“What you don’t know and need to find out . . .” Research and Writing

A lot of people think fiction writers have it easy. Pick a plot, have a set of characters, go for it.

Having written fiction, I know better. But somehow, people do think it’s easier to write fiction than nonfiction. Having written nonfiction, I think so, too.

I’ve written before about my obsession with the disappearance of George Kimmel (see past posts ad nauseum; I’ll post links at the end of this one), but in the past few months, I’ve actually started drafting some chapters. It’s not that I’m done with the research; not by a long shot. Never, in fact, probably, will I be done with the research. But it’s because of something historical writer David McCullough said in the introduction to his book The Johnstown Flood.

He said: “At the beginning of the work, I had thought the best procedure would be to do all the research necessary, then write the book. Quite soon I had come to realize that, for me at least, it was best not to put off the writing, but rather to begin sooner than later, because it is then, in the writing, that you begin to see more clearly what you don’t know and need to find out.”

Also in his introduction, McCullough discusses his research, noting that it’s a dangerous downhill slope sometimes. “The more you know, the more you want to know. So the research went on right to the end.”

After reading this, I suddenly realized that I had two shelves full of research – and that’s what I had printed out; that didn’t include what I still had on my computer, or the newspaper.com articles I had yet to print, and the hundreds I had yet to even look for – and every time I put this project down and picked it back up again, I was retreading the same territory over and over.

It was time to start writing.

So I started. The first chapter, as it turned out, wasn’t even about Kimmel; it was about another banker, a guy named Stevenson from Nebraska, who disappeared about a decade before George did. Because the similarities were so striking – a bank president who takes out insurance on his life, then disappears – I wanted to follow it, especially since it was cited by the insurance companies in their arguments. Like George, Stevenson was never found. So I spent abut a month researching and drafting that chapter. It turned out well, so I turned next to the chapter that most fascinated me, the one about John Boone Swinney and his fantastic tale of gold and murder along the Oregon coast. That one isn’t done yet – it’s based on Swinney’s deposition, and since he also gave testimony in court, I want to be sure to add things from those articles – but it is drafted.

Then, I drafted another chapter, and . . .

Now, there’s about 40 pages that didn’t exist eight or nine months ago.

Of course, I’m starting with the easy things. As I explained to a friend last night, I had to start with the things that I didn’t have a ton of research for. For the early chapters about Arkansas City and George Kimmel’s life here, there just wasn’t that much information. I had a limited number of newspaper articles that detailed a little about his movements (a buggy wreck; starting a new grain elevator; Masonic gatherings), and bits from depositions and affidavits from his friends and family that talked about his life here. Pulling together that information into a coherent chapter was tedious, but not that difficult. It would obviously be better if I had more sources. It would obviously be fantastic if I had letters from George to his family, for example. But as I don’t, I have to make do with what I have. If the universe decides to be kind and let me find them one day, I will certainly add them in!

It’s the later chapters that will be the toughest ones, but I am not thinking about them quite yet.

But as McCullough said, you don’t know what you don’t know until you start writing. For example, today I wrote about the Midland Hotel in Kansas City, which was the hotel George always stayed in while in Kansas City, and the hotel from which he disappeared. I wanted to describe it. There are very few photographs of the Midland available online (as it was in 1898), so I went down a bit of a rabbit hole. I found an article about its design and building. I found a huge article from the Kansas City Times detailing every single amazing thing about the hotel, from when it first opened. Do I need all of that? No. But I can pick and choose my details now. I can talk about the pure white marble columns and floor that would have greeted George every time he walked into the front lobby. I can talk about the shops that occupied part of the first floor (including the Palace Diamond Parlor, which sold diamonds that cost “from $10 to $5,000”). If I pick the right ones, readers should figure out quickly that this hotel was not just expensive; it was exclusive. Now. I spent so much time researching that today that very little writing got done. But. Again, like McCullough said, you don’t know what you don’t know until you start writing.

Fiction writers need to do this, too. Some novelists think they need to have all their research done before they start writing. WRONG. Sure, there are some novelists out there who can probably do that – the ones who write from formulas, the ones who know from the time they first put fingers to keyboard what will happen on every single page. For the rest of us, figuring out what we may need to research ahead of time is difficult, if not impossible.

Start writing.

Will it be good? Well, maybe not all of it, not at first. That’s what rewrites are for. And you may put things in those drafts that are erroneous. You may think one thing is correct, then find out later it isn’t. Been there, done that. But you can fix it later.

The one bit of advice I have is to be sure to cite everything in that draft! Don’t think you’ll remember where that quote or information is from. You won’t. Cite it in the text (or if you prefer, in end notes or footnotes), but don’t leave a single paragraph without citations. Believe me, you will not magically recall where you got it from later! If you have a lot of different sources, you can create shorthand for them (NYvR is New York v Rankin 1908, for example, so a shorthand citation for me might look like this: (NYvR MH testimony 83). That tells me it came from Margie Hunt’s testimony, in that case, on page 83. Don’t stray too far from MLA or Chicago (or AP) formats; know what you’re talking about.

Just start writing. Until you do, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Histoplasmosis in Cats: A Personal Story

I remember it clearly: I was standing in the exam room at my vet’s office. Across the table stood my vet, and between us sat Mick, the cat who had deviled us for the past six months. She was now just a shell of her former Psycho Demon Cat self – and I had just learned she’d lost even more weight in the past week, taking her to a scant 4.8lbs. We’d tried everything. She’d been seen by top internalists at Oklahoma State University. She’d been scoped, prodded, stuck, injected, treated, tested. And nothing was working. I could feel her spine and ribs through her short fur. I looked down at her and realized this was probably the end of the line, and even opened my mouth to ask the vet if that was the case – at the same moment he said, “I want to try one more thing.”

A week later, in my kitchen, I got the phone call. “I have good news and bad news,” the vet said, and I could hear the excitement in his voice. “The good news is, it’s histoplasmosis. The bad news is, it’s histoplasmosis.”

“There is no bad news,” I said.

My vet said he’d already ordered the antifungal drugs, and within 48 hours of being on them, Mick was eating normally and acting more like her Psycho Demon Cat self.

Anyone who owns animals – dogs, cats, snakes (blech!), whatever – knows the utter frustration and fear that comes with knowing your pet isn’t well – but you have NO idea why. You take them to the vet, who will examine them and do diagnostics – blood work, temperature check, etc. Sometimes you get an idea of what’s wrong right away. Sometimes past issues get in the way (one time, my cat Rascal wasn’t feeling well, and given his history of bladder issues, that’s what the vet jumped to – until I went to pick up Rascal and discovered he had a huge abscess on his chest). And sometimes, the vet just doesn’t know.

And sometimes, you get lucky. Because you’ve seen the symptoms before.

Nigel (left) with Hammie (remember him? So itty-bitty in June and now he’s the biggest kitty in the house!

That’s was the case a few months ago when one of my barn cats, Nigel, started to drop weight inexplicably. Because it was getting colder, I let him come inside. I also took him to the vet immediately. He had no underlying issues, no real medical past, so we assumed perhaps it was worms (though he’d been wormed just a few months earlier) and he came home. But he kept losing weight. And then he got picky about his food, only licking the gravy from his canned and refusing most things.

And suddenly, I knew what it was. Because I’d seen this before with Mick.

Histoplasmosis is a fungal infection, carried by birds. If a cat ingests it or breathes in the spores, they can’t shed it – it takes root in the body, settling in various areas, including the kidneys, bone marrow, and lungs. There’s some debate about where it’s endemic – it’s actually endemic in the Ohio Valley region – but having had two cats with it, I can tell you that it IS in Kansas, and elsewhere through the Midwest. If there are birds, histoplasmosis is a possibility.

Every cat presents slightly differently, but for me, the major symptoms were:

Weight loss – It’s an insidious weight loss – not sudden, but slow enough that you look at your cat one day and think “Wow, when did you get so skinny?” Because they start to become anorexic (technical term for ‘not eating’) they lose more and more weight. It took Mick about six months to go from a health 10lbs to about 4.8lbs; it took Nigel about three months.

Picky about food – for both Mick and Nigel, the tell-tale sign was this one, and it’s very specific. The cat loses interest in ALL food, but will lick gravy from canned food. You may go through 20 types of canned food to find something they’ll eat once or twice, then abandon. My vet has seen 11 or 12 histo cats in the past ten years, and all of them had this symptom. They eat barely enough to stay alive, and sometimes, not even that much.

Weird blood work results – Mick’s histo settled in her bone marrow and kidneys .Every time we did blood work, the results led us down a different path. Once, her potassium levels were wonky. Another time, it was something else. Every few weeks, it was always something else. With Nigel, we never saw that, but I think that’s because we figured out right away what it was we were dealing with. We didn’t run blood work on him like we had to with Mick while we were trying to diagnose her.

Respiratory issues – with Nigel, the histo settled into his lungs and sinus cavities. He sounded like he had pneumonia, and it affected his sense of smell as well.

Depression – cats with histo feel like hell, all the time. They’re not interested in doing anything. In fact, even when we had Nigel on medicine and I was syringe-feeding him, there were days when I thought we would lose him just to his depression.

I was lucky with both of my cats. I was blessed with a vet who was committed to finding out what was wrong with Mick – she was his first case of histoplasmosis, and it took us about 6 months to diagnose it, from her first symptom of weight loss to the final diagnosis. There’s only one lab in the country that tests for it. Without my vet, I would have lost Mick – and without Mick, I couldn’t have diagnosed Nigel.

It was clear immediately, once I saw Nigel licking gravy and not eating, what we were dealing with, and I instantly called my vet to schedule the histo test. The results came back as I was battling COVID-19. But unlike Mick, Nigel didn’t respond to the usual medication. It made him extremely ill – he became anorexic (more than usual, and I didn’t think that was possible), more depressed, and nauseated. It took a while to figure out that we needed to switch him over to an inject-able antifungal instead. By that time, he was being syringe-fed (a wonderful product from Canada called Critical Care Carnivore saved his life) and weighed just 5.8lbs. There were definitely days when I wondered what I was doing, and it was always in the back of my mind that just because you diagnose something doesn’t mean you can cure it.

Today, almost four months after his first symptoms, Nigel is clear of histoplasmosis. He’s back up to 7.5lbs. He still won’t eat canned food – I think it made him nauseous when he was already ill, and he associates it with that – but he does have a specific dry food he loves. He probably will never again be an outside cat (he won’t drink anything but water from my Brita pitcher now), but he’s happy and healthy, and that’s what matters.

I wanted to share this story because I know there must be dozens – maybe hundreds – of cat owners out there who are struggling, or have struggled, with these symptoms and had no way to know what was causing them. Taken apart, they’re so indistinct that they could indicate almost anything – we tested Mick for FIV, FeLV, even scoped her for ulcers and GI issues and tested her for lymphoma. And unless your vet is familiar with histoplasmosis, they probably won’t even think to test for it. It’s not recognized as endemic in most of the Midwest, after all. Your vet might even point that out. Insist on the test anyway. As I said, only one lab in the country does the test. But a positive result is a POSITIVE result – there are no false positives with this test. And once you know, you can start the treatment. If your cat has a bad reaction to the antifungal, like Nigel did, insist on switching to the injections. They have to be given in subQ fluids – Nigel was on a three-day-a-week schedule – but it’s worth it.

Here’s some good resources and references on histoplasmosis:


https://news.okstate.edu/articles/communications/2019/recognizing_histoplasmosis_in_pet_dogs_and_cats.html – this is a 2019 article from Oklahoma State University. Good to see them recognizing it as endemic now!

https://www.dvm360.com/view/canine-and-feline-histoplasmosis-review-widespread-fungus – a bit older, but still good information.

This is the Carnivore Critical Care that I put Nigel on. You can find it on Amazon. Some cats will eat it just fine; I had to syringe-feed Nigel, but I am convinced this is what bought us enough time for the antifungal meds to start working.

‘Endings Are Hard’

Sometimes, on Facebook, there’s a question: Name the character whose death you’ll never get over.

For me, the answers have always been the standards: Henry Blake, Will Herondale, Dobby.

Now, I have to add Sam and Dean Winchester to that list, and twenty-four hours later, even typing those words makes me cry.

Isn’t that what we all want, as writers? To create characters that are so real, so beloved, that our readers/fans bawl their eyes out if something happens to them? In retrospect, I should have just said, you know what? I love the ending of the penultimate episode. They defeated Chuck. Jack has his destiny. Sam and Dean are finally free to live their lives. But no. I had to watch the series finale. Damn it.

It was my mom who got me hooked on Supernatural. Fifteen years ago, she started watching this little show about two brothers – who, I had to admit, were pretty cute – who ‘saved people and hunted things.’ But this was three years after the end of The X-Files, and believe it or not, I was still in mourning – and frankly, still pretty pissed off at Chris Carter for ending it that way, with no resolution, nothing. I had vowed I would never become that invested in a TV show again.

Not worth it, I said. Try it, she said. But I just couldn’t. I kept waiting for it to end. It seemed like it would, after all – it was fun, smart, with a great cast and a great premise. All those kinds of shows end up getting the axe. Moonlight did. Why not this one?

But it didn’t. And Sam and Dean won me over, with their cuteness and sarcasm and courage, their loyalty and resourcefulness, their amazing bond and the penchant they had for running pell-mell into danger – not because they didn’t recognize the danger, but because they felt they had no choice. This was their job. Their calling. And I liked that about them. I’ve always liked those kinds of stories, the ones where the characters know there’s a chance they’ll die (and Sam and Dean did die, several times!) but it’s not important. What’s important is fixing what’s wrong. Solving the problem. Whatever that problem might be. A ghost A vampire nest. The Apocalypse. Bringing their brother back from the dead. The usual.

For fifteen years, I’ve remained faithful, as characters came and went, as characters sacrificed themselves for the greater good (Crowley, Charlie, Rowena . . . Ellen and Jo . . . John Winchester . . . and our dear sweet Castiel, among many), as over and over, Sam and Dean defied the odds with nothing more than courage, a stubborn streak, and faith in each other.

“Endings are hard,” Chuck said in the episode Swan Song, which saw Lucifer taking over Sam so he could fight Michael in the final epic battle of good and evil – and Dean, unwilling to give up on his brother, driving to the showdown and interrupting two archangels intent on the Apocalypse. (This episode also features my favorite five second of all time: Castiel’s “Hey! Assbutt!”) At that time, we just thought Chuck was a prophet, and what he said was true of all writers. Endings suck. But what made this ending, this series finale, worse, I think, is that it was one of the last things I still shared with my mom. She died some time ago. She didn’t get to see this ending. I wasn’t conscious of that link to her, really, not until last night when I started crying and suddenly realized my tears and my grief ran deeper than watching Dean say his goodbyes to Sam, or seeing them reunited with that smile, and that “Hey, Sammy” – a line I’ve heard a thousand times over fifteen years, the line I said with him because I knew he’d say it.

Supernatural was first and foremost about family. That was clear in every episode. To Dean, nothing was more important. Never give up on family. Whether that family was his brother and dad, or whether it was the extended, adopted family they created – Charlie, Castiel, Jodi, Jack – family was first and foremost, and my mom was really the last of mine. I have siblings, but we don’t talk and after a lifetime of their treatment, that’s fine. But you knew, always, that Sam and Dean would do anything for each other – making a deal with a crossroads demon, whatever it took. It felt like not just the end of one of my favorite series, but it felt like that last tiny link I still had with my mom was suddenly severed.

So to me, this show about two brothers ‘saving people, hunting things’ was far more than that. It was inspiration and comfort. It was an hour of believing in the good in people again. It was a last bit of connection to my mom. It was hope. I know that sounds corny, but really, that’s what it was. The writers took big risks – making angels into douchebags?! Who would have done that?! But it was brilliant! You never knew what would happen next – but whatever it was, you knew one thing: Sam and Dean would survive it, together. They were an inspiration for how to live life, to never give up, which was the basis of the mental health initiatives that Jensen Ackles and Jared Padelecki have sponsored and supported.

So thank you to the cast and crew, the writers and directors and producers, for giving us fifteen years of an amazing show. Hopefully, I can find it in myself to start living my life with that kind of courage and conviction.

The sarcasm, I already have. ūüôā

To Undecided Republican Voters

A recent poll I read stated that 90% of voters in America already know who they’re going to vote for, and nothing will change their minds. So this is directed at the 10% of you who still haven’t decided between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Here’s the thing: America is fragile. America hangs together by a lick and a promise, as the old saying goes – a promise that we all make, because we’re citizens of the greatest country on earth, to uphold our democracy, to stand up for one another, to maintain our Constitution. Our Constitution, as I’ve come to believe in the past year, is only viable so long as we believe in it – and only so long as those who have power for the moment are willing to uphold it. It requires vigilance. It requires honor. It requires diligence.

“. . . we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor.” Words you might remember from studying the Declaration of Independence at some point in school. This is the last line of the document that officially severed our ties with Great Britain, and cast us into a war for independence. The men who signed it did so knowing they were now traitors to the crown. Knowing that if we lost, they were going to be drawn and quartered. Every single man who signed it knew that – and signed it anyway. They believed enough in the promise of America and its people that they were willing to risk their lives in the effort to see it come into existence.

We have never had consensus about our government. There has always been contention about the size of government, about whether we’re a country or a confederacy of states, about taxes, about industry vs. agriculture, about expansion, colonialism, voting rights – you name it, we’ve argued about it. But in all of America’s history, we’ve never faced a moment like this. We’ve never been this close to losing everything we grew up knowing and believing in.

The Constitution is an amazing document. The pinnacle of the Enlightenment, the product of thousands of years of government experiments, forged in the years after the Revolutionary War when we weren’t sure what we were going to be yet, and written by men who were flawed and knew it. They created a document that could guide us, that could be amended as America changed. And we have amended it. We have interpreted it. And for 231 years, it has guided us and governed us. But it depends on us for its survival.

If you’re a Republican, and you’re wavering, torn about what to do because you’ve always voted Republican, because being Republican is part of who you are – and yet, there is a part of you that hesitates – know you’re not alone. And please know this: the Republican party of today is not the Republican party you knew. Did Reagan, or George Bush, or George W. Bush, advocate racism? White supremacy? Did any of them actively seek to divide the nation, or to destroy it from the inside out? No. They sought to strengthen American, to make us an economic powerhouse, to further our foreign influence, to keep us a world leader.

Trump has done none of those things. Every day, it becomes more clear that he has ties to foreign entities FAR beyond what a president should have. Jimmy Carter famously gave up his farm when he became President, so that there could never be any conflict of interest, no hint of wrongdoing. Trump has, at every opportunity, used the office to his own ends. He has used it to enrich himself by putting up dignitaries at his own hotels, then overcharging the government for it. He’s used it as leverage to further his own business interests. And it’s now clear that not only is he massively in debt, but those debts are to foreign countries. China. Russia. Saudi Arabia. Our two biggest enemies, and one nation that could be an enemy, if the winds blow the wrong direction. Is this what we want? Is this what the Republican party is now about? Selling us out?

Further, Trump has weakened America’s stance in the world. The world no longer looks to us as a leader. That honor has now gone to the trifecta of France, Germany, and Canada. Great countries, all of them – but ever since the Spanish-American War, America’s influence upon the world has been unquestioned. This nation, which won two world wars, put down Nazism, has dedicated itself to fighting dictators and tyrannies since our conception – this nation, our nation, now stands poised to lose it all, for at the moment we have authoritarians, not statesmen.

I’m a liberal Independent. I never liked George W. Bush. I disagreed with many of his policies and positions. But on 9/11, when it mattered most, he was not a Republican president; he was our president. He was our rock. He was our leader. He shared our grief and he rose to the occasion, and when he spoke, we knew that he stood with us all.

Can you imagine, now, Donald Trump in that moment? Can you imagine him standing at Ground Zero, with the fires still raging, the dead still not found, the families still searching, and being what George W. Bush was for us that night? Because I cannot. I can imagine him bellowing and raging at who to blame and who to kill, and how he great he is. That’s all. I can’t imagine him rallying us as a nation to stand together, unified in a national tragedy. Why? Because he’s had that chance, and he’s failed every single time.

Trump has made a mockery of the Constitution. He’s made a mockery of the most sacred office in our land. And he’s brought the GOP down with him. Ask yourself: do you recognize your own party anymore? I have Republican friends (yes, I do!), and one of them voted, for the first time ever, a straight Democrat ticket this year because the Republican party of today is no longer aligned with his values.

Every single person elected for office swears an oath to uphold the Constitution. What can you say about a party that used to care about this, but is now led by people who see the Constitution as little more than a speed bump on the road to authoritarianism? The Republican leadership has enabled a man who dishonors not only Christianity, but also the Constitution that took so many years to draft and has served us so well. The Constitution is an extraordinary document, unique in history. Trump has brought in people to enable him to circumvent – and in some cases outright defy – the Constitution. Miller, Barr – these people have no loyalty to the Constitution or to America, but only to Trump. They swore to uphold the Constitution, but Trump has hijacked that and made it about loyalty to him. And Trump is NOT equal to the Constitution. It’s not about loyalty to the office of the President; it’s about loyalty to him. And that is authoritarianism.

Those are the things I cannot stand for, and cannot forgive. We, the people, have elected people who care not about America, but about power. The Republicans have had leadership – very good leaders, men like Eisenhower, and George W. Bush. Men who were real men. Men who served in the armed forces, who understood honor, who fought for us and would have died for our country if necessary. Men who loved America and did their best to leave it a better place (even if some of those efforts were misguided). It is now up to us – ALL of us – to stand up for America.

Right now, party labels are not important. What’s important is that we are all, first and foremost, Americans.

Vote for America. Vote for democracy. Vote for our Constitution.

Vote for Joe Biden. Not because you’re a Democrat or a liberal or any other label, but simply because you are an American, and you give a damn about the continuance of our democracy.

We’ll figure out the rest later.

For a list of prominent Republicans who are crossing party lines to support Joe Biden, see this article: https://www.newsweek.com/nearly-350-prominent-republicans-voting-joe-biden-1540611 And if I may quote former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, this election “isn’t about a Republican or Democrat. It’s about a person: a person decent enough, stable enough, strong enough to get our economy back on track.”

Is America a Democracy? Only if you vote.

Here we sit. One month away from the moment where the American experiment continues, or whether we go down in a blaze of fascism led by a an orange toddler too stupid to take a pandemic seriously.

I know a lot of people out there – maybe yourself included – find this doomsday scenario farfetched. I am not alone, however. Our system is not just flawed at the moment; it’s almost irretrievably broken.

A democracy is literally the power of the people. WE decide. WE vote. WE elect. WE determine. WE direct. But it’s not that way anymore, is it? Nope, I hear you – we still have elections, you idiot. Of course we still have the power to elect. Stop with the doomsday stuff already, liberal.* Well, here’s the thing. In a true democracy, everyone with the right to vote should have the means and opportunity to vote. Otherwise, it’s not a democracy. And that’s not the case in America anymore.

Take, for example, this week’s action by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Like all states, Texas provides for absentee ballots. However, Abbot issued an order this week limiting the number of drop-off boxes for absentee ballots to one per county. That’s it. Now, let me explain why that’s a bad idea. There are 254 counties in Texas. The largest is Brewster County, which covers more than 500 square miles. (That’s three times the size of Delaware, BTW.) Although the county seat, Alpine, is the only true ‘city,’ the county is broken down into four major school districts and has three ‘census-designated areas’. In other words, it’s a large, extremely rural area where most people have to travel a long ways to buy groceries. Now. In this county alone, how is it possible to have ONE absentee ballot box? How far will people need to travel to drop it off? And – which is Abbott’s point in all this – will they? He’s hoping they won’t.

This is just the latest example of the erosion of voter rights that has been going on for some time – at least 30 years – and is only now manifesting itself. All erosions are unconstitutional. All of them violate the 14th and 15th Amendments, and usually the 19th Amendment, and all of them violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

No, voter suppression is not a new thing, you’re right. It’s been ongoing since just after the Civil War, when the white supremacist South couldn’t stand the idea of black men being equal to them, so the utilized every dirty trick in the book – and some they had to invent – to keep them from voting. Everything from literacy laws (‘read this paragraph of the Constitution to me, and you can vote’), to the infamous ‘grandfather clause’ (if your grandfather could vote in 1860, you could vote), to poll taxes, to out-and-out intimidation, usually by having Klan members in full bedsheets standing outside the voting booths on election day. Today, it’s a lot more subtle; they take pains to make it seem legal. Like Abbott’s declaration, or Florida’s new law stating that nonviolent ex-felons can’t vote unless all fines and fees are paid – thus disenfranchising over 1 million people, most of whom are people of color and/or of low economic status. Some will argue that this is fine. Others will argue that this is a violation of the Voting Rights Act – in essence, a poll tax. Either way, it’s preventing these people from voting. (Michael Bloomberg did raise funds – over $16 million – to pay fees for some of those disenfranchised voters, BTW.)

No. It’s clear the system is broken. And it’s clear that this is a long con – something that’s been in the works for decades, as Republicans slowly erode our rights away. In fact, I’d argue that we stand on the brink – if we’re not there already – of being neither a democracy nor a republic, but an oligarchy. Because partisan courts have turned a blind eye to their tricks, like gerrymandering (which is unconstitutional), or purposely kicking people of color off the voting rolls (Georgia), the people no longer have the power – which is the very meaning of democracy.

Can we get it back? Yes, but it will take some luck, belief, and a long-term, sustained effort – and, to quote Mad-Eye Moody, constant vigilance! We can’t for one second take the eye off the ball. And there are things we can do to mitigate circumstances so that we don’t end up back here again – or at least, so we don’t end up back here again soon – but it will take a real conversation about our democracy, our history, and our future. It will take a real commitment not to power or prestige, but to patriotism. It will take a commitment not to party or partisan politics, but to people. It will take a commitment to America itself.

We can save it. Our first step has to be to vote on November 3. Or to vote by mail. To request an absentee ballot. To VOTE, period. If you’re not yet registered to vote, go register! Every state has a different deadline to register, so check here – https://www.vote.org/voter-registration-deadlines/ – to find out your state’s deadline, or check out your state’s election office (usually part of the Secretary of State’s office).

Let me make a special plea to the 18-24 year olds out there – you will hear your elders, maybe even your parents, tell you you shouldn’t vote because you don’t know the candidates, don’t know how government works, don’t know the issues. DO NOT LISTEN TO THEM. You can become informed. Today, it’s easier than ever. You can make your voice heard. You can determine the kind of nation YOU want to live in. Here. Now. This is your moment. And you Millennials – those of you between 23 – 38? You outnumber the Baby Boomers now. Go register. Go vote. My students can’t wait to get to vote. They’re ready. We are still a democracy, damn it, and your vote does matter.

And if we win in a month, then we have a lot of work to do, a lot of changes to make, to ensure we are never standing here again, on the line between democracy and fascism.

* Also, there are a lot of countries, like China and Russia, which have elections, but those elections are meaningless because there’s only one party, and only one person to vote for. Elections in and of themselves don’t make a democracy; the right of voters to choose, to determine the path forward, is what makes a democracy.

A Time For Dissent

“That’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.”

Immortal words from a woman we prayed would be immortal.

Like millions, I was devastated beyond measure by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It feels like the end of everything. It feels like the end of hope and light, the end of decency and equality, the end of democracy and liberty. The end of the environment, of women’s rights, of America itself.

One woman made us feel this way. Please, stop for a moment to consider that. One woman made us feel this way.

Imagine how great this nation could be, then, if we all had the ability to inspire those around us? To be the person upon whom their hopes hinged?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg dedicated her life to fighting for equality and justice. She fought tirelessly, bravely; even in the face of great opposition, she did not swerve or flinch. She knew her life’s work was greater than herself. She knew her life’s work was to help others, to serve others. Her life had meaning and purpose. Her death inspired an outpouring of grief – and donations – around the world.

Her story is one that should be familiar to us all. She went to law school – was one of only a handful of women admitted to Harvard – was told she didn’t belong there because of her sex – hid the fact that she was pregnant until her contract was renewed at her first teaching job – in short, she fought for the things she believed in, simply by going out and doing them.

The philosopher Albert Camus wrote about this. To Camus, the world was an absurdity, devoid of purpose and meaning. It was up to each of us, he believed, to not give in to despair, but instead to find meaning within ourselves. To do that, we had to adopt an attitude of defiance. We had to do the very things we were told not to do, in order to give our lives meaning. We had to revolt, we had to have passion, and we had to create our own freedom.

I can’t think of a better example of those virtues that The Notorious RBG.

I know we’re grief-stricken, blindsided. I also know many of us find politics distasteful; we think it doesn’t matter. Nothing could be further from the truth. Politics, especially this year, matters more than ever. But it doesn’t mean taking to the streets. It might not even mean working as an election worker. No. While those things are important, and I’m going to include a list of ways you can get involved in a bit, I think the larger lesson we need to take from Justice Ginsburg is this: do what you want to do, and never let anyone tell you you can’t. In other words: dissent.

Dissent. Dissent because you believe. Dissent because it’s the right thing to do. Dissent because dissent = revolution. Dissent, because dissent = passion and freedom.

Dissent. It seems impossible sometimes. The second I saw the news on my phone, I lost it. I called my friend. He – a lifelong Republican – was heartbroken. But as I cried and we talked and I felt so hopeless . . . I watched the people gather at the steps of the Supreme Court. Watched them place flowers and candles, console each other. And I knew that to honor her, we all have to fight.

But dissent doesn’t just mean politically. I urge you now, if there’s ANYTHING you’ve ever wanted to do with your life, go do it.

If you’re a woman who has always wanted to go to college, who wants to change careers, who wants a career, NOW IS THE TIME. It doesn’t matter if everyone tells you you’re too old. It doesn’t matter if your family whines about how you’re never home. NOW IS THE TIME. If your children are at home now, schooling online? Join them! Most colleges offer online classes. Community colleges offer lower tuition and more financial aid opportunities (and probably more support) than universities. NOW IS THE TIME.

If you’ve ever wanted to volunteer for something – reading in schools, walking dogs at the humane society, delivering meals to senior citizens, moving to Costa Rica to raise orphaned sloths, whatever – NOW IS THE TIME. Don’t waste another second. Go do it.

NOW IS THE TIME to inspire those around you. To stand up for your beliefs, to find your passion, to revolt, to create your own life, on your terms. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was able to do it by fighting against unjust laws, by fighting for equality. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote and spoke and marched for equality and equal rights, and inspired hundreds of thousands to join him. We certainly can’t all be them – God knows, I’d love to be – but that doesn’t mean that we can’t step up and in our own ways, be like them. It doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference. Because we can.

It’s time for us to dissent.

Dissent, dissent, dissent. Dissent against the status quo, dissent against the naysayers, dissent against those who would hold you back, dissent against society’s limits.

Dissent. For the love of all that’s holy, for the love of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissent.

If you want to get involved politically, but don’t know how, there are dozens of small ways you can make a difference:

VOTE. That’s by the far the one thing we can almost ALL do. You can register online in most states, and many states are encouraging vote by mail. All states offer ‘absentee ballots,’ but you must request one. Check with your state’s voting office or Secretary of State’s website. Early voting is also an option.

WORK THE POLLS. If you can get the day off, be a poll worker. Larger cities sometimes have to close or limit the number of polling places they can offer due to a lack of poll workers. In some cases, you can even be paid for this. States that offer early voting also need poll workers, so ask about that.

DONATE. If you can, make campaign contributions. As little as $5 can help, and this is especially true in states where the Senate races are tight.

DON’T FOCUS ON THE WHITE HOUSE. The Senate and the House are where we need to focus time and energy. Flip them blue, and the White House doesn’t matter.

VOLUNTEER. Call your local party’s office. They always need volunteers to work on mailers, to drive people to the polls, and a number of other things. This is a hands-on way to make a difference!

EDUCATE. Have friends, neighbors, or relatives that aren’t sure about the voting process? Walk them through it. If they’re not registered, help them get registered. If they’re not sure about going to the polls on Election Day, help them with alternatives.

When Schools Close – Tips for Successful Online Learning

In March, I – like a lot of teachers – said goodbye to my students, told them I’d see them in a week, wished them a safe Spring Break . . . and never saw them again.

March came as a shock to us all. In the space of basically a week, everything changed, especially education. Parents were suddenly forced to find ways to home school their kids; teachers were forced to come up with creative ways to deliver material; students were forced to figure out online and self-directed learning. No one expected it. Everyone did the best they could.

All summer, teachers were in limbo as schools tried to decide if they were going to remain online, try to return to full-time, face to face classes, or some hybrid of the two. And let’s be real:  schools that ARE returning pell-mell to face-to-face teaching aren’t going to last very long. I fully expect my college to ship everyone home no later than October 1.

Which begs the question:  what do we do?

Well, we move online.

I know everyone was scrambling last year. I was shocked by how unprepared some of my students really were – college students! I can’t imagine what it must be like for those of you with kids in elementary or middle/high school. My college students, I found out, didn’t have computers at home. Didn’t have internet or wifi. They were depending on the college for all of that. Heck, my international students who went home for break didn’t even have their textbooks! They’d left them in their dorms, and suddenly – poof! No coming back, no textbooks.

My college is returning to ‘normal’ – at least, they are for now. I am against this, but I have no say in it. I think we would have been better served to admit that for now, things are changing, and it’s time to change as well. I have to prepare my students for the reality that their face to face classes will go online at some point this fall. So here’s some tips I put together for my students last year, and will be giving them this year. Hopefully they might help someone.

1.) Get Internet access. I live in rural Kansas, where wifi is an issue. I have a wireless router. I’ve had to learn how to get the most of it that I can, and even then, there are days when I simply can’t get a decent signal, but it’s the best I can do. If you can get Internet though your cable provider, that’s an option. AND, most Android phones can be used as wireless routers! Talk to your cell phone provider about your data plan and how much data you can get on your plan. Or check with your school district or college and see if they plan to provide wifi access. For example, my college set up routers so that students could access wifi from their cars, in the parking lot. Not great, but it was the best we could do on the fly.

2.) Get a computer or tablet. You can’t do research on a phone, or write an essay or a three-page paper. And if you live in an area where lockdowns will be a possibility, you can’t rely on libraries or schools being open for computer access. Do not wait. If you don’t already own your own laptop or tablet, go buy one and start learning how to use it. Samsung tablets aren’t that expensive, and they generally come with the Office suite (Word, Excel, etc.). Make sure you get a keyboard for it; it’ll be handy.

3.) Learn time management. I can’t stress this one enough. I’ve taught online for eight or nine years now. I KNOW students procrastinate! I know you all wait until the last possible moment to do your homework. STOP IT. NOW! You don’t have that luxury anymore. I can see when my students log in; I can see when they start assignments. Any good learning management system (LMS) like Blackboard lets teachers see everything their students are doing. Learn time management. If you know you have a paper due in two weeks, figure out how to break down the work into small, manageable pieces instead of waiting until two hours before it’s due, then putting together some slap-dash piece of craptastic, plagiarized garbage your poor teacher will have to give you an F for. Purdue University has some great tips here:  https://www.purdueglobal.edu/blog/student-life/time-management-busy-college-students/

4.) Don’t wait until the last minute to do assignments! I’m separating this one from time management because again, I see it all the time. Procrastination can be good in some cases, but your school work isn’t one of them. First of all, you may underestimate how much time you’ll need for an assignment. If you do that, you may fail the test or assignment, and your teacher probably won’t give you an extension. (And before you think about excuses – don’t bother. We’ve heard them all.) Also, online LMS platforms like Blackboard are notorious for small glitches like not saving quiz scores, kicking students out of tests, closing things early, etc. If you run into these issues early in the week, WAY before the assignments are due, you can talk to your instructor and get the problems fixed. If you wait until the last minute and run into those issues, we are far less likely to believe you. Seriously.

5.) Set up a place to work. This is impossible for some of us – I have a tiny house where my desk is in my bedroom. Zero separation of work/sleep space. Zero separation from the kitties, too! But if you can, find a quiet location for your desk and books; a place where you can work. If your bedroom is quiet and you like the quiet, that’s great. If you prefer to be nearer the hub of activity, perhaps the kitchen table is more ideal. We all have our own way of working, and from day to day, or even from assignment to assignment, that might change. I write best in coffee shops, but for actual homework,  I need a quiet place to focus. If there is no place like that for you, try earbuds and your phone – fire up some music, and focus on your work for an hour or two. Outside space – the backyard, a park – can also be great. It gets you outside, it changes your mood and perspective. Being near water can be energizing.

6.) Set up a time to work. Believe it or not, we thrive on schedules. And we all have different rhythms to our lives. I HATE getting up early, but I used to be great at staying up late and working into the wee hours – it was my jam when I was in school. Some people love to get up early and get work out of the way. Figure out the best schedule for you. Obviously, if you’re in an online synchronous environment (where you’re online with your teacher and classmates simultaneously), this won’t work, but if you’re in an asynchronous learning environment, it will be great.

7.) Ask for help. If you don’t understand an assignment, ask for clarification. If you can’t access an assignment, let your teacher know ASAP. If you have a question about a reading, or a math problem, ASK. The thing is, we’re sitting on the other side of that computer screen, unaware if you’re having an issue or if you’re just not completing assignments. Truthfully, at the college level, instructors accept that some students will just stop attending – they will stop logging in, stop doing assignments, stop participating. We don’t know why. We reach out, we get nothing. We file student concern reports; advisors get nothing back. We have zero clue what has happened. You have to let us know if there’s a problem with your internet, your textbook access, whatever it is. If you don’t, we can’t know.

8.) Expect that every teacher will do things differently. That’s just how it is. Every single one of your teachers will have different skill levels. Access to different levels of technology. They’ll be comfortable with differing levels of interaction and assignments. Especially at the college level, don’t expect all of your classes to go the same way. Some of your teachers will go with synchronous online learning; others will post video lectures. Some won’t be able to do either one, but instead will require more of you from the textbook or online sources. Be flexible. Go with it. Know what the expectations are in each of your classes.

9.) PAY ATTENTION IN YOUR SYNCHRONOUS ONLINE CLASSES, DARN IT. Those Zoom sessions are for YOU. Not your teacher. YOU. Just as every teacher has a different classroom style, so every teacher will teach differently on Zoom. This is especially true at the college level. If your teacher primarily lectures in class, don’t expect different on Zoom. If you are put in a virtual room to discuss things, discuss them. Participate. Pay attention. Accept that this is just the way it’s going to be for now. (And if they post video lectures, by all means, watch them. This is what I had to do last year. They take a lot of work, believe me. Make it count!)

On that note, seriously, ACCEPT THAT THIS IS THE WAY IT’S GOING TO BE FOR NOW. Don’t whine about how you want your college or high school experience. Make the most of what you’ve got right now. Please. No amount of whining, crying, complaining, or wishing is going to make this pandemic go away any faster. It just won’t. Do NOT take a gap year, hoping things will be ‘normal’ next year, because they probably won’t. I don’t think things will be normal for at least two years, maybe three. Do you really want to push your education off that long, just to have that ‘college experience?’ Or do you want to take online classes now, get your core classes out of the way, and be able to hit the ground running on your major when things get back to ‘normal?’ What if things are never normal again? How long do you want to wait?

All of that said – I KNOW that these tips can’t help everyone. This is going to be a difficult year for us all. Those of you with some online learning experience will handle it better than those of you without. And I know there are students who truly need to be in the classroom; I know there are students who cannot afford the tools they need to move online. I am furious with my own college for not addressing this very issue, in fact. I know that schools are finding it hard to come up with the funds to ensure wifi access for students, let alone tablets or laptops for those without them. And I know that there are students who are going to be left behind, and that infuriates me. It’s not their fault. They deserve a proper education.

This year is really going to show us how bad the ‘digital divide’ in America is. I suspect it’s going to be a lot worse than we ever thought it was. In the past, I could always send students to the computer lab or their local library to work on things. I can’t do that anymore; I can’t take it for granted that they’ll be open! We teachers are also having to shift how we think and operate, how we run our classes, what we can expect from our students. It won’t be seamless, and it won’t be easy. It will be like learning how to drive a stick shift – full of jumps and starts and leaps forward and grinding gears and probably a stall or two while we figure out how to put the car in first and get it started again.

But for now, we have to accept that this is the way it’s going to be. The question is, how are we going to handle it?

Some tips on being a successful online student from the University of Illinois:  https://www.uis.edu/ion/resources/tutorials/pedagogy/successful-online-student/

For more about the digital divide among students and the pandemic, see https://www.wired.com/story/schools-digital-divide-remote-learning/

From Edutopia, some resources for parents and educators on technology and the digital divide:  https://www.edutopia.org/digital-divide-technology-access-resources


Memory and History: What do we really remember?

“I don’t recall.”

“I don’t remember.”

“If you give me a minute, I might be able to think it up.”

“Not that I can recall just now, no.”

“I refuse to answer that.”


No, I didn’t travel into the future and bring back the transcript of Donald Trump’s treason trial – though if I had, I’d also (spoiler alert!) tell you he’d been found guilty. No.¬†This? This is a micro-sample of what I encountered this week, slogging through the deposition¬†of the man who claimed to be George Kimmel.

Any wonder why I started writing OMFG on nearly every page?!

If you don’t remember (hah), George Kimmel disappeared without a trace in 1898. For the past ten years, I’ve been researching his disappearance. Why ten years, you ask? Well! See, the case went to trial several times over a decade, because there were several life insurance policies, and because every time one court made a decision, an appeal was filed the next day by the losing side. It dragged on until, I think, 1917 – and part of the reason it dragged on for-ev-er¬†was because of this guy. This claimant. Whose real name I don’t even know.

All I know is, he was NOT freaking George Kimmel.

In the very first episode of the Serial podcast, Sarah Koenig discusses the problem of memory. Can you recall a day six years ago? Ten years ago? Where were you? Who were your friends? Where did you work? Did you work on that particular day? This is often the problem with solving cold cases Рor any cases, for that matter. How can you prove that what you think happened, really happened? Today, we could probably check our Facebook pages, or Twitter. But what if I asked you to recall a day before social media? Could you do it?

That’s the problem I face with this case. Some memories are good. Some are not. Some can’t be trusted. Can¬†any¬†of them be trusted? Who’s telling the truth?¬†And that’s why I have to keep an open mind, even when my knee-jerk reaction is to throw everything The Claimant says out the window.

The dude’s totally infuriating. He spent most of his time either refusing to answer questions, claiming he didn’t remember things he bloody well ought to have remembered, or arguing with the attorneys. How many times did he say “I don’t remember,” or some variation thereof, you ask? My best guess is somewhere around 80-90% of the time. The Claimant claimed that it was because he was hit on the head and thus his memory was impaired. Well, he was hit on the head, that’s true. In fact, he wasn’t just hit on the head; from the description, someone tried to take his head off, possibly with an ax. Having read 657 pages of the claimant’s testimony, I am in complete sympathy with that person.

I think anyone who’s seen a few episodes of¬†Matlock¬†would probably join me in saying, after just a few pages, that this guy is a total fraud. Some things, he’s completely lucid and detailed about – for instance, the crazy story he tells about being kidnapped in Kansas City and held hostage in St. Louis. He can recall that with perfect detail. No problem whatsoever. But ask him to identify people in photos, people he ought to know, like his family? He can’t – and won’t – do it. In fact, at one point, the bum even turned his head away and refused to look at them. The things he should¬†know, he doesn’t. The things he¬†does¬†know, are things that were either published in the papers and readily available, or are things that he has made up in his own mind.

And yet. This deposition was taken in 1908 – ten years after George disappeared. Can you remember what you were doing ten years ago? In 2010, I was an adjunct instructor. I was in my first year of teaching for Newman University, and my work load was really picking up. I think that was the year I taught for Butler, too. That was the year I got my cat Angel. But as for specifics? Students in my classes, books I read? You do it. See how far you get. Because I can only give you generalities.

Big ticket items, we tend to remember. I will always know that 2019 was the year I saw¬†Hamilton¬†live. Just like I will always know that 2020 was the year that the entire world went to hell in a handcart. But ask me to get more specific than that . . . and without some frame of reference, I don’t think I could do it. So why do I – and why do these attorneys – think The Claimant should be able to do it?

A proverbial Catch-22.

Do I believe he’s George Kimmel? No. Absolutely not. For starters, they look nothing alike. See here:

side by side photos - Newspapers.com

The one on the left is The Claimant. The one on the right, George Kimmel. The nose, the eyes, everything is different. Even their eye colors are different! The Claimant has gray-blue eyes; Kimmel, dark brown.

If I didn’t know this story as well as I do, if I hadn’t read hundreds of newspaper articles and studied the earlier trials, I might be swayed by his arguments. I might say, “But look! He knows all of this stuff! And of course the men who kidnapped him are going to keep quiet about it!”

BUT. I have to admit, there are moments that give me pause. Things I can’t quite explain away – except by remembering that The Claimant is a con artist, and this is a con.

For starters, he clearly lived in St. Louis at some point, or was being fed information about the city by one of the lawyers, for he could pinpoint streets and intersections and locations that actually did exist in 1898.¬†And there are other things, things that aren’t quite as well known, things he would either¬†have¬†to know, or have to have learned from someone. In the deposition, for example, he finally says that his grandmother’s names are Desire (pronounced, I believe, Desiree, but spelled Desire in the parish register and in his testimony), and Ethelina. Seriously, NO ONE could make those names up! And what about the fact that he says (after a great deal of back and forth and refusals) that his paternal grandfather lived on Hickory Lane – and he did?¬†

Those are the kinds of things that throw me for a loop, every time.

I want to get to the truth. I want to remain unbiased. But I’m not. No historian is, not really. No writer is. I have never known what to think about this story. I have never truly been able to form an opinion about what happened to George Kimmel. I have half a dozen theories, each as realistic and probable as the others. But what I do not think is that The Claimant is him. I believe he’s nothing more than a con artist. A good one, but a con artist nonetheless. Because this is how con artists work. Pick out a few key, important details . . . stand fast behind a facade of “I don’t have to prove anything to you,” and “I don’t remember” . . . and voila! You’re someone else, and no one can quite prove you’re not – especially in an age where fingerprints weren’t even in use yet, and DNA, for all we knew, didn’t even exist. (In case you’re wondering, fingerprints were actually first used to solve a crime in 1892, in Argentina. But in America, the first case that used them to convict someone wasn’t until 1910.) And even if someone had thought to use fingerprints – where could they have gotten a sample of George’s? By 1908, when this deposition was taken, all of his belongings were back in Niles, possibly in storage, possible destroyed, possibly scattered. There was no way to control that sample. No lawyer worth his salt would have allowed that into evidence!

Which, I had to remind myself repeatedly by page 400 or so, was precisely what the claimant was doing. Wear down the lawyers. Wear down the family. Wear down the idiotic historian who decided 100 years later to become obsessed with the case. You know. This is what con artists do. 

And yet . . .

Even I can’t quite shake the doubts.


If you’ve never heard Serial before, OMG, where¬†have¬†you been? A link to Season One:¬† https://serialpodcast.org/season-one

For more information on that first case of fingerprint use, see:  https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/a-bloody-fingerprint-elicits-a-mothers-evil-tale-in-argentina

And for more information on the first American case:  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/first-case-where-fingerprints-were-used-evidence-180970883/

When the world gets turned upside down . . . by a kitten

Three weeks ago, Mum totally upended our lives. 

We were living the good life. We were the babies! Every morning, Mum would feed us and love on us, and call us handsome and sweet and rotten. Sing to us, even – ‘Maximus Imperius, your name is Maximus Imperius, and there’s a million things you haven’t done .¬† . .” or “Dear Tiny Baby, what to say to you, you have my eyes, you have your mother’s name . . .”* Every night, she’d kiss us goodnight at bedtime. We Ruled.¬†

Now? Now, it’s all over. Gone. Evaporated. Demolished completely by a tiny tabby Caligula named – of all things – Hamilton. Hamilton!? How dare she? He gets the kisses. He gets to curl up on her lap and go to sleep. He has no rules. He gets to turn our world upside down. And all because he came home with stitches . . .¬†

I admit it. Over the past few weeks, all of my cats have issued a statement along these lines. They vary, of course. Maximus and Tiny, being my Baby Fiends, have always been the babies, ever since they were born almost five years ago. To them, having a kitten in the house is a disruption on a scale approaching the eruption of Pompeii. For the older cats, who have seen kittens come and grow up and stay, I was on the receiving end of eye rolls and long-suffering sighs.

However, after nearly a month, things seem to be settling somewhat.

So . . . meet Hamilton. AKA, Hammie, Ham Baby, the Ham-meister, Itty Bitty Baby Hammie.

All my cats come to me in unusual ways. Beth and Angel were rescues from a former friend. Rascal was chased into my barn by a skunk (I saw this tiny ball of fluff zoom straight at me and skid to a stop behind my legs, the skunk in hot pursuit!). Maximus and Tiny were abandoned at birth by their mother. Sassy was dropped off by aliens. You know. But Hammie may have the most unusual story. This is Ham about four hours after I first heard him crying:

Hammie f6

Yes, that’s barbed wire. I heard him crying on my walk one morning, and spent three hours searching before I found him behind my neighbor’s house. I thought he was lost in their hayfield, so I knocked on the door and asked if I could go search. They said yes, so I took off. After a few minutes, I found this tiny tabby clinging to a wooden fence post, and quickly realized that he’d somehow become impaled on the barbed wire fence. Thankfully, my neighbor came to find me a little bit later and was even more gracious when she let me cut the fence to get him out – that took an hour;¬†nota bene,¬†barbed wire is double-strand woven and TOUGH. Ham had surgery to remove the wire that afternoon.

Hammmie 2A week later, he developed infection in the site, and had to have a second surgery. He was hurt; he was frustrated; he was scared. The stitches made the leg stiff, and he sort of ‘doodle-bugged’ around in circles on it for a day or two before he was able to start walking on it properly. Terrified that the other cats would think he was a legit target, I only let him out on supervised outings at first. I was overjoyed when he finally started to PLAY!!! Although, as you can see, Maximus Imperius was not overjoyed. At all.

We aren’t out of the woods yet; last weekend he hit bottom with a massive infection and had an emergency vet run. He’s still on two different antibiotics, but he’s continuing to grow – at approximately 10 weeks, he’s already over 3lbs! – and hopefully we will get him healed up soon.

Since I know a few questions may be running through your mind right now, I’ll try to answer them (nope, I’m not psychic; these are the questions I’ve been asked repeatedly over the past few weeks!):

How did he become impaled on the barbed wire? Good question. Having known him for a while now, I believe he was trying to imitate Nik Wallenda by walking on it. The wound was on the back leg and stomach area – God only knows how he survived – so I think he was either doing a tight-rope act, or was trying to jump off the fence post. Either way, seriously, if you ever want to cut barbed wire, bring the sharpest pair of wire cutters, and the guy with the biggest hands, you can find. Seriously.

How is he doing now? Much better. He sits on my lap and falls asleep. When I get home, he gives me his little Hammie kisses – puts a paw on my nose, and then touches his nose to my face. He is slowly making himself at home. Everyone is coming to accept him more and more – the other night, Tiny even let him sleep close to him. Maximus kind of plays with him. Beth ignores him. Rascal is the disciplinarian – the other night, I heard Hammie yowling, and it turned out that he’d been attacking Rascal, who wasn’t having it, and Rascal was just holding him down on the ground with his paws.

Did I want a new kitten? NO, actually. A week before Hammie arrived, I found another kitten – I was’t supposed to be on that particular street, but I couldn’t make my usual turn. So I was there when a tiny ginger ball of fluff barreled across all four lanes of traffic, somehow made it to the other side, and kept going. I slammed on my brakes and went in search. He was fine – not a scratch on him – and I rushed him to my vet, who instantly fell in love. I could have brought that one home, but I knew¬†how much it would upset everyone if I did. They had a status quo, and frankly, so did I. I was happy with that status quo. So Hammie has turned my world upside down, too.

Hammie 2

But really – look at that face Look at those eyes. What choice did I have? ūüôā


* My apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda and his genius lyrics. 

When Your Writing Needs a Kick-Start

Kick-start:  to start something, to give something energy. Literally, to kick a motorcycle into life. Figuratively, to jump-start something.

Like that writing project just sitting there?

If you’re anything like me, the last few months have been a downhill slide. Slow, sure, but steady. Yes, there have been moments where things have leveled out; you’ve felt okay, things seem to be going well – for me, that was two weeks ago when I rescued this adorable little thing that had somehow become impaled on a barbed wire fence –

Hammie 2

but then something else happens and suddenly you’re on that downhill slide again, just trying to figure it all out and stay afloat.

Like, I suspect, a lot of writers, I had kind of thought that this time spent social distancing and staying home more would mean I could write more. I even printed out the last draft I’d done of my novel¬†Ghost Hunt¬†and went through it, making notes, reading over the notes I’d left myself. When I stopped that project last October so I could focus on the research for the Kimmel case, I left myself a pretty good blueprint to follow. The pages and pages of notes I’d written were excellent, and I was able to start to see where things needed to change, to be rewritten, in some cases where entire scenes needed to be deleted so that the blueprint could be followed.

And then, depression began to set in.

I don’t know about you, but when depression hits me – and it does often, and no, I’m not talking about ‘the blues’ or just feeling down in the dumps, but real, true depression, the kind it takes monumental effort to rouse yourself from, if you even can – I can’t write. At all. Some writers can write through it; some use writing as a way to raise themselves up from the depths, or to work through the causes of their depression. More power to them, and to you, if you’re like that. I wish I was! But when it hits me, I find myself unable to write a single thing. Can’t even look at my manuscript. The very idea of turning on the laptop and putting fingers to keyboard is just too exhausting, mentally and physically.

Especially not when those rewrites are so intense. 

I went through the manuscript in late May. But the more I thought about jumping in and starting those rewrites, the more overwhelming it all became. Because it’s a lot. And I’ve been doing rewrites to this thing for a long time. Add in the fact that I had planned to go to England in late May – in fact, I was about two days from booking the trip when everything shut down, I even had the itinerary putting me in London for at least one performance of¬†Hamilton¬†and the seat picked out, damn it! – just made it a thousand times worse. Because this novel is set in Oxford, and I just do not know how to write it when I’ve never been there. Hence, the need for that trip. I need the veracity, the sounds and smells of the city. I need to walk it, to know the streets and what you see when you turn this way on this corner. I know how the colleges are nestled next to each other in the heart of the city, but not¬†how¬†they mesh together. In short, how can I write about a city that’s beloved by thousands, when I’ve never been there? I can’t.

And so the rewrites became even more daunting, and I said screw it.

And that’s where it’s all sat for the last thirty days. I can’t go to my coffee shop and write in the afternoons, as I usually do almost every day in the summer. And it’s hard for me to write anywhere else. Home is congested, busy, full of things that need my attention. And sitting outside when it’s 102 in the shade is not happening. Besides. Those rewrites. Those daunting, exhausting rewrites. I couldn’t even think about them. And for the past month, I haven’t. Well, that’s not true. I’ve thought about them a little, in that fleeting, guilty way we think about projects that need to be done, those projects that skitter off into the abyss because we just can’t face them. Hunt¬†was in danger of being one of those projects.

So a few days ago, I decided I had to do something.

The fact is, none of us knows what’s going to happen in the next two months, or two years. God help us all. And my depression isn’t going to magically go away on its own. There will be good days; there will be bad days. There will be days when I can barely function (except that I have no choice but to function, or the cats will eat me). I have to accept that, and jump in on the good days, and give myself a break on the bad ones.

So, I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo. 

We’re all familiar with NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. But it’s evolved beyond that, and now every July, you can join Camp NaNoWriMo. Here’s the website:¬† https://nanowrimo.org/

There are a few reasons why this is so great – and in fact, it might even be better than November:

  • First of all, we’re stuck indoors anyway; we may as well put that time to good use.
  • Second, some of us have drafts we started last November (or before) that need to be finished; this is a good time to revisit them.
  • Third, you set your own goal.¬†If 50,000 words is way too much, set the bar lower, like I did. I set my goal for 20,000 words – I don’t know how much rewriting I’ll be doing yet, but that seemed reasonable.
  • Fourth:¬† it keeps you accountable on those long, hot summer days when we could so easily just lay on the couch and watch reruns of¬†Bones¬†and¬†Supernatural¬†and¬†Dr. Phil, eating ice cream and dreading the coming of August.
  • And fifth:¬† I needed the kickstart.¬†

As my friend is always telling me:¬† “You know how you get momentum? You go out there and you get it.” If I don’t write, the novel will never get done. If I don’t find a way to encourage myself, or even force myself, to write, I’ll never get the momentum going. For example, I tried all last year to lose weight. Fluctuated up and down, and by the time the year ended, I was right back where I’d started. I just couldn’t get the momentum going. But this year, I hit the ground running – literally – got a FitBit, and now I’m doing 3.5 miles per day, plus core workouts and some small hand weights, and I’ve lost 9lbs already this year. I went out and got the momentum. I kickstarted myself. And the FitBit keeps me accountable. I know what calorie count I need to hit every day to continue to lose weight. Just like I know what I need to do to finish this novel.

So I signed up. Did the whole thing – typed up a short synopsis of the novel, uploaded a short excerpt, and put in my word count. Maybe by doing just a bit at at time, I can get the momentum going. I have the blueprint. I know what needs to be done.

And hopefully, this is the kick-start I need to get it done.