What is your Starbucks name?

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Starbucks cup

Mine is “Walker.” If I try using my first name, the cashier/barista will always write “Jane” on the side of the cup.

Still, I do wonder… Who is this mysterious Jane? Is she smart, beautiful, adventurous, kind? Is she a night owl? A cat lover? A reader? Does she make her friends laugh? Is she in love? And, most importantly, why does she want my grande hot cocoa?

–Photo by Mel Guknes

Stocking up for the zombie apocalypse

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csa

Due to the fact that I work the graveyard shift, running errands can be a bit difficult. To get around this problem, I generally only go to the grocery store once or twice a month.

We have a decent-sized fridge for storing fresh foods and a separate freezer for when we buy in bulk. I also keep a stocked larder because you never know when you’re going to need to eat from what you already have in the house.

Prior to leaving for the store, I sit down with my menu cards, cookbooks and recipe programs to plot out all our future meals. Next, I open the Clear app on my phone and create a list of ingredients. If I’m cooking at night and I notice that we’re getting low on a particular item, I’ll also add it to the shopping list. Lastly, I rearrange the list into aisle order, from produce to meat, from pantry items to dairy/frozen goods. This may sound like a ridiculous step, but I’ve found that building the list in this fashion keeps me from forgetting an item or having to backtrack.

Once at the store, I lock my purse and cloth bags to the shopping cart and don a set of headphones. The other end of the cord is plugged into my phone and tuned to a second app: Zombies, Run! You’d be amazed at how quickly you can knock out a month’s worth of grocery shopping when the undead are chasing you.

I’m sure I look quite silly during this process, particularly when I react aloud to the story’s twists and turns, or start mouthing the words to the songs, but who cares? I’m doing my chores and getting much-needed steps — all while being entertained.

What do I buy? Here’s a typical shopping list:

Bananas
Pears
Apples
Plums and/or peaches
Oranges
Lemons and/or limes
Grapes
Pineapple
Berries
Romaine lettuce
Peppers
Broccoli
Potatoes
Onions
Garlic
Shallots
Celery
Carrots
Asparagus
Baby bok choi

Pepperoni
Black forest ham
Hard salami
Ground beef
Chicken thighs
Chicken breast
Whole chicken
Pork chops
Bacon
Pork tenderloin
Skirt or ribeye steak
Some sort of seafood

Whole wheat hamburger buns
Chicken broth
Northern beans
Black beans
Pinto beans
Basmati rice
Arborio rice
Gnocchi
Spaghetti
Fettuccine
Angel hair
Shells, mac or lasagne
Evaporated milk
Sugar
Brown sugar
Flour
Bread flour
Tuna
Flour tortillas
Chipotle peppers w/adobo sauce
Crushed tomatoes
Panko
Soy sauce
Corn chips
Popcorn
Cashews

Heavy cream
Mozzarella
Cheddar
Pepperjack
Butter
Milk
Frozen fruit and veg
Ice cream and/or chocolate

With these items in stock, I can create a tasty mixture of meals full of fresh and shelf-stable items. Plus, I generally manage to buy everything for about $300, which is pretty decent considering I make from-scratch meals for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert.

So, what does your grocery list look like? And do zombies chase you, too?

RIP Sweet Sera

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sera in cat room

Seraphina Walker-Weir, a sweet little cat who was adored by everyone who met her, died on August 25 of breast cancer. She was about 8 years old.

Born in 2008, Sera’s childhood was quite difficult. Her owner was a hoarder, a woman who collected felines yet failed to provide family planning, medical care or cleaning services. Around the time of her first birthday, authorities raided the house and rescued Sera, along with her 60 sisters, brothers and cousins. The cats were transported to the Monadnock Humane Society in Swanzey, N.H., and treated for various illnesses. The entire lot was spayed and neutered, brought up to date on their immunizations and put up for adoption.

Due to the sudden arrival of so many cats, the humane society contacted the media for assistance. When Marcus and I read the newspaper article about the cats’ ordeal, we immediately drove to the shelter and offered our help. A few hours later, we adopted two of the hoarder’s cats: a fluffy black-haired beauty who was originally named Elizabeth Taylor but we renamed Mystery, and a tiny tuxedo cat named Jane Fonda who we christened Seraphina.

Mystery died in 2011.

Sera had a soft, brownish-black coat with white hair on her chest, tummy and feet. Whenever she wanted attention, she would stand on her hind legs, place her front paws/claws on your thigh and give you a look that begged for a lift to the lap. No one could resist this request. She adored being pet on the head, stroked under the chin, caressed across the back and rubbed on her belly. Unlike the rest of our cats, she even allowed us to tickle the pink jellybean toes on her paws. Although everyone marveled at her beauty, it was Sera’s affectionate nature that prompted friends and family to threaten to catnap her when we weren’t looking.

Sera’s disposition was generally very gentle and easy going; however, her tough upbringing and diminutive size gave her the spirit of a Mafia don (“Listen Cujo, I got some pretty wicked claws under these mitts, do not, I beg of you do not make me bring out these bad boys! It gets ugly!”). She would allow other cats to gain access to our laps, even if she was already settled there, but if they crossed the line in any way, Sera wouldn’t hesitate to bitchslap them back into place. She also had an affinity for all things shiny and dangly so wearing long earrings or necklaces was not usually advisable.

This smart and sassy cat became my familiar and was rarely far from my side. If I sat on the couch to watch TV or read, she would inevitably settle into my lap. When I occupied the reclining chair and worked on my laptop, she’d wedge herself next to it so she’d be available for snuggles. And if I was sitting at my desk, she’d stop by several times a night to lie on my chest or recline in my lap while I did my best to love her and type at the same time. Every encounter was accompanied by the song of her purr, which was loud and true. During the moments when she wasn’t cuddling with us, Sera was usually sleeping on her brother Duncan’s giant bed, atop my desk chair, in the cat suitcase or inside a cat condo.

Her health, unfortunately, was not great. Living in filth as a kitten seemed to stunt her growth so she never weighed more than 6 pounds. She suffered from digestive issues that required special foods, mats and cleaning supplies (particularly air freshener) to manage. Yet that didn’t stop Sera from always begging for bits of the scrambled egg or poached fish that appeared on our plates. She was so attuned to my cooking habits that she could tell the difference between the opening of a can of tomatoes and the opening of a tuna can. She’d only show up for the latter.

Cats who are not fixed before their first heat have a much higher risk of developing a vicious strain of breast cancer. When the vet diagnosed her with this deadly condition last November, she gave Sera less than a year to live. Since surgery would have been ineffective and needlessly painful, we vowed to care for her as best we could and make that final year a good one.

Over time, the tumors grew out of Sera’s chest and bled. Throughout the winter and spring, her appetite rarely wavered, in fact it increased as the cancer stole all of the nutrients her meals offered. When the tumors made lying on her stomach uncomfortable, she would lie on her side or back and purr. Once the cancer invaded her lungs and affected her breathing, we knew the time had come to say farewell.

The vet who had cared for Sera since the cancer diagnosis kindly helped to put her out of her misery. After the first shot was administered, I picked up Sera’s small, frail body and held her in my arms. M petted her head comfortingly until the light faded from her eyes.

She was our youngest, and she will be so missed.

Sera with the jelly bean toes

Sera by my laptop

Buddha and Sera

Sera and Duncan

Sera playing

Sera with the sassy tail

Sera at the end

The things I do to make up stuff

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Omnia vanitas

Many of you know that fiction is not my forte. I love it. I read it all the time. But decades spent working in journalism has caused my imagination to atrophy.

The difference in the two forms of writing is palpable; instead of doing sprints, I’m trying to run an entire marathon, which, as you can guess, is no easy task. Still, I’m determined to write this novel and write it well. At the moment, I’m smack dab in the middle of the research phase; I’m reading related books, jotting down ideas, creating characters and writing various scenes.

Some novelists start with the dreaming phase, then move into research before writing a word. I’m going about it from the other direction as a way to best transition the skills I’ve honed from the territory of nonfiction into the make-believe realm.

Researching before dreaming also provides me with a better sense of time and place, much the same way a painter paints the background of a picture before focusing on the details in the foreground. Once the world is formed, the characters can fill it.

Over the years, I’ve tried various forms of organization, including outlines, emails, snowflakes, blueprints and clouds. While I have no doubt these methods work for others, none gave me the clear picture I needed to move forward with my fiction. For this book, I’m going with a technique that’s both familiar and easy-to-understand: the murder board. Fans of “The Closer,” “Castle” and “Elementary” will know exactly what I mean, but for those of you who are unfamiliar, it looks something like this:

murder board

I’m writing notes on legal-lined yellow stickies, keeping track of research in trade paperback-sized notepads and tacking everything up on individual corkboards that have been affixed to the back of my office door.

Unless the air conditioner is on, I generally keep the office door open while working on the news. Closing that door is just one more sign to my muse that I’m ready to get down to the business of pretending.

Other signs? Well, there’s an actual sign that hangs on the front of the door that says: Novelist at work. Its message is more of a reminder to me than to others.

When I work on my novel, I shut down my email program and hide my browser. I don a necklace that features a quote from Ray Bradbury. And I sit at my desk with an ice chai latte, a drink that I discovered while living in Seattle in the early oughts. After two years of drinking the beverage while writing fiction, a Pavlovian response developed in my brain that permanently associates the two.

These efforts may seem like silly writing superstitions, or perhaps even crutches. I don’t care. My muse likes to be wooed.

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