At the moment, I’m doing research into the progress of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic in the US, specifically in the Los Angeles California area, for background in a novel that’s set in the 1930s. If you were an adult in the 30s, you had probably lived through the infamous “Spanish” flu, And let me tell you, some of the details are tragic, strange, damned weird, and some of the suggested “cures” make our recent spate of whackdoodleness look quite ordinary (wearing red, slicing onions, breathing chlorine fumes, wearing a bag of camphor around your neck, taking five times the recommended dose of aspirin… just to name a few.)

The progress of the Autumn 1918 variant that was so lethal was first noted by the US Navy, specifically in Boston, August 29 1918, when three sailors from a ship newly-arrived from Europe were sent to sickbay with symptoms of influenza. By September 3, there were civilian cases in Boston and the surrounding area. Naval bases took strict quarantine measures quickly, but the horse had already fled the barn. According to the Schenectedy Digital History Archive’s series on how the epidemic effected that city (https://www.schenectadyhistory.org/health/morris/3.html):

The Navy tried vainly to stop the epidemic from depleting its ranks. After a successful quarantine of the Naval Training Station on Goat Island in San Francisco Bay, in which not one case of influenza was reported, Naval Surgeons could do nothing but shrug when men released from the confinement and given liberty in San Fransisco contracted the disease. Indeed, they could not keep the men confined forever. Overall, the Navy had reported 120,000 cases, nearly one fourth of its total strength, with 5,000 dead. (11)

The Army, with approximately ten times the manpower of the Navy, suffered over 25,000 deaths in the United States. (12) The epidemic peaked among Army personnel during the week of October 11, two weeks later than in Navy. This later peak is attributed to the inland location of most army bases. The mobilized Army also spread influenza more rapidly than it would have if America was at peace. Many outbreaks throughout the Mid-West and the South can be traced to troop movements between different camps.

What’s really striking to me is that the Navy’s fatality rate is so much higher than the Army’s. I know it doesn’t look it on casual glance, but note that the Army had “ten times the manpower of the Navy” so, if they’d had the same fatality rate, the numbers should have been more like 5,000 Navy and 50,000 Army, or 2,500 Navy to 25,000 Army. My conclusion is the necessary crew density of naval vessels lead to literally double the deaths. The Army spread it more, but the Navy had it worse.

And that brings me to Los Angeles, which didn’t have an Army base per se, but it did have a Navy yard and a Naval Reserve Station (the Los Angeles Harbor, as it was then known, is actually 18 miles away from downtown in San Pedro/Long Beach, but much of the story I’m working on takes place in and around those harbor towns and, due to the usual Los Angeles rigging, the harbor is attached to and part of the city by a long, narrow swath of land called the Downey Extension). And in spite of that, the infection and death rate in Los Angeles was lower than that in other towns with Navy bases (except for Seattle, which had the lowest fatality-rate of Navy towns, but that’s not part of this story).

Part of the explanation lies in the timing; as the epidemic swept on, it moved from East to West, and from Mid, to Southern, to Northern tier, like a bouncing ball, so L.A. got it late in game, when virulence was dropping (a bit.) And part of it is the fact that the Los Angeles metropolitan area was then, as it is now, very large, widespread, and full of pockets of extreme low-density. The topography breaks up livable areas, there was still a lot of agriculture taking up space, and Angelinos like to spread out, which probably contributed as much to the lower infection and fatality numbers as anything else did. Populations were lower then, sure, but the population of Los Angeles at the time was 570,000 people spread over 502 square miles , and that’s still a lot less dense than the 500,000 people packed into 46.9 square miles of San Francisco in 1918, which had a death rate almost 125% that of Los Angeles. But in spite of the Naval Ship Yard on San Pedro Bay, Los Angeles developed the epidemic late—the first cases being recorded at a Polytechnic High School in downtown on September 22 1918, almost a month after it was detected at the Boston naval base. (I can’t find any mention of where the students might have caught it.)

The Navy had already instituted quarantine measures on all bases, and officially closed the Naval Reserve Station in L.A. Harbor on September 28, and the Army quarantined the Arcadia Balloon School (yes, balloons) at the same time, although neither base had any recorded cases. (See The Influenza Archive’s page for Los Angeles: https://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-losangeles.html).

The cities of Los Angeles, San Pedro, Long Beach, Pasadena, and others got together and set some guidelines on October 10, some of which were the sort of thing that you’d only need in Hollywood (no filming crowd or mob scenes, no spectators allowed onto film shoots, and especially no boxed lunches for said spectators), and the rest were pretty much what you’d expect. And even with various missteps, weirdness, human folly, and all the rest, the deadly 1918 wave of the epidemic was over by late January of 1919 and the Los Angeles area got off (relatively) lightly with a death toll of 2,713, or 494 per 100,000 population (per Los Angeles Times https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-03-16/los-angeles-spanish-flu-coronavirus).

And why do I care?

Well, the protagonist was thirteen during the epidemic, and his mother died in early 1919. While he’s convinced her death was suspicious, I began to wonder why no one else would have thought so, and how she came to be under a doctor’s care at the time—most illnesses and deaths, like most births, still happened at home, even among the wealthy. I hadn’t mentioned the epidemic in the current WoS (Work on Submission). Now that I’m starting on the second story, the fate of the protagonist’s mother is relevant, so I began to think “what if her death was attributed to the flu?” I’ve done a lot of reading in the past about the 1918 flu, but I’m having to go back and do some more, and more specific, reading about the epidemic in Los Angeles and Long Beach. On the one hand, I do love research and history. On the other… this is some depressing shit.

 

The 1918 Influenza epidemic lasted four months. It is the worst mass-death event in modern history.

Locked Out of Your Stuff


So, there’s an article at the New York Times about Bitcoin billionaires losing access to their accounts because they’ve forgotten their passwords and the bitch of it is that the structure of Bitcoin means they can’t just reset the password, so unless they magically remember, these poor suckers are out, in some cases, billions of techno-dollars.

My first impulse is to snicker and mutter snarkily “oh, poor babies.” But on further consideration, I don’t like that response. Here are people who took a risk and invested in a start-up technology, just as anyone who invests takes a risk, This tech worked and it turned a ridiculous profit. At least for now. You wouldn’t laugh at the misfortune of someone who lost their wallet, or lost money investing in, say, the Rocket e-Book. Taking public pleasure in the misfortune of these guys isn’t really any different—yeah, they are great targets when a lot of us are struggling to keep a roof over our heads, but taking the piss smacks of juvenile jealousy and gloating. It’s beyond Schadenfreude.

You’re probably rolling your eyes at me and muttering “Oh come on, Kat…” But I’m serious. This is a lousy attitude and one I don’t want to feed in myself.

Why? Because the root of their problem is something very ordinary, very human: the difficulty of remembering a complicated string of letters, numbers, and symbols that are otherwise meaningless. Here are a handful of people who might be ridiculously rich—and some already are, but some aren’t—if they could only remember their password, and we’ve all been in the position of forgetting a password. Some people even lose access to important things because of it. You know: that email address that linked to your old website or Facebook page, your old phone’s backup directory, or that guest account on the old laptop… It happens all the time. It’s happened to me, and it’s happened to you. Don’t pretend it hasn’t.

And don’t pretend your urge to sneer isn’t at least partially motivated by old-fashioned jealousy that you don’t have that kind of dough to lose. I know mine is.

But to gloat and make public mock of these poor schmoes is hypocritical, and after the year we’ve had, this sort of snark is just petty.

Let he/she/they who are without password-forgetfulness cast the first stone.

Me, I’m thinking of writing a book, instead. See, there’s this guy and he can’t remember…

 

I found it in a virtual drawer


I was going through a bunch of story files, looking for a prompt to get my brain back into writing-mode after a lot of revising, editing, and generally falling off the writer-horse, and I found this fragment, that I apparently started January 19, 2017, at 22:54:

My mother was murdered and my father disposed of the body, but that didn’t help him; he was convicted of it anyway and put in prison. But now there is a fingerprint—a bloody fingerprint—on the body of a homeless man, and the cops want me to provide a sample to see if the blood might be hers. The fingerprint is.

My life is upside down. After she vanished, I always believed she was dead, though it took a while to believe she was murdered and that my father did it. But the evidence piled up over years and… you know the rest. But a now a fingerprint. Now blood. My father isn’t a killer? After most of a lifetime of believing, it’s much harder to imagine that he didn’t kill her. It’s easier to think that the selfish, manipulative, evil man who’s lived in a nine-by-six cell since I was twenty did it, than to accept that maybe he was innocent and my mother just… abandoned us. Abandoned me with him. What sort of mother does that?

There’s a further note on the fragment that indicates I was thinking of using it as a part of Gattis File, Book 2, which was never completed once the publisher decided not to go ahead with more books. This fragment isn’t in the same style or genre (SF) as the Gattis materials, so I suspect it’s something I just typed up and then tried to find a place for, later. Maybe I’ll find something else for it to do….

 

Easy Sausage Rolls

for americans, because we’ve been watching the Great British Baking Show and know we’d be sent home on the first day, but we still want little pastry packets of meaty goodness!

Ok, so… it’s that time of year and I’m baking. This particular year I couldn’t get the British-style sausages I usually use, and had to make them myself. It was a bit of a pain, but here’s my way of making sausage rolls for Christmas (I rarely make them other times of year.)

This time I made them with frozen puff pastry, which comes folded into thirds, and discovered that no matter what I do,  the pastry breaks or tears at the folds. BUT it turns out that cutting those resulting thirds in half so they make two stubby rectangles creates perfectly-sized pastry for 3-bite rolls, so I ended up with 12 finished rolls, baked at 400F for 18-20 minutes.

But, I hear you say, there are only nine rolls here! Well… yeah… We couldn’t wait to eat some!

 What you need:
  • English Bangers or other sausage with bread crumbs*
  • Pepperidge Farms frozen Puff Pastry sheets, or Pillsbury Crescent Dough sheet**
  • An egg or 1/4 cup egg substitute, beaten with a little water (if eggs are a no-go, milk is OK, or water in a pinch, but the crust won’t be as “golden” or crisp)
  • A pastry brush to spread the egg/milk with
  • A baking sheet
  • A cooling rack (if you have one, if not you can use a roasting rack or just skip it)
  • Baking parchment (just buy some, damn it, it’s useful)
  • Some white flour (whatever you got, man…)

Preheat oven to 400F, or as spec’ed on dough package. Line the baking sheet with the baking parchment and set the sheet aside.

If you’re using frozen pastry, get it out of the freezer and let it thaw at room temperature until it’s pliable but still cold. Don’t let it sit for more than 40-50 minutes, or it will lose its flakiness. Flour a work surface and spread the cold pastry flat—don’t roll it unless you have to. Cut strips of appropriate length to roll all the way around a sausage like a little blanket with a bit of overlap. It’s a bit of a juggling act to keep the pastry cold enough to retain its butter, but not so cold that it’s stiff and cracks. If it’s getting too soft, just put everything back into the fridge for 10 minutes and then continue.

Remove the skins from the sausages (cut a slit down one side and pull the skin off—do not let children “help” with this, trust me…) If you made the sausage yourself, it won’t be in skins, so squish it into 12 cylinders about as fat as a finger and the same length as your pastry’s narrowest side.

Put a sausage on a dough strip and roll it up. Wet the overlapping ends of the dough very slightly with cold water and pinch them together to seal the sausage in its blanket of pastry. If you used large sausages, cut the rolls into 2-3-bite lengths so the sausage gets cooked through without burning the dough.

Put the rolls on the parchment-covered baking sheet with the dough seams down. Brush the tops of the rolls with a little egg wash (don’t let it run and puddle because that turns into scrambled egg blobs, but make sure you brush the whole top surface evenly.)

Bake those puppies until the pastry is crispy, and a medium-to-dark gold color (not dark brown or black, please.) The ends of the sausage that you can see inside the pastry should be a little dry looking and a tasty brown. Start with 10 minutes, keep baking and checking if they aren’t ready. If you have an instant-read thermometer, use that and look for a temp of 167-173F at the center of the meat, to be sure the pork is properly cooked through.

Once the rolls are done, pull the sheet out of the oven and transfer the rolls to a cooling rack if you have one. If not, the rolls may get a little soggy on the bottom, but who cares… you’re just going to eat them right?

*Bread crumbs soak up the fat from the meat so it doesn’t make the pastry soggy. This also lets the pastry flake and rise better.

**Puff pastry is a little more delicate, but bland, and flakes more than the Crescent Roll dough. Crescent roll dough is easier to work with than Puff, but it’s not as flaky and it’s sweeter. Use the one you prefer. Both are good. Crescent roll dough is more like “short crust” and stands up to being carried around better than Puff.

 

The Sausage

This was not perfect sausage —I had no meat grinder, so it was a bit coarser than optimal. I made it a day ahead, then let it sit in the fridge to allow the herbs to mingle with the meat and fat. I cut this down from a recipe that makes 5 pounds of sausage. This makes 1.25 to pounds, which is just enough for to use up 2 sheets worth (one package) of frozen puff pastry.

What you need:

  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1/4 pound pork fat (just ask the butcher—they often end up throwing excess fat away, so it’s cheap)
  • 1/2 cup fine bread crumbs (not Italian seasoned or panko. If you have 4 slices of stale bread, you can make it yourself by toasting all the slices once, grinding them up, then toasting the crumbs again to make them dry)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons plain salt or sea salt (don’t use iodized salt—it leaves a metallic taste in the meat)
  • 1 teaspoon fine ground pepper (black or white as you prefer, but not cayenne)
  • 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg or mace (yes, really)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of dry, rubbed sage
  • 1/2 teaspoon of dry thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon of onion powder
  • A cold bowl
  • Cold hands
  • A very sharp knife, a food processor, or a meat grinder

Mix all the dry ingredients together. I just dumped the herbs and so on into the cup measure with the breadcrumbs and stirred them together.

Mince the pork fat as fine as you can with the Very Sharp Knife, then use your cold hands to mix all the pork, minced fat, and seasoned bread crumbs in the cold bowl. Why? Because the heat of your hands will melt the fat and shift the flavor.

Since I had no meat grinder or food processor available, I did the whole mix by hand, putting 1/3 of the meat into the bowl, then 1/3 of the fat, and 1/3 of the breadcrumbs, and continued layering like this until all the ingredients were in the bowl. Then ran my hands under cold water and mixed the sausage meat together until everything looked evenly mixed. It’s a pain and I don’t recommend it, but, hey, I’m working in someone else’s kitchen this year and all my stuff is in storage.

The texture of the sausage will be pretty coarse by this method, so if you have a meat grinder, put the mixture through the grinder. A food processor also works, though it’s easy to over-process and end up with paté instead.

To test the flavor, take a small pinch of the ground mix and fry it in a pan and taste that. Then adjust the seasonings as you feel necessary. Once it’s as you like it, cover the bowl and put it in the fridge overnight or for a minimum of 4 hours before cooking.

Make your sausage rolls the next day and grab some before anyone else get there or you might not get any. All of the stuff can be frozen, including the unbaked rolls, the dough, and the sausage. If you make your rolls and freeze them before baking, don’t put on the egg wash before you freeze them. Then you’ll need to brush on the egg, and bake the rolls about 5-7 minutes longer than if you baked them when fresh-made.

 

Close up of Egg Shell with coffee grounds inside, which have colored the shell with swirled watercolor-like shades of green and brown

reddish brown sky with red-orange sun

 

Strange Nature


I was cleaning up after breakfast recently and happened to look into my countertop compost bin, where I saw this interesting color effect on an egg shell which had caught some coffee grounds. I found it so interesting that I went and grabbed my cell phone to take the picture here at the top of the left column.

I know that to most people this is just a photo of my garbage, but I was struck by the interesting colors, especially since I knew there’s nothing else in that bin other than coffee grounds, egg shells, and a green tea bag. Nature creates some amazing colors—even in the trash.

By contrast, the lower photo is also the colors of nature, but in a less-friendly mode. This is the sky above Silverdale Washington, at 14:30 hours on September 12, 2020.

Due to windborne ash in the air from wildfires in Oregon and California, the sky was a reddish brown and the sun a mere orange spot that could be stared at without any eye protection.  I’ve started calling this effect “Apocalypse Sky.” I think that would make a nifty title for a book, or an anthology of short stories, though what it would be about I don’t yet know.

I’m Pleased


I have signed a publishing contract. First in 4 years. I’m not able to give details yet—and it’s not something major by most standards—but it’s still forward progress and something I’ve been trying to get done for a while. So, yes, I’m pleased.

 

Done-ish


I have finished the revision: 91,000 words of Paranormal Crime Noir set in 1934 Los Angeles. Now to read though it and send it on to my agent and Beta readers. Usually I feel relieved, tired, sad, and a little dissatisfied with my work at this stage. But I really like this one.

Now I worry that I have no taste, and it sucks. Writers…