The Year of Being “Extra”

Angus isn’t high maintenance. He’s extra!

It came to my attention recently, receiving “Extra” is considered a good thing. (Thank You Great Day Houston/Princess T and Princess Pham – 2019 Hot Toys) It seems reasonable giving extra is a good thing too. But what about being extra?

Someone else started me down this rabbit hole first. I have to give credit to Louis at the blog, Learning to Write and his post “The Institutionalization of I – 90”. He found a new interest and wasn’t spending as much time on his blog. He mentioned the saying “jack of all trades, master of none.” I’m just going to come out and say it. I hate that saying. Why? Because I’m one of those people. My younger daughter told me not too long ago, “Geez Mom, you’re so extra!”

My husband calls me Rick, after the proprietor of the Las Vegas pawn store featured on the History Channel. Yeah, so? (Karl’s saying. I think I’m going to start using it on him each time he calls me that. Nothing personal against Rick.) I like knowing stuff. Why? Because there is a world (and a universe) out there full of interesting things, and I’m curious. I’ve also learned as I’ve gotten older, trying something new, even if I’m not good at it, is an opportunity to learn and grow. Growing isn’t just for the whippersnappers you know.

How Extra am I? Let’s just throw it all out there this one time. Take a deep breath before you read this. I started off drawing then grew into oils, watercolors and mixed media (fine art); discovered reading and read lots of books; enjoy history; played steel guitar and piano in my youth; like more than one genre of music (at least 6 of them); sew, knit, crochet, make jewelry and play with resin; cook and bake; dabble in photography; worked for more than 10 years as a graphic designer; have a telescope on standby for amateur astronomy; and last but definitely not least, I write. Are your eyes glazed over now? I’m sorry. I tend to have that effect on folks, and that’s without giving them the full list of things I like to do. People seem to think I have lots of time on my hands. No, not really. I’m also a caregiver, remember? This is a lifetime of accumulated skills and interests. Because I was driven to do these different things, I made time for them. I also descend from people who do/did some of these things. (My paternal grandmother was a wonderful cook, sewed and reupholstered furniture for a living.)

So, what’s wrong with being Extra, really? Since I hope we’re all friends here, let’s be honest. “Extra” people scare the crap out of everyone else. They’re ones who got burned at the stake for being witches, and persecuted by the church. I hesitate to call myself a genius, but I can certainly identify with some of them. (I remember being given an IQ test in school once and didn’t do that great. Eh, I thought the questions were stupid nonsense totally lacking logic.) Let’s start with genius #1, Leonardo di Vinci. Dude liked both art and science. Was he recognized as a genius during his lifetime? Not so much. Being burned at the stake and other unpleasant punishments were still a thing during his lifetime, if you made others feel inferior. Galileo got put under house arrest for inventing the telescope and having the nerve to report his observations, that the solar system doesn’t revolve around us. Nicola Tesla weirded out many with his out-of-the-box ideas, unless he allowed others to use his crazy to line their pockets. Einstein’s father and educators thought he was as dumb as a box of rocks. Didn’t stop him from coming up with the Theory of Relativity or becoming the Father of Modern Physics.

I’ve mentioned my habit of spoiling movie plots for my family. I figured it out pretty quickly while watching The Incredibles 2. Why? Because I could identify with them. Same with Syndrome in the first movie. The kid had a superpower. It was his brain. Let’s see, what was his favorite saying? “If everyone is special, then no one is.” Here is the conundrum for those who are Extra. None of them asked to be that way. To quote Jessica Rabbit, “I’m not bad, I was just drawn that way.” But since we make others uncomfortable, we have to hide a lot of it, or have very few friends as a result. Perhaps introverts aren’t drawn that way. It’s a choice they’re forced to make if they want to be true to themselves. Like Sasquatch, we learn early on to hide behind rocks and stay mischievously out of focus. (Futurama) No wonder a few of us become super-villains!

That list of things I like to do is long. However, I don’t know how to do everything. I did consider a career in Astronomy while in high school. What stopped me? Fancy-pants math. I don’t have the patience for the complicated stuff that takes pages of paper to solve. It’s not my language, and I’m OK with that. Unless I happen to get bored with my current interests. I might reconsider at that point. Trying extreme sports? Breaking a Land Speed Record? Are you nuts?! Then again, writing this post might be the equivalent of jumping off a cliff in a flying squirrel suit, without a safety parachute as backup. (Yeah, those folks are Extra, too.)

We’re approaching the end of the year, and everyone knows what that means, once the frenzy of holiday shopping is over. New Year’s Resolutions. Sure, you can try to achieve the usual goals of self-improvement. (Heck, I’m might do one or two of those, like getting back to walking the dogs first thing every morning.) I’m throwing down the gauntlet, here. I dare the rest of you to be Extra, too. Want to be special? How about earning it? Get outside your comfort zone and try something you don’t think you’ll be good at. You might surprise yourself. If not, keep at it until you are good. Then pick something else, and start over. Notice, I didn’t say “master it.” In my humble opinion, if you get good at something, you mastered it. To be truly Extra, take the Yoda approach. “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

Afterward, put down the electronics and try some real social media. You know, a conversation with real people. Tell everyone you meet about your new interests and revel in the perverse pleasure of watching their eyes glaze over. Be prepared to listen politely when they get their turn, then vigorously debate why your interests are as good as theirs. You might both come away with a new hobby, and a new friend. Hey, don’t leave the kiddos out of this. When they get tired of playing with their “Extra” toys, encourage them to be Extra as well.

(Did y’all notice the word politely a moment ago? Might not be a bad idea for most of us to add the goal of being Extra Polite more frequently. Until it becomes an ingrained habit.)

Of course, since this is technically a writer’s blog, I’m also going to throw a challenge out there for both writers and readers. If you’ve never written a book over 50,000 words, dig deep and come up with at least one epic. Only write epics? Try a short story or novella. Developed your writing chops with fan fiction? (Jane Austen, Star Wars) Great! How about playing in your own worlds, with your own characters? Don’t worry about chasing trends, or if it’s your usual genre. Write that one story that has been calling to you and put everything you have in it, including excellent craft. You know, the technical stuff like grammar; extensive vocabulary, also known as coloring with the big box of crayons; proper sentence structure and punctuation; excellent plot (surprise me!); well-placed hooks and cliff-hangers; characters with depth; show, don’t tell; a satisfying and well-earned ending. That’s how you attract Extra readers to your work.

Readers, try something new. If you have never done so, read something challenging. I highly recommend Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. I read it 3 times in high school, for fun, starting my Freshman year. By the third time, I fully understood the story. It’s a classic for a reason. After you read it feel free to engage with me in a book discussion. Let’s see how much of it I remember after more than 30 years. For those of you who have watched Outlander on Starz, did you ever read the books? (I did, in the 1990s, when they first came out.) Don’t think you like to read? Whatever you do, don’t shortchange your children. At the very least, read with them and make sure they see you reading every once in a while, too.

Happy Extra New Year!

Kristal DeJong

Caregiving and Time Management

When you are a caregiver, it can be almost impossible to find time for everyday tasks, never mind making time to pursue a dream. For the purposes of any conversation on this blog, let’s make it clear parents with children are included. Mine are in their mid to late 20s now, but it’s not so long ago, I forgot what it’s like to raise a heathen or two, whose sole purpose in life seems to be pushing all your hot buttons. Children are supposed to be learning autonomy and responsibility as they grow, but let’s face it. It’s a challenge you enter for the long haul, and the challenges change as they grow.

Most people, caregivers or not, will say they don’t have enough time in the day. So, where do you start when you decide to pursue a dream? Some might advise giving yourself permission to pursue it. OK, it’s as good a place as any, I guess. But once you have done that, you have to give it a place on your priority list. Where it goes will depend on the complication factor. Is it a dream which can be achieved in a few short steps, or will it require a long-term commitment? Do you need the support of others to help you reach your goals, including members of your household? If it all possible, reciprocate for others. They will be far more willing to support your dreams if you do the same.

The KISS principal (Keep It Simple Stupid) and “work smarter, not harder” also have to be part of the equation. If you can’t simplify your life a bit and learn to do things more efficiently, it becomes even harder to pursue your dreams.

Nix the distractions too. Spending all your spare moments on an electronic device burns a lot of time you could use to pursue something truly meaningful to you. Turn it off, or at least mute it, then leave it somewhere else while you are working on that dream.

For those of you just starting out with families and looking for that first home, I implore you to think of the long haul. Like everything else, there are no guarantees these days you will be able to follow the old advice of buying a starter home, and moving up or down, as your needs change. We have a two-story house, with upstairs bedrooms, which we have now lived in more than 19 years. After Karl’s accident in 2006, those stairs became an issue, and remember he’s not an old man.

Every change we make to this house, I insist on durable materials that are easy to care for. Yardwork? Who needs it? I wouldn’t mind growing a garden again, but my idea of a growing bed doesn’t require me to get on my knees or bend over. Though this is not an endorsement, Gardner’s Supply offers some I like quite a bit. Don’t forget cost of home ownership over the long haul, either. Taxes go up more frequently than down, and a big house costs a lot more to maintain as it ages. Not to mention the amount of time it will suck up. If you are holding off on pursuing a dream until the kids leave the house, do you want to sacrifice it for chores?

How about the house of the future? Eh, I’m not quite sold on that one, partly because I don’t want so much of my life run by my phone or the internet. Our younger daughter got us two Echo Dots for Christmas last year, which we do use to communicate between upstairs/downstairs. Occasionally, the crazy things light up when no one is talking to them. It’s freaky, I tell you. (For a good laugh, ask the darn thing if it’s possessed.)

While I would love to have a Roomba, we have seven animals in this house, which also includes 3 dogs. I swear their sole purpose in life is to leave hair on every surface. The rabbits shed as well, and their fuzz is so light, I call it angel hair. Because it floats. Unless the Roomba can not only keep all the hair off the floor, but vacuum my vaulted ceiling, light fixtures and stairs as well, I don’t see spending money on one yet. Besides, I’m afraid after five minutes here, it would be like the robot broom of Warner Bros. house of the future, and quit within five minutes. Right now, there is a big fat cobweb hanging down over the stairs, off the beam that supports our vaulted ceiling. I swear that bugger is mocking me. I’ll take a crack at it with the long-handled Swiffer first. If that doesn’t reach it, I may have to resort to one of our Little Giant style ladders. Except those are heavy.

Don’t forget meal planning and cooking. I love leftovers, and casseroles made in a 9×13 inch pan can last us 4-5 days. Between meals for days, when I want something low-key, I often resort to baked potatoes. Stuffed of course, making them a meal. Our main favorite involves broccoli, bacon and cheese sauce. However, BBQ brisket takes the tater to a whole other level. For those starch-a-phobes, sweet potatoes are a fine substitute for Russets. Someone here doesn’t like sweet potatoes, but I’m not naming names. I figure if the humble spud is good enough for Hobbits, it’s good enough for us. “You know, Po-ta-toes! Mash ‘em, boil ‘em, put ‘em in a stew!”

In the interest of honesty, I will admit I sometimes achieve my writing goals by ignoring the housework. There were a few times I spent nearly a full day writing, because I was on a hot streak. Unfortunately, I succeeded in giving myself a few nasty headaches. Meaning I learned the hard way to set limits for the amount of time I spend on the computer. I keep notebooks handy to jot down ideas or changes I wish to make, because my mind frequently doesn’t shut off while I’m doing other things. In fact, I swear it’s while I’m doing chores, I get my best ideas. (I was cleaning rabbit cages when I decided to take another crack at my book.) Yeah, yeah, I know paper is old school. It still has the occasional advantage; doesn’t freeze or crash, no batteries to die, can’t be hacked, and it’s easier on the eyes. You don’t have to be a writer to keep an idea notebook. We use them for a variety of projects. Paper is great for lists too. There is nothing more satisfying than physically scratching off an item or two.

What are your dreams, and your time management strategies for achieving them? Feel free to comment below.

Quote of the Week

In honor of deer hunters since it’s opening weekend…

Beware of wooly boogers seeking popcorn for movie night.

Kristal DeJong

Wait! Did Someone Say Caregiver?

Follow the yellow brick road…

Yes… yes, I did. You thought this was going to be blog about my journey as a novelist, and insights on the craft of writing. In the immortal words of Lord Dark Helmet “Fool you!” (Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs)

Well, maybe a little bit. I have written a novel and will eventually want to send my baby out into the great world. Hopefully to land on a best seller list or two. Storyteller and writer have been a part of who I am for most of my life. But they aren’t the only part, and certainly aren’t the most important.

If you read my first post, you will notice an over-riding theme. Mentioned at the beginning, and again at the end. Which is a nifty writer’s trick, by the way.

I fell into professional caregiving out of necessity. It is not a career path generally chosen by creative types, though I knew many nurses who had creative pursuits; such as cross-stitching, knitting, crocheting and quilting.

It can be a profession which generally pays better than some, but it is never one you go into expecting riches. Unless you attend medical school and do the residencies, to become a fancy-pants surgeon. With the high cost of said schools, and the outrageous debts people graduate with these days, being a rich doctor who golfs in the afternoon is no longer a given. So, I must tip a hat to all the people who enter the medical and caregiving professions. You will never be paid the compensation you truly deserve, for your compassion and hard work. Thank you.

Ultimately, I ended up working as a Nurse Assistant/Ward Secretary for nearly ten years. I encountered a few family caregivers, especially working in a small-town hospital. Just because their loved one, usually a spouse, had an issue which could not be handled at home, didn’t mean the caregiver got a few days of vacation. Usually, they were at the hospital the entire day, during visiting hours, often doing much of their loved one’s care. Or at least assisting with it. I would go home at the end of my shift, grateful no one in my young family needed such intense help.

Ah, but fate can oftentimes be cruel in ways you don’t expect. Less than 10 years after I went into what I considered my true profession, my husband, Karl, injured his back while preparing for deployment in Iraq. That was in 2006. A common complaint for most disabled veterans is the way their employer treats them when they are hurt on the job. It is not the main purpose of this blog to complain about our government; but it does bear mentioning, that it makes the role of a caregiver even more difficult, when you also have to worry about keeping a roof over your family’s head.

My husband’s injury involved 13 herniated disks and nerve damage to his right leg, right arm and shoulder separation. Because he was not receiving the disability compensation he was owed, in a timely manner, he had no choice except to return to his teaching position. All teachers spend a lot of time on their feet, and music teachers spend almost an entire day on theirs.

It goes without saying, Karl’s injury was never properly addressed by the Navy or VA Medical System. I recently saw a news story about a man’s emergency surgery for one herniated disk. The hospital surprised him with a $600K bill, which his insurance refused to pay. After he complained, they graciously lowered it to $200K. Yes, my tongue is in my cheek as I write this. Little wonder the government can’t pay to fix 13 of them.

Due to continuing degeneration in his back and an undiagnosed neurological condition which causes constant headaches, Karl was forced to leave teaching in 2011. He was 44 yrs. old. That is a really young age to be forced into medical retirement. In 2010, I started working at the same school Karl taught at, running the copy machines and helping him with his after-school activities, such as setting up and breaking down concerts; since he did not have an assistant. My help was mostly off the clock. Finally, in 2013, at the end of the school year, I left. I wasn’t being paid enough to justify leaving him home alone, to fall on the stairs. I would be making even less once Obama Care went into full effect.

The funny thing about caregiving, is you don’t realize how many of us there are, until you become one. I have actually been surrounded by caregivers. My mother-in-law for my father-in-law who had Alzheimer’s; my uncle for both of my grandparents; one of my husband’s brothers, and his wife, for my mother-in-law; and a friend in Iowa who has now cared for a grand total of four people, including both of his parents. I may know a few more, if I think about for a bit. The biggest reason I can’t remember them right now? I haven’t seen or heard from them in a while.

Which brings us to the hardest part of being a caregiver. Despite all the support information and attention being given to the issue, we’re still largely invisible to society. Until you happen to see us sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s or therapist’s office. Even though my husband is still somewhat ambulatory, he is in pain 24/7. He has little patience for socializing these days, never mind going out into society, which is increasingly losing respect and empathy for others. It goes without saying, we don’t leave the house much. That’s true for many caregivers, often because of the sheer logistics required just to leave the house. Especially if their loved one uses mobility equipment.

I will be the first to admit I could benefit from resocialization. I have a few hobbies which could actually get me out of the house for a bit, such as knitting and crocheting. Other than the Bolivian lady who taught me to knit, I’ve always done that as a solitary endeavor. As a de-stressor, I usually work on a project between the other things I have to do. We live in a large urban area. Driving somewhere else to knit would have the opposite effect of de-stressing. It might be worth it, if I taught some classes. I have been knitting and crocheting for more than 30 yrs., but the time it takes to prepare a class is an issue.

So, why return to writing then? Part of it is the social aspect. I am also a fine artist and amateur photographer, in addition to being a graphic designer. Some of those folks will occasionally get together and discuss craft, and issues which affect their ability to make a living. But writers? They are the true herd animals of the creative world.

Not long after I revived my nearly dead book of 30 yrs., I looked up the closest chapter of Romance Writers of America. I knew RWA had a chapter near where I live, before we moved here. They meet once a month. And unlike a knitting class, where I am on someone else’s schedule, I plan to publish my books indie. While I do have financial goals for my writing, I am on my own schedule to release a book. I am also a control freak, which puts indie publishing right up my alley. Nor does it hurt, I’m a big box of crayons kind of gal and can make use of my other skills. Instead of letting them go dormant.

It could be an interesting journey, and like all journeys, they are most enjoyable when undertaken with friends. Just ask Dorothy. Why else did she collect all the rejects of OZ, as she skipped down the yellow brick road?

Quote of the Week

Why buy the entire burrito, when you only want one bean?

Kristal DeJong


It Began with a Typewriter…

For a hook, this line might not be as compelling as “Once upon a time…” or “On a dark and stormy night…”. However, it is perfect to begin sharing my odyssey as a writer.

Once upon a time, (sorry, couldn’t resist) I was a twenty-one-year-old wife wishing to make a career change. What? At such a young age? No, it didn’t involve leaving my husband of one year.

To help pay the bills, I took a job as a nurse assistant in a nursing home. While a nice private facility which paid better than minimum wage, it was still a difficult place to work. Especially when you are a sensitive, creative soul who might weigh 100 lbs. wet. Many of the residents were bigger than me, and not all of them appreciated the assistance, most especially those with dementia. After nearly a year of employment there, I longed to find another job with fewer physical demands and fewer opportunities to have my feelings hurt, simply because I was trying to help someone.

My husband and I married in the late 1980s, just a few years before the internet started becoming widely available to everyone. It wasn’t unusual to find a computer or two in an office (no, they didn’t have Word yet), but you could still find many typewriters perched on secretaries’ desks. I took typing in high school, but funnily enough, it wasn’t my best subject. Many of the office jobs I found in the local classifieds required applicants pass a typing test to be considered for a position. What to do…

On one of my weekends off, I perused the garage sale classifieds. Fate smiled upon me. I found a listing with an electric typewriter which supposedly still worked. The garage sale was in progress that very day, so I dragged my husband out of the house to go typewriter shopping. Lucky me. They still had the machine when we arrived, and as promised, it still worked. It was even a recent enough model; typewriter ribbons could still be purchased for it. Yeah! (Typewriters do not come with backspace or delete buttons. We had white-out for that.) I wish I could remember what we paid for it, but I still believe it was a bargain.

Now that I had my own personal typewriter, I could practice increasing my typing speed in my free time. Surely, copying any old document would do, right? Nope. In my brilliant, 21-year old mind, it made more sense to write a romance novel while improving my skill. Bonus! Who doesn’t love a twofer?

Did my typewriter and novel writing get me out of my nursing home job? Sadly, no. I worked there a little over two years, until we decided to move from Nebraska to the town in NW Iowa, where my in-laws lived. Hubby was a reservist in the military. He received orders to report in California for two-weeks of training, then was supposed to leave for the Gulf War in Iraq and Kuwait. We were expecting our older daughter at the time, and I didn’t want to live four hours away from both sets of grandparents, with a baby.

My parents moved me during the two-week training period. Days before it ended, the Gulf War did too. My husband just missed being shipped out. Instead, he joined me in Iowa and found a new job at the Farmers Coop lumber yard. I went back to work when our daughter was two months old, as a nurse assistant in the local hospital.

I continued using that typewriter until 1993, when we purchased our first home computer, complete with 3 1/2-inch floppy disk storage and dial-up internet. Our younger daughter was born that same year.

Now a mother with two small children and a part-time job, the novel writing had its challenges. I joined Romance Writers of America in the latter half of the nineties, seeking support from others who would keep me motivated and help me hone my craft. In 1997, I finally made that career change, into graphic design, and within a year had a full-time position. Moving to Texas in 2000 ultimately brought my novel writing ambitions to a halt. Though the girls were still in elementary school when we first moved, it wasn’t long before they entered middle and high school. I continued to work full-time as a graphic designer. Hubby was an orchestra teacher with practices and programs, before and after school. He also rejoined the military after 9-11.

He is now a disabled veteran, with a spinal cord injury, and I am his caregiver. For a while now, I have been considering finding ways to bring in additional income, without leaving him home unsupervised. A few months ago, I had an idea and dusted off the novel I started 30 years ago. Made perfect sense to my brilliant, 51-year-old mind…

Quote of the Week

Don’t be getting anyone’s knickers in a twist. It’s painful for all involved.

Kristal DeJong