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.

 

 

The 2021 Author Planner You Must Have

If you really want to show the writer in your life you believe in them and take their work seriously, show them how to take their work seriously too. Last year I was fortunate enough to win one of Audrey Hughey’s The Ultimate Authorship Planner, and I couldn’t wait to get started with it, having decided to start off fresh in 2020 with it. It’s more than just another notebook or calendar. SO MUCH MORE. You can track your daily and weekly goals, your expenditures (to make doing your taxes so much easier!), plan your marketing and social media campaigns, newsletters, you name it! What I love about it is it’s large enough for me to work in without cramming tiny notes everywhere, and the coil-bound cover allows it to lay flat while you’re working on it. It’s a bit like having an organizer, an accountability partner, a cheerleader, and a coach all rolled up into one.
 
The 2021 Author’s Planner is designed to be your all-in-one day planner and writing-career coach, helping you organize your writing life and get on a clear path to reach your goals.
 
“I absolutely LOVE this planner. In my opinion, it’s a must for any author who wants to stay on top of their book production and author career with minimal stress and anxiety! (And who doesn’t want that?!)” — J.R. Frontera
 
Finally, you’ll have ONE planner where you can:
– Track your daily and weekly word counts.
– Map out your writing and publishing plans for an entire year.
– Manage and track your monthly expenses so you’re ready for tax season.
– Develop your editing checklist and evaluate potential editors for your manuscripts.
– Plan your social media marketing, book promotions, and advertising.
– Sketch out ideas for your author newsletter and track your open and click-through rates.
– Have the space and flexibility to plan your days and weeks according to your own unique lifestyle and schedule.
 
Are you ready to get organized in your writing life and empowered to reach your goals? Apply method to the madness of writing and publishing with The 2021 Author’s Planner.
* This planner is dated for 2021.
 
“If lack of organization is holding your writing career back, this Author’s Planner will be your salvation. Everything you do, from your writing schedules to tracking submissions you’ve sent out, to keeping tabs on your earnings, you can track in this amazing book. Wow!” — Jimmie Bise Jr.
 
“This isn’t just a planner; it’s a reflection and goal-setting tool, a finance tracker, a social media planner, and a manuscript organizer. Combined with additional online resources, this planner has everything you need to get organized in all aspects of your author career, from the day-to-day actions to the big vision for your authorship journeys.” — Jen Stephan Kapral
 
“As a busy author and mom, I am disorganized to a fault. Thankfully, the charts and calendars in The Author’s Planner organizes my social media, promotions, budget, and, most importantly, writing. There is no better planner available for the self-published author.” — Jen Pretty
 
Seriously, take it from me, McKenna Dean–the most disorganized person on the planet! If there is ONE tool to buy as part of your author journey for 2021, this planner is it!

Appalling 1950s Desserts and Why I Make Them

It’s Labor Day here in the US and for most of us, that means kicking back with the family outside around the grill: hot dogs, hamburgers, baked beans, potato salad, ice cream and apple pie or some variant of the above.

That’s what we’re doing later this afternoon.

Recently while researching appetizers and desserts of the 1950s for a book I’m writing, I fell into a strange rabbit hole, however. The bizarre and inexplicably terrible desserts of the 1950s.

I have theories as to why and how these monstrous creations came into being. After WW2, many young wives moved out of the cities with their families into the new suburbs. Gone was the ready access to older generations of women who could explain why your cookies didn’t turn out the way Grandma used to make them. Betty Crocker came into her own during this time period. Previously created as a means of answering customer support questions for what was to become General Mills, Betty Crocker as a cultural icon rose to prominence in the 40s and 50s, first with a series of cookbooks and then radio and television shows. I myself grew up with the “church ladies” cookbooks created by the women of my grandmother’s church and sold as fundraisers. Make sausage balls with Bisquik and cheddar cheese? Sour cream cake? Green bean casserole? Pecan pie? The recipes were in that cookbook. I was devastated when my mother loaned our only copy to someone and couldn’t remember who had it.

Deprived of my granny’s best old-time recipes, I turned to era-authentic cookbooks to see what I might find.

I am no cook. Not by a long shot. But these cookbooks consisted of recipes that even the most hopeless chef could follow, relying largely on staples such as Campbell’s Soup and other pre-packaged goodies. I think therein lay their appeal to the young housewives of the fifties, looking to serve decent yet elegant meals on a shoestring that reflected well on their household management.

That’s the other factor I believe is behind some of the strange dessert combinations I found: thrift.

Coming off a World War where economy and rationing was paramount, and supplies for many things in short demand, cooks got creative in making recipes that relied on whatever they had on hand. Flourless and eggless cakes being prime examples. So when I started my search for the typical desserts and appetizers that might be served at a 1955 cocktail party, I ran across some old favorites such as 7 Up Pound Cake and  Flourless Chocolate Cake.

But then I ran into the outright bizarre…

The Fifties were frequently about comfort foods, such as meatloaf and ways to extend leftovers. Casseroles were extremely popular. But leftovers as dessert? To me, desserts are delectable sweets to finish off a fine meal. The best part of the meal. Sometimes, the only part of the meal. 🙂 But these desserts I found posted on Pinterest and vintage cooking sites just boggled the mind. Meats and fruit in strange combinations. Everything you could think of in gelatin molds. I mean, seriously, tuna fish and jello? What were they thinking?

One recipe I ran across (but failed to save the link) was for making beanie weenie Popsicles to serve as a frozen treat at those hot summer gatherings! Delight your friends! Show off your inventiveness to your neighbors! Open a can of Beanie Weenies and pour them into a Popsicle mold–or take it another level by slicing your own Vienna Sausages and add them to pork and beans! When I went searching for the link, all I could find was a site recommending this as a “gross” Halloween party appetizer.

But I found myself compelled to make it. It couldn’t be that bad, right?

Um. Yeah. It is. I don’t recommend offering this to your friends. Not only did it taste nasty, but I couldn’t get it to come out of the Popsicle molds in one piece, so they are messy, too.

One of the recipes that didn’t make the cut because the cookbook came out in 1967 was a recipe for beef fudge. Yes, you read that correctly. Beef. Fudge. Two words that should never go together. But somehow they did. You MUST read this post about one woman’s attempt at making it. Utterly delightful. The best part is she says the beef fudge turned out better than her regular fudge!

One thing the author said that stuck with me was how the cookbook was filled with little details from the creators along the lines of “I came up with this recipe when the power went out and we had a freezer full of beef…”

In RetroRuth’s own words: After reading through the book twice, I can kind of see where this recipe came from. I mean, I would have never, ever, ever thought of this on my own, but maybe if you are the wife of a rancher and you have beef coming out of your ears, you think up ways to use it. Any way to use it. The book is crammed with recipes like this, with beef in everything from bread, to fudge, to cake and brownies.

Who knew?

And in an era where we used to think nothing of tossing out leftovers and dashing off to the store to buy whatever we want or need, perhaps in this time of the pandemic, we need to be a little more creative with our food. Waste not, want not, and all that.

Beef Fudge, anyone?

 

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

Photo by Sebastian Voortman from Pexels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Mantra for 2020: Be Bold

It’s common for people to do a introspective analysis at this time of year. Given that we’re also starting a new decade, (depending on who you ask, that is), there has been a lot of discussion about the last ten years as well. Memes abound on social media: including the “what three things have you accomplished in 2019” as well as the 2009 vs 2019 photo meme, and people tallying their achievements for the decade.

I eluded to my frustration with this mindset in a previous post, and knew I’d come back to my thoughts about such analysis when I sat down to write this one. As I’ve said in other end-of-year posts, I dislike the year-end retrospectives. Guess what, you’re about to turn another year older. Here’s who died in the past year. Here’s what happened in the world. Here’s what I accomplished in 2019. Cheers to 2020. Rah, rah.

I guess I dislike these kinds of posts because they place such emphasis on the posts we’re already making: trips we’ve taken, achievements in our careers, heck, what we had for lunch today. The end-of-year period is usually disappointing to me because I didn’t lose 30 pounds, win the lottery, travel extensively, get nominated for a major award or hit the bestseller list. Somehow, sitting down to figure out what I did achieve stresses how little I got done besides get up, work ten hours, and come home. Day after day.

I wrote a pretty kick-ass New Year post last January, and I still enjoy it for the encouragement and hope it brought to the page. Granted, I was under the influence of large doses of Nyquil at the time, but that doesn’t negate the power of the words. Here we are nearly a year later, and the weight of “what did I achieve?” carries with it not only the chains and lockboxes of 2019, but the whole damn decade before it too. I’m Marley’s Ghost, but with mediocrity rather than money.

One of the things I usually do at the end of the year is decide what my word of phrase of power will be for the upcoming year. In the past, I’ve chosen words such as passion or joy, and I’ve held those words in my heart during the following year as reminders of how I want to live each day. The last time I chose a word, it was persistence, born out of a weary pattern of loss and a desire to attain certain goals. I had a bracelet made from My Intent.org to embody the spirit of the word and have a visible reminder in front of me.

This past year, I bought a metal stamping kit. I’ve made some ‘intention’ bracelets for friends, and want to make one for myself. Only I can’t decide on my word this year. I’m exhausted, not energized, and it’s hard to bring the right energy to the word selection as a result. “Hope” seems too passive, too fraught with the potential for disappointment. “Determined” too gritty. “Courage” and “Brave” don’t quite fit the bill either, as though I’m trying to prod myself in the right direction instead of imbuing myself with the power to get there. I’m not great with the metal stamping, but I like the idea of making my own talisman for 2020.

For the Me in 2009 vs 2019 meme, I posted pictures of Baby Yoda and Old Yoda. It seemed funny, timely, and appropriate.Then there was the thing going around Twitter where someone stated, “There is only one month left in the decade. What have YOU accomplished?” While I’m sure the OP meant for it to be an uplifting experience, I know many people found this tweet circulating on their timeline very stressful. There were calls for a different conversation, as well as people reminding others that if surviving the last decade is all you’ve managed by way of achievement, that’s accomplishment enough. 

I did look back over the last ten years, which have been a journey of heartbreak and sorrow for me, and realize there were a couple of major achievements I overlooked because the losses came more recently. I became a published author and have written and sold nearly one million words in this past decade. Not too shabby, eh?

But the best thing along these lines I’ve seen was from Andie J. Christopher (author of Not the Girl You Marry). She decided not to do the 2019  review thing as much as discuss what she was bringing to 2020 in this great Twitter thread. What I loved about it was the boldness with which she put her wildest dreams out there in the universe. I’ve done that myself in the past on super-rare occasions, and only the kind of thing I thought might be attainable, but it worked. Maybe the answer is to be bold. Tell the universe what you desire. Want more. Expect more.

I can only think of one thing to put out there for the universe to hear right now. I want to be able to make a living writing, so I can quit the day job that no longer brings me joy. In some ways, it’s not a big demand, but it would mean everything to me. It would change my life.

Christopher finishes her thread with this great statement:

Oh wait, wait. I have my word for 2020!!

 

AUDACIOUS.

I love it!

What energy are you bringing to 2020 and beyond?

Gifts for the Writer on Your Holiday Shopping List!

I know, this list is a bit late, right? I mean, how much time do you have left to order something and have it arrive on time for the holidays? Christmas is ten days away at this posting. Well, let me tell you, not all the items on this list need to be shipped, and since writers are usually masters of procrastination (as well as terribly appreciative for any recognition or validation of themselves as writers), they gladly accept IOUs for gifts that haven’t yet arrived. We are a frightfully pathetic, er, grateful bunch.

Be sure to check out Chuck Wendig’s Gift for Writers 2019 thread. Apparently he does this every year and his post lists recommendations of previous years as well. If you like gritty, heart-pumping sci-fi, you should check out his stories. He’s also written some terrific books on writing (perfect for the writer on your list!) I can personally recommend Damn Fine Story and The Kick-Ass Writer. If you happen to be a writer, you should follow his blog, terribleminds. It’s irreverent, pithy, enlightening, and encouraging.

I can also recommend Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing. Both books were given to me when I first began publishing stories, and believe me, nothing could have been more supportive than these gifts. They spoke of the faith my friends and family had in my ability to be a storyteller, and that was heartening indeed. Not to mention they are terrific books on craft!

If you really want to show the writer in your life you believe in them and take their work seriously, show them how to take their work seriously too. I was fortunate enough to win one of Audrey Hughey’s The Ultimate Authorship Planner, and I can’t wait to get started with it, having decided to start off fresh in 2020 with it. It’s more than just another notebook or calendar. SO MUCH MORE. You can track your daily and weekly goals, your expenditures (to make doing your taxes so much easier!), plan your marketing and social media campaigns, newsletters, you name it! What I love about it is it’s large enough for me to work in without cramming tiny notes everywhere, and the coil-bound cover allows it to lay flat while you’re working on it. It’s a bit like having an organizer, an accountability partner, a cheerleader, and a coach all rolled up into one.

Author Keta Diablo has some good points to make about the care and feeding of writers: at this time of year, most of us are over-indulging a bit. I for one have been looking ahead to the New Year and realizing I need to stop sabotaging my health once and for all. Why will I make a point of making change now when I’ve failed in the past? Because I don’t write when I feel bad, and that’s got to change!

Eat healthy snacks to keep up your energy for your grueling (writing/reading) schedule. (Sound familiar writers and readers?)

We all know certain foods contribute positively to your physical health, and some foods contribute positively (in inches) to your waistline. But did you know that some foods can support brain function—and maybe even make you a better writer? It’s true! Here’s a list of snacks that will not only make you feel better physically but keep help your creative brain function better

Happy writing and reading, Keta

Good reasons to eat healthy snacks:

  • Fruits and vegetables add vitamins A and C, both of which are important 
  • Snacking during the day will encourage you to eat less at meals
  • Snacking will curb your sugar cravings
  • Help you maintain a healthy weight
  • Healthy snacking will increase your productivity
  • Healthy snacks are jam-packed with good nutrients
  • Choosing the right snacks can improve your mood
  • Healthy snacking can increase your life longevity
  • Avoid extreme hunger by choosing a healthy snack rather than reaching for that donut.

 

Yogurt (add milled flaxseed)

Individually-sized packages of cottage cheese

Fresh mozzarella cheese or string cheese

Pistachios, macadamias, pecans, walnuts, and other nuts (either lightly salted or raw)

Natural fruit rolls / fruit leathers (for when I really want a sugar kick)

Nuts

Protein Bar, Fruit & Nut Bar, or Energy Bar

Jerky

Granola

Nut Butter

Mini dill pickles

Berries and grapes (although you could keep almost any fruit around)

 Calorie serving sizes of lite fruit cocktail

Cinnamon-spiced baked apples

Goat cheese bruschetta. …

Bagel with ricotta and strawberries. …

Anytime edamame. …

Banana oatmeal walnut cookies. …

Avocado rice cakes.

Mini whole grain bagels (and a light cream cheese or no sugar added fruit preserves)

Whole grain tortilla chips and salsa for when you need a saltier snack and want to avoid things like potato chips

Kale chips (Trader Joe’s)

Keta’s newest release is I Spy a Demon:

When twins Cecily and Calder Sizemore’s parents are killed in a car accident, they’re adopted by the Frost family—Gus, Mae and their sons, Marcel and Elliott. Over the years, Cecily’s love for Marcel evolves into anything but sisterly.

Cecily always knew something was amiss in the Frost household. Little things belied the calm, peaceful ambiance Mae did her best to portray. Calder tried to warn her things were not as they appeared, but she didn’t want to believe him. When Calder begs her to leave Des Moines, start a new life away from the secrets, away from the Frosts and away from Marcel, she takes his advice and her shattered heart and moves to Minnesota.

Now she’s been called home for her beloved brother’s funeral. There’s more to the story than meets the eye. Discrepancies in how her twin died lead her back to Des Moines, and back to Marcel―the boy who stole her heart, the man whose very presence turns her blood to liquid fire. Marcel has always kept dangerous secrets, but this time, Cecily is determined to uncover the truth about the Frosts… and the truth about how Calder really died.

She’ll find out what really happened to her brother, even if it’s her last act in life.

.99 cents or read for FREE on Kindle Unlimited
 

Author Chris Eboch/Kris Bock has some cool ideas for the writer in your life–which might even be you as you create something special for your kids this year:

Maybe you have a NaNoWriMo manuscript to edit and polish. Or perhaps you have other projects that could use a boost before you send them out. Consider giving yourself the gift of improved writing knowledge, so you can reach your goals for the new year!

Advanced Plotting is designed for the intermediate and advanced writer. If you struggle with plot or suspect your plotting needs work, this book can help. Use the Plot Outline Exercise to identify and fix plot weaknesses. Learn how to get off to a fast start, prop up a sagging middle, build to a climax, improve your pacing, and more.

You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers is available for the Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

Remember the magic of bedtime stories? When you write for children, you have the most appreciative audience in the world. But to reach that audience, you need to write fresh, dynamic stories, whether you’re writing rhymed picture books, middle grade mysteries, edgy teen novels, nonfiction, or something else.

Learn more at Chris’s website: https://chriseboch.com/ or her Amazon page (universal link): https://geni.us/ChrisEboch

If you’re shopping for kids ages 8 to 12 (or anyone who enjoys middle grade novels, stop by Chris Eboch’s #Holiday Gift Guide – Great Books for Middle Grade Readers: https://chriseboch.blogspot.com/2019/12/GiftKids.html

You’ll find a mystery set in ancient Egypt, an exciting adventure that introduces kids to Mayan culture, and a fantasy set in the fifteenth-century Middle East that draws on the mythology of The Arabian Nights – all with inspiring girl main characters. You’ll also find stories about runner Jessie Owens and chocolatier Milton Hershey, whose challenging lives show how young people can succeed even if they struggle in school or with poor health.

Kris Bock writes novels of romance, mystery, and suspense. Her Furrever Friends Sweet Romance series features the employees and customers at a cat café. Watch as they fall in love with each other and with shelter cats. The series begins with Coffee and Crushes at the Cat Café.

Kris also writes romantic suspense set in the Southwestern U.S. If you love Mary Stewart or Barbara Michaels, try Kris Bock’s stories of treasure hunting, archaeology, and intrigue in the Southwest. Learn more at www.krisbock.com or visit her Amazon page. Sign up for the Kris Bock newsletter  for announcements of new books, sales, and more: https://tracking.krisbock.com/form?lid=MuD2mEpyR0_1Lvd27mi1sA2

Last but not least: if you’ve run out of time to buy a gift for your favorite author, you can always buy and review their books! Leave a review on Amazon or the bookseller site where you purchased it, but also on Goodreads and Bookbub. Tell your friends why you enjoyed it and recommend it to others. You’ll put a big smile on your author’s face and make their day!

 

I Didn’t Meet My Goal, and That’s Okay

As we approach the end of the year–and the end of the decade–I’m starting to see a lot of posts where people are assessing what they’ve accomplished over the past year, as well as the last ten years.

I have to confess, I hate the year-end introspection and feeling the need to look back at my year and assess my accomplishments, or lack thereof. I always have. But I guess with the close of the decade, the introspection has started earlier and seems a bit more brutal this time around.

There’s the 2009 vs 2019 meme, where people post photos of themselves ten years apart. Most of the images I see are practically indistinguishable from each other. My 2019 image, however, is as different from my 2009 photo as Old Yoda vs Baby Yoda. In fact, I posted those images instead of my own. The past decade has been a little rough on me, and the mileage is visible on my face.

Then there’s the thing going around Twitter where someone has stated, “There is only one month left in the decade. What have YOU accomplished?” While I’m sure the OP meant for it to be an uplifting experience (judging by the response to their own Tweet), I know many people have found this tweet circulating on their timeline to be very stressful. I’ve seen calls for a different conversation, as well as people reminding others that if surviving the last decade is all you’ve managed by way of achievement, that’s accomplishment enough. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this when I write my own introspective year-end, decade-end post at the end of this month. Suffice to say, however, this particular Twitter discussion has left many people feeling like they don’t have enough to show for the last decade.

Not to mention, November has just ended, and as such, there are lot of people out there talking about their NaNo projects. Some are sharing their shiny “Winner!” buttons. Others are disappointed in themselves for falling short of their target. I’m hearing a lot of people saying they ‘failed NaNo’ and it is for this very reason I no longer officially participate in NaNo myself. Remember that challenge I mentioned hosting by Silence Your Inner Critic? We divided ourselves into Genre Teams and logged in our group word counts each week. I was going gangbusters until I hit a plot snag and I knew I had to work it out before moving forward. Doing so caused me to revise four major scenes, reducing my word count up to that point. I ended up offering only a measly thousand or so words to the final count. Now, was it better than not participating at all? Probably, but I felt as though I’d let my team down. And yet I still clocked in 30 K words this month, a tidy amount for someone who has struggled to write more than 2 K a week for a while now.

Today on Facebook, I ran into more than one post where the OP bewailed the fact they hadn’t met target goals on the number of books to read within the month (or year). And that’s when it hit me: why does everything have to be a competition?

Goals are all fine and well. Nice targets to shoot for, but it’s not the end of the world if we don’t hit them. I used to compete my horses, not because I had dreams of being a local champion, but because competing at a horse show gave me some structure and guidelines for the riding I did at home. I wanted to learn how to do more things with my horses, and showing them was a way to do that. But if all I’d wanted to do was putz around the farm at a walk, that would have been okay, too. What matters is why you set the goal and what you learned from aiming at it.

We’ve gotten in a bad habit of thinking that if we don’t come in first place, our efforts are meaningless. Believe me, if I’d made it to the Olympics with my mare, I wouldn’t have hung my head in shame because we came in 33rd or something. But it’s only the winners that get the endorsement contracts, it’s only the winners whose names we remember. And sadly, at least in this country, there seems to be a tendency to belittle anyone who doesn’t win gold.

The thing is, everyone at the Olympics worked their asses off to be there. They gave it their best to be there. That’s not something to be ashamed of.

So I’m celebrating the fact I wrote 30 K in November, even though I didn’t hit the NaNo 50 K mark. I don’t care if you read one book in 2019 or 1,000 books, at least you read something. And maybe I don’t have the cute adorableness of a Baby Yoda anymore, but Old Yoda was pretty kick-ass too. As for the decade, and 2019, we survived it, baby.

Don’t let anyone make you feel as though you aren’t a winner because you didn’t hit the bullseye.

As long as you’re a survivor, you can take another crack at that target again.

The Difficulty–and Importance–of Resurrecting Good Habits

A few years ago, I used to take a 30-40 minute walk on a near-daily basis. It was rare for me to miss a day, even when it was bitterly cold. The thing most likely to deter me was extreme heat and humidity (which we get more often than not now). Even then, I made it out there most days.

It wasn’t easy. I work long hours, and in the short time between getting home and going to bed, I have to feed all the livestock, cook and eat dinner, do the routine chores, and hopefully get a little writing done. A daily walk wasn’t virtuous on my part–it was necessary. I had a big high-drive dog who needed the daily exercise to keep him sane enough to wait until my day off to take him for a longer hike. The only way I’d get it done was to walk in the door and go straight to his leash–if I didn’t do it right away on getting home, the chances were much slimmer I’d take him out for the length of time he needed. Especially, after dinner, when exhaustion would kick in. But I made it work because it was necessary.

Fast forward two years: my beloved but difficult dog Sampson succumbed to cancer, and Remington, my current big dog, though young is made of less intense stuff. Remy is also even more heat intolerant than I am, which is saying something. Then back in January, I injured my foot, which exacerbated an old knee problem, and the next thing I knew, I was no longer walking every day. By the time the foot/knee problem improved, I’d gotten out of the habit. I’d gained weight and my fitness was down as well. Now it was the hottest part of the summer and it was just easier to throw the ball for the dog in the shaded yard where he could jump in and out of the water trough at will than it was to force myself to do that daily walk again.

Likewise minding my food choices. See, I have a mild form of acne rosacea, which has gotten progressively worse with age. In my case, while stress is a player, food is definitely a trigger for me. Which means many of the foods I could get away with eating when I was younger are no longer an option. And yet, sometimes I forget that. No, scratch that. Sometimes I choose to ignore the truth. It’s especially hard for me around the holiday season. For me, the worse triggers are cinnamon (sob), cheese (double sob), and wine (bawling now), but also tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes (anything from the nightshade family), vinegar, and citrus. I recently discovered that people with acne rosacea frequently have hypertension too (which makes sense, as rosacea is a vascular problem), which means I’ve had to take wine off the list permanently. Along with caffeine, it sends my blood pressure into the stratosphere. I also seem to be sensitive to gluten and peanut butter, staples of my diet for most of my life. No cheese, no snickerdoodles or apple pie, no wine, no coffee, no chocolate (yep, there’s caffeine there) no bread, no pasta, no peanut butter? Is there really anything left? Anything left I want to eat that is?

Recently on a trip with friends, I choose to ignore my ‘rules’. After all, I’d broken them over and over again without major penalties, right? Only the combined effect of abusing so many rules at once was two days of feeling like crap while I had a major rosacea and hypertensive flare, which left me unable to enjoy my time with my friends. In response, I made a strict effort to eat according to the rules as I knew them, limiting myself largely to roasted chicken and massive salads (no dressing, limited tomatoes) for the rest of my trip.

What I discovered was not only did I calm my current BP and rosacea flare, but I felt better than I’d felt for a while. It made me realize that all that “cheating”, while it hadn’t erupted into an outright flare, was keeping me from feeling my best. From wanting to take the dogs on evening walks. From wanting to do anything more than flop on the couch when I got home from work. Even from writing. Because let me tell you, when you feel like crap, it’s much much harder to be creative.

You know what else is hard? Picking back up your good habits when you’ve fallen off the “habit” wagon. Just like exercise (or writing), practicing a good habit is a muscle that gets stronger with use and weaker with disuse. And when you’re already tired and not feeling well, finding the fortitude to stick to the changes that will make you feel better again isn’t easy. I come back to this point again and again in life: the realization that my current (minor) health issues now must dictate my eating choices, something I’ve resisted mightily ever since I was diagnosed. I drum my heels and wail in protest like a two year old, and yet the only one I’m hurting in all this is me.

I also know without a doubt that if I don’t start, I’ll lose even more ground than I already have. With fitness, with my health, with my writing… and even though I don’t feel as though I have the time to chip away at making these habits part of my life again (seriously, by the time you walk the dogs, and go shopping to keep fresh food in the house, or food prep in advance, and don’t forget that yoga/meditation/prayer–30 minutes here and there adds up to hours you must carve out of your daily schedule), if I want to see change in my life, I have to be the one to make changes.

I used to believe it took 21 days to create a new habit, good or bad, and honestly, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? It’s not even a month. Anyone can manage 21 days. But the truth of the matter is this is a misleading conception: It takes a minimum of 21 days to effectively instill a habit. It can take up to 90 days of regular (ie daily) engagement to make a habit stick.

At first glance, that seems discouraging, I know. After all, I’ve been telling myself I need to get my act in gear for years now. I’ll try for a few weeks–sometimes, depending on how hectic my life is only a few days. Invariably, I slide. But really, the only difference is time. We’ve been taught by too many advertising campaigns to Expect Results in 2 Weeks or Less! It’s just not true, whether we’re trying to institute new habits or return to old ones. No matter what we want to do, whether it’s to change our eating habits or get back into some form of regular activity, or learn a new craft, or improve your current skills–the key is regular practice of the thing in question. So really, the long time course to creating a habit is a good thing. It means I can keep trying and not give up.

I took this photo today and it made me so happy. 🙂

November will soon be upon us, and I know many will dive into NaNoWriMo as a result. Not me, I know that particular pressure isn’t one I need in my life right now. However, I fully intend to take advantage of all the great articles and conversations surrounding NaNo, and hope to make daily writing another one of those habits I pick back up again.

Today, I started with throwing out some of the trigger foods I know are problematic for me. Others, like the unopened jars of peanut butter, I’ll donate to food banks. I also took the dogs for a nice long walk in the woods, and though I’m a little stiff tonight, I managed without the pain I feared the activity would trigger. I ate a relatively healthy dinner too. Now I’m going to sit down with the WIP.

You don’t have to run a half marathon, go on a radical diet, or force 10 K words out of yourself in a single afternoon to call it progress. Slow, steady, and regular wins the habit-making race.