Driving from Texas to New York during a pandemic.

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Okay, so two weeks ago I was driving somewhere through Tennessee with my sister, caravanning with our parents as we all drove from Texas to New York. It’s a weird time to take a road trip, but we still managed to hit all the hallmarks of a good one: excellent regional food (hello Memphis BBQ!), cute Airbnbs (a little farmhouse in rural Kentucky), and social distancing.

Wait, that last one just snuck in there.

Our waiter was carrying a gun, and the BBQ was the best I’ve had in a LONG TIME maybe ever?

Now I’m in New York and I’ve spent most of the last two weeks working outdoors, putting a garden in, and sleeping way too much. I think my normal schedule is something like, go to bed around midnight and read for too long and then wake up groggy. But now…it’s like my body/mind decided that now was a good time to catch up on a lot of bad night’s sleep from the last couple months, and in between wearing myself out with fresh air and raking out wood chips, I am going to sleep around 10 and waking up…well, still waking up late, but I’ll take it! Thanks to THE WORLD SITUATION all shipping is really delayed right now, so the bed and mattress I ordered to be here at the house has taken a couple extra weeks to arrive, and I’ve been on an air mattress. I’M STILL SLEEPING GREAT. It’s weird. I like it.

I’ve taken a couple weeks off as well, which has been bliss. I’ve been reading SO MUCH. For me, I think the ideal vacation is basically sitting outside and reading while someone brings me hot coffee and then, later, iced coffee. I’m easy to please.

Somewhere between Texas and New York

The thing is, when you work for yourself, you could technically take a vacation any time you want, right?

WRONG. You’d think it would be that way, but actually it means you have permission to work all the time, every evening, every weekend, with friends, while eating dinner, thinking about things to change and goals to achieve. It takes me a while to unplug, and with the extra addition of pausing on social media for a little while, I am finally starting to relax. I mean…just in time to get back to work, but I have honestly really enjoyed this time to unplug.

Everything is still pretty closed here in New York, so lots of time spent in the garden. We had topsoil delivered and picked up a few truckloads of wood chips from a local lumber yard. We are going with a “no dig/no weed” garden this year. The idea is that by creating raised rows and laying down lots of natural mulch, we’ll have very rich beds for the good things to grow and bad conditions for the bad things to grow. Fingers crossed! I’ll share a few pictures below, and if you scroll back far enough on this blog you’ll find posts from a few years ago when we first broke ground on our (then much smaller) garden.

Don’t forget to check out today’s Top 5 too–I shared some of my favorite things from the last week!

I also have a few commissions to work on and some virtual classes I’ll be opening up. I can’t wait to get back to teaching in-person, but virtual will do for now! The shop has been on vacation, and I’m adding some new paintings to it and will be opening it up for the summer in a couple days. And that’s all I’ve got for now! Any questions about a pandemic road trip? Any suggestions as to what I should read next? Let me know in the comments!!

Top 5 for June 7-June 13

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Time to share the best things from the last week! This week was a week of settling in as I get used to being in Upstate NY for the summer after Texas. It’s pretty different here, and in some ways that I love (the mountains! the nature! the trees! the weather!), and in some ways I don’t (I’ll just leave you to guess so I don’t offend anyone haha!).

So, top 5 for this week:

1. Facebook Marketplace

Facebook Marketplace has provided some REALLY GOOD deals in the last couple weeks, making it possible to outfit our mostly-empty home here in NY with all kinds of awesome finds. I like the bargain-hunting and when you don’t need something urgently it can be fun to keep an eye out for it. (If only Facebook Dating worked as well as the Marketplace…) (Oh, you guys, I should really write a post about the similarities between digging through overpriced shiny garbage with inaccurate descriptions on marketplace posts and dating apps.) (Actually, that sentence really said it all.)

I’m really looking forward to when our local country auction opens up again soon. It is an amazing place to find a great deal and some cool history. I like to say that I’m really good at buying and selling, but certain people in my family have pointed out that I’m mostly good at buying. 😀

2. Biolage Hair-Products:

Jenn over at Rambling Redhead (check her out you won’t regret it!) was sharing about her favorite shampoo/conditioner and how good her hair smelled, so I took advantage of an ULTA sale and bought some hair stuff. Guys, it smells SO good, and I am really loving this spray-in product which is great for air-drying your hair. My hair is long and I feel like it’s an upper-body workout to dry and style it, so this is good for summer days. OKAY I’M NOT A BEAUTY BLOGGER LET’S MOVE ON.

3. After writing about a spray-in hair product, I’m tempted to list local organic-matter-heavy topsoil as the third thing, just to keep you on your toes, BUT, this spot goes to the NY TIMES crossword puzzle app. I LOVE crosswords and have for years, but I’d gotten out of the habit of doing them until my brother reminded me about the app and pointed out how much more enjoyable it is to do them on an iPad with a bigger screen. So, now I’m firmly back in the crossword-puzzle camp. I can do Monday-Wednesday no problem, Thursday is tricky, Friday and Saturday are only doable with the autocheck on, but they’re a great way to wake up with a cup of coffee in the morning!

4. SWITCHFOOT. (Sw–sw–switchfoot.) I’m throwing it back to the early ’00s. My sister and I were listening to some classic Switchfoot in the car on our drive up to NY and isn’t it just amazing how your brain can locate the filing cabinet in your brain where all lyrics and melodies are stored and pull up the exact words and notes you need after ten years of not accessing that particular file? IT’S AMAZING. That link will bring you to “Only Hope” which is obviously one of their best, also sung by Mandy Moore, but–dareIsayit–I think Jon Foreman does it better!

5. Stewarts Ice Cream

I’ve been waiting for the creamy goodness that is Stewarts Ice Cream since I left the North East last summer. Okay, but also I need to maybe not eat ice cream every night. But also…have you had their Brownie-Cookie-Dough Ice Cream? If you live within driving distance of a Stewarts, order that next time. If you DON’T, you can come visit me and I’ll take you there if I can get an extra punch on my scoop card. 😀

A Social Media Break and Weeding the Garden

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A social media break and weeding the garden go hand-in-hand, don’t they? It’s almost like one is a metaphor for the other.

Right now, I’m sitting in the little kitchen in the house in Upstate NY and I’m wearing dirty gardening clothes, a sweaty baseball hat (let’s go Mets!). I’m letting the setting sun stream through the windows and fall across the table and I want to share pictures of the things I did today: visited a bookstore that went out of business and all the books were free! I have the first little seedlings from the flower seeds I planted last week, I’m making a delicious recipe tonight, my peonies are blooming, the sun is shining gloriously day after day and everything is so green and beautiful. But Instagram tends to be the place I go for sharing those things, and Instagram seems to have become a battle zone, and all I want to share paintings and gardens with you.

There is this unpleasant feeling on the Internet lately. There is constant bickering and, worse, shaming of everyone who doesn’t agree exactly with you. There is no place, it seems, for someone who doesn’t want to talk politics, but does want to share shots of the garden.

And that isn’t to say that we shouldn’t talk about the important things. We should. It’s just…we also need creativity and beauty and joy to counterbalance all the darkness and misery and hate of this broken, fallen world.

I don’t have a big, overarching theme right now. My own thoughts are muddled with all the pressing circumstances of the world. Muddled by small things, too. But I wanted to share a little bit about where I am during this pause. I know I can’t be the only one who feels tired of bad news, social distancing, sad news, injustice, and the feeling that you can never let your defenses down even a little bit. It’s nice to garden, to go out and weed the good from the bad, to relax in the morning light with a cup of coffee.

Top 5 : May 18-22

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This week’s Top 5 are brought to you by spring breezes and luxe hand-cream.

Luxe hand-cream, you say? YES. My friend Anne Marie is a beautiful person inside and out. Her beautiful shop, named after her grandmother, was one of the most welcoming, elegant, sophisticated, best-smelling, luxurious, SOFT, decadent places. Yes! All of those things!

Anne Marie is starting a new chapter in her life and her shop is now closed, but she held the BEST sale on Facebook Live a couple weeks ago and I snagged some of my FAVORITE THINGS that make me feel like I am not currently surrounded by moving boxes and using a $20 foldable plastic table I picked up from a sketchy FB Marketplace Ad at a remote storage unit.* NO, when I burn one of the Tokyo Milk candles and apply some Lollia perfumed lotion, I am suddenly in my Parisienne pied-à-terre, swathed in some sort of soft silky fabric, reclining on my velvet chaise-longue and I also know how to pronounce all the things I just typed.

So: TokyoMilk literally anything in their “Song in Dm” scent.

NEXT: The Victoriocity Podcast

I LOVE a good audio drama or fiction podcast. My brother and SIL got me hooked on a few amazing ones, and I should write a whole post about those.** Recently, I saw someone recommend the most amazing audio-drama in the comments section of a different blog and I listened to the ENTIRE THING in a couple of days. It is called “Victoriocity” and it.is.amazing.

The premise? A steam-punk, mechanical, electricized version of London in the 1880s. A society debutante and a hard-boiled kind of bumbling detective join forces to stop a widespread criminal plot. The narration is BRILLIANT, the entire thing is witty beyond belief, and I was laughing out loud and marveling at the sound design the whole time.

NEXT: Tillamook Mudslide Ice Cream

Tillamook mudslide ice cream. For some reason, the main type of frozen dessert in the south is frozen custard and, guys, I just don’t get it. ICE CREAM IS WHERE IT’S AT. And Tillamook is almost unbeatable. For those of you who say that the Mudslide flavor has “too much chocolate” or is “too rich” JUST GET OUTTA HERE AND GO FIND A DIFFERENT BLOG.

THEN: Carcassonne board game and every.expansion.pack.

Just like you, my fam has been stuck in quarantine for the last 742 years. We started playing this board game sometime around Christmas and then we quickly added in a bunch of expansions once we were stuck in the house, and we are STILL NOT TIRED OF IT. Part puzzle, part strategy, part board game, part feudal system…if you like board games, try this one!

AND: PEONY SEASON!

There’s no link for that, obviously, but I started following this hashtag on Instagram called #peonylove, and now my feed is just filled with the most beautiful flowers unfurling all across the world. I also have some in my bedroom, on the coffee table, and on the canvas.

There they are, my Top 5 for the week! I’d love to hear what’s gotten you through the week or if any of the above resonated!!

TOP 5 DISCLAIMER: So, I don’t get paid for any of those opinions. I wish someone WOULD pay me for my opinions. I have so many of them.

*we should talk about this story sometime

**and I will

Essential Watercolor Kit VIDEO TUTORIAL!!!

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This is an exciting moment for me! You know how hard it can be to try new things? I bet you do! Well, I have been wanting to make and share videos about watercolor painting for a long time, and I have finally learned enough and had enough time to make this first one.

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If you’ve purchased the Essential Watercolor Kit (available here) or have heard me talk about it before, this video is a short unboxing of what comes with the kit and then I paint one of the included templates, explaining the techniques I’m using and chatting about how you can get started with the kit. The video is embedded below, or you can follow this link to head to my YouTube channel, where you can subscribe to be notified about future videos.

You know, every time I try new things, I think it makes me a better teacher. It reminds me of how it can be difficult to start something, and how, if you’re a perfectionist, it can be hard to not be REALLY GOOD AT IT RIGHT AWAY.

I tell my students that learning to paint isn’t about having a beautiful, finished, gallery-worthy painting straight away. It’s about learning something from each painting you finish and taking those lessons to the next painting. The same can be said for just about anything, and I hope that as I continue to explore the world of online tutorials and making videos, I’ll continue to gain skills that I can only imagine right now!

I’d love it and appreciate it if you would watch this FIRST VIDEO TUTORIAL (ahh!) and let me know your thoughts! Leave a comment about some videos you’d like to see–I have a whole bunch of ideas up my sleeve, but I’d love to serve you all and make things that will be helpful to you.

20+ Watercolor Leaf and Foliage Shapes for Beginners

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Friends, I’m so excited to start sharing some educational tips and tutorials with you! I’ve been teaching watercolor in-person for a while now, and in the back of my mind I’ve been wishing and hoping for a chance to expand that educational content into something more accessible for everyone!

Thanks for the chance, Quarantine!

Scroll down to find more than 20 ideas to inspire your leaf and foliage shapes. If you’ve ever been a student of floral arranging, you know that the greenery and foliage is a KEY component to creating a beautiful bouquet. The same holds true when you’re painting. While there are always going to be those big, show-stopping blooms (peonies, roses, hydrangeas, etc.), you need to back it up with some great supporting actors (leaves, berries, foliage, and more!)

In the coming days and weeks, I’m going to be releasing videos and graphics like the one above that demonstrate a few of my favorite parts of watercolor painting.

Each of the leaf shapes was created using a Pointed Round Watercolor Brush and a mix of a few green paints that were already mixed up in my palette. You can watch me paint them using simple brushstrokes in this short timelapse video!

As always, let me know if you have any questions!

Happy painting,

Alex

Best Reading Apps and Services

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Okay, okay, by now we all know we’re stuck at home, so let’s talk about books.*

I LOVE TO READ! In the past, I’ve stuck to paper books and the popular subscription services like Kindle Unlimited and Audible for audiobooks, BUT I’m trying to cut back on those pricier options this year, and have found some alternative services that provide ebooks, physical books, and audiobooks.

First up is LIBBY.

Libby had been on my radar for a while as the place where I could maybe get free library books…but then a couple of my siblings sat me down and told me that HELLO, IT IS FULL OF FREE BOOKS. Libby–and its parent Overdrive–work through your local library. It’s simple to input your library card info and start reserving ebooks, audiobooks, cookbooks, and more from your local library.

Because I split my time between Texas and New York, I actually have two different libraries in my account, and if the selection at one of them doesn’t have what I’m looking for, the other might. Interestingly, the library from my small town in upstate NY allows me to have 15 holds for books, but the Dallas system only allows me to have 5.

There are a couple of small drawbacks to using Libby. Just like when you physically go to the library, your local branch might not have exactly what you’re looking for. It isn’t Amazon, where you can type a title in and start reading right away. Instead, you can browse what’s available, place a hold, or contact your library to request that they get certain titles. Popular books will have months of wait-time attached to them (again, just like with real library books). That being said–once you’re aware of that limitation, you can find some really great books serendipitously, and since they’re all FREE, there’s no pressure about trying new authors or genres. I have found three or four series of books that I have LOVED so far this year, and I had never heard of them before. The only other con is that the interface is a bit irritating, but once you figure it out, it’s useable. On the whole–an EXCELLENT AND FREE way to score some books!

Next up: BOOKBUB & CHRIP

BookBub is an ebook website that features insane bargains and sales. They also can send out personalized recommendations to your email address that alerts you when a favorite author or genre has a new and on-sale release.

Chirp is the audiobook branch of BookBub, and has a similar service. Basically, if you are going to buy a book, double check BookBub and Chrip before you do so. I’ve gotten very popular audiobooks for as low as $1.99 on Chirp, and then they’re mine to keep!

My only complaint is that I have to use an additional app to listen to my audiobooks. Same with Libby. That means that I juggle my audiobooks between the Audible app, the Libby app, and the Chirp app. Maybe there’s a way to send all audiobooks to the same place? Let me know if you know!

SCRIBD

Scribd is a subscription service that costs $10 a month and has unlimited audio, ebooks, sheet music, magazines, and more. Disclaimer: I haven’t used Scribd yet, but a friend of mine uses and loves it (you can follow this link to check out Emily’s review on her blog which is chock-full of interesting info, pretty graphics, and great content.) But after reading about it and hearing Emily talk about it, I might have just talked myself into another subscription service.

THRIFTBOOKS

If physical books are more your thing, check out Thrift Books, which is a service my sister-in-law turned me on to. They have a fantastic, inexpensive collection of high-quality used books. You can also search for rare or hard-to-find books and when one becomes available, they’ll let you know!

If you love to read or are looking for some ways to entertain yourself during this lockdown we’re all in, I hope these are useful links for you! If you have any other service you use to access books, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!!

Stay tuned for my next post about reading where I give some recaps of what I’ve read so far this year and share some recommendations.

*READERS OF THE FUTURE: this post is from that crazy time in early 2020 when the entire world seemed to grind to a halt and none of us were really sure what was happening. I’m sure things are better where you are. In the future. Maybe? Okay, let’s just get back to reading fiction.

Write Blog. Check.

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For most of my life my morning routine has looked exactly the same. Isn’t that impressive? That’s the kind of habit-building, dependable morning person I am. Every day I do the exact same thing and slowly my neural pathways have formed so that I don’t even have to think about it anymore–it just is.

What does that look like in practice, you ask?

Well, I set the alarm for as close to oversleeping as possible, and then I still hit the snooze button about six times until the growing sense of panic that I’m actually about to fall back asleep sweeps over me from head to toe and then I finally, groggily throw back the covers, shuffle into the bathroom, grimace at my reflection, brush my teeth, and barely make it to wherever I’m going on time.

(Oh. Maybe I should have left that first paragraph alone and not included that last one…)

OKAY, but I’m trying to have healthier sleep habits. I realized I needed them when I was watching YouTube videos one night while in bed and I fell asleep and then woke up when I dropped my phone on my face. That’s the kind of situation where you think, “Wow, maybe I should switch from James Corden videos to a glass of warm milk?”

(But not really because warm milk is gross. (Sorry, Mom.) )

In my pursuit of healthier habits, I have realized a few things.

  1. It’s hard to have healthier habits.
  2. There are so many habits that NEED to be healthier that I need a bag of chips to cope with the overwhelming nature of it all. And maybe ice cream.
  3. It’s easy to beat myself up over the fact that I haven’t immediately changed every bad habit into a good one.
  4. And that is why I can reward myself with ice cream.
  5. Wait. I think I missed something.

Changing habits is hard! But I am trying. I’m trying to put my phone away an hour or so before bed. I’ve found the perfect way to do it, too. Want some insider tips? Okay. So you just put your phone like two inches further than you can reach, and if you’re super lazy once you get into bed and don’t like getting up…you’re golden.

TANGENT: (I know what you’re thinking…this entire post is just a bunch of tangents, and you would be right.) Last week I couldn’t find my glasses, so I decided to do a bunch of work without them and gave myself a headache, and it turns out they were about three feet away from me the whole time. This is the kind of behavior that is unacceptable and an unhealthy habit that I will definitely add to my list of things to think about changing.

TANGENT FROM TANGENT: (I know.) My friend E. was telling me that the Apple Watch wants you to stand for one minute each hour for 12 hours. I was like, “Can you just stand for 12 consecutive minutes and then sit the rest of the day?” And the answer is no, apparently.

Anyway. Where did I leave off? Oh yeah. I’m trying. I’m putting my phone away and doing Crossword Puzzles until–instead of a phone–I drop a Will Shortz book on my head. And in the mornings, I am getting up at the same time and making a cup of tea and sitting in my studio while scrolling through celebrity news on Instagram thoughtfully making a list about what I want to accomplish that day. And one of those things is writing on this blog.

So, hello!

Tell me about your morning routine or evening routine or your lack of routine or how much you also love Annie’s Mac ‘n’ Cheese in the comments.

Note: This post was originally published in 2019 on my previous blog.

But where do I start?

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If you’ve attended one of my classes, you know that I believe we all have something creative to offer and some beauty to create. I hear the same snippets of conversations between friends during every class, “I can’t paint,” she’ll say. Or, “I have no talent.” Or, “I don’t even know what I’m doing here.” 

Well. Enough of that, my friends!

To succeed at anything, you really only need two things. The first? You need to want to learn to do it. The second? You do it. If you want to do something badly enough and you’re willing to put the effort into learning–you can do it! It’s exactly that simple and that hard. 

That being said–it sure does help to have some guidance along the way! As a successful self-taught artist, I love to walk my students through the process of picking up a brush for the first time, of nerding out a little about art supplies (I know, I know…), and of seeing the looks on your faces when you see what you’re able to create with a little practice and a little help!

With that in mind, I offer many beginner watercolor courses throughout the year. For those who are unable to join me on location, I plan to offer tutorials on my YouTube channel, tips on my Instagram page, a private Facebook Group where we can chat about issues that come up, and painting kits for different levels of artists!

I’ll be posting lots of tips and tricks on this blog in the coming weeks and months, and as always, if you have any questions drop me an email at hello@alexsgardenstudio.com!

I can’t wait to see what you create!

Note: This was originally posted on my previous blog in October, 2019.

Puffy Cheetos, Amazon, and Reykjavik

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My Amazon account tells a lot of stories about me.

If you look at the saved items in my cart, it tells a story about six hundred (yes SIX HUNDRED) things I thought about buying and then didn’t. Things like a Frank Lloyd Wright finger puppet, a lot of books about the extinction of passenger pigeons, an organic mushroom growing kit, and more than one t-shirt that says, “Can’t get out of bed. Please send waffles.”

(Someone buy me that shirt?)

If you look at my prime video account it tells a story about how I like police procedurals staring Tom Selleck, and that I maybe spend too much time on any TV show with a strong-jawed, kind-eyed, noble hero.

My Kindle content is a treasure trove of stories. It tells a story of good intentions, found in the unread free samples of non-fiction and business books. It also tells us that I might have an addiction to war-time-spy-historical-drama-romances narrated by a spunky, ahead-of-her-time heroine. Also, more books about passenger pigeons, but you guys, there were six billion of them and now there are none.

BUT for all those stories, there is one in particular I’d like to share with you today and that is the one under the “My Addresses” tab, where there are currently thirty-five options to choose from, making this little corner of the web perhaps the most reliable history of my movement in the last fifteen years!

When I was sixteen, my parents decided to change our family life dramatically and in the course of a few months, our family of six moved from our small hometown in upstate NY to Reykjavik, Iceland. Want to hear more about that? Let me know!

Amazon keeps up with all of the moves, from an embassy in Prague to a small side street in Northern Ireland. From a friend’s house in Virginia to Spain, Florida, Croatia, the Netherlands, New York and—now—to Texas.

Imagine my joy when I learned the word “peripatetic” and had an obnoxious way to describe myself!

The fun (FUN, I say!) thing in all of this is that I am diametrically opposed to change. I loathe change. I like comfort zones, ruts, status quos, and my childhood bedroom and so it takes divine signs, a change in visa status, and severe winter weather to uproot me. So…I hear you asking…why all the moving?

It’s simple.

I blame my parents.

I mean, they were just so spontaneous, so brave. They wanted to broaden our horizons (the gall!), make us try new food (the nerve!), and then have us decide as a family that we really missed puffy Cheetos and then set up an Amazon Prime account so we could ship said-cheetos to Croatia.

I mean, I think that’s why they did it.

And it worked! We really did get puffy Cheetos!

Oh, and we also broadened our horizons, tried new foods, blah blah blah… Of course, things weren’t always cheesy puffed corn snacks (oh that they could be…). There was plenty of hard stuff mixed in there, too. Uprooting is always going to be difficult, and when you add family illness or death into the mix, or even weddings and births that you miss, it gets a whole lot harder and you discover that life is a peculiar mix of bitter and sweet.

One thing that has been a constant thread in this peripatetic life is creativity. There were a lot of places where life was very quiet, where no one spoke English, where there were bouts of loneliness, and creative pursuits have always held a wonderful sort of solace for me. I think—looking back—that creative outlets are how I handle change and cope with hardship. I write, I paint, I sing, I play the piano, and I start (and don’t finish) to crochet way too many blankets. This blog is the next evolution in all of that. I want to share some of the stories of all that moving, I want to talk about my journey towards becoming a creative entrepreneur, I want to take you with me and show you behind the scenes and tell you what it’s like to live abroad, to come back home, to dig in and start over.

I want to tell you more than you ever wanted to know about passenger pigeons.

I want to openly discuss my addiction to buying art supplies.

I want to find people who love puffy Cheetos like I do.

So! What would your Amazon account reveal about your life? Let me know! And if anyone wants to send me that waffle shirt, you know where to find me.

Note: this post was originally published on my previous blog “Don’t Drink the Paint Water” in April, 2019.