The Real Life Fantasy

writer's groupSo…. here I am, sitting with a group of talented writers, and I’m the only one whose genre is romance. One of the fellows observed, “Romance isn’t realistic. As soon as that book ends, reality will creep in for the characters, and things will move back to the ho-hum, mundane, baloney we all deal with.”

I let the comment slide–this guy probably doesn’t read a lot of romance–but it struck me that he missed the point of the genre entirely. Romance, unlike mysteries, thrillers, suspense, comedy, science fiction/fantasy, and most hybrids, involves a development of the characters such that they are different people by the end of the book. They’re people who have the courage to love and be loved, and their lives are better for it.

mare-and-foalI don’t think that change fades away when the book ends. Love is for keeps, if it’s love. The big love in my life, so far, was the decision to become a mother when the opportunity befell me. I had options, and I was scared, but I also knew–and my dad of all people, told me–that some lessons can only be learned when raising a child. If I took a pass on motherhood when I was 28, I’d probably not have another grab at that brass ring. Ever.

laird_4501I could not have known what I was getting in to. Darling Daughter did not sleep through the night for three years. Financial anxieties were relentless. I did not dare get sick, and the two times I lost my job were the End of the World. But day followed day, and year followed year, and the child did grow up and leave home, and is well on her way to an impressive education.

I thought being a parent would connect me to my child. I did not anticipate that it would connect me to every child, to my elders, to every person on the planet. In some regards, I didn’t join the human species until I became a mother. For other people, I think the same transformation happens when they marry, when their elders become frail and needy, when a sibling leans on them.

Spymaster's ladyLove transforms us, and based on some of the reader mail I’ve received, I’d say even a love story can transform us in a small way.

Or do we go through life pretty much the same people from start to finish, trading on the same assumptions, guided by the same rules, regardless of the relationships we build, or the experiences we have?

How has love changed you or somebody in your life? To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of The Laird and a copy of Joanna Bourne’s Spymaster’s Lady. I might be a little slow to respond to comments, but I’ll catch up as the week goes along.

 

Teach Your Children Well

general ledger Apologies for being least in sight for the past couple of Sundays. I’m among that pathetic number filing my taxes September 15, and my general ledger went cracker-dog on me. Who would have thought that a few zeroes in the wrong place or a few others gone missing would be a big deal? I have some reports due at the law office as well, and two manuscripts are due to my publisher. This is me, playing whack a mole, and I missed the blog-mole. I apologize, and hope it won’t happen again because I love the dialogue a post can inspire.

algebraBut I’m BAAAACK and came across a Facebook situation that got me thinking. Somebody posted a sentiment along the lines of, “Another day has passed… and I didn’t use Algebra once.” Some commenters chimed in with, “Me neither!” but one guy fumed a little. He pointed out that if we use a cell phone, we’re relying on algebra, quantum physics, relativity, and bunch of other higher math, so we do TOO use algebra every day.

dariy cowHe had a valid point. Americans are notoriously “innumerate,” or illiterate about numbers compared to a lot of other countries. A grasp of numbers is a fundamental building block of successful functioning in life, but how sophisticated should that grasp of numbers be? The overwhelming majority of infants and toddlers can only thrive if they get adequate dairy nutrition, but what most of us know about dairy farming doesn’t even equate to 2 + 2. Same with most food production, though without food, WE DIE.

abacusMy knee jerk reaction is that every high school senior ought to know how to solve for a mathematical unknown, not simply because it’s useful as applied to numbers, but also because it’s a useful mental discipline: Get what you know on one side of the equal sign, then tinker until you have what you don’t know on the other…. Someday, you might own a law practice, and need to algebra your way into figuring out what has gone awry with April’s data entry process.

heather graduates croppedI used to think proper penmanship was an important aspect of a person’s image. Schools don’t teach penmanship any more, and a lot of people earn fine livings without it. I love reading maps, and usually do pretty well by dead reckoning, My daughter has lived in Denver for several years and has no idea where anything is on a map. She knows the address, and knows how to punch it into the GPS and follow the directions–and that works fine for her and many people her age.  My vehicle has no GPS and I prefer that.

We’re not funding education even close to adequately, so what subjects are the most important ones to get across to the young people? Language? Physical and mental evernighthealth? History? Biology? Math? Dairy farming? Conflict management? Which ones would you emphasize if you were the one calling the shots?

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The Laird, and ALSO a copy of Kristin Callihan’s new Darkest London book, “Evernight,” just because I think it’s a wonderful read.

 

 

The One Lane Highway to Happiness

blog office assistant I forget how old I was when I first heard the term multi-tasking, but I didn’t like it. Multi-tasking struck me as a fancy way to describe laying out your tasks along the most efficient path, so when you have a minute to fold laundry, the laundry has just finished spinning around in the dryer. Research confirms women are better at it than men, which I suspect is an offshoot of our ability to juggle multiple relational-roles in the space of an hour.  Nonetheless, the idea that it’s more efficient to do two things at the same time never rang true to me.

blog baby at computerThere are times when I do two things at once: I play solitaire while I’m walking on my treadmill desk. I do one simple thing with my mind, and one simple thing with my body, but my abilities in this regard are very limited. I can’t, for example, listen to music and do much of anything else except maybe drive a familiar highway. Not write, not balance the check book, not even housework.

blog two little boysRecently, I came across a reference to a study done by a Harvard economist, who wanted to know about women’s emotional states when they’re engaged in various activities. One finding that surprised him was that the gals in his study were not enjoying the time they spent with their own children. Hooboy! That generated a lot of noise about the Frustration of Women in Society Today, and parenting being meaningful but miserable…

The economist had the sense to take another look at his data, and what he found was that much of the time when the mothers were with their children, they were multi-tasking. Trying to pack tomorrow’s lunches while explaining binomial equations (I remember this clearly), dumping the work day’s left over email while watching the obligatory “family” movie, and so forth.

blog conductorsFurther research yielded this insight: Even if you’re doing two things you enjoy, trying to accomplish them both at the same time can diminish your enjoyment of both. Think of listening to your three favorite pieces of music at the same time. Bringing your kids along on date night. Playing eye-spy with the grandkids while trying to do your sudoku.

blog peaceful readingMulti-tasking happily might be a trait that’s spread over a continuum. Many people can spend a pleasant evening doing six things at once, but I’m not one of them. I’m on the one-at-a-time end of the spectrum, and if I wiggle too far from that comfort zone for too long, the result is not pretty. The upside is that when I’m with you, I’m really, really with you. When I’m writing, I’m really, really writing.

Traitor Final CoverOne of the reasons I’m a big reader is because it’s not a multi-tasking endeavor for me. I don’t do anything else, not even the tread desk, when I read for pleasure, and I enjoy the reading tremendously.

What about you? Happier juggling fourteen things at once or tackling the to do list one at time? Visiting with the whole gang or meeting for coffee one on one?

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The Traitor.

P.S. As an update to last week: I started putting the computer on the treadmill desk last thing of the day, so it’s sitting there when I get up. I’ve done at least a mile before breakfast every day since making that change. Fingers crossed….

 

 

 

Twenty Second Guide to a Better Life

blog watching TBSo, I’m dwelling on happiness, and this week, I came across a notion having to do with changing your life for the better. Say you get a big insight: I’m watching too much TV.

Well, that’s just an insight. Watching TV is an excellent way to unwind, to catch up on world events, to learn new, interesting stuff. It can also be a way to spend time with loved ones that’s completely free of strife or stress, and maybe even yields some affection. So your insight simply sits next to you on the couch, while you watch the same too much TV as usual.

blog kitten watching rainChange requires action, so you decide that on Thursday nights, you’ll turn off the telly, and go for a walk. But it’s raining on Thursday, and well…. oops.

To create change, takes a lasting shift in behavior, and turns out, that’s not quite as hard as we might think. The trick, according to happiness expert Shawn Achor, is to make it twenty seconds harder to indulge in the habit you want to eliminate. Now, for a physiological addiction, I can’t see this working, but for watching TV? His solution was, before he went off to work in the morning, he took the batteries out of the remote, and stashed them into the night stand drawer on the other side of the house.

blog cuddling with a catNext day, he comes home, ready to flop onto the couch, and click the… no batteries. Hmm. The time it takes to cross the house is time to think, to reconsider, to refocus, and often enough time to interrupt what is simply a habit, not a need. The same thinking works in the opposite direction. You want to get in the habit of a short walk in the morning? Go to sleep in your walking duds, put your shoes and socks right next to the bed.

Might work. At the very least, this approach has me thinking of a) what are my bad habits, and b) what tiny changes can I make that will make it just enough harder for the force of habit to control me that I can make a positive change? What are the good habits I can give a baby-step head start on my inertia?

cat kliban sneakersOne I might try: I like to have a Ghiradelli dark chocolate square with my first cup of tea of the day…. and the second, and the third. The tea and the chocolate are not even one step away from each other in the kitchen. I’ll try storing the chocolate up on my bedroom, and only taking one square downstairs with me in the morning.

Any ideas coming to mind? Teeny, tiny little disruptions in routine that will move you closer to a good habit, or farther away from a bad one?

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The Traitor.

 

Happiness Is….

blog never too lateI’m pretty happy, happier than I was ten, twenty, or certainly thirty years ago, and I hope the improving trend continues. I have a heap more control over my time now than I did in previous decades, I have more of the solitude that’s a necessary part of recharging my emotional and intellectual batteries, and I’m less bound by the expectations of others.

blog first duke of hamiltonLife’s good!

That said, in this wonderful internet age, it’s easy to research happiness, as well as what I can do to build on my sense of wellbeing. Turns out—probably surprising not a single one of my readers—once the basics are attended to, more money doesn’t create more happiness.

So I won’t rob any banks, and if a rich duke comes along, I shall scoff at his wealth (though maybe not at his excellent tailoring).

There is one simple thing we can do to
a) increase measures of happiness
b) boost the immune system
c) increase our benevolence (generosity toward others); and
d) improve our overall health

blog happy kittenAnd that is…simply focus on what we’re grateful for.

One experiment (Emmons and McCulloch, 2002) split participants into four groups. One group wrote down five things they were grateful for about their day. Another group wrote down five hassles, another group wrote down things they did better than others, and the last group wrote down five random activities from the day.

As you can probably guess, the folks who focused on their hassles had the worst results, the grateful bunch had the best results.

sargeSo, I won’t rob banks, but I will jot down every night a few things that touched my life in the course of the day for which I am grateful. I’ll be specific and sincere when I make my list, none of this, “I’m grateful for everything,” baloney.

My list tonight:
1) For my dog Sarge, who is an endless comfort and source of companionship.
2) For my friend Jo, who has opened her home to me so I can enjoy a quiet week among big trees
Traitor Final Cover3) For good dark chocolate (this will make my list frequently, I’m guessing)
4) For my readers, one of whom drove for more than an hour today so we could sit at Starbucks and Solve the Universe
5) For the internet, through which I watched a really good talk on happiness via You Tube, and through which I can convey this blog to you.

OK, up to five things you’re grateful for that have touched your life in the last 24 hours, or one thing, but be sincere and specific… away we go.

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The Traitor.

Adam Smith and the Romance Business Model

Lincoln-Memorial-2My first several jobs in Washington, DC, involved working for companies who lived off of federal contracts. When I went to law school, I focused on “procurement law,” or the business of spending the taxpayers’ money on competitive contracts. “Full and open competition guarantees the best value for the taxpayer!” was the accepted wisdom handed down for the entire 200+ years of federal history.

competition-people1 (1)What I saw of full and open competition was that it encouraged cutting corners on quality, selective gouging on price (and the next time around the government would gouge the contractors), or bidding ridiculously low prices just to keep the work, and a goofy bid evaluation system that was by turns wired for the contractor of the agency’s choice, or so arcane in its demands, nobody could make heads or tails of it. Full and open competition, after two centuries of relentless fine tuning, was a wreck, from what I saw.

rwa-logoFast forward to my present endeavor as a romance author. At any given conference of romance writers, I’m likely to hear the following Starfleet Directives, “You will never hurt your career by helping another author.” Or, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Or, “Tap into the power of the cooperative bundle.”

cat and dog twoA significant aspect of many author’s success is that the author community (especially the indie author community) exploits the information loop to its maximum extent. If somebody invents a better mousetrap–for marketing, pricing, formatting, negotiating–word goes out real time. If somebody steps on a mousetrap (I did when I spent big bucks to produce my own audio novellas), we feel obligated to report that too. The ethic is one of support and information sharing. The result is a business community that adapts at lightning speed, works at the very edge of innovation, and has up to minute information with which to make decisions.

Adam-Smith-The-Wealth-of-NationsBefore his death, Adam Smith, author of “The Wealth of Nations,” saw that his economic theories, considered the basis for capitalism, were also used to justify slavery, hoarding by the wealthy in times of famine, price gouging, product adulteration, and other shameful market tactics. In later life, he heavily qualified and recanted a lot of what we take for economic gospel.

I see the romance authors’ community operating from a sense of abundance, trust and mutual support (with a very few mushy apples, admittedly), and I contrast that with “full and open competition.” I know which one feels like the best long term bet for me and my readers. And yet, I have to wonder if there’s something special about romance authors that we work best running counter to prevailing market culture. Could a predominantly male group work the way we do? If altruistic cooperation is such a solid approach in a highly uncertain and volatile industry, why aren’t more organizations using it?

cat sleeps on top of dogSomebody with a much firmer grasp of economics than I ever hope to have ought to look at the romance authors’ community, and figure out why it works so well. I think Adam Smith, at least as an older gent, would have liked hanging out with us, and approved of our results.

Where do you come down in the discussion of cooperation and competition? Do you cooperate at home, but compete at work? At school? Neither?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 American Express gift card.

 

Are We THERE Yet?

tough week death valleyThis has been a tough week, at least for me. World events have not been cheering; I’m feeling overwhelmed with writing-related stuff that’s all very important, but it doesn’t get words on the page; a college age kid can put a strain on the old piggy bank just when I thought we were making some progress; and I’m tired.

Tired of being tired, in fact. I try to get up early to tend to the writing tough week emptyfirst, but if I didn’t sleep well, that means waking up tired, and THAT means I’m not efficient through the day.

So I hit this weekend on empty, and now is when I’m supposed to leave a fat smoke trail of words across the blank screen.

When I’m in an energy cul-de-sac like this, mood often deteriorates too. What I do manage to write is invariably awful (I’m sure Captive_artof this). Stuff I’ve been able to ignore for long periods (sagging dog fence) is abruptly a source of irritation. Things I can’t control (Amazon, the weather) worry me though I know that’s pointless.

Everybody hits periods like this, and they can spiral into a sense of irritable frustration from one end of the day, week, and then month to another. Knowing it’s temporary, knowing some of this is post-Scotland let down, knowing nobody cares about the dog fence doesn’t help. I’m not a device, such that binary logic and HTML put in one end creates a rational outcome at the other.

So I’m resorting to what I know does work. I’ve played the piano for the first time in months, I’ve watched The Scarlet Pimpernel (the first tough week pimpernellspy novel, and written by a woman), I’ve kept flowers nearby, and I’ve worked on the writing project I want to work on not only the ones I ought to work on. I listen to my consolation songs. I focus on what I’m grateful for right now, no matter what.

I’m in good health. My bills are paid for this month. My kid is doing better. My parents’ situation seems to have stabilized. I have friends. My last book was well received. Out the goodness of his heart, tough week Jim MalcolmJon Paul Ferrara sent me a glicee of The Captive’s cover that is simply gorgeous. I’m not scheduled to be in court for the foreseeable future. I will go back to Scotland in the spring.

This gets me through. I don’t expect to wake up turning handsprings tomorrow, I won’t be the goddess of sweetness and light, but neither will I pour more energy into railing against the forces of nature or the publishing marketplace. I do the things authentic to me, focus on those, and try let the rest of the world go by.

touch week day liliesWhat do you do when the world is too much with you, late and soon? How to you shake off a funk, a slump, or a terrible, horrible, awful very bad week?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 American Express Gift Card.

The One Who Got Away

jan flat tireFive years ago, I was broke, had no publication contract, and spent my days playing emotional whack-a-mole with challenges like the well pump dying, the state being late with my check, the kid losing her job, the truck’s spare going flat…

My consolation and coping mechanism was horses. I rode regularly, which kept me in great shape, and I had horses in my back yard, an enormous Belgian draft horse rescue and my daughter’s geriatric mare.

Mane Man 003Hay burners need hay, right? The guys at the feed store suggested a farmer up the road had exactly what I wanted–good stuff, but not too good, and reasonably priced. It took me a few weeks to get up my courage–I am shy, by the way–but one fine day my truck turned up the lane of the hay guy’s farm.

The hay guy was not shy. He was friendly, whipcord lean, about six foot four, with blue, blue eyes, and a merry, naughty smile. He was poetry on a hay truck, too, tough as nails, beastly strong, and could do anything with his hands. And my goodness, could he tell a fine story.

At the time I had been contentedly divorced for more than ten years, and in those ten years, I had not looked at a man. I wasn’t lonely, I wasn’t looking, I wasn’t even thinking about looking.

jan wall of hayI looked at this guy, I talked to him, I listened to him. He could toss hay bales with the precision of a major league pitcher and back a wagon to an inch with his eyes closed. He was a good listener, had a kind and open heart, and a great sense of humor. We casually mentioned getting together for lunch at the diner–I get together with various riding buddies at the diner–but I never nailed him down. Though I enjoyed every minute I spent in his company, when I moved my horses from the back yard to a stable nearby, I did not stay in touch with my hay guy.

In the intervening years, I’ve wondered: Why did I, a woman of notable particulars, turn my back on somebody who’s company I enjoy? Why didn’t I occasionally say hi as a friend? Why didn’t I drop in on one of my many trips past the farm, and explain that the horses had moved, but I’d like to stay in touch? Anything?

Cowboy silhouetteI’m not sure why I let the line go quiet. Maybe my intuition was working overtime, or my defense mechanisms. In any case, I let him get away, though in my mind, I owe that guy. He was a shot of happy over something as silly as buying a load of hay, he’d talked with me as old friends talk. I liked him a lot, and I’m pretty sure he liked me at a time when I was without many allies or resources.

And you know where this is heading. I recently learned that my hay guy lost the fight with cancer a few months back. Now there’s no dropping in on him, ever. No thanking him for being a bright spot in some tough years, no getting together at the diner. I’m endlessly sad for him, because he was as socialable and physically robust as a man can be, brilliant at what he did, a devoted dad and a gentleman. He should have had so many more years.

And he should have had lunch with me at the diner.

Who was the one who got away from you–friend, neighbor, coworker? Why’d you let them go? Is there somebody you should be meeting at the diner for lunch? To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Barnes and Noble gift card or a signed copy of The Captive, your choice.

The Prime of Miss Grace Burrowes

Sorrel trakehner stallion gallops in fieldOne of the standing jokes between my daughter and me is that I’m a woman “in my prime!” I’ve claimed to be “in my prime!” pretty much as far back as she can recall, which is at least a quarter century. Despite graying hair, an expanding middle, slowing reflexes, and pretty much every evidence of aging, I’ve nonetheless claimed to be, “in my prime!”

horse bud weiser teamI’m 55, and by any life expectancy trajectory grounded in fact, that puts me in the second half of my life. This version of my prime is taking longer to do just about everything. When I fly across several times zones, it takes me at least a week to get my circadian rhythm straightened out (especially flying east), and I used to not even a notice a change.

horse puissanceIf I have a truly bad night of sleep, I’m dragging for several days. In college, I routinely skipped a night of sleep every week–counted on being able to do that, in fact, to keep up with work and studies.

When I undertake any domestic task–cleaning up the kitchen, vacuuming, getting after the bathroom–what ought to take an hour takes half the morning and forget taking on that stuff later in the day. I just plain don’t have the energy or focus I used to have.

horse steeplechaseI miss those wonderful years of imitating a human buzz saw, of knowing I was tired, but also knowing the fatigue wouldn’t have much impact on my productivity or recall. I miss being able to wrassle hay bales and feed bags without it making me sore for three days. I miss a truly clean (if only rarely) house that I scrubbed down myself.

But–took me a while to realize this–I don’t miss having three-day migraine headaches several times a month. I don’t miss being on blood pressure medication. I don’t miss measuring my self worth by the to do list, or going for a jog in 95 degree heat on my lunch hour because that’s the only time I could fit in exercise.

horse with queen mumI’m slower–lord, yes, I am slower. Slower to lose my temper, slower to let those thoughtless words go flying out of my mouth, slower to think I have the answer just because I have an answer. I’m slower to commit, slower to give up, and slower to judge. I have my non-negotiables, but they are fewer and quieter. They’re my non-negotiables, I don’t expect them to be anybody else’s.

horsecatAnd this slower, grayer, quieter person? I like her more than I did the faster, smarter, more productive version. She laughs more, she’s more patient and generous. She’s better at rolling with the punches and lending a hand. She’s easier to spend time with, probably a better friend, and maybe even a better mother.  I don’t know. I’ll have to ask my daughter (who is “in her prime!”).

So how’s you’re prime looking these days? In what regard are you better than you’ve ever been? To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift certificate.

 

 

No News is Happy News

RainbowA couple of weeks ago, I posted about the “Rainy Brain/Sunny Brain” attitude shifting game, and I’m dutifully clicking away at it every other day or so. In a few weeks, I’ll report my results (I’m also doing the mindfulness meditations).

I got to thinking about the extent to which negativity is thrown at us, even without our intending to focus on it: When was the last time you watched network news, and had a sense that the world is becoming a better place?

TigerI know why negative news gets top billing: If you want to survive, you need to know where the wars, disasters, crime waves, new diseases and other threats are coming from. This information is what our old pal Malcolm Gladwell would call “sticky.” The brain is wired to notice it and hang on to it.

I’m not living in the jungles of darkest prehistory, though, and the only saber-toothed tigers in my neighborhood look about six weeks old. Divergent (out of the box) thinking, creativity, joy, and spontaneity all require a certain confidence in life and THAT’S where I want to focus my fire.

orange kittenDid you know that in most major U.S. cities, violent crime has been dropping for decades? We are much, MUCH safer now than we were in the early 1990s, though theories explaining this happy development vary. Did you know that in the U.S, teen birth, pregnancy and abortion rates are at an all time low?

highland cowDivorce rates have been dropping since 1990 as well (scroll down to the Divorce Rates by State chart). The gender wage gap, or amount women are underpaid for doing the same jobs as men, has been steadily shrinking since 1980, and for young women, is down to $.07 cents per male dollar. When I entered the work force as a law school graduate with two undergraduate degrees, the disparity was $.36.

needs_450We have many reasons to rejoice, to be proud of ourselves as a society, to be hopeful about our future, and yet, I’m guessing most of the foregoing wasn’t common knowledge among my readers. For shame on those who think fear and anger sells, and that profit justifies a negative bias at the expense of truth.

Maybe this is why romance novel sales didn’t suffer in the recent recession. Romance novels, if well written, are about people who find the courage to change, who learn how to love and be loved, who create a happily ever after happy despite the odds. That’s a story well worth telling, and one many of us are living every day.

End of rant. What have you rejoiced about lately? I’m tickled pink because captive_295w-274x450Scotland can choose to regain its status as an independent nation this September by simple action of a civil referendum–no armies, no battles, no fatalities. THAT is how a nation should be reborn!

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed beach reading package of the Fab 5 of Romance releases, which will include, of course, The Captive.