Once Upon a Pandemic (reprise)

So the prognostications are, the pandemic is going to smack us harder than ever this winter. Pandemic fatigue, indoor socializing, and weather the virus likes will conspire to prolong our misery. Well, phooey.

I’m put in mind, though, of the Great Depression, which lasted ten years by most estimates. My parents both recalled the Depression, which began in their childhoods, as a pleasant time. What’s up with that?

On Dad’s side, it was a time when his parents got along (they eventually divorced, long before it was popular). Grandpa was in charge of handing out subcontracts for the Long Island Railroad, and because businesses were desperate for his goodwill, he had better job security (and more perks) than at other times in his career.

On Mom’s side, her parents had to travel from Spokane, Washington, to Bangor, Maine, with four kids, because jobs for her mining engineer father were thin on the ground. She liked seeing the country, oddly enough. A road trip was just a big adventure to her. Imagine that.

For a time, her family doubled up with an uncle’s family, and all the kids bunked in the same room. She loved it, loved having more family around, loved having a chance to grow close to her cousins. Her family never was particularly well off, and from her childish point of view, the Depression didn’t make them much more poor.

I suspect my parents looked back–past Vietnam, Korea, WWII (Dad was in the Navy, Mom was a nurse) to a childhood that by comparison, was at least a childhood. The adults fretted over jobs, groceries, and places to live, the children just carried on. In both cases, they carried on in circumstances that to them, offered significant consolations.

I hope when this pandemic has subsided, we too will look back and see some consolations. For years, I prided myself on not owning a TV, not watching TV, not no TV, not no-how. Welp, there’s a pandemic on now. I’ve discovered British mystery series in the past six months, and I enjoy them. I suspect some people will always have a pandemic play list, pandemic comfort food carry out, and recall pandemic Zoom calls with Grannie.

Some news announcer got suspended last week because he inadvertently flashed his co-workers in a Zoom meeting. That is a boo-boo we can ALL  chuckle over, because now there’s such a thing as pandemic humor.

This is not a fun time, but in small ways, we are all making it as bearable as we can. For me, that means DCI Vera Stanhope and Inspector Lynley are my new friends. I’ve also visited with my neighbors while out walking more in the past six months than in the previous six years. For one of my writin’ buddies, pandemic coping has meant crocheting so much she’s opened up an Etsy store and is generating some craft income.

It’s not ALL awful, is it? How are you making it bearable, or what do you think you might recall about this time with a smile? To three commenters, I’ll send signed copies of The Truth About Dukes.


The Joys Have It

I normally end my day with a journal entry, all about my illustrious doin’s, how many steps I got in, what books I worked on. Not exactly late breaking news, but the process of reviewing and documenting the day helps me say good job and goodnight. I also list at least five things about that day that I’m grateful for.

That’s a good exercise for hitting re-set on my gratitude-o-meter, but I’m also aware that I’m tired of this danged pandemic. I’m tired of politics, financial upheaval, the publishing industry shooting around the room like a deflating balloon, and Not Being Allowed to Go to Scotland (I’m really tired of that).

So I’ve added another exercise to my sign-off routine. I ask myself: What did I enjoy today? It’s easy to know what upset me–my ignorant neighbor, Amazon’s “quality” dashboard, social media trolls, my sore thumb–and negativity has an insidious stickiness that makes dwelling on that stuff too easy. So I’ve been focusing instead  on all the little joys, and they are myriad.

I have a cat named Oscar, a young male, all black. He is soooooo soft, softer than mink. He’s a shy guy, but he likes to be petted, and I have delighted in our growing friendship. I cannot touch his fur and be tense. He’s that soft and sweet.

The sunlight this time of year is to me the most beautiful of all seasons. There’s something especially clear and lovely about mid-autumn sunlight, and it makes me think of my mother, who associated that light with “the night before the first frost.”

Then there’s my daily cup of jasmine green tea–one cup only, though I could swill this stuff by the gallon–and how it never fails to taste special. I have to watch my caffeine consumption, but I would sorely miss this little indulgence if I had to give it up.

Another joy is the big, red dinner plate dahlias growing by my driveway. They are bold, bright, and coming on strong when all the other flowers are going peaked and wan on me. I want to be like those dahlias, a late season bloomer who doesn’t know when to fade into elderly obscurity.

I delight in my flannel sheets. My sister gave them to me and I can’t wait for the nights to cool off enough so I can bust ’em out and get snuggly. I’m still riding the horse only once a week, but the time I spend with old Santiago is peaceful and dear. I get off him with a sense of, “We still got it, dude!” when all we do is walk, trot, and canter (both directions!).

Mondays are my pizza day, when I let myself start the week with a pizza slathered in black olives and extra cheese. It’s my one occasion of carby-cheesy bliss each week, and it never fails to restore a sense of abundant pleasure. This is all it takes for me to look forward to Mondays. Wish I’d figured this out decades ago.

My days are full of joy and pleasure, but it’s easy to lose sight of my riches. The big, bad frustrating world is still there, and it’s still my responsibility to do what I can do battle the darkness and overcome the forces of eeee-vil, but I will be a more effective warrior if I also remember and delight in my joys.

What is delighting you these days? To three commenters, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift card.



Constructive Disagreement

As we trudge along toward the November election, I’m sensing as I cruise social media and chat up my neighbors, a crushing fatigue with divisiveness itself. Bashing the Libs/MAGAs/NWLs/Whoevers doesn’t FIX anything. It saps our energy for grappling with even issues we can almost all agree need serious attention–homeless veterans, gun safety reform, or climate change, for example (and those are three areas of broad consensus among all voters, by the way).

We get so blinded by labels that we lose the ability to debate ideas independent of the people espousing them. Conflict expert Julia Dhar’s TED talk does a great job of unpacking how to separate identity from idea, and focus instead on the start of all constructive debates–the big areas of broad agreement. One exercise she suggests for limbering up our “start with agreement” muscle is to think of a topic on which we have changed our minds.

Welp, lessee… When I started doing child welfare law, I thought social workers were without question a good resource to involve in a troubled family’s situation. Good social workers know good stuff–about community programs, about how to discuss hard things without riling the people involved, about how family problems become a Rubik’s cube of can’t afford, don’t know how, and too beat down to try again. Send in the social workers!

I wasn’t all wrong and I still think social workers are a great idea. But when a community’s default response to an unsupervised child or wandering grannie is merely to dial a hotline, the whole concept of community, much less neighborhood or family, is weakened. There’s a balance to strike, between we are all in this together, and knowing when problems should be put into the hands of the professionals.

It took me a while to see that having that emergency hotline is a good thing–but it can come at a subtle and far-reaching cost. If it’s social services’ problem (or the cops’, or the HOA’s) it is no one person’s job, and the nature and quality of the solution becomes immediately limited by the institution called in to deal with it.

I came to see much of the child welfare system in the same skeptical light. I went into the task thinking I had some solid answers, but closer acquaintance with reality turned my answers into questions. I was a better child advocate for that leavening of skepticism. I had a more open and creative mindset, and when is that ever a bad thing?

When have you changed your mind, or come to see a hard answer as a less than perfect solution? To three commenters, I’ll send $25 Amazon gift cards, because the holidays are coming, and we have all been so very good this year.

(Which reminds me… This month’s Deal is a Republished Regency holiday novella duet for $1.99 in the webstore. Details here.)


A Friend in Social Distance

One of my writing heroines is author Jennifer Ashley. If all she’d done was write The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie, she would have my undying respect, because that book took the romance genre is a new and wonderful direction. (Autism spectrum historical romance hero, done beautifully.) Jennifer has also weathered many industry storms, she shares her time and wisdom generously with other authors, and she has perfected the art of being herself on social media.

Much there to admire, and one of her recent Facebook posts was along the lines of, “I walked 2.5 miles this morning and it was nothing’. There was a time when that would have been an unthinkable challenge. I’m proud of myself for how far I’ve come!” That attitude, of being proud of an achievement many other people might think was a big so-what, fortifies me to go on my own 2.5 miles walks and be proud of myself.

Joanna Bourne is another personal heroine. To look at Jo, you’d think, “Sweet little old lady. She probably knits baby blankets for her myriad great-nieces and great-nephews, and makes her own organic low-sugar jam.” Meanwhile, Jo has lived (as in for years at a time) in seven different countries (including Nigeria and Saudi Arabia), has a master’s degree in marine biology, bagged two RITA awards, and can tell you stories about life in the foreign service that will make your jaw drop.

She’s also a brilliant, generous, funny, highly creative writer, and when I was a tadpole author, she offered me much steadying advice and writin’ buddy friendship. I found my balance as a writer much faster and with much less drama than I would have otherwise because of Jo.

I am a rabid fan of writing coach, agent, author, and teacher Donald Maass. He is passionately devoted to helping authors turn good books into better books, which is a thankless and exacting task on a good day. Don works enormously hard at what he does, which means unique among the writing coach crowd, his material is always being refreshed. Unlike many, he’s not giving the same workshop (for more money) that he was tossing out ten years ago.

As I spend day after day after day at home, I am still fortified by my associations with these people and others like them. Some I bounce across on social media, some I can visit by reading their books. Some I can email, and I am so very, exceedingly grateful that technology allows me these contacts. I am alone, and I’m never alone, and the company I’ve met along the way continues to cheer me.

Whom do you admire? Is there anybody in particular whose company has cheered you along the way this year? To two commenters, I’ll send a signed print copy of My Heart’s True Delight.

Goldengrove un-Leaving

I woke up in a bad mood a few Fridays ago, ready to go Tasmanian Devil on the first troll I came across on social media. Saturday wasn’t much better, cluttered with little tech problems that felt like assaults on my dignity. The predictable speed bumps with my Work in Progress became insurmountable rock walls, so I did what I usually do in such situations and started a new manuscript. So there, Sycamore Dorning.

Even that didn’t help.

Then I came across an opinion piece by a guy who’s living in NorCal and watching–again–while climate change devastates the wilderness and communities he loves. He mentioned that Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve is “wiped out,” and I had to stop what I was doing and fetch a tissue.

Armstrong Woods was a bucket list destination that I actually got to see. The biggest, oldest, most wonderful trees I have ever met live there. I am a rabid fan of big trees generally, and to me, that was a holy day spent in a holy place. That place is lost forever, along with some trees more than a thousand years old. The whole woods is gone, and the word for what I am feeling–about the trees, about the planet, about faith in democracy, about human life–is grief.

In the midst of successive overlapping crises, I have failed to notice all the loss. That failure to notice is normal, a coping mechanism that allows us to function while battles rage. This is part of the reason why soldiers suffering post-traumatic stress disorder just want to get back to their units. We hurt less inside when we have an external threat to focus on.

But the hurting must be dealt with. That came home to me when I saw all the 9-11 memorial posts on social media. We lost thousands of lives that day, lost our innocence about the price of making enemies, lost a little faith in humanity, and much more. This year has been like 9-11 twenty times over in terms of unanticipated loss of life, and that’s without politics gone nasty, wild fires, global warming, and 10 percent unemployment.

We have lost loved ones, faith in hallowed institutions, and tremendous swathes of natural resources. Individually, we’ve lost income, businesses, property, and for many who have survived the virus, lifelong health. We are awash in reasons to grieve–and in reasons to support one another and look for common ground.

Putting the grief label on my irritability and sadness helps a little, but I suspect focusing my sorrow and anger on action that restores the light will help more. I will plant more trees, I will get on my federal representatives about passing a carbon tax, I will support organizations getting out the vote. I will stop and visit with my neighbors when I’m  perambulating, and ask those living near me how they’re doing.

And isn’t it interesting that I just published a story about a hero struggling with episodes of the mulligrubs? What are you grieving, and how do you honor that grief or use it to motivate you to action? To three commenters, I’ll send signed print copies of My Heart’s True Delight.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

My daughter lives in Oregon, about ten miles (as I write this) from the Holiday Farm Fire, which has consumed 170,000 acres and is only ten percent contained. A wild fire can cover ten miles in a night, easily. A good writin’ buddy lives in southern Louisiana, where hurricane season is pouring misery down by the bucketful. I also have family in coastal California, and their reasons to wear a mask even indoors are just piling up.

Between hoping for rain in Oregon, and hoping it will stop raining in Louisiana, I know this is not, for many people, anything approaching a wonderful time of year. September has been just one more month in a grueling progression of months, and October isn’t looking too cheery either.

And yet, I still find things to love about the transition from summer to fall. I love, in fact, that nature where I am, despite tantrums and tragedy elsewhere, is just rolling placidly along as she has all year. Nights are dipping into the forties, days are coolish and getting shorter. I find so much to delight in this time of year, including…

Fuzzy beasts. The horses and cats especially, are growing winter finery. They look more cuddly and are lovely to pet.

Hot soup. Pepper pot, French onion (servi avec gruyère, bien sûr!), broccoli cheddar… I could rhapsodize for pages about the the pleasure of a hot bowl of soup, warm homemade bread, and a house smelling of fresh baked wonderfulness.

Hot drinks. I always love a hot cuppa tea first thing in the day, but when temperatures drop, hot tea is even better. Also hot chocolate, hot mulled cider. Toddies. Irish coffee…

Fall flowers. Zinnias, asters, the last blast of the roses, pansies ready to hunker down for winter, chrysanthemums in a zillion colors… The flowers make a brilliant last stand this month.

Oatmeal, with cinnamon, nuts, blueberries, a dash of cream, butter, or–blame my dad–a scoop of ice cream and a sprinkle of brown sugar. Yes, he went there. For BREAKFAST.

Fuzzy socks! They deserve a blog post of their own.

Long sleeves, fleece, and all the soft, comfy, cozy cold weather clothes. (Especially the ones that mean with enough layers, I don’t have to wear a danged bra when I go off the property.)

Extra blankies. I’m probably one of those people who could benefit from a weighted blanket. Instead I leave the heat off in my bedroom and burrow under flannel sheets (thanks, sister Maire), and lots of quilts. Of course it takes the thought of a mug of hot tea to get me out of my nest in the morning.

Dramatic sunsets. Those brilliant red, orange, and magenta sunsets are already starting where I am (probably due to wild fire smoke plumes), and they are impressive.

Shorter days, meaning longer evenings to wind down, read, read, and read. And that reminds me…

My Heart’s True Delight, an autumn HEA, goes on sale at the retail outlets on Tuesday. I’ll put a signed copy in the mail to each of three commenters. Just tell us what, if anything, you are enjoying about this time of year. (Or what you are NOT enjoying!)



Wise Words, Hard Times

In the interests of feeding my own creativity (and thus feeding me and my cats and other dependents), I read newsletters from people working outside the fiction-writing sphere. One of those newsletters is called Dense Discovery, a collection of thought-provoking cites about all things tech, with a particular focus on graphic arts and design. One of my best buddies in college was a graphic designer, and I loved how his mind worked (and lot else about him too). I have kept a casual eye on the field of graphic design ever since.

One feature of Dense Discovery is called Worthy Five, where, in sound-byte fashion, somebody lists a phrase worth knowing, a newsletter they read, a twitter account they follow, a concept worth understanding, and an activity worth doing. This week, writer McKinley Valentine offered the following worthy phrase: You don’t have a problem, you  have a solution you don’t like.

I read that idea as a little nasty–having a solution you don’t like, can’t morally accept, lack the means or resolve to implement IS a problem–but I also see wisdom there. People don’t like to wear masks, they don’t like to be wrong, they don’t like to do the hard work of listening to differing viewpoints and finding common ground, they don’t like a whole lot of solutions to vexing conundrums, myself included. I know I would lose weight–maybe only temporarily, and with all sorts of metabolic backlash, but I would–if I’d just starve myself.

Another quote offered in this week’s newsletter: “Looking at life from a different perspective makes you realize that it’s not the deer that is crossing the road, rather it’s the road that is crossing the forest.” (Muhammad Ali)

I’m reading Dickens’ Sketches by Boz these days, and I’m struck by how he could leaven  huge, windy, lofty, bravura sentences and cinder block paragraphs with zingers. “A proper melodrama (three murders and a ghost)…” This is now literary canon law regarding melodrama, and enviably efficient guidance too.

That skill, of encapsulating wisdom in memorable and brief words, fascinates me. It’s like the next step after poetry in terms of effective communication. A whole worldview in a sentence. I don’t have this gift–it takes me 90,000 words to get my worldview across–but I am so glad other people do. I will be thinking about that business of the deer, the road, and forest all week, and further about solutions I don’t like where I see only problems.

Have you come across any pithy wisdom to help you through the trying days? Are there authors or friends who have the knack of condensing a whole worthwhile perspective into a few words? Maybe you just carry a few of these worthy aphorisms in your head, not sure where you picked them?

To three commenters, I’ll send ARC files for My Heart’s True Delight. The web store already has this title on sale, and the print version can be purchased from Amazon here.

Pandemic With Cats

I have theorized that people who are weathering this pandemic with dogs are going to manage better, generally, than those of us without pups. Having to walk the dog contributes to overall health and to stress management, and caring for the dog preserves an owner from becoming entirely self-obsessed. Then there is that intangible wonderfulness of the canine personality. Never met a physically well dog who wasn’t also a cheerful pup.

But ya know, cats aren’t all bad. The nicest thing about cats is that they purr. There I will be, typing away, focused on a scene between Sycamore Dorning and his lady fair. I carefully craft dialogue that resonates with each character’s true essence, and I add in sensory details that draw the reader into the story world and I… hear a cat resonating with itself on the credenza beside me. I look over, and I get that scrunchy-eyed expression of regal condescension. “Permission to carry on, human.”

Thank you, Your Majesty.

Cats are also very pleasant to pet. I have some long-haired kitties among my feline associates, and also–at present–some kittens. Petting them is my privilege and also my pleasure. When I go outside to feed, cats strop themselves against my calves, and when I sit down to write, usually a cat or two has taken up picket duty elsewhere in the kitchen.

Cats are pretty. Some of my cats, the torties and cream torties in particular, are gorgeous, and I think whatever is beautiful to you helps your mind stay focused, relaxed, and happy. I am also friends with some all black cats, and their eyes are especially lovely.

And cats are entertaining. I’m  impressed by the mama cats who play-wrestle with their kittens, and the unrelated adult cats who turn a tolerant eye on kittens leaping upon a waving tail, or kittens copping a random cuddle with any adult heat source. Some of these guys clearly skipped a few pages of the Alpha Predator World Domination Manual.

I like observing cat behavior. Who is da boss, who is laid back? Who will slap his mama to get to wet food, and who never eats until everybody else is gone and darkness has fallen? They have their personalities and their stories, most of which I will never know.

And finally, for my cats, there is no pandemic. Life for them has gone on without missing a beat. They eat, they spat, they play, they hangout in the sun, they yowl at the moon, or they watch me write. There is no election drama unfolding in their feline lives, no virus decimating their nursing home population, no jobless report to fret over. S’all good as long as the wet food shows up in the evening, and the dry food is put out in the morning. I learn calm from the lilies of the field and the cats of the porch.

Are there animals in your life these days? What do they add, and what do they cost you? If you had to do this year over, would you change your beast/life balance in any way? I’m ready to send out ARCs for My Heart’s True Delight, and today’s commenters get a shot at being added to that list. (And print readers, the Amazon print version should be up any minute…)

Winter Is Coming… I Hope

I have been comforted in this uncomfortable year, by the extent to which, if nature is noticing the pandemic at all, she’s mostly finding benefits from it. The clear canals in Venice, the improved air quality, the reduced carbon emissions… all good stuff. My spring flowers bloomed with their usual enthusiasm, the feral kittens showed up at the summer kitchen on schedule (dang it), and summertime arrived, complete with heat, humidity, and bugs.

And I have had enough of summer, thank you very much. I’m trying not to use the daytime AC this year, and ye gods… How can it be that fans pretty much guarantee chapped lips while the stinkin’ humidity guarantees two showers day? Did you know that cats can transmit poison ivy? That will teach me to let the little buggers strop my ankles when I’m running around in shorts and a T-shirt.

I’m ready to be done with summer. Done, done, done. I want to get to the part of the year where hot drinks, fuzzy socks, and long-sleeved layers are delightful. When you can take that power walk after 8 am and not worry about heat exhaustion. When cooking is partly to keep the house toasty, and not a last resort in a kitchen that feels like an oven even when the oven is off.

I want to get to the weeks when cleaning out the flower beds doesn’t mean a wringing sweat in the first five minutes of outdoor activity, and scented candles rather than essence de pet de mouffette perfumes the evening air. My energy ratchets up when the temperature drops and the days get shorter, and the colder months are generally more productive in terms of writing for me too (Sycamore Dorning, take note).

I know people gathering indoors more is not a good thing from a public health standpoint right now, but I’m not much of a gatherer in any weather. Bring me autumn, please, and to heck with this heat. I want to spend long, dark evenings reading great books, and chilly mornings writing some happily ever afters.

Are you getting exasperated with any aspect of life these days? Do you dread to see the seasons change, or are you looking forward to the cooler months? What has brought you comfort and a sense of normalcy this year? What are you looking forward to?

I’ll add three commenters to my ARC list for My Heart’s True Delight, which will be available in the web store in just a couple weeks!

Horse Hobby

I’m glad we have Zoom technology these days, because it has allowed me to take advantage of some really cool writing seminars, and to sit in on hearings for a family member arrested in connection with police brutality protests. Next week, I’ll use Zoom to attend a virtual concert, and my sister-in-law is doing a lot of medical consultations via Zoom tech.

So having internet access is probably a good thing, given the present pandemic, and alas for the tens of millions of Americans (mostly poor and/or rural) who don’t. I also suspect that having a pet and most especially a dog makes coping these days easier. Pets are good company, they distract us from our woes, and they give us messes to clean up. Dogs who need walking also get us up off the couch, and when it is that ever a bad idea?

If I had to list another item to keep in my pandemic bag of tricks (besides good books, of course), I’d include hobbies. We don’t hear much about hobbies any more. Our children and grandchildren have activities, extra curricular classes, or instruments to practice (or they did earlier in the year), but those goal-oriented, qualitatively evaluated, supervised efforts are not a hobbies.

I think of hobbies as non-productive activities undertaken purely for fun. I am a flower gardener several months of the year. I used to bake a lot. I ride horses when my thumb and wrist aren’t boogered up. These activities don’t earn money, they don’t have to be social, and they don’t relate directly to what I do for a living. They are enjoyable pastimes that I’ve pursued for the sheer joy of doing as I please.

They also create a time when I’m not attending to the news, not fretting over that man without a mask in the produce section, not staring down some character who won’t tell me what his defining trauma is (Sycamore Dorning, take a bow). My creative brain needs these moderately-engaging, low stress activities to free up my subconscious to solve problems, generate new ideas, and make new associations between divergent concepts.

I NEED the break hobbies provide, in other words. I benefit from goofing off in ways all the focus, discipline, and determination in the world can’t match. When reality is scary and uncertain, knitting a scarf, methinks, can be the best coping mechanism.

I hope some clever PhD candidate in psychology or sociology is studying how we regular folks are weathering unprecedented storms. I suspect simple tools–a hobby, a pet, screen-free days, passion projects, or handwritten letters–will prove to have stood us in good stead.

Have you ever pursued a hobby? If you could pick up any hobby at all, have all the tools right at your fingertips, which one would it be? A long, long time ago, I earned a Girl Scout merit badge in embroidery….

I will add three names to my ARC list for My Heart’s True Delight, so let’s hear your dream hobby ideas!