Things to do during a pandemic (PART 1)

As of this week, Chez Small is entering Week 4 of the Great Pandemic of 2020. I gotta say that the first two weeks of this madness were pretty disorienting (as they were for everyone) and we just couldn’t find our groove no matter how hard we tried. My focus was completely shot and suddenly, the whole world was full of bakers and alcoholics or drunk bakers, I’m not sure how to tell the difference. That pretty much sums up the beginning.

But now, we’re finding some semblance of normal in what is now some abnormal times. I don’t know when we’ll get back to where we were or even if that’s possible any more, but given the fact that I’ve still got at least 8 weeks being house-bound (thanks, shoddy immune system), I’d thought I’d share some insights into what has helped us to get through these stressful and uncertain times:

1. Take a Walk

I’m not a scientist (nor do I play one on TV), but walking is essential during this time of prolonged stress and curtailed activity. Without access to a gym or fitness center, walking really can make a difference to your physical and mental well-being. Google the benefits of walking just 20 minutes a day and you’ll see what I mean. If it’s good enough for Harvard then it’s good enough for me plus I always feel so much better after walking even when I have to push myself to go.

For those who are literally house-bound because you live in an apartment or somewhere without easy access to the outdoors, you can still walk inside your house by stair stepping. Going up and down your steps at a brisk pace will elevate your heart rate and boost your mobility. Bonus points for carrying that laundry basket with you!

2. Keep a Journal

journalI do this every day, 365 days a year, and have done so for the last eight years. Part of my motive was my desire to write (hello), but the bigger part was having a place to put my anxiety when I was diagnosed with a life-altering illness. I needed to take the stress and negativity out of my relationships, yet at the same time, still needed a way to get it all out. And a journal did just that.

Journals and pens is where I allow myself to go hog wild – I use high end Italian journals and top end fountain pens and inks, but any paper and pen will suffice. Your instruments of choice don’t matter – only your dedication does. You need to write every day without fail. Doesn’t matter what you vomit out onto the page. That seems harsh, but to make it work, you’ve got to build it into your routine. Create a habit. You’ll find after awhile, you get cranky if you don’t get your thoughts down on paper. When you get to that point, congratulations you’ve passed the threshold. 

3. Plant a Row

It’s amazing to me how much gardening is making a comeback right now. I guess it’s not too surprising given that people are worried about food shortages, but also, let’s be real, people are stuck at home with their loved ones and kids and need something to do – preferably not in the house.

That’s where container gardening comes in and I’m going to let you in on a secret. Are you ready for it? You don’t need no fancy boxes to grow vegetables. Hell, you don’t even need a container.

You can grow tomatoes directly in a bag of potting soil! In the UK, they call them grow bags and this video will show you how. In the US, they are literally the big 45-50 liter bags of potting soil you can pick up at any nursery or large box chain store. If you’re planting cherry tomatoes then you can probably get away with 3 plants in a bag like they would have in the UK, but for beefsteak sized tomatoes, I’d err on the side of caution of no more than 2 plants per bag of compost/potting soil.

Still, if you do have containers, you have more choices. I’ve used garbage cans and plastic bins for planting potatoes, carrots, eggplants, and melons to name a few – just make sure you drill holes in the bottom for drainage. This year before the pandemic hit, I picked up two cow troughs to give my garden that hipster look.

Shawnee's cow troughs

There are plenty of Youtube videos and websites that can give you some good ideas and you don’t have to limit yourself to just herbs or cherry tomatoes. If you haven’t tried container gardening before then I’d suggest picking up Square Foot Gardening off of Amazon or Fruits & Vegetables in Pots by DK Publishing. Lots of great photos in the latter and great for inspiration. Get out there and get dirty!

4. Make Bread

When the world falls apart, apparently, the first thing people do is bake. If I had a dollar for every Facebook post or Instagram pic that showed a picture of some tasty delicious morsel that my gluten-intolerant body can’t have, well, I’d be worth thousands of bucks by now. It seems like the vast majority of people have lost their ever-loving minds and watched too many episodes of The Great British Bake Off. I’ve seen more loaves of homemade bread just in the last couple of days then I’ve seen at a state fair. Everybody be baking!

And honestly, good for you, if you’ve dusted off your hands and gotten into the flour. Even the husbot who doesn’t cook (does toast count?) knows how to use a breadmaker and has started using it weekly. We have an Oster breadmaker (unavailable on Amazon), but both Crate and Barrel and Williams Sonoma do carry other brands and are in stock. I would highly suggest the Bread Machine Cookbook. You can always make bread the old-fashioned way by hand and I love this Sourdough Youtube video.

5. Read a Book

And last, but not least, drumroll, please . . . . . .

When all else fails, grab a book and read. Yes, the author is recommending books, no surprise there, but that’s what books are for – a way for us to escape our world and to jump into someone else’s. Nothing else quite satisfies like a book. The fearless heroine. The flawed villain. Or maybe non-fiction is more your thing so go peruse your online retailer for a biography or history book. Whatever you choose, books help get us out of our heads and they distract us from reality even for just a little while. Jump on board the written word train and let it take you to a new destination.

So, that’s it for this week. I’ve got 5 more suggestions for you on how to survive Corvid-19 without strangling your children or losing your mind. Stay tuned next Friday for Part 2.

See you on the other side.

xo – shawnee

5 Fountain Pens under $20

I’m known among my author friends as a pen crack dealer and lets face it, I’m not gonna lie, I kinda am. I love fountain pens. I would go as far as saying I’m obsessed with them. If you’ve followed my Instagram feed, you’d know that it’s almost entirely full of FPs these days in different shapes, sizes, and colors. And yes, I also restore and repair fountain pens. 

So I feel like I’m in a pretty good position to wax poetical about fountain pens and of course, one of the first things people always ask me beyond the most obvious question which is “How many fountain pens do you own, Shawnee? To which I reply, “Not enough,” is that they ask me where should they start if they wanted to get into fountain pens.

I always err on the side of caution when suggesting pens and that’s primarily because they do require work. It takes effort to own a fountain pen. You must feed them and care for them and FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS HOLY, CLEAN THEM, PEOPLE. Seriously, I better never catch you throwing one into the back of the desk drawer full of ink . . . but if you understand that fountain pens require some care and you’re undeterred, then here are some fountain pens that you can pick up on Amazon for less than $20.

ONE THING TO NOTE: This is just the tip of the iceberg for fountain pens and is not an exhaustive list of pens under $20 – I culled the list down to just the ones that I could happily recommend for writing out of the box 95% of the time.


Platinum Preppy


Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about this little workhorse of a pen. I love Platinum pens anyhow, but to get Platinum quality for just around $5-8 is something pretty special. There are a couple of other Japanese pens in this price range from Pilot, but the Preppy is by far the best of the bunch.

What really makes this pen great is the nib. Steel, of course, but it has the characteristics that you get from higher end Japanese pens and they pretty much write right out of the box 99% of the time, which is not something you can say for some of the other counterparts on this list (see Wing Sung below). Yes, Platinum has it’s own proprietary cartridge meaning it won’t take a universal ink cartridge, but most people I know turn them into eyedroppers with just a little bit of silicon grease on the threads and that gives you a lot more ink capacity. It also means you can use whatever ink you want. Bonus!

If you get only one pen on this list, I’d get this one and I’d go for a medium nib. You can get it in blue-black from Amazon by clicking here.

Pilot Metropolitan

This is my least favorite pen on the list and also one of the most expensive coming in at around the $15 range, which is not too bad for this pen. Cheapest you’re likely to see it is around $13 and it can go as high as around $30 if you don’t shop around. 

While I personally don’t like this pen, lots of people LOVE the Metropolitan and you get quite a bit of pen for your money. Unlike the rest of the pens on this list which have plastic barrels and sections, the Metropolitan actually has a metal body. It is probably the no. 1 starter pen on the market for the obvious reason – you’re getting a solid, well-made pen from Pilot in this price range.

I’m not such a big fan because all that metal does come with a cost . . . in weight. It’s a heavy pen and if you’re journaling a lot like me then hand fatigue sets in quickly with this pen. Also, weirdly enough, this is the only pen I’ve ever owned that made my hand sweat. But having said all of that, it does work out of the box and it can take a real beating. I’ve found it for you on Amazon for right around $13 – click here.

Wing Sung 3001

Chinese manufacturers get a bad rap these days and you can’t join a fountain pen Facebook group without running across at least one ongoing fight about Chinese manufacturers ripping off designs from other pen makers. I tend to shy away from those conversations because I think regardless of where you stand on the debate, the one good thing that makers like Wing Sung and Jinhao have brought to the table is that they’ve opened up the market so that anyone can afford to buy a pen and that’s creating whole new generations of fountain pen lovers, which is marvelous (See? I am a pen enabler.) 

Having said that, cheap also comes at a price and that price is quality. You may be able to get a half a dozen Wing Sungs for the price of one Metropolitan, but I can pretty much guarantee you that at least 30% of those pens aren’t going to write on your first attempt and maybe not even your third or fourth if you’ve never owned a fountain pen before.

So I say this with a caveat – buyer be aware when buying cheap brands like Wing Sung and Jinhao. You may get a dud or two in the mix that you will have to tweak. I’ll explain what I mean with the Wing Sung 3001.

First off, the Wing Sung 3001 is a clone of the Pilot 78g. Secondly, it’s cheap as chips and you can buy, get this, 5 for $13.99 on Amazon which is kinda nuts. Problem is that with the “EF” nib set that I got (EF stands for extra-fine), the first two that I tried to ink wouldn’t write at all without first pulling the nib and the feed out of the section. That’s gonna scare some of you, but I’ve got you, it’s easy and in fact I would STRONGLY RECOMMEND YOU DO 2 THINGS before you ink a cheaper Chinese pen – 

  1. Remove the nib and the feed from where they slot into the section of the barrel and rinse under the kitchen tap running with good flow (STOPPER THE SINK FIRST IN CASE YOU DROP THEM); the nib is the metal two-tined point of the pen and the feed is located directly behind it. Grip the two together and gently pull out. It should be easy on a Wing Wung 3001. Once you’ve rinsed them well, put them back together and gently push back into the section. The nib sits nicely in an indent in the feed if you put it back together properly.
  2. When you’re ready to fill this pen, this pen uses a converter and takes ink from a bottle. Unscrew the body of the barrel from the section. You should now just have the section, the converter, plus the nib and feed. The converter has a knob that you can turn to suck ink up into the converter which holds the ink as you use the pen. BUT I suggest you tug the converter off, manually fill it in your bottle of ink and then push it back onto the tail end of the feed which is housed inside the section (basically put it back from whence it came) AND this is the important part, when you put the pen back together before you screw the body of the pen back on, prime the feed and the nib by twisting the converter down enough that ink floods behind the feed and down the tines and to the tip. If a drop of ink comes out and splashes on the paper, that’s okay. You want to make sure that you’ve got the best chance of getting this pen started without doing something you’ll regret like pushing down too hard on the paper and bending the nib or splattering ink everywhere are you flick you’re wrist too hard trying to get the ink to come out. 

There are other issues that you may have with Wing Sungs, but the great thing about them is that they SUPER CHEAP so don’t be too precious with them. Be prepared to destroy a few as you get to understand how a fountain pen works and watch lots of Youtube videos. I think having a few Wing Sungs in your collection is worth it. When they work, they work great! 

Jinhao 992

I love the Jinhao 992, I really do. I first came across the Jinhao 992 in Richard Binder’s nib smoothing class at the Baltimore-Washington Pen Show and I have to say that it’s such a great pen and cheap as chips – you can get 6 of them on Amazon for just $13.60! It reminds me a lot of a Sailor Pro Color 500 which makes me a little squeamish on the inside given how big of a Sailor Fan Girl I am, but honestly, it’s an amazing sparkly gem when it works* (see note about Wing Sung). If I had to pick between two Chinese pen makers, it’d be no contest – Jinhao would win every time. The more I use my Jinhaos, the more I love them.

Moonman Wancai Mini

 Okay, this pen is at the top end of the bracket, but worth every penny. This is another Chinese manufacturer, but there is something about Moonman that just speaks better quality to me. Some penheads will point out that its more like the rich man’s PENBBS, but given that I don’t have any of the latter, I can’t really say. What I can say is that I love the Moonman Wancai Mini. I have 2 – this one pictured above and then the clear demonstrator (it comes in two more flavors) and they both worked right out of the box and are a real conversation starter at shows. And the $19.99 price tag? I would gladly pay it over and over again. It’s such a cute thing that the girlie part of me squeeeeeeees everytime I see it. And being an eyedropper has its advantages – I don’t have to cart a whole bunch of ink to every author event I go to because like most new eyedroppers I own they hold quite a bit of ink. If you don’t like this pen, then you can send me hate mail, but I think for the price tag and it’s general cuteness, it can’t be beat. BUY IT NOW.

Good lord, it’s taken me all day to write this post. Patrick Dugan – I did this for you!

xo – Shawnee




Happy Release Day . . . oh wait.

Today was meant to be the release of Destroyer, the final book in the Shining Ones series. It was a day in the making – everything seemed to be just right like stars in alignment during a solar eclipse and then . . .


Yep. We’re stuck in a world of house arrest, Netflix binging, and a severe lack of toilet paper, and while we’re holed up at Chez Small, I’m trying my best to keep a smile on my face and shrug it all off.

Because things happen. Shit happens and then everything goes to hell in a hand basket. How can I worry about a book release delay when there are literally people the world over strapped to ventilators fighting to take their next breath?

Due to things beyond my control (and some that probably were within my wheelhouse if I was honest with myself), Destroyer is gonna be late.

Right now as of 6:00PM EST, we’re awaiting approval across all platforms to go live for EBOOK ONLY. The print version of Destroyer? I got no clue at this point. I’m still waiting for the proof to show up and as Amazon is shipping all essential items (like medical supplies out first) I can’t make too much of a fuss – it gets here when it gets here and then I hope like hell that it’s okay.

So I’m asking everyone to have some patience this week while we vanquish all the ghosts out of the machine. Destroyer is still set to be available this week, and it’ll be worth the wait.

See you on the other side. – xo shawnee


Let’s Talk about Parasite.

By now, everyone has heard about Parasite, the South Korean subtitled dark satire that swept across the Academy Awards board this year. It not only won ‘Best Picture’, but also picked up multiple other accolades including ‘Best Director,’ ‘Best Original Screenplay,’ and ‘Best International Feature Film’. Even the President of the United States got in on the Parasite action although in Trump xenophobic fashion criticized a movie that he, in fact, didn’t even watch

Well, I actually did watch Parasite. I was hardly going to pass up a South Korean directed and produced movie given my obsession with K-dramas and everything Korean, but let me tell you, Parasite is NOT a K-drama. I repeat . . . SO NOT.

Not that I didn’t know that going in. I did. I love quirky and dark. I thought I was prepared.


A quick overview for those who haven’t seen it – Parasite is a movie about a Korean family barely existing in the slums of Seoul who scam a rich family by taking up servant roles in their household. It’s got hints of The Riches at this point, but from there on out, it goes weird then twisted and then, well, disturbed.

I was disturbed. I walked out of the movie with the husbot who immediately asked me what I thought and my hollow answer was, “I don’t know.” I was confounded, uncomfortable, disconcerted, all of that plus physically itchy. Then it was my husband’s turn to be bewildered as we sat over an Indian meal after the movie (the second time we’d eaten out that day in fact) and I looked up at him in tears.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I’m a horrible person,” I replied.
“Awww, J*&y, you’re not. Why would you say that?”
“Because we’re those people.” I let out an uncomfortable laugh. “We live in our bubble and I created that bubble. We are two white privileged people and there are people out there suffering. We’re not doing enough. We just . . . aren’t.”

I was sensitive and raw and about 30 seconds away from insisting we sell our house and live more simply because it was disgusting to have so much when so many have so little.

A movie did that. A movie made me feel unworthy yet privileged at the same time.

Because the fact is a lot of us don’t see our privilege. We take lots of things for granted: clean water, sanitation, food, our roof over our heads, a job, a spouse, our children, our friends . . . our lives here in the U.S. are filled with privilege, but we don’t want to pay additional taxes to ensure universal healthcare or to ensure that children get a hot meal every day. Because we Americans think that everyone should pay their own way and if they don’t then that’s their problem, not our problem.

And that’s the most disturbing part of this whole thing.

I could be more clever and talk about all the double entendres, the metaphors, and the nuances of what is a brilliant film, talk about what it means to be a parasite and who the actual parasite is, but there will be plenty of blog posts out there already doing that. That’s not what this is.

This is a call for everyone to go watch Parasite and grasp what out Western privilege has cost us . . . our humanity.

Yet, I have to believe we can change. I have to believe that there is still hope for us yet, that we can do more . . . we can act more. We can search out the desolate and befriend them, we can work to alleviate those suffering among us, we can dig deep into our own communities and make a difference . . . hell, we can even put a compassionate humanitarian in the Oval office if we want it bad enough.

We don’t have to live in a movie like Parasite. We can be so much more.

Go see the movie and judge for yourself. You’ve been warned.