Bringing Back Vintage Board Games in Pandemic Times

During one of our many moves, I boxed up all the old kids’ board games and donated them to Goodwill. It seemed ridiculous to keep toting them around when no one played them anymore. The kids themselves were off to college or in their own places, and I couldn’t remember the last time we had a gathering of people over to play board games. With tablets to hand, there was so much more to do: you could watch a movie, read a book, or play games online. I kept a deck of cards, but everything else went the way of Marie Kondo.

Then the pandemic hit.

For various reasons, my husband and I have chosen to maintain separate households. He can work from home. I cannot. Someone needs to be at the farm to take care of the livestock, and since I’m an essential worker, it made sense for him to move in with high-risk family members and be the person who ran errands for them when needed. We’re lucky that we can do this, I know.

Most days, by the time I get home from work and take care of the animals, I’m so exhausted that I scarcely notice how lonely my existence is right now. From dawn until dusk I’m run off my feet, only to sit down for an hour or two before it’s time for bed and start the cycle all over the next day. When I get a day off, I’m frequently playing catch up: grocery, laundry, cleaning the house. It’s a wonder I get any writing done!

In the past, Saturday evenings had been our Date Night. We’d go out to dinner, and either watch a movie at home or go to the theater. We also have several TV series that we watch together. I enjoy hanging out with my husband. He’s my best friend.

So I was determined to bring back Date Night in some form. The first challenge was what to do about meeting safely when we were apart all week–and I was being exposed to clients daily. Lack of a screened-in porch and a ferocious mosquito issue (one that defied all bug spray and gnat zappers) limited our time together until I purchased a mosquito tent. It only takes a few minutes to set up and we have hours of insect-free time in it. Instead of dinner out, we grill something and pair it with salad or greens. I make bread or dessert. We sit outside in the tent with a cold beer or glass of wine and relax. To be honest, I don’t miss eating out at all.

But what I do miss is some way of occupying myself while we talk.

I’m not a knitter, and both of us are a little too quick to pick up the smartphone and start scrolling if there’s a lull in the conversation, so I thought it would be fun to resurrect some of the old board games. Only I’d gotten rid of them all.

I started to simply replace them, but it didn’t take long to realize many of the games in question, like Uno, were best played with a group of people. I wanted to have that option for the future, but I also wanted games that worked well for just two players. I did a couple of online searches for the best two player games, and came up with a few I’d never heard of before. Most of the ones I ran across I remembered from my youth–games played at my grandmother’s house, or during summer camp. There were the classics, of course. Chess, checkers, and backgammon. But many were games I hadn’t thought about in years.

My husband is wicked-good at anything that requires some sort of strategy, to the point that it’s nearly impossible to win against him. I’m no slouch myself, but as soon as I change gears, he’ll effortlessly switch to a new tactic, and leave me in the dust. One of the two-person games I ordered is called Imhotep: The Duel. I believe it’s a modified version of a game for more players. We’ve only played it a couple of times, but each time, my husband cleaned my clock. That’s why I had to find something that had SOME element of chance in it as well, or else I’d never win a single game and the experience would be endlessly frustrating. 

Having been on a research kick for a series of books set in the 1950s, it was easy enough to turn to vintage board games. Bonus points if I could find a version featuring the original artwork. Though it’s unlikely my characters will ever sit down to play one of these games in my stories, it’s fun to know they could do so if I wrote it in. And so I bought Sorry! and Yahtzee. I replaced my backgammon board–and while backgammon is definitely another strategy game I’m probably doomed to lose, there’s a variant called American Acey-Deucy that would even the odds in my favor.

It’s hard to describe just how nice it was to sit outside last night in our little mosquito tent, laughing, talking, jeering at, and encouraging each other as we played. We spoke of our week, and of things that we needed to share, but the world and all its horrors seemed very far away. As dusk fell, the light from our bug zapper cast a friendly glow over the table on an evening pleasantly cool for mid-July while we studied rule books and started another game. It was such a nice night it was hard to say goodbye at the end of it. I could picture ourselves at some future date, when it is safe to gather in company again, pulling out these games for an evening of fun in the same vein.

So if you’re looking for an alternative way of spending the evening with your family, I suggest taking a step back in time. Turn off the news. Put down the smartphone. Pick up those dice and shake them in that can. It’s time to play Yahtzee, my friends.

How a Worldwide Pandemic Became a Harsh Therapist

photo by cottonbro

CW for eating disorders, snakes, destructive coping mechanisms, problematic relationships, pandemic fears, body dysmorphia

I had a wonderful mother.

At a time when few women were encouraged to chase their dreams, my mother was all about her daughters growing up to be whatever they desired. As a result, I became an adult without realizing the degree of misogyny and inequality women faced in their careers. I thought that particular battle had been fought and won. Perhaps because of this, I entered the workforce confident of my place there, and it showed.

Taught not to expect help from anyone, I became the person who waded into a project, saw what needed doing, and got it done. Once, I was camping with friends when we discovered a copperhead near the tents. I trapped the venomous snake in an empty trash can and forded an ice-cold spring river to release it on the opposite bank. The river was deeper and colder than expected, and the trash can filled with water as I dragged it behind me. The snake began rising to the top of the can, but I didn’t panic. I kept my eye on the snake until I arrived, teeth chattering, to dump it out on the far bank and plunge back into the river. And yes, the photo here is a picture taken by me of that snake.

My mother also instilled in me a love of reading, a treasure that brings me joy to this day and for which I will always be grateful. My love of reading has sustained me through illness, isolation, depression, and times of high anxiety. It has also given me my passion in life, which is to write my own stories of love and adventure.

I also had a… problematic mother.

Her determination to raise independent daughters, combined with her own troubled upbringing, meant she brought her issues to the table when parenting. Fatphobic, her own eating disorder was reflected in most of her children. She had an almost pathological fear of aging, one that I struggle with today. Messages intended to make me self-reliant came across as “no one will ever want you” and “you’ll never be smart enough, pretty enough, talented enough, good enough for anyone.”

On meeting my mother for the first time, one of my friends said to me, “Oh, my God. All these years we thought you were exaggerating…”

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand my mother a lot better. Her complete devotion to her job meant she had little time and energy left over for her children, and working with disadvantaged children meant her own, privileged kids had better get it right on the first try. And oh man, do I get the irritability that comes with utter exhaustion now. I cringe when I hear my mother’s words come out of my mouth, and tell myself I’ll do better next time.

If I’m hard on those around me, that’s nothing to the internal monologue I aim at myself. Right now, I look the worst I’ve ever looked in my life: fat, frumpy, and old. Face it, I can’t really call myself “middle-aged” anymore unless the average life span of a human being is 110. I haven’t had a decent haircut in six months. I’ve added another ten pounds to the twenty I’ve been trying to lose. From the time I turned 25, I’ve been scanning my face and body for signs of aging. I used to joke that I had “Aging Anorexia”, but I have since learned there is a disorder called body dysmorphia: the inability to look in the mirror or see a photo of myself without adding imaginary years to the image or magnify perceived flaws. If I had a hard time believing I could be loved when I was young and fit, you should hear my inner thoughts now.

Yet all in all, I’m fairly well-adjusted, though I could probably use therapy. I was in the process of finding a therapist when the pandemic hit, which brought the process to a grinding halt. So many people were in the same boat, and most of the therapists recommended to me were overwhelmed and not taking on any new patients. I decided I could wait, even though it was clear I wasn’t handling things well.

The stress of being an essential worker during a pandemic triggered binge eating, stockpiling, and evenings where I stayed plugged in to Netflix. I bought a sewing machine in a desperate attempt to make masks. I planted a garden for the first time ever because I feared I’d need to grow my own food. I even looked into putting in bee hives and a chicken coop.

I’d already had a rough couple of years. Deaths of family members. Deaths of pets. Health issues. Work stress. The loss of communities. The horror of seeing every terrible prediction I’ve made about a Trump administration come true. I did whatever I needed to do to get me through my stress and anxiety over the pandemic, and to hell with the consequences.

But the pandemic didn’t end. It still hasn’t ended. It’s not contained. It’s out of control here in the US. We have no vaccine. We have no specific treatment. People speak of the Second Wave, but we’re still riding the first. We are in this for the long haul, with no foreseeable end. As of this writing, the global death toll from the coronavirus is a half a million people, and in the US, 128,000 people have died. Compared to the number of deaths from the flu in the 2018-2019 season (34,200), this virus is far worse. More people have died from COVID-19 in the US than the total death toll from WW1. There are those who believe we’re on track to lose as many people as the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Not surprisingly, there was an Anti-Mask Movement then, too.

Because a bunch of selfish wankers refuse to wear a mask that AT WORST is only an inconvenience and at BEST might stem the tide of a spreading pandemic, I doubt there will be a single family in the US not affected in some way by this horrible disease. I expect to lose more family members before this is all over, and I find that unforgivable.

The human psyche and body is not designed for sustained stress. For many people, this has resulted in pandemic fatigue and a desire to “get back to normal”, even if that means risking death.

Even among people still concerned about the risks of the pandemic, there is slacking off in taking precautions. You’re not as careful about disinfecting your hands after touching a public surface. You don’t pay as much attention to social distancing as you should. You don’t always time your grocery runs so that fewer people will be at the store.

But surprisingly, I’m finding that some good lessons have come out of the pandemic for me.

I am learning to find joy in little things again. Quiet time on walks with the dogs. Music. Reading.

I’ve realized that I am not willing to spend the rest of my life living only to make money to pay bills and lose weight.

Normally an upcoming birthday is a trigger to go into a frenzy of diet and exercise in order to feel better about tacking another year onto my life. Now I’m just happy to still be alive.

Making healthier food choices is about feeling better and being in a better position to fight off illness than about losing weight and “looking my best.”

Exercise is about mitigating pain and improving flexibility instead of losing weight. It’s about being able to continuing doing the things I love. As such, the diet and exercise choices have become smaller, quieter decisions I make every day instead of panicked, overly ambitious ones I make on a deadline.

Sunscreen and skin protection is about avoiding cancer, not about reversing the clock. “Oil of Delay” no more.

The pandemic has taught me about being in things for the long haul, and how we need to pace ourselves. How it’s okay to declare you need a mental break some days. 

If every day we were expected to place 100 pounds of rocks in a backpack and carry it with us to our destination, most of us would break down under that weight before we learned to carry it. Some of us couldn’t carry it regardless of all the training we put in. But most of us can carry a few small rocks a short distance. If we have to keep going back to the pile to transfer them all, if it takes us ten times or a thousand times longer to move them the entire distance, that’s okay.

We’re in it for the long haul.

 

The World’s Loneliest Cat

Hey. I know how bad things are right now. Seriously bad. We’re facing a pandemic while at the same time riots are breaking out all over the country in response to yet another killing of an unarmed black man by police during an arrest. Unemployment is at a record high, and here in the US, health insurance is tied into your job–if provided by your employers at all, that is. Our administration has taken “rising to the level of incompetence” to a whole new height that has already resulted in the death of over 100,000 citizens and possibly the death of our democracy as well. The world’s climate is changing with devastating results at an exponential rate, murder hornets have appeared in the US, monkeys attacked a lab tech in India and made off with samples of COVID-19 in their escape, and we’re expecting an onslaught of seventeen-year-locusts in our region. The last time these buggers hatched, it sounded like you were on the set of a B sci-fi movie from the 50s.

So why am I here talking about cats?

Because I need to. And maybe you need to read it. So bear with me here as I muse about the funny little cat that has taken up residence at my house.

He’s not the first, by any means. Before I met my husband, back when I first bought this property, an ugly and quite evil-tempered cat had a litter of kittens under my porch. I didn’t even realize they were there until kittens began popping out of a hole in the boards like adorable whack-a-moles. By that time, however, it was almost too late to start the trapping process. I only managed to catch one–and he is living out his senior years with a friend of mine now. The only girl kitten in the bunch got hit on the road (we’re sadly too close to a busy road for my comfort), and the young males dispersed like wild animals. Mom cat sneered at my efforts to trap her, and disappeared.

Only to return the following spring with another litter of kittens. This time, I managed to trap her, and had her spayed and vaccinated for rabies. While she was gone, I was able to catch the kittens. I found homes for all but one, and that one became one of my house cats.

 

The Evil Momma Cat tamed down after spaying (I’ve always maintained hormones are the root of all evil), though she remained largely a wild animal. She took up residence under my porch and I began feeding her to keep her out of the road. A year later, one of her sons from the previous litter showed up, and though it took me forever to catch and neuter him, I finally managed to do that as well.

Both cats remained “porch” residents, doing their best to keep the mouse population down and in general, behaving as though they lived there. I worried about them during various polar vortexes (and bought a dog house for them) and medicated them when they got injured. They were tame enough I could boost their rabies vaccines when needed and occasionally put flea stuff on them, but they weren’t pets by any means.

Over the years, other cats have shown up. All males. All like wild animals. I eventually trapped, neutered, and vaccinated them as well, and became more attached than I should. I was devastated when a cat I’d spent 6 months taming got hit by a car, and I still haven’t gotten over losing my favorite cat, the namesake in Ghost of a Chance, to the same.

I made up my mind then and there. I would not get attached to these ferals. I wouldn’t feed any new ones that showed up.

My plan worked for a while. But then I faced a big dilemma: my husband and I decided we could no longer put off the major renovations needed for the house. What would we do with the porch cats? There was no way the destruction/construction wouldn’t run them off, and by this point, the two resident ferals were getting elderly. The safest bet seemed to be building cat condos for them and housing them in one of the outbuildings until the construction was complete.

It was supposed to only take a few months. But delays to the start and heavy rains meant that instead of finishing in October, they didn’t finish until March of the following year. By then, it was clear that the Evil Momma Cat had become deaf in her advanced age and that her eldest son was developing hyperthyroidism. There was no way I could release a 15-16 year old deaf cat back outside when her “porch” as she’d known it for the last decade was gone. And with the other cat needing twice daily medication, releasing him back outside was impossible as well.

Worse, in their absence, new ferals had shown up! The first was Blackjack, who wanted so badly to be a friendly cat, despite the testosterone from his unneutered state. I fell hard for him, and decided I couldn’t release him post neuter, only to watch him get hit by a car as well. I put him in the last remaining cat condo, and made plans to build a big catio for all the captive ferals to use on a rotating basis.

BJ had been fighting with another young feral, Harlequin, who was much wilder. Once I trapped BJ and moved him inside, the remaining tom began regularly showing up for food, but was still too feral to get near. I finally caught him in a live trap, and did my usual process of keeping him in a cage post-neuter for a week before releasing him. He never warmed up during the week I had him caged, and on release, he zipped into the woods like devils were chasing him, and I didn’t see him for months.

(Someone has pointed out that the very act of naming them means I’ve given them more status and recognition than I should if I was determined not to get attached. Like naming unimportant secondary characters who don’t have a large role to play in your story. In my defense, I would like to state I have to call them something when I take them to the spay/neuter clinic to be fixed/vaccinated, and I can’t just call them Cat1 and Cat2 on their rabies certificates…)

Until he showed back up again. Only from a distance, at first. I would occasionally see other cats as well, just as wild, but Harlequin was the only one who would consistently return. He began hanging out on my new porch(a fraction of the old one’s size), only to jump off the deck and run when I approached. He was always there first thing in the morning, and when I pulled into the driveway after work. He began running up to greet me as I got out of the car, and following us when I took the dogs out for a walk around the property. 

Though scared of the big dog, he loves the little dog, and will walk side-by-side with him. He sits on the porch under the slight ledge that provides little protection in the rain or snow when he could hide out in numerous, warmer places. He comes trotting up to greet me whenever I pull up in the driveway, and he’s sitting at the door when I open it to take the dogs out. If I bring the dogs out to do their business, he comes with us and does the same. No joke, he comes with us to pee and poop when the dogs do. He hangs out just beyond the gate when I let the dogs loose into the yard to play. Once, I had to seriously discourage him from climbing the fence and joining us.

He’s there crying at the door at 6 am. He’s there when I come home from work, every time I step outside, and last thing at night before I go to bed. He’s there more often than he’s not, and it always seems as though he’s just waiting for me to show up. If he’s not there when I open the door, he comes galloping up shortly thereafter.

And that’s when it hit me. This little feral cat is lonely.

I suspect I’ve bonded with him because it’s hard not to feel affection for something that is so darned glad to see you every time you show up, even if it is only because he knows you provide food. Or maybe it’s because of the stay home order in place during the pandemic, and the animals are the only living things I see once I come home from work in the evenings. I’ve become accustomed to seeing his little face at my door every morning and night. He lets me pet him, and rubs up against me, but isn’t so tame that I could pick him up. Getting tick control on him once every three months involves sneaking up on him with a can of tuna in one hand and the product already open and ready to apply in the other.

Sometimes I sit on the porch with him–just the two of us together–and I tell him that the world’s a dangerous place and he needs to continue to stay home. He ignores me and continues to do his own thing. He is a cat, after all.

I’m torn as to what to do about him. I’m fresh out of room to take in more cats–I have no more cat condos, and am already struggling to provide good quality of life for the ones I’ve moved into captivity. He and BJ fight. The geriatric cats would fight with him too, and they’re in no shape to take him on. My own inside cat likes dogs but not other cats, and besides, my house is far too small to bring in another animal. I put out too much food to give him no reason to cross the road, but he’s a lonely cat looking for company–it’s hard to keep him “home” when I’m frequently gone.

I want to keep him safe in a world where safety is a myth. And like everything else in my life, I’m doing the best I can, in the certainty that it will likely fail.

In the meantime, I will look for his funny little face waiting to greet me whenever I open a door.

Be safe. Be well, everyone.

Find Someone Who Knows Your Value: The Panther’s Lost Princess #MFRWHooks #MFRWauthor

Most people who’ve met me know I’m a big fan of Marvel’s Peggy Carter. I love the Captain America movies, but I adore the fact Peggy is competent and kick-ass without being a superhero. She is what she is by dint of training and hard work, and a healthy appreciation of her self-worth. There’s an iconic line in the Agent Carter series where Peggy says, “I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter.”

I love that line. I try to embody it, but the truth is, I’ve spent more time running myself down than building myself up. I grew up in a household where the standards were impossibly high, and I could not possibly ever be pretty enough, smart enough, talented enough… in short, Good Enough. Under those circumstances, it’s frequently easier to put yourself down before others can do so. Over time, it becomes a bad habit, teaching you to settle for less than you deserve because you don’t believe you deserve better.

One of the things I love doing is creating heroines who have this potential living in them, but they need to find it for themselves. Part of that is by giving them heroes that build them up, that believe in them. Not to rescue them. But helping them to see they can rescue themselves. I also write supportive heroes because the world is a tough place. You might be able to go it alone, but it’s easier to keep fighting the good fight when you have a support team on your side.

My SO and I currently have to maintain separate households because of the pandemic. I’m an essential worker. The SO can work from home. So we made the decision for him to self-isolate with the high risk family members in their home, while I, as an essential worker exposed to the public every day, am staying on the farm to take care of the animals.

I had a REALLY crappy day at work yesterday. Exhausting, frustrating, and incredibly stressful. I came home to find a package waiting for me from the SO. He’d sent this mug:

It immediately brightened my day, but it wasn’t until this morning that the real message struck me… by sending me my favorite quote from a favorite character, he was saying he knew my value too.

Wow. Just wow.

So I recommend to you all: find someone builds you up when you’re feeling down. Who makes things easier for you, not harder. Who knows the tribe is strongest when we support all members. Who believes in you. Who knows your value.

The Panther’s Lost Princess features just such a couple. Ellie is a waitress seeking to change her future. What Jack knows about her past changes everything. On Amazon and Kindle Unlimited. Only 99 cents for a limited time!

Excerpt:

Ellie stared into her mug as though she might be able to divine her future there.

“You okay?”

She looked up sharply.

“What’s not to be okay about?” Her words had a definite snap to them. Before he could speak, she leaned across the table so she could hiss intently, “You waltz into my life, telling me that not only am I the long-lost heiress to a kingdom I’ve never heard of, but apparently I can turn into a dragon and I’m some magical musical messiah to boot. I’m supposed to just give up everything I’ve worked so hard for—hell, even my identity—and go live with people I know nothing about? Oh, yeah, and someone is trying to kill me as well. Forgive me if this is a bit too much.”

“Well, if you put it like that…” He smiled, hoping she’d see the humor in it.

She didn’t.

“Look, Ellie. I know this is a lot to take in, and believe me, I think you’re handling this really well.” Her expression registered on him and he continued hastily. “Amazingly well. Seriously. You have no idea. I wish I could have explained it better somehow. I don’t know, broke it do you more gently or something.”

Ellie leaned in over the table to speak in a low hiss. “Exactly how would you have explained that I can turn into a dragon more gently?”

Jack shrugged a little helplessly. Ellie rolled her eyes and sat back in her seat with a huff.

“Look, I’m telling you this because you need to know, but also because I don’t know what’s going to happen from here on out. If we get in a jam, I want you to shift and get yourself out of it, you hear?”

Ellie frowned. “I thought you—we—shifters had rules about changing in front of others. At least, that’s the impression you gave me. Isn’t that the whole reason you don’t want me at Nightingale?”

Jack glanced around the diner. No one seemed to be paying them any attention. “You’re right. The current atmosphere is pretty anti-shifter. If the US president goes forward with his plans to start internment camps, it would be bad for anyone to know you’re a shifter. That’s one of the reasons we don’t tend to shift in front of the general public. That’s why there are special resorts and compounds—so that shifters can change at will without fear of persecution. But if it comes down to protecting your identity or saving your life, you have to shift.”

“I don’t know how.”

He laughed at that. He couldn’t help it. “Honey, most people don’t know how to have sex the first time they try it but they figure it out. Instinct kicks in.”

Her face reddened. She didn’t meet his eye. Instead, she fiddled with the empty paper packet of sugar. “I don’t see what the rush to get me back home is. It’s been almost twenty-five years—why can’t it wait a few more weeks?”

“I think it’s a timing thing. Your birthday is next week. Your grandfather wants to bring you home and introduce you to the kingdom with a combined birthday celebration and coronation. And, uh, besides, there’s the Prince to meet.”

“Prince.” She spoke the word with the flat coldness someone else might have used to say, ‘spider’ or ‘snake.’

Jack coughed. “Um, yes. Prince.”

“As in my brother? Another family member I’ve yet to meet?” She tapped her spoon on the table in irritation.

Oh hell. “Not exactly. More like as in your betrothed.”

“My betrothed?” She didn’t shout the words, but she rose out of her seat and planted her hands on the table to lean over and snarl at him. A small puff of smoke released from her nostrils and she gasped and sat down again, her hands clasped over her nose. Her pupils widened into black holes, and her eyebrows climbed up into her hairline.

“I’m starting to think even the amulet can’t hold you back much longer. Why don’t you ditch it and accept who you are?”

The Panther’s Lost Princess is the first book in the Redclaw Security series, but each story can be read as a standalone. Check it out today!

This is a blog hop, so check out the other blogs on this list today! 

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McKenna Dean: Goat Hunter

Yes, you read that right. McKenna Dean, author of paranormal romance, is a goat hunter. Goat. Not ghost.

And not in the way you might think. I’m not out with a rifle tracking down goats to shoot them. I am stalking them, however.

With a camera.

See, earlier this year, I began walking the dogs in the evenings again. Soon it will be too hot, but we’ve had a long cool spring, and after struggling with plantar fasciitis for over a year, it was good to get back in the habit of daily walks. Our route takes us past some fields where people keep livestock, and I’ve become interested in their inhabitants, as one does.

The goats have proven to be the most entertaining. There used to be a television program in the 70’s called Hee Haw that featured country music and cone pone humor. Given endless life in syndication, it was the sort of show most people knew about, even if they hadn’t seen it. I was never a fan (my tastes leaning more toward Saturday Night Live, even as a child), I occasionally watched an episode with my grandparents. One skit comes to mind: a school teacher presents a math problem to a student (let’s call him “Abner”) concerning goats:

Teacher: Abner, you have 20 goats in a field and 2 get out. How many goats are left in the field?

Abner: Zero.

Teacher: Abner! I said you have 20 goats and 2 got out. 20 minus 2 is 18, not zero!

Abner: Ma’am, if two goats got out, they all done got out.

While I’m not a fan of wince-inducing humor, this particular kernel (get it, I made a corny pun) has a lot of truth to it. Goats get out of any field you put them in.

So on any given afternoon, I might turn the corner on my path to find goats everywhere. Tall Nubians with their floppy ears. Stubby little Pygmies and sturdy little Alpines. Goats with spots, goats with horns, goats without horns. Goats with beards, goats with blue eyes, goats with attitude.

It takes you back a bit when confronted with a herd of goats, some of them shaking their horns at you and your dogs. The lovely thing about herd animals, however, is their sense of flight distance. This is the zone you enter that will trigger the herd to collectively move away from you. If you come into slowly and quietly, without taking a threatening posture, you can pressure the herd to gradually move in the direction you wish.

So after attempting without success to locate the owners of the field and tell them their goats were getting out, whenever I’d come across the loose goats, the dogs and I would carefully approach the herd until they zipped back through the opening in the fence they were squeezing through. There was always one holdout: a big horned goat that would give us the stink eye while all his or her buddies ran back to the safety of their field.

It made for an interesting interlude in our evenings walks, that’s for sure. Then one day last week, I noticed a new addition to the field! OMG, a BABY GOAT. Yes, I know they are called kids, but c’mon, it’s like saying Baby Yoda even when you know it’s not really Yoda (or is it?)

As you can see, this is a crappy pic taken with my cell phone on zoom because it was the closest I could get with the dogs. But I decided I’d come back the next day without the dogs and with my Real Camera to take a decent pic.

That’s when the stalking began.

Because the next day, there was no baby goat to be seen. Mama was there, walking about the field, bleating in the most pathetic way, but no Baby Goat. I have to say, this upset me more than I expected. Perhaps it’s because of the pandemic that I’m so emotionally sensitive right now. I’m an empath, and the degree to which the world is hurting is hard to bear many days. I couldn’t believe how invested I’d become in these goats and how the absence of one little newborn could hurt so much. I thought it possible the goats had left the field again (though I hadn’t seen any recent evidence of that) and perhaps the baby had gotten lost. Or maybe it had just been too cold for it (we’ve had frost the past couple of nights). Or maybe the mother didn’t have enough milk. Unfortunately, because of the thicket that surrounds most of the field, I could only scan so much for the missing baby.

But I was determined to keep looking.

The next day was cold and rainy. No sign of the baby. In fact, most of the goats were huddled a distance away from the fence line. That wasn’t good. I realized the kid probably didn’t make it. Depressed, I continued my walk.

The day after that was sunny and breezy. The dogs frisked along in front of me as we approached the field. I gave the goats a passing glance, when what did I see? THE BABY GOAT! Only as before, I only had my cell phone, and the excited dogs made Mama goat lead the baby further away from the fence. Fine. I’d be back in the morning with the Real Camera.

One of the unexpected side effects of the pandemic is I’ve been forced to slow down. I can’t rush here and there like I used to. I have to give some thought about when and how to go to the store. I spend the evenings at home alone with the animals. Days off are spent at home as well, and I’m doing more reading, more cleaning, more baking. This forced–I don’t want to use the word inactivity because I’m not sitting around doing nothing–it’s more of quietness that has had a chance to flourish–anyway, this forced quietness has resulted in a willingness to be patient, to allow things to come to fruition in their own time.

It’s been good for my writing. After months of barely scribbling a word, I’m okay with letting the story simmer on the back burner for a bit if it needs to. When I do write, it’s with the knowledge that what I’m committing to paper isn’t forced, but has come into its growth on its own. My crit group has noticed, commenting that what I’m turning out now is more complete on the first draft and needs less polishing. I think it’s because I’m no longer spinning my wheels in an endless effort to get out of the muddy pit I’ve been mired in for so long. I know where I want to go with this story now and I’m okay with how long it takes to get there.

And this quietness has taught me patience in other areas as well.

So when last Sunday, I took my camera and went up to the field to try to capture an image of the baby goat with a high quality camera, I was able to sit on the hood of my car soaking in the sunshine and listening to the birdsong while I scanned the field, camera in hand, waiting for a baby goat sighting. I didn’t feel as though I had to be somewhere else. It was just me, the brisk morning breeze, the trilling calls of the redwing blackbirds, and the milling about of goats in the field. I never saw the baby goat that morning, but I did identify the daddy. And a handsome fellow he is, too.

I must have sat for over thirty minutes hoping to spot the baby, to no avail. And yet it did not feel at all like wasted time. Now that I knew the baby was still alive, it was just a matter of time before I photographed it. I kept looking for it on dog walks, but I also randomly drove out to the field at different times of day to see if I could get a picture. I began to get a feel for the goats’ pattern of movement now. How they hugged the far fence line in the heat of the day, where the thicket provided shade. How they slept piled around the large bale of hay in the mornings, enjoying the warm sunshine. How they’d flock to the gate when I pulled up in my car (as opposed to when I came on foot with the dogs), indicating they were used to being fed by someone in a vehicle.

Yesterday, I woke to a porch slick with frost and the occasional flake of snow coming down! In May! The afternoon was brisk and chilly, so I decided to take the dogs out while it was still sunny and reasonably pleasant. And what did I see when I reached the field? Not only the baby goat I’d been seeking, sleeping beside Mama in the sun, but MORE BABY GOATS!

Four new ones, to be exact. I don’t know why this surprised me, after all, I knew there was a billy in the group and that he’d bred at least one doe. So yeah, more kids were kind of to be expected. But I felt as though I’d won the jackpot. Because now there were FIVE baby goats to stalk, er… photograph. I finished my dog walk and returned with the Real Camera.

The goats were still pretty far away, but I got some decent pictures…

Are they not adorable or what? You can see they take after their daddy.

The mamas seemed pretty chill about who nursed whom as well. These babies seemed to belong to this doe…

But then they turned around to nurse on this one as well! Yay for the village to raise some baby goats!

And in case you’re wondering, I did get a photo of the original baby goat–now astonishingly bigger than the newborns, with just one week between them!

I don’t know why goat-watching has brought me such joy this spring. Perhaps because it’s brought me uncomplicated peace. Perhaps because emerald-green grass and sunlight fields were made for baby goats to skip across while golden melodies pour out of nearby songbirds and a breeze ruffles my hair.

This spring will forever be the spring of the 2020 pandemic. But for me, it will also be the spring of the baby goats. I hope you can find peace and joy in your lives right now. Be safe. Be well.

 

 

 

The (Almost) Lost Art of Writing Letters

Photo by Abstrakt Xxcellence Studios from Pexels

Back before the internet made sending emails so easy, I used to love getting letters in the mail. Still do, actually. I have a handful of friends who still send snail mail letters, postcards, and holiday greetings, and every time I receive a missive in this manner I’m struck again with a kind of awe. Mostly I admire the time someone took to write to me in this format. Buying stationery, envelopes, and stamps. Taking the time not only to write the letter by hand, but frequently decorate it as well with stamped images, stickers, and other things that make me smile. Walking it out to the mailbox instead of just clicking “send”.

I’m a big fan of the Jacquie Lawson animated e-cards–both in their inventive beauty and the ease of sending them to friends and family–but there is something about getting a physical, handmade card in the mail that speaks to me of a whole different level of caring because I know how much time was involved in the process. I find it interesting that the majority of my friends who are still letter-writers are also fans of pens and ink. Sharing their epistolary love is one of the ways they get to play with their fancy ink pens, and it gives them an excuse to use up (and buy more) of those cute little stickers and stamps meant for journals and scrap-booking. I understand and appreciate the hobby interests, but I appreciate even more the time involved that goes into the creation of a handwritten letter.

To me, a handwritten letter is an act of love.

I have a lovely “crafty” friend who loves making things. Her cards and packages are a thing of joy and beauty as they come decorated with images of cats, and hand cut stamps of things from her favorite sci-fi show, and embellished with drawings and other decorations. A card is never just a card. A package is often so cleverly wrapped it’s almost a shame to open it–and I frequently photograph such deliveries before I destroy the outer paper. Her handwriting is practically calligraphy (and puts mine to shame) and these letters often appear out of the blue for no particular reason except to say she was thinking about me. They never fail to cheer me up. They also always seem to arrive when I need a pick-me-up the most.

I asked her recently how she found the time to put together such fun/beautiful cards, and she said she frequently made a bunch in advance when she was playing with her craft materials, and then set them aside to fill them out and personalize them when she needed them. I love this idea! More than half the reason I don’t send hand-decorated anything is a serious lack of time. If I pull out all the craft stuff to do one project–making additional things at the same time is more efficient and increases the odds I might send something out in the future.

This past week, I received a hand-written letter from a friend for the first time. We exchange emails, and meet up on rare occasions, but living as she does in another country, she’d never written to me before. She explained that since she’d been working at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, she felt the desire to hand write letters the old-fashioned way. I found I was utterly charmed by this.

By sending me a cheerful, chatty letter, she was able to switch out inks with every sheet of paper, so that I received a veritable rainbow of colors. She also clipped the pages together with this novelty paper clip. It’s supposed to be a bunch of cherries, but as you can see, that’s open to interpretation…

I think the part that made me smile the hardest were the stickers she used at the end. I have a bunch of “encouraging” stickers myself, ones I bought from the local craft store, but nothing like these! This letter came on a day when I’d had an utterly exhausting day at work and I’d come home nearly weeping with resentment and frustration. The stickers, which I won’t post here, were about self-care and doing your best (only laced with expletives which made me LOL). Just perfect.

Which made me decide I should be writing more letters by hand as well. If I think taking the additional time to hand-write and mail a letter is an act of love, then why aren’t I spreading the love around? 

The first thing I did was dig through my stationery. I have some paper that I got from the National Wildlife Federation that I love, but not very much of it left. Sadly, it’s been so long since I’d purchased any stationery, the NWF no longer produces any.

This led to me looking online for replacement stock. I didn’t find as much as I’d hoped. Lots of cards, yes. But not as much in the paper department. That made me more determined than ever to start writing letters again though.

I had a conversation with author Amanda Weaver on Twitter yesterday that drove home the value of physical letters even more. She mentioned going through a box of keepsakes and coming across old letters from a past relationship. She spoke of the value of keeping memorabilia, and then wondered what people in relationships today would keep. It made me wonder too. For the longest time I kept a voice message from my husband, until it either got accidentally deleted or didn’t make the transition to a new phone. I decided I wanted there to be some sort of concrete piece of me out there somewhere with the people I love in case something happens to me.

That, and the fact that the United States Postal Service is in trouble. Turns out there are people in the government that want this Constitutionally-mandated service to fail so it can be turned into a for-profit business. Not only would doing so fly in the face of the Constitution, but it would force the cost of delivering the mail through the roof. Many seniors and people living in rural communities are dependent on the USPS to deliver not only the mail but to pay their bills, get prescription medications, and more. Not everyone has internet access, nor do all companies allow online bill payment. Heck, even the government sent the Census out by mail this year, and until this past year, I used to snail mail my Federal Income Tax Payments. I still mail my state and local tax payments. Who has the freaking time to go down to the Treasurer’s office and pay in person? And especially now, in the face of the ongoing pandemic, we should be able to apply for a ballot and send in our votes by mail in elections.

The nice thing about mail-in ballots? It’s harder to hack than an electronic voting machine.

If everyone in this country bought stamps to mail letters, it would be like a big GoFundMe campaign to save the USPS. So go ahead. Write that letter. You know you want to.

EDIT: Speaking of the PO, there’s a twitter thread that’s gone viral about a young, ardent letter writer and her thank you to her postal carrier. I came across it the same day I posted this blog post, and it seems appropriate to share here.

The New Normal in Pandemic Times: Are You Still Writing?

Photo by Sebastian Voortman from Pexels

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time finding my balance these days.

As an essential worker, I spend most days dealing with the usual difficulties of a demanding job while at the same time, I’m in a constant state of vigilance regarding the coronavirus and whether I am doing everything possible to limit my exposure. That means wearing a mask for ten plus hours day, washing my hands after touching anything in a public space and before I touch anything else. Using my sleeves, shirttails, and elbows to open doors, turn off faucets, punch in keycodes. Wearing long sleeves specifically for this purpose, despite the fact external temperatures are beginning to soar. Disinfecting my hands to the point the skin is glassy and taut from the chemicals, and worrying about how I will manage one month, two months, three months from now if hand sanitizer and wipes are no longer available. Recognizing what a privilege it is to have access to soap and water.

Just prior to the stay-at-home orders, I’d begun watching Monk on Amazon Prime. As the pandemic spread, I went from enjoying the quirky show to being annoyed with it in rapid order, to finally accept that I had to be Monk in my daily routine now, with the exception of compulsively touching things. As a matter of fact, this pandemic broke me of a weird habit of my own: the need to place shopping carts in the correct order at grocery stores. Prior to the pandemic, I used to re-order the carts when I put my own up: putting the small carts on one side and the large on the other. It started out as the result of mild annoyance at certain shoppers who couldn’t be bothered to put the carts away properly, and morphed into a desire to make things easier for the kids who had to come out and collect the carts to bring them back into the store. But all that changed with the advent of COVID-19. Now I walk past disordered carts with scarcely a flinch. I’m not touching anything someone else has handled if I don’t have to.

This post started to be about the pros and cons of various masks I’ve tested. As someone who is a non-medical essential, I’ve tried a LOT of different masks. This morning I spent a hour taking selfies of me in various masks, and then another hour playing with filters to give myself different hair and eye colors. I can tell you that flimsy cotton fabric masks without filters probably aren’t doing you much good, but thick fabric masks with filters make it difficult to speak while wearing them because you can’t move enough air and they muffle your voice. And while N95 masks are probably the best thing to wear when you MUST go out in public (mine is one left over from when I was cleaning a mouse-infested garage last year), they suck down to your face like a facehugger from Alien, and though it doesn’t hamper speaking, within minutes of putting one on, I feel as though I’m standing outside in the middle of July in the deep South, where the air is warm and thick and hard to breathe. And this is from someone working in a temperature-controlled environment. Also, even the best fitted mask will fog your glasses at times, but a piece of tape on the top of the mask over the bridge of your nose can help with that. Like I said, originally I’d intended to write about masks, but I realized the selfies and the photoshopping are symptomatic of my pandemic brain right now. It’s easier to make bread, or watch TV, or take photographs (and play around with filters), than to do almost anything I used to do.

One thing I’m not doing much of is writing.

I know many of my fellow authors who say the same. They are finding comfort in other creative activities but not writing. Coloring in books, doing puzzles, decoupaging old bottles, felting, planting a garden. They speak of writing as something that may never come back for them, but I suspect, like me, they will circle back when the time is right. A recent conversation in an indie author Facebook forum seemed to indicate most people are falling into two distinct camps: those that are able to take advantage of the stay-at-home orders to write more and those finding it impossible to muster the energy to do the same, regardless of the demands of their day jobs. Would I be writing more if I could stay-at-home? I used to think so. Now I’m not so sure. I suspect I’d need at least two weeks to recalibrate my brain and rediscover my balance before I could sit down to write. To get used to the new normal.

It’s not just writing that is affecting me like this. I normally read 2-3 books a week. These days I DNF more books than I finish. It finally dawned on me it’s not the fault of the book itself–I’m just having a hard time concentrating that hard on anything. I’m avoiding my usual comfort reads. Contemporary romances make me want to smack the MCs when they can’t seem to overcome the slight obstacles to their love. Cozy mysteries make me snarl when the amateur detective can leave her own business for hours on end to go sleuthing and yet conveniently fails to share any information gleaned with the police. Science fiction, a lifelong love, has been thrust aside as being too potentially painful. I can watch an old TV show (one that I’m not that emotionally invested in) but I suspect if new episodes of The Mandalorian aired today, I’d have a hard time watching. I stopped watching Picard because I couldn’t bear to be hurt by my entertainment right now and I felt the risk of that show wounding me was high.

Apparently, I’m not alone in my inability to focus right now. There was a recent opinion post in the New York Times about this titled: Trouble Focusing? Not Sleeping? You May Be Grieving. Makes sense to me. It’s a good post. You should read it. It makes me understand that even if I could stay home, I probably wouldn’t crank out forty-one novels.

Lack of focus means hour long television shows also easier for me to commit to than a movie. I paid the hefty fee to stream the new Emma and despite the apparent delight of my fellow Jane Austen fans out there for this version, I loathed it. Seriously. I. Hated. It. Would I have enjoyed it had it not landed at the same time as the pandemic? I don’t know. Don’t ask me to explain COVID-19 anxiety. It takes different forms for different people.

 

My characters are currently languishing in the 1950s suburban neighborhood where I left them. Instead of solving the mystery they are there to investigate, they are being appallingly domestic. In fanfic, this kind of story is referred to as “curtain fic.” A story essentially about making curtains for the home, if you get my drift. It’s Hurt/Comfort without the Hurt. All Comfort, all the time. I don’t read curtain fic as a rule, and I certainly don’t write it. I’m watching in a kind of horrified fascination as my characters bake bread, wash the dog, mow the lawn, attend cocktail parties, and play tennis at the country club.

That’s not to say stories that center around these kinds of activities are without interest. English author E. F. Benson wrote a lovely series set among the upper middle class in the 1920s and 1930s. The two main ladies of the series, Lucia and Miss Mapp, battle for social prestige with a deadly intensity that is delightful to behold. Like the other members of the community, we watch with avid interest to see which of these two formidable women will get the upper-hand this time.

But that’s not the kind of story I’m supposed to be writing, more’s the pity.

Teaching myself survival skills (such as baking, or making masks, or planting a garden) gives me a constructive outlet for my fears, but at the same time, I’m starting to recognize there are some things I’ll never be good at, and I should farm them out accordingly. I’ve survived the first few weeks of sheer panic and rising anxiety: now I have to figure out what the long haul looks like. Eating my weight in carbs every day is neither healthy nor sustainable. I’m feeling the pull to make better food choices, to get outside and get moving again. I probably will plant a garden (I fully expect it to fail hilariously and catastrophically, with everything being consumed by groundhogs). I probably won’t start making my own clothes, despite the brand new sewing machine mocking me from where it still sits in its packaging.

And I will write again. I haven’t quit entirely, but my output is very low. For now, I’m letting my characters do their thing. If I have to cut out 15 K of curtain fic out of my romantic paranormal suspense story, so be it. But for now, I’m going to leave them alone.

Eventually the novelty of playing house will pall and the mystery will call Bishop and Knight back to their assigned duties. But right now, I have to let them practice self-care too.

Pandemic Bread-Making for the Non-Baker

This bread was NOT baked by me!

There were so many different ways I could have titled this post. It started out in drafts as When Pandemic Baking Goes Very Wrong, and I still like that title but I wanted something to more closely reflect what this post is about. The truth is I’m a terrible cook and a fair-to-middling baker when I put my mind to it. The problem is I allow myself to get easily distracted, and the next thing I know, the smoke detector is going off, the food is ruined, and I am very, very frustrated about it. For baking to be done correctly, you need to pay attention to what you’re doing–or at the very least, set timers if you’re likely to wander off  to draft the next scene in your WIP.

My cooking skills are rudimentary at best. There are a few things I do well, and a few I can manage if I pay close attention to the recipe. Everything else is hit or miss without the aid of specialized machines, such as Instant Pots or bread machines, and the learning curve on them is usually steep with me. I’ve often said my life would be easier if Purina made People Chow and I could just pour myself a bowl when I was hungry.

But I love bread, and I’d been toying with making my own bread long before the pandemic hit and I began stress-eating my weight in carbs every day. A part of me is concerned about the health consequences of doing this, but the rest of me is savage about doing WHATEVER IT TAKES TO STAY ALIVE RIGHT NOW SO SHUT THE HELL UP THANK YOU VERY MUCH. Um, where was I? Oh, right. Making bread.

Now I know that I do better when I restrict gluten in my life, so what the heck am I doing taking about and baking bread right now? Well, I suspect it’s a bit like Lucy Lawless’s character in My Life is Murder. Alexa Crowe’s husband has died, she’s in mourning, struggling with insomnia, and coping by baking bread, pretending she hasn’t been adopted by a stray cat, and consulting with her former colleagues at the police department on challenging cases. Ironically, Lucy Lawless herself is either gluten sensitive or highly allergic–she described bread as being “death to me.” But watching Alexa make bread week after week inspired me to finally replace my bread machine after years without one: choosing one with a gluten-free option should I get inspired to make my own GF bread.

Mind you, I didn’t go crazy and buy a $1500 dollar German machine like Alexa did so she could make all those fancy artisan breads she sells to the local restaurant. No, I read some reviews on Amazon, looked for one that had a GF option in my budget, saved up and treated myself to one.

The machine got used maybe once or twice before the end of the year. Then 2020 came, and by early February, it was clear to me we were in for a serious pandemic. I began buying extras of the things I used most with my regular shopping–and one of the things I stocked up on was bread flour and yeast. I know, both hard to come by now. But my understanding is the King Arthur Flour website is still shipping bread flour and possibly yeast as well. AND they make GF flours too! But for the rest of this post, I’ll be talking about regular bread.

The recipe I like best for your basic white bread made in bread machine comes from a website called Julia’s Kitchen. I found recipes that called for butter instead of oil tended not to mix as well, and Julia’s recipe in particular seemed to have that crusty surface and fluffy interior that I like so much. The website says the recipe was adapted from one included with the Williams-Sonoma bread machine booklet. You can check out the link for the recipe, but I’m including it here as well with my own adaptation. It’s pretty simple:

Ingredients:
  • 1 cup and 3 tablespoons water
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 1/4 cups white bread flour
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
Instructions:
Julia recommends sifting or aerating the flour with with a whisk, then spooning the needed amount into a measuring cup. Using the cup to dip into your flour and scoop some out will result in measuring out too much flour because it’s somewhat packed down, and you might end up with dry bread.
 
My bread machine has different settings for crust darkness and size of loaf. I found the medium crust setting and the 1.5 pound loaf worked best with this recipe.
  1. Add water and oil into the bread pan. Add salt, sugar. Add flour.

  2. Make a small indentation on top of flour and make sure it does not reach wet ingredients. Add the yeast to the indentation.

  3. Keep yeast away from the salt. I find if the salt and sugar are added to the liquid ingredients and the flour poured in on top of this, keeping the yeast and the salt separate isn’t an issue.

    My secret ingredient at this point is I add mash up half of an over-ripe banana and drop it in on top of the flour. This extra touch results in a deliciously moist loaf of bread and the amount of banana is so little that it doesn’t affect the taste of the bread. So don’t throw out those old bananas if you’re about to make some bread! And if your machine has an “add fruit setting” ignore it for this step. Drape the banana in on top of the flour around the pile of yeast and press “START.” You’re good to go!

Want to make this recipe but a wheat bread instead? Replace 1/4 cup of bread flour with whole wheat flour and you’re good to go.

I DID make this loaf of bread. Not bad, eh?

So I seem set, right? I have bread flour. I have sugar, salt, and oil. I have yeast. I have a bread machine. But I can see a time in the not too distant future where I might not be able to get yeast, so I wanted to look at some other alternatives, including making bread without a machine.

The first problem was what to do if I didn’t have yeast? Well, author J. G. MacLeod shared this no-yeast recipe for dinner rolls with me on Twitter:

See that listing of “baking powder” there? If you’re like me, you have an ancient can of that sitting on your shelf that you haven’t used in a thousand years. Fortunately, I bought some recently, so I didn’t have to worry about poisoning my family. Also, apparently, you can make substitutes for it if you have baking soda and cream of tartar–which I do because of a sour cream cookie recipe I always want to make at Christmas and almost never do. Anyway, delving into the differences between baking soda and baking powder brought me to Irish Soda bread, which doesn’t require yeast, but DOES require buttermilk. Sadly, I’ll have to wait to attempt this. I’m not planning to go to the store for several weeks. The funny thing is I came very close to buying buttermilk on my last shopping run but decided against it as I could only think of one thing that might use it: my grandmother’s fried cornbread recipe. I should have gone with my instincts. The soda bread recipe I intend to try is from the AllRecipes website called Amazingly Easy Irish Soda Bread. You can see why that title appealed to me, right? This calls for baking soda AND baking powder. Why, I have no idea. But I’ll report back once I try it.

But this got me thinking about bread starter and how I could get yeast-risen bread without yeast. I ran across a viral thread on Twitter posted by @shoelaces3, a yeast biologist on how to make starter without yeast.

I’ll summarize here: there’s yeast all around us. So it’s possible to create starter from dried fruit, all-purpose flour, and warm water. But go to the thread here for the deets. I was VERY excited when I came across this thread. I had some dried cranberries I thought would fit the bill, and I made my mixture. I didn’t have a scale to weigh the flour (and two tablespoons of water is 60 ml, not 40) but I approximated according to the directions and set my jar up in a warm place. I definitely got bubbles after 12 hours but never really saw the flour paste “loosen up” so I could repeat the process. After 48 hours, I couldn’t tell if the pinkish tinge to the concoction was due to the cranberries or the fact I was growing penicillin without a license. I chucked that batch and decided I would try again. I might steal one of my husband’s bottles of ale to see if that will make a better starter than the cranberries. I want to give this a serious attempt in case yeast becomes impossible to find.

Notice how the dogs are in focus but the starter is not. I have my priorities straight!

I mentioned this process to a friend of mine who is a former baker, and she said that most bakeries have yeast floating in the air from making so much bread, and that it practically self-generates in those conditions.

But that brought me around to an old sourdough starter recipe I’d used many years ago. It calls for using yeast in the initial batch, and then you keep it going by feeding it every 3-5 days. I’d done that before. I could try it again, right?

I dug through my old ‘recipe” file. It’s literally a manila folder where over the years I’ve tucked slips of paper with favorite recipes scribbled on them. Yeah, not much of a cook.  Not much of an organizer, either. Part of the reason I’m writing this post is to have my bread recipes in one easy-to-find location. Or I could, you know, organize my files. But not today.

Right, so I dug out my old bread starter recipe. Back when I was making bread by hand, this was my go-to recipe. Fair warning: in the final form it makes 3 loaves. I’m as hopeless with math as I am with cooking but I’m looking to cut this recipe by a third unless I plan on giving bread away. I’d freeze it, only my freezer is so full right now, I have to duct tape it shut.

This recipe came from the local newspaper many, many years ago.

Sourdough Starter and Bread:

Starter:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 package dry yeast (I have no idea how much this holds: I’m guessing between 1.5 and 2 tsp)

I tablespoon sugar

2 cups warm water

3 tablespoons instant potatoes

Instant potatoes? Yes, you read that right. But chances are you don’t have any at the house so save that for your next grocery run.

Combine flour, yeast, and sugar in a non-metal bowl. Mix the potato flakes and warm water, and add to the flour combo. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and let stand in a warm place for 48 hours.

Remove one cup and store in the fridge. Discard remainder (or share with a friend)

Keep refrigerated and covered with foil 3-5 days. To feed starter in 3-5 days, combine 3/4 cup of sugar, 3 tablespoons instant potato flakes and one cup of warm water. Mix well and add to starter. Let stand in warm place 8-12 hours. This will only bubble, not rise.

Remove one cup starter to use in making bread; return rest to fridge. If not making bread, remove one cup and discard it. Store starter in fridge in a quart jar with holes punched in the lid. Feed every 3-5 days.

Bread:

1 cup starter

1/2 cup corn oil

1.5 cups warm water

6 cups bread flour

1/4 cup sugar

Combine all ingredients in large mixing bowl. Place dough in separate greased bowl, turning to coat. Cover with foil and let stand overnight. Do not refrigerate. Next morning, punch down and knead lightly. Divide into 3 parts. Knead lightly on floured board and place into three greased loaf pans. Brush tops with oil and let rise 4-5 hours. Using foil, make a tent over the pans and leave room for the dough to rise.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes. Remove from pan and brush with melted butter. Cool on wire rack.

I do like this bread very much, but it’s time consuming and sort of implies that you’re home to do all this feeding, kneading, proving, and baking, right? Well, perhaps if you’re on a stay-at-home order, you can give this a try. Otherwise, you’ll have to time it so your feeding and baking coincide with time off work.

When I attempted to make this starter recently, the first 48 hours went like gangbusters! Lovely bubbles, perfect reaction. But when I fed the starter 5 days later, nothing happened. Nada. Zip. Nary a bubble. I suspect two things went wrong. The first is that we had a cold snap, and I don’t tend to run the heat very high. Most likely the starter never got warm enough during feeding. The other thing that probably didn’t help was I tried to cut the recipe from the get-go, using a third of the ingredients to make the starter in the first place. I’m guessing I didn’t get the proportions right, so I ended up tossing it out and starting again. I hated the thought of wasting 2 tsp of yeast (the equivalent of one loaf of bread in my bread machine) but I very much want my own starter, so there you are.

While I was pawing through my recipes, I came across a handwritten note from Mrs. Crouch, my childhood babysitter. I’d asked for her honey wheat bread recipe many moons ago because I thought it was the BEST BREAD IN THE UNIVERSE and she wrote it out for me. Seeing that spidery handwriting took me back to the child I was, sitting in her kitchen, closing my eyes as I inhaled the scent of baking bread in the oven. I hadn’t thought of Mrs. Crouch in decades, but there she was again, a tiny bird-boned woman with a mass of snow-white hair who lived in what seemed like a fairy tale cottage with a massive oil stove that heated the kitchen like a furnace. I suppose in retrospect, she was a widow in tight circumstances, living in her old house in the middle of nowhere, keeping children for their busy mothers. But I loved going to her house.

I loved her bread too. So I’m sharing her recipe with you. I suspect her special ingredient was a magic known only to her, but I hope you find it.

Honey Wheat Bread Recipe:

4 cups whole wheat  flour

3 cups unbleached white flour

1/2 cup non-fat dry milk

1/4 cup wheat germ

3 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon salt

2 packages of active dry yeast

1.5 cups of water

3/4 cups of milk

1/3 cup of honey

1/3 cup vegetable oil

Sift flour. Mix all dry ingredients. Stir together water, milk, honey, and oil. Heat over low heat (130 degrees). Dissolve yeast in a little warm water and gradually add to warm milk mixture to yeast mix plus dry ingredients. Stir in enough flour mixture to make a soft dough, keeping 1/2 cup in reserve to spread on a pastry cloth. Knead until smooth and elastic, at least 8-10 minutes. Place in greased bowl, cover and let rise in warm place until double in size (1 to 1.5 hours). Punch down and make into loaves. Place on baking sheet or in loaf pans and cover. Let rise again until double in size (about 1 hour). Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes.

This recipe seemed so complicated, so time-consuming to me as a young woman asking for the recipe from a cherished caretaker, that I’ve never actually made it. Maybe I was afraid it would disappoint. More likely, it was because I never had the time.

So it occurs to me as I’ve spent hours writing this post–what are we looking for, we bakers of pandemic bread? I think the answer lies in my memory of sitting in Mrs. Crouch’s kitchen on a snowy day, happily anticipating brushing hot-out-of-the oven bread with butter and taking that first heavenly bite. We want the comfort that the scent of baking bread brings us. We want to be that small child again, in a world where the grown-ups took care of things and we didn’t have to worry. For many of us, food is love and there’s something about homemade bread that is both fundamental and special too, making it the quintessential expression of love.

I think the bread baking and the mask making and the garden planting are all practical steps we are taking to manage our anxiety about an uncertain future. I suspect for many, it’s easier to throw ourselves into something we might never have done before, tasks that require our full attention and take time to complete than it is to do the familiar, especially if we’re on lockdown with too much time for worry to make noise in our heads. Or maybe it fulfills some primal need to put away food for anticipated famine. Make hay while the sun if still shining because there are dark storm clouds rolling in. I don’t know. 

All I know is I’m baking a lot of bread right now. Me and Alexa Crowe. And I’m going to make that honey wheat bread at least ONE time in my life. You can count on it.

 

How a Stay-At-Home Order Helped Me Bond with My Dog

Let me preface this by saying that while my state is under a stay-at-home order, my job is considered essential, which means I’m still working outside the house–my shift only reduced slightly because of shorter business hours.

I’m also aware of the privilege I have: I have a snug little roof over my head (thank God we’d finished the renovations last spring), food in the pantry, and my income isn’t going to be seriously impacted in the near future. We have a financial cushion. Our circumstances have allowed us to divide our family and send the high-risk individuals and those who can work from home into another residence while I–still working with the public–can avoid bringing something home to them. More privilege. I have a lot of safety nets others don’t right now, so I get it if you want to roll your eyes at me.

That means, however, I’m living by myself on the farm with the animals.

As a former dog trainer, it embarrasses me to even write this, but I’ve struggled these past few years to bond to our newest edition, our young big dog, Remington. (Named for Remington Steele, the TV show, not the firearm)

That’s not to say I’ve neglected him. No, I did all the proper things to raise a German Shepherd. I introduced him to over a 100 strangers by the time he was sixteen weeks old, including lots of children (which he loves). He went through two basic obedience classes, two agility classes, and passed his Canine Good Citizen test. I set up doggy play dates with other dogs to make sure he was well socialized. We went on long rambles in the woods and I taught him to swim. On days when I knew I couldn’t make it home from work at a reasonable hour, I paid a friend to let him out and play with him.

But I had a hard time bonding with him just the same.

It really bugged me. Animals have always been a huge part of my life. Not having a dog was–and is–unthinkable. But I kept finding fault with him. He didn’t seem as smart as some of my previous dogs, nor as courageous. My previous German Shepherd, Sampson, had been a high-performance dog, built for action. Remington’s confirmation leaves a bit to be desired, and I can look to the future and see hip problems. I also acted as though he was the worst puppy ever, when he was actually easier and less destructive than others I’d had before. I’d come home in the evenings too tired to deal with puppy energy and be annoyed that he had any at all.

The thing is, he wasn’t the problem. It was me.

2017 was a bad year for us that bled all the way through 2018 as well. Part of it was timing: we had several elderly animals that came to the natural end of their lives at the same time, but we also had pet losses due to cancer and illness. I also lost multiple family members within months of each other, with no time for emotional recovery. I put those emotions aside, thinking I’d dealt with them in a mature and rational way, but I’d only spackled over the cracks in the walls and ignored the rot within.

Two months after I’d buried Sampson, I took my husband to look at puppies. He was supposed to prevent me from impulsively buying one, a task at which he failed miserably, I might add. 🙂 I’d sworn I’d never get another big, male dog. That it was time to downsize. That we had enough animals already. But I was also getting inundated with texts and images from well-meaning friends and associates about available puppies that ranged from the inappropriate to the unsuitable and everything in between. I was tired of the onslaught. I suspect I put down a deposit on a puppy in part to stop the barrage of messages. But it was also with the knowledge that I needed another big dog to feel safe at the farm, to make me take long walks, and keep me honest about getting some exercise. And, to be frank, I wanted some joy in my life.

When he was eight weeks old, I brought Remington home. As I said, I did all the right things. In addition to socializing him, I practiced the kinds of handling techniques he’d need for vet visits, and I set him up with short day boards prior to his neuter so that experience wouldn’t be terrifying for him. Though I could have trained him myself at home, I enrolled him in classes so he’d meet lots of other people and dogs, and learn to focus on me in exciting and distracting circumstances. We went to farmer’s markets and to school yards and on walks downtown alongside traffic.

And still, I held myself at a slight distance from him. I can see now that it wasn’t just him, but he became the canary in the mine for my emotional frigidity. I was stretched too thin from a mentally and physically demanding job, and everyone at home bore the brunt of my growing inability to deal with burnout and unresolved grief at the same time. I’d spy a crack in the wall and spackle over it again. I was irritable and short-tempered, and above all, I wouldn’t allow myself to connect with anyone. Because connection was attachment and attachment inevitably led to loss and I couldn’t handle any more loss.

Hah. Apparently, after giving me some slight breathing room, 2020 looked at 2017-2018 and said, “Hold my beer.”

I’ve been on my own here at the farm for the last three weeks now. With the shortened workdays, it’s been easier to get back in the habit of evening dog walks, and tentatively, afraid to reawaken the plantar fasciitis, I began taking them out again.

One of the things dog trainers recommend encouraging is something called ‘checking in’. That’s when your dog glances back at you to make sure you’re still with the pack, that we’re all still moving as one unit. You want to encourage this attention because you want your dog to be more focused on you than your surroundings, like the kid on the bicycle or the jogger headed toward you. Some dogs have to be trained to check in, though it is a natural reaction. My little terrier doesn’t check in at all, unless I call his name or crinkle the treat bag. But after about a week of walking every evening, I noticed Remington would not only check in visually, but he’d often drop back to touch my hand with his nose.

How you doing, there? You okay?

It made me wonder how often he’d done it before and I’d never noticed. That I was the one who’d checked out, who wasn’t paying attention. Daily we’d walk, and finally, finally, I was able to tune in to him.

“Not so hot, buddy. Truth is, I’m not okay.”

As the cracks widen, my emotions have been all over the map. Some days I’m calm in the face of knowing I’ve done all I can and continue to try to protect myself to the best of my ability. A big part of my COVID-19 preparations has been to outline a plan for the animals in case I become hospitalized or die. It’s made me really focus on how I would manage if I got very ill but was able to self-treat at home versus what to do if I became so sick I needed hospitalization for several weeks. Truth is, I believe if I get sick enough to need to check into an  ER, I’ll never come home.

Other days I’m dealing with escalating anxiety and near-panic attacks. Those emotions, never completely dealt with, always bubbling under the surface, erupt in strange ways over unexpected things. I heard someone liken this time period where many of us are waiting for the coronavirus to hit our area hard as pre-traumatic stress syndrome, and I for one, believe it. The other day I compared life as we know it now to being a caveman foraging for food in a hard-scrabble existence and learning there is a saber-tooth tiger somewhere in your area. Oh, and by the way, it’s invisible. My mood can swing from gallows humor to certainty I’ll be fine to wishing I’d get it and be done with it to nauseous with fear at the prospect of going to work again.

I’d joked about giving zero f*cks in the past, but in the face of a pandemic and the potential loss of everything you love, the phrase is taking on new meaning. Growing up in a household where appearance was given undue emphasis, I am no longer concerned about crow’s feet or carrying more pounds than I’d like. I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about being embarrassed for squeeing over something I love. And though I have to work to keep both my health insurance and the money coming in to pay the bills, once this is over, something has to give there. It’s a funny thing but when you face your worst nightmare–and for me, that IS a pandemic–nothing else scares you nearly as much.

In the mornings, ten minutes before the alarm goes off, Remington climbs onto the bed, touches me with his nose, and curls up beside me until I have to get up. At night, he sprongs about on pogo-stick legs as we begin our walk, only to settle quickly into our usual routine. He chews on his bone quietly in the evenings now, when he used to pester and poke at me. I kept wondering what had changed until I realized it was me. I’d changed. I was cued in now.

Last night on our walk, as the red-wing blackbirds sang their welcome, spring songs and the wild redbud lit up the mountainside with their gorgeous blooms, I found myself thinking that Remington was a wise, gentle soul in a young dog’s body. That he was exactly the dog I needed right now, even though I’d been too blind and stupid to acknowledge that before.

He checked in with me, turning his head to touch my hand.

How you doing, there? Are you okay?

“Not really, buddy. But better because you’re here.”

Be safe. Be well. And love those you love with your whole heart.

 

 

 

 

An Anxious Woman’s Methods of Staying Calm in the Midst of COVID-19 Panic

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

I want to preface this first by saying most posts exhorting me to be calm when the situation is frankly terrifying annoy the snot out of me, so I understand if you are already a little peeved from the beginning here. I get it. I think we’re royally screwed in a major way, the more so depending on whether or not you live in a country run by incompetent, criminally negligent assholes who are more concerned with lining their pockets and slashing regulations during a worldwide catastrophe than trying to halt a pandemic. Ironically, if the yahoos in charge had put the lives of the world population FIRST, the economy would have been better protected, but that’s a rant for another day.

I also have to share with you the fact that the threat of a pandemic is one of my personal bugaboos: the reason I can’t watch zombie movies or anything about epidemics. I’ve been terrified of things like that my entire life, so no Walking Dead or Contagion for me, thank you very much.

All this is to say that my fear is real. I’m not denying the risk to us all. I think we’re in big trouble. I don’t think things will just “go back to normal” in a few weeks or months. I think if we survive the pandemic itself (and that seems iffy for a large majority of us), then we will have to deal with shortages and disruptions of supply chains, the loss of our medical personnel, and people without the knowledge or means to grow their own food, and well-armed people who will likely take what they want. Wow. I’m not doing a very good job of decreasing anyone’s anxiety here, am I?

Deep breath.

Okay. The point to this is that many of us, myself included, were already at the top of our anxiety charts before this came up. We were stretched too thin, taking on too many responsibilities, working too hard, and putting ourselves last on the list every time. I’d been planning to write about my job burnout before the pandemic struck. I mention it now because this crisis coming on top of all the daily fires I had to put out sent me spiraling into a tailspin of anxiety. The kind that spikes your blood pressure, that crushes your head in a vise, that makes it hard to catch your breath. Is that panic or is it COVID? Who knows?

Well, if you’re not running a fever, the odds are it’s panic. I’ve had to reach for my anxiety meds more than once this week, though having a few days off in a row where I didn’t have to risk exposure to the general public helped a lot. Feeling stir-crazy on self-isolation? I find I’ve been able to cope much better by having a few days where I wasn’t on high-alert constantly.

So let me share with you some practical advice from the trenches, so to speak.

It’s okay to be scared. Most of us with any sense are. Stop beating yourself up for being terrified. Just remember that a lot of people around you are scared too, so be kind to them as well as yourself. I can’t emphasize this enough: STAY HOME if you possibly can. But if you MUST go out, treat your delivery people, grocery store attendants, bank clerks, pharmacists, etc with kindness and patience. It’s not their fault. Treat your customers with the understanding they are panicked as well. Also, WEAR A MASK. More on that below.

But the main thing here is there is no shame in being scared right now. Maybe you need medication to calm down. That’s okay too. Just be conscious of the other people in your life and allow them room to be scared or depressed as well. If they are always being strong for you, then you aren’t helping them.

Prepare as best you can, then let it go. Hopefully by now, you’ve done what you can with regards to laying in supplies. You’re stocked on acetaminophen and cough meds. You’re taking your temperature twice a day and self-isolating if you get sick. My advice from this point is to limit the news as much as possible. Check in twice a day, much like you take your temperature, but then turn it off. Many of you are home now with time on your hands: resist winding yourself into a tizzy over things beyond your control. Every time I start to feel a bit calmer about things, I check in with the news and I’m back to panic mode again. I don’t think it’s good for our immune systems to be geared up like that all the time. So turn off social media and the news once you’ve caught up on the important stuff–like what the restrictions are in your area.

Find some meditation apps, play your favorite music, explore some museums online, but stop haunting the news threads. (Side note: If you are taking MAOI medications (as many prescription antidepressants are) find out what OTC fever and cold medications you can and cannot take. NOW.) Remember what I said about being on high-alert constantly? It’s bad for your ability to cope.

Social Distancing is PHYSICAL DISTANCING. If you’re not sick or super high risk, and if you are physically capable of doing so, you should get out in your garden or walk the dog in your neighborhood. Sing. Dance. Move. When we become anxious, our bodies turn to flight or fight mode, and with nothing to battle, we direct that energy inward on ourselves. Movement of some kind can help diffuse this energy and redirect it into a better outlet. BUT, and this is a big but, this doesn’t mean you pile the family in the car and take them to the local playground! It doesn’t mean crowding down at the beach or causing traffic jams on walking paths or hiking trails. If someone isn’t going to give you six feet of clearance, avoid going in that direction. And please keep in mind not everyone can see you!

Give a person with a service dog a wide berth–their dogs aren’t trained for social distancing and it’s up to YOU to pay attention to the people around you. Better to stay home than to endanger yourself or someone else if you can’t maintain distance. Social distancing means STAY HOME if you don’t need to go out. It does not mean run to the store because you want Twizzlers, or take the dog in for routine vaccinations, or pop in to the nail salon. Come to think of it, if you have acrylic or SNS powder on your nails, will a pulse oximeter work? I don’t think so…  Bottom line: I can’t stay home because YOU won’t stay home. So just do it, okay?

Wash your hands. Yes, you’ve heard this. Soap and hot water, 20 seconds or longer. Frequently. Soap disrupts the lipid layer of the virus better than anything else, better than hand sanitizer. But sanitizer is better than nothing. You need to wash or sanitize your hands after you touch ANY public surface: gas pumps, door handles, keypads, etc. Before you touch your face or things inside your house. Change out of your work clothes if you’re not staying in, and shower before you interact with the rest of your family. I wash my hands before leaving work. I use my elbows to open the doors. I use hand sanitizer when I get to my car. When I was still going to the store, I sanitized my hands again after leaving the store and before I got out of the car at home too. And then washed my hands as soon as I got inside the house. I also wash my hands after every interaction with a customer. Yes. That often.

Set up a support network with family and friends. Email chains, chat groups, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, Zoom. I find I don’t need a lot of contact until I do, if you know what I mean. Make sure you check in with someone once a day. If nothing else, you’ll know you’re not alone in all of this. I’ve also found myself contacting relatives I haven’t spoken to in years. Let people know you care about them. I can tolerate a LOT of alone time. I love being alone! But even I can get too much into my head sometimes.

Talking with someone can break that cycle, even if you’re both scared. Be respectful of other’s fears though. Someone may need to NOT talk about the pandemic when you’re bursting to share your concerns. I belong to several groups and for many of them, we’ve created separate channels for voicing our fears so not everyone in the group is exposed to our anxiety. At the same time, I know there’s a channel I can do to where the conversation will be light and fun when I need it.

Can’t go to your convention or conference? Do something anyway. Consider an online version! I was supposed to go to the ATA Spring Writer’s Retreat this weekend. The organizers wisely saw the writing on the wall and converted the entire thing to online sessions. It’s been fabulous–but you know what? I had a hard time making myself attend some of the sessions. At first it was because I wanted to wallow on the sofa watching another 37 episodes of Monk. I couldn’t focus on the material in the sessions. But when I made myself join the Zoom groups, it was like purposely doing exercise: something I had to force myself to do that made me feel better for the action and ended up with me being glad I did it. For a couple of hours, I completely forgot about the world crisis. I learned things and shared things and made plans for the future–something that has more power than you realize.

Making plans means you believe there will be a future, and there is great power in that kind of belief. My point is if there was some event you were looking forward to attending that’s been cancelled, look for alternatives. If you think you’re too frazzled to concentrate on whatever project you are working on, give it a try anyway. You might get more out of it than you think.

Along those lines, I’m also planning to put in a garden this year. Okay, I’ve been planning to do this for the last ten years, but I’ve gone as far as to order seeds this time. See? Practical planning for the future is helpful to my state of mind.

Not feeling productive? Don’t worry about it. No, seriously, I realize that seems like the reverse of what I just said, but if all you can manage is Netflix 10 hours a day while eating Sugar Pops dry out of the box (not that I would know anything about that…), that’s okay. It’s okay if this is your coping mechanism of choice. Don’t beat yourself up because you aren’t “making the most” of your time to finish your opus or write the equivalent of King Lear (as Shakespeare has been said to do when quarantined during the plague). We’re all doing the best we can during a terrible crisis. It’s okay. And you know what else is okay? Not wanting to watch or read your usual comfort tropes.

There’s a reason why I’m watching back-to-back episodes of Monk and Psych. I have reasonable expectations that nothing in these shows will hurt me too badly, and yet I’m not so invested in the characters that watching the programs will somehow taint the show for me in the future by association with this horrible time. I’m not “spoiling” anything I love by linking it to my almost toxic fears. These shows are also just unfamiliar enough that they keep me engaged and distracted. So if you can’t bring yourself to read your favorite books or watch your favorite movies, it’s okay. I understand.

Wear a mask in public. So I know the CDC is saying don’t wear masks. And I know that our medical professionals are so woefully under-prepared for this pandemic that television medical dramas are sending their props to hospitals, so no one wants us buying up all the face masks our medical staff desperately needs. But there’s been a study out of the Czech Republic that shows when they went from zero masks to 100% usage in 10 days, they were able to halt the spread of new COVID-19 cases. They made their own! So if you already have the materials, think about making masks–as many as you can. Do NOT make them if you are sick, and after you make the first one, wear it as you make the rest. You need to keep the mask making process as clean as possible. Donate to hospitals. Give them to your friends and family. Because we’re probably looking at 18 months before a vaccine is available and we’re going to have to go back into the workplace before then.

Watch Jeremy Howard’s presentation on YouTube explaining the importance of #masks4all. I spent some time researching DIY mask making this afternoon and it’s a practical thing I can do to try to keep myself and my loved ones healthy–and it’s something we ALL should do. But here’s the thing: don’t run out to the nearest fabric store to buy supplies! NO SHOPPING. Talk to your crafty friends! They’ve been dragon hoarding materials for YEARS looking for the perfect opportunity to use them. CRAFTMAKERS ASSEMBLE! Having something concrete and useful to do during this time of crisis has been one of the best things for my head.

Here are the best videos I’ve seen so far. There’s one for if you have no sewing machine, as well as a very detailed one for if you own a machine. The best is by the doctor that’s embedded here (I recommend this if you have a high risk job or if you’re making masks to send to hospitals) but remember, any mask is better than none.

 

The important thing here is my anxiety and need to prepare is being put to GOOD USE here. It’s a practical redirection of my energy that has the potential to make a difference as well. Not the sewing type? Me neither. But I’m going to learn to be.