweat just a little, as she had to remove the backing in pieces warped by age and neglect.

In doing so, for the first time, I was able to see the name of the artist, previously hidden by the frame.

In the meantime, my husband did a reverse image search on the print, just in case my fears were realized and the whole thing turned to dust like Ayeshea on stepping into the Spirit of Life the second time and reverting to her true age. Not only did he find out the print is still available, though replacing it would have cost a pretty penny, he did a little research on the artist as well. Arthur John Elsley was an English painter of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, famous for his depictions of children and dogs. He was very popular in his day, with his works appearing in magazines and calendars. His style was so distinctive, I suspect I’d recognize it if I came across another of his paintings. I checked the prices on his original paintings still available–some go for as high as $100,000!

The story has a happy ending, though. Not only was the framer able to remove the print largely intact, but she was able to clean and repair it for the most part. We made the decision to reuse the original frame (being of stout oak, of the likes it would be hard to replace without spending a lot of money) and use acrylic instead of glass to decrease the chance of future breakage. The end result is better than what I had before the glass broke.

Not only do I have an improved print to hang on my wall, but I also now know the name and history of the artist, which brings me a little extra fillip of pleasure when I look at the smiling little girl and her tolerant dog. I have something even more valuable as well—more affirmation that my guy has my back. I have no doubt that had the restoration proved terminal, he’d have seen to it I got another copy of that print.

And that, my dear Marie Kondo fans, brings me joy.

A Resolution I Must Keep

At this time of year, there are a lot of blog posts about getting fit, losing weight, joining a gym, etc. Especially after several solid weeks of overindulgence over the holidays, and the prospect of starting clean with the New Year, many of us formulate grandiose resolutions about reclaiming the bodies of our youth–even if we never had the ‘best’ body before. Even if we never share these resolutions out loud. It’s a promise we make to ourselves. This time, this year will be better than the last. And part of being better means looking our best, right?

For years I’ve been muttering about needing to clean up my diet. Yes, I need to lose some weight–my BMI has crept up into the ‘overweight’ category–but because that weight is evenly distributed and because I am a relatively active person, I didn’t give it much thought unless I needed to get into a swimsuit–and I could find lots of reasons to avoid doing that. Heartburn and digestive issues were annoyances that made me consider changing my eating habits more than once, but my hectic work schedule made it more important for me to to grab something fast and portable than to choose a more healthy meal. The critical thing was to keep going, keep moving. Work at the pace demanded of me.

I wasn’t going to give up an entire afternoon a week of my precious time toward meal prep. I’m a terribly picky eater, so meal services tend to be a waste of money for me. My weight wasn’t keeping me from doing the things I needed to do–in fact, most people looked askance at me when I said I needed to drop some weight, and so I kept putting off doing anything about my health and eating habits until my body said, “No more.”

First it was caffeine. I had to stop drinking any caffeinated drinks about 5 years ago. A cup of tea would send my BP through the roof. Now I’m at the point where I can’t even have a piece of chocolate without a corresponding rise in BP. Are you weeping in sympathy? Because giving up caffeine was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

Until I had to give up wine. Yep. One glass of my favorite red makes my BP skyrocket now. I said goodbye to all alcohol recently because it’s just not worth it: feeling as though the beast from Alien is going to burst through your chest at any moment for at least 24 hours after a single glass.

I’ve had workups out the whazoo–including a stress test I passed with flying colors. I’m on medication, and it was working at first. But now the BP is creeping up even on meds. I know that BP can be controlled with diet and exercise, as well as meditation and stress management–and I am working on those things. But I’m resistant to change when it comes to food.

Most of my research indicates that I’m not alone in my struggles with blood pressure–more than 33% of Americans over the age of 40 have hypertension. And though no one in my family has had a stroke or heart attack until they were in their late seventies or eighties, having hypertension definitely increases that risk for me.

I’m also suspicious I could be sliding toward metabolic syndrome. I don’t fit all the parameters, but some of them are there, and honestly, I think given the typical American diet, more of us are at risk than you’d think.

I’ve spent the last few weeks examining the salt content of most packaged foods, and it’s enough to curl your hair. Rice is pretty healthy, right? Salmon, kale, and rice–not a bad dinner by any means. Only that flavored rice packet my husband loves so much contains 45% of the daily recommended allowance of salt. And that whole grain oat cereal that’s gluten free, high in fiber, and comes in those tasty little “o” shapes? 6% of your RDA.8% if you add milk.

Many people believe that it is just as important to restrict sugar as salt when it comes to BP, and if you factor in insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, it makes sense.

Then there is stress. I figure my adrenal glands–which produce the “flight or fight” hormone cortisol–are probably the size of cantelopes right now. My work environment is incredibly stressful, and I’ve had a lot of personal loss over the past couple of years, so I recently made the decision to seek counseling. The first session was productive, if for no other reason than to have someone outside your family blink and say, “What the hell, man?” when they hear your story.

But all these measures have failed to maintain my BP in the normal range and my anxiety about it isn’t helping. So now it is time to finally get serious about changing my diet. No more grabbing cookies or donuts from the break room when the workload gets too hectic. No more fast food lunches. No more relying on prepacked meals or frozen pizza because I’m too damned tired to cook anything (and am a terrible cook to boot) when I get home at night. I’ve got to go clean, which means fresh, non-processed, made-from-scratch, low salt, low carb, low sugar.

I gotta tell you–when you’ve lost so much, when you’re dealing with chronic pain and high stress, you come to rely on your damned rewards. Snagging a cookie from the break room is a reward for surviving a bad encounter with a client or an energy boost to get you through the next five hours of work. A glass of wine when you finally get to sit down to watch some television is a pat on the head for a fulfilling another long day of responsibilities and very little credit for doing so. Popping a pizza in the oven that will present you with hot bread, melted cheese, and spicy sauce in less than 17 minutes is a lifesaver when you’ve hit maximum decision fatigue. Recently, I mentioned to my husband that giving up chocolate, wine, cookies, and bread wasn’t going to make me live longer. It would just seem like it.

At the time, I thought of this as a funny take on a crappy situation. “Oh look, she still has her sense of humor!”

The thing is, I’ve been resenting like hell having to make these changes. I think I’ve been taking the wrong attitude about this, though. The fact I can tell when my BP is up (even if I don’t know why) means I’m in tune with my body. That’s a good thing. I can use that to my advantage. Hypertension won’t be a silent killer in my case because I know it’s there and can take steps to manage it.

And I’m determined to do just that.

So relax–this blog won’t turn into a series of before and after images, with constant updates on my miraculous weight loss or stats on my progress. I probably will share my adventures in cooking because I really am a horrible cook–and I can use any advice or tips you guys see fit to offer. I’m seriously considering getting an Instant Pot, though I’m hesitant because I hear there is a learning curve. What I intend to post here is about baby steps into a healthier me.

Because part of loving who we are is accepting what we cannot change and changing what we can. There may be quite a few things in my life I can’t change right now, but my eating habits aren’t among them. That I can fix.