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.

We Need to Respect the Power of Words More Than Ever

Photo by Designecologist from Pexels

(trigger warning for self-harm)

 

Back in 2004, I went to see a movie called What the Bleep Do We Know!? with a friend of mine. It was a weird combination of quantum mysticism (along the lines of The Secret and other ‘law of attraction” books that claim to grant you all your dreams if you put them into words with intent) and pseudoscience that sounded good. I remember leaving the theater thinking, “It’s all my fault.”

That every bad thing that had ever happened to me was because I brought it into being with my thoughts. Every goal I failed to achieve, every dream I shelved, was all my fault because I didn’t believe in it hard enough. 

Holy Tinkerbell, Batman.

The notion didn’t stick with me for long. I had some real issues with the movie–not the least of which was the fact the main character was depicted popping anti-depressants like candy and then chucking the whole bottle in the trash in the end. No, no, and no. That’s not the way anti-depressants work and you should NEVER stop such medication cold-turkey unless directed to do so by your doctor.

Photo by Gerd Altmann from Pexels

But in 2006, The Secret came out, sold millions, and generated a brief revival in the law of attraction theory. If you’re not familiar with it, the law of attraction is the theory that positive or negative thoughts bring positive or negative experiences into your life. There’s nothing new about this concept. Normal Vincent Peale popularized it in 1952 with bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking. Like The Secret, this book was received poorly by the scientific community, and touted changing your life through positive affirmations, but with a Biblical twist.

I wrote about this same subject last year (ironically, about this time), and many of my thoughts on the subject are the same–though I am laughing like a hyena right now at the memory of my sister’s astrologist’s predictions for the coming year… Suffice to say, I think her astrologist might not want to give up her day job.

But back to this philosophy: these books have a powerful attraction for us as consumers (see what I did there?) because they promise something that is within our control: we can achieve our wildest dreams if we only believe in them hard enough.

Failure only means you didn’t believe hard enough. It’s not the fault of the philosophy itself. It’s yours.

I have a real love-hate relationship with this kind of thinking. On one level, I think it’s all bunkum. It doesn’t matter how much I want to be an opera singer–if I can’t carry a note in a bucket, I’m never going to perform at The Met. I might dream of being an astronaut, but be incapable of performing the upper level mathematics. And so on.

On the other level, I do believe in “putting it out there in the universe.” Of stating a desired goal, be it ever so seemingly out of reach, in the hopes of putting wind beneath the wings of that desire. I believe in making affirmations. Each December I enjoy picking a word to be my intention for the coming year. I believe in making talismans for myself.

Where I differ from the quantum mystics is that when I put my desire out there in the universe, I do so because articulating it makes it clearer in my own mind. Stating a specific goal makes it easier for me to take the steps necessary to achieve it. Many times, left unspoken, the desire remains unformed as well. It’s difficult to race toward a finish line you cannot see.

When I create talismans for myself, they serve as reminders to focus on the word I want to be my motto for the year, be it fearless, or audacious, or persistent. The power isn’t in the bracelet or charm itself. It’s in the reminder its presence serves. Sometimes glancing at the particular talisman offers a kind of mental grounding. It’s not magic. It’s a means of creating focus.

But there are times when I can point to something I did with the law of attraction in mind and my results exceeded expectations. Was it because I clearly imagined the outcome I wanted over and over again until it came true? Possibly. Who knows. I certainly don’t discount the law of attraction entirely as a result. But I am so skilled in self-sabotage there are many times when I don’t want the law of attraction to hold any validity. Otherwise we’re back to how I felt leaving the movie theater in 2004. All my failures are as a result of my negative thinking.

One thing I can say is that I firmly believe we assimilate what we tell ourselves over and over again. Even more so if this internal statement has received outside validity. It’s one of the reasons we get trapped in the stories we believe about ourselves: if someone important to us told us we weren’t smart enough, pretty enough, talented enough, good enough, chances are we’re continuing to tell ourselves these things, whether or not they’re true.

I struggle with this because if you ask me to write down positive affirmations about myself, I can’t do it if the affirmation seems too out there. I have to change the wording to accommodate my beliefs, which kind of defeats the purpose, I think. It’s hard for me to “dream big” (which is one of the reasons I include these words when signing a book). I’m far too good at coming up with negative things to say to myself–that ugly soundtrack plays 365 days a year and I have a lifetime of ‘unlearning’ the lies I’ve told myself.

I know this to be true: you are what you tell yourself.

So a cold shock ran through me when I recently caught myself with a new “negative-speak” I must erase. Just this past week, I realized there were two things I needed to stop saying, both to myself and aloud.

The first is started out as a self-defense mechanism when I got challenged by anyone for taking the pandemic seriously. I’d explain that I had high-risk family members, but too often people in my area challenge our decision to remain curbside service only and to wear masks. So I began saying I was high risk as well, and that if I got Covid, I would die. As an argument, it tended to shut people up. But what a terrible thing to be telling myself!

I’m moderately high-risk, I’m definitely high-stress. I’m not in the best of health. But a 113-year-old pensioner has survived while people in their thirties have died. There are so many factors that determine mortality–including virus load at the time of exposure–that my contacting Covid isn’t an automatic death sentence. Not unless I go around thinking it is.

My response these days to people who scoff at my mask-wearing? “I’m a scientist. I know how viruses work. I want the people in my community to live.”

The second thing I have to stop saying is, “This job is killing me.” While it’s true that most days I feel like I’m at the breaking point, that I’m on the flash-point of burnout, I need to STOP SAYING THIS. Because I don’t want to bring that repetitive thought into reality.

And the funny thing is, if I can point to these extremes and recognize the harm I’m doing when I tell myself these things, it becomes easier to recognize the much smaller nicks and lacerations I’ve been inflicting on myself for as long as I can remember. Some people cut themselves with actual blades. Others do it with thoughts and words.

I’ve always been one for words.

I need to wield them with more care. We all do.

Be safe. Be well. And most of all, be kind to yourself right now.

 

 

 

Re-Inventing Yourself at Any Age

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare.

Photo by Anthony from Pexels

I have a unique opportunity at the moment. I get to decide who I want to be.

You might say we get to decide that many times at different stages of our lives, and it’s true. But I’m talking about something a little different here today. See, I get to decide what my legal name will be.

When I got married, I didn’t take my husband’s last name for various reasons. We were both older, and had no intention of having children together. We were both established professionals as well, and changing my name would have meant jumping through a LOT of legal hoops with a number of professional organizations. It was simpler to keep my own name, and though I considered making the switch, in the end, I decided not to.

But a little wrinkle came up recently, and now the name situation is front and center again. See, I went to the DMV to register for that Real ID thing that’s required now and I brought all my documentation with me. And that’s when I hit a snag. I don’t spell my name the way it’s written on my birth certificate. I guess when I went to school, my teachers assumed my name was spelled in the more traditional fashion. Like Allison instead of Allyson, or Katherine instead of Katharine (leave it to Katharine Hepburn to have a non-traditional spelling of her name!). Anyway, my teachers assumed it was spelled a certain way and they taught me to write it the same. My parents never noticed–or if they did, never bothered to correct it.

I was 12 years old before I learned of the difference. At the time, I was entranced with the idea of a different spelling and I decided I would spell my name that way from then on. A different spelling felt as though I could become a different person, and the child I was at the time would have loved to be anyone else. In fact, I often fantasized about having a different name altogether, which is probably why I took to the pen name thing for authors so readily. But after six months of trying to change my signature to the “correct” spelling, I gave up and went back to the old, incorrect signature. And from then on, I never gave it another thought. Work forms, graduate degrees, tax documents, bank accounts, credit cards, passports, and yes, my marriage certificate… I signed for all of them with the spelling I’d used for most of my life.

Only when I went to get the Real ID, they refused to issue it to me. The name on my birth certificate and the name on all my other legal documents must match. And now I have to go to the courthouse at some point and rectify this if I want to fly on an airplane ever again. Now mind you, I have no intention of flying any time soon–not until we have a reliable, safe vaccine for the coronavirus. My driver’s license was up for renewal and I thought I might as well get the Real ID while I was there. (Don’t get me started on the stupidity and unnecessary regulation of the whole Real ID nonsense. That’s a rant for another day…) I’m not going to start that legal name change process until after the November elections, either. I don’t want to do ANYTHING to jeopardize my ability to vote in the next election.

But it opens up the possibility of changing my name altogether. I have to file for a legal name change. I could take my husband’s name now. I could change my given name altogether. I could leave behind the tired, dated name I was born with and chose something edgier that I liked. I could take on my pen name if I wanted. I could be like the bored, repressed housewife Cathy Palmer in American Dreamer, who gets hit on the head while vacationing in France and suddenly believes she is the brilliant, sexy, and extremely fictional international spy Rebecca Ryan. Because Cathy believes she is her favorite fictional character, she becomes Rebecca Ryan–so much so that the people that meet her are completely taken in.

I think most of us have wanted, like Cathy, to let our inner Rebecca Ryan loose. Or maybe it was just me. I adore this movie.

And I see the possibilities here now.

I know a simple name change won’t wipe away the past or make me thinner, younger, wittier, and give me back my strength of purpose. Change takes hard work and comes in small increments over time, neither of which feels very plentiful in my life right now.

But it’s tempting. Very tempting. The thought of changing my name is a siren call promising me a better, happier, more fulfilling life. Even though I know that despite becoming an Allyson or a Katharine or a Rebecca, I’d still be the same old me underneath. 

Who would you be if you could wave a wand and become someone else? Would you do it? Inquiring minds want to know.

 

Nail Envy: From Brittle to WOW!

I am not, nor ever have been, an attractive woman.

I’ve had a few things on my side, such as an active lifestyle and a decent metabolism, which meant I could eat pretty much anything I wanted until I hit my mid-forties. Don’t envy me, however. That just set me up to be the kid who made straight-As without trying in high school, who never learns how to study and therefore struggles when the course work in college gets much harder.

But I’ve always been a bit vain about my hair and nails.

You see, if I were a superhero, I’d be Keratin Woman. Hairdressers would comment on the sheer weight and volume of my hair every time I went to the salon (and invariably tried to thin or tame it in some way). My mother was told to stop putting “Miracle-Gro” on my hair when I was a child. Strangers commented on my nails in line at the grocery store. People would ask me if they were real (they were). I could open pull-top cans with my nails. I could crack the tartar off a cat’s teeth with my nails. If I did break a nail, the fragment shot across the room like a ricocheting bullet. It was gratifying, especially since I wasn’t a girly-girl. Instead, I was a tomboy who rode horses and worked cattle. And I had the nails everyone envied.

Like most things one takes for granted, there came a day when this ceased to be true. Be it stress, a poor diet, or changing hormones–or all three–my hair started to thin and my nails became brittle. The slightest activity caused them to split and peel. Don’t get me started on my hair–that’s a post for another day–but I found myself incredibly angry about losing the only things I was even remotely vain about.

In retrospect, the anger was symptomatic of much bigger problems–such as the stress and grab-food-on-the-go lifestyle that probably corrupted my nails’ integrity. I was angry at my body’s failure to keep up with the demands my work and mindset demanded of it. How dare my body begin to show wear and tear? How dare it demand I take better care of myself on almost every level?

Oh, the privilege of health. It’s not until it is compromised that you realize just how much you take for granted.

And so I began having my nails professionally done. First with artificial tips until my own poor nails could grow out some, and then short, neat, and professional for work, but with nearly indestructible SNS powder, which lasted for weeks and protected my nails.

Or at least, that’s what I told myself.

I became addicted to having manicures done. Such high-powered nail polish required soaking in professional-strength acetone to remove it, and scheduling salon sessions had to be done every 3-4 weeks to keep it up. I told myself it was a little luxury I did just for me, and turned a blind eye to the expenditure. The day job was hard on my hands. With a professional manicure, I got my “old” nails back and could feel good about my little vanity again.

Then Covid-19 hit.

I saw the writing on the wall in late January, and cancelled all of my usual “upkeep” procedures: haircuts, manicures, chiropractic care, massage therapy. By Valentine’s Day, we made the decision to divide our household into high-risk and essential worker. I began buying extra items of the things we used most with every shopping trip and when the Great Toilet Paper Crisis hit, we were in good shape.

See how simple that is, Mr. President? But I digress…

When I managed to strip off the SNS powder at home, I got a good look at how damaged they were without another masking coat of polish to replace it. I began looking at products that promised to restore the health of your nails As Seen On Instagram. There were a lot of products out there. Each time I ran across an ad, I’d check out the reviews online, which were usually disappointing. Many also required continuous auto-shipping of products that were difficult to cancel. In the end, I went with none of them.

I’d been taking hair and nail supplements sporadically for several years, and consistently for at least a year by this point. I decided to step up my game. I will state for the record, I’m not a dermatologist or cosmetologist or any kind of beauty expert, and you have to remember I started out as Keratin Woman, so your results may vary.

This picture was taken in February of this year.

If you look closely at the middle and ring fingernails, you can see the splitting at the tips. The weird shape of the pinky nail is as a result of the pressure of the SNS powder as the nails grew out–I had a tendency to push my manicure appointments to the 4 week mark. Also, you can see the line of demarcation at the midway point of each nail that indicates the how much has grown out since I stopped having manicures professionally done. I’m wearing clear nail polish here in a desperate attempt to keep the nails from splitting.

I wish I could say I cleaned up my diet and reduced my stress, but given the world events, let me just laugh hysterically here for a moment. If anything, my stress levels shot through the roof and I began eating like a six-year-old left to her own devices. I put away a box of sugary cereal every 48 hours and turned into a baking fiend.

But I began taking vitamins and supplements on a regular basis:

The vitamins were mostly about strengthening my immune system: if you don’t know it, they’ve shown that people with Vitamin D deficiencies get sicker with Covid-19. I had a Vitamin D deficiency a few years back and have taken a supplement since. Did you also know the widespread use of sunscreen (which is necessary) increases your risk of Vitamin D deficiency? Talk to your doctor.

The supplements were for my hair as well as nails. I’d been disappointed in the efficacy of previous supplements touted as improving hair and nail integrity, and after some research, settled on these:

After the first few months, my panic levels stabilized, and while I still struggle with the need to carb-load to get me through the workday, I’m no longer running on pure sugar.

As for the nails themselves, once a week, I removed the clear polish (sadly with an acetone-based remover, I still need to get one that’s milder) and then put on a base coat of either Orly’s Nail Defense or OPI’s Nail Envy, followed by a coat of Sally Hansen’s Hard as Nails Extreme Wear Clear and a quick-drying top coat of clear by Live Love Polish, which is a fabulous site if you’re addicted to polish. My only rule was that I had to keep them all of similar length, so that meant if I had to cut one nail back for breakage, they all got cut back.

And after five months of this combined treatment, I realized today my nails aren’t in such bad shape anymore. Okay, they’re still brittle compared to what they were in their heyday, and I wouldn’t attempt to dig off a label with them or open pull-top rings without taking some care, but they’ve grown out semi-normal looking again. Better than when I first began going for manicures, that’s for sure.

Why does this matter? I don’t suppose it really does in the grand scheme of things. Things are bad the world over, but especially here in my country, and it looks as though we can only expect it to get worse. That’s why it’s okay to celebrate the little wins.

Sometimes we need proof that we can make things better, with time and perseverance. Maybe small steps are better than big ones we never take. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll get that diet and exercise thing right, along with the whole life balance thing too.

In the meantime, be safe. Be well.

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.

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.

My Comfort Reads During COVID-19

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time focusing on anything right now. I’ve mentioned in other posts the difficulty I’ve had writing, and how I can’t watch anything new, relying instead on old tried-and-true formulas.

This lack of focus has been especially true for me when it comes to reading. I normally read anywhere from 2-3 books a week. Now, it’s a challenge to finish anything. At first I blamed the books I attempted to read–but after I DNF the seventh book in a row, I realized the stories themselves were not to blame. I needed to apply the same criteria to my reading that I did to my television watching: something familiar enough not to hurt me but still powerful enough to engage. In short, my comfort reads.

When compiling this list, it occurred to me that many of my favorite comfort reads are set in the past. I’m not sure why that is. I enjoy period pieces as a rule (hence my love for Agent Carter and The Miss Fisher Mysteries), but I don’t think that’s the entire story when it comes to comfort reads. I suspect it’s because the setting is different enough that it takes me out of my current existence, and that’s one of the important criteria for a comfort read for me. I like crime dramas because I like the mystery and the satisfaction of solving the puzzle. But also because it bears no resemblance to my daily life. I can’t watch House because as compelling as the drama and the actors were, I found myself competing with the residents to solve the medical mystery before the end of the episode. Too much like the day job, thank you very much.

I think it’s also because one of the beauties of many period pieces is that the stakes are often much lower. There’s something soothing about having the biggest trauma in your life being cut dead at a social gathering or having your sister run off to Gretna Green. After struggling to read anything from my enormous TBR stack, I went back to my old favorites. And I noticed two things when I did this. By sliding back into the well-worn groove of reading, I hit that quiet zone that not only allowed me to enjoy newer material as well as old favorites, but I found myself writing again, too.

If you’re having a hard time being creative right now, I suggest turning off social media, the news, and the television. Pick up a book and read. Reading is a form of meditation, and I believe it primes the brain for writing.

And although comfort reads are intensely personal, (and what one person finds comforting is not necessarily the same for another) I thought I’d share mine. No doubt you’ve heard of or read most of them yourself, but I hope I can introduce you to some new reads.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I know. I know. I can see some of you backpedaling away right now while others are nodding and smiling. But hear me out. The works of Jane Austen are probably the cornerstone of the Regency Romance Genre. I recommend going to the source to find out why the tropes are so compelling. While I enjoy all of Austen’s books, Elizabeth Bennett is my favorite of her heroines, and Darcy is the Original Grumpy Hero who is captivated by a Sunshine Heroine. Not to mention, but P&P has been adapted into movies and mini-series again and again, so not only do you get the pleasure of reading this book, but you can watch the story in all its many forms. I highly recommend the 1995 BBC mini-series with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. I think due to the length of the series, this is one of the most faithful adaptations of the book. There is, of course, the famous scene where Firth as Darcy walks up in a wet linen shirt from having taken a dip in a pond to find Elizabeth unexpectedly a guest in his home. For many, this is the quintessential adaptation. And I love Ehle’s portrayal of Elizabeth–it’s probably my favorite. Ehle is also reading P&P from quarantine on her Instagram account right now. So worth watching! 

Then there is the 2005 movie version with Keira Knightly and Matthew MacFadyen. I think they did a bang up job of condensing the book into movie form. The cinematography is breathtaking. But it is the chemistry between the leads that is truly compelling to watch. So in addition to being able to read Austen’s delicious words, you can immerse yourself in these lovely adaptations.

 

For a complete 180 on subject matter, the next comfort read I’m recommending is the In Death Series by J.D. Robb. I can hear you now: What are you smoking, McKenna? How can a series with the word “death” in the title be a comfort read? Trust me, they can. In part because the good guys win. I don’t know about you, but these days, I need to know the good guys are going to win. Unlike most of the books on my list here, the In Death books are futuristic gritty crime stories featuring Lt. Eve Dallas and her enigmatic billionaire husband, Roarke. Robb (aka Nora Roberts) has produced something like fifty books in this series (while also writing under the Roberts name–her productivity is amazing), so you have a LOT of books to read.

When I was going through the worst of my personal losses, I read one of these books every 24 hours. The crime pulls you in from the first page, but it’s the characters that bring me back again and again. My favorite television shows feature teams and I love team dynamics and found families. When I finished the series, I turned around and started it all over again. It’s not without some trauma at times but overall, you know the key players will be okay. (The series is ongoing, so it may shock me at some point…)

My hope is one day to create a series as compelling. I know, reach for the stars, right? I want the same kinds of things: the team dynamics, the found family aspects, the push-me pull-you between the leads. I love case-based stories too, and by setting them in the Redclaw Universe, I can follow a team of Redclaw agents as they solve crimes, as opposed to couple-based stories in the current Redclaw Security series (each of which can be read as a standalone). I doubt most people would consider the In Death series a comfort read, but there is great comfort in knowing what to expect when you pick up a book. I’d watch the hell out of a Dallas and Roarke series too.

But in general, I reach for period pieces when I need a comfort read.

The Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters. I love these books. I tend to re-read them a lot, especially the first three in the series. These are truly delightful stories. Amelia Peabody is bluntly outspoken and forthright at a time when women were supposed to be decorative, delicate creatures. Her inability to see the humor in her own statements or actions adds to the hilarity, and in the irascible Radcliffe Emerson, we find the only man that is her match. Peabody dashes in where angels fear to tread, usually brandishing a pistol and packing a first aid kit that would allow her to perform minor surgery, if called upon. I have a deep love for archaeology, and the details of Emerson’s work fascinate me, though very little progress is made on the digs due to the frequent nature of criminal activities that must be investigated each season.

A word of  warning: on a recent re-read, I became aware of a degree of fat-shaming I hadn’t picked up on before. It doesn’t come up often (and I suspect it’s generational; my mother was the same) but it’s disappointing and I can see where it may be enough to put some off the series. It’s dimmed my love of these books somewhat, and yet I still reach for these books when I need to be comforted. For the life of me, I don’t know why they haven’t been made into movies. We NEED Amelia Peabody on our screens!

Make Way for Lucia by E.F. Benson. Another period series, this is quite different from the recommended reads in that the stories center around Mrs. Emmaline Lucas (“Lucia” to her friends) who is a well-to-do middle-aged woman in England in the 1920s and 30s. Lucia is a force of nature: vain, opinionated, and pretentious. She pretends a fluency in Italian with her platonic friend “Georgie” Pillson that she doesn’t possess, claims a scholarly interest in Greek and Latin, practices Mozart on the sly so she can pretend she’s never seen the piece before when asked to play, and in general is the Queen of Riseholme, the village in which she resides at the beginning of her story. Halfway through the series, having vanquished all her foes in one small English town, she moves to Tilling, where she finds a more formidable adversary in Miss Elizabeth Mapp. Like any true Tillingnite, we wait with baited breath to see who will win the current round in this clash of the Titans. Will Mapp expose Lucia’s Italian deficiencies? Will Lucia retaliate when Mapp orchestrates the rejection of her painting to the Tilling Art Society? Newcomer Lucia is pushy and irritating, and some long to be out from under her yoke. At the same time, life would be terribly dull without her. As reviewer Phoebe-Lou Adams for the Atlantic once said, “Nothing Lucia and her enemy, Miss Mapp, did was ever of the slightest importance, but they did it with Napoleonic strategy, Attilian ferocity, and Satanic motive. It is a sad fact that Benson borrowers usually become non-returners.”

You don’t have to read the whole series–you can jump right in with Mapp and Lucia to get at the heart of the conflict–for it is not until these two meet that Lucia finally faces a worthy opponent. But to appreciate the series in delightful detail, I’d strongly recommend reading it from the very beginning.

Another series I adore (but also has some problematic issues, particularly with stereotypical portrayals of Jewish characters) is the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers. Written in the 1920s and 30s, we follow the adventures of the younger son of the Duke of Denver, who finds his brains and his talent for playing the fool in public advantageous in solving murders. We also see the character growth of Lord Peter over the series, from a dilettante solving murders for his own amusement to the man who falls violently in love with mystery novelist Harriet Vane while she is on trial for murder–and he must act to find the real killer to save her from the death penalty. The Harriet Vane books are among the best in the series, and you can start with Strong Poison if you like. The only non-Harriet Vane book that I re-read for the sheer pleasure of it is Murder Must Advertise, which in addition to a murder mystery, is a searing insight into the workings of the old-style advertising firms of the 1930s.

Gaudy Night remains one of my all-time favorite books. It contains one of the most powerful scenes of sexual awareness I’ve ever read, and I point to it as the book that taught me what healthy adult relationships should look like. I wanted what Harriet Vane had with Lord Peter, and I refused to settle for less. When I recognized the same qualities in my husband, I knew I had a keeper. 🙂

The 1987 BBC series starring Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter is a treat, if you can find it anywhere online. 

But I can hear some of you hoping for something a little more contemporary. Well, I adore the London Celebrities series by Lucy Parker. I love all these books, but Pretty Face may be my favorite. As a former actress (on a very small scale) I love stories about the theater, so I was drawn to the series by the first book, Act Like It. Parker does Grumpy Hero and Sunshine Heroines extremely well, which is another plus for me. It’s not always easy to make a hero justifiably grumpy without also making him an asshole, but Parker handles this conundrum with ease.

I also appreciate the fact her characters face real challenges to being together–not the sort of misunderstandings that make me want to clack heads together and tell the leads to get over themselves. There’s character growth over the course of each book, another factor that places these stories in the re-read stack. And I’m all about the slow-burn romances! It’s also happy-making to have characters from one story turn up in another because they all inhabit the same universe. But it’s the satisfying resolution to each installment in the series that places these books on the comfort read list for me.

I could go on. I could list the horse and dog books of my youth, or the Dick Francis mysteries, always a good way to spend an afternoon. There are series that I love (like the Hidden Legacy books by Ilona Andrews, or the Psy-Changeling books by Nalini Singh) that I’ll re-read given the chance, but they don’t quite make the comfort read list. I’ve read some really outstanding books this year, and it feels odd not to mention them here, but you can love a book without it being a comfort read, if you know what I mean. Comfort reads are so personal, so individualized, and I find it interesting that my needs during COVID-19 are somewhat different than my usual levels of stress. What made my list might not make yours. But I hope you enjoy these suggestions, particularly if some of these stories are new to you.

What are YOUR comfort reads? I’d love to know what you choose and why! Make your case. Perhaps you’ll convince me to try out your comfort read. 🙂

 

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.