Winter Storm Advice for Southerners

Ah, here we go again. Wintry precipitation is imminent here in the South and people are reacting with their usual calm indifference.

Not.

The typical attitude down here is actually really interesting, a weird hyper-anticipation that I haven’t seen for any other type of weather. The energy is almost tangible. It involves a combination of both panic and elation, depending on your age and the likelihood of skipping a few days of work or school. And whether you own a device suitable for sledding.

The forecast this time (ever-evolving and subject to last minute change) calls for either 4-6 inches of snow or a bunch of sleet followed by a layer of snow. So not nearly as bad as freezing rain, but just the right combination to cause all sorts of problems for those venturing forth to traverse our many hills. Also, power outages. Because that always happens.

In addition, it will be unusually cold afterward, with low temps forecast to be 9 on Saturday and 0 on Sunday (Fahrenheit). Apparently, our all-time record low is -9. Downright balmy, for this Minnesotan, but almost unheard of here in NC.

To give you some perspective, this is from our local weather people: “In 130 years, we’ve only been below zero four times in Raleigh, and we’ve only hit zero four other times.” –WRAL

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So in honour of all this shivery news, today I’m re-posting something I wrote a few years ago, when we were expecting an icier storm. Given that my blog followers have somehow multiplied 10x in the past year, one or two of you might not have seen this. The advice is mostly for writers, but I’m sure all you non-writers can adapt it for your own use.

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From February 2014:

We here in the South are supposed to get some nasty weather later today. Several inches of snow followed by the dreaded coating of ICE. Or so they say. But even 1/4-inch of ice is cause for concern, as that’s enough to bring down power lines. And when the forecast predicts there will be a significant coating of ice over a large geographic area, well, it means people here are sort of freaking out.

I grew up in Minnesota where winter was just something that happened every year. Cold, snow, wind, even ice. It wasn’t really a big deal.

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But I’ve lived in the South long enough to know how traumatic and disorienting it is to suddenly have to cope with the arrival of something other than daffodils in early February. So I decided this was a good time to give you all some advice about how to prepare for and handle icy winter weather.

This advice is specifically directed to all the writers out there. Because I know how vulnerable we writers are when faced with the harsh implacability of the real world. We need all the help we can get.

At this late date, mere hours before the onslaught of precipitation, if you haven’t yet made a trip to the grocery or liquor store, you’re flat out of luck. Believe me, those shelves are bare. And honestly, if you’re a writer and you don’t have at least a week’s worth of liquor stocked up at all times . . . what kind of writer are you, anyway?

You’re going to have to make do with what you have at hand. So let’s start with some basics.

Run the dishwasher. Yes, really. Do I even need to explain this? Do this now while you still have power.

Do a load of laundry. If you lose power, in the winter, even in the South, it’s going to get cold in your house. You might need to actually put on a pair of pants. I know, desperate measures. But if someone needs to come rescue you, for whatever reason, clean pants are a lot easier to explain than . . . well, that’s sort of the point. Clean pants won’t need explanation. Unlike your current laundry pile.

Make soup. Yes, soup. Surely you have some quantity of chicken or beef in your freezer, festering, waiting for you to do something with it. So make soup. Right now, while the stove still works. Add some thyme and sliced carrots and barley. Dumplings, even. Yes, the prospect of eating cold leftover soup is rather unappetizing. But it’s infinitely more palatable, and less life-threatening, than eating thawed raw meat.

Hard boil some eggs. You do have eggs, right? The unequivocal accompaniment for bacon? Same concept as the soup. No one wants to eat raw eggs. Hardboiled eggs are a good source of protein and . . . other stuff. You can even use the egg decorating dyes and stickers leftover from last Easter to add some festive colour to your power outage.

Take a shower. I know, it hasn’t even been a week since the last one. But weather extremes sometimes cause people to have to interact with strangers — calm down, this is just a possibility and not some dire portent set in stone — and it’s best not to frighten the neighbours unnecessarily.

Update your spreadsheet of food sources. Speaking of neighbours, I assume you’ve been keeping stats about which ones might be the best targets in terms of easy takedown and tender flesh. Avoid drug addicts and alcoholics and extreme athletes who tend toward gristle. Families with small succulent children are likely sources. Um, wait. Sorry, that’s advice for the zombie apocalypse. Heh. Never mind.

Locate sources of combustibles. Identify which neighbours have random unattended cords of firewood. Or a less than sturdy weathered deck. Or a rotting fence that’s on the verge of falling down. I know you’ve been too distracted writing the latest story to stock your own woodpile, so you’re going to need access to a supply of seasoned firewood that doesn’t necessitate taking an axe to granny’s rocking chair or the dining room table.

Keep your curtains closed. People will tell you this is a buffer to keep the warm air inside, or to keep the cold air outside. Nonsense. This is to keep your neighbours from spying on you to determine whether you have any small children or meaty pets. What? You think they don’t have their own spreadsheets?

Have a backup heat source. Speaking of pets, it has been scientifically proven by people who wake up in the night, sweating, with a cat plastered to their side, that cats generate enough BTUs in one night to power a small country. Of course, if you show any sign of wanting them to keep you warm, they will ignore you. Indefinitely. So be clever. Tell them how pretty they are. Dole out treats judiciously. Lull them into a state of complacency before you burrow your icy cold hands into their soft warm stomach fur. Caution: Be sure you’ve stocked up on antiseptic and bandages before using cats as a heat source. As with any heat source, use proper ventilation at all times.

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Wear a hat. If you lose power, you will be cold. Wearing a hat, especially if it’s a particularly stylish hat, will make you feel better and keep your brain warm while the rest of your body slowly freezes to death. Also, socks are something to consider if you are overly concerned about retaining use of your lower extremities.

Download more ebooks. You’ve charged up your ereader of choice, right? So you might want to stock up on new stories to read during the impending power outage. Might I suggest my latest novella? Coincidentally, it’s a short sweet story of two people who get stuck in a remote mountain cabin during a snowstorm. Perfect reading for this weather! Ahem.

Play games! After hours (or mere minutes) without electricity, your laptop and cell phone batteries will die and you’ll no longer be able to play Words With Friends. Okay, settle down. I know this seems like extreme hardship. But this is a great time to dig out the actual Scrabble board game that you forgot you even had. You live alone? No problem. You can play with yourself! Er, that is, play against yourself. And since those pesky tiles will slide all over the place if you move the board, you’ll burn calories and generate heat by running back and forth from one side of the table to the other as you take turns. This is the perfect opportunity to use all those creative words the #%$^@ computer says aren’t really words, or to play words that go off the grid by just one space. Or three.

Write!! Of course, this should be the first thing on any writer’s list of things to do during inclement apocalypse weather. Of course it is. Who needs a computer, anyway? Did Plato have a computer? Did Shakespeare? Austen or Hemmingway? Did Franzen— okay, never mind. Harsh weather is punishment enough. But seriously, severe temperatures and lack of electricity are not sufficient reasons to stop writing. Dig out that pad of paper and a pen. Or pencil, if the ink and quill have frozen. Who cares if your handwriting is indecipherable? You’re going to re-write the damn thing anyway, right? This is your chance, maybe your only chance, to experience first hand that whole romanticized starving artist living in a freezing garret with a broken heart and shattered innocence and surviving on a heel of moldy bread and cheap bottle of wine lifestyle we’ve all heard so much about and foolishly envied.

Um, you did stock up on the broken heart and cheap wine along with the bread, right? I figure there are some basic survival techniques I just shouldn’t have to enumerate.

So, good luck surviving the impending weather. At the very least, wrap up your sense of humour in a soft wool scarf and offer it a dram of the finest whisky. After all, the chances are slim to none that you’ll make it through this storm intact without it.

 

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Reflections and resolutions and the requisite splatter of blood

You all know I don’t make resolutions at the New Year. I’ve said it more than once over here, and explained why. Mostly because it seems like an artificial point in time but also because this time of year has historically been so stressful (for me) that resolutions would tend to be along the lines of “burn it all down.”

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But this year . . . this year feels different. I feel different, more resolute. Actually, in going back to re-read a few older posts, I see that last year at this time felt different as well. I resolved then that 2016 was going to be the year of me being selfish and saying “no” and focusing on what I wanted to do, which was write fiction.

To a great extent, that’s what I did. I made significantly more progress in 2016 than the year before — just shy of 100,000 words, a vast improvement — but not as much as I had hoped.

This past year has been really tough for a lot of us, myself included. It has gotten to the point where things that I’d normally take in stride have felt devastating. Things that would normally not feel personal have piled on top of troubles that are very personal and their combined weight has been overwhelming. It’s been an accumulation of tragedy. Following waves of communal grief. Shared anger and frustration and a feeling of helplessness. It has all added up this year and become a relentless self-perpetuating cycle of trauma.

That’s not healthy.

There are so many awful things I can’t do anything about, I’ve lost sight of what I can influence and achieve. But I do think recognizing a problem is a necessary first step in doing something about it. So, there’s that.

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I’ve been re-reading portions of my novella, A PLACE TO START — looking at some details for the sake of continuity in the second book — and came across this scene toward the end where Mac (our hero, for those who haven’t read it) (why haven’t you read it?) and Charlie (a wise old mountain man) are having a little heart-to-heart. I skimmed it, as it wasn’t the scene I was looking for, and then stopped and read it again. And again.

Why? Well, see for yourself:

“Life is chock full of pain and death. You can spend all your days anticipatin’ it and, by God, you won’t be disappointed.”

“I don’t spend time anticipating it.”

“Sure you do. That’s all you been doin’ these past three years. Waitin’ for someone else to die. Ain’t no way for a young man to live.”

Mac couldn’t even remember the last time he’d felt young. “We all grieve in different ways.”

“That’s the truth. But after a time, it’s just purely selfish. It ain’t helpin’ those done gone and it sure ain’t good for the people still here. Wallowing, is what it is.”

Mac couldn’t argue with that, but still. “Harsh words.”

“Truth often is.” He spat again. “Fact is, you got a choice, the way you look at things. And you been focused for so long on those moments of pain, waitin’ on the next one, you done lost sight of the happiness and peace in between ’em.”

“Aye. Haven’t seen much of either, lately.” Except with Jo.

“That’s ’cause you ain’t been looking, son. There are whole long stretches of it, between the pain, days and weeks and even years of it. There’s love mixed up in there too, if you ain’t too dense to see it.”

You know, sometimes I read a thing I wrote and can’t quite believe I wrote it. It’s as if past me was giving advice to future me, like I knew I’d need to hear those words someday.

So, that’s one of my resolutions for 2017. Change the way I look at things, try to focus on the positive and happy and peaceful in between the inevitable moments of pain and grief.

While I can’t change certain things, I can limit my exposure. I’ve been doing that already, to a degree, since November. I can certainly set a timer before I look at twitter or facebook or news sites. I can unsubscribe from RSS feeds that I tend not to read anyway and get rid of some clutter. I can mute a good deal of the negativity and anger, and try not to engage in it myself. Maybe. Probably.

In the week since Christmas, I’ve resumed my focus on good eating habits and cut back on consumption of adult beverages and chocolate which, to be honest, had increased a wee bit since November. *sigh* I can’t avoid the fact that my work involves sitting in one place for hours each day, but I can set reminders to get up and move more often. Release some endorphins. Or, failing that, a kraken or two.

I can’t control when people send me text messages and emails, but I can control when I read and reply. In fact, yesterday I spent hours getting rid of hundreds of old unread emails from various group feeds, admitting I’m never going to read them. Given the rapid changes in publishing, most of them were obsolete anyway.

I definitely can’t control whether some idiot mouse decides to enter my house, as one did the night before last, nor can I stop The White Ninja from playing with it to the point of bloodshed. Again.

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Cats are barbarians.

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But I guess I can be glad all I have to do is clean up the mess and not chase the stupid doomed thing myself. Small mercies.

So, those all are positive and constructive things I can do to improve my mental and emotional state. It’s helpful as well to keep in mind that there were a lot of really good things that happened worldwide in 2016. If you need a refresher, take a look at this powerful listing in the twitter timeline of Commander Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut and all-around good guy (keep clicking “show more” at the end to see the entire list of 46 items):

Really, go read it. I’d missed hearing about several of them.

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I’m also resolving to do something I hope will improve the consistency and volume of my writing output. No promises about what it’ll do to the quality.

The other day I was scrolling through twitter and saw a spreadsheet graphic someone had made where she’d not only tracked her writing, she’d blocked out time during the year for vacation and sick days and flex time and holidays– just like she would if she were working a “real” job. It was complex and colourful and highly organized. It was also a real eye-opener.

Yeah, I know, everyone says you need to treat writing like a “real” job. No surprise there. And I thought I had been doing that, until I saw that schedule and realized . . . I don’t have one. What an idiot.

Thing is, I know how to work hard. I know how to get stuff done. I know what it takes to meet deadlines. And I know I haven’t been doing it. Not the way I would if it were a “real” job with a real schedule.

How do I know? Because for the past two years I’ve been keeping track in my own complex, colourful, highly organized spreadsheet of all the words I’ve written. I can see exactly how and when I’ve been slacking off. Not holding myself accountable. Indulging myself when I should be demanding the results I know darn well I’m capable of achieving. Getting lost in the escape of reading when instead I should be writing.

If I were my boss (and I am) I’d have fired my ass by now.

Yes, I’ve had reasons for some of that behaviour. As I said, tough year. But that certainly doesn’t account for all of it. Some of it, I’m now convinced, is due to a lack of structure.

So I’m going to make a writing schedule for the coming calendar year, with concrete goals. Not just to keep track of what I’ve written, which is good and necessary (for me), but to plan out what I intend to do and when. Create a familiar framework within which to get shit done.

I’m going to schedule four weeks of vacation, something I’ve never had at any job, ever. I’m giving myself a week of sick time and all the weekends and holidays I didn’t get to take off while working in retail finance, even though I wasn’t part of the sales team. In some ways, it feels like I’m still stubbornly making up for that lack of time off, even now.

That sounds like a lot of non-writing days, doesn’t it? I imagine you’re wondering just how, exactly, I expect all that time off to improve output. But here’s the important part, the part I’ve been missing: The rest of the days will be for work.

No more vague feeling of every day being the same, of not having a sense of whether it’s a work day or a weekend or vacation, which makes it way too easy to procrastinate and simply take the day off since there is always tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.

I’m going to hold myself accountable for sticking to it, even if it gets all irregular and pear-shaped at times. Which it will. But I can already tell that having a schedule mapped out will make it easier to get back on track when life tries to derail me. Which it will.

I wonder whether this sudden enthusiasm for a schedule is just a sign of getting older and sensing time slipping away more quickly each year, feeling the need to control it somehow or at least force it into neat categories. I’m sure that’s part of it. I never worried about this when I was younger. Of course, when I was younger I had schedules and expectations imposed on me by others. In this strange new stage of self-employment, the first couple years without a schedule was the most liberating feeling of sheer relief– I have no words for it.

But it feels like it’s time for some order and routine again. Maybe I’m just fooling myself and doing this will be setting myself up for failure and future feelings of inadequacy and guilt and shame. Or maybe it will work.

Won’t know if I don’t try. So that’s my new plan of attack, even though I’m wondering why it took me so long to figure this out. Nope. Not going there. Regrets are useless.

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For a change, I’m feeling all resolute at the same time of year everyone else usually does. Time to move forward and make the coming year what I want it to be. And every year after, for however many more there might be.

One thing 2016 demonstrated quite clearly is that none of us are guaranteed more time than this moment right now. And as old Charlie might say, “Not makin’ the most of the time you got just ain’t no way to live.”

We all have varying interpretations of what it means to “make the most” of our time, our talent, our energy. However you define it, my wish for all of you is that you manage to accomplish that in the coming year.

May it truly be a Happy New Year, for all of us.

 

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It’s never nothing

Let’s see, where were we . . . in our last episode, our heroine was tied to the tracks and a train was approaching, with no (capable) help in sight.

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Sorry, wrong story. Maybe it’s just me, but that sort of sums up how helpless I feel lately.

My dad used to say: “It’s never nothing.” It was his version of: “It’s always something.” November has proven that adage, several times over.

I know, some of you are waiting to hear the final results of NaNo. It wasn’t a complete bust, although Life sure did its best to get in the way.

First there was the election. And the results, which we are just not going to talk about, because . . . well, just because. But I eventually convinced myself to stay mostly offline, or at least not look too long or too hard at twitter and facebook, and I was starting to re-focus on writing.

Then, the day after Thanksgiving, my mom made an unscheduled trip to the hospital’s emergency room via ambulance. I’m not going to get into medical details over here — my personal privacy policy makes HIPPA look like a freakin’ sieve — but I will say that she was there for five days (mostly due to it being a holiday weekend during which certain tests were not going to happen unless it was an emergency) (I’m very grateful she wasn’t considered an emergency), and then she was discharged to a rehab/transitional care place.

And then, not even 48 hours later, in the least fun text I’ve ever received at 4 AM, came word that she was right back in the hospital again. Where she still is, as I write this. But she’s getting better, albeit slowly, and we expect she’ll be headed back to transitional care in a day or so.

Never have I been more aware of how relative is the term “better.”

As you might imagine, trying to concentrate on writing (or anything else) with all this going on more than 1200 miles away has been damned near impossible. Honestly, I haven’t tried very hard in the past week. You know, priorities being what they are.

But I did manage to write 20,057 words in November, split between two different manuscripts. Probably that’s 20,057 words more than I would have written if I hadn’t participated in NaNo. Astonishingly, some of those words seem to do what I want them to do and might not even need to be deleted during edits.

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So, no, not 50K words. But I’m calling it a win.

Don’t judge me. I need a win right now.

My plan for December is to just continue focusing on writing. And try not to panic at the sound of the phone ringing or the notification that a new email or text message has arrived. Any celebrations in December, including my upcoming birthday, are going to be small and quiet. Understated. Practically invisible.

No, I’m not being a Scrooge. I’m simply acknowledging the truth that I’m not in the mood for celebration. I’m listening to that inner voice advocating self-care over forced displays of holly-jollity.

I can’t fix all the problems in the world. Hell, I can’t even fix all the problems in my own little corner of it. But I can write stories that, if I get it right, might provide a few moments of distraction and enjoyment for someone at a time when that’s exactly, perhaps desperately, what they need.

God knows, stories have certainly helped me get through this disaster we’re calling 2016. If my stories can do that for even one person, I’ll be calling that a win as well.

 

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NaNo update

I promised to report in a few times this month about writing progress. Not that I’m convinced anyone particularly cares to hear about anything other than a finished book, one they can read, but I said I would so . . .

I was making respectable progress, up until last Sunday. Then anticipation and anxiety set in and I couldn’t focus on fiction, waiting for the election to be over. And then the results came in and, honestly, that pretty much wrecked me.

I’ve probably written (and deleted) 10,000 words since the election, but none of them fiction. There are things I want to say, things about politics and civics and our basic humanity, but so far I haven’t figured out how to say them.

I’m a political person, it’s how I was raised. I don’t want to turn this blog into a political thing, but neither do I find it acceptable to say nothing. When I try to be all calm and optimistic, I sound like an apologist for bigotry. Then I write something fiery and motivational and . . . sound like I’m advocating rebellion and revolution.

Clearly, neither is acceptable. So I’m struggling. Along with everyone else I know.

Sigh.

Until I figure that out, here’s where I stand with the fiction writing. I’ve added 7,097 words to one novel, which is not a shabby effort for the first seven days of writing, considering it was filling in and enhancing scenes and not fast rough draft writing. But now it’s day thirteen and I’m way behind what I’d hoped to accomplish.

Perhaps worse than that, the story I’ve been working on is written with a very different and distinctive . . . attitude, for lack of a better word. A departure from my usual style. It’s wildly adventurous and imaginative and confident, which is exciting to write. Except, I’m feeling none of those things right now. The scenes I’ve tried to write since Tuesday sound horrible, like not even salvageable, they’re so out of place.

After some reflection, I’ve decided not to continue with that particular story right now. It’s the kind of thing that would take more work to fix than is worth the dubious progress. In fact, I’d just end up deleting all the words.

But I refuse to let that make me feel discouraged or insufficient. Stuff happens and you deal with it the best you can.

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My way of dealing with this is to work on something else, something I had planned to work on later in the month anyway, once I finished fleshing out the first story. It’s a story that feels more familiar, more in my usual style.

It’s a romance, the second in the McIntyre trilogy, something I intend to self-publish. The kind of story I want to read right now. The one that starts like this:

The first time she saw him he was shirtless and wearing a kilt. The second time, he was wearing a custom-tailored suit and destroying her grandfather on the witness stand. She didn’t much like him either time.

That is, unless I change it.

So, onward.

 

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Once more unto the breach

Well, it’s the end of October and time to answer the question we all ask ourselves this time of year: How many “extra” bags of chocolate Halloween candy should I buy?

No, wait. Not that question.

This one: Should I participate In NaNoWriMo this year?nano_logo-830912ef5e38104709bcc38f44d20a0d

That is, if you’re a writer, probably you ask yourself that question. I’ve been going back and forth about this for a week or so, given that I’ve had mixed results with NaNo in the past. Setting a marathon goal of writing 50,000 words in a month — and not just any month, but November — seems a bit unreasonable. Like, stupidly masochistic. Kill-me-now foolish.

But then I figured, what’s the worst that could happen? I’ll become even more of a hermit? Give up planning nutritious meals, abandon personal hygiene, ignore the menacing accumulation of dust bunnies, forego sleep, snarl vaguely at the cat’s demands for attention . . .

. . . and maybe write a bunch of words?

I’m not normally a “write every day” kind of writer. So I’m not the best fit for NaNo, where the usual reassuring advice is to write 1,667 words a day, consistently, and you’ll be just fine. I tend to do a lot of intense thinking, composing and moving words and ideas around in my head before I commit them to paper, er, the screen. Then, when I do write, words pour out in the thousands. And then I pause again to refill the well.

Except that’s not really working for me right now. And if a thing no longer works, it’s time to try something else.

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I’ve been thinking back to April and the A to Z Challenge, and how surprisingly productive I was, writing to a deadline every day like that. There wasn’t a word count requirement, but I wrote roughly 43,000 words in April. It was insane. Although, that was very different from NaNo in the respect that I also had to edit and polish and post those words every day. I won’t be doing that during NaNo, so in theory should be able to write MOAR WERDZ without the editing slowing me down. In theory.

So anyway, I bookmarked the NaNo site and made a wild guess as to what my user name was four years ago and got a new password and I’m all set to go.

STAND BACK, Y’ALL. WATCH THIS.

Ahem. Actually, there won’t be much to see. I’ll try to post a few word count updates during the month (not daily, that’s ridiculous) in an attempt to make myself accountable over here. Wish me luck?

If any of you writers out there want to . . . follow me? . . . friend me? Huh, looks like the correct term is “be my buddy,” my user name is KD James. I’ll kick your butt be all supportive, if I can figure out how to do that without breaking anything.

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What about you non-writers? Is there anything you want to accomplish in November? Some momentous task you’ve been putting off and need a little push of inspiration to get going? Let me know and I’ll cheer you on in the comments.

Oh, and the answer to that first question? Two, of course. Unless you’re doing NaNo. Then probably the answer is four. Yes, four sounds right. Four family-size bags of chocolate.

 

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