May the Best Person Prevail

In an internet conversation I had with a public school educator this week, somebody raised the topic of the Dunning-Kruger effect. That’s a well-documented tendency (in dominant American culture) for the least skilled among us to overestimate their competence, while the highly skilled underestimate their competence. When you try to tell the incompetents that they are not da bomb, they will criticize your evidence, and go confidently on their way.

Not until they actually get some training in the area they think they already excel at do they realize their genius is lacking.

I interjected a comment into the conversation about the Hewlett Packard study.: A review of personnel records found that women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements.

That study sparked a ton of other studies, some of which found Dunning-Kruger was at work on a gendered basis. Men do tend to overestimate their skills, women underestimate theirs. Put another way: Women were confident only if they are perfect or nearly perfect.

BUT that sparked more studies–people went back and asked the ladies, “Why not apply for a job that you could do with a little extra training?” the response from women was, essentially: Why waste my time and energy? In other words, they perceived the playing field as so grossly gender biased, that men who “think they have” 60 percent of the quals can get that job, while women who DO have all the skills will be passed over.

I see some heads nodding, but noses wrinkling as well. Not every male executive is a clueless affront to an army of perfectly qualified female subordinates, of course. Not every woman is a frustrated superstar CEO. But these findings suggest that as a culture, we have not promoted the best qualified people–we’ve promoted the most confident guys, and yes, the most confident white guys.

Those highly skilled women arrived to their decisions based on experience and observation. What we quickly labeled lack of confidence in them turned out to be lack of fairness in the work place. Men also perceived that lack of fairness, but the result in them–going for jobs they were barely half-qualified to do–was labeled confidence.

Where am I going with this?

To a positive place: Women are more effective legislators than men. Women are better doctors than men, on the whole. Women raise the collective IQ of a group more than men do. My theory is that gender has little to do with these findings–being an underdog has everything to do with why women have developed better listening skills, better social sensitivity, keener observation, more creative problem solving abilities.

The underdog always has broader knowledge than the overdogs. This encourages me. Why? Because we are a society with a lot of underdogs, and if my theory is correct, that means we have a ton of highly skilled leaders, problem solvers, thinkers, and creatives ready to go forth and make great changes… if we empower them to do so.

Am I full of baloney? Does your experience comport with the studies mentioned? Ever run across one of those Dunning-Kruger pseudo-experts? To one commenter, I’ll send a print copy of Elias in Love.






Who’s Got the Buttons?

To lose one’s buttons is a genteel term for the waning of mental faculties, usually at the end of life. Scary statistic: By age eighty, if present trends continue, one out of three of us will be cognitively flagging.

This issue is much on my mind, not only because my dad at 96 is losing ground both physically and mentally, but also because I make my living primarily with my brains. If they go, my earning capability, and thus my only prayer of self-sufficiency or security, goes with them.

But there is good cheer to be had, and some of it comes from the Nun Study. The Nun Study is an ongoing look (started in 1986) at the factors that predict or influence cognitive decline. So what have we learned from the nuns so far? First, we know aerobic exercise is great for the brain (oh, fudge), and that good sleep hygiene also matters A LOT (yay!). And genes matter slightly (phew!).

Among the individuals in the study, however, there were Sister Couch Potatoes who’d apparently burned the votive candle at both ends, whose autopsies revealed the physical indicators of Alzheimer’s, and yet, these women did not present with the symptoms of the disease, or presented with only mild symptoms.

Turns out,  one other factor, which can trump any of the foregoing, is something called neural plasticity. (My big-word back leg just started twitching.) Neural plasticity is the ability to play fox and geese with your thinking. If you can’t recall the name of my new release, then you can bring to mind the cover. If that doesn’t work, you know it was in a series with the word “tartan” in it.

By slip-slide-slithering around in your mind, you eventually come at the answer through a side door: Elias In Love, second book in the Trouble Wears Tartan series, has a headless wedding couple on the cover, and the story has something to do with a Scottish guy in Maryland… You snatch one fact from peripheral memory and daisy-chain your way to the information you’re seeking.

But what, you ask, develops this capacity for neural plasticity?

Learning, plain and simple. Learn new stuff, and your mind stays supple. The key is to learn truly new material. Don’t just do sudoku or crossword puzzles, though those won’t hurt you. Make a stab at writing your first book, take up an instrument, tackle a foreign language. Use those buttons or lose those buttons. If you can move, if you can prioritize regular rest, if you can take on even a small educational challenge, you’ll be doing yourself and those who care about you a big favor later in life.

If you could study anything–anything in the whole world–what would it be, and how can you make a step in that direction? To one commenter, I’ll send a print copy of Elias in Love.



All the Feels

When I’m coming up with a plot for a new book, the first question I ask myself is, “What is the hero/heroine’s defining trauma?” Then I ask myself, “Where did I put the Green and Black’s dark chocolate?”

From the character’s major, unhealed wound comes a world of coping mechanisms, defense strategies, choices made for the wrong reasons, and even strengths. From that one unhappy piece of backstory comes the road map for what joy looks like for that character, and what obstacles will require the most courage to overcome.

All of that comes from answering the question: Where does it hurt and why?

But there are characters enduring a different kind of suffering, and I first met them in foster care. Early, early in my courtroom career, I came across kids who couldn’t distinguish hungry from full, and who would either go for days without eating–yes, days–or gorge for no apparent reason. Other children had trouble with incontinence, still others couldn’t recognize when they were tired or thirsty.

These kids had been born into domestic war zones, more or less, and had spent all of their attention on staying out of harm’s way. They broke my heart and baffled me. How sad, to be that out of touch with your personal reality, that your survival needs never hit your own radar.

At the same time as I was getting up to speed as a child welfare lawyer, I was dealing with frequent migraine headaches. Nothing helped–not drugs, not other drugs, not acupuncture, not exercise, not nothing, not no how, except sometimes–maybe every tenth headache–if I could feel that sucker coming on, I could smack it down with caffeine, which I reserved for that one purpose.

BUT for that approach to have a prayer of working, I had to notice when the headache was first trying to creep up out of my back and into my neck. If it reached my temple, I was doomed. I began to Pay Attention. I noticed that fatigue, hunger, thirst, exercise, heat, allergies, stress, stress, and stress could all trigger a migraine.

I noticed how in the course of a day, I was usually tired, hungry, thirsty, stressed, overheated (much of the year), and stressed some more. Single parenting, running my own business, trying to make ends meet, dealing with the child welfare system, forcing myself to exercise… it was all a big, um, headache.

I couldn’t change much about my circumstances, but I could do better. I could prioritize sleep, I could ease up on exercise when it was too stinkin’ hot, I could keep a bottle of water handy. It helped, but first, I had to start paying attention to where it hurt.

Was there a time when you were the last one to get the memo? When your body had to whack you upside the head to get your attention, or a friend or family member had to point out the obvious to you about your own situation? To one commenter, I’ll send a print copy of Tartan Two-Step.





Try a Little Tenderness

When I have a chance to discuss with my cover designers what I’m looking for in an image, I start with tenderness. Tenderness is hard to capture visually, and probably doesn’t sell as many books as steam, hunkiness, or cowboy hats. I’m not backing down, though, because to me, tenderness is the essence of romance.

We choose to be both vulnerable and loving in tender moments, and if our honest emotions and courageous overtures are ridiculed or rejected, we’re devastated.  A little rejection in a tender moment lasts a lifetime. A little tenderness, when somebody is expecting ridicule or rejection, ALSO lasts a lifetime.

So imagine my surprise when I saw that Pope Francis has done a TED talk and declared that we need a revolution of tenderness. Tenderness, sayeth the Pope, is, “love that comes close and becomes real… it means to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other…Tenderness is not weakness, it is fortitude.” .

The Pope and I share a priority, and to some extent a value. Imagine that. I’m a lapsed Catholic, and I can go to town full-lawyer-female-righteous about why, but the Venn diagram of Francis and Grace has a big area of overlap. Hmm.

I found myself quoting Mitch McConnell this week too, because he and I also agree about something. He put it this way: “We have term limits. They’re called elections.” In the context of a larger discussion (gerrymandering, campaign finance reform, FCC rules regarding campaign coverage), I cited McConnell’s reasoning. If we get dark money, gerrymandering, and a few other behemoth evils out of politics, the electorate will turf out the bad eggs, and keep in office the folks who are pulling their share of the load. It’s a theory, anyway.

The point is, I almost, sorta, yikes, agreed with somebody with whom I would have said, I have nothing–nuffink!–in common. Two somebodies–the Pope and Mitch McConnell. Mercury must be in retrograde.

Then I saw the Heineken commercial, which chronicles an experiment. Two strangers cooperate on a task, putting together an Ikea-style modular bar. Unbeknownst to them, they are paired up because they hold wildly opposing viewpoints on political issues. They learn this after they’ve built the bar, and then they’re given a choice: Walk out, or have a beer together. They find the courage and humility to have that beer and talk to each other.

Division, isolation, and separation make us weak and easily frightened. What struck me this week, though, is how my default mode has become to anticipate differences, to ignore areas of common ground. That is tiring and contrary to my values. I want to live more in the middle of my Venn diagrams, where I’m connected to other people, braver, and more open-hearted.

Have you ever been surprised to find common ground? Relieved to not have to keep your dukes up all the time? To one commenter, I’ll send an audiobook of Thomas, the latest Lonely Lord to hit the audiobook shelves.







The Quiet Game

In Maryland, we can go from nights below freezing, to days in the nineties without much in-between. Some years, the air conditioning comes on in March, and the heat goes off in May. It’s… interesting.

This year, we’re having an extended period of gorgeous weather (meaning more than two days). The nights are chipper but not freezing, the bugs have been slow to come out, the days have been mostly sunny with low humidity.

What I notice, without the heat blasting, the woodstove crackling, or the fans roaring, is the quiet. We’ve all had the experience of the power winking out, and even if we’re sitting in a sunny location, we hear the house go off grid. The ‘fridge sighs, the dishwasher stops, the everything goes silent.

And our first reaction–even before, “The %$#*! power cut out again!” is a sense of relief. Studies show that people who live near chronic sources of noise–heavy traffic, airports, construction sites–will have higher blood pressure, higher levels of stress, and poorer quality sleep than the general population. The news gets worse, because that stress and elevated BP translate into heart disease.

You read that right–living loudly can cost you heart health. Other areas affected are your immune system, learning efficiency, hearing, attention span, birth weight (if your mama is dealing with a noisy gestational environment), propensity for headaches… In other words, noise is not only a nuisance, over time it can hurt us.

I am not good at tuning out sounds. I can ignore visual clutter, stink, most people, and lots of other distractions, but noise sinks my ship of creativity. I think about this when I visit those poor souls trapped in open-plan offices, particularly the exposed-duct-work, warehouse style versions. We’ve had years to study those environments, and yea, though they lower HVAC costs, and delight snoopy, insecure managers, they invariably raise sick leave totals and reduce productivity (this the opposite of team-building, ye managers). I wonder if some of the damage they do isn’t simply a function of having a lot of ambient noise.

Our brains like a good dose of silence, even to the point of finding silence more relaxing than “relaxing” music. Silence helps us integrate memories, and tend to the background brain functions related to figuring out how we fit into the world we live in.

Maybe this is why I like to write about the Regency and Victorian Highlands, and why my contemporaries are almost always rural. Those are quiet times and places, where characters can literally hear themselves think.

Do you treat yourself to regular servings of silence, or are you silence-averse? If you could add some quiet to your day, where and how might you do that? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Duchesses in Disguise, because our hero, Sir Greyville Trenton, is comfortable with silence, and can communicate well while using his handsome mouth to do a lot more than talk.




The Story of Eve and Some Guy

So, I’m reading along…. and I see an article about ADHD in women. My daughter’s pediatrician had told me long, long (like 25 years) ago, that ADHD is “underdiagnosed” in girls in his opinion, because girls don’t break things, climb the walls, fidget and other wise act like boys with ADHD. They do, however, have all the mental earmarks, and sometimes get the diagnosis of ADD.

At the time, medication was seldom prescribed for those ADD girls, because their behaviors weren’t problematic to anybody else. They just flunked math class because they were “airheads.” The article cited above confirms that long-ago assessment by that pediatrician, and goes one better: The reason ADHD isn’t accurately diagnosed in women is because all of the initial studies of the disease were done on little white boys.

Would you ever mistake a herd of busy little white boys for any other population demographic? I think not. The disease of ADHD is different in women. Period. What a concept.

Women are more likely to die of their first heart attack than men are. Why? In part, because for years, the usual scenario of heart attack symptoms was limited to the somewhat overweight guy clutching his chest, staggering around, unable to breathe. Heart disease is the number one killer of American women, more than every kind of cancer combined, and yet, that “I felt like a horse was sitting on my chest” scenario isn’t as likely to apply to women.

We’re getting smarter about heart attacks and women, and now realize that the disease is different for women and men.  Here again, would you ever mistake your grandma for your grandpa? No, you would not. Medical science did, with fatal results for women.

Then I came across this 75-year long Harvard study, which has a heartwarming and reassuring conclusion: the key to a long, healthy life is to spend time with the people who make you happy.

So you might think, “Well, now that I have scientific proof, I know what changes to make!” Except…. Read any article about this study (there are many), and notice that not one of them points out: The findings might be different for women. Every subject of this study was male–every one–and nobody has cited that limitation as relevant.

So on this holiday that celebrates resurrection and the triumph of love over darkness, I’m feeling a sense of my gender-identity being resurrected. Women are different from men, not the lesser included model, not the vicarious beneficiaries of male medical relevance. We are not male, and when we are mistaken for male, we can end up avoidably flunking math class, and avoidably dead.

Glad I got that off my chest. To one commenter, I’ll send a print copy of Tartan Two-Step, a story of love, whisky, and big, sunny skies. When did medicine get it wrong for you or somebody you love, and did gender play a role? When did medicine get it right, because thank heavens, medicine so often does get it right.






Duking It Out

So… drove to Oregon, surrendered the truck into the keeping of Beloved Offspring, and also took in a Free Expressions writing workshop. For a week, I soaked my head in the craft of fiction, and the book I focused on was my old pal, the Welsh Duke, aka No Other Duke Will Do. (There’s a sneak peek at the cover!)

Julian St. David, Duke of Haverford, rode shotgun all the way out to Oregon, and I still arrived to the conference feeling as if he just hadn’t quite come clean with me regarding his defining trauma.

After 455 miles of Nebraska, 403 miles of Wyoming, and about 2000 miles of Everywhere Else,  my hero was still holding out on me.

Dukes can be like this.

So every day, his ducal behonkis got the brunt of my workshop focus. All the exercises were about him, the homework was about him, the in-class prompts were about him. I was NOT going to let up on that guy until I’d figured out what, what, what had hurt his heart so badly that he was turning up a ducally magnificent nose at true love.

I got nowhere. If anything, His Grace climbed higher on his castle parapets, hid more deeply in his vast library. GRRRR.

Finally, I gave up. Told him to just be like that, because I’d brought along Loretta Chase’s Captives of the Night, and the Comte D’Esmond was a lot more fun to hang out with than some pouty old workaholic duke…. Guy has a library of 30,000 volumes, which treasure I bestowed on him in my capacity as author, but does he bother to thank me? Does he meet me in the library for a heart-to-heart? Nooooo.

I flounced off to bed with the Count, but as soon as I started reading, somebody or something tapped me on the shoulder: Pssst! The duke never reads. He owns all those books, and much interesting stuff happens in his various libraries, but why doesn’t he ever, not once, read? He’s nearly bankrupting himself to keep the family book collection together, but HE NEVER READS.

I shoved poor Esmond out of bed, and got back to my keyboard, because that was the loose thread that unraveled the mystery of what needed to happen with the duke.

But guess what? Somebody besides Haverford had stopped reading.

Sometime  since the new year began, I’ve grown too busy, too tired, too focused, too something to be sure I have good fiction with me at the end of every day. Reading has a zillion benefits–lower blood pressure, better heart and liver function, increased empathy, stronger vocabulary, better memory, less stress, less likelihood of Alzheimer’s–but I’d stopped reading.

And I hadn’t noticed that I’d stopped reading regularly. I’d instead felt a malaise of undetermined origin, which I blamed on that dratted duke. Once I got Haverford straightened out (or he got me straightened out), I climbed back in bed with Esmond, who made the return trip with me. Captain Gabriel Lacey is on deck, Alistair Carsington is in the bull pen.

Whew! So… What does reading do for you? To one commenter, I’ll send my Advanced Reader Copy of Mr. Rochester–A Novel. It’s a retelling of Jane Eyre from Edward’s perspective, and it is TERRIFIC.











So Sue Me

I’ve been traveling lately (hence, I’m behind on responding to comments), and this has put me in conversation with people I don’t often get to talk to, specifically young people, those in the 18-35 millennial bracket. Most of them are looking for or holding a job–any legal job–that will pay bills or pay down student loan balances. Many of them are also working a “side hustle” or freelance gig such as Uber, AirBnB, Fiverr…. anything they can find to scrounge up bucks.

I admire their initiative, and also their willingness to focus on issues other than their own ambitions–issues such as a healthy planet, elder care, functional democracy, to name a few. I leave these conversations wishing I’d bequeathed to my daughter’s generation a better deal, and hoping that between the millennials and their parents, my grandkids will have that better deal.

But I also get a big dose of appreciation for the career I’ve had in the courtroom. Last week, I sang the praises of my writin’ buddies, but this week, I want to give a nod to the  bar association.

The legal profession comes in for a lot of disrespect, but I think that’s a backhanded way of acknowledging that lawyers can make a huge difference. Think of Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, to name a few. (While we’re on the subject, 35 of the 55 Constitutional Convention delegates of 1787 were lawyers or had legal training).

I have enjoyed very much the company of other lawyers. They tend to be problem-solvers by nature, pragmatic, and hard working. Most lawyers have seen so many of life’s wrong turns in their case loads, that they’re also tolerant if not outright compassionate. When you see what incarceration for child support arrears does to  the clients affected by a stint in jail (at the taxpayer’s expense)–and also see what those missed payments mean for the children whose basic needs are going unmet, you tend to cling less righteously to the idea that your answers are the only good ones.

Lawyers who’ve been in practice for more than year have great war stories, and most also have a quick, irreverent sense of humor.

I have liked being a lawyer. That juris doctor after my name meant I was taken more seriously than I would have been otherwise, especially by men. How I wish I could give a little bit of that professional credibility to every young woman out there who’s waiting tables, because she’ll never be able to afford the current $82,000/year price tag for my law school alma mater (and neither could I!).

That’s a post for another day. For today: Here’s to the lawyers, among whom I have a been proud to number. If you were a lawyer, what would you do with your legal abilities? Where would you practice and what sort of cases would you focus on? Any interest in being a judge, or maybe a John Grisham?

To one commenter, I’ll send signed copies of my three Sweetest Kisses novels, all of which feature a lawyer protagonist.


You Gotta Have Heart

I’m fortunate that both of my professions–attorney and author–put me in company with people I enjoy. Attorneys tend to be good analytical thinkers, confident, and curious. Writers might be quieter, but they’re no less astute or mentally active. Of the two, I prefer the writers, because they are also more likely to be divergent thinkers.

Writers come up with the insightful questions and creative theories, the off-the-wall wisecracks, and turn-it-on-its-head solutions. They probably score higher than average for the personality trait known as openness, though they can also be very shy.

So there I was at a writer’s conference, and because the workshop sessions taxed the imagination sorely, the presenters allowed us frequent breaks. I was hanging out waiting my turn at the tea fixings, when I struck up a conversation with another guy in the class who’d introduced himself as “homeless when in the United States.”

He’s civilian military working overseas, but came all the way, all the way, all the way back to the States to attend this conference. He was debating whether to sign up for more work in a war zone, or fold up that tent, and come back here to write full time. Note to self: I have it pretty stinkin’ easy.

I told him I was at a much humbler crossroad, winding up my law practice, and deciding where I wanted my next exciting adventure to happen.

“That takes courage,” he said. “Making changes, shifting directions. It’s always a little scary.”

I gather he spoke from experience, but he didn’t launch into Back-When-I-Was, so I dribbled the conversational ball a little farther down the court.

“Or do I stay where I’ve been for the past twenty-five years, fix up that house, and reconcile myself to spending the next twenty-five years there?”

My writin’ buddy smiled. “That takes courage too.”

Two thoughts: How compassionate, that a man who’s working in a war zone, could see the choice faced by a relatively secure civilian with lots of good options as requiring courage, but also, he’s RIGHT. Just getting out of bed, slogging through the day, pulling our share of the load can be a heroic undertaking.

Anybody’s life can be scary, whether that person is parenting for the first time, or parenting their first special needs kid. Whether the boss is being a pill, or the marriage is feeling shaky. Whether that old left hip is acting up, or the retirement fund is drifting down.

We’re all heroes and heroines, when viewed with sufficient compassion. To one of my fellow heroines (and heroes), I’ll send a signed ARC of Too Scot to Handle.

Tell us something you did that was brave. I’ll go first: I drove from Maryland to Oregon, all by my little lonesome. Yeah, it was tons of fun, but that’s also a long, long way to road trip when a lot of the route was still sporting snow.



In My Bones

Long, long time ago, I spent a few months in Germany with my Mom, Dad, and younger brother. Dad was an exchange professor under a program set up in gratitude for the Marshall Plan, and he went on a lecture tour that included a stop in Freiburg. This is in the heart of the Black Forest, and while Dad did his science thing, Joe and I wanted to go walking in the forest.

A very nice old guy at the hotel’s front desk explained to us how to get to the trail head, and further assured us that though it was cloudy, the day would be lovely. His system for predicting the weather consisted of peering out a certain window through a certain hole in the trees at a certain hour of the early morning. After decades of collecting data, he had great faith in his system.

We did not get rained on, and the Black Forest is lovely, dark and deepl.

When I travel across country, I notice stuff: How are the roads? Are there any fancy new interchanges under construction? How many over-sized loads do I pass in the course of a day’s driving? When I finally, finally get to the hotel, is the parking lot nearly empty or crowded?

I’ve been doing this for decades, and my horseback survey generally points in the direction of the nation’s economic health. People don’t buy boats or new combines when times are hard. Hotels don’t fill up, major construction projects don’t get funded. A few years back, I was hearing a lot of headlines about economic recovery, but my roadtrip indicators said the recovery hadn’t reached the provinces yet.

We all have this kind of radar. As the mom of a school aged kid, I knew she was getting sick when her eyes were shiny, though I’ve never seen that symptom described in any medical literature. Often, Herself wouldn’t yet feel under the weather, but I knew she’d wake up the next day symptomatic.

As a writer, I love these kinds of details. I can convey to the readers, “lousy economy” by describing potholes and empty hotel parking lots without ever using words like recession, depression, or downturn. The sensation of a car hitting a pothole at speed–the sound, the inner wince–is universal. Four potholes is proof of either an awful winter or not enough budget for repairs.

The tricky thing is paying attention to the information that will clue us in, and ignoring the noise. The old guy at the hotel desk had the same shift, day after day, and only one window to look out of. Still, he had to go to the trouble of connecting the weather dots, testing his hypothesis, then refining it.

Do you have some horseback survey data that you’ve learned to rely on? A canary in the coal mine or weather prognosticator that’s unique to you and your experience? Have you ever had that kind of information and ignored it, much to your regret? To one commenter, I’ll send an advanced reader copy of “Too Scot To Handle.”