DELIVERY DEBACLE REDUX: The Madness Continues

A week ago, I wrote about all the packages that hadn’t arrived before Christmas. Well, as 2021 began, the backlog continued. Again, drawing from my circle of family and friends, the waiting continued.

Some local offices haven’t switched to the newest technology yet.

. .

LJ: I’m SO frustrated. We mailed a box of gifts to Virginia on December 7. It sat in Cuyahoga Falls [Ohio] PO till December 15 before it arrived 7 miles away in Akron regional distribution center, arriving on December 17. It has been sitting there since, no movement shown in the tracking system! I know all the problems they have been having this year, but what is going on now? It only needs to get to Fredericksburg now. Just a little farther…

. .

NP: We’ve had the same problem here. A package G was expecting sat 10(!) miles from our house for more than a week.

Pretty soon, the packages might start opening themselves.

. .

KC: My box is still in Akron. No movement. The cookies are stale.

. .

TB: Me too, L! I hope EL finally got hers.

DA: BTW—we were not nearly as happy with UPS & FedEx. Several packages were randomly tossed “somewhere” in the vicinity of the house. One package (of nice chocolates) sat for a day and a half out in the rain before the meter man saw it & alerted us.

LJ: MJ had a photo of a package he sent to his sister in Buffalo. The Amazon guy left it in the snow. M got the delivery photo notice and he sent it to his sister. If they can’t get up to the house because of heavy snow, delivery people should have some way of notifying the recipient. At least Amazon’s photos help with that.

Good thing this one wasn’t left out in the snow.

TB: Our son’s pkg took almost 3 weeks from Oregon [to Ohio].

LJ: Weird, since the packages I sent to Florida and Memphis arrived at their destinations in time for Christmas with time to spare. Only my East and West destinations were screwed up. Arizona made it yesterday and Virginia is the one still traveling. That was the shortest journey by road mileage.

LJ: Mine is still at Dulles in Virginia; this is the 31st day. It needs to get to Fredericksburg. I’m happy you got yours before the New Year, however.

KC: I received a message on Dec 20 that my package was to be delivered Dec 3! It arrived on the 22nd!

There is a network distribution center in Cleveland that has been severely backlogged since September. Perhaps the letter carriers should upgrade from tricycles.

MH: I think Ohio is the problem! D had an order for pants from LLBean and there were in the center near Columbus for a month! It wasn’t a Christmas present so it didn’t matter. We didn’t realize so many people were having this problem. In Ohio’s defense, I’m sure the diversion of trucks for vaccine delivery and the major storms were a factor.

LJ: There is something wrong with the Ohio to Virginia connection.

SB: Yup, still waiting for mine. Jan 6th now.

DM: My friend ordered a Christmas present for her husband on 12/2 and by 1/4 it still hadn’t arrived!

Australian mail is delivered faster because their tricycles are yellow.

DA: We must be the only people alive who had no (zero, null, nada) problems with package delivery. Our mailings to California, New Jersey, and Boston were delivered exactly when the tracking said they’d be.  On the other hand, “normal” mail is quite another thing: no regular magazine deliveries (New Yorker, etc.), one priority mail that was sent from Hiram to our Hiram PO Box (for $3.80) took seven days. (Simply bizarre.) Not a single package or card from Europe has arrived yet—but Australian mail has exceeded all expectations. Tell me it’s not a plan to destroy the USPS so that it can be privatized….

[You may recall that in my blog about the Great Delivery Debacle posted 12/29, I offered three possible explanations—other than sheer overload—but an effort to privatize wasn’t one of them!]

Since January 1, a dam seems to have broken—but still no rhyme or reason I can find!

My order of poodles has finally arrived!

January 2-4, I received 11 packages, everything from nutritional supplements to a present I’d ordered to give as a present. Saturday and yesterday packages were delivered morning and afternoon.

Because you must be waiting with bated breath to know about the package from my sister, I won’t keep you in suspense: box of presents she mailed in Lancaster, OH, 12/11, arrived Saturday, 1/2! I was sorry to see that she had paid $20.40 for priority shipping!

Similarly, a standard  8.5X11-inch family calendar mailed from Massachusetts, $9.90 for two-day delivery, arrived after 5 days.

The other packages, mailed from all over the country between December 18 and 28, all arrived together. I noticed that two from Florida on the same day, one priority and one first class arrived together.

Surprise, shock, and awe!  An item scheduled for delivery on January 6 arrived January 4!

Some of the delivery vehicles are a bit out of date.

There is a method to all of this madness… sort of. Several factors combined this year to delay mail and package delivery schedules in every company. The various delivery servicesUS Postal Service, FedEx, UPS, Amazon, and othersoften work together to carry goods to their destinations.

In particular, the Post Office is often responsible for delivering mail to individual residences in less populated areas, regardless of which company began the shipping. This means that a delay in any of the delivery services almost always ripples out.

Holiday delivery surges happen every year, but this year was extra special! You may remember some disruptions in US mail services from this past year, highlighted again at election time. Many of those disruptions are still in place.

I still think the new guy looks shifty.

Sorting equipment that was removed and destroyed has not been replaced. Delivery trucks have not been serviced and so have broken down. Employees are still exposed to COVID, and many are sick or have passed away.

Kim Frum, a senior public relations representative for USPS, released a statement that read, in part, “While every year the Postal Service carefully plans for peak holiday season, a historic record of holiday volume compounded by a temporary employee shortage due to the COVID-19 surge, and capacity challenges with airlifts and trucking for moving this historic volume of mail are leading to temporary delays.” 

Employees at Amazon, FedEx, DHL, Hermes, and UPS also interact regularly with the public and thus are exposed to increased risk of COVID. International service has been disrupted because of travel restrictions. Everyone is dealing with increased volumes because people are ordering things online to comply with quarantine orders.

. .

The Postal Police take their job pretty seriously.

The madness comes from playing Russian roulette with your packages. Will your box be the one in the back corner of the truck? Will your letter be the one that won’t fit in the bag and has to be left for the next round? Will your parcel be the one that hasn’t been sorted by the end of the shift and must stay in the warehouse until tomorrow? Most chancy of all: whose mail will that shifty new guy take to the TV studio with him?

. .

Bottom line: I’m waiting to see what the new mailing normal will be.

THE JANUS OF 20-21!

January is named for the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings and endings. He’s depicted with two faces, looking in opposite directions. In any event, this is the customary time of year for people to take stock of what was and what’s to come. 

In the most basic terms, we do know some things about 2021 for an absolute certainty. 2021—MMXXI if you’re particularly old-fashioned— will be a common year (not a Leap Year) starting on Friday of the Gregorian calendar. This is the 2021st year of the Common Era (CE) and Anno Domini (AD) designations, the 21st year of the 3rd millennium, the 21st year of the 21st century, and the 2nd year of the 2020s decade.

2021 Chinese Zodiac Predictions

Metal Ox, not Math Ox

In the Chinese Zodiac, 2021 will be a year of the Metal Ox beginning on February 12th (2020 was a Metal Rat). According to custom, the Ox is very hardworking and methodical.  In the year of the Metal Ox, we should all focus on relationships of all kind (so let’s hope we don’t have to keep social distancing too much longer).

The Ox is also associated with hard work and responsibility, so expect lots of that in 2021 as well. The repercussions of previously made decisions will hit this year (oh boy!), but at least all our hard work will be rewarded.

2021 Angel Number Predictions

Angel Numbers are a branch of numerology based on the idea that groups of reappearing numbers or sequences of numbers are coded messages from angelic protectors.

The Angel Number 2021 symbolizes faith, whether it be in your guardian angels, your relationships, or your own intuition. Don’t doubt that your angels have good plans for you and that allowing change will bring progress. Seeing Angel Number 2021 indicates that you need to control your thoughts more, as they can affect your reality.

As per the Numerology Horoscope 2021, this year will be good for you financially. You will have a balanced and flourishing family life. Though you may face some stressful situations in the middle of the year, you will gradually overcome those challenges with your understanding and wisdom.

What about 2020?

In general Numerology, 2020 is like 1616, 1717, 1818, and 1919, because the first two digits match the second two digits. Being alive in 2020 is special because it is the only year you are likely to live through wherein the first two digits will match the second two digits—unless you believe in cryogenics or reincarnation.

At what point do therapists start offering bulk discounts?

The energy represented by the number 2020 has a resonance of focus and relationships. It also resonates with conscientiousness, pragmatism, and teamwork.

Apparently, the Angel Number 2020 was telling us all to be prepared for what is coming our way. Guardian angels were telling us that extreme changes were about to enter our lives. Had we paid attention, perhaps we would have been more prepared, both mentally and physically.

“The year 2020 ushers in the Universal Year 4 – a number representing stability, organisation, industriousness, convention, and a mini-wealth cycle,” said Gracy Yap, a Singaporean numerologist and author of Secrets Of Golden Numbers.
Jan 3, 2020

It seems everyone said 2020 would be a year of healing and big changes. Well, that was half right.

Interestingly, no one foretold the COVID-19 pandemic or the upheaval surrounding our presidential (and other) elections. Massive wildfires in Australia and California, murder hornets, flesh-eating bacteria in Mississippi, swarms of locusts in Africa, and wide-spread civil unrest in Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, America, Hong Kong, and Sudan… none of these were mentioned in all those 2020 predictions.

Bottom line: We have every reason to believe that 2021 will be a good year, new president in place and COVID vaccinations injected. But don’t count on it!

1:57 AM

And it hit me: I hadn’t written a blog! Where did the days go since Friday Tuesday?

Fauna

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I had a chance to enjoy the acrobatics of Stanley and Ollie at the bird feeder.  They’re better than a professional circus troupe, but without the spandex and sequins! (For more about their antics, check out an earlier blog I wrote about the behaviors and habits of squirrels in my yard and elsewhere.)

Flora

Visiting yard plants is always interesting this time of year (sometimes a bit confusing). I found that a purple baptisia anemone planted by the front back door has migrated to a side garden near the back—clearly the work of fairies.

I have a single rose bud opening (although my neighbors’ roses are hanging heavy) Christmas rose hellebore loaded with buds and a few blooms .

I have a single rose bud opening (although my neighbors’ roses are hanging heavy) Christmas rose hellebore loaded with buds and a few blooms .

The rhododendron has its first bloom, and azaleas are going wild. I think this weather is confusing them. Irises Daffodils are so heavy-headed that they are resting on nearby azaleas. My peonies camellia sasanqua aren’t as far along as they were three years ago, but they’re showing lots of buds for the future.

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The patio pots have flourishing mint, chives, oregano, thyme, sage, and—surprisingly—dill and parsley that wintered over.

My mums are going crazy! I love their colors, and I wish I could convince mine to be perennials.

Fiction

Then, too, there were writing tasks. I wrote the first draft of “Pandemic.” I’m involved in an online writing class, and this week was my turn to present.

Fraternizing

All of that doesn’t even touch on communications with family and friends. Like many in the US (and around the world), I’ve been a bit preoccupied with the election results this week.

I’ll try to get out of myself for Friday Tuesday!

Bottom line for writers: Life happens.

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WRITING CLASS VIA ZOOM

I went into this with some trepidation. Heretofore, my only experiences with zoom have been with a critique group and with a social group. The critique group is only four, and the social group, five. How would that work with ten?

This class is called Exploring Fiction, and it’s part of the creative writing program offered at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts studio center. I’ve taken courses through the VMFA before, but this is the first time I’ve tried it online. My classmates all have schedules flexible enough to allow them to join a class in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. Other than that, there’s quite a bit of variety.
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  • Some have taken dozens of writing classes for many years; for others, this is the first writing class they’ve taken.
  • Participant ages vary; so far as I can guess, there is a span of thirty or forty years..
  • A few of my classmates have published several works, both books and shorter works. Some in the class have no interest in publishing at all.
  • I recognize several of my fellow writers from previous classes or peer review groups we’ve been in before. Others are new friends for me to meet!

What I liked:

  • Finally getting back with some of my writing friends of old
  • Finding that the teacher is well-organized, and already experienced
  • The “get acquainted” exercise, and learning things I didn’t know about people I already knew
  • The varied aspects of each class, which include assigned readings, prompted writing, and sharing of our own work
  • The teacher’s focus on the positive feedback
  • Being able to sip water or coffee, something I’d never bothered to take to class before
  • Once again hearing the different takes on the same prompt 
  • Hearing someone else’s very vivid writing
  • Discussing a short story from The New Yorker and examining why it works so well

What I didn’t like:

  • I couldn’t see everyone by simply turning my head
  • Everyone seemed more stilted and formal
  • Fewer spontaneous comments among students
  • Difficulty taking notes while using my laptop to run the meeting
  • Seeing the way I look on screen, face all mottled by shadows
  • Feeling self-conscious every time I touched my hair
    • Or scratched my nose
    • Or wrinkled my brow
    • Or moved at all, actually
  • Being hyper-aware of every noise I made, coughing or turning pages or whatever
  • Having to mute myself whenever my husband made noise in the backgroundAnd remembering to unmute after

Bottom line for this writer: not as good as in-person but soooo much better than no class at all!

The (Virtual) Perennial Student

A year and a bit ago, I wrote about the importance of continuing education and peer review for a writer. Though in-person classes and critique groups are more difficult these days, challenging yourself to write is just as important. As with so many other areas of life, the internet can help with that!

Writing classes are notoriously rowdy. Teachers may even welcome the relative calm of online classes conducted via web cam.

It’s practically a cliché that writing is a lone activity. For the past few months, pretty much everything has been a lone activity. Classes and writing groups add the social dimension to writing, especially during quarantines, lockdowns, and isolations. I never met a boring writer! I meet interesting people with similar interests and (usually) similar world views. Thus there is the potential to develop new friendships as well as keeping in touch with current friends.

Why Classes?

When you happen to live with a writing partner, social distancing and masks are probably not required.

Classes stimulate me to write in new directions.  Yes, I write when I’m not in class, but it tends to get habitual, not to mention sporadic.  An extra bonus of online classes is the ability to connect with teachers and fellow writers in all over the world. The variety of cultural perspectives is almost guaranteed to shine light on some of those new directions.

Drawing up a calendar schedule isn’t necessarily required, but it certainly helps to avoid last-minute writing crunches.

Classes are structured to make me write regularly. The VMFA studio classes meet regularly, with a variety of schedules to suit any writing lifestyle. Tuition is a real bargain, when one looks at dollars per hour of instruction! Just saying.

When I write regularly, I also submit regularly, at least six times per year.  This leads to lots of rejections, but without submissions there are no acceptances. Submissions, thankfully, are almost entirely online.

Typed submissions are much easier to send to online classes, but some people still prefer to write a first draft with pen and paper.

Most of my life has been spent in classrooms, as a student and/or teacher. Classes are my natural environment, the one in which I thrive.  Classmates and/or teachers praising my writing is extremely gratifying. Every time I get something published, it’s like an A on my report card or a star on my forehead. With more than 50 publications in literary journals and anthologies, my writing life is sufficiently star-studded to make me smile.

Why Critique Groups?

For most writers, self-editing is necessary but not sufficient to make the writing its best. That’s where critique groups and reading partners come in. Personally, I prefer a small group, four or five seeming ideal to me. The strength in numbers is that having multiple readers with different strengths can cover more of the territory: some might pick up on word choices and sentence structure, while others look more at the big picture of character and plot development.

There are some things that will help a group to be good.  There are online resources and guidelines you might adopt. In my experience, here are a few basics:

  • Set down the group guidelines in writing.
  • Be clear about what types of writing will be acceptable (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir, opinion essays, etc.) and stick to them.
  • Be clear about how feedback will be given.
  • Specify when the work is due, in what form, and what length.
  • Decide what happens when someone misses a meeting:
    • Are they expected to send comments on others’ work?
    • Can they send work anyway?
  • What if someone comes without having written anything?
  • Stick to a regular meeting time and schedule.
  • Get the group’s consensus when changing any of this.
  • Keep the group small enough that everyone can have sufficient and equal time.
  • Meet at least twice a month.

Online critique groups have additional logistics to consider.

  • To avoid pandemonium, there should be a recognized leader for each meeting.
    • The leader could be the meeting host, the original organizer, the most senior author, a regularly rotating position, or any other generally agreed person.
  • Web meeting courtesy should be observed, including muting microphones when not speaking, avoiding distracting background action on video, and not having side conversations.
  • Because all submissions will be digital, participants must share files in a format that can be opened and read by everyone.

Find Your Group

Here are just a few of the many options for classes online:

Peer review groups or partnerships can be formed by anyone. Perhaps some of your friends from past classes or workshops would be up for regular critiquing. Social media is a great way to connect with other writers you may never have met in real life. There are also more formal groups:

What I’ve Been Up To

In the past few years, I’ve been writing a lot more than I realized. Without realizing it, I’ve managed to publish more than a dozen new short stories! Some of these have come out of various writing classes and workshops, but others have just popped out of my head onto the page.

All of these new pieces are listed on my Publications page now. Feel free to stop by and read some of my work for inspiration!

Things in the world are pretty chaotic at the moment. It’s easy to be pulled into a world of grey hopelessness. A reminder that anyone can still create something beautiful can be good for the soul.

The Boring Side of Having the Plague

Coverage of the pandemic is all over the media.  Every day we get the latest tallies. Local and national news feature the tragedies that are all too common. A family of 6 all of whom have tested positive, and only two survive. Sometimes someone being discharged from the hospital after weeks on a ventilator. So why this blog? Because people suffer the virus in ways that never catch the attention of the media. Writers need to be aware of these variations.

Many of you are familiar with the name of Kathleen Corcoran, my friend and colleague and occasional guest blogger. She has graciously agreed to share her experience with us all.

It started with a headache, a pretty bad one, like something was sitting on my head. Or maybe it was the insomnia first. Or maybe the headache was caused by the insomnia. Or maybe I couldn’t sleep because my head was hurting. Or maybe I was just doomed to be caught in this chicken and egg loop of which came first for all eternity or at least until the sun came up.

But I didn’t think anything was wrong. I’ve had trouble sleeping since I was a kid. My posture is terrible, which causes headaches sometimes. I took a couple of painkillers and eventually was lulled to sleep by the dulcet tones of Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter.*

(Neither Vivian Lawry nor I are affiliated with or Stephen Fry or with J. K. Rowling. But if anyone knows how to get in touch with Stephen Fry, let me know, and I’ll do my darndest to become affiliated!)

In the morning, my husband went off to work, I drank about ten cups of tea, and everything was normal. Perfectly normal.

I was pretty tired, but that was to be expected after being up all night.

Joints aching? Must be a storm coming. Stupid arthritis.

Skin hurts like I’m wrapped in sandpaper? Probably just didn’t rinse all the soap out of my clothes last time I washed them.

Too hot and too cold and too hot and too cold again? Eh, it’s July. The air conditioner is weird.

Can’t stop coughing? Gee, I must need to sweep under the bed. It’s obviously really dusty down there.

Sore throat? Well, duh. That’s what happens when you cough a lot.

Difficulty concentra-SQUIRREL!

Eventually, the combined efforts of my husband, my sister, and my mother convinced me that I was probably sick, it might be the COVID-19, and I definitely needed to do something about it. The first thing I did about it was to consult Our Lord and Master, The Great Google. My husband left work early, and we tried to find a testing site.

I think I poked the stick too far. I may have swabbed the back of my eyeball.

And that’s when things got really… boring. Following the instructions laid out by The Great Google, I didn’t bother going to a doctor. I answered a bunch of questions online to determine if I was worthy of receiving testing and then to determine if I was worthy of receiving fast testing. The pharmacy told me I could stop by the drive-thru the following afternoon to poke a stick up my nose, and that was it.

Labs are really backed up, so I could expect my test results in about two weeks. Maybe longer. Probably longer. In the meantime, I should assume I had The ‘Rona (as my brother insists on calling it) and behave accordingly. Oh, and don’t bother going to a doctor or a hospital unless I turn blue or have a seizure. And it better be a pretty big seizure.

Contact tracing was easy. Two phone calls. I warned my parents that I was (allegedly) highly contagious with (allegedly) an infection of (allegedly) COVID-19 and thus I may have (allegedly) contaminated my mother and she may have (allegedly) passed on the deadly (allegedly) infection to my father. Allegedly.

Ready! (Disclaimer: this is a picture I found online. I did not put a mask on my dog. She would eat it.)

Thus, I am now in quarantine. I can’t leave the bedroom except for bathroom breaks. My husband can’t leave the house, just in case I’ve contaminated him. He has to sleep on the sofa, keeping an eye on the turtle. We both have to wear masks anytime I open the bedroom door, but my husband covers his face just about any time time he’s not sleeping. Pippin the Wonder Dog has gone to stay with my parents until we’re all allowed out of the house again. Fourteen days of staring at the bedroom walls, unless I’m still sick or my test results come back negative.

I ate a banana. I hate bananas.

My husband put food and tea next to the bed for the first few days, carefully not touching anything and showering immediately after leaving the room. When I could get out of bed, he left the food and tea on the floor outside the door and picked up empty dishes with gloves. For about a week, I couldn’t keep anything down except tea. It’s a good thing I like tea.

Apparently, stealing a towel from a hospital doesn’t mean I get to go to one. Actually, I think it might make them less likely to treat me.

But then I started feeling better. I could sit up, the cough subsided, and I managed to stay awake for more than two hours at a time. My fever hung around for a bit, but it eventually went down. At one point, the thermometer informed me that I had a temperature of 107.3F. As I was staring at the read-out, wondering why all my internal organs hadn’t shut down yet, my husband reminded me to wait until after I drank the hot tea before sticking the thermometer in my mouth. Smart man.

Maybe I can entertain myself by licking the sofa…

Now, I wait. There’s not a whole lot to do in here. I can video chat with the guy on the other side of the door. My goddaughter sometimes reads me stories or demonstrates her spectacular spinning skills over the phone. I spend way more time than I will ever admit on sites like BoredPanda and BuzzFeed. Occasionally, I try to get up and walk around, but it’s only a step and a half from the bed to the door and only half a step from the bed to the wall. Not very conducive to calisthenics.

Billy across the street just turned on his sprinkler. Now I get at least twenty minutes of watching the water spin!

The neighbors lead fascinating lives, as I have discovered by not being creepy at all. I spend a lot of time staring out the window, and I’ve gotten to know everyone’s habits. If the dog next door isn’t out for his morning yard time by 7:30, I worry. Where’s Roscoe? Is he stuck inside? Is he still asleep? When the kids down the street start their evening basketball skirmishes, I keep score. Darren cheats, but Michael is taller and older… I haven’t decided if that evens things out, but Keisha always wins anyway. Yesterday, the recycling truck came by. It was the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen. It’s like Rear Window, but without the murder!

No hugs from my favorite tiny people

In the meantime, my husband has missed two weeks of work and pay. His boss isn’t sure about letting him back in the shop until all his colleagues are comfortable that he isn’t poisonous. My parents have had to isolate in their house, missing my father’s birthday dinner. All the careful planning my sister did to set up a safe birthday celebration for my father is down the drain (along with all the ingredients I’d just bought to make Beef Wellington for them). My other sister has been stuck watching five kids by herself because I can’t help out. And I had to reschedule an appointment with the DMV. Their next opening isn’t until September.

Was I stupid or cautious? Or perhaps both?

Don’t get me wrong: I am thrilled beyond belief not to be in the ICU, hooked to a ventilator in a medically-induced coma. But I don’t even know if I have COVID-19. Barring some catastrophic development, I will be free to leave quarantine and resume my normal activities tomorrow. If I did have it, I’m no longer carrying anything that could infect people. If I didn’t, I just put a bunch of people through a bunch of disruption and financial hassle for a sniffle.

Yay! Positive! I’m super positive!

Oh hey! An email just popped up with my test results….

Opening…

Logging in…

Finding the right message…

If I tested positive, does that mean I passed or failed? Also, is this going to be on the final exam?

Thanks to Kathleen for sharing her experience. Writers take note: She is living, breathing (thank goodness) proof that the worst case scenario isn’t necessary for one’s life to be turned upside-down.

Freedom! (Keep wearing your mask, unless you are a dog.)

LOVING OLD BOOKS

This glass-fronted secretary is full of old books—cookbooks and books on household management and helpful hints. When I open the doors, the smell of old books—so different from the smell of a library—always makes me smile.

Instructions For Cookery, In Its Various Branches, By Miss Leslie is dated 1843. This is the 17th edition (!) “with improvements and supplementary receipts.” As far as I know, it is my oldest book. I say, “As far as I know” because not all old books are dated. For example, this 64-page relic was printed in Edinburgh, sometime before 1890.

Books of this sort are my first collection, and still the most numerous. In the beginning I bought books like High-Class Cookery Made Easy by Mrs. Hart for what was on the printed page: how things used to be done. I found the recipes fascinating: instructions to  “assemble the [cake] ingredients in the usual way”; lists of ingredients with no measurements. (Fanny Farmer [see below]first introduced standard measurements in 1896.)

When I open a book of great (by my amateur standards) age, I like to ponder what sorts of women might have owned and used it over the decades. This copy of Mrs. Crowen’s American Ladies’ System of Cookery cookbook is inscribed Mrs. Dr. S.  S. Fitch, May 18th, 1860. It reminds me of the German practice of addressing someone as Herr Doctor Professor So-and-so. Might she be of German background?

The books printed in the 1880s and more recently are much more likely to be in good condition. Then, as now, once one made a name for oneself, more book deals followed.  Miss Parloa’s Kitchen Companion and Miss Parloa’s New Cookbook and Marketing Guide are early examples of this.

Perhaps the best example is Fanny Merritt Farmer. She paid Little, Brown, and Company to publish her Boston Cooking School Cookbook in 1896.  My earliest copy is from 1904. By then, it had been copyrighted 1896, 1900, 1901, 1902, and 1903. The flyleaf of my copy says it is revised with an appendix of three hundred recipes, and an addenda of sixty recipes. (Note the modern spelling of recipe.) She is listed as the author of Chaffing-Dish Possibilities and Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent.

I have a copy of the latter, as well as What to Have for Dinner, copyrighted 1904, 1905, 1907,  and 1905, respectively.  The Fanny Farmer Cookbook is still popular today.

Sir Terry Pratchett

But It’s More Than Just Old Cookbooks For Me

Over the years, I’ve replaced numerous paperbacks with older hard-copy editions of favorite books. I like the worn covers and brittle, yellowed pages.

They remind me of reading books of fairy tales and the Ruth Fielding series from the early 20th Century at my grandmother’s house.  It turns out that I’m not alone. Scent carries powerful psychological meaning for people—and triggers memories that otherwise are not readily available.

Many people, perhaps most, like the smell of old books. Science tells us that as books decompose over time, they emit a smell from decaying volatile organic compounds, very similar to chocolate and coffee! This is one time I really don’t need to know why I like something, just that I do.

My most recently acquired old book, 1904, came along with my most recent obsession: Bird Neighbors!

Bottom line for writers: smell an old book and feel uplifted!

WRITING ISOLATION

Sleuth of Bears

There is a whole cadre—Heidegger (1889-1976) arguably the most famous—who argue that being-with-others is part of the “structure of human existence.” In other words, we are hard-wired to socialize. Whether you believe that or not, there are a gazillion (by actual count) studies that have found isolation to be harmful to humans, both physically and psychologically. 

Litter of Puppies

(Editor’s note: Including photographs of isolated and lonely people was too depressing, so I invite you to enjoy these photos of animals not social distancing instead.)

For writers, bad is good

Pod of Dolphins

How bad is it?  Some researchers posit that social isolation and loneliness are twice as harmful as obesity. Others compare the effects on mortality to be equal to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Others say the magnitude of risk is right up there with physical inactivity and lack of access to health care.

N.B.  Degrees or levels of isolation are difficult to define and measure.  Perceived isolation is what produces feelings of loneliness. In many ways, it is easier to study social isolation, though they are closely linked.

Pandemonium of Parrots

As a writer, the first question is, “Why is your character isolated?” Your options may be more numerous than you think. Here are a few examples.

  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce
  • Move to a new place
  • Researcher in isolated places, like Antarctica 
  • Mission/mission training, e.g., astronauts
  • Immune compromised
Leap of Leopards
  • A child/infant in understaffed orphanage
  • Being shunned for any reason  
    • Behavior  
    • Appearance 
    • Membership in a marginalized subgroup
  • Medical quarantine
  • As a form of torture
    • Solitary confinement in prison (currently about 80,000 in the U.S. each year)
Tower of Giraffes

The second set of questions for a writer:

  • How complete is the isolation?
  • How long does it last?
  • Is it repeated?
  • In general, the more complete the isolation, the longer it lasts, and repetition all increase the number and seriousness of the effects. 
Mob of Kangaroos

The third question is, which effects will your character display? 

Parliament of Owls
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Sweaty palms
  • Heart palpitations
  • Lowered immunity
  • Increased inflammation 
  • Trembling
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pains
  • Lack of appetite
  • Drastic weight loss
Stand of Flamingos
  • Muscle pains (esp. neck and back)
  • Oversensitivity to sensory stimuli
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Distorted sense of time
  • Severe boredom
  • Impaired memory
  • Inability to think coherently
  • Apathy
Conspiracy of Lemurs
  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Feelings of inferiority
  • Irritability
  • Withdrawal
  • Rage/anger/aggression
  • Confusion
  • Paranoia
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Hallucinations

Many of these effects mimic PTSD and, like PTSD, can last for years after the event.

Bale of Turtles

In the last couple of months, researchers are finding that COVID-19 isolation tends to evoke one of two responses.

Smack of Jellyfish
  • Those who hunker down and enjoy it—take it as a time to relax, read, bake, pursue a hobby, accomplish things around the house. In short, they’re getting along fine.
  • But for others—especially extroverts—the isolation can be harmful to both mind and body.

Not surprisingly, the effects of COVID-19 isolation are many of the same effects as other reasons for isolation.

Drift of Pigs
  • Boredom
  • Lethargy
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Distorted sense of time
  • Poor sleep quality
  • Develop or increase unhealthy habits

Dr. Samantha Brooks wrote in The Lancet: “A huge factor in the negative psychological impact [of isolation] seems to be confusion about what’s going on, not having clear guidelines, or getting different messages from different organizations.” In addition, not knowing how long isolation will last exacerbates the negative effects of isolation. Think of the current differences within the U.S. and how similar circumstances could be applied to a fictional setting.

Obstinacy of Buffalo

People who are at increased risk from COVID-19 isolation are those at heightened risk for social isolation in the first place:

Gang of Elk
  • Older adults, especially with physical limitations and/or poor family support
  • Men who didn’t develop social networks outside work
  • Being non-white is a bigger risk factor than sex
  • Lower income people who may not afford the technology for distance socializing
  • Anyone who is marginalized (LGBTQ, survivor of domestic abuse, living in an isolated rural area)
  • People incarcerated for any reason
Cete of Badgers
Shiver of Sharks

Evidence of stress is apparent in the increased number of calls to suicide prevention (1-800-273-8255) and addiction (1-844-289-0879) hotlines.

Bottom line for writers: consider isolating your character and/or increasing his/her loneliness. You can take it almost anywhere.

Murmuration of Starlings

1:56 AM

And it hit me: I hadn’t written a blog! Where did the days go since Friday?

Fauna

Well, I spent a lot of time birdwatching, and was rewarded with titmice, chickadees, bluebirds, goldfinches, purple finches, house finches, grackles, bluejays, cardinals, red bellied woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, mourning doves, white throat sparrows, wrens, brown thrashers, and—of course—robins. 

Today for the first time ever, I saw a pair of Eastern towhees! They’re usually very shy, but the males sing and show off their tails in flashy displays to attract mates in the spring. Remind you of any characters or real people you may have encountered?

I had a chance to enjoy the acrobatics of Stanley and Ollie at the bird feeder.  They’re better than a professional circus troupe, but without the spandex and sequins! (For more about their antics, check out an earlier blog I wrote about the behaviors and habits of squirrels in my yard and elsewhere.)

And a couple of days ago I spotted a five-foot long black racer coiled in a pussywillow tree behind my house. (Black racers are very common in the southern US, but they are not venomous or dangerous. Random fact — these snakes can vibrate their tails, making a sound very similar to a rattlesnake.)

Flora

Visiting yard plants is always interesting this time of year (sometimes a bit confusing). I found that a purple baptisia planted by the front door has migrated to a side garden near the back—clearly the work of fairies.

I have a single rose bud opening (although my neighbors’ roses are hanging heavy).

The rhododendron has its first bloom, and azaleas are going wild. Irises are so heavy-headed that they are resting on nearby azaleas. My peonies aren’t as far along as they were three years ago, but they’re showing lots of buds for the future.

The patio pots have flourishing mint, chives, oregano, thyme, sage, and—surprisingly—dill and parsley that wintered over.

I’ve walked in the park and along nature trails, finding wild rhododendron, a.k.a. early azaleas. Also spotted were Virginia bluebells, wood ferns, phlox, pink lady slippers, cinquefoil, dandelions, and creeping buttercup. 

Fiction

Then, too, there were writing tasks. COG Literary Magazine is preparing to print “Pawpaw” and I had to approve the page proof. “Running on About My Mother’s Body” received a second acceptance, so I needed to respond to that and offer a replacement piece. I even wrote the first draft of “Pandemic.”

And I’m involved with two critique groups on zoom and Google hang-out, both new to me.

Fraternizing

All of that doesn’t even touch on communications with family and friends.

I’ll try to get out of myself for Friday!

Bottom line for writers: Life happens.