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

Photo by Sebastian Voortman from Pexels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pandemic Bread-Making for the Non-Baker

This bread was NOT baked by me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sourdough Starter and Bread:

Starter:

2 cups all-purpose flour

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

I tablespoon sugar

2 cups warm water

3 tablespoons instant potatoes

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

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

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

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

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

Bread:

1 cup starter

1/2 cup corn oil

1.5 cups warm water

6 cups bread flour

1/4 cup sugar

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honey Wheat Bread Recipe:

4 cups whole wheat  flour

3 cups unbleached white flour

1/2 cup non-fat dry milk

1/4 cup wheat germ

3 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon salt

2 packages of active dry yeast

1.5 cups of water

3/4 cups of milk

1/3 cup of honey

1/3 cup vegetable oil

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How you doing, there? You okay?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How you doing, there? Are you okay?

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

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

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

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

Deep breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Social Distancing and COVID-19: It’s Not Just About You #flattenthecurve

photp by Ashutosh Sonwani pexels.com

I’m kind of mad at one of my neighbors right now.

I ran into him the other evening as he was loading his car for a cross-country trip–the same day the US government declared a national state of emergency due to COVID-19. Everywhere, medical experts are desperately pleading with the public to stay home, to avoid all non-essential trips. My neighbor, in his 30s and without known health issues, is attending a wedding with his wife out west. They’ve been planning this trip for months, intending to take in some tourist sights while visiting friends. His vacation is here, and he’s taking it, damn it. Given how hard most of us work, I understand his attitude. I do. Most of the time, that is. Not right now.

“Haven’t you been watching the news? This coronavirus is serious business. No one has any immunity to it, and people can spread it for weeks without showing signs.”

He shrugged and kept loading the car. “I’ve been checking the CDC site. The numbers aren’t that bad.”

That’s when I told him they aren’t bad because we’re not testing nearly the number of people we should be. They aren’t bad because we have a Monster-in-Chief who cares more about the stock market and his re-election chances than he does about putting the brakes on one of the most serious pandemics we’ve had since the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. I try to explain the meaning of a novel illness and the serious impact it will have on the vulnerable members of our society–which includes at least one person from every household I know–including his. And mine.

 From his expression, I could see this information boggled his mind somewhat. I had to ask myself where had he been getting his updates? FOX News? The next words out of his mouth confirmed it. “But it’s no worse than the flu, right?”

No. Because the flu may not be as contagious. Because the flu, always serious for the elderly and the medically vulnerable, doesn’t have as high a mortality rate. Because COVID-19 is currently a pandemic capable of hospitalizing the population in numbers too high for the medical system to support. Because the flu, even new strains, is something your body has seen before, and maybe that helps you fight it off a little bit better. And when you get the flu and recover, it’s rare to have permanent physical damage. There are real concerns that this is not the case with the coronavirus. Survivors may have permanent lung damage.

This is not the flu.

Containment is no longer possible. We had months of warning from the events that unfolded in China but our government, currently led by a self-absorbed narcissist who DISBANDED the existing pandemic response team, has mounted a woefully inadequate, if not criminally liable, response to this global threat. The ONLY thing we can do is social distancing. And that means we STAY HOME. We don’t go out unless it is essential. We don’t go to movies or church or bars or birthday parties or weddings or funerals or have sleepovers with the kids. We don’t hold St. Patrick Day parades or hang out at the shopping mall. We don’t hug or shake hands or touch our faces. We wash our hands A LOT, with soap and water for at least 20 seconds in hot water.

Everyone has their own method for timing that. You can sing Happy Birthday. Gloria Gaynor posted a vid singing the chorus of “I Will Survive” on TikTok. I personally recite the opening sequence of Star Trek–bonus points if you do with Shatner’s timing. (I sub “person” for “man”, the same way they did for Next Gen) No elbow bumping for me, either. Vulcan salute, all the way.

 

 

My neighbor tossed another suitcase in the bag of his car. “Well, if we get exposed to anyone sick on this trip, we’ll self-isolate when we get home.”

If you get home, buddy. Have you seen the shitshow that are the airports these days? I can’t think of a WORSE way to limit the spread of a highly contagious disease than to cram thousands of people cheek by jowl into airports due to a poorly thought out (and completely useless) plan to suddenly close travel to certain areas, forcing everyone to flock to the airports in an attempt to return home before they are trapped somewhere.

Italy, and now Spain, are on country-wide lockdown. Based on the numbers of new cases, we’re in the same boat Italy was 1-2 weeks ago. The Italians have a better health care system than we do and they’re a smaller country. The mortality rate for new victims is staggering because they’ve run out of resources. Italian doctors are having to make wartime triage decisions as to who lives and who dies because they can’t treat all the critical cases.

Let me put it another way: I’ve been buying an extra item of the things I use most since February. Why? Because I saw this coming. So I’m stocked on dog food, cat litter, canned goods, dry goods, etc. I’ve been trying to tell people if we shopped like that–a little over time–we won’t overwhelm the store’s capacity to stock things. We won’t have scenes like this (from the last time I went to the grocery).

 
Much like if we practice social distancing NOW, we won’t overwhelm the US medical systems.
 
Because we run medicine as a for-profit industry in the US, our hospitals stay nearly full to capacity as it is now. If everyone gets sick at the same time (as we’ve seen particularly in Italy), hospitals will not be able to accommodate the critically ill. The hospitals will be like our grocery stores because everyone came in at once.
 
We’re not just talking about the lack of respirators or equipment for those suffering from Covid-19. We’re talking about a lack of doctors, support staff, heck, even GLOVES for your emergency. Not afraid of getting COVID-19? You’d better hope you don’t get in a car accident or need an emergency appendectomy. Because the staff, the space, and the resources won’t be there to help you when it’s your turn to need help.
 
This isn’t about preventing everyone from getting the virus. That ship has sailed. If we had a competent president instead of the Grifter-in-Charge, we might have been able to take containment measures, though in all fairness, given the number of people who don’t show any clinical signs for weeks, I doubt containment was ever possible in a country of this size. But having ICE arrest people as they take family to the airports doesn’t help. Neither does closing the borders to some countries but not all of them. Our president is more interested in pumping money into the stock market in the hopes of getting re-elected than he is trying to stem this pandemic. The irony is if he HAD chosen to protect the population first, the stock market would have been fine. He also has about as much common sense as a rock. Our president would punch a hole in a condom and believe it would still prevent pregnancy.
 
What’s important now is that we #flattenthecurve. That we prevent huge numbers of people getting sick all at the same time, which lessens the chances of survival for us ALL. Read the Washington Post article and take the appropriate precautions. And don’t be like patient 31 in South Korea, who refused to get tested on the recommendation of the doctor treating her, and instead went to a hotel buffet with a friend. When she got worse, COVID-19 was confirmed, but by that time, she’d exposed over one thousand people and South Korea lost the battle to contain COVID-19 in their country. The lesson we can take from this: Don’t be Patient-31. Stay home.
 
We could also have learned from S. Korea’s proactive management of illness in their country through aggressive testing. Experts in Italy admit they began testing too late, forcing the country to react to the crisis instead of preventing it. Oh, for competent leadership here in the US because we’re next. I type this even as I fear for my friends overseas, especially in the UK, which is also feeling the effects of Brexit and a similar lack of leadership at the highest levels.
 
I realize that it’s not possible for everyone to stay home. Workplaces are open, and we’re expected to do business as usual. Some bosses and employees, understandably worried about how to pay the bills still rolling in, may believe we’re over-reacting. Maybe we are. But better to over-react and save lives than look back even 1-2 weeks from now and wish we’d been more concerned. If we had an intelligent, proactive response from our government, I believe measures would be taken to lockdown the country now before we reach the crisis state that Italy is in. As it is, I believe we’ll be forced to take those measures anyway, only it will be too late to do the most good.
 
I saw this quote on Twitter today, before I decided it was best for my mental health of I got off social media for a while:
 
My neighbor is due back from his trip at the end of the week. I wonder if they showed Contagion as the in-flight movie.
 
 

The Internet is Killing Me but My Support is on the Internet

The modern dilemma, eh?

About 15 years ago, I started a new job, moving to a new town, where I didn’t know anyone. I’d just finished a five year run as my father’s caretaker, and I was looking to start fresh with a new life–new everything. After years of working a full time job and then spending 6 pm to midnight caring for my father with dementia, I was looking for friendships, hobbies, and hoping to meet the love of my life. All those things happened, but not the way I expected.

See, at first, I looked into joining organizations that I thought would be fun and challenging, as well as a way of meeting new people. I was still competing my horse then, so I made a few friends at the new boarding barn. I tried inviting people over for movie nights or making plans to go out together, but we all were on such different schedules that trying to coordinate a get-together was as fraught with difficulty as scheduling a Middle Eastern Peace Summit. 

I tried joining a few clubs and activities around my new town, but found it nearly impossible to attend on a regular basis. As a former actress, there was great appeal in the notion of auditioning for a play with the local theater, but again, my schedule prohibited me from committing to something like that. I began writing again, which filled my creative void, but didn’t provide the social interaction I craved, until I began posting my stories online.

All of the sudden, I had friends.

I was invited by one of them to join Live Journal, and before I knew it, I’d gotten sucked into fandom. I’d always been a geeky girl, a Trekkie and sci-fi fan, so this new and improved world of fanfiction archives and story fests was right up my alley. Even better was the fact I could participate on my own time, on my own schedule, be it 5:30 am before a 2 hour commute to work or at 1 am when I’d just finished a new story and couldn’t wait to share. Everything I learned about computers I learned from fandom, by the way: how to code html, how to embed images, how to make graphics…

Fandom expanded my horizons in other ways too. I made international friends, had attitudes adjusted, learned a greater degree of tolerance than I had growing up in my small rural towns. I found the courage to travel to meet up with my fandom friends–people who knew more about what was going on in my life than the people I saw in person every day. I was surrounded by acquaintances and coworkers in real life. My friends were mostly online. I even met my husband online through a dating service–something that I’d never have done had it not been for my time on the Internet.

But these days, the Internet is a bigger source of anxiety than it is a place of fun. Social media has become a huge part of everyone’s lives, to the extent that when you walk into a restaurant, more often then not, you see people sitting at tables across from each other with their eyes glued to their phones. I used to read a book when waiting for the bus (or waiting for anything, for that matter). Now I scroll my social media feeds. Around and around I go, from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to What’s App and so on.

And they aren’t making me happy. The news is horrific–and most of the time, there is nothing I can do about it. Pandemics. Wildfires. Global Fascism on the rise. Ice caps melting. Species going extinct. The end of Medicare and Social Security as we know it. The impending crash of the economy. People in cages. And if it isn’t some bit of terrifying news, it’s the unconscious competition to show that your life is more exciting and successful than those around you, or the drive, drive, drive to get your book (your art, your music) noticed.

Whenever I feel this way, I’m tempted into doing a social media blackout, but I never manage it very well. After a day or two of self-imposed going off the grid, I’m back because I couldn’t help but check out my Twitter feed, or I’d committed to doing something that required my online presence.

And then there’s the fact that my support group is still largely online. There’s the rub. Because I know I can share my fears and within seconds, someone will chime in with offers of support. It might only be a virtual hug or a funny gif, but those are the kinds of things that can get you through a bad day, especially if you work in a hostile environment and virtual support is the only kind you can get.

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.

And it’s not making me happy. So when I’m done with my current commitments for the month of February, I’m going dark for a while. Taking the apps off my phone. Unplugging from the internet and tuning back into the real world around me. I doubt seriously this will hurt my writing career in the slightest. We worry about losing followers or not keeping fans happy, but honestly, I don’t think most people will even notice. Like me, they’re busy doing the rat race of running in circles on the social media wheel. If anything, I strongly suspect the time off from social media will help my writing process immensely as I find the ability to daydream and brainstorm again. But the real value will be in becoming connected to the things that matter to me.

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 in 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.
  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. Because that’s what life’s about too. The things that make us happy.

Now excuse me while I go walk the dogs. 

Why I’m taking time from my WIP to write fanfic…

I cut my writing chops in fandom. Before I even knew what fanfic was, I wrote it. Back then, there were no online archives, no message boards. I wrote stories about the continuing adventures of my favorite characters because books were magic and there was nothing more I wanted to do than to spend time with the characters that brought joy to my life. I wrote for an audience of one because I had to. It didn’t matter to me if anyone ever read the stories or not. In fact, in some cases, I preferred they remain all mine.

Fast forward many years to my adulthood: I’d put aside writing stories as something children did and boxed up my creative self to move on with the business of life. Becoming a writer was an impractical fantasy and I needed to earn a living. I thought losing your passion, that creative spark, was simply part of growing up. It wasn’t until I went through a major transition in my life that I discovered online fanfiction archives. I’d been searching for something to be passionate about, having taken a new job in a new city where I knew no one. I had things I did for fun, but nothing that drove me with the kind of dedication I saw in others. Then I fell in love with a new television show and found out there were thousands of stories about the characters I loved! I completely immersed myself in fandom, and after months of reading everything I could get my hands on, tentatively, I began writing my own fic again.

Oh man, it was bad. I was so out of practice. And at first, I thought I had to write an entire story from start to finish in one setting. I know, weird, right? I mean, intellectually, I understood War and Peace wasn’t written in a single evening, but without understanding the basic mechanics of outlining, I’d sit down at the keyboard and start pounding out words until I had a finished story. I didn’t get much sleep those days, and I wrote nothing over 5-7 K words.

Then one day I realized not only did I not have to write the entire story in one sitting, I also didn’t have to write the story in a linear fashion, either! What a liberation that was! I could write the scene I pictured the most strongly at the time it was freshest in my mind and worry about how all the scenes tied together in the end. Out of sequence writing allowed me to write my first 50 K story, and after that, I was hard-pressed to write anything shorter. It also freed me from writing boring filler scenes that got the characters from one place to another–now I was a movie director shooting only the most relevant scenes. I was a pantser, only I didn’t know it. Writing in this fashion was natural for me,  and I wrote the equivalent of a novella a month for years.

A million words of fanfic later, I began writing original stories for publication. My writing style changed again, in part because I couldn’t take the writing shortcuts with world building and characterization that fanfic allows. I had to do more plotting, and my writing became more linear again. My productivity also slowed down tremendously. Comments are the currency of fanfic, but when you’re producing original works and asking people to pay for them, your standards are much higher. My output slowed dramatically as I pushed myself to write better stories, and it was harder for me to meet these new standards. My Inner Critic grew stronger and more discouraging as I put more and more pressure on myself to succeed.

One of the first decisions I made when I began publishing my own fiction was to stop writing fanfic. In part because the challenges of original fiction were more fascinating to me now, but it was also simply a matter of time. I only had so much time to devote to writing–I couldn’t afford to “waste” it.

So when I recently came across an unfinished fanfic sitting on my hard drive, it surprised me when I began tinkering with it again. I’m at the halfway point on my WIP. If I push through, I can finish it in a month or two, and polish it into a finalized form by late spring/early summer. The last thing I should do is leave it and go off to play in an old sandbox like a little kid, right?

Wrong.

I think that’s exactly what I need to do.

Lately, I’ve been struggling a bit to find the joy in life. To find purpose in a world increasingly depressing and terrifying to me. To feel that it matters if I tell my stories or not. And I think this is the right time to set aside my WIP, to let it simmer on a back burner for a bit, while I take my shovel and pail and go build sandcastles on the beach. Yes, a terrible mixing of metaphors, I know, but I don’t care.

The fun of fanfic is the lack of limitations. As long as you are true to the characters (and if you are writing an AU, you don’t even have to be that true), anything goes. I want to bang out my story without my Inner Critic hanging over my shoulder telling me I can’t do this or I shouldn’t do that. I want to post my sandcastle story as an offering to the fandom I love, knowing it will most likely be accepted with joy even if it is the most lopsided sandcastle you could ever see. And even if it is completely ignored, it will have still brought me great pleasure to have written it in the first place, just like it did for my fifteen-year-old self when I ran out of Star Trek stories to read.

I want to do it for the sheer fun of it, and Lord knows, there is a great lack of fun in the world right now.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll learn something about having fun with my stories that I can bring back to the WIP again. It’s a win-win, either way.

So what are you doing that brings you joy today?

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?

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.

If I Stop Riding, am I still a Horsewoman?

I’m at one of those crossroads most people come to at a certain point in their lives. Especially if you’re an athlete and do some kind of sport. There comes a time when you look at this activity you’ve done your whole life and wonder if it’s time to quit.

I have friends who were competitive ice dancers when I met them twelve years ago. They’ve found another passion now and have hung up their skates. They’re happy and still enjoying their new-found hobby, one that doesn’t entail getting up before dawn and driving hours to the only available ice rink for a grueling session in the bitter cold. One that is less brutal to their bodies. Their knees thank them too.

I had a friend who has been a runner as long as I can remember tell me recently that she’s giving it up. Between the plantar fasciitis and torn Achilles tendon, she no longer feels that this is the something she can continue doing. She’s giving yoga at try, and hoping she can make peace with her injuries.

Even my husband, who lives, eats, and breathes soccer has decided in the past year to get certified as a referee. The role of the ref is still an active one, but not as punishing as playing the game itself. He’s still playing as well, but repeated injuries have taken their toll and I think this is how he is planning to transition.

As for me, I’m facing a tough choice in the next couple of months. I need to consider retiring my mare. While we gave up competition years ago, her arthritis is reaching a point where I question whether it makes sense for me to continue riding her. Truth is, we’re both at a certain level of gimpyness that it’s not out of the question that I may be projecting my own issues onto her. But the bottom line is I’m rapidly approaching a point in my life when I may no longer ride horses. It’s not just that my mare deserves to live out the rest of her days in peace eating grass like the horses in the final scene of Black Beauty. Riding is taking its toll on me physically, too.

Oh, I could find another horse to ride if I wanted. Buying a horse doesn’t make a ton of sense: it’s a huge investment and I’m no spring chicken. But there are lots of horses for lease out there, horses that perhaps can no longer compete but can certainly putter around the farm the way I’ve been doing. Horses that someone would gladly loan me simply to get some help paying for their care.

But retiring one horse and picking up with another isn’t like replacing a worn out bicycle with a newer model. Horses are as individual as dogs or children. My mare and I are so attuned, all I have to do is think what I want her to do, and she does it. A subtle shift in weight will make her down transition. Pick up the reins and she’ll start trotting. If I started over with another horse, I’d have to learn the idiosyncrasies of that creature, and no horse, no matter how bombproof, no matter how well-trained, is 100% safe.

The realization that I could get hurt–seriously hurt–has been a creeping concern over the last few years, cracks in the foundation letting water seep into my confidence. I’m no longer the teenager who biked five miles a day after school and mucked stalls just so I could ride the green-broke horses at the only riding stable near me. I’m not the girl in her twenties who would ride any horse any time the opportunity arose, no matter how rank, no matter how evil. I’m not the woman in her thirties who bred her ideal competition horse, raised her from a foal, and competed in the sport for crazy people known as eventing.

Somewhere along the way, as I’ve developed increasing medical issues, my loss of faith in my own body has translated itself into a fear of getting hurt when I ride. There are days when I’m my old confident self, and I ride through a buck without blinking an eye. There are other days when I anticipate trouble during the entire ride–and my horse feels like a lit powder keg beneath me. There are other days when I have a good ride, but can barely move a few hours later. I’ve lived with chronic pain for years. Riding has hurt ever since that bad car accident. I didn’t let it stop me twenty years ago, even when my doctors thought I should quit. But I have to tell you, everything hurts these days, and riding makes it much, much worse. Also, I don’t want my decision to stop riding be as a result of breaking my collarbone–or worse.

From the moment I read Black Beauty as a six-year-old, I sold my soul to have horses in my life. My parents used to joke that they didn’t need an alarm clock, they only needed to put a pony in the backyard and I’d be up at the crack of dawn every day. They kept promising me that pony, along with the mystical farm they’d one day own and the dogs they’d breed. I find it ironic how these were dreams they had for themselves that never materialized, but I went out and got them for my own. All of it. Farm, horses, dogs. (Cats too, since I was forbidden to have any growing up.)

It came with a price though. I made a conscious decision to have horses instead of a life that would let me travel, or live in a major city where I could earn more money. I bought my first horse off a slaughter truck for $800 and spent the equivalent of a SUV payment each month to keep him. I took jobs in rural places so I could keep my horses. The ‘dream’ farm takes more of my time and money than I’d care to admit. Was it worth it? I like to think so. My dad never got his farm, even though he made more than enough money to have that dream life. During the years I spent as his caretaker, the horses were the only things that kept me going at times. The reason for leaving the house, for getting outside, for connecting with nature. It fed my soul.

When I was twelve, I went to my mother and showed her the shabbiness of my riding gear. “I need a new hard hat and boots. I’ve outgrown my riding habit.”

“I’d like to know when you’re going to outgrow this horse habit,” my mother snapped. “It’s terribly expensive.”

“Gee, Mom.” I spoke with Shirley Temple’s innocence. “I don’t think it’s any more expensive than a cocaine habit.”

She put me in the car and took me straight to the tack store.

Yes, I was a bit of a smart-ass, but I suspect my love of horses kept me out of trouble as a teenager. It kept me moving when depression made me want to fold up and lie in a dark room. It kept me physical when my job demanded all my time and energy. I am a horsewoman. It’s part of my identity. To consider giving that up feels like closing a door, not only on a major portion of my life, but who I am as a person as well.

As recently as April 2019, Queen Elizabeth was photographed riding a horse at Windsor Castle, just weeks away from her 93rd birthday. I remind myself that for most of her life, she was able to ride almost daily if she liked, and that she has a whole team of people keep her horses trained and exercised to be as quiet as possible. But it goes to show that my question of whether or not I should keep riding is entirely up to me.

Even if I choose not to ride any longer, nothing will change my lifelong love of these magnificent creatures. Regardless of whether I hang up my bridle or not, I am, and always will be a horsewoman.