Beware the Deadly Vending Machine

tigerAsk any author to summarize a book review that’s 95 percent positive, and the author will probably lead with the half a sentence of criticism, or the one phrase that wasn’t stellar praise. This is an example of a well documented phenomenon of the human brain called the negativity bias. We focus on bad news, accord it more weight than good news, recall it faster and in greater detail.

tooth fairyThe negativity bias is easy to explain. The cave man or woman who treated every rustling in the bushes as a potential saber-toothed tiger lived longer than their neighbor, who anticipated only the Tooth Fairy lurking in the undergrowth.

But not a lot longer. When average life expectancy was less than 35 years, problems such as heart attacks, strokes, dementia, and arthritis were the fate of only the privileged few. And yet, if you live in a constant state of upset because the modern equivalent of saber toothed tigers are pouncing at you from the newspapers, the high stress job, the commute, the finances, and everywhere in between, then the down side of the negativity bias becomes obvious. Our long term health goes utterly to pot when our panic responses are hammered constantly.

vending machineWe’re scared of ebola, right? It’s a nasty, awful virus, but the fact is, in the US, you’re more likely to die of a vending machine falling over on you than of ebola (as of this writing there has been one fatality in the US from ebola). We’re scared of another financial crisis, of the wrong people getting into office next month, of viruses, big government, big business, and having big behinds.

The neuroscientists and neuropsychologists have taken their theories in an interesting direction: Have we created a jungle full of saber-toothed tigers, both real and imagined (treat the Tooth Fairy like she’s your deadly enemy, and she just might treat you the same way), because we’ve only recently understood how stuck in the past our brain chemistry is? The media, politicians, law enforcement, and much of the financial industry rely on our negativity bias, as does, indirectly, the health care industry. How will that infrastructure stay in business if we don’t jump every time they report to us that the bushes are rustling?

tiger under umbrellaNow for the good news: The negativity bias can be overcome. If you persistently focus on what’s positive, good, encouraging, reassuring, and happy in life, your brain settles down. The negativity bias is still wired into your circuits, but it’s not running your life even when you’re trying to catch a good night’s sleep. As your stress levels drop, your long term health outcomes improve.

dude you gotta protect meBad news is bad news, and should be taken seriously and dealt with. Nonetheless, a steady diet of fear, mayhem, and anxiety is first of all, a misrepresentation of reality for most of us, and secondly, likely to kill us all a lot sooner than any saber-toothed tigers.

So how do you stay positive? How do you unplug from the negativity noise and smell the abundantly blooming roses? To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Amex gift card.



It’s Good to Be the Queen

COFW posterI’ve spent the past few days at the Central Ohio Fiction Writer’s conference, where I gave two talks. The first was on tweaks writers can use to clean up their prose, the second was on lessons learned five years into the published author game.

Writing with a goal of publication is hard, for at least two reasons. First, the aspiring author likely faces years of rejections and “failure,” if the goal is traditional publishing as opposed to self publishing. Even if the goal is self publishing, the author can still fail in the sense of not finding the right readers for the story. I’ve met people who’ve pursued that goal for fifteen years, and were still slogging away when last I heard. So there’s an element of uncertainty about a writing dream, the same as with any dream.

Kiss and TellThe other source of difficulty on the aspiring writer’s path is that it might all be for naught. Even if the aspiring author hangs in there, and hits the workshops, and pitches good manuscripts to all the agents and editors, she may NEVER find the right match. All this trying, and enduring, and dusting herself off may be for NOTHING.

To have no sense that your suffering is moving you toward a goal, and no guarantee that you’ll ever get there, is miserably daunting. What keeps so many people on the path to publication is that to some extent, they don’t  walk that path alone. Romance writers in particular support each other, boost each other along, and help each other. Most of us, I’m convinced, really do believe in love. Really. Do. That we value each other, that we value each others’ dreams means, when we come together, the gathering can acquire an element of shimmering, luminous hope.

unicatI’d not realized until this weekend, that just by being who I am–an author who found a publisher after a few years of scribbling away–I create hope in others coming along behind me. I’m proof their dreams can come true, proof they’re not silly to think that in their retirement years, their child-rearing years, their mid-career years, they can yet aspire to another career.

Wow. Many of them haven’t read my books, and never will. They care only that I survived the uncertain years, and I’m hoping they all do too.

unicorn prettySo I’m listening to the storytellers’ stories, offering all the encouragement I can, but it occurs to me: We’ve ALL survived the uncertain years. As parents, spouses, employees, bosses, and more. We ALL have encouragement to offer each other, we all have the capacity to guard each others’ dreams when the road is long. When that spirit of a shared journey prevails, it’s amazing what leaps of courage and feats of endurance can result.

So I wish to each of you, good friends along the journey. Who’s dream could you guard? Your children’s? Your spouse’s? Your siblings? When were you somebody else’s example of a journey successfully completed–because you have been. You absolutely have been.

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

What I Like About ME

Kiss and TellLately, the lawyering has presented a few challenges. I can’t seem to get enough rest, the family has contributed some stress, and the IRS doesn’t seem to realize I did, indeed, pay my 2013 taxes and have the documents to prove it. In the middle of all this I’ve put the contemporary novella, Kiss and Tell, up for pre-orders–my first attempt at pre-orders of one of my own titles.

I’m also coordinating with three other authors to get “Christmas In the Duke’s Arms,” a novella anthology, on sale by October 15, and I have copy edits, galleys, and revisions breathing down my neck for publications through next April. Oh, and I’m writing another historical trilogy, and a Scottish contemporary novella.

CHITDA coverSometimes, if feels like I live life clinging to the rotating blade of a high flying helicopter. When that feeling tries to choke off all joy, I take a step back, and look at what I LOVE about my life, which is a nearly endless list.

I love to write. I simply, plainly, unrelentingly do. Blog posts, books, workshop materials, emails. I’m happy with my hands on a keyboard.

I love where I live–rural, but not that remote. I have big trees, a freshwater stream right down the middle of my property, a lovely bank barn, tons of yard to landscape when I get the urge to plant flowers. I’ve lived here nearly 25 years, and I love this little property.

UK Spring of 2011 006I love being in charge of my own businesses–the writing and the law office. I’ve worked for three different Fortune 100 firms, and gadzooks, was that ever NOT for me!

I love my companion animals, love that I can afford to look after them. They are great company, and far more comfort than they are obligation. I hope they feel the same way about me.

I love my bed–well, I do. Growing up, I slept on a narrow sort of daybed/cot. Now I have a nice, big bed that I love. Much reading happens there, and dreaming. Love my beddy-bye!

I love that I rarely have to set an alarm. I get up when I’m done sleeping much of the time.

Needs a few cats...

Needs a few cats…

I love that I’m an author at a time when interacting with readers is so easy. My readers are the BEST, and hearing from them and getting to know them is not something authors could do as effortlessly even ten years ago.

I love that I can do my writer job swilling tea, toddling on the treadmill, or with a cat curled in my lap. This is luxury at its finest.

I love wearing socks, barefeet, or slides 90 percent of the time.

flameI love how supportive and collegial the romance writing community is. It’s an entirely different model from most business communities I’ve participated in, and for me, far more healthy, agile, innovative, and resilient.

There’s tons to love about my life, even if I have to spend 45 minutes on hold with the IRS. Compared to all the blessings, gifts, and joy I have, that irritation shrinks to the mere nuisance that it is.

Your turn: Why is it GREAT to be you? Because in some regards–probably not all–but in some regard, it is!

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

The Opposing Argument

mona lisa with a catI realized early in life that I was born with the gift of a destructive a eye. When I look at a piece of writing, a relationship, a painting, I have a natural talent for seeing what’s wrong, what’s weak, what’s not quite right. My brain just goes this way, and it’s a good skill to have from a survival standpoint.

The person who can sense what’s off, what’s missing, what’s not ringing true is a person who’ll be half-way out the door or up a convenient tree when trouble erupts. And yet, an instant’s reflection will reveal the burden such an outlook creates: Sometimes, nothing’s wrong, nothing’s amiss. Sometimes, three books aren’t better or worse than each other, they’re merely different varieties of “all good.”

treeOther times, I’ll miss the entire lovely forest for the one slightly ailing tree. For a lawyer to be able to trash an opponent’s arguments is all in a day’s courtroom work. For a writer to polish a rough draft takes the same approach. But who wants to live in a world where all that’s noticed is what’s wrong or in need of repair?

I need to balance my critical eye with joy in creativity for its own sake. I’m at a Celtic festival this weekend, and at first I thought it was the crowds making me want to go hide, but then I realized I’m also reacting to the sheer abundance of creativity. Four stages are going pretty much all the time–and every musician I’ve heard here is very good if not spectacular.

celtic11Tent after tent showcases the work of skilled craftsmen and artists, and they’ve all put years into learning how best to create the wares they’re selling. Athletes are competing, dancers, pipe bands… All around me are polished, lovely, and impressive creations of skill and beauty. I have to let go of my “Yeah, but…” or my, “If only…,” let go of the part of me that want’s to pounce on flaws, or I’ll be the bad fairy at my own party.

I think this is pretty common–for a strength to have within it the potential for not a complementary weakness, but an even greater weakness. To be gobbled up by a saber-toothed tiger (or opposing counsel) is no fun, but neither is life spent up a tree, afraid the tiger will climb up after me.

Paisley_Pipe_Band_2011Do you have a natural, reliable, go-to strength that sometimes gets in your way? A weakness that deserves some appreciation? How does it fit with the rest of your family, and what  would life look like if you put that skill aside for a day?

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

Reliable Change

flower openingI recently attended a writer’s workshop, where the subject of how we change came up. The essence of a romance novel is the change the main characters undergo, from living a small, safe, predicable life at the beginning of the book to living a life based on love instead of security at the end of the book. Along the way, change is a tough, scary business, at best.

I’ve needed to make a change. My weight has kept going up. I don’t overeat by any normal standards, but my metabolism is wicked efficient, apparently. Nothing I’ve tried has worked–not running, not working out, not calorie restriction, not acupuncture, yoga, not nothing, not no how–and yet, when I back off the vigilance at all, the pounds come flying on.

Transformation1Something my sister said a few years ago, when she was a group leader for a weight loss program, has stuck with me: “It’s hard to lose weight, it’s hard to keep it off, but it’s also hard to be overweight.”

Is it EVER. People don’t see you, they see your spare tire. They don’t hug you, they hug your flub. They don’t measure you by your kindness, sparkling wit, snappy repartee or peachy dancing, their first impression is of your appearance.

muffin catSo… it’s hard to be overweight. You can’t scamper around Scottish hiking trails as easily, acquit yourself as well on horseback (Hyde Park stables won’t rent you a horse if you weigh more than 170 pounds–ask me how I know that), or shop for clothes as cheerfully. Then there are the emotional burdens. Being obese not fun.

So I decided to try, try, try again. This time, when I hit that, “BUT I’M HUNGRY” wall (I pretty much live on that wall), I told myself, “You can be hungry, or you can be fat. Not fair, not easy, not a reflection on you, but those are the cards you’re holding, and you’ve done the being fat part for a while. How’s that working’ for ya, Grace?”

just a little huskyWhich has led to the third aspect of change: After an insight and a decision, change requires sustained action. I’ve tried long and hard to get the weight down before, weeks and weeks, and months and months, with little to show for it. This charge up the hill started about mid-summer, and I’m down a few pounds. That surprises me, because I’m not sure the physiological realities are any different, but this time, I’m seeing results.

HEDINGHAM-SHOOT-276Maybe the insight is the difference. As my sister put it, I’m choosing which challenge to take on, and accepting (oh, that word), that this aspect of life will BE a challenge for me, no matter what. Maybe I’ll fall off my destrier in the next week, but maybe not. Maybe mind, body and behavior have found a way to bury the hatchet, and I’ll be happier for it, even if I’m also hungry much of the time.

When you’re trying to make a change, what helps? What knocks you off the horse? Is there a change you’re particularly proud of?

To one commenter, I’ll send the first first four books in Joanna Bourne‘s Spymaster series.



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.