When “Blogging for Dummies” is actually a little too complicated for me

A few weeks ago I decided to act on an idea I’ve had mulling around in my brain for several years, the idea of actively trying to attract blog traffic. So, I ventured into the scary world of back-end blog tweaking, trying to install some plug-ins to help me track traffic and SEO and stuff…and about three steps in I realized that I was waaaaaaay over my head. So, like anyone born in the early 1980’s I started googling “self hosting for dummies” and “how can I install a plugin” and SUPER basic stuff like that. And I couldn’t get through more than the first two paragraphs before I was completely lost. After several hours I sent a text to my computer genius person, the Technology King, and clumsily explained my problem. He asked two or three questions, asked if I’d like him to just take care of it instead of try and explain over the phone and babysit me through every tiny step (YES!), and then he sent me this:

And he fixed it. Like, everything. In about 13 minutes he did all the magic coding and [insert tech terms here] stuff and I am now self-hosted, or, rather, Technology King hosted, because of course he has his own server, and he updated everything and ported it over, and gave me new options, and a whole lot of other awesome stuff I absolutely do not understand. Yet.

I’ve been tweaking things here and there, adding little bits of code and feeling super smug because it only took me 17 tries to upload a header with the words AND images where I wanted them; seriously, guys, only 17 tries. And it’s literally the same header as it was before, just, you know, slightly resized. Me and Microsoft Paint are gonna take over the world of technology, 17 tries at a time.

Great. Ok, Harriet. So what does this mean?

Am I actively trying to monetize my blog? Um, no.
Am I ruling that out for the future? …no?
Is it nice to have options? Sure. Even if I don’t completely understand what all of those options are quite yet.

Honestly, I mostly wanted to see if I could bump up my traffic a tiny little bit and figure out some basic SEO stuff. Which, given that I couldn’t figure out how to install a SEO plugin without calling for reinforcements makes the whole idea of me as the Queenpin of my own media empire completely hilarious.

But, even so, I have options now that I didn’t have before, and realizing how little I actually know about websites and code–despite blogging for 11 years–was super humbling. I’ve ever started looking around for some basic coding courses to learn some new skills.

So. That’s fun.

How much do you know about website building? SEO? Figuring out how to grow traffic in an authentic and organic way? Any websites I should pay attention to? Blogs? Podcasts? Whatever the next big thing is?


Confessions of a Bookaholic: A collection of reviews about war in Africa

It seems a little strange to offer a handful of reviews of books written about surviving various wars in Africa: Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Rwanda. However, here we are. The African conflicts I know the most about are the Rwandan genocide in the 90’s and Apartheid in South Africa, with tidbits of info about Darfur and Boko Haram. However in my lifetime there have probably been hundreds of battles and wars fought throughout the continent, only a few of which made our headlines.I distinctly remember learning about the Rwandan genocide while I was in junior high school, I had heard something in class and went to the library after school to look it up. I remember reading the article about Rwanda in the brand new, super fancy Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia, and then reading recent news articles about the war, the killing, the unimaginable death tolls. I remember where I sat in the library, what I was wearing, even some of the images in the Encarta and news articles.

As I read these books I was fascinated by the difference between autobiographical accounts of a war and a more biographical or historical sketch; the one is personal and fractured, often without resolution or closure. Most individuals are not always where the most important decisions or action is happening for the duration of a war, nor do their lives have tidy little chapter endings at the armistice or cease fire. The broader historical context may be necessary to truly understand what is happening and be able to follow the plot line of the conflict, the politics, and the major players. However, the autobiographical stories have such heart-breaking details, they can capture the million tiny details that, when added together, will tear a country to pieces.

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A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah (5 stars). Oh, this book broke my heart, the simple story telling does not minimize the gravity of a young boy in war-torn Africa. In fact, it increases the horror of so young a child running from soldiers and then becoming one of them; he’s lost his family, his friends, his home, himself. The efforts from the U.N. and other organizations to rescue some of the child-soldiers in the African jungle, their struggles, the psychological damage and PTSD from their experiences were difficult to read about, to realize that thousands of children were in this position, conscripted, drugged, killing machines masquerading as children.

Say You’re One of Them, by Uwem Akpan (4 stars). This book is really hard to rate; it is a collection of short and long-ish stories (the two longest are about 130-150 pages each) told from the point of view of children growing up in war-torn African countries. For me, the short stories were far more impactful; the condensed pages mean the details really pop, the microcosm of time–usually just a few days–makes every little thing yank at your heart-strings. The longer stories did not affect me in the same way, particularly the one on the bus. In fact, I skimmed the last 40 pages of that, waiting for something to happen or catch my eye, and in reading a few other reviews, this seemed to be the least well received. Some of the text is difficult to understand, there are local language idioms and words from a smattering of other languages thrown in, the dialogue is written in dialect and it often was difficult for me to piece together, exactly, what was happening. I think dialect can be a very effective addition to writing, but I felt lost here most of the time; I wasn’t understanding the language or what direction it furthered the story, it felt kind of like reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. This all being said, the story about the Rwandan Hutu/Tutsi genocide hit me square in the feels in ways other accounts of that war haven’t. It is the final story, and where the book’s title comes from, and for me it was by far the best of the pieces. The shorter stories bumped this from 3-stars to 4, the longer stories, for me, were only marginal.

Half a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (4 stars). I knew very little about the Nigerian Civil War in the late 1960’s where the Biafran state attempted to break from Nigeria to form their own country (ultimately, they were unsuccessful, after years of fighting the Nigerian and Biafran governments called a truce and Biafra rejoined Nigeria). This book follows several characters through the conflict, two adult sisters, Olanna and Kianene and their families and friends, although the book is primarily told from Ugwu’s point of view, the thirteen-year-old houseboy (servant) of Olanna and Odenigbo, who both work at the University. I love Adichie’s writing, her descriptions are vivid and her characters bring to life a political scenario I know nothing about. I appreciated learning about the politics and war through Ugwu’s eyes and ears; everything was new for him too. This has many heart-wrenching scenes and situations and because we’re talking about civil war–neighbor’s fighting against neighbor’s and all the horrific conditions that go along with that–it is not light on gore and graphic scenes. It’s not full of gratuitous violence, but when a society descends into civil war and the fighting is in every town, the ravages of that war will touch everyone.

There Was A Country, by Chinua Achebe (3 stars) The subtitle, “A Personal History of Biafra” is really the best description of this book. Biafra was, for 30 months in the 1960’s, it’s own country in the corner of Nigeria, with a population consisting mostly of people of Igbo heritage. Biafrans fought Nigeria troops for their right to self-govern, and after millions died from war, disease, and starvation, a “peace accord” was signed and Biafra was consumed again by Nigeria. Achebe includes several of his own poems throughout the book, and they are, by far, the best parts, in some ways, the only parts that I connected to emotionally. Not that I expect to  connect emotionally to a book about s revolutionary/civil war based on genocide and with starving children in its wake…well, actually, I *should* be moved by that. And I was, but not necessarily due to Achebe’s writing, which, outside of the poems, was very textbooky and dry, quite surface info of dates and people and speeches. I think Half A Yellow Sun gave me a deeper understanding of what life in Biafra was like during and after the war, her ability to combine stories and characters and experiences into a work of fiction with characters I cared deeply for was more moving for me than this book.

We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda, by Philip Gourevitch (4 stars). In the spring of 1994 over 800,000 Rwandan Tutsi’s were slaughtered in about three months. They were primarily killed with machetes, that rate amounts to 5 people per minute, hacked to death by their Hutu neighbors and fellow townspeople. The first half of this book is mostly based on interviews Gourevitch had with survivors of the genocide, the second half covers a lot more of the international relief efforts (or lack of efforts) during and immediately after the genocide, the politics involved, the lack of action from the U.N. and other western powers. Overall, this gives a horrifying account, both of the killings, but also of the international community who stood by and did nothing, then followed up with relief efforts to help the Hutu killers, and ending in forcing Rwandan refugees to return to their homes and again live side-by-side with the people who killed their families. My heart is sick ten thousand times over.

An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography, by Paul Rusesabagina (3 stars). Rusesabagina is most familiar as the hotelier who housed 1,200 Tutsi refugees in his Rwandan hotel during the genocide of 1994. Part autobiography of his early life, part war-time history of his country, part the basis of the movie Hotel Rwanda, this book is an interesting and heartbreaking mix. I usually read thru my lunch hour, but had to stop because I couldn’t eat after reading about the horrors and brutality of regular people slaughtering their neighbors, their friends, even their own families. This is a very first-person account, one man’s experience in hell, and I think that, despite the Hollywood success of the film, you need to remember that while reading this memoir.

Other Recommended Reading:

Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton
Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela
Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, by Philip Paul Hallie

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In which I realize, despite my best intentions, I am a complete and total stress case.

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Of late I have had a lot of stuffs going on in my physical and emotional life. This year (and last year) have been ones of complete upheaval and constant change; my anxiety levels are up, my stress levels are up, and I can feel myself starting to unravel.

Out of curiosity, I decided to take one of those online tests to measure the amount of stress in your life; not like, a Cosmo quiz, but a more legit one, from the American Institute of Stress. I’m sure there are questions about the scientific validity of such a thing, but I decided to do it anyway to at least give myself a good idea of where my stress levels were relative to that of a healthy, normal human.

So, you go through the list, count up all the points for things that apply to you for the last 12 months, and then figure out where your score falls.

  • 150 points or less: you are totally chill and there is very little chance that stress is affecting you in any serious way.
  • 150 – 300 points: you have some significant stress in your life, and, if you don’t take steps to chill the hell out, within the next 2 years it’s likely that you will suffer some kind of major health breakdown as a result.
  • Over 300 points: Uh, you have Issues, and also an 80% chance of having that major breakdown sometime in the coming months. Time to step back and reevaluate. Now. Reevaluate now!

My score: 642.

Basically, I’m a walking time-bomb of anxiety. Part of this I knew already, but I was legitimately shocked to see how high my stress levels were, and how long I’ve assumed it’s just normal to have that kind of anxiety and upheaval on a daily basis.

I wish I could tell you that since taking this quiz I’ve completely changed how I run my life to reduce my overall stress and anxiety…but that’s not true either. Being aware of my number is helpful, but truly, it’s only helpful if I use that awareness to do something about the ticking anxiety bomb in my chest.

I can’t do anything about the major life upheaval stuff except wait it out. I can’t un-move, un-take a new job, change some of the big pieces that have added stress and frustration and anxiety into my life. It is what it is, and I just got the unlucky set of cards to get all that stuff all at once.

But I’ve been doing little things that I hope make a difference:

  • I have been puttering around with my plants in the garden, I count 9 tiny baby cucumbers, I’ve already harvested kale for some salads, and the lettuce patch is growing nicely. I often think those little boxes of veggies are the only thing I love about being outside here (for the record, it’s still in the 90s everyday, which is 10-15 degrees too hot for my outside comfort. WHERE ARE YOU, WINTER!?).
  • I have been quite careful about what I put into my body for the last 6 months. I eat very little sugar or white starchy food, I don’t skip meals, and I drink lots of water. I also have treats every so often, I’m not living a diet of austerity, but I have tried to keep my blood sugars more even, and I hope that helps me keep balanced overall.
  • I have stayed far, far away from Facebook for weeks. I honestly don’t know if I’ll sign back on until after the election. I consume my other social media feeds carefully and try really hard to stay away from rhetorical tornadoes because I just cannot deal with so much blatant stupidity and ignorance. I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of lovely things as well, but until I have the bandwidth to clean up some of my feeds (block, unfriend, hide, block, block, block), I’m just going to steer clear.
  • I still go to the gym a few times a week, usually for about 90 minutes. I can’t actually tell a big positive difference when I go, but if I miss too many days in a row I get jumpy and antsy and the hamsters in my brain start reeling out of control. So, I gym.
  • I’ve been listening to audiobooks like it’s my damn job; 2 hours (or more) every day during my commute, plus at the gym, plus usually when I run errands as well. I listen to most books at double speed and am churning through them like crazy, three or four a week is pretty normal, plus the paper books I’m reading. It’s easy to escape into those pages and stories and characters and facts, and it helps keep my brain calm and focused instead of wandering and spinning without something to grab on to (or, whipping itself into a ragey frenzy while sitting in endless rush hour traffic. Audiobooks all the way!).
  • I try to make plans in advance and keep meticulous check lists. I have a constant grocery list on the fridge, right next to the menu list which is a complete meal plan for the week, including notes about what I need to take out of the freezer for the next day, or other prep. I keep a list for work tasks, one for household chores, one for blog post ideas, another for budget and savings requirements, and another for fun things I’d like to do or try, so if I have an hour I simply check the list and pick one instead of spending 20 or 30 minutes trying to figure out how to effectively use my time. Plans often change, and I’m not a super stickler on sticking to The List, but having that plan in place to start with greatly reduces the anxiety of figuring out where to start.

What do you do to keep yourself balanced? Do you think you have too much stress in your life? What are things that you feel you can legitimately drop? Must keep? How do you keep on adulting with too many things in your court and not enough time or energy to deal with them?


Bad things always happen to good people

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I have never in my life wondered “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Soul crushing grief eventually comes to us all. I think I somehow instinctively knew this, or my very early years were truly so horrible that I couldn’t ever imagine a world in any other way. I am never shocked or surprised at truly horrifying news. Sad? Always. Gutted? Often. Unable to get out of bed? Sometimes. Surprised? Never. The world is full of shitty people who do shitty things; the world is full of shitty things that affect people indiscriminately. All. The. Time.

A friend lost her parent far too soon.
Another lost her unborn babe, there was no more heartbeat.
Another lost his children, both of them.
Another lost his faith and footing.
Another discovered she’d lost her husband months ago to someone else, but he conveniently forgot to mention it.
Cancer, more cancer, young moms with cancer, teenagers with cancer, babies with cancer, beloved pets with cancer.
Being unable to protect the people who make up a million little pieces of your heart.

None of the above stories are my stories, they are all the heartbreak of friends and loved ones, people I would give up a kidney for if it could save them from a broken heart; for some I’d fight a full-grown grizzly bear. Their heartbreak absolutely affects me, deeply, but the circumstances don’t ever shock me. I guess that means I’m a pessimist–I expect the worst to happen to everyone at some point. Hell, The Worst will probably show up more than once.

I’m not a total pessimist, the hopeful part of me truly believes that, sooner or later, most of us will struggle back to our feet and keep shuffling along, even after The Worst has smashed us to pieces. We won’t be the same, we will never be the same, but we keep going. Honestly, I don’t know anyone who has the luxury of clutching her pearls and taking to her fainting couch for the rest of forever; eventually have to keep going. After a while it doesn’t hurt to breathe anymore, then we can go whole minutes at a time without falling to pieces. Eventually, we get up every day (or, most days) and we struggle to our feet and we keep going. We rely on friends, family, and strangers to help us along, but we don’t FullStop forever because our life is torn to pieces.

We all experience indescribable loss, hurts that should actually stop your heart and prevent you from feeling anything ever again. But we keep going. We may not want to, we may hibernate for days or weeks or even years, but most of us keep going. We help each other get up and keep going. We give a metaphorical kidney (or, you know, an actual kidney), or we send text messages that require no response, just to let them know they are loved.

In my time I’ve fought some battles, many for myself, some on behalf of someone else. I’ve got my scars and my war stories, and with a tricky combination of therapy, medicine, and sheer will power I’ve found a way to keep going. For now. But I 100% expect to be hit with another freight train full of bullshit, I 100% believe my life will be turned completely upside down again, torn to pieces, and then stomped on. It will happen. It happens to everybody. And all we can do is a) try to remember how to breathe, and then b) take the rest of it one step at a time.







PS. For those who are struggling with demons too big, too torturous, and too overwhelming…even after they stop fighting, even after they are gone, there will always be a space in my heart where they will are safe and happy. Mike. Stacy. Daniel. Micah. Ryan.

Backyard Vegetable Garden: Round Two

Before the full heat of the Arizona summer hit, Blue Eyes and I did a lot of work in our backyard: he built me some vegetable garden boxes, and we poured a patio, and planted trees and tomatoes and peppers and squash, and Blue Eyes filled in the last patch of gravely dirt with delicious grass. Honestly, it’s been so hot for so long that we haven’t used the backyard much, but now that we are finally (crossing fingers) past the days of triple-digit temperatures, it’s time to truly enjoy the backyard that we have built.

And, it’s also time to plant Round Two of our vegetable garden. The hellacious heat of the summer withers most vegetation by July, but you can replant in late August and early September for a November bumper crop, and that is exactly what I did. Several weeks ago I carefully tucked a fresh batch of seeds and plants into the soil and within a few days they started popping up with sprouts and new leaves. (I also planted a few flowers among the veggies because, well, because I can. And I like flowers. Basically.)

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My plants have been in the ground for almost 3 weeks now and they are growing like crazy! Meanwhile, I’m still harvesting butternut squash and eggplant that I planted back in March. My backyard is like my own little farmer’s market right now, and I love it more than I can truly say. I planted zucchini and yellow squash and cucumbers and cozelle, a stripey squash native to the Southwest.

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Another box is full of kale and cauliflower and carrots and green beans (the green onions didn’t make it…sad face). I think that little rebel plant on the right is a sunflower that never germinated in the spring…I hope that is the case!

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I filled up an entire box with a new batch of herbs, and the few that survived the heat have been putting out new leaves like crazy. I’m glad I didn’t pull up the basil sticks, they are lush and green again with new little starts filling in some of the dirt patches.

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I just planted a whole box of spinach and beets and peas and lemon cucumbers, and I can’t wait to see them poke their little green heads out of the ground.

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People keep telling me that “Arizona actually has really cold winters…” but I just do not believe it. I was here last year, and I ran my air conditioner every. single. day. But, if I can eat fresh-from-the-garden spinach and snap peas thru January I will, perhaps, not complain quite so much about the weather.

I’m already making plans for the spring, I want way more tomatoes, several tomatillos, some jicama, and another forest of peppers. This vegetable garden may just keep me sane thru my years here in Arizona.