How to preserve your sanity while keeping up with digital technology

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Nothing speaks better to our technology challenges than a word cloud like this.

Do we all need to do a reset on our defaults?

Just when we got a little more comfortable in our living rooms, they rearranged the furniture.

The metaphor here refers to digital technology…you know, the stuff we’ve become addicted to and rely on now to keep us from total isolation. And ignorance. But digital technology is also capable of driving us stark raving mad.

That’s what happened to me last Sunday. If I hadn’t been in church, I would have erupted in some really bad words.

‘You are out of data. You cannot livestream.’

We were about to start the weekly livestream of our church service. Each Sunday I’ve been able to set my iPad on a tripod, mount an external microphone on the top, aim it all at the pastor and hit a start button on the church’s Facebook Live group. It’s a good feeling to see familiar names pop on to watch the live church service. Yeah, they get to stay in their PJs and drink their coffee while hearing the weekly sermon, while we had to get semi-dressed up. But it makes me feel like a good Girl Scout to enable this virtual service.

But last Sunday, the feed did not happen. Or it happened in fits and starts as I saw a message on screen that said I was out of data.

What? I had just increased the plan to unlimited so I wouldn’t run out of data. I fumed through the entire service, missed the point of the sermon and then resorted to holding my iPhone on my knee to film the last of the service.

Just wait until I get home, I said under my breath to (nameless national phone company). Yeah, well, good luck with that, they probably answered. It’s called customer service. But no longer does it involve a customer actually getting to connect with a live agent. Nowadays we have chat services for that. More people working from home in their jammies and drinking their coffee and getting paid for it.

Customer service has changed lately….and not for the better, but at least there’s Chat.

Is this the new face of customer service?

Oh, you can try to get a live agent from customer service on a Sunday, but will be told the wait could be longer, as call volume is higher than normal (isn’t it always?)

“Would you like to hold your place in line and let us call you back at this number,” the dialogue box noted.

“Yes, please.” Fifteen minutes pass. The phone rings. A mechanical robot voice intones, “Your customer service representative will be with you shortly.”

Fifteen minutes pass. No customer service representative. By now I’ve been to the bathroom, started making lunch and cleaned the stove. I hang up in disgust.

Fifteen minutes more. Text message from unnamed phone company appears on my screen.

“May I help you?”

One hour and 27 minutes later, after wearing out my fingers typing messages to a robot (or was this a real person sitting in Timbuktu drinking coffee in their pajamas?) I learn that the extra data I ordered online two weeks ago does not go into effect until November 19. Would you like it to go into effect today?

Would I be typing and mis-typing with my fat fingers on a tiny phone screen just because it’s fun? Now, $189 and a giant headache later, I think we have a plan that will allow me to stream our church services each week without worrying about running out of data.

Except that the church board voted two days later to suspend in-person services until the Covid -19 infection rates in the county go down considerably.

Since that fateful Sunday, I’ve compiled at least three more examples of how this harsh new technology era is about to turn many of us into screaming meanies.

More examples of current tech snafus

• People who want to open a pdf file on a PC laptop running Windows 10 now frequently encounter problems with Microsoft’s new browser, Edge. That new browser will soon replace Internet Explorer. There are work arounds to the new difficulties. They require resetting your defaults in the browser.

• This week one of my book clients tried to send me photos from her new iPhone. The photos came to me in some kind of unrecognizable format. It wasn’t a jpeg. I couldn’t place it in my client’s book. She had to go reset a bunch of defaults, educate herself about this new extension on her photos (done to save storage space) and get them back to me so I could format Chapter 13 of her book. (Is there a bit of superstition at work here?)

• Thinking I knew what I was doing, I recently paid $149 to get a premium plan through Zoom so I could interview guests in zoom and broadcast simultaneously to Facebook Live. Except that it does not work because of something called latency. My internet service provider only gives us 1 megabyte per second on upload speeds and 3 point something on download. That’s all we can get out here in rural Kansas. I order the latest technology from our local ISP. But when the technician arrives, he lets us know that the nearest tower for the most modern equipment is 30 miles away—too far to pick up a signal. We are stuck in Lodi again. Why did the saleswoman not know that? Grrrr!

The T-shirt that gives me hope.

Trying not to be a Covid Crybaby

I’m trying so hard to be positive; to be a good girl and not a Covid crybaby. In fact, I see all the silver linings we’ve all snatched from the pandemic clouds surrounding us. I’ve been grateful for the ability to strengthen and maintain friendships on virtual platforms these many months of adjusting to new realities. When I encounter difficulties, I know I need to follow my husband’s advice and take three deep breaths.

As a Covid Thanksgiving gift to readers, I want to share some humble advice to help others navigate this painful new reality we face with technology. Here are a few things I’ve learned when I’ve stepped outside of the frustration zone and into the lifelong learning zone:

• Keep an open, agile mind and a lifelong learner perspective. The pandemic has made so many businesses and educational institutions move to virtual platforms. And while the learning curve can be frustrating, there are awesome opportunities here to keep our minds agile and adaptable. If you want to learn a new skill or understand how to do something, search for a YouTube video or an online tutorial or even an entire class.

• Try to be patient, even if you want to throw the *&^% computer or phone through a window and bite your husband’s head off. As the unintended object of my frustrations always urges me…take three deep breaths. Maybe even sleep on the problem. Get away from it. Take a walk outside and get your head out of electronics for a bit. You’ll come back to the situation with a new, refreshed attitude and the realization that if the world ended tomorrow, if you succumbed to Covid, this little frustration or learning curve would not matter a bit.

• Ask for help. Alternatively, be content with having things that don’t operate at warp speed or with total efficiency. I often ask my son for help. He knows so much more than I do about digital technology. And while we tried not to be those aggravating older Americans who can’t get their TV to operate correctly, we’ve had to own our disabilities. A year or more ago, we asked my son’s help to set up a way for our old analog surround sound system and DVD player to talk to our Smart TV, he hasn’t had the time. And now he doesn’t travel, thanks to Covid. So we just never watch DVDs and I use my hearing aids to listen to movies. Thank God I learned how to stream Netflix and Prime. And now, thanks to my new data plan with my phone company, I can finally watch Yellowstone on Hulu. For six months anyway.

•Don’t multi-task when you are learning or trying to understand a new technology wrinkle. Don’t take your laptop or phone to the bathroom and expect to complete two jobs at once. Enough said.

• If it’s not broken, try to avoid fixing or buying new. Operate on old platforms and equipment until you have to get new stuff. I have two older desktop computers. One of them is way beyond support and the other is nearing its obsolescence. But thanks to new subscription services, rather than installed software, I can continue using the computer by connecting to online platforms. The minute you buy a new computer or piece of equipment, a new learning curve begins. Avoid it if you can. Upgrade if you must.

•Be grateful for small victories and inches of progress. This week I read half of The Velveteen Rabbit to my grandkids on FaceTime. They appeared to listen and watch as I turned the camera around and aimed it at the colorful pages. Since I can’t be with them right now, that was enough.

And boy howdy, was I ever excited when we told Alexa to print out our shopping list. She complied and managed to find the nearest printer on the network…without any help from us.

•Be aware that the more you learn about technology, the more you may be called upon to use your new knowledge to help others. But isn’t that what we are on earth for? To lift up each other?

• Be aware of your limitations. While you may get tasked with helping your church, your neighbor, your favorite organization with your tech skills, be aware of your limitations and be open to continued learning. There are a lot of things I know enough about to be dangerous. I tried to help out my local Sweet Adelines group with a virtual chorus project. While I learned a lot about editing audio tracks and putting them together on one track in Garage Band, I didn’t have the foundational knowledge of unit vocal sound and how to manipulate audio to produce a satisfying project. That should have been left to a professional with experience.

• Be ready to make choices.

My husband’s favorite saying is “We have one decision to make in life—participate or not participate.” My ancillary to his saying is “Once you make the decision, be prepared to pay the price.”

The price we pay for trying to stay on top of technology? Dry eyes from staring at screens too long. Thinner hair from pulling out strands in frustration. Lost moments and quality time with loved ones while we’re engrossed in our electronics trying to figure out the latest upgrade.

It’s all a matter of balance.

May the (Quantum Physics) Force and God be with us all.

When doggie routines get hacked by the time change

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Our Miniature Toy Aussie doesn’t have sheep to herd so she herds me while I clean house.

Remember last week when I submitted those pie-in-the-sky suggestions for a new pandemic routine?

Yeah, well, that list flew out the window today, thanks to the time change.

We humans have a tough enough time adjusting to the ridiculous and artificial manipulation of the hours of the day. But consider how messed up our furry friends get with all this.

It started yesterday, of course. We had not reset the clock on the dresser that we always seek out with early, unfocused eyes. I got up at 6:30 a.m. Sunday…except that it was 5:30. But I only got up because the cat started meowing then. That’s when he always gives us a wakeup call.

‘Poor, poor pitiful Mr. Kitty’

Mr. Cat repeated his routine call again this morning at 5:30 DST. I went to the bathroom, acknowledged a kitty tail curling around my legs, then went right back to bed. Not kosher. He just increased the volume of the “Poor, poor pitiful me” tune. Down the stairs we go, with dog number one standing and staring uncertainly down at us. She seemed to be asking, “Are you sure it’s time for breakfast?”

I got the Gravy Lover’s pop top popped for cat, then hear Number One Fido’s nails on the floor. She’s ready too. Popped the Purina open for her. Meal over. Time to go outside.

When we come back in, I hear toenails belonging to Fido number two click-clacking into the kitchen. Time for her feeding, followed by a pill disguised in chunky peanut butter. Then guess what? Time to let her outside.

Our daily routine calls for dividing a long rawhide chew into three globs of hardened animal fat and questionable proteins; one for each canine. That way I’m assured they won’t overdose on chemicals imported from China’s rawhide industry. When Number Three Fido hears the lid of that snack box open, that’s when I hear her four feet hit the floor and she magically appears at my side…as if arriving by transponder from outer space. She lives for those poisonous treats. Once her treat is gulped down, time to take her outside.

Four animals, four separate feedings now

So, four animals equals four separate feedings equals three separate potty runs (the cat went out the first time) outdoors. Before the time change, we did all that in one group zoom session. And before it got cold outside, I walked with them the entire length of the driveway to pick up the newspaper, usually giving them enough time to potty twice and throw in a number two. Today and yesterday I kept my warm jammies on and made a run for the driveway, hoping the hood on my fleece-lined jacket hid my face enough that the three drivers who went by as I bent over for the paper didn’t recognize the sleepy human inside. The bigger fear was that someone would realize the plaid on my jacket clashed garishly with the plaid on my pajama bottoms. (Oh, the shame!)

The point to this drivel is that all of this was abnormal routine. In fact, it set the stage for the rest of the day to get glaringly out of sync. Instead of eating breakfast at our usual time, after one of us finally answered the tough question of the day (what to fix for breakfast), my husband and I just sat on the couch. He read the paper and I made my to-do list and read a book. Neither of us could wake up.

When we finally got around to eating the meal, I started sorting my weekly supplements and medications into their little cubbyholes and noticed that the time change yesterday had hacked my memory. I hadn’t taken my morning pills on Sunday.

How to get hacked the day before an election

About that time, Wayne got hacked while gathering trash when he received a phone call that the poll workers were waiting at the church to unload their equipment for tomorrow’s election. My husband had agreed to substitute for another church member and open the door for them. The poll workers had evidently forgotten to call anyone with an arrival time. Then one of the workers forgot her phone and forgot to load some equipment, so left a worker with Wayne to go retrieve the lost items.

Back home, I was doing the daily dishwasher loading and kitchen cleanup and noticed a large, spreading stain on the carpet. My screams of “Who did this?” had no effect on any potential guilty party. I decided to tackle Wayne’s undone chore of taking the trash to the curb, reasoning that all three canines probably had not had sufficient time to do their usual morning ritual. I shooed them all down the driveway with me as I pushed the garbage to the road. That did produce the desired result but there was still a stain to clean.

And, it was Monday; laundry and floor cleaning day. While I would prefer to do the task myself, we have an Australian Shepard who has to herd someone, since we have no sheep or cattle. She herds my every domestic chore. Her two sisters used to drive me batty when I swept the floor, as they had to inspect every dirt particle to see if any of it was edible. Now they stay out of Brandy’s way while she herds. And instead of me employing herding calls, I yell, “Brandy, move!” She doesn’t seem to mind a steam mop hissing in her face or a vacuum threatening her leg hairs. She’s just doing her work, herding her mama. Even now, she parks her carcass a few feet from my computer desk, watching the stairs for an invasion.

One of these canines is the party guilty of leaving a stain on the carpet this morning. Their excuse? The time change.

I will be so grateful to crawl under the covers tonight. This time change, while it supposedly gave us an extra hour of sleep, has messed with the bio-rhythms of every critter in this house. We have one clock yet to change…in the bedroom. It will be done tonight. I do not want another reminder of what time it used to be when the cat wakes us up in the morning. I plan to go to bed with something I can throw at him at 5:30 a.m. DST, a twilight zone where my body still believes it lives.

The two early risers; one who likes the mop, the other who heads upstairs to hide under the bed.

Carpe Diem: Ten ways to give new structure to your days

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You would think that having all our routines disrupted since March would enable us to seize the day. We have more hours now that we’re not taking trips or socializing with friends over lunch. One would assume we would be able to instill healthier habits and more structure in our lives. Carpe Diem…seize the day, live in the present moment, right?

At least some of us are writing our memoirs or autobiographies, taking photos and nature walks. We’re composing poetry, taking time to sit at the piano or bringing out the dusty guitar. During this pandemic, we should at least try to enjoy life a little more, once we get our chores out of the way.

We used to mark time with wall calendars and analog wrist watches. Maybe the fact that our lives are all on digital demand explains why we lose track of time…or not .

Yet last weekend I looked at the calendar and expressed shock and outrage that we were almost out of October. Where was my time going? It was October 1 just yesterday!

I somehow frittered away the hours and the days of the month. I binge-watched a Netflix series. Instead of cleaning the house, I told myself that required too much effort. Besides, no one came to visit (the only reason for cleaning, right?)

I didn’t wear makeup. Why bother? I don’t see anyone anymore. I only go to the grocery store once every two weeks, and then I’m incognito with a mask over my face. I stay in my pajamas until 11 a.m. some days. And sometimes I skip taking a shower. (Sorry. Too much information?)

Please tell me I am not the only one with newly-discovered lethargy these days. And now that it’s getting darker earlier, the potential for slipping into depression is huge.

Not sure if I would know what day it was without my handy supplements kit. The important thing is remembering to fill it.

Monday wash day, Tuesday ironing…

How do you structure your days and weeks now that we’re all forced to be homebodies? I used to define and structure my weeks with Mondays being laundry and cleaning days, Wednesdays being a travel day when I drove to Kansas City to spend time with my grandkids and then visit the nursing home to see my former stepmother-in-law. The routines at both those places included reading and playing with the grandkids and playing a few hands of gin rummy with Rosie at the nursing home. But the nursing home is still on lockdown and due to multiple concerns about family members with health issues, my son is still on virtual quarantine and outside communications limited to FaceTine and Zoom. Like so many other American workers, his company’s physical space has been closed, possibly for good, as everyone shifts to working from home.

As a writer and retired newspaper publisher, I made the work-at-home shift six years ago. But making much headway with housework or writing has suffered greatly since March. It seems the hurried I go the behinder I get. Time slips by with little progress.

I need a system and a structure like my own mother, and her mother both had. Their days and months always passed quickly with the help of structured routines and chores. Remember the tea-towels they embroidered with the days of the week and the names of tasks they had to accomplish each day?

Dish drying towels used to help us keep track of our days and our chores. Now the only time we use these things may be during holiday meals, when all those extra dishes won’t fit in the dishwasher. Then someone washes while someone else dries. Usually there is a carpe diem moment and conversation actually occurs.

The spinning wheels principle

Confession: I missed the day my mother or my grandmother’s DNA and work ethic got distributed. Today, Into the vacuum of time I used to devote to visiting family, comes a combination of Murphy’s Law and the Peter Principle. I tend to rise to my own level of incompetence, wherein anything that can go wrong usually does. The day gets filled up somehow, but sadly lacks any visible results.

A few days ago, when I began to feel overwhelmed with all the tasks and responsibilities, I needed to do, I recalled and began doing something I once tasked my newspaper employees with: I started keeping a time log. I wanted to figure out exactly what was happening to my hours and my days. At the same time, I came up with a list that I think can provide a better structure for my days.

I’m going to share it with you in case you are in the spinning wheels mode too.

Ten ways to structure your pandemic schedule

1. Clean or reorganize something

Even if it’s just a countertop or the wastebasket. Did any of you have a mother or grandmother who spouted little proverbs? Like “Cleanliness is next to Godliness?” Talk about guilt-inducing! But cleaning just one thing will make you feel less guilt.

This morning, when I got out of the shower (no, that did not make it on this list) I took the time to spray a shower cleaner on the walls and shower fixtures. That led to seeing the need for cleaning the bathroom countertop. It took all of five minutes–time enough for my hair to drip dry. Efficient, yes?

2. Bake or cook or make something

This morning, after emptying the dishwasher, I hauled out my cousin’s old bread machine and started baking a loaf of honey whole wheat bread. In a few hours it will fill the house with wonderful smells. Yesterday I cut apart those packaged cookies you buy in the dairy case at the store and baked those. Later, I made sloppy Joes in one pot and chili in a second pot by dividing three packages of ground beef. Now I have leftovers and two extra meals.

3. Learn something

In these Google, Covid, Zoom-filled days, as businesses scramble to reach customers in the virtual sphere, we have no excuse for not learning new things every day. And any new bit of trivia counts as learning.

This past week, after watching a report on the Kansas City Chiefs, I wanted to learn a little more about the players who formed the 1970 Super Bowl team coached by Hank Stram. A Google search uncovered a name from my youth–Jan Stenerud. My eyes opened wide in surprise to learn this gifted Norwegian kicker was not a U. S. citizen when he played for the home team. Even more surprising? He was an active duty member of the Army National Guard while he played football.

In addition to sports trivia, I find myself clicking the “Join” button on free seminars and workshops dealing with the craft of writing. There is no excuse these days for failing to pursue our quest for new knowledge to improve or enrich our lives. It’s all out there with just the click of a mouse or the tip of your finger pressing on a link.

4. Read something

Imagine my smug satisfaction at putting that task on the list! My favorite activity since childhood was to step away from reality and go on mental adventures in the pages of a book. When I ran out of kid lit, I ransacked my mother’s bookshelves. Even read a thick historic novel on Benedict Arnold at age 11 and actually enjoyed it.

However, to the above simple admonition to read, I need to add: Finish what you start and only read one book at a time. (That will never happen. I blame Amazon and my voracious book appetite for that failure).

5. Write something

If you are not a lifelong writer like me, not to worry. A grocery list counts. An email works. A love letter to your honey will do really well. And if you don’t write something every day? Count yourself as one of many helping cursive writing to die a slow, painful death. How’s that for inducing guilt?

6. Do an act of service for someone or something

If we have assumed a late-life role as a caregiver…if we live with someone…if we have elderly relatives…if we do volunteer work for an organization or belong to a church…we have multiple opportunities to do an act of service. I am lucky to have a husband who serves as a wonderful role model of service. He goes about his selfless acts quietly, without need for recognition. But then, he began doing that while growing up on a farm. He continued it with a 32-year career in the military.

7. Pray for someone or something

When I start to feel sorry for myself and my disrupted routines, I look around and know others who really have a reason to be sad or depressed. They may have lost a loved one this year. They may have lost a job or a home. Their mental illness may have worsened. If I know them, or know about them, they make it on my prayer list. Today I returned to an old habit of writing down my prayer petitions. I know how powerful the practice of writing is to make our wishes manifest. And we all know how much our world needs prayers for healing during this pandemic.

8. Find a reason to laugh or cry about something

Sometimes, when we numb out in depression or lethargy, we need reminders that we are still part of the world; that this requires our participation. Nothing does better as a reminder than to find a reason to laugh. Or to just let it all out with a good cry. Both are soul cleansers. My husband reads the joke section of Reader’s Digest. I laugh at my own jokes. Then I cry because I’m such a slow learner.

9. Exercise something

This was a total afterthought…added only because I knew it should be. I hate exercise. So, if you hate exercise too, find things to do that count for exercise without realizing it’s a workout. I like the theory that even short bursts of activity count. Thus, going up and down the stairs in my house will get me a 71-year-old’s “good enough” badge; as will walking to the road to pick up the mail or the daily newspaper. One of these days, when I’m feeling extra ambitious and energetic, I’ll look for the link for the chair yoga class I purchased a month ago and only accessed once. Most days I will probably give myself a pass by exercising my brain (see numbers 3,4 and 5 above for that rationale.)

10. Enjoy someone or something

Not much need to expound on this final, but important, item on the daily list. Visit an elderly relative and listen to her sage advice. Call a friend you haven’t talked to in a long while. Look through your high school yearbook. Go through all those greeting cards you’ve collected over the decades and smile at the memories. Pick up the needlework you used to enjoy and finish that creative project. Color in an adult coloring book. Get on Pinterest and dream about the things you could do if you only had the time and the money. But then stop cold when you realize you do have the time now. At least you do if you take the time to put the things and the people you enjoy on your new daily list.

And now that my list is appearing in this blog, I will be able to check off the Write Something category for today. Plus, I will be leaving a permanent record of my organization skills, (or the lack therof), so my family will have a resource to help when I’m gone and they’re feeling overwhelmed. I’ll also leave them the family tea towels.

Enjoy something every single day. No matter if it’s a quick sunset or a phone call with a friend.

Trying on old recipes for nostalgia and posterity

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Burnt Sugar Cake earned my Aunt Gene several blue ribbons at local fairs. This was in the 1950s when cooking and gardening skills could give you bragging rights and a covey of green-eyed-jealous enemies. Some of her recipes were family secrets for years. Until they weren’t. Until they appeared in a church cookbook.

The courage to try new-old skillsets

My dearest departed cousin-sister Linda collected cookbooks. When I came into her house as the beneficiary of her husband and a mountain of knick-knacks and what-nots, it became my job to sort through that collection and disperse them to her daughters and step-daughters. I kept a few for myself, especially a spattered old blue thing called Community Favorites II: Compiled by Wakarusa Presbyterian Church, Wakarusa, Kansas.

If you’ve ever served on a church fundraising committee, you will recognize the old staple Church Cookbook.

The best way to come into these church cookbooks is through inheritance. I have my mother’s cookbook from one of the Lutheran churches she attended. Also have one from the Hamilton, Mo Federated Church.

If you are not a veteran church-goer, you might not recognize the value of these tomes, or the wonderful hidden culture they represent. These little spiral-bound books are THE CHURCH. Open their pages and you’ll smell the wonderful aromas of a church supper. You’ll see a bunch of crazy women in aprons rushing around to serve up their very best to their own and the community at large. You’ll hear the gossip and the expressions of concern for a sick or dying member. You’ll feel the expressions of love and creativity in the beauty of the bounty spread out in those pages.

But I did not fully appreciate that plastic spiral-bound treasure that stood on my cookbook stand. Not until I looked all the way through it last week. Sure, I knew it would feature recipes by many of my relatives and new friends that I’ve come to know since joining Wakarusa Presbyterian. I just had no idea that my cousin had written some recipes into some of the blank margins at the ends of sections.

Even more surprising? The emotion that one of those hand-written recipes could invoke. Sure, I appreciated seeing her much-loved donut recipe and her prolific search for the ultimate sugar cookie and cinnamon rolls. But what brought me to tears was seeing the label: Anne’s Corn Chowder.

It wasn’t even my corn chowder. It came from an old issue of Midwest Living Magazine. But that was the dish I served one cold March day when she and her husband (now my hand-me-down husband) came to our house in Cameron, MO for a visit. I served a big pot of sausage-corn chowder seasoned with marjoram and rosemary and carbed-up with diced potatoes and a serving of blueberry muffins that day. Poor Wayne! He didn’t eat any of it because, as I later learned, he is just a meat and potatoes guy who stoutly refuses to veer from the tried-and-true.

It’s not the food, it’s the company

Memories gushed out when I saw that recipe. Memories of all the good times, the laughs, the common interests we shared as cousins and sister-friends. And that’s probably the chief benefit of cookbooks and their individual recipes. It’s not about the delicious food, but the people who cook them and share them.

In addition to seeing Linda’s handwritten recipes, I can open this little blue cookbook and immediately spot Helen Ramshaw’s Strawberry Parfait Pie, or Beverly Nicholson’s Strawberry-Pretzel Dessert (can you tell I’m hungry for homegrown berries?) I know these women, so feel I can trust these recipes to be tried and true, as well as delicious. I’ve seen photos on Facebook of Evelyn Davis’s molasses wheat bread and my mouth waters just reading Linda Combes’ recipe for banana split cake. My late Aunt Neva’s cornbread dressing is in this book, as well as Aunt DeLora’s barbecue sauce (actually her late mother-in-law’s concoction…it contains a pound of candy red hots!).

My real reason for starting this blog today was to share one of those recipes. When I gathered the courage to burn sugar to make my Aunt Gene’s Best Burnt Sugar Cake in the World, I posted a photo of the resulting three-layer miracle. That led to a few Facebook friends asking for the recipe. Never one to let a good chance for a blog post go by, here you go. But read the warning label.

Burning sugar is not for the faint-hearted

In the weeks approaching my Aunt Gene’s 95th birthday anniversary, we always aimed to have a cooking lesson on burning sugar. But her health and constant hospice personnel visits seemed to conspire against us. The Friday before her birthday, I mustered enough courage to attempt the recipe that had earned her so many accolades. By myself.

This burning sugar process is one big chemistry lesson, believe me! Here’s how it goes:

In a 4 quart, un-coated Dutch Oven (enamel coated cast iron seems to work best, but don’t use one of those cancer-causing silicone things) sprinkle one cup of sugar evenly over the bottom. Begin to melt the sugar slowly, over medium heat, stirring constantly. But before you even begin to burn the sugar, put a small pan of one cup water on the stove to boil.

As the sugar melts, stir faster, all the while looking for a distinctive caramel or light-brown color. The lighter the color, the lighter-tasting the sugar. Light brown will give you a caramel taste, while a darker brown will provide an almost molasses flavor, which is what Aunt Gene always aimed for. But don’t go too far into the dark side or you will have bitter syrup. (Does that sound like a moral lesson?) Once you reach the preferred color, put on a pair of oven mitts or gloves, pull the boiling mess off the burner, wait a little while, and pour in the cup of boiling water, taking care to stand back and not be burned by the resulting steam. Aunt Gene says to be ready with the lid to cover it immediately. Somewhere in there, plan to stir it again. Once the syrup is cooled, you will be using it for the cake batter and the icing.

A nitty-gritty dirt band of burnt sugar cake

13-1/2 T. Crisco or Butter (the thought of that much Crisco made me gag so butter it was.)

3 egg yolks (save the whites)

2-1/2 cups sugar

Cream the above until fluffy. (This is when I love my KitchenAid stand mixer) Beat the three egg whites and fold into the mixture. (I tried to call Aunt Gene to see if that should be to stiff peak state but she was taking a nap)

Add 3 cups flour and 2 cups water and cream together until dissolved. (Next time I plan to experiment and add cake flour instead of regular flour. This is one heavy puppy of a cake.)

Mix the following ingredients in a small bowl or Pyrex measuring cup:

9 T. burnt sugar

3/4 cup Flour

1-1/2 tsp. vanilla

3 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. salt

Add to the ingredients already in the mixing bowl. Note: the baking powder will possibly foam in true chemistry experiment mode, depending on what order you add everything, but just shrug your shoulders like I did and keep on keeping on.

(And again, I tried to call Aunt Gene, because her recipe did not have salt. I think salt belongs in every recipe, so there you have it. Use your own judgment here.)

Bake that voluminous, heavy batter in three 9″ cake pans lined with parchment or waxed paper and sprayed with Pam, then floured (Sheesh! More flour?).

Frosting:

1 stick butter

6 T burnt sugar

1 box (1 lb.) powdered sugar

1 tsp. vanilla

Aunt Gene always cooked the butter and burnt sugar to a boil, then added the powdered sugar, stirred like crazy, then poured it and spread it on a cooled cake immediately. I did the lazy woman version: put the softened butter and other ingredients in the stand mixer bowl, covered it with a splatter shield and mixed the heck out of it, seemingly forever, stopping periodically to use a spatula to scrape the sides.

Better than winning a bake-off

The ultimate reward of gathering enough of my foolhardy wits to make the above recipe was seeing Aunt Gene’s face light up as we placed that cake on her walker seat. And the frosting on the scene? Hearing her say it tasted just like hers.

Aunt Gene’s burnt sugar birthday cake…the first one she didn’t have to make herself.

Is there a 12-step program for Facebook video suckers?

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If you could just affix this mobile microscope to your mobile phone (only after you’ve downloaded the corresponding app) you would be able to tell that instructions and shipping label are in Chinese. Let this be your own warning label BEFORE clicking the BUY button at the end of a Facebook video ad.

The FedX and UPS delivery guys make enough stops at our house that they almost qualify as family. I just wish they delivered a Chinese translator with the packages.

Months before I married my husband, he saw my raised eyebrows and my attempts to hide grins as I watched the packages appear on the front porch swing. He confessed, sheepishly, that he was following the yellow brick road to the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes grand prize. Shortly after his late wife’s death, he had found that the hours passed more quickly when he was marking an X in a box or tearing out a perforated seal to affix to an order, assuring he would win an extra surprise. Like many Publisher’s players, he thought that buying the offered merchandise would improve his chances of hitting the jackpot.

Consequently, when I moved in, the house was full of mysterious white boxes, full of cheap electronics and back scratchers, tiny flashlights and gel pens in assorted colors. This from the man who was embarrassed by his late wife’s “magic closet” in the guest room. It was so full of bargains that she had found on her shopping trips—all planned as future Christmas and birthday gifts—that they filled that closet to the ceiling and came tumbling out on a guest one evening.

So, organizing-freak-of-a-new-wife moves in and tries to banish some of offensive Publisher’s House clutter to the basement. That helped . . . until the day a visitor wanted to tour the basement she remembered playing in as a child. Now that was embarrassing!

But now it’s time for organizing wife to confess to her own horrible addiction. While Hubby wins the Publisher’s Clearinghouse unofficial prize for volume of merchandise orders, I am the queen of Facebook video advertising suckers.

In the last year I have hit the “BUY” button on things that looked so appealing and practical in the videos. And it’s not just Facebook ads. Sometimes the “gotcha” comes from a slick, magazine-ish flyer that arrives in the mail with the PCH junk.

Is there a 12-step group for people like me who think they would actually use that little detachable lens that fits over an iPhone and will allow you to take better, wider-angle selfies?

And when I ordered those supplements that promised to do away with varicose vein pain and the feet that go numb every Monday night while standing for hours on risers with my chorus friends, I did not check with my doctor until after the little capsules arrived. I know she tried not to laugh at me when she said, “You realize that nitrous oxide is basically Viagra, don’t you?” Duh, no, I did not. I cancelled the standing monthly subscription the next day.

I have no excuse for falling victim to these campaigns

I am truly embarrassed by my propensity to be a victim of smooth advertising campaigns. Especially since I spent a career helping put print advertising together for local businesses. Besides falling for those slick ads for hemp gummy bears and Viagra-in-disguise, I am most mortified by my tendency to unwittingly order merchandise from China.

Why is this a problem? Try ordering an article of clothing that looks so cute on the model in the Facebook ad, but when it arrives it will only fit tiny Chinese models. Plus, it takes a month of Sundays to get through our customs, so that when it does arrive, you’ve forgotten you even ordered it.

And then, there is the problem of deciphering instructions. I thought the little detachable enlargement lens that I ordered for a Christmas gift would be a great device for my husband, who is always looking for serial numbers on lawn equipment and tools. The lens was supposed to allow you to do micro-photographs, enlarging things like flower pollen and a gnat’s you-know-what. It did not arrive in time for Christmas. When it did arrive, the lens was accompanied by an instruction booklet printed in Chinese. It also contained two laboratory glass slides. Then I looked at the front of the box and realized I had ordered a mobile microscope . . . for $125. Another OMG moment. Adding insult to injury, you have to download an app to run the dang thing. What a fool I have been!

Guess what will be joining more useless paraphernalia in the basement?

Our kids will kill us when they find this stuff

Our kids are going to jerk us from our graves and kill us again when they find all this stuff. But before that happens, I am swearing off Facebook advertising videos, following the example of my husband in throwing away the Publisher’s Clearinghouse mailings before opening.

Now the only problem we have is what to do with all those cute little, colorful, multiple-page ads that come in thick mail packets once a month. You know, the ones that make you feel obligated to go through each one. Just so you won’t miss out on a practical tool that will defoliate your cooking herbs, then chop them. I just ordered one. Along with a citrus zester. Oh, and a cute little tea set for my granddaughter.

Ode to a late-life marriage

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There’s the Social Security donut hole…the Medicare gap…

But have you heard about the late-life marriage strap?

It’s an institution that really yokes us together

Like workhorses in all of its good and bad weather.

Yes, we seem to go awfully well with each other.

We’re partners and friends, like a good sister and brother.

It’s only been two years now, but both of us have found

We’re on such solid footing and have much common ground

That we already manage to take each other for granted.

We’re actually blessed because our lives are slanted

Straight into the winds that could buffet and haunt.

We’ve truly found late-life marriage something to flaunt.

I was 69 and he just four months younger

Yet we had to satisfy our mutual hunger.

For companionship we rushed without falter

When we took that clandestine trip to the altar.

Friends told us, after we’d each lost our spouses,

That we were too young to just take a bye

And sit out the rest of our lives being too shy.

Go ahead, take a risk, combine your two houses.

Though set in our ways, each carrying baggage,

We get along fine, just like carrots and cabbage.

He fixes breakfast and lets me follow my passion

For writing and reading and social media fashion.

In turn I don’t complain when he heads out to help

A neighbor or friend who calls with a yelp

And a project that consumes his time and expertise

While honey-dos at home stop short of my “please!”

I’ve learned that my hubby strives to be of service,

Even though he’s retired, without work he gets nervous.

We’re learning to make allowances, each for the other,

Me for his hoarding and him for my late husband’s stepmother.

Even through the new challenge of social isolation

Who better to share the platform of our pandemic station?

We’ve truly found a kinship and a love so mature

That it promises to treat old age with a sure cure.

Thank God being old did not prevent us from exchanging vows and rings two years ago!

Multi-tasking through a pandemic

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The hummingbirds are greedy little suckers this year.

 

The smell of Scorched Something drew me downstairs.

Dad-gummit! I had just started getting into the focus and flow of writing when, in a panic, I remembered the pan of water I had put on to boil for hummingbird nectar.

Yes, it burned dry, but it didn’t set off a smoke alarm. We don’t have one of those. We have dogs.

But this is not the first time my multi-tasking has almost resulted in disaster. That pan got put on the stove before I mopped the floor… before I went to take a shower…before I ran downstairs to put a few more things in the laundry. And before I dried my hair and woke up this computer.

No wonder my mother always punished me for daydreaming my way through life. If I didn’t have my nose in a book to avoid chores, I had my head in the clouds pretending I was a stand-in for Shirley Temple in The Littlest Rebel (multi-tasking by listening to The Overture of 1812 on my stereo.) Sometimes I even re-read that favorite childhood book at night, under the bed sheets, with the aid of a flashlight. Could this explain why I needed glasses by fifth grade?

Like many of my writing friends, I’m cursed with a multi-tasking brain. I’d rather be writing or thinking about writing while I’m doing mundane chores. It’s no fun doing all the things required for daily living or playing nice with others, like husbands.

Yesterday, while picking grapes, my mind wanted to occupy itself with grape metaphors instead of what was in front of me. Boy are there a ton of those cute little metaphors, beginning with the ones in the Bible. And whether I’m picking grapes or doing any other dull chore, my head fills with future book titles, blog topics and things to add to my Type A to-do lists.

Cursed also by my perpetual Virgo tendencies, I also considered, there in the grapevines, how to be better organized at picking and at life. Should I pick grapes one-by-one, leaving the green ones to ripen on the vines? Or would it be better to pick an entire cluster and discard the green ones as I washed and sorted them? Now there’s a metaphor worth developing…perhaps while stirring the grape jelly.

Doesn’t everyone talk to the grapes?

Do all multi-taskers also have the habit of talking to themselves and inanimate objects? Or is that just an older woman like me? Because I swear, I began to talk to the grapes.

“Why don’t you guys ripen all at the same time?”

“How in the world have you survived not being attacked by the racoons and birds this year?”

“Is my late cousin Linda guarding you at night from the coon foodfests? Does she want to make sure I get jelly made for her mom and brother Larry?”

“Why aren’t you bigger, plumper? Do I need to prune you all better in March?”

“Why don’t I just let the rest of you ripen a little more? Who cares if the birds or the coons find you before I get back for a second picking?”

Sounds nutty, doesn’t it? I talk to the green beans too. And the tomato cutworms. But hey, that’s the privilege of being old and wearing purple if you want to. But here’s the warning label: We know advancing age can show us how multi-tasking and forgetfulness can lead to danger.

My husband doesn’t know (and please, don’t tell him) that I talk to the grapes and build mental metaphors to help me zoom through the drudgery of things I have to do so I can hurry and get to the things I want to do. Just like I did when I was a kid.

I’m not so old that I can’t recognize my own faults. I know that if I had ever been allowed to write as much as I wanted or endlessly metaphorize (is that even a word?) my way through life I’d no doubt have morphed into a mystic or a hermit. Or just a total nutcase.

The pandemic of 2020 has accelerated creative output for me and many of my friends. We’ve finally been able to get to some of the fun tasks we’ve been putting on the back burner. I just hope my fellow multi-taskers do not let their pans boil dry.

Thank you, Hobby Lobby, for staying open

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The wall plaque I started Sunday in a manic frenzy of creativity. Only slightly ironic, since we can’t “Gather Together” right now.

The words on the Facebook post immediately caused my blood to boil. A social-progressive website smeared the CEO of Hobby Lobby as stupid and irresponsible for deciding to keep his stores open in states where he has not been ordered to shut down.

The blog on this website also ridiculed the Christian-owned company for founder David Green’s letter to employees last week. In addition to citing the measures the stores would implement to keep employees and customers safe, Green said his wife, Barbara, the family’s “prayer warrior,” had three words put on her heart by God during prayer. Those three words: Guide, Guard and Groom. As the letter explained, “We serve a God who will Guide us through this storm, who will Guard us as we travel to places never seen before and who, as a result of this experience, will Groom us to be better than we could have ever thought possible before now.”

Yarn and glitter are good, don’t they know?

Another smarmy comment from friendlyatheist.com: Unlike grocery stores, it’s hard to make the case that yarn and glitter are essential products in a time of crisis.

Oh, but they are! Yarn and glitter and scrapbook supplies and paints and sewing supplies are indeed essential during these days of social isolation and anxiety. Just as office supplies are now more important than ever while so many of us work from home.

In fact, art supplies are such a crucial part of so many lives that a local mental health institution has put together client coping kits that contain them. The staff has even put together suggestions for clients to make their own kits. They could include paper, crayons and markers, paints, pre-made design templates for coloring, old magazines or newspapers for cutting out words or phrases for collages, and, of course, household glue. I bet that glitter and yarn would also be good elements for a coping kit.

Beware the manic woman lost in the art aisles, kitchen

Since this worldwide crisis began, and since my scheduling calendar is suddenly bereft of appointments and deadlines, I have behaved like a manic Ever Ready Bunny lost in an art supplies store like Hobby Lobby. These days I have no excuse for putting my arts and crafts projects and unfinished home décor plans on the back burner.

Matter of fact, my husband expressed some mild alarm yesterday at my level of crafty multi-tasking. He watched me start embroidering a little wall plaque with the words “Gather Together,” (ironic now, isn’t it, since we can’t). I put it aside for a bit and hauled out the color-coordinated hoard of neckties left behind by my deceased second husband and began weaving them together to cover the faded cushions of a rocker in the living room. I also wove the red and white gingham ribbon purchased weeks ago into the wire slats of the kitchen pantry shelves, embellishing the kitchen with an additional spot of country décor already present in curtains.

My unfinished necktie chair, put together right now with loose weaving on the bottom and basting stitches on the upright cushion. If I can keep the cat off of it, it might get finished during social isolation productivity.

My excuse? The expired items need clearing out

When the stay-at-home suggestions first blasted from multiple televised news conferences, I went into a frenzy of baking and cooking. My intuition (God, maybe?) told me the freezers needed to be cleared of nearly expired foods so they wouldn’t go to waste. My husband’s reaction to discovering that the meatball package slowly taking on air on the top shelf of the freezer had morphed into barbecue sliders in the crockpot? At first, skepticism, then raised eyebrows, just before the first taste. Then he pronounced them good. Whew!

However, my use of the remaining off-brand Spanish peanuts and the holiday chocolate bark in the pantry (it was starting to take on that expired looking white coating) to make peanut clusters didn’t produce a report card of A; maybe a C+. He only eats them because no other sweets have materialized from the social isolation kitchen…yet. But, oh, the plans I have!

We will discover shortly just how much red and white gingham is overkill.

The hills are alive with the sounds of red gingham

Maybe I should warn him that I have watched Julie Andrews in Sound of Music many times and may find new uses for our curtains during this frenzy of creativity.

Unlike the atheist skeptics, I do believe that God especially touches our hearts during times of crisis…whether we are retirees or company CEOs, housewives or minimum wage retail workers. Even the Wall Street Journal opinion column yesterday noted that this time of fear, anxiety and social isolation could be meant to help us get our priorities straight. Ironically, I see it as a time when we can better connect with each other and our own souls. Now we have the free time to get in touch with our expressive needs through art, writing and music. We can talk to God or the walls or our fellow isolation inmates more often and on a deeper level. We can stay in touch with friends and family. We can pray more often, or perhaps for the first time. We can love ourselves and each other and find imaginative ways to do so, minus the important sense of touch through hugs. We can channel our energies into creative projects while we learn to send healing and hopeful energy waves to our loved ones on FaceTime.

We can do this, my fellow manic, creative bunnies.

Too bad that atheists don’t know it’s all so much easier with God’s help.

Happy holidays from an old, apron-wearing granny

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I never realized how ugly and outdated this apron was until I saw it on an old episode of The Brady Bunch. Housekeeper Alice Nelson was wearing its twin.

I got a rude awakening last night while watching a special ET report on the HGTV show about the makeover of the Brady Bunch house in California. Original cast members reunited to decorate the home for the holidays, in much the same way they did as kids on the hit series. The scenes kept shifting from current day to episodes of the popular sitcom that began airing in 1969. In one of the retro scenes, Housekeeper Alice Nelson was wearing my Christmas apron.

I did a double-take, because that exact same apron is hanging on a hook in the kitchen, next to its twin. I got the fabric for the two aprons on a bolt at Wal-Mart. The ties for the waist and the neck adorned the border of the 45 inch wide fabric. All I had to do was cut the aprons out and hem the sides, then sew the ties onto the apron body.

And that’s when it hit me. I am old and probably a living joke to younger types for all the things I still wear, make and use from the 1970s and 80s . . . Corning Ware, a lighted ceramic Christmas tree, my mother’s sour cream drop cookies and a fudge recipe from a 1981 issue of The Kansas City Star. Time keeps marching away from me and all I do is attempt to adapt. When I make my fudge now, I have to add a few more ounces of semi-sweet chocolate chips to the recipe and subtract about an ounce of marshmallow crème from the concoction to compensate for the trend of food processors to downsize their packages so they can make a bigger profit.

My twin holiday aprons have been with me since the 1980s. The first year I made Christmas cookies with my grandson, I tied one of them around his waist and cinched up the neck so he wouldn’t be wearing sprinkles and frosting. Those aprons are as ingrained a part of my holiday routines as making fudge to a Manheim Steamroller CD. But seeing Alice Nelson wearing one of them in a 1970s flashback was embarrassing. If my grandson was any older than his five years, he’d probably die of embarrassment at having photographic evidence of wearing something so un-cool. Sorta like his dad felt when he had to wear plastic bread sacks on his feet at Grandma’s house when he went out to play in the snow. Sorta like I felt when forced to wear black-on-black saddle oxfords to school. (Pardon me for getting so carried away by the embarrassment thing).

And today, when I sat at the computer to start writing my annual state-of-the-union letter (aka holiday letter) I realized how anachronistic those things are also. The cards that come in the mail these days have slowed to a pathetic trickle, confined largely to ones from our investment broker and insurance agents. Still, there are a few people like me who have this Pavlovian response when the calendar flips over to December. Okay! Time to send the people you communicate with only once a year your “What the Dog Did Today” letter.

We got one of those letters from a friend of my husband’s early in the season. When I saw him put the typed holiday message that came with the card to one side, I raised my eyebrows.

“Aren’t you going to read it?” I asked in surprise. “Later,” he said. Translated: probably never. Wow! How many of the folks at the other end of my holiday letters have had the same response? The possibility that people might be bored reading what our grandkids and our four-legged, furry friends accomplished over the past year had just never occurred to me.

So, in mortification brought on by a pair of anachronistic aprons and the real possibility that a long holiday letter might get a lukewarm reception, this old grandma is herewith retiring. I refuse to be the poster child for OLD. I will still make fudge every December, as long as my arms can stir semi-sweet chocolate chips and marshmallow crème together. I will send out a few Christmas cards to those friends and family who send us one, sans a long, boring letter.

But it’s probably time to retire the threadbare aprons, the exact same pattern that Alice Henderson wore on the Brady Bunch, and resign them to the rag bag.

Wait . . . does anyone still have a rag bag?