Once Upon a Bathroom Scale…

This is a time of year when many people unite around a common story, whether it’s the miracle of a temple flame burning for eight days, the tale of young couple far from home when the new baby arrives, or the sharing of cultural roots that reach past a period of enslavement to the rich and varied histories of West African societies. I can’t recall a major holiday in my childhood that wasn’t in some way associated with storytelling.

One of my family’s favorites was that time when Grace tried to weigh her head. You read that right. I was five or six, and I got taken with the notion of figuring out how much my head weighed. I laid on the bathroom floor and put my head on the scale. There’s a problem with this approach: With my head on the scale, I couldn’t read the scale. What to do?

Had I chosen, say, the middle of a Saturday afternoon to research this vital fact, then there were would likely be no story. I chose a weekday morning at about 7:30 am. At this time of day, my oldest two brothers would have been trying to get out of the house to attend their college classes. Three other siblings had a bus to catch, and my dad needed to get to the office.

And the nine members of the Burrowes family had to execute the morning routine with one bathroom between us all. The other half bath, being in a more or less renovated garage, was colder than a well digger’s boots, and saw about as much use as would a two-seater at the back of the hog house.

Because that one full bath was in constant demand, it also had one of very few locking doors in the house. To conduct my head-weighing experiment, I required privacy, like most great minds when wrestling with a profound question. I locked the bathroom door, and commenced to study on how to weigh my head and read the scale. The problem was complicated.

A brother pounded on the door. “Grace, hurry up! I can’t be late for class.”

As if that was my problem? Genius takes time. Another sibling thumped on the door. “What the heck are you doing in there?”

“None of your business.”

This went on–five older siblings make a lot of racket–until my mom realized that our usual early morning ballet had hit a logjam. “Grace, unlock this door.”

“No. I’m weighing my head.”

Except I wasn’t. I was trying to weigh my head, but no matter how quickly I peeked, the scale didn’t register the actual weight of my head. An estimate for such vital data would not do.

“Open this door immediately, young lady. You can weigh your head some other time.”

“I want to know how much my head weighs now.” To this day, I have no idea why I had to know the weight of my five-year-old head. Nor do I know what guardian angel of reckless five-year-olds inspired me to climb up the shelves and get the hand-mirror, because using that important tool, I could both lay my head on the scale, and read the resulting weight.

When my mom’s magic bobby pin unlocked the bathroom door, I was putting away the hand-mirror, and quite pleased with myself. My family was enormously entertained–genius is often misunderstood–but I bet they don’t know how much their heads weigh.

What stories does your family tell about you? What stories do you tell when you get together with old friends or family? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amex gift card, but you have to say nice thing about me if the topic of how to weigh your head ever comes up.

 

 

 

Clothes Maketh the Horsewoman

I have resumed my equestrian education. I’m three lessons in, and have walked, trotted, and–wheee!!!–cantered both directions on an elderly school horse named Jack. I love him. He loves treats. We’re getting along just fine.

I’ve also just finished A Duke in Shining Armor by Loretta Chase. For the most part, when an author includes fashion descriptions, I yawn, but Loretta uses fashion to symbolize story elements–like a fussy, flouncy, hard-to-get-out-of wedding dress that’s all wrong for the pragmatic, whip smart heroine.

What has Lady Olympia’s wedding dress to do with riding lessons? Well, you can’t just slap on your schooling tights and head out to the barn. I have to get some layers on my top half, because even though it’s 25 degrees out, after leading himself around in deep sawdust for twenty minutes, I don’t need a coat. Then too, you have to get your hair all tidied up and out of the way.

As I’ve resumed the routine of dressing for my lessons, I’ve noticed a few things. First, my paddock boots have about a one-inch heel. This is to stop the foot from sliding through the stirrup iron, but the effect on me is a slight increase in height. The paddock boot also protects the toes from mis-steps by a half-ton equine. They are substantial footwear, and my footsteps announce my stride when I’m wearing them.

I wear winter schooling tights for my lessons, which have an elastic waistband, and suede patches on the inside of the knee. That patch helps me grip the saddle more snugly, and protects the inside of my calves from being pinched by the stirrup leathers.

Everything I wear for riding is for my safety or for my comfort. NOTHING is designed with a primary aim of enhancing my attractiveness, making me look skinny, or hiding my bulges. Interestingly, riding is a sport where men and women wear the same attire–unlike our Olympic beach volleyball athletes.

I can’t think of any other venue where the dress code is for my safety and comfort–none. Not the courthouse (no open-toed shoes… why? Are my bare toes that distracting?), not church (cover my hair because that was a cultural norm 2000 years ago?), not the office. My Chico’s duds are cold in winter and hot in summer, and in the Chico’s store, the nice ladies are usually whispering “slim secrets” (which always involve the purchase of accessories) before I’ve tried on the first outfit.

Reflecting on how much I love riding attire makes me aware that when when you tell somebody how to dress, you are to some extent telling them who they should be. Wear those stilettos, and so what if they will result in a hip replacement by the time you’re 55. Wear the perfume, because the smell of horse, hay, and leather isn’t attractive, unless it’s on a guy. Wear the smile, because…

What items in your wardrobe are for your comfort and safety? When have you told the dress code or the fashion police to get lost? To two commenters, I’ll send… a $25 American Express gift card, which I hope you spend on something comfy to add to your wardrobe.

 

Just STOP–no really, Stop!

In my travels this week, I came across the concept of a ‘stopping cue.’ These are the zillion tiny signals dotting our lives that tell us to end an activity. Way back when, the five o’clock whistle would blow, and we’d down tools and head home.  The sun would set, we’d go to bed.

In print books, you have scene and chapter breaks, and at the very end you get those Dear Reader letters from your truly, but then… the book is over with. Time to let the dog out for last call and go to sleep.

A stopping cue is a big help in regulating health and well being, because it becomes something we don’t have think about, like stop signs. You see that red octagon with four white letters in the middle, and in very short order, you don’t have think, “Oh, time to bring the car to a complete cessation of motion.” Your foot just moves from the gas to the brake, while you keep impressing the world with your roadtrip karaoke, musical genius that you are.

When our stopping cues are gone, we have to use a lot more energy and focus to remain oriented and self-regulated, like trying to diet in the midst of multiple smorgasbords filled with favorite recipes.

In one area of life, there has been a concerted effort to remove stopping cues, and that’s on our screens. We can now “binge watch” entire seasons of television shows at once. Social media will dazzle our wondering eyes with a bottomless sea of personal content, camouflaging the fact that we’re really staring at a tabloid shopper. The news cycle is now 24 hours, and all of it sticky with anxiety-producing negativity. You can play Minesweeper until your arm falls off, not just until the quarter runs out.

As I look at the approaching new year, I already know I want to pay more attention to stopping cues, and to protecting the ones I have. There are places I won’t be taking my iPhone (like the dinner table), days I won’t be on social media (aiming for two a week), and times I won’t be scrolling email (outside business hours). I suspect at first, rebuilding some of these boundaries will be hard, but I grew up without any social media, and calling during the dinner hour has always been considered rude.

Have you felt an erosion of stopping cues in your life? Have you built any into your day or your week? What did you used to do with your personal time, before screens became our default mode?

I’m sending out three give-aways this week, because our list last week was so impressive: an audio recording of Jack: The Jaded Gentleman Book IV, a glittery amaryllis from Hirt’s Nursery, and a pound of Mary See’s dark chocolate marzipan.

 

 

 

‘Tis More FUN to Give…

I do a giveaway every week with this blog and this is for reasons. I know my readers are all pretty capable of looking out for themselves, but when I send out a book or a box of chocolate, I feel more connected to my tribe. I like to think of somebody seeing a package and wondering, “I haven’t ordered any–Oh, yeah! I won a book from Grace!”

You get a smile, and I get a smile. The neuroscience says I actually get the bigger smile. When we give to somebody else, we get a bigger dopamine reward than when we self-indulge. The parts of our brain associated with happiness and altruism light up when we’re generous, and our blood pressure drops. People who can keep the generous habit going into old age report better spirits, and the generous among us tend to live longer. And you don’t have give a lot for it to make you happy–just be thoughtful within your means.

BUT there’s a difficulty here. You good folks reading this blog mostly have my books. You also have a lot of the books of my writin’ buddies, so what to give away become a challenge. My mom was one of those people who could spot the perfect blouse for you from a geosynchronous orbital altitude of eight miles. I didn’t get that gene. I’m not big on stuff myself, so the idea that I’d send somebody something they didn’t need or want makes me cringe.

Then I read John Scalzi’s blog post, an annual tradition with him. He opens up his blog once a year for everybody else to post books, crafts, albums, fave charities, art, anything that might make a good holiday thought for somebody with a shopping list of names and not enough ideas. I will be cruising John’s blog daily for the next week.

But I’d like some help with MY blog. I need giveaway ideas, Christmas gift ideas, links to anything you saw that would be perfect for Aunt Impossible or that brand new six-week-old nephoo. If you have a favorite charity (I’m fond of Heifer International, and that’s one of their hand-knitted Peruvian ornaments to the right) then put that in the comments.

Then I’ll chose three of your suggestions and send out those gifts to commenters. If you’ve been very good this year (or even if you haven’t), then it’s fair game to list the thing you’d like to come across this holiday season–with your name on it. I just might end up sending it to you. (Or you might get the fuzzy socks, just sayin’).

And that’s what I’d start with: I love Maggie’s organic wool hiking socks. They are the gift I bring my hostesses, my condolence gift to the bereaved, and what I sent to my editor and my web team last year as a token of holiday appreciation. If there’s a sock hound on your list, consider a pair of Maggie’s. They are spendy, but they last and last and are like a hug for your feet.

Your turn, and didja see the website got its holiday decorations, didja huh?

Don’t Worry, B 12

I’m having company next week. A friend from Scotland is spending a few days with me while airfares are cheap and the weather isn’t too wintry. We’ll probably stroll the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath, grab some grub at Dan’s Tap House and drop by Turn the Page Bookstore.

I have not had company stay overnight at my house for the past fourteen years, at least. The issue isn’t pathological introversion, though I’m VERY introverted, nor do I lack for friends whose company I enjoy.

I just didn’t have the energy. Company is a lot of work. There’s housecleaning to be done, meals to plan, errands that have to be taken care of ahead of time so company isn’t neglected while visiting. There’s clean up and then catch up, and the sheer effort of being “on” for several days at a time. Then there’s the fact that because I do not prioritize housework, getting the premises ready for company has become a sizeable undertaking.

But I’m doing it, and I’m pleased to be tackling the challenge. The spirit has long been willing, but the flesh… for years, the flesh has had all it can do to sit in an ergonomic office chair and type 2000 words a day. The tread desk was the next priority, the law office had to be tended to, and of course, the pets got their due. But I had nothing left for more than subsistence domestication.

What changed?

When I went to the doc a couple months ago, I made my usual lament: Got no juice to spare, and the usual suspects–bad sleep, bad diet, low iron, thyroid disease, Lyme disease–have all been addressed. The doc, a nice lady of mature years to whom I’ve been singing the “no juice” blues for YEARS, asked, “What about B12?”

What about B12? “I had an uncle with pernicious anemia. Showed up in his fifties. I don’t think I’ve been tested for it.”

I got tested, and whaddya know, I needed B12. I started the shots, and within a week, I felt as if somebody had wiped the bug-splat off my mental windshield, as if the sun had come out. I’m not turning handsprings physically, but my mental engine still has compression at noon for a change. I wish I’d thought to test B12 sooner, because I look around now and see a cruddy house that should be cute and cozy (and will be!), a diminished social life, missed opportunities with friends, and other symptoms that could have been so easily treated if somebody had just taken a half-decent family history.

Now, I wonder what other B12’s are lurking in that family history, and in the routines and environments I’ve built up around myself. Sometimes, everything turns on finding the pea under the mattresses, on asking even one casual, obvious-in-hindsight question.  Are there peas lurking under your mattress? Small changes that have made a big impact? Little questions that have led to big insights?

To one commenter, I’ll send one of those praline and truffle assortments from the Highland Chocolatier, because that choice was VERY popular last week.

 

Deep in November

It’s not even 5 pm, but the day has been dreary and mizzly so it’s nearly dark outside. Temperatures are trending down toward freezing, and the wind is gusting making it feel even colder. I know many people dread this time of year–the cold, the slick roads, the darkness make everything harder.

But I like the transition from fall to winter. First off, NO BUGS. I know bugs are important to the ecosystem, but my nearest neighbors are bovines. I get all the insect companionship I want by the end of summer. Secondly, I sleep better when it’s cold. This might be a circadian rhythm thing; might have to do with the house being quieter when doors and windows are closed; might be because exercising in cooler weather isn’t as awful as exercising in summer’s heat, so I’m more tuckered out.

Thirdly, the long dark evenings mean I get more writing done. I think the sun going down earlier prompts me to leave the danged law office at a reasonable hour, whereas in summer, I’ll still be there at 8 pm, pretending I’m getting stuff done. Fourthly, the holidays approach, and that’s a lovely time of year. We think of others more naturally then, and when is that a bad idea?

Fifthly, changing seasons give my life a sense of moving forward–toward something–and I like that. My parents lived in San Diego, and while I know there are seasons in that latitude (June has a lot of morning fog, rain comes (if ever) in December and January), but the seasons where I live are dramatic enough to create a strong impression. When the first snow hits, when the first crocus comes up, when the first lightning bug is spotted, things are changing.

This has been challenging year for many of us, and the changing seasons remind me: Onward. We have only this one life in which to create a meaningful legacy and light a few candles.

How does the onset of winter find you? Ready to read for three months straight? In a funk? Catalogue shopping like a boss? To one commenter, I’ll send a box of The Highland Chocolatier’s signature truffles and pralines. They will take a while to get to you, but are well worth the wait.

Can You See Me Now?

Once upon a time, I was engaged in several years of individual counseling. I learned much from the nice LCSW-lady, including that a lot of loving somebody is paying attention to them–seeing them, hearing them, being with them where they are.

This is the magic of the moment in romance novels we call the meet. The protagonists collide, neither of them looking for love, but something happens. He sees that she’s being man-splained in a meeting, and makes sure her opinion gets heard and respected. She notices that he lacks charm, but he’s fair-minded, even when that’s contrary to his own interests, and she thanks him for it in front of the big boss. Before anybody can truly love us, they have to know us… and that’s both scary and tantalizing.

One of the moments I recall most clearly from my hundreds of therapy sessions was when my counselor casually observed, “When you were growing up, nobody ever explained much of anything to you, did they?”

I thought back… my brother Tom showed me how to tie my shoes. I do recall that. I would have been about four. My sister Maire informed me at the bus stop when I was in fourth grade that I should start wearing a bra, so I helped myself to one of hers and didn’t tell anybody. I figured out feminine hygiene products by reading the package inserts… I’m sure there were some explanations along the way, but part of my frustration with the current diet (which I still detest) is that my mom never let me (or anybody) help in the kitchen.

I learned to bake by reading recipes, starting with brownies when I was age seven. I never learned to cook. I never learned to wear makeup, and nobody ever explained the whole matching shoes and handbag thing. I learned to braid my hair by trial and error, and I had to be told–at an embarrassingly adolescent age, by my godmother–that eating with one hand on my lap is more genteel than resting an arm beside my plate.

The results of being a largely self-taught child are both helpful and not so helpful.  I respect everybody, but my trust must be earned. Just because you’re a doctor, professor, or international expert doesn’t mean I’ll believe what you say to be correct. Another result is that I expect myself to meet challenges with my own resources. That can be called self-reliance, it can also be bull-headed, arrogant stupidity.

Above all though, as somebody who was not particularly visible early in life, I came to love books. In books, I could find explanations, connected dots, kindred souls, and reassurance of my own humanity. From brownie recipes to tampon package inserts to the APA Diagnostic and Statistical Manual to what that moment feels like when somebody truly, truly sees you for who you are and respects  the person they see… I found it in books.

What do you find in books? To one commenter, I’ll send an advanced reader copy of A Rogue of Her Own.

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Whole Drudgery

I’m trying the Whole Thirty diet, and am half way through my 30 days. This is an elimination diet, meaning you don’t go near food that is likely to bother your body. Sugar, sweeteners, dairy, legumes, processed starch (chips, bread, pasta), all grains, are all out the window in favor of whole veggies, home-cooked meat (not that additive-saturated processed crap), and a few fruits. Tree nuts are OK (thank heavens), and spices are encouraged.

The objective is not to lose weight, though some people do. The objective is to feel better–less groggy, puffy, tired, compulsive, dull, achy, and scattered. The diet’s proponents claim it can have life-changing consequences, and will certainly shift your relationship with food.

Mine has shifted all right. Instead of looking forward to my one cup of jasmine green tea with agave nectar and cream, I choke down the plain variety and wonder why I bothered. I put off eating because fixing stuff I don’t like is just drudgery. Eating it is worse than drudgery, and when this thirty days is over, brothers and sisters, there will be some CHEESE consumed in Western Maryland.

Why subject myself to this? Because with my health and energy, I’ve reached the point where I have to acknowledge: What I’m doing isn’t working well enough.

That tread desk is good, staying away from gluten isn’t a bad idea either, leaving out the caffeine can’t hurt, and nobody needs to eat much meat… but all of that wasn’t moving any needles in the right direction. So I’m going Sherlock Holmes, and investigating the unthinkable for thirty days.

I knew food was part of my  reward system (books are another part), but I’m left with the realization that I might have to demote food to a subsistence necessity. (This is me, grieving for my long, lost cheddar.) What then? What manner of treat doesn’t go in my mouth? The usual answers–a massage, a writin’ buddy date, flowers–don’t have the immediacy or simplicity of food. If I finish a scene that has really been a slog (what scene isn’t?), I can go to the kitchen for a snack. If I have put in a particularly good day on the tread desk, I can pat myself on the back with a cup of hot chocolate.

If court was awful (and it often is), I can comfort myself with cup of decaf Constant Comment (with agave nectar and half and half). I’m not a glutton, my caloric intake is well within the charted guidelines, but I do try to make food something I enjoy.

And thus my question to you: What are your micro-rewards or micro-comforts? When the day has been trying, when there’s something mundane to celebrate, how do you treat yourself? I don’t envision a life without chocolate or cheese, but I would like to have more variety in my pleasures, until that fine day when somebody comes up with an edible book.

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy (not an ARC!) of No Other Duke Will Do.

 

 

 

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Mama Always Said

My sainted mother once said to me, “When I get anxious, I get stupid.” She was anxious a lot, and with good reason. Seven kids, four of them boys (including a pair of twin boys), and all of them Burrowes children.

Her husband was caught in the publish or perish grist mill of university life, where grant renewals created regular uncertainty, as did departmental politics, state funding cuts, and shifting public policies. Dad would occasionally disappear on scientific expeditions for weeks at a time (no cell phones, no landlines, no nothing), leaving Mom with a houseful of teenagers–oh, joy!

Mom looked after aging parents, who chose to make their final home five miles from where she was still very much raising children. Grandpa was a type I diabetic with a bad heart, Grandma eventually succumbed to a lymphatic cancer. Good thing Mom was a registered nurse who could provide her parents free hospice care, huh?

Mom’s life was hard, and she and I often didn’t get along.  I sometimes thought she wasn’t very bright and her summation of parenting me was, “No job worth doing is easy.”

She was plenty bright–very bright, in fact–but she was pushed beyond her limits, and that, it turns out can make us dumb. As somebody who deals with child welfare law, I bump up against psychological testing a lot. I’ve heard many experts testify that our intelligence in particular is a stable trait over the course of our lives.

Mom and I in Ireland ca 1981.

Turns out, Mom was right and the experts are wrong. If you test intelligence when people are under stress, they will score lower–by as much as thirteen points in some studies–than they test when the stress has been alleviated.

This works whether you’re testing Indian sugarcane farmers waiting, waiting, waiting for the harvest to begin, or Princeton mall shoppers who are barely getting by.

The effect of being broke, worried, and without a safety net has the same cognitive impact as always, always, going through life as if you didn’t get any sleep last night. When it comes to stress–exhaustion, money woes, health concerns, loneliness, mental health issues, job worries–that which does not kill you makes you dumber, less able to cope, and less able to think strategically–at least temporarily. With this fact in mind, I hope we re-evaluate our 60-hour work weeks, 24-hour medical rotations for doctors, and miserly attitudes toward family leave.

I think romance readers, like my mom, know what the experts are only now proving. Readers know that if they dwell for too long amid the stressors of life, if they never take a break from worry and work, they can’t be at their best. They know that for a few bucks, a well written novel can hold all of the to-dos, must-dos, and honey-dos at bay long enough to allow for some breathing room and heartsease.

They know that a good book can help life feel more manageable. I’ve never met a reader who said that her  TBR pile made her smarter, but in fact, it just might be doing exactly that.

How do you keep the stress from stealing your wits? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed ARC of No Other Duke Will Do.

 

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The Duke and Duchess of Wrong

Coming up with antagonists who are believable, effective, and even a tad sympathetic is one of the greatest challenges I face with my writing. It’s a stone-tablet novel-craft commandment though, that the better you write your antagonists, the more your heroes and heroines have to grow and stretch to outwit them.

Then I came across this article by Issendai, courtesy of writing industry blogger Jane Friedman, which outlines how to create a sick system. The sick system, be it a business, a relationship, a writing group, holds together on the basis of unhealthy psychology. Factors such as chronic overwork, fatigue, never-ending crises, and unpredictable rewards create a sticky mess of anxiety, guilt, hope, and fear, with no resources remaining for real problem-solving.

This article prompted reflection about the unhealthy relationships I’ve been in, and a couple of villainous patterns emerge.

Part of the reason I’m chronically tired in a sick system is because the person who set up the system won’t help me with all the responsibility I’ve been assigned. The ex keeps dodging his or her half of the parenting schedule. The boss gives me too many projects and won’t get me an assistant, the other parents on the playground watch “must” work all the time, every weekend. The more selfless their excuses, the harder it is for me to name their exploitation of me. In some clever cases, I’m the very reason they can’t help: I demand child support (the law demands it), I want a promotion (when did I say that?), I volunteered, didn’t I (for every weekend?!)?

Another factor at work is that actions and words don’t connect for people perpetuating a sick system. “I love you,” offered with an affectionate smile, doesn’t jive with, “So I’ll leave you to deal with all the bills, our unruly adolescents, the falling apart car, the overgrown yard, and the irate homeowners’ association while I go to my third spin class of the weekend.”

Sick systems also rely on an ability to pivot villainy–to fingerpoint–outside the system. How many bosses have patiently explained that, “Some clients are unreasonable, but they are the client…” over and over, without admitting that some bosses give clients unreasonable expectations, over and over? How many spouses have blamed the job, while doing nothing to find another job? How many judges, school administrators, pastors, and other authority figures have said, “My hands are tied,” when in fact, there isn’t a rope to be seen?

And these people seem to know how to turn up sweet just often enough, just unpredictably enough, to keep our loyalty.

Those patterns–creating perpetually unreasonable obligations, disconnecting actions and words, evading responsibility, and offering unpredictable rewards–should result in some thoroughly dis-likeable, absolutely believable, hard-to-defeat antagonists… If I can stand to write them.

Have you come across any real-life sick systems? How did you get out, or how would you advise a character in a book to escape such a dynamic? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed advanced reader copy of No Other Duke Will Do.

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