Leave, American Style

View up the valley from Farleyer Lodge

View up the valley from Farleyer Lodge

So there I was in beautiful Scotland, the Highlands in view, snow-dotted hills just up the valley, my little holiday cottage all cozy and welcoming… Bliss awaited.

But back in the law office five times zones away, the program office that issues my contracts wanted some immediate answers tremaine_450x2-204x335to questions I’m responsible for answering. Yes, I had put in writing to them that I was out of office, and off duty. I had  named my replacement and provided his phone number.

My publicist chose my vacation week to send me the publicity plan for my August release, though it had been promised two weeks earlier. A PR plan usually involves thousands of words of blog posts, and hours and hours hunting through the manuscript for excerpts, each of which must be “exclusive” to the site that hosts it.

What’s an American to do?

All over Scotland, I crossed paths with people who were going “on holiday” to Turkey’s Black Sea coast (“So much safer than America, dear.”), popping over tour eiffelto Paris for some sightseeing and to brush up their youngest child’s French, or taking time to go hill walking in Cumbria. Mind you, these were cab drivers, check out ladies, and college students.

Here’s a little Harvard Study, comparing America’s approach to paid vacation to 20 other wealthy nations (not all of them European). In short, we suck at protecting our leisure time. In every other nation studied, the work year includes TWENTY DAYS minimum paid leave, for everybody–full-time, part-time–from day one, and that doesn’t include from 5-13 paid national holidays. France, Germany, Denmark, they all guarantee thirty days of paid leave.

We Can Do It! Rosie the RiveterWhat do we do? We don’t guarantee anything, we give less leave to the people who earn less even though many of them work very hard. But what about productivity? Surely, we work harder than other other guys, and we have more to show for it as a nation?

Right. In the first place, I couldn’t find productivity comparisons that were less than five years old (which struck me as really odd), and in the second, why is productivity the burning question” What about worker satisfaction? Quality of life (where we’re falling behind)? Happiness? Post-retirement standard of living?

hamsterTo a significant extent, Americans are the descendants of people who would work themselves to death rather than stay back in the Old Country putting up with an established religion or a lack of economic freedom. If we’re African American, we’re likely descended from people for whom brutal hard work was the only alternative to death. We’re Americans, we work.

Consider this: By some fine October day, you have already worked as many hours as your European, Australian or Canadian counterpart. What would you do if every year, in addition to your two weeks of paid vacation (assuming you get that), you also had TWO MONTHS more paid leave?

To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of Tremaine’s True Love (though not until about July 20th, the soonest I can get hold of one).

Look Homeward, Grace

Doune shoppedAfter a month of rambling around Scotland, the time is upon me to return home. The trip did not do what I’d hoped it would–cram my head with romance plots, all tidily worked out to the last, fascinating detail–but it did leave me with many gifts.

A few of these gifts, I will spend the next few months walking off on my treadmill desk.

strathlyon sutherland castleI may not have plots, but I have ideas I could never have come across at home. The Pictish warriors were jealous of those old Viking guys, for example, because the Vikings, with their saunas and impressive battle dress, did so much better with the ladies. I’m left to ponder: Is it the land that was conquered, or the ladies’ hearts? The amount of Norse blood in many parts of the UK suggests the latter.

Strathlyon viewAnother gift, a big one, is motivation. For a week, I stayed in a lovely, tidy, beautifully maintained holiday cottage. The writing just flowed. I need to take a greater interest in how my house looks and feels when I walk in the door. Two big dogs and I need to have a talk about who’s allowed on what furniture, and I need to stock up on vacuum cleaner bags. I know my environment impacts my mood and energy, but the reminder was timely.

The Birnam Oak, of Birnam Forest fame.

The Birnam Oak, of Birnam Forest fame.

I’m also impressed by Scottish society. When they faced an independence referendum last September, voter turnout was 90 percent, and it was the old people whose opinion carried the day. Yes, election day was a holiday, and public transportation far exceeds what we, with our great distances can offer, but 90 percent?! We can’t even hit 50 percent. We need to do better.

Maesehowe Dragon

Maesehowe Dragon

I’m excited, too, about the group tour I’m organizing for next September. There is so MUCH to see and do here, that even if you’re not a writer, for ten days, I’m confident I can show you a great time. (More on this tour later…)

 

So travel has again done what I rely on it to do: Refreshed my perspective, cheered me up, given me ideas, and helped me see how home can be made more appealing. But I also met with folks at the University of Stirling to

Guess where?

Guess where?

discuss their master’s program in creative writing. Scotland is on notice: I’m coming back Soon and often.

Was there a trip that shifted your perspective on home, on yourself? If you could travel back to one place, where would it be? To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of Dancing in the Duke’s Arms, now on sale in both ebook and print formats.

 

Dad Ever After

Guess where?

Guess where?

I’m still in Scotland, in part because next September, I’d like to lead a writers’ retreat here–a little bit sight-seeing, a lot writing. I’m exploring the area around where the group will stay, but also taking a few days to think about what’s important for somebody who sits down to write a good romance. (If you’d like to come with us to Scotland, please email me at graceburrowes@yahoo.com).

I’m not talking about the tea, the comfy writing chair, the chunks of time, but rather, what must go into the story. There’s a myth loose among writers, for example, that romances tend to be either hero-centric or heroine-centric. I think that’s baloney, for many writers (not all). The protagonists trade off taking center stage, while the relationship itself is what carries the tale.

darius_4502And yet, a traditional romance will have a hero, and that character will be male. Here again, myths proliferate. Some editors claim the hero must be gorgeous, so the reader can “fall in love” with him. Good looks certainly don’t detract from a man’s appeal, but to focus on that… vaguely insulting the reader, if you ask me, and to all the guys who aren’t gorgeous but are well worth a lady’s notice.

What a compelling hero must be is flawed. He must be a character who’s struggling, at least emotionally, if not in other regards. He’s a failure, at least in his own eyes. He might not even admit this to himself at the beginning of the book, but he carries the knowledge of his inadequacy with him.

ThomasThe book takes off when the heroine comes along, and challenges him to be the person he wishes he was (and he does the same for her), to let go of the wounds, to grab on to the love–and to her. This is scary business, and a villain or two usually complicates matters, and the heroine has her own issues which the hero helps sort out. There’s a lot that has to get done in the space of 375 pages.

By the end of the book, though, our hero has become a person who loves and is loved, who can face loss and change with courage and dignity, who honors his commitments, and his loved ones. He may still be short on charm, may still lack worldly wealth, may still limp too badly Dancing nipped tushie moved namesto waltz, but he’s kind, he’s honest, he’s a gentleman, and he’s worth sticking with over the long, hard, haul.

At the end of the book, in other words, after hundreds of pages of struggle and backsliding and getting it wrong, the hero is finally, finally worthy to be a dad, and the woman who caught his eye at the beginning of the book is ready to be a mom.

Any heroes in your family? To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of Dancing in the Duke’s Arms, which is on sale in print now, and will go on sale in ebook on Friday.

 

 

On Top of the World

map of OrkneysI write this from the Orkney Islands, at the mid-point of my latest tour of Scotland. The Orkneys are north of Scotland, and were claimed by Norway for nearly 600 years. They ended up in Scottish hands in (1472) when a Norse king couldn’t pay a cash dowry for his daughter’s marriage to a Scottish king. The Norse king decided to toss a few orkney farmlandislands (like 70 or so) into the kitty instead. I suspect his descendants regret that now, because this place is beautiful and fascinating.

I’m a little travel-fried, so I’ll throw out some random observations. First, you’d expect a place this far north (north of Moscow) to be cold and

Orkney - Ring of Brodgar

Orkney – Ring of Brodgar

bleak. WRONG. The average low temperature here is about 40 F, the average high about 50 F, but it can get into the 70s and at this time of year, it never really gets pitch dark. Frosts are rare. The soil is abundantly fertile, and the largest industry is agriculture. Who’d-a thought?

Anybody with any sense, apparently. Orkney has been

Skara Brae Village

Skara Brae Village

inhabited for at least 8000 years. Europe’s best preserved neolithic village, Skara Brae, is about 7000 years old, and we wouldn’t know it was lurking under the turf, except for a huge storm in 1850 that tore off a chunk of seashore and exposed some of the walls. The local laird went out walking the next morning, and had sense enough to know he was looking at a Big Archaeological Deal.

Maesehowe Grave

Maesehowe Grave

Second observation: Human nature doesn’t change. There’s a beautiful Stone Age passage grave called Maesehowe that the Norsemen stumbled into about a thousand years ago, apparently taking shelter from a blizzard there. Those old fellas got to carving graffiti into the stone, and what did they write? “I miss the fair widow Ingebur,” “I’m the best rune maker in the world,” and “I didn’t steal the treasure, Hakkon did.” Maybe there was some mead involved?

Maesehowe Dragon

Maesehowe Dragon

Third observation: The urge to create something beautiful is nothing new either. Those silly, bored Vikings also carved a little dragon into the stone too. The tool makers at Skara Brae decorated their stone and bone tools.

Fourth observation: Bureaucratic incompetence is nothing new. When the Victorians tried to excavate that prehistoric tomb, they dutifully collected the bit of human skull, horse bones, pottery and what not… and lost it all on some train or other. (Any mystery writers out there?)

coastI could go on and on, but the theme is, across millenia, across oceans and cultures, we’re the same. If travel teaches me anything, it’s that we’re the same creature, with the same hopes, fears, and dreams. We want security, beauty, true love, and a few laughs (Hakkon did it!), and maybe the occasional flagon of mead.

In Scotland, I have a sense that the more I explore, the more I want to explore. Is there somewhere you’d like to explore, or go back to again and again?

To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of Neil Oliver’s “Coast,” an anthropological look all of coastal Britain, past and present.

 

Ladies, Please….

USPopulationGraphSex (1)Generally speaking, the human species produces more boy babies than girl babies. By age eighteen, women are slightly outnumbering men in the United State, though in some other counties, that shift happens later.

By age 85, women outnumber men (in the US), by a ratio of two to one.

The Queen Mum  (1900-2002)

The Queen Mum (1900-2002)

Gloria Steinem is quoted as saying women are the one group that grows more radical with age. Maybe. It’s also the case that women as they mature become part of an increasingly large majority in any one population cohort, and they thus become more visible–literally, economically, and politically.

There is even something called the Grandmother Hypothesis of evolution, which says that as the toughest grandmas started living long enough to help their daughters raise children, those daughters-of-the-toughest were free to HAVE more children, and thus the gene pool tilted in favor of longevity and durability.

Dr. Maya Angelou (1928 - 2014)

Dr. Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)

Anthropologists have hopped onto this bandwagon to posit that when Grandma became a free caretaker, then leisure, art, song, storytelling, and many other forms of culture got their first boost. As a species, we have a very long period of infantile dependency (30 is the new 18, anyone?) and here again, having a generation of Grandmas who stop having their own children, and instead turn to assisting their adult children and grandchildren, allows us to do a better job equipping the offspring we have for a successful life.

lauren bacallWhen my pregnancy became high risk, my mom, a registered nurse then in her seventies, dropped everything, flew across the country, and spent weeks in a pokey little apartment looking after me, and then the new baby. I finished law school because my mom saved my bacon; my daughter got an extra six weeks at home before starting daycare because of my mom.

I’m not trying to denigrate the role of grandfathers–I wish we had more grandpas for

by Mother Teresa (1910 - 1997)

by Mother Teresa (1910 – 1997)

longer! But I am raising a question about the unsung contribution of the older woman. Her stock in trade is practical help and selfless love, but in this age, when so many politicians have forgotten the essence of community and service, when more and more children are raised in poverty, when more and more elders are living in poverty for longer–even after having worked their entire lives–maybe it’s time for Grandma to get on her high horse.

Have older women made a difference in your life? If you could mobilize the GDuke and Duchess with Coursthiprandmas, where would you aim their determination, fearlessness, and resilience? Or is Grandma already so busy looking after her increasingly poor and overworked family, that her plate is too full for her to become socially active? What do you think?

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The Duke and His Duchess, and The Courtship. Esther and Percival Windham’s novellas aren’t coming out in print until September 1, but they are among my favorite stories, and they were a joy to write.

I’m traveling again this week, so my response to comments might be limited, but I do want to hear from you! Over to you….!

 

 

 

A Pitcher’s Worth

blog lemonadeAny mom knows that when a child gets focused on something–the school dance, the biology test, the red-haired girl in algebra class–that something acquires the proportions of the zombie apocalypse. What we choose to focus on can take over our entire awareness, our reason, our internal landscape from horizon to horizon.

The media counts on this, and similarly counts on the fact that our brains, being wired to ensure our survival, are drawn to notice and blog rose trellisrecall that which is dangerous, scary, or threatening. I strongly suspect it’s easier to get into our wallets when we’re afraid, and easier to shut down our reasoning powers. As a result, more than ever, I don’t own a TV.

But I do own an imagination, and a sometimes formidable sense of determination. As seductive as it might be to fill up my emotional CPU blog sleeping kittywith the gender wage gap (white women earn 73 cents on the white male dollar, minority women earn 52 cents, and YES, that’s for the same work, and YES that has been illegal for 50 years), or with other even bleaker realities, today, I’m not going to let that Undertoad grab my ankles.

Today I’m doing two things differently. First, I’m limiting my Facebook time to my pages, rather than cruising the streamgeneral feed, and getting my buttons pushed left, right, and center. Second, I’m listing in pictures ten wonderful things that are true and available to me on this ordinary old summer day. You’re welcome to add to the list. To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Thomas–The Jaded Gentlemen, Bblog iced teaook I. Thomasblog bard hair daydancing_450DSC02082blog friendly pup

 

 

A Piece of Peace

EMU logoFifteen years ago, I got a master’s degree in conflict. I was one of three North Americans in a cohort of 27 students. These were memorable people, some of whom have since died trying to light candles in the howling darkness of our capacity for hatred and violence.

Conflict work is scary. It can kill you, it can break your heart, but war WILL kill us and break our hearts–also possibly put an end to our troublesome species–unless we find a way out of it. So…

fighting-horses_1854144iOur professors were amazing people. Some had helped dismantle Apartheid in South Africa. Another had diffused civil war in the Basque region of Spain. A third was instrumental in helping Bolivia rely less on drug money to fuel its economy. They told stories that were curiously devoid of the pronoun “I.” Their stories were “we” stories, or stories about the local leaders who’d taken the initiative to ask for help.

Help was often present in these places in great abundance. War is expensive, and unless you’re an arms dealer, reform and rebuilding are usually the better alternatives. So the PhDs, and missionaries, and non-governmental Kittens-KittensFightingUsingLightSa (1)organizations (GMOs), flock to the scene, sprinkling knowledge, grant money, and faith initiatives all over the troubled waters.

Those efforts, we now know, aren’t likely to generate lasting change. Why? Because the best intentions can degenerate into bickering, competition, retribution, and more of the conflict the combatants were invested in for so long.

creditThe experienced peacebuilders, whose names will never be known outside the small community of peacebuilders, have learned that when they come into a terrible situation–a city wrecked by riots, a civil war that has killed millions, a nation on the verge of collapse–the first people they have to identify are those few, odd souls who can see what could happen if peace were allowed to take hold.

gandhiThose people, those crazy, visionary, hopeful, irrational, even stupid people, hold the image of the mountaintop in their hearts, they see the motivation for finding a way forward, even if they can’t see the way itself. The peacebuilder’s first job is to find those people, and give them a place to sing their song, paint their canvas, write their poetry, or tell their stories. They usually are the artists, the writers, the poets, not the academics, the politicians, the religious leaders, or the “experts.” They dwell on the fringes, their vision nurtured in obscurity.

futureWhat creates movement in a positive direction isn’t fancy theories or sophisticated science or big money–those can all contribute to change, but they can’t make it last.

Change becomes transformation when passion, hope and love give it wings.

What do you hope for? When you think about your children and grandchildren, what changes do you wish you could make to leave them a better world?

A Beautiful Marriage

kissing-sailorv4May 17, 2015, marks the 70th anniversary of my parents’ marriage. If you ask my dad about the magic behind this long, mostly happy marriage, he will tell you squarely and emphatically, that my mom is the reason the whole thing stayed between the ditches. Stuey had some luck, landing in the right place at the right time professionally, and he worked hard–he also played hard–but Colleen was the one who decided the marriage was going to live up to its potential

goslings08Mom and Dad had the basic old-fashioned deal. He earned the paycheck, she managed the home. This deal still works for a lot of couples, though few of those couples have seven children. After a set of twin boys, and a girl, Mom had a slight gestational hiatus. Dad must have thought three kids was a big enough family, but Mom told him she’d get “fat and civic-minded” if she couldn’t have more kids.

minionsFour more children showed up in eight years, and I think even Mom was a little nonplussed by that abundance. While Stuey was off making big science, going on expeditions into the wilds of British Columbia or out to the Galapagos Islands, Mom was stuck home alone for weeks at a time with uppity teenagers and wild-eyed college students.

And lots of laundry. Merciful powers, did that woman do endless laundry. Laundry EVERY DAY, and this goes back to the days of the old wringer washer, and a triple-rope clothesline in the back yard. Cooking for nine people was no day at the beach either, and yet Mom had a hot meal on the table every night at six.

wringer washerThe woman worked her behind off, for decades, and in addition to creating a comfy, pretty home for us, she entertained nearly constantly. No graduate student ever spent a holiday alone far from home, no visiting professor ever wanted for dinner invitations.

As an adult, I can see that in many ways, my Dad was the more dependent spouse, and he will say as much. Mom made the decision, over and over, to be what Dad needed. His gifts were more limited–he was best at being a college professor, and he tried hard to be a good dad. Mom was and is the magic that connects Stuey to a larger circle, that keeps him challenged to be his best self, and whose love has created a setting in which Dad–a shy, retiring, sometimes easily frustrated man–can shine.

years of loveWhat strikes me about their marriage is the degree to which each partner contributed what they could, be it clean laundry, a steady paycheck, a hot meal–along with good faith and acceptance of the other person. And yes, for those who’ve asked, my parents are very definitely the inspiration for Percival and Esther Windham, of course.

If you could choose one couple to feature in a romance novel as the role model for a mature, loving relationship, who would you choose, and why?

 

 

A Well Earned Ambush

times_square__new_york_by_nravemaster-d4bzwgmI don’t think I qualify for “social anxiety disorder” but my dials are certainly set a few clicks beyond “introvert” compared to most people. If I can’t have days of solitude every week, I start to snap and growl, productivity drops, and sleep suffers. For the past week, I’ve been in the office until all hours, getting ready for an audit of my foster care files by the State of Maryland.

audit-magnifying-glassAll work on the case must be documented including time, date, duration, location and nature of the task performed. To the minute, no confusion of dates or cases allowed.

This kind of detail/paper work drives me round the bend. My contracts are also up for re-competition, and the proposals are due in about ten days. Fortunately, I love to write, but unfortunately, the proposal requires a lot more than creative writing–it requires details, documents, references, insurance certificates, budgets, affidavits… Oh, bring me my hartshorn!

glen finnan monumentBUT I’m not entirely without the self-care clue. I scheduled a massage for Thursday afternoon, the day before the Big Audit. I was mostly ready for the State, and I’d been looking forward to the massage.

Except, I have a condition called restless leg syndrome, and it often rears it’s oggly head (or foot, as the case may be), toward the end of the day, when I’m restless legtired. Halfway through the massage–my big, soul-sustaining treat–I start to twitch and jump and jiggle.

Restless leg doesn’t hurt, I tell myself. It’s a just a nuisance, like thyroid disease, Lyme disease, taxes, loneliness, state auditors, post-travel credit card balances… I’m little-girl-crying-300x225in the lobby, writing the check, making the next appointment, and onto the Muzak comes a quiet, classical piece.

The Barbara Adagio for Strings has be to be the most sad, honest, wrenching composition I have ever heard, and I hadn’t heard it for years. (If you want to break your heart, watch this version, which is set to images of 911.) My busy, competent, highly functional, has-an-answer-for-everything cuddleself just started bawling. Stumbled out to the truck, and went Pathetic for the next half hour.

I HATE being a lawyer sometimes. It’s hard, it’s not a good fit for me, and I don’t have the type and volume of energy to do it as well as I’d like to. I miss my dukes and ladies, I want to go for a ride on Sir Regis, and figuratively offer a rose to a small child. I want my mom, and my daughter with me, not thousands of miles away. I want to rest, thoroughly, not just until the dogs have to go out.

All of those real, understandable, human needs, would probably still be duct-taped into silence by my deadlines and duties, but for Mr. Barber giving me a tap on the emotional shoulder. I called my daughter yesterday, I talked to my mom single_purple_roseand my dad, I scheduled lunch with a writin’ buddy for Wednesday, I called another writin’ buddy last night.

Solitude is fine, but solitary confinement is wrong, even for me. I needed Mr. Barber’s reminder, though it landed with the force of a blow on my to-do list and on my heart.

When was the last time music, art, dance, a sermon, a book, a poem, a flower garden, brought you home to yourself?

 

What Works for Me

washington-dc-300a061009Before I focused on child welfare law, I spent about ten years in the Washington, DC, area, working for what the locals call, “Beltway Bandits.” These are the companies who live off federal contracts. Some were small, but most were large. Very large. Before I opened my own law practice, I worked for three different Fortune 100 corporations, everyone of them “leading edge,” in their respective field.

We were all on time to work, and willing to put in extra hours to get the job done. We adhered to the dress code, we sat where we were assigned to sit, and we observed the codes of conduct laid out in the employee handbooks.

washington white male boardsAnd we were about as inefficient and backward as it’s possible to be and still make a profit.

We know now, for example, that companies with diverse boards of directors are more profitable than companies that seat only white guys on their boards. The diverse companies tend to be better places to work, and to have a more flexible response to changing market conditions. It’s good business to diversify your board of directors, but we’re actually losing ground in this regard.

washington diverseWe also know that brainstorming, a mainstay of corporate problem-solving, is likely to produce fewer and less workable solutions to any given problem, than if people are tasked individually with devising solutions. Many of my traditionally published author friends report that their book titles are still the result of a group of people (who mostly haven’t read the book), sitting around a whiteboard, tossing out ideas in brainstorming sessions.

DC traffic jamsWe know that the contribution of women in mixed corporate groups is devalued compared to the contributions of men. An outspoken guy will be viewed as knowledgeable and helpful, an outspoken woman is pushy. And yet, most corporations insist that staff be available in one place during one set of hours because “meetings” are the lifeblood of corporate communication.

Tired colleaguesTurns out, the more meetings a company has, the less efficient it is. The more workers it has contributing from home, the MORE efficient it is, and the greater the job satisfaction of its workers.

My point is not that Corporate America is Dumb. It’s not. Some corporations are brilliant, others are high heelsvery backward. My point is this: Nobody was enjoying their commute in DC traffic all those years ago. Nobody gained IQ points because they put on a tie or high heels. Everybody sat in meeting after meeting, and thought, “I could be getting so much done at my desk…”

And yet, we suited up, schlepped the commute, and showed up for all those meetings–and still do. That’s the weight of organizational culture, and it’s just as heavy with churches, wild flowershomeowners’ associations, families, and cultural affiliations. The larger the organization, the more effectively it shuts down our own sense of what’s working and what’s not, what’s right and what’s wrong.

This is part of why we vote all alone in a private booth, traditionally go to confession alone, and usually undertake therapy one on one or in very small groups–because there’s danger in numbers. When honesty, integrity and creativity matter (and when don’t they?) the large group is seldom the best option.

What’s the largest organization in your daily life, and where is it a bad fit for you?

To one commenter, I’ll send flowers.