Spam Extortion: Just What We Needed

The other day, my Beloved opened his email to find a bit of weirdness that he read aloud to me with delight, not to say relish. The gist of it was that the sender had photos taken through my Beloved’s computer camera, and these photos would be Very Embarrassing if they got out. The sender also announced that (s)he had my Beloved’s entire contact list and passwords and would send the photos to five random contacts if my Beloved did not cough up $2,000 in bitcoin and send it to the address given.

Nothing says “times are hard” like spam blackmail, y’all.

Fun Fact: “Blackmail” originated in Scotland, where local chieftains had to pay a monetary tribute to other local chieftains in exchange for not burning down the village. Again. If you didn’t pay up, the chieftains had no problem setting fire to everything, which a.) added some teeth to the threat, and b.) resulted in a blackened circle of earth where your house used to be.

Of course, our random sender is counting on Guilty Conscience syndrome, coupled with people’s tendency to overinflate their own dignity and threats thereunto. The trouble is, my Beloved isn’t guilty of the alleged behavior, and anybody who thinks he suffers from overweening dignity doesn’t know him very well.

Oh, and his computer is a Linux system that doesn’t have a camera.

Random shot-in-the-dark extortion must work, at least occasionally, and at $2k a pop, it doesn’t have to work too often to be profitable. It makes me a little sad to think of the person who is, even now, trying to figure out what bitcoin is so that his dry cleaner won’t get pictures of his navel lint. But listen, spam extortion is lazy and inefficient. Real extortion takes work. I’m only trying to help here.

First, a genuine blackmailer has to sound like they have a brain and that it’s possibly better than yours. They take pains to make sure their threatening letter sounds like it came from the office of a lawyer who specializes in exquisite evil. Extortionists who write like they don’t know which end of a pencil to hold would not have the brains to find your snail-mail envelopes from Bronycon or draw any conclusions from them, much less hack into your whole virtual life. A criminal who confuses “their” and “there” repeatedly is no threat.

Second, genuine extortion is specific with the intimidation. “I know or have (insert explicit information here) and I’m going to send it to these people, who are being listed here by name and email address.” The list will include your mom, your minister, and someone you knew in high school and forgot you had in your contacts. Look, a lot of people forget that they have cameras on their phones and computers and that these can (for real) be hijacked by hackers. Most of us cannot be blackmailed by the threat of distributing the faces we make in Zoom meetings, though. The idea that someone, somewhere, is watching my incredibly boring life through my laptop is hilarious. I wish them well.

An extortionist who does not have the time, brains, or access to come up with anything real is not worthy of your $2k. “Plausible” doesn’t cut it.

Hint: No, it really doesn’t. This is 2020 in America. The world is on FIRE. Nobody cares what anyone is doing in the privacy of their own homes, because we are all pretty much stuck in our own homes, watching the news and holding our breaking hearts. My Beloved is repairing 118-year-old plaster. I am drinking before five, because Zoom. If someone wants to blackmail us, good luck. We will absolutely pay them in ancient labradoodle byproducts. We have lots.

Lastly, and most importantly, successful extortion requires someone who is close enough to the victims to know what the latter are really afraid of. Sending pictures of me changing shirts to my contact list? Except for causing some unexpected hysterical blindness, that worries me not at all. Fire ’em off and let the reader beware. Sending me a box of spiders? Now there’s a threat. I might pay up to avoid having a crawling, seething mass of arachnids in my mailbox. Of course, someone has to catch them all and prevent them from eating each other in shipping, because a box of dead spiders is just free food for my sister’s accidental pet grackle.

Anyway, if the Internet extortionists are after you, here, for free, is the response you need to send them:

“Thank you for helping me promote my tanning business. I would appreciate it if you would send the photos to ALL my contacts, not just five, and if you would include my business phone number along with them. I will be donating my $2k to my community bail fund in your honor, and I hope that someday soon you need to avail yourself of it.”

Now, go take those sticky notes off your cameras and do a fan dance.

The Colors of Madness (No, Not THAT Madness)

As the world continues to spiral out of control and into madness, we continue to hunker down here at the casa, coping in our own ways. Personally, I have been doing my nails. No, this does not contribute squat to the good of humanity, but it keeps me off of social media and therefore sane. This is not the place for my rant about white people telling people of color how to behave, so I won’t, but that’s why I have been engaged with Cover Girl’s Autumn Rush. (But if you want to DO something, call your friends and check on them. They are not okay.)

My Beloved copes with all the stress by doing Projects. These have included making a fire pit, making horseshoe pits with backstops, cleaning out the garage, rebuilding our garage steps, burying conduit to allow electricity in the garage, and, most recently, stripping the last bit of wallpaper in our house. (Remember, he has done all this while I have done my nails. It’s amazing.)

The wallpaper was in our downstairs bedroom, which we hastily painted over about 25 years ago. Yes, we know how bad that is, but we were in a hurry. And truly, it did not bother us much for 25 years. But NOW, when we consider that we might eventually have to move our own bedroom down there, we’re more careful. The wallpaper was an interesting large-format floral pattern that reminded me of my grandmother’s aprons—that is to say, it was fine for keeping your dress nice, but probably not so hot on the walls. It also had a green motif that was probably arsenic. Masks. They’re not just for going out in public.

Anyway, now the walls are stripped and we’re starting to discuss paint, and this is way worse than nail polish. My nail polish collection contains shades like “Pink Promise” and “Grape Shifter.” It also has less obvious names like “Arm Candy” (pink), and “Razzle Dazzle” (also pink). “Hypnautical” is aqua, and so is “I-Need-A-Refresh-Mint.” Really, who makes these names up?

The people who work for Sherwin-Williams. Y’all, I have an entire fan of SW colors, and I am mesmerized. I can’t stop flipping through it, because there are HUNDREDS of colors, and they all have names, and those names are the stuff of dreams. Remember some of your dreams?


Let’s take gray. In the SW fan, there are way more than fifty shades of gray. There are 168, to be exact. Think about this for a second—168 colors that are all, in some way, gray, and yet distinct from one another and in need of names, and some poor person had to name them. I feel a huge surge of pity for this person, because first of all, the difference in tone between “Dorian Gray” and “Earl Gray” is negligible, but it’s vitally important not to either have tea with the first or talk about art with the second. (I have to feel that the color-namer is not a big reader, nor are the people who put “Dorian Gray” on their walls.)

For the discerning connoisseur of blah, SW has “Mystical Gray,” “Enhanced Gray,” “Uplifting Gray,” and “Mindful Gray.” For the more practical, there are “Network Gray,” “Steely Gray,” “Magnetic Gray,” “Essential Gray,” and  “Proper Gray.” The colors sometimes get personal, as with “Lazy Gray,” “Sensuous Gray,” “Special Gray,” “Intellectual Gray,” and “Worldly Gray.”

Remember, I am not making a word of this up. These are all colors that you can paint your world, if you order your paint from Sherwin-Williams, and you have all the pizzazz of a block of concrete (which is also a color in the grey group).

If none of these suit, you can have “Quest Gray,” “Grayish,” “Cloak Gray,” or “Swanky Gray.” Perhaps you’d like “African Gray,” “Gray Screen,” “Gray Matters,” “Web Gray,” or “Grizzle Gray.” I have not mentioned “Requisite Gray,” “Popular Gray,” “Agreeable Gray,” or “Amazing Gray.” And yet, dear friends, every single one of these colors is, and I cannot stress the enough, gray. You know, the color of a badly cooked pork chop.

The nuances of gray are keeping me awake at night, although I’m not tempted to paint our bedroom that color. I am currently enamored of “Summer Day,” although I also like “Moonraker.” If you have no idea what colors those are, don’t blame me. Blame the color-namer at SW, and then go out and get a gallon of “They Call It Mellow,” or perhaps “Take Five,” which is not just a color, but something that perhaps we all need to do before we take to the Internet to tell everyone else how to be and what to feel.

Me, I’m “Storm Gray,”and possibly headed for “Black of Night.” My fingernails are going to be “Raisin” next, but the only thing I intend to raise is our painting ladder. Hell is not one of my options.

Happy Anniversary to Us!


Geez, we were so YOUNG!

So, y’all, guess what today is?  Today marks the 36th year that my Beloved and I have been married. Even as I write that, I have to stop and let it sink in. This morning, in that delicious space between being totally asleep and up-and-at-‘em, I looked at my Beloved and said “gee, it feels like we’ve been married our whole lives,” and then laughed like a maniac. We went on our first date at 16. (Don’t get all starry-eyed about that—we went on our second date at 17. My Beloved is not Mr. Speedy.) We married almost nine years later.

And there’s something important I want to say today about that, something for all of us who know about the messy, complicated, uncooperative bits of being married: a lasting marriage is not winning the lottery. Long-term relationships are multi-dimensional, build-the-plane-in-the-air experiences. Sometimes one person is building a jet and the other a helicopter, and well, those are hard to fly. Sometimes you have to go back and re-engineer the whole thing.

Two people we love gave us a framed anniversary present once that said the key to a lasting relationship was not marrying the right person, but becoming the right person. That is some serious truth, y’all.

We have had some amazing years, and some bad ones. Every single marriage I know and love has had those back-against-the-wall moments where the easiest thing to do would also be the most painful. Somehow we’ve chosen, minute-by-minute, day-by-day, to hang on. Here’s part two of what truth I’ve gleaned from 36 years of this adventure: we change, the bad times pass, and the good times are so good. It’s pretty cool to be married to the person who knew me when I was fun.

Okay, I think I’m still fun, and so is he, but you get the idea.

2020-05-07 18.37.11

Last week hiking on the NRT. We are not young, but we’re still having fun.

Every single day offers us opportunities to choose things, and not just what to spread on our breakfast bagels. We can choose what nourishes our relationships, or we can choose what we want just for ourselves. And make no mistake, we all choose both of those options. Sometimes we’re freaking selfish. Sometimes we’re able to make choices that we know are good for our marriage even if they require everything of us.

What we don’t ever really get is the option of a problem-free happily ever after like those promised in rom-coms. Marriage, as I told one of our kids on Monday, is WORK.

I said this because on Monday I had a bout of benign positional vertigo. I get these sometimes, and they are AWFUL. I spent Monday throwing up and holding onto the wall to keep the room from spinning.

My Beloved spent Monday reading aloud to me, picking up my meds from the pharmacy, and making sure I didn’t fall over when I needed to move from the bed to the bathroom. Y’all, that is marriage. It’s not some 50-50 nonsense where people keep score about what they get and what they give. It’s 100-100, and somebody is holding someone else’s hand while the world spins.

Today I am wobbly but can walk across the floor without holding onto something. I’m gonna make a pound cake for my Beloved, not because I owe him anything for yesterday, but because I love him, and I want to. And I know that when the world spins, his hand is there. When his world spins, so will my hand be. When the whole world is whirling, it’s time to dance in each other’s arms, which we have done a lot of lately.

And that’s it, y’all. We are all selfish and selfless, marriage is complicated. It is also a hell of a lot of fun. Hug your loved one today even if you don’t like them very much right now. It’s all about the choices and who we choose to become.

Hair Today, Hair Tomorrow

Look, I know that in a world with problems the size of asteroids, hair is pretty minor–like “invisible” on the scale of disasters. The trouble is, it’s not “invisible” on my head.

Remember that meme on Facebook like a month ago that said we’re all two weeks from knowing what everybody’s real hair color is? Yeah. That’s not my problem. I stopped coloring my hair when I read the ingredients list on hair color and decided I didn’t want to keep putting that millimeters from where I keep my brain. Also, my hair grows so fast, I was perpetually a skunk. Not a good look.

It’s the latter thing that’s such a problem. My hair grows like a dandelions on the lawn. I usually get it cut about every three weeks. But not now, y’all. It’s been ten weeks. I’m down THREE haircuts. Worse, I shower in the evenings, so I tend to go to bed with damp hair, and in the morning when I wake up my head is the victim of a sculpting contest between my pillow and the sheets.


Yes, dear ones, it’s gotten so bad that I’ve been giving my bed head titles. From left to right we have “Surf Against the Lighthouse,” “Very Hungry Caterpillar,” “Vortex,” and “Dropped Plate of Pasta.” Not pictured are “Flight of Seagulls,” “Donkey Mane,” and “Black Hole.” Actually, “Flight of Seagulls” was my Beloved’s idea as he gazed in wonder on the way four inches of hair fountained in opposite directions from the middle of my head. The alternative title might have been “Parting the Grey Sea.”

I dunno, y’all. We’ve also had “Dandelion,” “Brush With Death,” and “Swarm.” As the hair gets longer, the excitement grows. What will it be today? (Look, it gives me a reason to get out of bed in the mornings, so don’t judge. You’re judging, aren’t you?)

I have seriously considered taking my Beloved’s clippers and putting on the longest guard and letting my whole head have a moment. Shaving it all off is a possibility, too. Being bald was one of the best bits of chemotherapy, after I got used to it. I understand now why guys do this–it’s so EASY. Polish head, go. Camping with no hair is WONDERFUL; there’s absolutely nothing to worry about in the tent-head department.

Of course, chemotherapy hair is partly responsible for the current chaos on my head. Before it all fell out, my hair was curly and relatively easy to deal with. I had wash-and-wear hair. After it came back, though, it has been straight as a ruler and has all the body of Casper the Friendly Ghost.

This is not fair. Right now, I am not bald. I am the opposite of whatever bald is. I have more hair than I know what to do with, and it just flops there on my head, getting in my way and making me think longingly of that vacuum-cleaner thing that sucked the hair in and cut it. In a way, this is a plus, because being peeved at my hair keeps me from being peeved at my Beloved or the dog, both of whom are having hair issues of their own, but honestly, my self-esteem is suffering. I do not want to look crazier than I actually am, which is pretty crazy.

Listen, we are going to eventually come out of quarantine, and when we do, we are going to look like Cousin It. We’ll come slowly out of our houses, blinking in the sunlight, a street full of walking haystacks, like a scene from a horror movie. As I said to a friend recently (via text message because, you know, social distancing) I might give a kidney for twenty minutes with our hairstylist.

I’m open to ideas, y’all. You can see the problem here. Help me fix it. You can even offer to cut my hair, unless your initials are R.S.H., in which case, thanks but no. Just quarantine yourself totally for two weeks, wear a mask, and use extra long scisso. . . .oh, never mind. I’ll just vanish under the hair, shall I? I would say “see you in June,” but I probably won’t be able to, what with this thatch in my eyes.

Spiders in Times of Stress

I’m late on the blog post because this was the week I hit, if not bottom, then at least a pretty stout ledge on the way down. My descent has been slowed by teaching and making masks and finishing a novel, but now the novel’s stuck on a plot point, I’ve only got two more masks to make, and my students have turned in research paper drafts that make me question my entire vocation and abilities therein.

In other words, late April in social isolation is that “long dark teatime of the soul” that Douglas Adams warned us about. And here I am, accompanied in it by peas that need planting, two quarts of strawberries that need to be jam, and the attention span of a toddler on amphetamines. Have I mentioned that I’ve also been as irritable as a vampire with a toothache? No? Ask my Beloved. We were doing a Google Hangout with all our kids on Saturday night, and one of them innocently mentioned something that is triggering to me, and I thought he was going to fall out of his chair in his effort to get in front of the camera and shush the person before I could rocket down that toxic bunny hole.


The short version of all this is that things are normal in our house right now. This is normal. This hollow, semi-dead-inside, don’t-think-about-the-things feeling is everybody’s reality. We aren’t special.

Look, I have zilch-all in the way of isolationist wisdom. I have absolutely reached the point of talking to spiders. I yelled a lot at one yesterday as I beat it to death with the shoe it had just fallen out of. And don’t you dare try to tell me that spiders are just our little eight-legged, eight-eyeballed, venom-fanged friends. Not in my shoes, they aren’t.

Colorful-Cute-Spider-Mesh-Ball-Stress-Squeeze-Grape-Toys-Anxiety-Relief-Stress-Ball-Grape-Kids-Toy.jpg_640x640And y’all, you’re not going to believe this, but there are actually therapy spiders out there. I am not kidding. Apparently letting arachnids walk on you is a means of stress relief. Listen, I am one irritation away from being completely non compost mentis, (and yes, I meant to spell it that way), but I have NEVER been stressed enough that spiders on me anywhere would help. I do not even want a “squishy spider stress ball,” although you can get one for ten bucks on Ebay. They are billed as “colorful and cute” which goes to show how far we have fallen, my friends.

Please believe me when I tell you, I don’t want you to do ANYTHING because of me and this blog post, except perhaps laugh. If I hear the word “unprecedented” one more time followed by instructions about how to cope, I will have to go find more spiders to beat.

Personally, I am trying to summon the fortitude that got me through five months of chemotherapy. During that time, I was neutropenic and nauseated—so my immune system was trashed and even ice water tasted like something pumped out of an industrial sediment pond. But ALSO during that time I somehow finished the coursework for my PhD, created a whole network of web resources for first generation college students, and began the work on what has become a series of novels. I didn’t intend to do those things when I set out—well, except for the graduate coursework—but they just sort of happened as I took Zofran and watched my white cell count drop.

Whatever else it is, this is not that bad, so I’m counting my blessings, starting with my Beloved who reads me to sleep every single night. I’m thankful for the Dutch apple pie I managed to make, and the peas and the strawberries and the ability to whack a big spider so hard its legs fall off. These are not inconsiderable gifts.

I do not promise to do better with the irritability and the distractibility. Yesterday, my Beloved came into our study and found me sitting at the card table working on a jigsaw puzzle when he knew I was ALSO in the middle of a big project that needed to be finished.

“I’m thinking about what to do next,” I said without looking up.

“Ah, good,” he replied, as he very wisely eased out of the room.

This is why I love the man. Well, one of the reasons, anyway.

Eventually we will be able to irritate one another in person, but until that day, embrace wherever it is you are. Or not. Really, do whatever gets you through, as long as no one is harmed. Unless it’s a spider.

Ignoring the Inbox: How I Learned Not to Care If My Cheese Dip Is Not Perfect

I know everybody’s saying this, but I really no longer have any idea what day it is. The rhythms that defined my life—teaching classes, going to church, weekly lunch with my friend Elaine, meeting my women’s Bible study on Mondays—have all been blown to the viral winds, and here I am, on the 857th day of April, not sure if it’s Sunda2020-04-09 19.44.06 (2)y or Tuesday, but pretty sure it’s not Halloween, but not positive. We are rocking the masks.

Every morning, we get up, make our bed, and put on real clothes, just as if somebody would accidentally drive by and see us through the windows. Actually, I dress because I loathe my pajamas and part of my quarantine has been spent trying to find a pair I like from a company that is still in business. I digress. The point is, to preserve some sort of normalcy, I’ve been dressing and washing my face and putting on earrings because it helps me feel a little less discombobulated.

Then I open my email and the wheels come off. This is not because I have a lot of student emails, although I do, or because my inbox is full of scary news (it isn’t). It’s because a bunch of things that I don’t ever remember subscribing to have been popping up in my inbox telling me what to do with my life.

Today, some news service suggests that I might want to spend my sheltering-at-home time “learning to make the perfect cheese dip.”

What. The. Hell?

(It’s no longer Lent, and I can swear with impunity, although I am trying not to. For the record, the United Methodist Women got $315 because my vocabulary got the better of me 63 times in 40 days. Sigh.)

Look, I dunno about anybody else, but I have gained three pounds, and I am heavily invested in not making it four. Even if my summer wardrobe were more forgiving of new pounds, I still don’t know why I should devote my seclusion to . . . cheese dip. I can make a perfectly ducky cheese dip in five minutes with a brick of Velveeta, a can of Ro-Tel tomatoes and green chilies, and a microwave. You can, too, but I don’t recommend it if you want to fit into your shorts.

Another news service wants to tell me “what people are drinking when they work from home.” There is a photo accompanying this essay, and it’s of a man sitting at his laptop with a full, and very shapely, glass of beer. The upshot of the article is that in some spiffy upscale apartment somewhere, there’s someone way more together than me making themselves cocktails for lunch and sipping their way toward evening while somehow also doing their actual jobs.

Y’all, I am recording short video chats about John Cheever for my students. I cannot imagine trying to talk to them about postmodernism while sipping a beer. Okay, actually, I can imagine it, and despite the fact that these people are all adults themselves, I do not think they’re ready for THAT lecture. I can wait until five o’clock, like a civilized person, and then have all the Shock Top and American Honey my Beloved can fetch me. (As another aside, it’s not wise to let a non-drinker ration your alcohol. He has been known to pour a shot of American Honey into a Bold Rock, and lemme tell you, that is delicious but more dangerous than open mic night at the asylum. I continue to digress, because that is my life now.)

Despite my best intentions, I am not using this quarantine time to organize my kitchen, learn to make my own kombucha, or spring clean this entire moldering pile of possessions to which I am increasingly less attached. I am not going to learn French, write another novel, or discover the silent killer lurking in my fridge. (Hint: it’s bacon.) Instead, I am going to do the things that make me feel human—playing the piano, FaceTiming the kids, taking walks. I have made 20 face masks for friends and family, and I have six more that have been promised. I’m going to finish those and then make a landscape quilt because I want to. Other things are more important, but I don’t care.

Do what keeps you sane, y’all. It’s enough, it really is, to love the ones you’re with. The last thing we need is to combine the stress of trying to do that with trying to make the perfect cheese dip. Ignore the inbox and enjoy your day.

The Decline of an (Ig) Noble Profession

Friends, today I want to call our attention to the most invisible of all the invisible suffering groups during this pandemic and its sequellae. This group has seen its profession dry up almost overnight, and it is not generally eligible for unemployment benefits or other federal assistance. These professionals have kept insurance companies viable and have facilitated in some cases the total refurbishment of homes and businesses.

I am speaking, of course, about housebreakers. Do you have any idea what happens to the burglary industry when everyone is at home ALL THE TIME? Household theft has dropped like a rock since the stay-at-home orders were issued.

Actually, I am not making that up. While some fear the rise of domestic violence (not a joking matter, either), other crimes have virtually stopped. Actual statistics gleaned from news sources indicate that property crimes, like burglary, have dropped significantly—from 10% in Los Angeles County, to 21% in Chicago, 24% in New York, and 26% in Philadelphia.

What are these unfortunate people doing? If they are no longer helping themselves to other people’s stuff, how are they making a living?

Rapid Roy, a local breaking-and-entering specialist, agreed to be interviewed for this blog post on the condition of anonymity.

“It’s terrible,” he said.

“I’ve been forced to burgle doghouses, and there’s just not much market for dirty towels and chewed-up blankets. My fence just laughed at me.”

Roy went on to say that he has not even been able to target outbuildings, since many couples have decided to use those as an alternative to divorce.

“Every shed in the county has some guy living in it, drying his socks on his lawnmower because he criticized his wife’s pajamas,” he sobbed.

When we asked how he could tell, he noted that inhabited sheds are usually surrounded by piles of adult-beverage cans and bottles, interspersed with pizza delivery boxes and the occasional discarded sock.

“Burglars can’t even get unemployment,” Roy went on, “Even though we have always been performing a public service by helping relieve people of the burden of their stuff. Shoot, we were Marie Kondo before she was a thing. And now, nothing. There is no gratitude anywhere.”

In some areas, desperate desperados are asking people to leave their valuables by the curbside for pickup, but as with other pandemic strategies, Americans are slow to comply with orders the benefits of which they cannot readily see.

“I put fliers on people’s porches,” Roy said, “but so far, no one has placed any valuables where I can get them, or,” his face darkened, “some other out-of-work burglar gets to them before I do.

“And you know what’s the worst thing?” Roy had to pause to wipe his eyes. “Just the other day, I was out casing the neighborhood to see if anybody had decided to make an unauthorized total-family trip to Wal-Mart. And when I got home?” He was sobbing again. “Someone had broken into my apartment. Took everything. Even my toaster.”

Please. If you have a heart, put your toaster out by the curb for Rapid Roy and his starving brethren. If you can find it in your heart to leave your TV and your mom’s jewelry, too, well, you’ll be a prince among thieves. At least until we all go back to work.

The Wrong Lent, or Something

Re those scenes in Airplane! when Steve McCroskey (played by Lloyd Bridges) says he picked the wrong week to give up smoking/sniffing glue? Well, this year for Lent, I decided to give up swearing. My bad language habit is just that, a habit, and I thought that I’d choose something that might, at the end of the 40 days, make me a better person, easier to be around, and less likely to be a bad influence on small children.

Clearly, I picked the wrong Lent to do this. I allow myself one exposure to national news per day, and believe me, it’s costly. At $5 a pop, I now owe God $260, and Easter is almost two weeks away. The night we decided to come home early from Costa Rica cost me $70 alone. When I learned that our only president was considering relaxing social distancing practices for the sake of economic gains, it was another $35, and that’s only because my Beloved stopped me before I really got rolling.

What I need, therefore, is a larger vocabulary of deprecatory invective, and believe me, I’m developing one. I am not proud of this, but it is pushing me to think about some things.

If I may be serious for a moment, I have something for us to consider. A meme circulating on Facebook asks us to think about what parts of our “normal” life are worth returning to and what parts should stay gone. In one way, this is a ridiculous question—I want my normal life back in every way. I want to see my students face-to-face in class. I want to interact with my colleagues, and not on Zoom. I want to be able to travel and see my kids, I want to buy bread and toilet paper and ground beef when I need them, and most of all, I want to see my friends and laugh for “heart’s-ease and not for jest” as Tolkien once said.

I want all that normal back.

But on the other hand, I love home and being here is no strain. I have been making art and writing fiction. I’ve been playing the piano every day, complicated, difficult piano that forces me to think about what I’m doing, not what’s happening in places I can neither see nor help. My Beloved has been playing his guitar, and we’ve been singing together. The television has not been turned on in two weeks. We have not gotten desperate enough to play Scrabble (the last time we did that, my Beloved won, which created a Domestic Crisis), but we’re contemplating that sort of thing. I cook a lot. We now own a spin bike, which may be the ultimate in lifesaving equipment. I have been target-shooting with my crossbow and am confident that I could drop one of our backyard deer if the freezer gets really bare. (I think I’m kidding here, but maybe not. They have already been snacking on brave new hydrangea leaves.)

The point is, not to be too preachy about it, this has been kind of creatively nourishing. I think it’s because we are on a strict news diet—limit one dose per day, usually at noon when the Virginia Department of Health updates come out. As a culture, we have information overload, y’all, but the trouble is that it’s difficult to separate what we need to know from what people want us to think. If you’re watching the news or refreshing your browser every waking minute, afraid you’ll miss something important, you need to stop that right now, for the sake of your own mental health. Seriously.

Look, there’s nothing we can do but stay home and hang on. We all have our cup of suck, as it were, and we all have to drink it. How big it will be, and how bitter, has yet to be determined, but we can’t get a fix on that by looking at talking heads telling us what they think, as if it matters. As Dr. Fauci said, “the virus sets the timeline.” And it doesn’t have a brain.

So my takeaway is this—For the love of all that is good, step away from the television, close your browser, and do something creative, restorative, gentle. Your worrying or mine is not holding up the world, nor will it make the pandemic end faster or give people their jobs back. As I once said to my mom, making her really mad at me, why do you watch this stuff if it upsets you? What can you do about it?

What you can do, and what I can do, is live our best lives in this space (home), doing these things (what we love), with as much joy as we can muster, while being as kind as possible to each other. We are not as alone as we may feel like we are. We can reach out to one another virtually—even via snail mail—and offer comfort and connection. The world will not miraculously be healed when we emerge from this, but we just might be.

Also, shout-out to Laura and Julia and their virtual hug from the windows across the street. THAT’S keeping us going.



Home Improvement and Other Dangers

Day eleven of our captivity: We are cleaning out the garage, y’all. This is how bad it’s gotten, or how good, depending on how you look at it. One thing our isolation has done for all of us is force us to spiff up our personal spaces. (Also, HGTV should probably have warning labels right now. Too many of us are going to be up to our ears in DIYs that will turn into UFOs* before we know it.)

GarageWe have a freestanding garage (remember those?) that opens to the alley behind our house. It’s cute. Here’s a picture of it. It does not have electricity or plumbing, so we have never used it except as the Graveyard of Unwanted Things. You know how this works—you’ve got something, a bed frame, say, that is possibly useful, so instead of giving it away or tossing it, you shove it into some unused space until it dies a lingering death being nibbled by mice.

Over the years, we have given away a houseful of furniture, so I don’t feel too guilty about this. Our kids’ beds, dressers, and other accoutrements of childhood have all found second and third homes. Now what’s in that garage is stuff that outlived its usefulness somewhere around 2002.

For instance, there is a sofa that the Boy and his friends (remember the St. Bernards?) destroyed in 2007. They were wrestling. As a group, the five of them weighed over 1,000 pounds, so you can just imagine the condition that sofa was in. Just finding it made me relive the moment I realized they had totally snapped the back off, and I said words that my mother absolutely never, ever said in front of me. I don’t know why we kept it, unless it was as a horrible warning to our other furniture.

When the dead sofa got moved out of the garage, it is worth noting that a Timex watch fell out. It was not still ticking.

There was also a computer desk in there that we purchased when I was in graduate school the first time, in 1995. We tried really hard to give it away, but it was the size of a ping-pong table, with extra ping. Worse, it was made of some kind of particleboard, so it shed dust and pieces on the regular, and the shelves were way too deep to be useful. It ate more important paperwork than an industrial shredder. In the garage, it found work as a home for small animals, judging by the scat we discovered in and around it—just one of many ways to accidentally provide valuable natural habitat.

Another interesting find was a cabinet with two shelves that came from my grandparents’ house in Allisonia. This cabinet housed their first television, and my grandfather was so enamored of the box that when he upgraded the TV, he turned the box into furniture. It lived in our house for years, serving as the Graveyard of Bits of Paper, until I’d had enough and moved it to the garage. Honestly, I never liked it much. The only reason I kept it is because when I opened the doors and inhaled deeply, it still smelled like my grandparents’ house, a comforting, wool-carpet-and-cigar sort of smell. This no longer obtains. In fact, inhaling deeply around it now is a prescription for hantavirus.

We also found a couple dozen volleyball teepees that we moved from Wytheville in the ‘90s, a defunct grill, and a complete set of dead push mowers. My father could have taken that stuff, harvested parts, and made two fully functional mowers, a robotic vacuum cleaner, and a hair dryer, with parts left over for a backyard rotisserie. We are not him.

The final item in the garage is still there. It weighs 700 pounds (not kidding here), and lived in my grandfather’s study for all of my young life. It’s a safe—combination lock and all, and yes, I still know how to open it. When I was Very Young, like about eight, I asked Pa what the combination was, and he told me. I trotted into his study and proceeded to follow his instructions to the letter; it was kind of my first foray into crime—safecracking. He was horrified and amused in equal measure, and now I suspect I’m the only living person who knows the combination. Perhaps I should write that down before my dotage finds me here in the house, talking to spiders and putting my keys in the oven.

Anyway, social distancing has resulted in a clean garage, a semi-clean basement, and a much happier spouse. If there’s one thing my Beloved enjoys, it’s throwing junk away, and I would offer to loan him out, but, oops, not right now. Keep washing those hands, y’all, and stay well. Garage party when this is all over.

*Unfinished objects.


Staying Sane with Seeds

(And other alliterations.)

So, what are y’all doing to keep the raptors of reality away from the delicate dreams of your daylight domiciles?

At my house, I have pulled out the seed catalogues, because a.) planting season is here, and b.) planting things can be done in solitude, and c.) Burpee’s photographs of veggies and flowers are pornography for gardeners. It’s been a long week.

Anyway, I was sitting at breakfast looking at pictures of impossibly beautiful sweet peppers that have probably been airbrushed within an inch of their lives, and then, y’all, I started reading the prose. There’s not much more florid (not to say steamy) than the copy in a seed catalogue. The person or people who write this are masters of adjectival strings and alliteration. It’s amazing. I can’t believe I never noticed this before.

Potato, Magic Molly - Burpee

Observe this one: “Marvels of color and flavor, Magic Molly’s deep-purple tubers are ready to make culinary magic. Once upon a grill, the earthy flavor of each large fingerling—rich, deep purple inside and out—is delectably transformed by warm, woody smoke accents.” This is a good place for that bug-eyed emoji.

A sweet pepper is described as having an “adorable, beak-like” shape. Another pepper, in something that echoes Marie Kondo for me, “showers joy—from its eye-catching, variegated leaves to its sweet, thin-walled, chameleon-colored fruit.” Hear that? All we need for some joy is a hybrid sweet pepper called “Confetti.” And how about this? “Stunningly beautiful, plump, elegantly round, and over two inches in diameter.” Would you guess that this prose is describing a radish? A radish, y’all. I don’t even like radishes all that much, but wow!

So today, let’s play a game. I’m going to give you the quotations, and you can figure out what the catalogue is talking about. Post your answers in the comments, or PM me, and the winner gets a hand-raised basil plant. I’ll leave it outside your door. Answers to follow.

What vegetable is described as having “extra-planetary good looks and lunar pale-green color”?

What fruit warrants this: “Porcelain Princess’s pretty petite pink beauties are the talk of the [garden]”?

How about this: “Glossy, golden treasures reward you with creamy, comforting dishes”?

Or this: “Bursting with joie de vivre, our own vigorous [plant] keeps on coming as fast as you can harvest it”?

Which root vegetable—root vegetable, I tell you—is described as having “a satiny touch, crispy texture, and a surprising sweetness [that] make it seductively snacky”?

Extra credit: What herb (hint: it’s NOT catnip) has a description that reads “Prrrh! Meow meow meoooooow. Brep”?

And finally, the green that “breathes spicy fire and ultra-vivid color into salads and sandwiches”?

Dunno about y’all, but I don’t want anything, not even a vegetable, breathing on my sandwiches. What I DO want it is to meet the human who writes this stuff, because he or she is a creative genius. An asparagus called “Purple Passion,” is described as having “love-me-tenderness.” A cherry tomato variety has “sinuous vines garlanded with tresses that cascade into clusters of sweet, petite tomatoes.”

Go get yourselves a Burpee catalogue and curl up with it. You won’t be sorry, and you might even want to have some “Sugar Prince” or “Biker Billy” of your own. And don’t forget “Porcelain Princess,” either.

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