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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The Science of Me

I am frequently amazed by my own obliviousness.

When morning sickness showed up within 72 hours of having conceived a child, I grumbled about having a tummy bug, because surely–surely–that was the only explanation for heaving in the morning, sharp spikes of fatigue mid-day, and an overall crummy feeling?

When three-day migraines plagued me without mercy (several a month), I chalked it up to genetics. Why should working a sixty-hour week and going to law school five nights a week have anything to do with headaches? Or why should commuting four hours a day, working full time and single-parenting?

I could go on about all the times I’ve gone smurfing along, ignoring information that might have helped me, because the only data I had to go on was my own experience.

And while I am older and wiser, I still have a way to go in terms of paying attention to my own on-going experiment in personhood.

I recently returned from a week in central Florida, where the temperature and humidity compete for biggest source of misery. I’ve been there before. Hated it. Hated the crowding, the lack of geological formations that orient me on the map (mountains, ya know), the lack of open space. I even disliked the sunlight, which felt glare-y to me. The people are lovely, but I could not get out of there fast enough.

I chalked it up to me being intolerant of change.

Then a writing buddy mentioned reverse seasonal affective disorder, (rSAD) which afflicts about one in ten people sporting the SAD diagnosis. Most of us know SAD as the winter blues, the cold weather blahs, but for me, summer is the dreaded time. The heat, the bugs (lordy I do hate me some house flies), the short nights that feel too lively to settle into, the humidity, the everything (except the flowers, I do love the flowers).

I read the linked article and thought, “That’s ME. That’s ME.” I’m pretty sure it’s also my daughter, and every horse I’ve ever met. I can’t wait for fall to arrive, and this weekend, when the temperature dipped into the low sixties at night, I actually cleaned my room.

I walked an extra quarter mile on the tread desk yesterday, when doing any time there at all has grown to be worse torture than ever.

Why did I wait to read an article referencing fancy academic studies to be OK with not liking summer? I know I perk up in the fall, and attributed it to “sleeping better when it cools off,” but summer blahs are a thing, and they are my thing. I can’t focus as well, I can’t rest as well, I can’t be me as well.

With that sentiment in mind, this will be my last blog post for a few weeks. I’m going to dive into my writing cave, get some research done (this is a euphemism for activity involving a suitcase), and REST.

But first, I’ll send an audiobook version of Too Scot To Handle to one commenter. What do you know about yourself–know, know, know–that eventually, science, medicine, or society might get the memo on?

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I Am So Proud of You

Once a year, the Romance Writers of America association puts on a national conference. More than 2000 authors (from the 10,000+ total members), along with editors, bloggers, literary agents, and other industry professionals gather to talk shop, learn, network, and celebrate. The RITA and Golden Heart awards are announced, and much–MUCH–business is transacted.

The anthology, Dukes in Disguise, was born in the RWA conference hotel lobby in 2015. Another project, No Dukes Allowed, was born over a breakfast discussion this year (look for a novella antho next spring). The conference is exciting, exhausting, and tremendous fun. Good things always happen at RWA, but so, inevitably do some not-so-good things.

The RWA conference is stressful. Editors and authors who deal with each other long distance have this one chance to interact face to face. That can mean you learn at Conference that your contract won’t be renewed, or that your editor is leaving to work for a competitor. Aspiring authors have a chance to “pitch” their books to agents and editors, who might request to see the manuscript, or who might pass… again.

Emotions run high, and the “conference melt down,” is a thing. Before my first Conference, I’d read some “what to expect” article that warned that part of the deal for first-timers (and others) was to, at some point in the week, go up to your hotel room and cry.

“That is silly,” says me. “I’m a litigating buzzsaw of a tough old broad. There’s no crying at Conference.” Day Two, who was up in her hotel room, all teary-eyed over the experience of being fifty-plus years old, and for the first time of my life, not being any kind of Other in a professional space?

Above all, Conference is an experience of community. Over and over, I had a chance to say to a writing buddy, “I am so proud of you.” Julie Anne Long’s Aug. 29 contemporary, Dirty Dancing at Devil’s Leap, earned an unheard-of five stars from the Reviewers at Romantic Times. Regency author Kelly Bowen won the long historical RITA with A Duke to Remember, and Laura Lee Gurke took the short historical category with No Mistress of Mine.

Other writing buddies achieved quieter milestones, such as finishing a manuscript, pitching for the first time, or getting their first request from an editor to submit a manuscript. In all of these cases, somebody I know has spent years pursuing a dream, despite tough odds, setbacks, rejections, and wrong turns, and their tenacity and courage has been rewarded. Now multiply that times 2000.

The lift I get from going around for four days with, “I am so proud of you,” on the tip of my tongue is tremendous. I’m proud of us, of my writin’ buddies and of the people who help get our books into the readers’ hands. I’m proud of the readers, who think stories about love and honor are worth paying for and enjoying. I’m proud of RWA, for being an umbrella under which a diverse and talented group of people can gather and be glad.

I am so proud of my romance community. To whom do you, or could you, say the words, “I am so proud of you”? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Too Scot to Handle, because I’m proud of that book too.

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C’mon, Get Happy (and Old)!

When it comes to my energy level, I often feel as if I’m trying to cook a banquet over a tea light. The juice is just not THERE, which is typical of my old pal, hypothyroidism. On the tread desk, I don’t march, I trudge. All the memes exhorting me to get to the gym, lose the weight, go paleo, go clean, drink water (but not from plastic bottles), avoid carbs (avoid more carbs! avoid all carbs!), strike me as fine ideas, but executing them takes energy.

Instead of cursing the darkness (though heaven knows I have the energy for that), I scrounge around for what I can do. For the smallest steps I can take in the direction of better health and more energy.

Like managing my sleep. Pretty much every prescription for better health is doomed if it’s not based on adequate rest. I can do this one! Or learning New Stuff, because this is one way to protect the old brain from Alzheimer’s. I can learn new stuff! Or making time for my friendships–very important for overall health and happiness.

Something else that has been proven to aid longevity is optimism, having hopes and dreams instead of noshing constantly on worries and disappointments. Looking on the bright side, acknowledging that silver linings can be beautiful. Associating with bright-side people (commenters represent!), avoiding the click-bait horror stories that pollute so much of what passes for social media.

Optimistic people have longer life expectancies. Optimistic people with HIV have better prognoses than do HIV patients of a grimmer nature. Optimistic people recover from surgeries and other physical traumas more quickly.

There’s further evidence that you can even be wrong in your optimism–you’re not as healthy as you think, not as likely to succeed as you think–and your positive outlook still benefits your overall health. You feel better than your lab reports think you should, in other words.

I love my life. I’m so stinkin’ lucky to be able to do something I love, much less to be able to pay the bills doing it. I can spend my free time as I please, my health is good enough that none of my dreams are precluded by medical issues. Yes, there are challenges, and thank heavens for them, because they help me keep growing.

I want to do what I can to keep this joyride going. Turns out, one of the most powerful steps I can take is to foster a positive attitude about myself, my future, and my fellow wayfarers.  Maybe the meek will inherit the earth, but the jolly will have good long turn enjoying it too.

Where do you see grounds for optimism? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Too Scot to Handle, a tale that draws upon much optimism to reach its happily ever after, even optimism in the face of disaster!

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Avoiding the Cyber Attach

I can often be heard to proclaim, “My greatest treasure is Unstructured Time.” Love me a day to myself. And yet, as I’ve spent less time in the law office, I’m not more productive.

What’s up with that, Grace Ann?

Part of what’s up with that is that I’ve given the cyber world an inch, and it has a taken half the State of Grace. Social media threads about the serious problem of click-farm books on Amazon, the best way to promote a book during the summer slump (into which Too Scot to Handle squarely falls), or who else is going to the RWA Literacy for Life book signing in Orlando on July 29… all steal a chunk of time.

And beyond a small increment of information, they offer no benefit. Turns out, if you want to feel more connected to others, one of the best ways to do that is to unplug and spend time alone. Why? Because alone-time is when we figure out what we believe, where our challenges lie, and who we are.

Not too far from me…

When those questions are ignored, we’re more prone to wandering the cyber world, clicking the day away, and trying to evade a fundamental sense of rootlessness.

The cyber newsfeed thus becomes a pernicious temptation when you consider that negativity-based stories (with anxiety, fear, or hatred as their subtext) are almost impossible to forget or ignore–and the media absolutely knows this and depends on the neuro-science behind it to stay in business.

A lovely spot for a cuppa

So on the one hand, the cyber world has become increasingly skilled at keeping us staring at the screen; on the other hand, the more we check email when standing in line, surf headlines while waiting for an appointment, or play-list while walking, the less we have an identity secure enough to withstand the spin, lies, and fakery.

Pretty nasty stuff out there, and the stuff we carry inside–problems, emotions, big questions–isn’t easy to deal with either. But I’m going on the record here before people whom I trust and respect as promising to prune back my cyber footprint. I have books to write, blogs to write, books to read, a yard to play in, friends to share a cup of tea with.

If I’m on FB, it will be to post on my page before I go larking off to argue about climate change.

My phone will stay out of sight and across the room when I’m writing (and that ALONE will increase my ability to focus and problem solve).

I’ll wait in line with myself, drive around in my own exclusive company, and sit outside on the porch with a cup of tea at least once a day…. unless, of course, the Welsh Duke should decide to join me.

What’s your relationship with the cyber world? With you too much late and soon? Not a problem? Something in between? To one commenter, I’ll send an audio version of Too Scot to Handle, once it goes on sale!

 

 

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The Queen of Me

Delray the Wonder Pony

You might think that saddles are much the same. Girth, stirrups, a place to put the old fundament, some padding for the trusty steed’s back–not too complicated.

You would be in error. The wrong saddle can back-lame a horse, blister a rider in the worst places, and ruin a riding relationship. You might ride your horse for years, thinking he’s stiff when going to the right–many horses are. Then you change saddles, and all of a sudden, Thunderbolt moves like he’s trotting on clouds. The saddle was the right size, you paid good money for it, the trainer said it fit… but Thunderbolt begged to differ.

After a few years on the same horse, I had a saddle specifically made to fit his back, my butt, my weight, the way he moved, and the work we set out to do. Then we added a few more years to the saddle–different seasons, different exercises–and it became ours in a way only another equestrian can understand.

Somewhere along the way (probably in a therapist’s office), I came across the idea that when you’re on the path you’re supposed to pursue, your regalia–your symbols of office–will come to you. I did not buy Delray the Wonder Pony for myself. I bought him for my daughter at something of a fire sale. Darling Child moved on, and Del was left without a job at the same time I was without a horse.

I know that a marriage of convenience can turn into something wonderful, because Delray proved it to me. My daughter sent him my way, and then–then, my friends–I began to ride.

I’ve since kept an eye out for regalia. For items that cross my path that bring me something special. My late mom’s purse, a silk scarf my niece bought for me in India, the ball cap from my former riding instructor’s barn.

I don’t like having a lot of stuff. My car is eight years old, I didn’t buy a bed until I was facing motherhood (sleeping bag = more money for books), and when I travel, it’s one suitcase or do without. But some of what I own is precious to me. The Scotland With Grace book my 2016 tour members put together for me. A pretty bookmark my sister Gail gave me. An outfit my mom bought for me about twenty years ago (that still fits!).

These objects help anchor me to who I am and who I want to be. They are symbols of strength and goodness, and I try to keep them close at hand. If anything embodies the love in my life tangibly, it’s these icons of other people’s generosity and respect.

Do you have regalia? Have you bestowed regalia on loved ones? If you were to grab one object of sentimental value to take with you on a big adventure, what would it be? To one commenter, I’ll give the first ever spotted-in-the-wild copy of Too Scot To Handle.

 

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