I’m Starving and I Can’t Fill Up

Photo by Criativithy from Pexels

TW for eating disorders.

 

 

The struggle is real.

I’ve always been prone to using food as a reward, probably in part because food was so often used as a weapon in our house growing up. But I mean, who doesn’t think about celebrating an important event or a special date with a fancy meal? Perhaps a bottle of champagne, or a cake ordered from the bakery? Or think about how the arrival of a box of doughnuts at the office puts a happy smile on everyone’s face–even on a Monday.

We celebrate the holidays with feasting: turkey at Thanksgiving, ham at Christmas, chocolates for Valentine’s Day, candy at Easter. Then there’s the obligatory cookouts for Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and Labor Day. Mega-candy holiday at Halloween and then we’re back to Thanksgiving again. And let’s not forget birthdays, anniversaries, and New Year’s Eve.

Food, glorious food, eh?

I have long used food as a reward for making it through a crappy day and have recognized the tendency to eat (especially carbs) when stressed.

But lately, it’s been more out of control than usual.

I’m not quite sure when things changed. I went through a bad year, that became a bad couple of years, that turned into a bad four years… but the weight was already creeping up before then. I have a high-stress, high-pressure job (even more so than what passes for normal here in the US) and somewhere along the line it began catching up with me. Cortisol, produced in greater amounts when you’re stressed, has a multitude of negative effects on the body, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment

Weight crept on, became the new norm, then stabilized.

But in this past year, stability has gone out the window. In part because I’m never full. I’m never satisfied.

Oh sure. I can eat so much I don’t want anything else. And for a while, it seems to work. But in less time than you would expect, I’m rummaging around in the kitchen again, opening cabinets in the hopes of finding something that appeals. Something that would be just right. So perfect that I would eat it and go, “Now, I’m satisfied.”

Only I never am. There’s just this bottomless pit of hunger that can’t be filled.

I caught sight of my reflection in a window today, and I scarcely recognized myself. Tonight, when I found myself in the kitchen shortly after dinner poking about the shelves and rejecting all my choices, I realized I wasn’t hungry, and yet I was starving.

And I asked myself why.

A lot of it has to do with the pandemic. What doesn’t? But right now, life consists of going to work, coming home and taking care of the animals, going to bed and getting up to do the whole thing all over again. My husband, still working from home in the house in town while I tend to the farm, said today, “I get up in the morning and think, ‘What am I going to do today? Oh. Right. Same as every day. Go to work.'” He has a ridiculous amount of leave that he hasn’t taken because work demands more and more of him but as he also pointed out, what would he do if he wasn’t working?

We’re not going to ball games or horseback riding. We’re not seeing family or traveling to places we’ve always wanted to visit. It doesn’t look like that will change for most of us in 2021, and honestly, I’m not sure 2022 will be any better. I’m hug-deprived and miss simple human contact with those I love. And if I’m really being honest here, I’m staying up later and later because going to bed only brings the next day and the endless cycle of Same back around again. The sleep deprivation only makes it that much harder to roll out of bed and face that Same Old Same as well.

And so I seem to reach for food to fill all the voids, but the truth of the matter is the food isn’t all that wonderful. It’s just accessible. And when you’re completely exhausted, accessible is good enough, isn’t it?

The thing is, most of us were already sliding down into this pit long before the pandemic struck. It’s a national problem: we take pride in working ourselves to death and doing whatever it takes to keep working at an unsustainable level. We’re like rats in a maze, running the paths just to press a lever and be rewarded with a food pellet.

I suspect I’ve been starving for a long time, it’s just taken the sheer weight of the pandemic to make it utterly clear how my life has narrowed down to work and food. And now that I’m standing at the bottom of the pit I’ve fallen into, I can see it’s going to be a bitter climb back out.

So I’m going to concentrate on the things that I know will improve the quality of my life. I’m going to strive for 30 minutes of exercise 5 times a week–hey, the dogs will love that! And I ordered a plant-based cookbook–there has to be something you can make with vegetables in between steamed kale and a salad. Hopefully better food choices will result in curbing this drive to eat when I shouldn’t be hungry. I’m already meditating, but I plan to spend more time in nature–I miss my long rambles through the woods. And I’m going to strive to reconnect with friends and family–online if necessary until we can all be safe again.

The days when I could eat sugar-coated cereal dry out of the box or make a stack of cheese and crackers and call it dinner are gone. That’s kid stuff. It’s time to grow up.

Because climb I must. Because no amount of food–not even eating Fruit Loops straight out of the box–is going to fill me up. And I want more out of life than to work and eat.

 

Fighting Hair Loss in Women: What Does and Does Not Work

Thinning hair is something I’ve been battling for many years, and Good Hair Day_RedI’ve been contemplating this blog post for a while now. I wasn’t sure sharing this post was appropriate on many levels: I’m a romance writer and there is nothing sexy about thinning hair, right? Writing about my thinning mane of hair is quite personal and decidedly off-brand.

But it is something I felt I had to share with you on the off-chance someone else out there is struggling with the same problem, and feeling just as bad about it as I did.

See, the one constant of my entire life has been my long, thick hair. It’s been one of my identifying characteristics. My dad’s nickname for me when I was a child was “a bag of bones and a hank of hair.” It was incredibly apt and I spent most of my formative years slightly resenting that nickname until I found out it that the line actually came from the lyrics of a very old song. Hairdressers never failed to comment on the volume and waviness of my hair, frequently pointing in awe at the amount of clippings piled around the chair after a simple trim. One woman jokingly told my mother to “Stop putting Miracle Gro on that child!” A college friend of mine likened it to kudzu, that invasive species of plant that was brought into the Southern US to stop soil erosion and ended up engulfing entire mountainsides. I myself compared to it as wearing a wet fur coat in the humid summers we have here.

Yep, that was me. Kudzu woman.

As such, I was always a little perversely proud of my hair, even when I hated it. Oh yes, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my hair. When it got too long, all the curl was pulled right out of it due to the sheer weight of it all. Wearing it up in a ponytail or pulled back in barrettes was necessary for work–but I often had to use multiple hair implements at once to corral this mane, confining it in stages or otherwise dealing with the wicked headache pulling it back would create. Barrettes would frequently pop open with a loud crack, stinging as the clip bounced off my head and onto the floor. Sometimes it would land across the room. I kid you not.

Periodically, I would become frustrated with its heavy mass (usually at the height of August in 100 degree heat and humidity) and go into the hairdresser’s armed with a photo of a cute, wickedly short cut, only to be told that there was no way my hair would do that, and I did realize that I had three times as much hair as the model in the picture, right? When I would insist on cutting it short anyway, I’d always regret it. Sure, it was wash-and-wear convenient, but the very density of it made me look like an angry hedgehog. No sooner would I cut it, I would decide I needed to grow it out. In less than a year, I would be back to shoulder-length hair again.

That was before the hair disaster a few years ago.

Let me be clear–I’ve had hair disasters before. Who hasn’t? There was the horrendous cut that made me stumble out of the salon in tears and immediately seek out another hairdresser who could minimize the damage. There was that time I got talked into a permanent wave to ‘control the curls’ (seriously, with my hair? What was I thinking??) and ended up looking like a poodle. There was the other time when I spent over an hour with a new, highly recommended hairdresser who put magenta stripes in my hair and suggested I let my curls ‘come out to play.’ I looked like Bozo the Clown after that visit. I once had to shave my head nearly to the scalp to undo the damage from a home perm given too close to a recent coloring. That time, my hair developed the consistency of Brillo, and I could actually twist it into place and it would stay there.

I laughed it off because after all, hair mistakes are never permanent.

Until this last disaster.

For a while now, coloring my hair had become increasingly problematic. My gray roots, present since my thirties, were becoming resistant and unpredictable in color uptake. Nothing infuriated me more than to color my hair and, less than a week later, spy the glitter of gray roots somehow missed or already bleeding through. The amount of time I could go between root touch-ups was getting shorter and shorter, and yet I still clung to the idea of coloring my hair. It made me feel good about myself. It was a cheap way to give me an ego boost, a simple way of making a statement. If I wanted to be bold, I went red. If I wanted a power look, I went dark. Coloring my hair was no different to me than choosing a nice pair of glasses or wearing make up.

Sure, I suspected there would come a day when I might have to give it up. Salon coloring was too expensive; I reserved that for the times when it was really important for me to look smashing, like my college reunion. But even my salon guy, who is a genius with color, was having a hard time getting predictable results. My at-home adventures were worse. Finding a color that would last more than three weeks (no matter how much I babied my hair and used protective shampoos and conditioners) was tough. Not to mention the streaky, uneven color, or the fact that sometimes my roots turned out a different color than what I expected. I even went so far as to buy a book on the subject: Going Gray by Anne Kreamer. I confess, I didn’t read it. Gray wasn’t something I did.

Back then, to me there were two kinds of women: those who fought the aging process with style and those who embraced it. Women who looked like Mary McDonnell at 61 or those women who kept their own sheep, spun their own yarn, made their own kefir, wore Birkenstocks year-round, and did yoga. If that sounds biased, I keep my own sheep, but I like nail polish and pretty shoes. I’m a walking example of what I thought didn’t exist, and was too hard-headed to see it.

But that’s how I saw it then. No middle ground. I came by my fear of aging honestly. My mother fought the good fight to retain her youthful appearance with everything in her arsenal. Expensive youth serums, cosmetic surgery, lying about her age, you name it. It wasn’t until much, much later in life that I discovered this had nothing to do with her wanting to appear youthful and pretty–she was afraid of losing her job (and her health insurance) to younger, fresh-out-of-school new graduates. Now that I am in the same boat myself, I can understand her hard-core desire to remain youthful looking with an empathy that dismays me.

The message I subconsciously picked up from her, however, was that aging was something I need to fight tooth and nail. Even my husband, who is very much against Botox and other artificial means of looking young, hesitated when I suggested I might stop coloring my hair. The most supportive guy on the planet, and yet after a brief pause, he said he wasn’t sure he was quite ready for me to have gray hair yet.

Yeah, well me neither.

Then, ironically right after a cheerful online interaction with friends about To Color or Not To Color and why we all choose to keep coloring, the disaster struck. I’d switched brands of home color in the hopes of finding one that would be more consistent in shade and last just a little bit longer. I followed the instructions, as usual, applying the Medium Ash Brown shade.

ombre from flickr commons

ombre from flickr commons

When I washed it out, my hair was jet black. No, seriously. My husband referred to me as his ‘raven-haired beauty’ for weeks. I laughed it off, especially as the color didn’t take evenly, and the ends of my hair were still reddish brown. I told everyone I looked like Xena: Warrior Princess, and one of my clients told me I had an ombre–and that people actually did this sort of thing on purpose to their hair. So I laughed. No big deal, right?

Until my hair began falling out. Big time.

At first, I thought I was just going through a fall molt. After all, I’d done that before. One October when I was in my twenties, I lost so much hair all at once, I began to get worried. But that was when I was twenty-ish. And it stopped. This time, my hair continued to come out in great fistfuls to the point that I could see scalp, so much so my part looked exactly like that woman on the Rogaine box.  For the first time, I had to consider the possibility that not only was I losing far too much hair, but that it might not come back, either.

I went to the doctor and had a lot of expensive tests done to rule out some metabolic reason for why all my hair was falling out. I looked at all my supplements and medications that I took to see if any of them could be a factor. To my surprise, I discovered that completely unrelated side effects from one medication was probably increasing my depression and anxiety, so I stopped that one (always, always read the fine print, peeps!). I also found out that the melatonin I was taking to help me sleep at night could, in a very small percentage of women, cause permanent hair loss. You can bet I stopped taking that right away. In fact, I pretty much stopped taking everything except my multi-vitamin. Anything that could remotely be a factor, I stopped taking cold turkey.

(word to the wise: always check with your doctor before stopping any medication)

That still left me with the possibility it was stress (my whole life was undergoing restructuring, which is part of why I was having trouble sleeping) or hormones. Simple, goddamn aging. My doctor told me I could try minoxidil, and I was desperate enough to buy a box (despite the fact it can exacerbate hypertension, something I struggle with). Everything I read said minoxidil was the ONLY thing that promoted regrowth of hair, but that you had to keep using it or you would lose what you gained. Also, most of the websites I encountered said forget about the 2% solution designed for women and go with the men’s 5% product.

blinding, widening part: 2014

Have you ever read the side effects? “Unexpected weight gain and the potential to grow facial hair.” I have to say, given the fact that I usually get every side effect in the book, the possibility of looking like a bald, fat, mustachioed man made me quake in my shoes. Not to mention, I discovered minoxidil can is incredibly toxic to your pets! I have a cat who likes to lick my hair when I sleep. I threw the minoxidil away.

Each time I took a shower and watched a pile of hair accumulate in the drain the size of a small mouse, I hoped that maybe it was the hair dye. That maybe I’d burned my scalp or something and my hair all fell out in shock. The loss was certainly most prominent at the crown, where the dye had been on the longest. And so I made the decision to stop coloring my hair.

Oh, I railed at the thought. But given my alternatives, I thought it was the best choice to see if my scalp and my hair would recover. My hair guy offered to do lowlights and highlights to minimize the look of the growing out process, but at this point I didn’t want any more chemicals on my hair at all. I had him cut it into a chin-length bob–NOT my best look, but at least it minimized the thinning layers and gave the impression of being fuller. Of course, when the weather was humid, I looked just like Gilda Radner’s Saturday Night Live character, Roseanne Roseannadanna.

Looking in the mirror made me almost physically ill. As time went on, I saw myself as not only balding but also getting progressively grayer. This wasn’t ME. This wasn’t who I am! I’m not an old woman. At the root of my distress was the concern that my husband would no longer find me sexually attractive. Hell, I’m not ready to give up on sex yet! I’m a romance writer, FFS. Sex interests me. I like writing about it, I like what sex can tell you about characters at their most vulnerable and open. I just plain like it. I wasn’t ready to be assigned to the scrap heap.

So yeah, not ready for the entire world to consign me out to pasture. I’m still not. But one day I woke up and said, “Oh for Chrissake, get over yourself. Losing your hair and going gray is not the worst things that can happen to you.”

No, it isn’t. Not by a long shot. But it is something that is very personal and very distressing for virtually everyone facing this situation. And let me tell you, when you are in this mindset, it eclipses everything else in your world. For days, when I first realized that this indeed was really happening, when my hairdresser confirmed my worst fears by walking silently around my chair and finally saying, “We can fix this” in a determined manner, I couldn’t think of anything but the fact that I was losing my hair to some unknown cause.

Chemo? I get that. Hair loss is expected. If you have a great support network, friends will even shave their heads in support of your battle. I can even see where it can be a badge of honor–a symbol of your determination to survive. You are fighting a much bigger fight than hair loss–and yet I have a better inkling of how devastating that portion of your battle can be.

You’re a guy? Sorry, but hair loss is almost the norm for men. I’m not saying it is any less upsetting when it occurs, but you are in good company. I know I sound callous here, but that is my whole point. All I could think about was me, me, me and how this would impact my life.

When it really comes down to it, for me the problem wasn’t so much the hair loss itself as the unexpected nature of it.  It felt unfair. I could accept that I’d gotten heavy, that I was developing wrinkles around my eyes, even that I had gray hair in the first place. Going bald wasn’t on the list of expectations, however, and given how much I’ve compromised on things in the last ten years of life, this was one thing I was unwilling to accept, childish as it sounds.

Especially since we have so many negative reinforcers for older women in this society. Sure, we’ve got such strong positives as Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, and Jamie Lee Curtis, but most older actresses are all about making 40 the new 20, or whatever the phrase is now. They *have* to, unless they want to be relegated to playing the mom, or the school principle.

Add to that how many times we see younger actresses paired with older actors on shows: on two of my favorite shows, the lead actress was in her twenties while the lead actor was in his late thirties, early forties. Even dating sites such as OkCupid release stats that pretty much prove that when women reach a certain age, they are considered undesirable–while men of that same age demographic are still seeking out women twenty years younger than they are.

It took me a long time to reach a point of acceptance, but I finally did. I am not responsible for whether my husband, or the bag boy, or the hot young client thinks I am attractive or not. That’s their bailiwick. I can’t make anyone else find me attractive. What matters is whether or not I think I’m attractive, and the answer to that has been a surprising no for a while now. Long before I stopped coloring my hair. Coloring my hair was a means of clinging to this ideal of what attractiveness meant to me–where nearly every woman over forty on television has long flowing locks of honey-touched hair. I keep forgetting that these actresses are in the business of looking beautiful. That they have full time hairdressers and stylists, and the money to spend on looking good, and when all else fails the magazine industry Photoshops them into the semblance of youth. Given how few strong roles there are for women on television, I can understand the need to provide the industry with what it wants if you want to be an actress. But in my case, I was clinging to this false sense of security. I couldn’t really be old, now could I? Not as long as I could pass for ten or fifteen years younger. Not as long as I still occasionally got carded. Right?

The Great Hair Disaster caused me to stop dyeing my hair for about a year and a half, but it made no difference to the thickness of my hair. As a matter of fact, my gray hairs were thinner and finer than my colored strands, and after giving my hair a good long break from coloring, I went back to dyeing it again. Why? Because I liked how I looked better with dyed hair. I looked so tired and washed out with my dull, dead-mouse-graying hair color.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned in my hair journey: once you rule out the other causes of hair loss, over 50 % of adult women will experience hair loss for hormonal reasons. About the time of the Great Hair Disaster, I’d stopped using birth control pills after a lifetime of being on them for dysmenorrhea. All the women in in my family have developed thinning hair as they hit their forties. I never knew this was so widespread or such an issue until it became personal for me. And yes, harsh chemicals, such as dyes and perms, definitely are a factor in hair loss as well. So lucky me, I’m not alone in this. Thinning hair in women is far more pervasive than I ever realized. I only wish someone had warned me a long time ago. It doesn’t seem to be a topic women discuss readily.

So what are the solutions? Are there any fixes for this?

You’re probably not going to like the answer, which is: not really.

You can slow it down. If you’re not willing to use minoxidil (and I’m not) there are few proven hair loss reversal remedies out there. You need to start early because once your hair follicles shrink and shut down, there is no reversing that. Lady Alopecia runs as website that is a font of useful information about products. Here’s what I’ve tried and what works for me:

Supplements: Biotin, hair and nail supplements, multi-vitamins, etc:

Viviscal is a supplement touted to promote hair growth. I haven’t managed to take it long enough to see a difference because it seems to make my face break out (but a lot of things do, so take that with a grain of salt). Not recommended for those with shellfish allergies or celiac disease.

I take a wide variety of supplements for my poor nail growth (also a side effect of hormonal changes, I suspect. I used have nails with the strength of Wolverine’s adamantium…). You can read about them here. While I think they’ve helped my nail growth somewhat, I’m less certain about the effects on my hair. When you do a number of different things at the same time, it’s hard to examine the benefits of a particular product.

There are a LOT of supplements out there. I’ve looked into many, only to decide against using them because of the ingredient list or because of the unproven results. The supplement industry is poorly regulated, and many products out there don’t even included the listed amount of ingredients on their label. Buyer beware in this department.

Shampoos and Conditioners:

Anti-DHT shampoos are recommended the most for controlling hair loss. There are a wide variety of products out there which claim to be DHT blockers, but only a few actually have the ingredients shown to be effective. DHT is a hormone which is a factor in hair loss. From WebMD: 

DHT stands for dihydrotestosterone, a hormone produced in both men and women by the male sex hormone testosterone. If you have a genetic predisposition to hair loss, certain receptors in your scalp’s hair follicles will encourage DHT to bind to them. Then, DHT stimulates an enzyme to shrink the follicle.

In most ciswomen, estrogen levels offset the natural amount of testosterone present. As your hormones change in output (for whatever reason), your DHT levels have nothing to counteract them. Remember what I said earlier? There is no reversing the follicle shrinkage once it occurs.

I was using Pura D’Or original Gold label shampoo for over a year, but then they changed the label, removing the DHT blocking description. The website says it prevents hair loss through reduction in hair breakage, which makes me suspect it no longer contains any DHT blocking activity (if it ever did).

Lady Alopecia recommends the Nioxin brand line of products, and I have used those as well. The shampoo definitely has a tingling effect on my scalp, but I feel as though the products make my hair too soft. Without a certain amount of body, the weight of my hair causes my scalp to be even more apparent, so I like a certain amount of texture to my hair, not slick and shiny like a seal. What I like about the product line, however, is a tiered approach to your hair thinning and what they recommend using. They also make products specifically for dyed hair. Apparently they are now making a shampoo containing minoxidil, however, so read your labels.

Thicker, Fuller, Hair Shampoo and Conditioner: The original product with the “cell-u-plex” ingredient has been discontinued. Again, making me wonder about the value of the replacement product. The new products is also listed as a “hair strengthening” shampoo, which goes back to breakage, not anti-DHT. I like the fact the conditioner is extremely lightweight and doesn’t weigh my hair down. Not sure I will buy the newer version though, but Women’s Health does list it among the products in their 2020 post on thinning hair. As a matter of fact, I’m going to give that list a hard look here. I suspect I will be trying some new products when I run out of the current ones.

Diet:

A hard one for me, as anyone who knows me knows I’m a carb junkie. As in PopTarts, not kale. Dr. Gundry, who has gained recognitions touting a diet that eliminates lectins (including bell peppers, seeds, peanuts, and beans), claims not only will you lose weight on this diet, but your hair will regrow. Call me skeptical, but willing to look into it more. Given I need to clean up my act there in general, it can’t hurt, even if it doesn’t help with hair growth.

Sugar is a huge culprit in aging in general. We all know about the risks of diabetes, Alzheimer’s and dementia, stroke and heart disease, but when life is stressful and there are doughnuts in the break room, it’s easy to set those concerns aside as something that will happen to someone else, or later in your own life. But did you know sugar affects the cross-linkages of collagen in your skin? It’s one of the marked causes of sagging skin and wrinkles. Now my fear of looking old is at war with my love of sweets.

The sad thing is, I can look at 2020 and see what a toll it has taken on my appearance. I feel as though I’ve aged a decade in this past year due to stress and bad coping mechanisms. I wouldn’t be surprised if sugar played a role in hair thinning too. If I tell myself this often enough, I might actually do something about my diet at long last.

Cut your hair:

What? You heard me. Those long flowing locks with the center part only accentuates the widening of that part and the thinning of your hair. Give up the look you’ve been hanging onto for the last decade and embrace something that doesn’t emphasize your thinning hair nearly as much. Remember that pixie cut I couldn’t wear when I was younger? I can now because I have a third of the hair I used to have. Bonus feature: not having a defined part makes the hair loss less noticeable as well as increasing the time needed between hair coloring from every three weeks to every six or so.

Hair Color and Hair Products:

I’ve stopped using drugstore box dyes. I’m not going to the salon, either, due to Covid-19. I’m ordering my hair color from e-salon, and I have to say I’m not only thrilled with the color and coverage, but my hair feels healthier and softer, too. I’ve given up the dramatic reds and too-harsh-for-my-coloring brunettes and have settled on a dark blonde that hides my gray nicely when it starts to grow out. But I can tweak the color with a simple request: make it browner, redder, etc.

Yes, the cost is a bit more, but given I’m only coloring my hair every 8 weeks instead of 3, and the quality of the product is better, it’s worth it to me.

Be careful what hair products you use to style thinning hair, however. Your favorite mousses and gels frequently have a lot of alcohol, and even if they aren’t damaging to your hair, they can clump strands together, emphasizing areas of thinning.

I used to let my hair air dry, but now I use a hair dryer with a diffuser set on low to give me the volume I desire without excessively drying out my hair.

Hair fillers and fibers:

These are itty bitty fibers that you sprinkle into your hairline, increasing the thickness of the single strand as well as coloring in your scalp. They tend to stay put until you wash your hair as well, though I haven’t tested them through the heat of a summer in the Southern US. What can I say, though? I’ve been pleased with the effect.

Wigs and toppers:

Yes. Check them out. I bought my first wig when I was unable to get my hair cut for seven months during the pandemic. Before my hair loss, going without a cut for that long would have left me looking like Cousin It. The very fact that seven months without a trim resulted in me looking like a shaggy Maria Von Trapp is another indication of how slowly my hair grows these days.

Frustrated with how unkempt I looked, I found a wig in a cute style that matched my own color nicely, and I challenge anyone to have told the difference. Don’t want to go for a full wig? Definitely check out toppers. The difference in my appearance is amazing. Doing what makes you look and feel amazing is okay. We wear makeup, right? Or maybe you don’t, but you still buy clothing that looks nice on you. Wigs are an accessory, like eye glasses or shoes. Don’t talk yourself out of doing something that makes you feel good about your appearance because it somehow feels like cheating if it isn’t your own hair. It’s not.

Last but not least, the only other product proven to affect hair loss: laser therapy.

WebMD’s jury is out on the effectiveness of cold laser for preventing hair loss and encouraging growth. I can only tell you about my experience.

It’s expensive. It’s time-consuming. It takes a long time to see results (six months or more) That makes it hard to do on a trial basis. I shelled out the big bucks for an iRestore because I knew I wouldn’t use a comb for the necessary period of time and I could read or watch TV wearing the cap for the 25 minutes needed for treatment. It’s relatively safe (just don’t shine the laser in your eyes!! and don’t use if you take photosensitizing medications). My biggest problem is remembering to do it regularly–I have to put it on a scheduler.

Results? I am seeing hair regrowth but NOT from the shiny, dead follicles where no hair is growing anyway. It seems that I am getting new growth around my hairline where there are still active follicles, and I’m also noticing double strands of hair coming out of the same follicle. Even more interesting, the new hair strands are not gray and are much denser than the gray ones. Overall, I would say hair regrowth is slight, but my shedding seems a lot less, so I’ll take it.

It is very difficult to get a non-blurry selfie of the top of your head. I apologize for the amateurish images. And if you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow, that’s a lot of gray”, it is. I’m definitely not coloring my hair as often during the pandemic. Most of the time, I can gt away with it but I wanted to show you the new growth.

So there you have it. If you take anything away from this post, I hope it is this:

Hair thinning in women is more common than you think.

The only person who decides if you are attractive is you–and you’re allowed to do what it takes to make you confident and happy with your appearance.

This shouldn’t be a topic we shy away from. We should be having these discussions with our children so they aren’t blindsided by normal aging changes.

It’s not too late to decide how you want to look and feel from this moment forward.

Be safe. Be well. And most importantly, be happy in your own skin.

I’m Not Okay, and I’m Not Alone

No one in my immediate family has Covid-19.

As an essential worker, I’m close to getting a vaccination soon.

I have a job that pays my bills. I have an extremely supportive husband, whom I love very much. In two days, we’ll usher in a new president, and we’ll finally have adults in charge again.

My health is relatively decent, all things considered.

But I am not okay.

Because the problems that have come to a head in the last four years aren’t going to magically go away overnight. We’re on the verge of civil war, and the ugly specter of white supremacy, given praise by the outgoing president, has come out into the open and is not afraid to show it. The pandemic is still out of control, and even once vaccination becomes available to all, I know far too many people who will refuse to be vaccinated. We’re running out of time to affect climate change, if we haven’t already.

We’re in a new year, with a new administration coming, and the winds of change are blowing, but that weather vane is still stuck pointing toward fear and hopelessness, and I don’t know how to make it swing in any other direction.

And I’m one of the lucky ones. I know I’m one of the lucky ones. It makes it hard to share my feelings with anyone else because what the heck do I have to complain about? Almost everyone I know has a much harder situation than mine. So what right do I have to be so down, so depressed that I’m seriously considering giving up writing? Why? Because it seems so freaking pointless right now. Every word is like pulling teeth with a pair of rusty pliers and no anesthesia, and every sentence reads like it was drafted by a middle-schooler. I used to look forward to my writing time. Now I avoid it in lieu of doing almost anything else: laundry, baking brownies, watching hours of Murder She Wrote.

(Why Murder She Wrote? Because the overly dramatic acting typical of the era and the improbable scripts don’t require anything of me, and are definitely not going to hurt me in any conceivable way. Also, there’s the fantasy of Jessica Fletcher, who became a bestselling novelist late in life, and can now jaunt around solving mysteries. Perhaps I’m not running out of time after all.)

Now, I recognize that I’m burned out at work. That the inability to get the regular services I used to do in order to manage my pain means I’m dealing with a higher level of it than usual. I was burnt to a crisp emotionally before 2020 began, and 2020 has asked a lot of us all. I can even look in the mirror and realize at least part of my disgust with my appearance stems from my own decision not to get my hair cut for the time being, and that’s not a good look for me. I trimmed my own bangs recently, and now I look like Maria Von Trapp after one too many servings of schnitzel with noodles.

But teetering on the edge of quitting writing… that’s new for me.

I know what I’d tell someone else. I would point out how important it is for the creators of this world to continue offsetting the destroyers. How we are our own worst critics, and that it’s understandable to find yourself without the ability to create if the emotional well is dry. I’d advise myself to take a little break, give myself the benefit of the doubt, do something different but still creative to get the juices following. I’d say lay off the junk food, get to sleep at a decent hour, and go outside and take a walk.

But it’s been months since I’ve really written anything, and it’s starting to feel like this is the new norm.

Some friends of mine met online today, and I almost didn’t join them. I have nothing cheerful to say and I didn’t want to bring down the group with my unhappiness. But when someone asked how I was doing, and I told them honestly not too hot. I also expressed my feeling that I shouldn’t complain because nothing that bad is happening to me right now.

One of my friends said she was glad I said something because she’d been feeling the same. She wanted me to know I wasn’t alone.

So I’m telling you: you’re not alone. Things really do suck in a big way right now. And it’s okay to be anxious, depressed, and afraid. We’ve been living with these emotions for practically a whole year now (and a lot of anger too) without a clear endpoint. It’s okay to long for haircuts or to get your nails done. It’s okay to miss doing things with your friends and family, and to wish for more from life than to go to work each day. It’s even okay to set aside the things that used to bring you joy for the things that bring you comfort instead.

I do believe things will get better. But I also think they are going to get worse before they do. I think we have a very long, hard row to hoe to make things better for the generations that come behind us. That’s a tough realization when you’re already as tired as you can be.

I believe I’ll return to the things that bring me joy some day. Perhaps even some day soon. But until then, there’s still Murder She Wrote.

 

 

 

Ten Ways to Cope with Toxic News Cycles

I went back and forth over how to title this post.

“Unsettling” seemed too anemic a term to describe the insurrection that took place in the Capitol just four days ago. I rejected “apocalyptic” because while it may be true, it felt like hyperbole. “Revolutionary”, while also accurate, is a term most often used to describe the good guys.

But “toxic” fit the bill.

I’ve written about distraction before. A lot, actually. And inability to focus or to find the energy to be creative is nothing new for me. I’ve been struggling with these issues for the last several years–the last four years, to be exact. But the stark reality is this:

Nothing is going to change.

You read that right. I don’t mean that everything is going to remain static; that things will neither get better nor worse. Given our current trajectory, things are probably going to get much worse before they get better, if indeed, they still can. What I mean by this harsh statement is that things are always going to be in turmoil, the news is almost always going to be terrifying, the year that we look forward to with hope as being better than the last is almost certainly to disappoint.

We’re going to have to adapt if we want to live our best lives.

I saw a question making the rounds on Twitter this morning asking if those over 30 could remember so much crammed into a single news cycle. After all, this week brought us both Bean Dad and a violent takeover (at the instigation of the current president and others) of the Capitol while Congress was preparing to certify Biden as the next President of the United States. Yes, both these events happened in the same week. I mention Bean Dad because that already seems like months ago. Life comes at you fast these days.

The response of the over-30 crowd on Twitter was interesting: it’s not just that the news cycles have become shorter with more horrific events. It’s that we can never get completely away from them either.

So the real question is what are we going to do about it?

I took this quote from a post I wrote last February

But I’m noticing a greater tendency on my part not to want to do anything but mess around online. Stay home in front of the laptop or with the phone in hand. If I could order my groceries and do all my banking online, I’d never leave the house on my days off. It’s an effort to put the dogs in the car and take them out for a run in the national forest or go horseback riding–things I used to love doing. I keep looking at my watch and thinking, “I have this block of time I need to use for writing!” only I pick up the phone, and four hours later, I haven’t typed a single word in the WIP.

A few days after posting that, because of the pandemic, my husband and I made the decision to split our households into those who could WFH and those who could not. And now I do order my groceries and do all my banking online. I’ve stopped riding because I didn’t feel comfortable going to a public boarding barn where I was leasing a horse. And while I can still take the dogs out for a run in the woods, I don’t do that nearly as often as I could.

I waste my precious available time doomscrolling.

And again, rather than stating the obvious, the question is what am I (and you) going to do about it?

I snagged this bit of advice (that I should have taken!) from the previous post:

Just in time for this post, I came across this old Twitter thread from former CIA personnel, Cindy Otis. (I know, right? The irony…) In it the OP talks about toxic news cycles and how to cope. She doesn’t advocate ignoring the news–and she’s right, it won’t go away. But she outlines positive steps to take to make yourself feel better. You can check out the link or follow the tips here:

  1. Take Action: Volunteer. A hard one for me, I admit because I’m already on compassion burnout as it is. But that’s why I give money when I can’t give time, and why I focus on local rather than national or international efforts. You need to see the benefits of your kindness. Do it. (I should add here that I participated in a small way in Romancing the Runoff this year, which generated over $400,000 to support getting the vote out in Georgia, and helped flip the Senate–so even small efforts can make a difference!)
  2. Accept Your Limits: The flip side of the first, true. But critical. Remember, if the O2 mask drops down on the plane, you have to put YOUR mask on first before attempting to help others. You can’t do anything if you’ve passed out from lack of air.
  3. Research before Panicking: particularly important in this age of disinformation. Check your facts before sharing that post. For all you know, the crisis you’re sharing may have already been resolved by the time you hit ‘send’. Or it may not even be true.
  4. Get up and Move: that’s right. Unplug. Turn off the phone, go outside, play with the dog, call a friend. Your body and brain needs a break from stressful content but also you need to release that negative energy. Even if you don’t feel like taking a walk, do it. You’ll feel better afterward.
  5. Set Rules: I like this one. No Social Media after a certain time. Only fiction reading at home. Whatever works best for you. Shut out the negative so you can recharge.
  6. Avoid Dark Holes: Don’t go down the rabbit hole of one bad news story after another. Don’t succumb to clickbait. Deal with one thing at a time. Don’t get yourself wound up about the coronavirus and then leap to climate change and then hyperventilate about how unprepared we are for all of this and how the next thirty years is going to break us as a society and species… Ooops. That was kind of specific, I see. You see what I mean, though.
  7. Have Fun, Darn it: Another tough one. It’s hard not to feel guilty having dinner with friends or enjoying a movie when the world is on fire. But the thing is, enjoying those little things is what life is all about. And sharing our fandom squee, or a beautiful photograph, or the joy of bringing home a new puppy or kitten doesn’t mean we’re shallow, terrible people because the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we’re not screaming about it. It’s all part of recharging. It’s all part of making sure we’re rested for the next fight.
  8. I added this one myself: Celebrate Your Wins: No matter how big or small. Because that’s what life is about too. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for sharing about your new book or your concert tickets or pictures from that awesome vacation (pre-pandemic). Because that’s what life’s about too. The things that make us happy.
  9. Adding this one today: Treat doomscrolling like any other addiction.  Because that’s what it is. And believe me, it’s hard to cut yourself off from your phone when you’re supposed to be staying at home because of the pandemic. But if you find yourself unable to stop bingeing on potato chips, perhaps the answer is to stop buying chips. My life seems full of mostly bad habits right now. I’m trying to cope any way I can, and most days I feel like the character from Airplane! You know, “This was the wrong week to give up <insert escalating vice here>. But the only one who can stop me from indulging is me.
  10. Adding this one too: JUST START. If you want to write, knit, paint, do a puzzle, regain fitness, journal, learn a second language, get a degree, whatever. Just. Start. A word after a word after a word is a sentence. If you are stalled out creatively by the endless toxic news cycles, throw out the idea that it must be perfect or that you must complete it by such-and-such date. You may have heard the advice you can’t edit a blank page (Jodi Picoult) or that the water doesn’t flow until the faucet is turned on (Louis L’Amour). Well, it’s true. And if that faucet has been off a long time, at first the water will be tinged with rust and may only trickle out, but given enough time, it will run clear again. But only if you turn the valve.

Now excuse me while I go walk the dogs. I said that in February 2020. I’m saying it again today. Because it’s always the right answer.

My Focus Word for 2021

I’ve been creating focus words and phrases for myself back before it was cool. Before you could readily find small stones with words carved into them, before there were organizations such as myintent.org. Sometimes I would assign an object my focus word as a reminder to myself. Sometimes I would simply decide that this would be the year of living with passion or joy.

Since focus words have become more popular, it’s been easier to not only purchase something tailor-made to carry your intent with you at all times, but also to create your own personal reminder. I even went so far as to purchase a metal stamping kit a few years ago, and while I’m not all that good at it, I confess, I love making these lightweight aluminum bracelets for myself. (Actually, I’m pretty darn good at the stamping, it’s bending the aluminum into a wearable bracelet without screwing it up that’s the problem, even with the special tools for doing that. I need to get a little expert advice on that…)

I’ve written about this concept many, many times. I’ve written about the importance of personal talismans and of using stones to focus my intent. I did a Twitter thread about bringing good energy into your upcoming writing year, and I think the bulk of the advice still holds true today. I wrote about the word I chose for 2020 (and man, does that make me cringe now, even though I still believe in the principles behind the choice). 

I’ve written about the push-me/pull-you relationship I have with the theory of the Law of Attraction, and why it does and does not work for me. And I keep coming back to this: I am my own worst enemy. I’ve made self-deprecation an art form.

USA Today bestselling author and 2018 RITA finalist, Margaret Locke, and I had a conversation about this on Twitter the other day. She had complimented me on ending up on a year-end list with some pretty amazing authors, and my knee-jerk reaction had been to shuffle and say, “I don’t deserve to be there.”

She made me realize that this is common problem among women because we’ve been coached that way. Not just the “You’ll Never Be Good Enough” syndrome that so many of us know from growing up in households with exacting parents, but a condition inherently female because so many women are raised to defer their abilities in a way that men are not. (And I sense a future blog post about this topic someday…)

So I found myself floundering on a word choice for this year. Survival felt too stark, and not the energy I wanted to bring with me into 2021, even if it felt like I’d nailed it. Hope felt too impossible to achieve. I came very close to selecting Believe for this year, because it embodies the things I want to carry with me into 2021–and also because I’ve fallen deeply in love with Ted Lasso. (Note: link contains spoilers) If you haven’t had a chance to watch this charming, earthy show about an American football coach tagged to lead a losing UK soccer team out of their slump, you should check it out. I know, it wasn’t on my top ten shows to watch either, but my husband persuaded me to try it, and after the first episode I wanted to watch the next right away.

And I came very close to choosing Believe simply because of Ted Lasso, and because this word is so flexible. It can be used for so many things: believe in yourself. Believe in your dreams. Believe in change, believe in the future of our country. Believe in things getter better in the future.

But I wasn’t quite ready to go with believe. I know that because when I was looking up old posts to link here, I ran across another word that clicked with me. I saw it and though, yes. This is it.

Resilience.

It’s a word my husband thinks I have. One I used to think I had, but somehow lost along the way. One that I want to have again. It embodies everything I want from a focus word for 2021. Not giving up. Pressing forward. Taking my dreams, my hopes, and goals and tucking them in my jacket to carry with me. It’s putting one foot in front of the other in deep snow. Taking a deep breath. Tackling what lies ahead: be it a pandemic, a thorny WIP, depression, anxiety, whatever.

I had to take a break from moving forward. My base camp has been pitched on the side of a mountain, a small sliver of space I used to catch my breath, lick my wounds, and recoup from loss. But the summit is still above me, and I can’t stay on this ledge forever. It’s time to start climbing again.

Resilience.

I’m not going to ask you to move off your ledge. I’m not going to ask you to do more than you can in 2021. For many of us, the fact we made it to the ledge and are hanging on is a bloody miracle. You’ll know when it’s time to break camp and climb to the next level.

But I’ll leave the rope dangling for you.

 

 

Dear 2020: I’m Almost out of F*cks To Give

People talk about the liberation in reaching a point where they have zero f*cks to give. I’ve joked about it myself, and laughed when a friend gave me a glass that embraced this concept as well as my love of foxes.

But the truth of the matter is we need people to give a f*ck about things. Important things. We need people to care. To have compassion. To go out of their way to help others. And losing the ability to give those kinds of f*cks is not a good thing, or something to be desired.

Right now my TL is in a stew over a couple of new releases: most notably Bridgerton and Wonder Woman 1984. It’s a measure of how tired I am that neither event–things I might have looked forward to in the past–generates any feeling of excitement or outrage. Back when it was first announced, I was thrilled about a second WW movie, and desperately hoped there would be a way for me to see it when I had no intention of setting foot in a movie theater. I purchased HBO Max just so I could watch it, and I simply… haven’t. WW84 seems to be a disappointment to many (and apparently missed a huge opportunity to make use of 80s music–the soundtrack would have been fabulous!) and as for Bridgerton… Let me preface this by saying I haven’t read the original series, I wasn’t aware of the problematic scene/plot point that has some people up in arms and others defending it, I had no problem with the diverse casting until people pointed out the added egregiousness of the problematic plot point, and given the hostility with which the different camps have taken sides, I’m not sure I will watch this series.

Because I am very close to having zero f*cks to give.

And I don’t mean that in the good way, where you stop worrying about what other people think of you, or you look ahead at the remainder of your life and think, “Screw it. I’m going for it.” Where you dress the way you want and look fabulous, and ignore those stupid advice posts “What Not To Wear After Forty.”

I’m talking about when you don’t give a rat’s ass about anything.

I can’t lay this blame entirely on the pandemic, though that certainly didn’t help. It’s a culmination of chronic stress, both physical and mental, combined with a crapton of grief stuffed into the last four years. And while I can’t blame the current administration for ALL the problems in my life, it strikes me as ironic that the worst four years in my life have been the last four years.

I’ve long detested the obligatory “end-of-year” posts. I dislike looking back on the past year and shouting out about achievements. Mostly because it goes to show how little I’ve accomplished in a given year. I also dislike the concept of New Year’s Resolutions, fed into us by the diet industry, given the enormous number of exercise and weight loss ads suddenly crossing my timeline. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve resolved to do x-y-z only to see that resolution fall by the wayside in a matter of weeks.

My only real resolution this coming year is to survive.

My stories frequently have “life is more than mere survival” as a theme, however. Which has me thinking, what would my characters do, faced with the utter lack of f*cks to give?

Rhett would drop her ray gun in her clutch, whistle up the dog, and ask Peter if he had any ideas on how to stop the invading force from taking over the world. Her lack of f*cks would mean she would go down fighting, looking extremely stylish in the process. And because she has such utter confidence in herself, she’d probably come out on top. She’d definitely be the resistance fighter in any guerilla-war.

Ellie West, knowing she had much to fight for and the ability to do it, would marshal her clan and shift into her glorious dragon-form, taking wing and taking names. You’d regret messing with her found family.

Sarah Atwell is the most like me, I guess. She would continue to work hard, and try to please the people in her life. She’d give of herself until there was no more left to give. She’d nod and back down, struggle with anxiety, plagued with nightmares and borrowing trouble with her fears. The problem is, because she’s savvy and well-read, her fears would be legitimate. And believe me, it’s hard to meditate yourself into a calmer state of mind when you know the odds of your worst fears coming true.

But even Sarah has that underlying backbone that cannot be denied. A line in the sand you must not cross. Sure, it may be a lot closer than most people’s lines. But when push comes to shove, you’d better not cross it. Otherwise you’ll discover that meek, self-effacing, self-doubting woman is a cougar inside.

And so when I was writing this post, thinking of how utterly exhausted I was and how unsustainable certain elements in my life are right now, I remembered I created these characters. They sprang out of characteristics I either possess or admire. They are part of me, even if not the whole me.

And end-of-year bragging posts notwithstanding, I am proud of a few things accomplished in 2020. Some are personal, that I’m not sharing here but brought great happiness to my life in a year where happiness was hard to find. I wrote and published a book in the middle of a pandemic. Another book won a couple of prestigious awards. I participated in Romancing the Runoff, and–along with Stacey Abrams–helped raise $400,000 to support Georgia Senate races.

I voted. I saw the tremendous motivation of a nation to vote for change, for healing, for hope.

And while I didn’t get as much writing done as I would have liked, I am still writing.

Maybe my life is more than the mere survival it feels like right now. So watch out, 2021. As someone almost out of f*cks to give, you don’t want to mess with me.

 

The Girl Who Lost Her Dream

Once upon a time, there was a young girl who loved polished stones.

She loved the slick feel of them between her fingers, and the way they warmed in her hand. She loved how being spun in a tumbler sanded off the rough outer shell and brought out the beauty within–a kind of Cinderella story for rocks.

She’d learned to identify the dinosaurs by name, and collected plastic models. She resisted the reclassification of the Brontosaurus (and her adult self rejoiced when her belief was vindicated). She moved on to mammals and birds, thumbing well-worn identification guides, learning animal tracks and bird calls as well. 

Her childhood passion for identifying things was on the wane when she discovered geology, but the magic of polished stones stayed with her. A school trip to a mine netted a little velvet sack of rocks that stayed with her through several moves and all through high school, disappearing somewhere after she went away to college. But she always remembered the pleasure those polished stones brought her.

As an adult, she rediscovered that joy again, coming across some polished stones with words engraved on them. She began collecting stones again. A rock tumbled smooth by the Snake River. A piece of quartz that caught the light like a diamond. An amethyst from a park gift shop the last time she took the old dog camping. Bloodstone from the writer’s retreat. Sodalite for creativity. Hematite because it looked like solid mercury. Other stones with words engraved on them: Wisdom, Courage, Serenity, Joy.

The stones that didn’t have words carved into them also got named–secret names that grounded her when she kept them in her pocket: Hope. Love. Kindness. Peace. Strength.

She used to carry them with her one at a time, a talisman in her pocket to remind her to focus on the idea embodied within. But the fear of losing them caused her to leave them on the shelf collecting dust. With time, they got packed away and forgotten, only to turn up again out of the blue after another move.

She spread them out on the bookshelf again, admiring her little hoard.

Then things got bad, not just for her, but for the entire world. Things felt really hard, and she began looking at her talismans again. At a time when she needed it most, she carried Hope, like a little prayer, in her pocket. After feeling hope again for the first time in years, she switched out and began carrying Courage. The smooth stone in her pocket grounded her and gave her strength. So at the end of the week, she selected a new stone to carry: Dream.

It seemed audacious to carry Dream with her, but since she’d chosen audacious as her power word for 2020 (and had sadly not lived up to its promise), she placed the sparkling stone in her pocket and went on about her business.

Only her pockets were shallow, and at some point, Dream fell out and was lost.

She tried not to let it bother her. After all, wasn’t that the reason she stopped carrying stones with her in the past–fear of losing them? It was inevitable she would misplace one sooner or later. The fact it was DREAM didn’t mean anything. Her dreams weren’t encased in mineral, unable to thrive without a touchstone to activate them. Sure, having dreams had been tough this year–for the last few years, actually. But losing the Dream stone didn’t mean she’d lost her dreams–only that she had lost a rock.

She kept looking for it though. In part because she remembered hearing a ‘clunk’ at some point in the past, and hadn’t put it together with losing the stone until later. But if she heard it fall out of her pocket, that meant it wasn’t in the yard, or lying in the forest after one of her walks. She resigned herself to having lost it forever, though, and told herself that perhaps someone else would find it one day, and it would bring them joy (and maybe even a little nudge in the right direction from the universe).

And then after she’d given up searching for it, she came across it by accident while straightening up, the Dream stone lying beneath a stack of clothing she’d had yet to put away because it simply wasn’t a priority for her.

She snatched the stone up with joy, thrilled to have found her Dream again. She rushed to place it back on the shelf where it would be safe with all the others once more. She wasn’t going to make that mistake again. The stones would stay put, stay safe. But she hesitated as she positioned the stone among the others.

Wisdom. Courage. Faith. Serenity. Joy. Health. Hope. And yes, Dream. Concepts that could not be killed by losing a little rock. Concepts that shouldn’t remain safe at home but should sally forth into the world to do battle, to protect, to inspire. She didn’t need to lock up her stones. She needed a better way to carry them with her. In a small pouch, so they couldn’t easily fall out of her pocket. Safe, but still with her at all times.

She took Dream outside held it in her hand. The sun came out from behind the clouds and set the stone to sparkling.

“This,” she thought. “This is how Dreams are meant to live.”

And because she believes in them, the once-upon-a-time little girl grew up and lived happily ever after.

Celebrating Christmas in Pandemic Times

Celebrating the holidays has always been a little problematic for me.

I grew up in a family where Thanksgiving and Christmas were dominated by my grandmother and her wonderful cooking. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I discovered how much my mother hated these gatherings, due in part, no doubt, to her ongoing internal battle with food–something she passed on to her children, I’m sad to say.

To me, however, the holidays meant food in such abundance and flavors that we never got at home: turkey with all the fixings, ham, mashed potatoes, yams, succotash, collards, and green bean casseroles. Yeast rolls and cornbread. Sausage balls and stuffing. And the desserts! Pumpkin, lemon meringue, chocolate pies, applesauce cake, pound cake, or sour cream cake–take your pick. Not “oh, we’ll have lemon pie one year and pumpkin the next.” No, ALL the desserts mentioned on the same table with the entire extended family there to enjoy it. Everyone came home for the holidays at my grandmother’s house. Everyone.

Because of the tremendous volume of food made, we got bundles of leftovers to take home with us, spreading the joy for two or three days after the holiday was over.

When my grandparents died, there was no one to pick up the mantel of cooking and baking. My mother thought if a little heat was good a lot was better, and given her own food sensitivities (which I’ve inherited, darn it), she stripped most recipes of all seasoning and flavor.

I tried to cook for the family when we got together for the holidays, but my own weak skill set was hampered by the lack of proper cookware–a fact I didn’t realize until I discovered what a difference the right pots and pans could make.

It didn’t help that early in my career, as a single woman with no children, my employers scheduled me to work every holiday under the assumption I didn’t need to celebrate myself.

Decorating seemed pointless–when you live alone, you never drive up to your home and see the welcoming lights of Christmas decorations gleaming through your windows. Not to mention all the work of putting them up, only to have to take them down in a few weeks. Then there was the fact my dog–the first one that was all mine and not a family pet–had this bizarre quirk where she would remove the string of lights from the tree… and pop every bulb. She never touched anything else, but I would come home to find the tree and ornaments in place, and the string of lights on the floor surrounded by bits of broken glass. Weird, right?

She was Practically Perfect in all other respects, however, so I just learned not to put up decorations.

Eventually, I realized that if I wanted to experience the magic and joy of the holidays, I would have to come up with my own traditions. This usually took the place of watching various holiday movies–mostly the old black-and-white classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Christmas in Connecticut. I’d watched these movies on the AMC channel at my grandmother’s house, and they were part of my Christmas memories, along with the animated television specials: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Oh! And it wasn’t Christmas unless I watched A Christmas Carol in some version, usually with the Muppets (which is the best, IMHO). I listened to Bing Crosby, and in a seasonally driven burst of domesticity, I baked.

After I got married, my husband and I developed our own traditions. He has an advent candle he likes to light each year, and we started putting up a tree again. Neither one of us are huge decorators, and while he probably thinks my taste in holiday movies is dreadful, he cheerfully suffers through my desire to watch them. We don’t go crazy with gifts either, but since we’re both big readers, Christmas usually means a nice cache of books to read though the winter.

This year, because of the pandemic and our family’s decision to split households for safety reasons, once again, I’ve been thrown back to those early days as a young professional when I worked straight through the holidays with only the official day off itself. I find myself struggling to find the Christmas spirit this year–I mean, who isn’t?

I realized the other day, this wasn’t a new phenomenon, however. It’s been quite a few years since I had the time or energy for Christmas. There always seems to be more work before and after a holiday to make up for taking the day off. Somehow there is never enough time to watch my favorite movies, and various determinations to count calories or avoid gluten has cut into my seasonal baking. (It’s not that eating gluten will kill me. It’s just that I only seem to be able to tolerate a small amount these days, and since when has anyone been able to stop with one Snickerdoodle?)

This year, in deference to pandemic-driven anxiety, I’ve been watching new-to-me Christmas movies on Netflix: The Princess Switch, A Christmas Prince, and the even earlier A Princess for Christmas. There’s a certain kind of appeal to the picture-perfect winter settings in mythical kingdoms where all needs are met because there is an insane amount of wealth in the background. The heroines are often hapless but brave, the heroes wealthy and in need of lightening up. It occurred to me while watching yet another scene where the True Meaning of Christmas had nothing to do with the limitless credit cards but the people you spend it with that a) money helps and b) … people weren’t going to get to be with their families this year. 

I have to tell you, instead of feeling comforted by these light movies, I felt sad. I understood why people feel they MUST family during the holidays, even when every recommendation is to stay home and not cross households. I got it because sitting on your couch watching fluffy holiday movies with the dogs feels very lonely when there are people you love that you wish were there. And yet, if we love our families, staying apart this year is exactly what we have to do.

It’s as if the Whos in Whoville woke on Christmas morning without decorations, and presents and roast beast—and without each other too. After living on my own for so long, I’d become accustomed to the level of comfort living with a family of your own choosing can bring.

Suddenly, for me, This Would Not Do.

So I got up early this morning and went through all my old recipes, and after rejecting the ones that required rolling out dough, specialized equipment, or included vague directions of “add flour sufficient to handle dough” (I mean, seriously, is that three cups? Four? Five? Who knows?), I went with my tried-and-true favorites: Nestle’s Tollhouse Cookies and Snickerdoodles. Any cookies I broke, squashed, or burned ended up in my personal stash. I packed a selection to take into work. And then I packaged the rest and drove out to where my husband is staying. I wound up on the doorstep holding a tin of cookies in lieu of a boombox a la John Cusack in Say Anything.

I didn’t go inside. We didn’t throw caution to the winds and break our self-imposed separation of households. We sat outside, wearing masks, speaking of nothing consequential and at the same time everything that was important. Because Christmas really isn’t about palaces in Aldovia or switching places with someone in order to see how the other half lives. Christmas can come without ribbons. It comes without tags. It comes without packages, boxes or bags.

It’s what we make of it.

Isn’t everything?

 

Dear Family: It May Be A While Before We Meet Again

The other night, my husband and I had another conversation about the surge in Covid-19 cases, and whether we were doing everything in our power to keep our family safe.

See, back when when first began hearing about this virus, I knew it was going to be bad. Call me paranoid, but one of the reasons I’ve always feared zombie movies is because I realized “zombies” were a metaphor for a pandemic–and that falls in the category of one of my worst nightmares. So in January, when the news began speaking of a serious new virus emerging in China, I sat up and took notice. I began buying an extra item of the things we used most each time we went grocery shopping. Hey, if you’ve ever tried to get bread and milk when the weather channel calls for a coating of ice around here, you know that was a prudent move.

This was the disinfectant aisle at the local store back in March–but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Shortly after Valentine’s Day, I told my husband he should start working from home, even though his workplace hadn’t issued the order yet. We made the decision to split our family into two households as well–with my husband and the high risk family members in one home and me (an essential worker) staying on the farm to take care of the animals. We understood the need to flatten the curve and to protect the high risk family members as much as possible. I was the one most likely to bring something home, given my interaction with the public and the inability to work from home, and let me tell you, the steps you need to take every day to protect yourself under those circumstances is exhausting–and I’m not one of the people on the front lines. My heart breaks for the medical professionals who are being ground to dust by this terrible, relentless pandemic. I know just how lucky I am.

It doesn’t hurt that I’m not by nature a social person. Sure, I enjoy the company of friends and family. I miss not going to conventions this year. But even when I’m having fun doing such things, I need frequent breaks from people and I don’t enjoy big crowds. I don’t need people the way some of my friends do–as long as I have access to the small group of people I do need. I can wait for a movie to be released on DVD, or am willing to pay extra to see it live-streamed instead. I prefer hiking to shopping, and as for the holidays? Well, growing up with a mother who was anti-holiday has prepared me for shrugging them off and not making a big deal about them. It’s okay. They’ll be there next year.

My husband and I still got together once a week: socially distanced and outside. We’d grill burgers or steaks and sit in our well-ventilated mosquito tent until after dark, reading, talking, or playing board games. In a way, it was a throwback to a simpler, quieter, pre-internet time–and I will look back on those evenings with fondness in the future, I know.

As the days got shorter and a brisk chill entered the air, we moved our gatherings inside. Masked at first, but as time went by, we just stopped wearing them. Our social circle was still quite small. A week passed between each visit, so there was plenty of time to develop symptoms and avoid contact if necessary, right?

We were still being safe, right?

But then the case numbers began surging again–worse than they were when we first began touting “flatten the curve.” Worse than the worst projections of an incompetent and corrupt administration. I began to wonder if we were really being all that safe or smart. The whole reason we decided to split the family was about reducing the risks. Our indoor meetings, even though they met the state guidelines for gatherings, started to feel wrong. As if I were saying, “I know you have a severe allergy, but I only put one or two peanuts in this recipe. It’s not like I used a whole jar of peanut butter.”

Then came the widespread discussions about gathering for Thanksgiving–and I found myself telling friends and neighbors planning to travel to visit family that it was a really bad idea. But were we really being any smarter, safer? I was no longer sure.

Then there was the recent conversation I had with friends–all of whom believe in the necessity of vaccinations–and the unlikelihood of seeing widespread vaccination when we can’t even get people to wear masks. We aren’t going to even begin to get back to some semblance of normal without widespread vaccination against Covid-19… and I just don’t see that happening in large enough numbers to make a difference.

When I read Chuck Wendig’s Twitter thread about the widespread sense of entitlement we as a nation have these days, it was both depressing and infuriating. He spoke of people who would tell you in one breath about a social life scarcely any different than the one they lived before the pandemic and in the next breath say how serious things were and how careful they were being. Um, no you’re not. Not really.

It didn’t help much to know that my husband and I realized we weren’t being careful enough and that–at least for the time being–we needed to go back to only meeting outside wearing masks and truly keeping our social distance again. Because though on a smaller scale, we’d been behaving much like the people Wendig took issue with.

I have to pause here and say there isn’t any virtue in remaining virus-free. It isn’t because of clean living or moral superiority. Perhaps that’s the fatal flaw in our attempt to shame people into wearing masks because I do think on some level, both sides of the argument try to make this about virtue. It isn’t. It’s about science and the spread of disease. It’s about taking precautions and understanding that even under the best of circumstances, precautions can fail. But that doesn’t mean you don’t take them.

I found a measure of comfort in this excellent post by Linda K Sienkiewicz on Setting Limits in a Pandemic. She had some wise things to say about walking the fine line among friends and family who disagree with the perimeters you set for yourself in this perilous time.

It made me more comfortable with the conclusion my family came to this past weekend, and reinforced our decision to be stricter with our interactions instead of lapsing along with so much of the rest of the world. So this is my declaration of intent to continue to self-isolate. Yes, there are members of my extended family that we would love to see–seniors that may not have that many more holidays who want to see us too–and I’m planning for the day when we can visit them again. But not now. Not any time soon. I’d rather be overly cautious out of love than too lenient for the same. If that sounds like I]m assigning virtue to the decision, I don’t mean to do so. We’re just trying to make decisions we can live with. Literally.

 

Give Yourself Permission to Self-Protect in Uncertain Times

TW for brief mention of election anxiety

 

 

 

Tomorrow is Election Day in the US. For many, it’s a referendum on Democracy as an institution. A matter of life and death when it comes down to civil rights, health care, climate change, and more. Others treat it more like a football game: my team against yours. Still others embrace their party’s ideology and leaders with a fervency that borders on cultism and speak of defending their side with violence if the election results don’t turn out the way they wish.

We are a nation divided, and that division not only stems from radically different ideologies, but also from outside forces fomenting anger and division on almost every topic you can name. I never held much with conspiracy theories in the past, but when we have Russian operatives seeding dissent on everything from vaccinating your kids to the Star Wars fandom, it’s hard to know what’s real and not real anymore.

We are constantly being gaslit. Not the least of which by our own government.

Side bar: I’ll never forget seeing a TV report in which a young Russian boy was receiving an award for his excellent knowledge of geography. Putin asked the child to name the borders of Russia and the kid began listing the various countries, only to have Putin interrupt him. With a shark-like smile, Putin said, “Russia has no borders.”

It was the most chilling thing I’d ever seen.

I know this much: we as a species are not wired to deal with the magnitude of constant, unrelenting stress we currently face between the pandemic, the growing spread of fascism, escalating, devastating climate change, fears for democracy and for our future. The very uncertainty of all of it–the fact alone there is no end date for the pandemic that we know of–makes it hard for many of us to maintain a level of awareness we need to keep ourselves safe. Even if we were taking things seriously, we have to go back to the car because we forgot to put on our mask or we forget to wash our hands. We’re like the person who knows they should eat broccoli for dinner but we’re tired and unhappy and we just say screw it and order pizza anyway. Except making a mistake now could have serious consequences for ourselves and everyone around us, much more so than a single night of dietary indulgence.

I also know something else: the people who keep saying don’t worry, everything will be fine on November 4th can say that because very little will change for them. They will still have access to health care. They won’t have to worry about being denied birth control coverage by their employer or fear being fired for their sexual orientation. They can go shopping or jog in their neighborhood without fear of being targeted, assaulted and killed because of the color of their skin. It’s easy for someone in a position of power to tell everyone else to calm down.

Most everyone I know is expressing an increased level of anxiety right now. I mean a seriously increased level of anxiety. And I’m here to say, give yourself permission to do whatever it takes to get you through these next few weeks, as long as it doesn’t bring harm to yourself or anyone else. Write inexplicably fluffy fanfiction. Binge-watch all twelve seasons of the Great British Bake Off. Play video games all day and into the night. Someone sent me this on WhatsApp and I immediately embraced it. Yes. THIS. Invite possums to a tea party if it makes you happy.

I’m currently posting photos of action figures doing book reviews to my Instagram account because posing the figures with actual replicas of itty bitty book covers calms my mind in a way I can’t achieve doing anything else. It’s silly, but you know what? I don’t care.

DON’T belittle someone else’s efforts at self-calming and self-protection. I’m one of those people who believe the holidays should be celebrated one at a time in good order, but if this year someone breaks out the pumpkin spice lattes in August or wants to decorate their home for Christmas before Halloween, I say more power to them. You know what? I never took down my indoor Christmas lights this past year, and turning them on at night soothes my soul in a cheap, painless way.

I’m seriously considering paying for the Hallmark channel this year because I love holiday movies and I can’t get enough of them. I could start watching them now until March and I’d be okay with this. And if watching improbable movies with ridiculous plots because there is snow and fairy lights and no one dies and the GUARANTEE of a HEA is what gets me through the weeks to come, that’s okay. If I’m wallowing in books from the Golden Age of Mystery and not doomscrolling on my phone, that’s more than okay. That’s smart. That’s healthy.

I’ve done all I know how to do for my country at this point in time. I’ve donated to candidates, encouraged others to vote, have voted already myself. It’s out of my hands now. I need to take the advice I’d give others with regards to getting through the coming weeks. Practice self-protection and self-care. Which doesn’t mean tossing making healthy eating choices or getting enough sleep out the window, tempting as that is. Believe me, I’ve eaten Cap’n Crunch dry out of the box before and called it dinner. But making yourself sick with garbage food isn’t helping matters any.

This uncertainty is part of the reason I’ve been stalled in my writing for months now. I normally hit a little lull when I finish a story, and the business of launching a book sidetracks me with all the marketing and promotion of the new release. This time I’ve been much slower to start working on the next story because I’ve been long on anxiety and short on hope. There frequently seems little point in telling my silly stories when it feels as though the world is coming to an end.

But it occurred to me this morning that my intrepid heroine would take a dim view of this inaction on my part. Part of dealing with the world at large is creating a universe of my own in which I control the outcomes. In this next installment of Redclaw Origins, Rhett faces the equivalent of a Doomsday Scenario. By giving her the strength and wits to deal, I find a little pocket of peace for myself. Sometimes when dealing with some daily trauma, I ask: What Would Rhett Do?

Let’s find out.

Last night I put on my “bracelets of power” and sat down to the keyboard for the first time since I typed “the end” on Bishop’s Gambit. Perhaps I am just re-arranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic. But the world isn’t going to save itself, and Rhett could use a little help.