For reasons unknown I began photographing abandoned masks while I was out and about this past year. It’s hard to say why I was drawn to them. Abandoned in parking lots, bushes, and streets, they looked so forlorn and lost. Maybe I saw myself in each of them: A sad, solitary figure lost in quarantine.
But now masks are going into the trash instead of abandoned in the streets. My “all clear” day is just two weeks away and I can take a step back and look at the big picture. The mask is an instantly recognizable symbol of the worst pandemic in more than a century. It’s also a political statement, emblematic of a nation divided. The mask represents what we as a nation have felt over the past year: Fear, sadness, anger, confusion, frustration, reassurance, hope. With slogans emblazoned on them, masks became walking billboards for causes we embrace and the ideologies that shape our lives.
Wherever we are on the social and political spectrum, no matter what our beliefs, the mask journeyed with us throughout the pandemic. We could never get away from it, not even by not wearing it. First, we were told not to wear a mask, then to wear one, then that things were so bad that we should wear an N95 mask, or at least double mask. The mask provided reassurance for some. For others it represented an over-reaching government. And so the mask in some ways is also representative of our democracy and the constitutional protection of self-expression.
Masks are slowly disappearing and we can see each other again. I hope we remember that whether or not we wore a mask, we are all human beings, citizens of this nation, neighbors and colleagues. But even in its fiery absence, the mask will always be present in our national consciousness, and remembered for the controversy it caused, rather than the safety it provided.
A typical day of being a full-time author when I am about to release one book and start another:
7 am: Rise and shine; feed the dog (husband walks the dog!)
8 am to 6:30 pm: Edit the Summer manuscript (again!) before it goes to the editor/proofreader. A few breaks during that time. I have to eat, stretch and take the dog out!
6:30 pm: Social media; listen to music; watch news; dinner
8 pm: Update the Finch’s Crossing Style Guide
8:30 pm: Continue to plot Winter
9 pm: Brainstorm ideas with hubby over a glass of wine.
9:30 p.m: Read
10:00 pm: Lights out!
I use a mini-binder planning system, with planning pages that I have customized over the years, based on what I'm doing at the time. Currently my planner includes a monthly overview of daily word counts and other milestones; a weekly overview and daily tasks list, plus a weekly social media action plan. The mini binder and tabs come from Russell+Hazel stationers.
This weekend I started writing letters to residents of senior care homes in North Carolina as part of a pen pal initiative I saw on Facebook. This made me reflect on how much I love to write notes and letters. When my husband and I moved away from his family 7 years ago, I started writing weekly letters to his mother and aunt. Now I probably average 40 letters a year to each of them. It has helped us stay connected across the miles. A letter that comes in the mail enriches a person's life far beyond opening and reading it! My stationery box is one of my most loved and revered possessions. I inherited it from my mother (also a prolific letter writer) when she died in 2012. It's pictured here. Enjoy!
PS I also made a video about this box and all its treasures!
My father and his wife recently moved into a retirement community in Iowa and are enjoying their active lifestyle in the independent living wing of this very nice facility, called Grand Living at Indian Creek. For years they have walked at least two miles almost daily, and in the early days of the Fitbit craze, Dad (currently 83) was the first in our family to buy this gadget. I got my first Fitbit about a year after he did, and he was quick to send me his weekly Fitbit progress report that showed how far behind him I was in daily steps. (In my defense, I work full time and he is retired. And because he spends October through April in Arizona, he can pretty much walk outside year-round, while I am stuck in a six-month long Minnesota winter.)
When I went to visit him a few months ago at Grand Living, the latest thing trending in his life was a stainless steel magnetic wristband that attaches to any Fitbit, is adjustable to any wrist size, and keeps the band securely in place without the awkward buckle function. He enthusiastically demonstrated the magnetic prowess of this band and pointed out that the steel mesh loop construction provided good ventilation, something that serves him well on the Pickleball court and golf course.
I agreed that this band was far superior to the plastic version that comes “factory-standard.” He then had Judy, my stepmother, hold up her wrist to model the pinky bronze version he had purchased for her, and then promptly pulled out his laptop, navigated to eBay (he loves eBay) and ordered one for me.
It was thus I learned Dad had become The Fitbit Guy among his new neighbors, many of whom aren’t as technologically inclined as my father. As of this writing, he has ordered Fitbits on eBay for six residents, downloaded the app onto their devices and shown them how to navigate the dashboard, sync their data, and send and accept friend requests.
While this is a sweet, endearing story, it doesn’t surprise me at all. Dad has always understood the impact of technology, and the value it brings to one’s life. It started in the early 1980s when he bought an Apple IIe computer for our family. Personal computing really took off for the first time around 1977, so Dad wasn’t far behind.
Fast forward to when I was a young career woman, and hand-held personal digital assistants (PDAs) become all the rage. Not only could you keep your calendar and contacts on it, you could take notes, surf the Internet, and a lot of other cool things that in the late 1990s seemed pretty revolutionary. The Palm Pilot was the first of the hand-held computers that paved the way for the smartphone era.
I remember Dad telling me that when he attended business meetings, whether in his company or for various boards he served on, he would take his Palm Pilot from his pocket and put it, and the accompanying stylus, on the table in front of him. He wanted his colleagues and peers (especially those who were younger) to know that, despite his greying and thinning hair and advancing age, he was a Renaissance man who was quite capable, thank you very much, of keeping up with the technologies evolving around him.
So enamored was he of the Palm Pilot, he insisted that I get one. And when I didn’t, he promptly ordered one for me on eBay (I told you he loved eBay).
Dad had a Facebook account before I did, and I’m pretty he sure he was on LinkedIn before me. In a way, this makes me sound behind the times. But I have bested him when it comes to Instagram and Twitter, and I did get an iPad first and showed him how to play backgammon on it. Point for me. Point for Dad: He started using the iPhone’s voice-to-text function before I did.
His final two frontiers on the technology landscape are (1) placing and retrieving his electronic boarding pass via his mobile wallet, and (2) using Apple Pay. However, I’m travelling with him in September and can show him how it’s done. I have no doubt he will easily master both of these processes, just as he has everything else. And who knows, before too long, the residents of Grand Living might be paying their rent with Apple Pay!
I was delighted in January when my friend Mary suggested we organize a book club by mail, just for the two of us, and I jumped at the suggestion.
When we first met in Virginia fifteen years ago, Mary invited me to join her long-time traditional book club, and I participated enthusiastically until I moved out of state. I never did get back into another book club, and not for a lack of trying. Somehow, I just didn't find the right one. Some met during the day. Others were dedicated to just one genre. One had too much socializing and not enough book discussion. Another was too much book discussion, and presided over by a leader who might as well have had a ring of keys at her waist and be named Matron.
But Mary's book club fit just right! Our rules, if you can call them that, are loosey-goosey, to use a technical term. We will send each other books we have enjoyed and if we feel like it, we will exchange insights and commentary by text, email, and/or phone.
It began when I received "If the Creek Don't Rise," by Leah Weiss, an author from our Central Virginia town. This beautifully written book made me practically weep with its perfectly executed prose and solid expanse of time and place. In exchange, I sent Mary "The Flight of the Maidens," by Jane Gardam, a post- WW II coming-of-age story. We were off to a good start!
Then we moved on to "The Dollhouse," by Fiona Davis, and Mary sent me "Angel," by Elizabeth Taylor.
I have to pause here to say that "Angel" perfectly exemplifies the point of book clubs. This is a book I never would have picked up, and had it not been for Mary's endorsement, probably would not have kept reading. The main character has only one redeeming quality, and that is her love for animals, something that Mary and I have in common. I ended up loving this book, in a macabre kind of way, and will read more by this author.
We exchanged biographies of Wallis Simpson and Beatrix Potter. I'm currently reading "Normal People" by Sally Rooney, and recently sent Mary a book of short stories, "An Evening in Paradise," by Lucia Berlin. As a birthday present Mary slipped in a copy of "A Woman of No Importance," by Sonia Purnell, about an American woman super spy in World War II. She bought a copy for herself, too, and for the first time we're reading the same book together!
I find myself thinking of Mary when I buy a new book. Yesterday, at my local library book sale, I purchased a copy of "The New Woman," by John Hassler, thinking to myself, this looks like something Mary would like, too!
Another bonus of our little book club? It reverberates beyond just the two of us. I've shared copies of books Mary has sent me with my sister in New York and a friend in Virginia, who in turn shares them with her daughter in South Carolina, and Mary shares my books with her sister in Maryland.
Books are indeed the gifts that keep on giving.
Read our literary insights, exchanged via texts, in the slideshow below.
As authors, we are indelibly connected to the multi-dimensional aspects of our writing. We feel a kinship to the characters we have carefully created and nurtured, and sometimes must painfully let go. We immerse ourselves in a story’s time and place, meticulously researching and seeking those details that promise authenticity above all else. And where do we carry all of this? Certainly in our minds and hearts. And most likely also in scribbled notes to ourselves.
It may sound strange, but my mobile weather app is a place that connects me to my two novels, both of which have sequels in the works. Along with the cities where my loved ones live, and my favorite vacation spot, I have Scottdale, Pennsylvania and St. Louis Obispo California listed in my app. These cities, which I have visited on research trips, inspired my fictional communities of Finch’s Crossing and Sierra Beach.
As I write this, it’s a balmy 50 degrees in St. Louis Obispo, with sun on the way this week. It’s also 50 degrees in Scottdale, but raining heavily, and I suspect the wind is singing an icy winter song. When I check my local weather, it’s comforting to see the settings of my books in my mind’s eye. I like to think of my characters making their way through my words, and wonder where they will go next.
My historical novel, set in the Great Depression, is very much on my mind these days as I am looking for an agent. The story follows three homeless teens who chase the fruit harvest across the country, just as they chase the trains that take them everywhere, and nowhere. I wish there was a weather app for a period in time, not just a physical place. If the Great Depression were to appear on my weather app, it would show the drought, heat, and wind that plunged the nation into despair for a decade.
I’m also planning my next literary novel, which will be set near Covington, Pennsylvania. It’s 45 degrees there, with a lot of rain on the way. This book is in the very early “thinking” stage, and it feels as if there is a layer of fog hanging above the plot that I must penetrate before the planning can begin. I have to feel my way through what is currently a blur, before I know where the story is going.
Does having these cities listed on my weather app help me write, or make me a better writer? Well, no. But isn’t it nice that my books and their worlds have one more place to perch and inspire me? I think so.
So what does your mobile weather app say about you? Leave a comment below!
It’s a long story, but in a nutshell, getting a puppy in August changed a week in Mexico over Thanksgiving to a nine-day “writecation.” (That’s a staycation where you stay home and write.) And it starts tomorrow! The timing is perfect, as this year I am participating in National Novel Writing Month in order to finish my novel, Spring. Given that there are so many temptations around the house—books that have to be read, closets that need reorganizing—you get the idea, I decided to develop some writecation rules for myself. Here they are:
I have a confession to make. Beginning when I was a little girl, I had a desperate desire to be a private investigator. I loved the idea of hiding behind bushes, magnifying glass in hand, or following people wearing a snazzy trench coat. Charlie’s Angels was a hit television show when I was growing up, and I idolized Sabrina, the character played by Kate Jackson. The Angels were so glamorous, and they always got the bad guy in the end. What wasn’t to like?
However, the older I got, and the more life took its own course, the less I thought about my dream. But age has a way of pushing the proverbial bucket list to the forefront of your mind. So when I was thirty-five, I studied to become a licensed private investigator. I took and passed the state licensure exam. Then I worked part-time for a year with an established agency (I kept my day job, thank goodness!). I even went so far as to trade in my totally cool PT Cruiser for a van to use for surveillance. But, as it turned out, although I had a ton of fun, it wasn’t as glamorous as I thought it would be, and I retired my binoculars and surveillance van with relief.
I’ve never written about this, and most of my friends don’t even know about this part of my life. So I thought it would be fun to share some snippets from my past as a private eye. It’s a walk down a memory lane I haven’t taken for a while. Glad you’re here to take this stroll with me!
How to Conduct Surveillance When There’s Not a Good Place to Park Your Vehicle
A client hired us to keep an eye on her ex-husband. It was a custody case, and the ex was not supposed to have women staying overnight when the kids were with him. This was one of the few times I conducted overnight surveillance. I felt comfortable parking my van in the eight-spot parking area on the cul-de-sac, but only once. I remember it was so cold that night that I was bundled up in so many layers that I felt like the Michelin Man. (You can’t turn your car on during surveillance to run the heater.) But, like I said, I couldn’t park there more than once because I would have been conspicuous. So the next day I enlisted my husband to help me. I purchased orange safety vests, grabbed a few garbage bags and work gloves, and headed for the subject’s home. There was a long and high incline outside of his home, with a great vantage point for me to watch the comings and goings. For the next few hours, my husband and I pretended to pick up trash along the side of the road and up the grassy incline, and all the while I was able to keep an eye on the house. And no one noticed that for every piece of trash we picked up, we dumped out two more.
How to Stay Awake on Overnight Surveillance
First things first. DON'T eat sugar. You may think that you can ride the wave of the sugar high, and that it will keep you going. But you'd be wrong. You'll ride high, then crash and burn. Caffeine of course is a must, as is taking a nap during the day. Bring along something quiet that you can do to keep yourself occupied. That is tricky in a dark van. I listened to music and audiobooks with earbuds on my iPod. Once I imagined winning hundreds of millions of dollars in the lottery, planned how I would spend it, who I would give money to, and how I would decorate my mansion. That killed about an hour, and it was fun.
How to Hide Yourself in a Surveillance Vehicle
Of course you have to have tinted windows, at least in the back, and you can situate yourself there. Another trick is to raise the head rests on the back of the seats to their highest level, then drape towels and a swim suit over the back of the head rests, creating a good foot more of cover. It just looks like you’re an intense swimmer drying out your gear. Also, wear black. And make sure all your interior lights are disabled.
How to Follow Someone When You Don’t Know Where They Are
I was with my mentor who needed to serve some papers. We sat on the subject's house for a long time and he never came home. We had a general idea of places he went . . .haunts, store preferences, etc. So we just drove around to some of these places until we spotted his car. We waited for him to come out of a store and followed him home. When he got out of the car my mentor happily served him papers. Yes, we got lucky. But if you take the time to know your subject's patterns, preferences and schedule, you'll be able to pull it off with something other than luck.
I never had to wear disguises. I did borrow a friend’s dog one afternoon and walked (and walked and walked and walked) around a neighborhood, watching the comings and goings of a certain house.
When Nature Calls
If you're a woman stuck in a van doing surveillance, and nature calls, what do you do? Easy, just bring along a compact camping toilet. It will be gross when you have to empty it (like a Victorian maid emptying a chamber pot.) But, what are the alternatives? Wearing an adult diaper? Yeah, no way. One private investigator I knew said she peed in a zip lock bag. Ummmm. No thank you.
If you are conducting surveillance near someone's property and are say, hiding in the woods (public property) behind their house, bring along snacks that don’t make noise. There is nothing worse than ripping into a bag of potato chips and munching away when the subject is sitting on their patio. A good tip: take your snacks out of the original packaging and put them in zip lock bags. BTW, it also doesn’t hurt if your husband is a hunter and you can borrow his ghillie suit. Not sure what that is? Google it. You’ll love it!
I only did this once and it scared me silly. But I got the job done because I came up with a good story. And that's the key. You need a good line to get people to acknowledge their identity. After hours in a surveillance van, I saw the subject arrive at the location I was watching. I turned on my ignition and peeled out of my parking spot and screeched up to the curb just as he was getting out of his car. I jumped out and said something along the lines of:
'I'm having trouble with my car and need help."
To which he replied in the affirmative that he would help me.
Then I said, "You look familiar, are you such and such name?"
And he said, no that he was actually this and that name.
Bingo! And I got to say those three little words that no one wants to hear:
"You've been served."
And then I hurried back to my van and drove away as fast as I could. I was shaking all over and breathing hard. It was then that I began to realize that I didn’t have the mettle to do this job.
Pumping People for Information
I worked one divorce case where an ex-wife was not supposed to work if she wanted to keep her alimony. It was my job to wheedle the pertinent information out of her and pass it on to the client, who was her ex-husband.
So how do you get information out of a stranger?
Well first, you have to pretend to be someone you're not. Second, at least for me, it's good to do it over the phone because you can mask your nervousness and falsehoods better if you aren't face to face. And third, well, you have to lie and lie and lie until your eyeballs melt. Which is exactly what I did. I pretended that we had a mutual acquaintance (who by the way, didn’t exist), who had suggested I talk with her about certain organizations she belonged to, since I was “new in town.” People love to talk about themselves. Well, at least this woman did. And when she mentioned her part-time job . . . well, my work was done.
Finding Lost Souls
A few extended family members asked me to find long-lost friends or relatives. This is actually easier than you might think. Obituaries are the key. Google the name of the person you are looking for and quite often their name will show up in an obituary as a “survived by,” along with their hometown. It’s all downhill after that. A little bit of clicking around whitepages.com and similar sites and you’ll track down the person no problem.
I only had to testify once, and I was a nervous wreck. It didn’t help that while I was waiting outside the courtroom the subject’s (i.e. the cheating husband’s) mother berated me with insults and asked me things along the lines of “how do you live with yourself?” and “how do you sleep at night?” When it was my turn to testify, I sat in the witness box and was sworn in by a deputy. The prosecutor and defense attorney took turns asking me questions. I was so nervous I had to consult my notes and stammered my answers. At one point the judge told me that I needed to “move it along.” My face flushed, and I stammered even more.
As you can imagine, that was my last job as a PI. I did recertify after that first year, but never worked again. That particular Bucket List item was complete. And I was on to the next big thing!
What items have you checked off your Bucket List? Leave a comment below!
I’ve always thought it would be fun to see what other Amy Allens are writing about. I’ve finally gotten around to it. (Read: I should be writing but this is more fun.) I’ve listed a few Amy Allens below, with details about their books. Of course, there isn't room for all of us in this blog post.
As I clicked through the many Amy Allens on Amazon, I felt a certain kinship with my Allen sisters. Spinning in our own orbits, unknown to one another, we are all doing the same thing: telling stories, sending expressions of ourselves out into the world.
Okay, that’s a little too philosophical. On to the fun!
Of course, I’m Amy Allen #1, and I write sweet romance, young adult fiction, and non-fiction for middle-grade readers. Currently I'm working on a literary novel.
Amy Allen #2 writes about creepy crawlies. Ugh. But, more power to her. Someone has to! She also writes about animals in general. And she is incredibly prolific. I could take a page from her playbook. Sigh. She probably writes 30,000 words a day. She must. She's got 11 books on her Amazon author page.
Amy Allen #3 is a scholar! Yay. I love scholarship and research. After all, my current project is a literary novel set during the Great Depression. One of her books is called: The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (New Directions in Critical Theory). I'm not sure what that means, other than Amy Allen #3 is one smart woman!
Amy Allen #4 writes paranormal romance series, such as The Many Lives of Brandi. Also prolific. I’ll have to check her out...there’s a fireman series, too.
I envision Amy Allen #5 as a deep thinker. She has written Summoning the Mountains: Pilgrimage into Forty about her experience reflecting on her life while walking the Appalachian Trail. I’m guessing it’s similar to Cheryl Strayed's Wild.
Amy Allen #6 wrote a book about how to be an Uber driver. I’m sure it’s getting a lot of hits recently with all the Uber uproar. It was released in 2016. Amy Allen #6, I recommend updating it and re-releasing it. I think you could make a pretty penny.
Amy Allen #7 has written a futuristic fantasy novel about goddesses. It's indie published, and she only has one review. Come on people. Share the love. Read and review. And while you're at it, I could use a few more, too.
Amy Allen #8 wrote This Little Piggy Went to Prada: Nursery Rhymes for the Blahnik Brigade. I should get this for my sister, who has more Manolos than any woman I know.
I had to mention Amy Allen #9, because she goes by Amy Leigh Allen, and my husband’s name is Leigh Allen. I’m sure the fine folks at the University of Arkansas enjoyed #9’s history of the campus.
And what do the other Amy Allens not listed above write about? The subjects are as varied as I'm sure we are as people. Amy Allens have written about weight loss, vegetarianism, home schooling, self-esteem, network marketing for stay-at-home-moms, plus what looks like a cute kids’ book series about bumble bees.
This is Amy Allen #1 signing off. Good night and Godspeed to all the other Amy Allens in this world. May you always find the right words and a seven-figure movie deal, and may you never come across your book at the dollar store.
Oh, Hennepin County Maple Grove Library, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
1. You are always there for me.
You have great hours and a digital presence that is available 365/24/7. So many books! So many ebooks! So many audiobooks! So many happy memories! It brings me great comfort to surf your web site and scroll through your app, making wish lists of books I want to read. And oh, how happy you make me when you pop into my inbox telling me that one of my digital holds has been automatically checked out to me. A little library love goes a long way!
2. You go above and beyond.
Interlibrary loan. Enough said. Love it!
3. You are fun!
Where else can I take a free class to learn about 3-D printing, and make my own thingamajig on your cool 3-D printer? You do things like invite a police canine officer and four-legged partner to visit the library and give a demonstration. I mean, who does that? Yes, dear library, you do.
4. You are a beacon in a dark world.
Minnesota winters are long and dark. Long, dark days. Long, dark shadows. Long, dark moods. But you never succumb to the winter blues; you always lift me up in your cozy reading areas. I'm sure you know this, considering your vast repository of knowledge, but cozy is practically a requirement to get through a Minnesota winter. Why, you even gave me a book on Danish coziness! Yes, I had to wait in line for it, but it was even more meaningful when it was my turn! I love to walk through your stacks, looking for my favorite authors. Sometimes, I select a book at random and bring it home, and you never tell me this is silly or foolish.
5. You are smart.
You help me with all my homework. (Translation: research for my books.) You taught me about the Great Depression. And the history of the Army Veterinary Corps. And the evolution of the Hennepin County and Minneapolis park systems. And so much more.
6. You are soon to be my neighbor.
That's right. I'm moving in! Well, not exactly. But come next month I can be at your front door in three minutes. It’s a dream come true...living within walking distance of my local library. We are about to be besties!
7. You wear your rainbow proudly!
You embrace the LGBQT community with library celebrations, including pride festivals, picnics, and even story times.
Oh, dear library, if only we could all be like you, the world would be a better place.
Photo credit: www.hclib.org