The Girl Who Lost Her Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating Christmas in Pandemic Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly, for me, This Would Not Do.

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

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

It’s what we make of it.

Isn’t everything?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were still being safe, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Stop The Information Overload Bus: I Want to Get Off

Photo by energepic.com from Pexels

This morning, as I was checking my inbox over breakfast, I told my husband I finally understood why some people ghosted their own lives, walking away from everything. There are days when it all seems like Too Much. Those days come with increasingly frequency lately. I’m sure it has something to do with the greater degree of responsibility I have in my life now compared to even ten years ago, but there’s a reason I chose ten years as my marker and not fifteen or twenty. See, it was about ten years ago that I began publishing my original stories.

Prior to that, my online presence was relatively small. I had a list of friends I kept in touch with via email. I had a livejournal account where I interacted with another handful of friends. I posted fanfic to some of the big archives. I had a Blackberry, the primary use of which was to make phone calls.

But with becoming a published author, I had to have a social media presence, and there followed Facebook pages, Twitter, a website, Tumblr, and eventually, reluctantly (and then embraced with more enthusiasm as it became my happy place), Instagram. I created livejournal accounts for my pen names, switched to Dreamwidth when livejournal got taken over by the Russians, and then deleted my accounts on that platform because hardly anyone was there. I made pages on Bookbub, Amazon, and Goodreads. I maintain a ghostly presence on Tumblr because the platform just doesn’t appeal to me very much but I have friends who use it. I belong to groups on Discord I forget to visit. I snagged real estate on other sites I thought I might use/need at some point–does anyone remember Ello? Just this morning I got a reminder to respond to a friend request on MeWe, a site which I’ve never fully utilized, in part because the name reminds me of PeeWee Herman and that just makes me shudder. But as an alternative to the invasive and amoral Facebook, it’s starting to have more appeal.

And because I have different email accounts (personal, professional, fandom, and pen names, current and retired) on any given day, I have over 600 emails in my combined inboxes. In part, because I sign up for courses on craft and marketing with the assumption that I need the information (mostly I do) and in the hopes that this One Thing will make the difference and that This Time the latest book release will be a smashing success and I can finally step down from a job that no longer brings me joy or satisfaction and I can write FT. Only the backlog of coursework, much of which are daily videos averaging 40-50 minutes in length, weighs on me. As does the money I’ve wasted on courses I haven’t made the time to finish.

It’s also due to the email lists I’m on. Because, as every author is told, your email lists are gold. You must have one, you must provide entertaining information, value for the following. Don’t worry about boring your followers or overwhelming them with posts because they are just sitting at their computers waiting for your newsletter to brighten their day.

Um, I can tell you I’m not doing that. I belong to dozens of email lists that I never open. I signed up as part of something else, or to support someone, or even because they are a favorite author and I want to know the moment they drop a new release… and I have to tell you, if I can’t manage to open a newsletter from a favorite Big Name Author then I have less hope for someone opening one of mine.

On any given day, I have blog posts (like this one) to write, marketing/craft videos to watch, I need to make the rounds on social media (and yes, I do schedule things in advance, but like meal planning, that in and of itself can swallow an entire afternoon to get a month’s worth of posts), submit review requests, answer emails (why is it my friends and family always come in last on this list?), reply to comments, and yes, write. You’d think the writing would come first, wouldn’t you? But it hasn’t been. I’m in a writing slump. Some days I’m enthusiastic and I pound out a few words. More often I open the document and stare at the blinking cursor. Writing these past few years has been like pulling teeth with a pair of rusty pliers and no anesthesia. I know it can be done, but I don’t look forward to it and I doubt it’s my best work.

Scarcely a day goes by when I’m not invited to join this group or that platform or I’m advised to have a presence on x-y-z, particularly the newer sites like storyorigin which are designed to help you network with other authors. But it all feels like a catch-22, you know? Managing my time and presence on all these sites is a full-time job and I already have a FT job. I’m like the solo business owner who recognizes that the workload is too much for one person but it won’t quite support a second salary yet. Do you keep growing or pull back? Work yourself to death or hire PT help you can’t afford?

These days a big part of the problem is an inability to focus. I start a video but pause it to throw a load of laundry in the washer. I come back to the video, but decide I really should be writing. The words won’t flow so I decide to schedule blog posts instead. A few hours later I come back to the story but the words still aren’t there. Is it the story itself? Is it me as a writer? Is my brain simply turning to mush?

I honestly believe it’s because there is too much noise. Not literally, although there’s a lot of that too. I think collectively our brains are on overdrive with too much information to process every day. In the past, this feeling would have been my cue to get up from the keyboard and take the dogs for a run, or unplug from social media for a few days and immerse myself in my characters’ universe. But the problem is this time, I don’t want to do those things either. I can’t settle. I can’t focus.

I said to my husband this morning that we were in limbo, and that’s true. That’s what this feels like, this everlasting holding of one’s breath. Ten years ago, I was a much happier person. Uninformed, living in my own little bubble of privilege, but happier. I need to stay informed so I can take action on the things I can do something about–but there are a lot of things going on in the world right now that I have no control over–and perhaps I need to take a break from updates on those things. I strongly suspect one day we’ll learn that doomscrolling also provides some weird sort of feedback, a negative version of the dopamine hits you get when someone likes or comments on your posts.

So if you’re having trouble focusing on whatever is important to you right now: your NaNo project, your WIP, your book launch, a family issue, some work-related thing, something you’ve committed to but feel is getting away from you, take a little advice here. Unless it relates to whatever it is you need to get done, turn off the news. Stop checking out social media. Oh, you’re an author with a big launch coming up and you MUST make your presence known/felt? Schedule what you can in advance and go back to what’s really important. There are far bigger and scarier things threatening to end the world than lack of your social media presence.

Ruthlessly purge your email lists. If you’re not opening it, you’re just deadweight on someone’s list. Clean out your inbox. Those emails you’ve been saving to read at some future date? If they’re more than 6 months old and didn’t come from friends or family, purge it. Not using Discord, or Snapchat, or Twitter or Tumblr? Delete the apps from your phone. Trust me, you’ll feel so much relief from taking these steps.

Pick three sites to maintain a presence on. For me, it’s currently Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I have some real issues with Facebook’s policies and information mining, and I suspect it’s worse than we know, but for authors, a Facebook presence is considered necessary. I crosspost to as many things as possible to save time. For the time being, I intend to stay off SM as much as possible, using something like Hootsuite to manage my posts. I know, I know, interacting on these sites is The Key to building your audience organically and growing your brand (yikes, I typed that as “your bland” initially–Freudian much?) but so is writing your next bloody story!! For me, the only way to deal with the “squirrel brain” I have right now is to dam up the information overflow pipe and let that crap stream on without me.

I hate scheduling stuff because my life is so rigidly scheduled all the time, but using a daily planner helps me find blocks of time I didn’t know I had, while at the same time keeps me from spinning my wheels too long in one space without traction. If I block off 30-40 minutes for a task–like watching a craft/marketing video or working on a book trailer, etc–and that time runs out, I can decide if I will use the next block of time to complete it or move on. Sometimes the answer is MOVE ON. Just like cleaning your house, writing a book, or climbing a mountain–depending on the size of the project– some things are meant to be tackled a piece at a time. A piece plus a piece plus a piece becomes a whole.

The world is a scary place. Always has been for many, but these days we all have more information about just how scary it is and how directly that frightening thing can impact us. We need to learn how to utilize that information without letting it freeze us into inactivity. Time to calm that limbic system down again. Take a deep breath and put your phone down.

 

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.

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!

The Kindness of Friends and Strangers

Photo by Sharon Snider from Pexels

I have to preface this post with the following disclaimer: the information in here anecdotal and based on one case only. If you have a sick pet, seek immediate veterinary care. Do not ask your friends on Facebook for treatment recommendations. Do not rely on posts such as this one. Google can be a great source of information if the information comes from a reliable source. Otherwise Google is merely a source of opinions, not facts. I am not a veterinarian, nor do I play one on TV.

I don’t know about you right now, but I needed a win.

The past few weeks have been a roller coaster of emotions: terrifying world and local news, the anticipated release of a new book, the growing reports of people I know developing Covid, the excitement of a planned virtual gathering of long-time friends. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. And not just a little pessimistic about our future.

Which is why I really needed a win about now.

Remember the hamster I bought for a friend of mine? I was under a lot of pressure to pick the perfect pet for someone who knows a lot more about hammies than I do. She was delighted with my choice, and christened the new hamster “Elizabeth Bennett.”

But then a week after Lizzie went to her new home, my friend called me with upsetting news: she had signs of wet tail.

For those who don’t know, wet tail is the common term for a collective of conditions that give young hamsters profound diarrhea. The term is primarily used to refer to proliferative ileitis and has a high mortality rate–most die within 24-48 hours. Wet tail can also be triggered by stress, diet change, or antibiotics.

Well, take a young hamster recently shipped to a pet store, then adopted into a new home, and you have the definition of a stressful situation. We could rule out diet change and there was no history of antibiotics, so we were looking at either the classic PI of hamsters under six months of age or stress-induced bacterial overgrowth. Either way, the news wasn’t good.

We couldn’t let Elizabeth Bennett die. At least, not before the usual short life span of the average hamster.

My friend weighed the risks of exposing herself (and potentially her elderly father) to Covid-19 by driving to the nearest city large enough to support an exotics veterinarian and decided against it. On Saturday afternoon most of the local small animal clinics were closed for the weekend. Taking Lizzie to the emergency clinic was unlikely to result in getting a veterinarian who knew how to treat hammies for wet tail beyond the basics of what you could look up online. She wondered if the clinic that cares for my livestock carried the kinds of antibiotics she needed to treat Lizzie.

The answer turned out to be yes and no.

A Google search indicated the typical treatments available were either an over-the-counter chlortetracycline or neomycin sulfate. I made arrangements to pick some medication from the pet store as soon as I got off work that day. In the meantime, I tagged a vet friend of mine who lived on the other side of the country and asked if she knew of anything better. My friend went to VIN, the Veterinary Information Network, and searched the forums on pocket pets. She texted me back with a list of antibiotics used to treat wet tail–none of which were the OTC products available from the pet store. The large animal clinic had some of the antibiotics, but because they were meant to be given to something like a 1200 pound bull, which weighs 544.3 kilograms, which converts to 544,300 grams… and we were talking about something that weighed somewhere between 30-40 grams… well, you could see the issue with diluting the meds to a workable amount.

I went to the pet store to buy the OTC treatment–it had to be better than nothing, right? But while I was there, I asked to speak with the manager and I explained what was going on. Did she know a better way to treat the hammie?

The manager was very kind and helpful. First, she offered to take the hamster back, as Lizzie was still under warranty. (We weighed that choice and decided against it) I asked her about the OTC products, and without condemning the product, she said they’d had the most success treating wet tail with one of the antibiotics we hadn’t been able to find and supporting the hammie with the kind of paste used to handfeed baby birds.

Apparently, there’s a supplement designed for hamsters, but they like the baby bird formula better and most thrive on it. Who knew?

I came away with the OTC antibiotics and the bird paste. On the way home, I drove past the clinic where I take my dogs. They were still open–but only for another ten minutes. As they were operating on curbside only, I called the number posted on the door and explained my dilemma. My vet was awesome. She dispensed a tiny amount of liquid antibiotics for Lizzie and suggested we purchase a meat scale in order to weigh her.

Armed with a treatment plan, I took everything to my friend. There we ran into the next problem: Lizzie was sick, but still well enough to be impossible to handle, especially without stressing her further. My friend couldn’t weigh her, let alone administer medication. In the end, we decided to try putting a microdrop of antibiotics in the bird paste and hope she would eat it voluntarily.

The next few days were tense as I waited for updates from my friend. Most hamsters with wet tail die from dehydration and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), and though it seemed she was eating the paste, it was difficult to tell if she was getting enough–or too much–of the antibiotics. At one point my friend described Lizzie as “a walking skeleton draped in fur” and frankly, I expected the next update to be the final one.

I can’t explain why I was so invested in Lizzie’s recovery. Maybe it was because I know how few indulgences my friend allows herself, and by God, she should be allowed this one damn thing. Maybe it was because I personally picked out Lizzie for her and felt responsible for bringing her heartache. Or it could have been because she was named after a favorite character and having her die was akin to killing Elizabeth Bennett myself. Or maybe it was because 2020 has been SUCH a suckwad year and I just needed this one win. With all the terrible news coming out of California with the wildfires, the hurricanes in the Gulf, the mounting cases of Covid-19 among friends and acquaintances, the attacks on our democracy and the fears for the coming election and the aftermath of the results… I just needed this little hamster to make it, you know?

And she did.

Maybe it was the bird paste. Maybe it was the combined knowledge of the pet store manager and my vet friend with VIN. Maybe it was the antibiotics and the kindness that dispensed it under the given circumstances without insisting on an exam. Maybe it was the dedication of my friend, who woke Lizzie every couple of hours during the day, which made her seek out something to eat instead of sleeping into death. I don’t know. But for some reason, or maybe all of those reasons, the evidence of wet tail ceased, and she began putting on weight. We stopped the antibiotics and she continued to do well. In fact, she started getting so fat, we had to wean her off the bird paste and back onto hamster food.

Maybe she didn’t have true PI. We’ll never know. But it’s been weeks now since her recovery, and I feel safe calling her out of the woods. At least as much as hamsters are ever out of the woods.

It’s a small win. But I’ll take it. Screw you, 2020.

Bath Bombs from Hell

I really hope my sister in Milan isn’t reading this right now.

See, I love scented body lotions, oils, and bath bombs. I work with animals, and at the end of the day, I’m often pretty rank. There’s nothing I like better than a long soak in the tub with some frothy, fragrant, flowery bath oils. Give me a book and a glass of wine, and I can stay in the tub until the water is cold and my skin is pruney.

My sister knows this, and this past Christmas she sent me a box of deluxe bath bombs and soap.

But before we did the big remodel on the farmhouse, getting enough hot water for a delicious bubble bath was problematic. The water pressure was anemic, and the hot water ran out fairly quickly. I got out of the habit of taking baths in favor of the more efficient (but equally frustrating) shower. My bath oils collected dust. My scented soaps and bath bombs sat in a drawer.

One of the unexpected perks of the remodel was finding out the county had run the water line far enough out that–for a hefty fee–we could hook up to county water and do away with the well. I know some people rave about well water, but ours was foul. You couldn’t drink it out of the tap without filtering, and the water itself was so hard it left deposits around the faucets and in the coffee maker. The last time the elements burned out in the water heater, we decided to clean out the tank since we had it opened, and we removed five pounds of mineral deposit. The first time I took a shower with the new water system, I could have wept at both the increased water pressure and the seemingly unlimited hot water.

But it took me a while to start thinking about taking long soaks again. Only recently, since we’ve had unexpected dips in temperatures and have woken to frost limning the grass, have I started taking baths again.

I love fall. It’s my absolute favorite time of year. I love the scritch of dry leaves along the sidewalk, and the damp, earthy smell of muddy paths. I love the changing spectrum of light, how great golden sunbeams slant through the trees in the afternoons, and the way the mountains come alive with color. I love boots and sweaters and that first mug of steaming hot chocolate. Though I can no longer have a real fire in the hearth, I turn on youtube videos of fireplaces and watch them from the couch as I read. I love mornings when the air is so crisp, it’s like biting into a fresh apple, and the delicate etchings of frost on the blades of grass. I love pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread and will eat both until I can’t stand it anymore until the next year rolls around. All hail October, the best month of the entire year!

It’s also bath season. Because frankly, the idea of sitting in a tub of hot water when it’s a bazillion degrees outside holds little appeal. The first time I decided to take a bath after the remodel was post-exercise when I used mineral salts to ease muscle soreness. In no time flat, I recalled how much I enjoyed soaking in a hot bath, and I decided it was a nice way to give myself a little treat that did not involve food–something I’ve been struggling with as a means of coping with the pandemic and other anxieties.

Only belatedly did I remember my sister’s Christmas gift.

One evening I’d been feeling particularly anxious about, well, everything. I decided to take a long bath with the book I’d been reading, and started poking around for something that smelled nice to add to the water. I was bummed when I came up empty. Wait a second–didn’t my sister give me that deluxe bath kit? Surely there was something in there!

I took me some time to track it down, but I felt like Indiana Jones on discovering the Ark of the Covenant when I located the package. When I opened it, I had a split-second of guilt and regret. See what looks like white chocolate in the photo above? I thought my gift box contained CANDY that I hadn’t eaten in almost ten months, and it probably wasn’t good anymore. I can’t say whether I was more disappointed or relieved when I realized the “chocolate” was actually soap. Oh well. At least it wasn’t wasted.

The box contained some lovely scented soaps, a “relaxing” candle, and yes, bath bombs. Both in the shape of cupcakes and in some heart-shaped bombs as well. They had a nice, light, floral scent–probably lavender. The first one I selected also appeared to have some sort of growth on it as well (see picture above). I thought it was mold at first, but on closer examination, all the bombs had something similar. I figured it was sort of stemmy herb, like thyme. I shrugged and carried the little cupcake with me into the bath room.

Deciding to forgo the candle (I’m not a complete lunatic–lighting a candle in a house full of curious animals is asking to have an accidental fire), I cranked the water as hot as I could get it, settled in with my book, and dropped the bomb. Moments later, I smiled as I leaned back in the steaming, scented water.

The first five minutes or so passed uneventfully, but then I began to notice particulate matter floating in the water. The herbs decorating the bath bombs weren’t confined to the surface–the entire product was filled with the beastly things. What looked like seed heads began decorating the surface of the water, and sticking to the sides of the tub and any part of my limbs that broke the surface. Seriously, who thought releasing bits of plant matter like errant weeds into your bath water was a good idea? How could that possibly be considering soothing?

Grumbling a bit to myself about the mess I’d have to clean up later, I continued to read until the water cooled and I decided it was time to get out. As the water drained, I noticed how slippery the sides of the tub seemed. The surface of my skin felt oily as well. I expected my skin to feel smooth and moisturized, but I could have passed for a greased pig at the county fair. Still, I wasn’t too concerned until I tried to get out of the tub and I slipped around like a pat of butter on a hot grill. The first time I tried to get up and floundered around, it was funny. By the third time, I grew alarmed. I was home alone. What if I hit my head? What if I never managed to get out of the tub? If I didn’t  show up for work in the morning, would my boss send someone to my house, to find me cold and shivering, trapped in my tub?

Finally, with great care, I managed to get out. I wiped the remnants of the bath bomb off my skin as best I could, leaving my towels with the same somewhat oily residue. Rinsing out the tub failed to remove the slick. I wound up having to scrub the entire thing with gritty cleanser to remove the last of the bath bomb. Not the relaxing bath I had planned!

I have to say, I’ve taken a lot of baths over the years, with a lot of different products. I’ve never experienced anything like these bombs, and I never want to again.

Which is why I hope my sister isn’t reading this post. Sorry, sis!

 

The Great Fish and Hamster Caper

Photo by Juris Freidenfelds from Pexels

I have to preface this post by saying in the last three years, the mosquito problem at my house has become vicious. It was always a bit annoying in the summer. The owners of the lot next to our property dug the foundation for a house, only to be told by the county they couldn’t build on the narrow strip of land they owned, and they walked away, leaving a huge open pit in the middle of the lot. Over the years, the thicket has taken over again, but every March the hole fills with water and the sound of spring peepers is almost deafening.

Then developers put in a subdivision behind us, with two retaining ponds for run-off and a large ditch that runs alongside the far end of the property. This ditch regularly floods during heavy rains–so much so our trees along that side of the field are showing signs of root rot.

Our mosquitoes have gone from being annoying to swarming as soon as you leave the building. I can’t even take the dogs out for a quick walk to eliminate in the mornings without putting on bug spray. Even with bug repellent, the “deep woods” kind, the mosquitoes still bite. Heck, they bite through clothing, too.This year I had to buy a mosquito tent so my husband and I could sit outside when the weather was nice.

Let me pause here to remind you how many diseases mosquitoes carry: ones we now have to worry about here in the US. Dengue fever, West Nile, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, and Zika are just a few of concern in our area, and that doesn’t count things like heartworm disease, which affects primarily our pets but in rare cases can affect humans as well.

I looked into spraying the property for mosquitoes, but wasn’t happy with the potential environmental and safety issues. (Look, they told us RoundUp was safe too, and it’s NOT.) And really, the problem isn’t on our property itself: it’s all the surrounding ponds and sources of standing water.

I bought some “dunks” which claim to be environmentally friendly and safe for wildlife and the environment, until you read the fine print. Then it’s a little worrisome. I decided I’d reserve the dunks for a last resort.

Enter the fish.

See, fish eat mosquito larvae. I had this brilliant plan. I’d purchase some “feeder” fish and release them in the various areas of standing water. I did some calculations and decided that 25 little goldfish would suit my needs perfectly. Feeder fish means these little fishes were doomed to be fed to something else, and so I shouldn’t feel bad about giving them a few months of freedom before the ponds either dried up or froze over. The fish would have a nice autumn and I would have fewer mosquitoes. Right?

Enter the hamster.

A friend of mine serves as her elderly father’s caretaker. As such, she’s been particularly careful about where she goes and how she shops because of the pandemic. She orders everything online. She only goes out when she has to. She wears a mask and gloves everywhere she goes. When I brought up the subject of the fish, she asked me for an unusual favor. She’d recently lost her hamster (they don’t live very long) and was interested in a replacement, primarily because her father enjoyed watching it and his world had become very, very narrow since Covid-19 kept him largely housebound. But the pet store wouldn’t let her purchase one online, nor would they bring one out to the car for her. Since I was going to buy some fish, would I pick out a nice, young (see note above how they don’t live very long), friendly hamster for her? A Syrian. Preferably male, but she’d take whatever she could get.

Sure. Why not. I’m no expert on hamsters (I prefer rats or gerbils) but I was willing to give it a shot. Pre-pandemic, I’d been hamster shopping with my friend before so I sort  of had an idea what she was looking for. I should point out she’s some kind of Hamster Whisperer and seems to have an odd power over these wee (sometimes vicious) beasties. In the past, I’d seen her temperament-test and turn down dozens of hammies before selecting the one she wanted, but she assured me NO PRESSURE. She’d take the best I could get.

Only then I discovered that releasing goldfish into the wild is a Very Bad Idea. It turns out those tiny little fish–no bigger than my pinkie finger–can grow to be the size of a football and weigh up to four pounds in the right environment–and apparently they are an incredibly invasive species, eating up all the local resources and out-competing the native fish. So while I couldn’t find any regulations forbidding the release of goldfish into the wild, there were lots of articles saying PLEASE DON’T.

I thought long and hard about it. The ponds are designed to catch run-off. They overflow into another collecting basin and then into a large drainage ditch. The ditch funnels the water into the woods at the far end of our property–not into a creek or river where the fish could continue their journey. It would be a dead-end trip if they managed to leave the pond, as the standing water in the ditch would eventually dry up. But now that I knew better, releasing goldfish was off the table.

But I’d promised to go hamster shopping.

No problem. I found out that Rosy-Red minnows–a native North American species–were also sold as feeder fish. I’d just buy some of them instead. Only the pet store didn’t have any Rosy-Reds–they had another variant from China. And let me tell you, releasing a non-native competitive minnow into the wild seemed like an even worse idea than goldfish. So I left the fish department empty-handed and went to look at hamsters.

It’s a good thing my friend was so specific about her needs. There were so many different species of hamsters it wasn’t funny. Winter dwarves, Chinese dwarves, species I’d never heard of. They were all cute as could be, but I was on a mission for a Syrian, so there you are.

There were only two to choose from. Both female. That should have made it easier, right? I had a 50-50 chance of picking the right hamster. But not really. See, that assumes that either one of these hamsters could have met her mysterious qualifications… what if neither one did? What if they were both old? Hamsters live 2-3 years at best–I could easily pick one already halfway through its lifespan. Or what if it was mean? One of the reasons I’m not fond of hamsters is they seem more bitey to me than other pocket pets.

I asked the staff member to open the first cage and let me see the hamster. He lifted the lid and removed the little house where the hamster was sleeping. She popped up out of her bedding and ran beneath the water bottle–someone had disturbed her nest! What was happening? Despite being the middle of the night for her, she hid beneath the water bottle a bit and then began exploring the cage.

“Let me see the other one.”

The employee shrugged and repeated the process with the second hamster. When she lifted the tiny house off this hamster, it rolled onto its back with one foot raised and you could just hear the curse words coming out of its little hamster mouth. The staffer attempted to stroke it, and the hammie was having none of it.

“I’ll take the first one.”

Which is how I came to leave the pet store with a hamster and no fish. My friend was delighted with my choice, by the way, declaring her to be perfect. As is her habit, she names her hamsters after the characters in whatever book she happens to be reading at the time, so I hope Elizabeth Bennet the Hamster leads a long and interesting life. The second hamster was definitely a Catherine de Bourgh.

But I still needed fish.

Hang on. People use minnows for bait, right? I began calling all the outdoor places that sold live bait. Just like my consternation when I recently discovered there is no longer a single office supply store anywhere in my area, I went through the entire Google listings before I found a outdoor supply store still in business that also sold live fish as bait. I finally found a place over 40 minutes away–a tiny back-of-the-beyond outfitter that had a few minnows. On back roads it turned out to be an hour and a half round trip, but it was a success!

And so I got my fish.

Near dusk, I cut through the woods into the development with my container of fish, hoping I wouldn’t run into any of the residents in the process. What would I say if asked what I was doing with a gallon of minnows? That I was taking my fish for a walk?

Fortunately no one was around to question my clandestine activities. Several large frogs plopped into the first pond as I approached it, and I wondered just how many minnows would survive. Reminding myself these little fishes were intended to be BAIT, I set the container in the pond and waited 15 minutes for the water to acclimate to the pond temperature, and then I released them. They swam out in a big knot, hung around for a moment in some confusion, and then darted away into the rushes.

Will I see any of them again? Probably not, though I suspect I will sneak back to the ponds from time to time to check. But hopefully, I won’t see any mosquitoes, either.

But if I do, I’ll try the dunks next time.

At least I did a good job picking out the hamster.

 

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?