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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When the Beach Is Not the Beach

I’m just back from a trip to visit Dear Old Dad. At 96, he needs 24-hour in-home care provider support. One of my sisters also lives with him, another lives two miles away. I pinch hit for the residential sister, as do my four brothers.

And we’re still nearly tapped out from the sheer stamina that’s required to care for one fairly healthy, fairly financially secure Aged P. Dad is in hospice, for a number of reasons, but he can still beat me at cribbage (on a good day), still feed himself (do not leave good ice cream unattended around that guy), and will take his meds as directed much of the time.

But he no longer walks. He’s down to “stand and pivot” with assistance. He has days when he mostly sleeps, days when he won’t take his meds. Days when he can barely hold the cards and wants to know where Mom is (RIP Mom 2/5/16). The care providers try hard, but they are underfoot by necessity, and they sometimes have their own dramas. Then there’s the visiting nurse, the hygiene nurse, the church lady who brings communion, the gardener…

I went bananas, three different ways. First, I’m no longer used to being around people–real  people–24-7. My solitude tank hit empty, and this made me irritable. Second, I’m not used to having my time commandeered without notice. If Dad yelled for me, I was supposed to present myself forthwith, offering solutions to whatever the problem of the moment was. If he ran out of some hygiene supply, if the care providers had a personal emergency… as “case manager,” my role was to spackle over all the gaps in the care plan.

Being infield utility meant very little writing productivity, and that too, made me grumpy.

Third, Dad lives in suburban San Diego, in a neighborhood where the houses are close together to maximize views of the ocean. You would not believe how many power tools, leaf blowers, car horns, barking dogs, and screeching children, can be packed into one residential block, and they all start up at 7 am. My silence tank went bone dry.

Since coming home, I’ve been knocking out my writing to-dos and getting back into the stories. I’ve also hibernated at my QUIET little house, which I have a strange compulsion to Big Clean. The kind of clean where I fill up contractor bags and throw out furniture the dog has ruined. Maybe a purge is a better word. Asserting control over my time, my space, and my imagination is gradually bringing me right, but lordy, am I in awe of my sisters. Greater love hath nobody, ever, than those two ladies show our father who art in San Diego.

Have you ever had to recover from a “vacation?” A family reunion or business trip? How do you negotiate your re-entry, and is there something about home you’ve learned to appreciate more fully for having missed it? To one commenter, I’ll send an audio version of Tremaine’s True Love.Save

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Now Just a Danged Minute

We know some stuff about how big families work, and one of the things we know–say about people who are number six out of seven children–is that these children will often make their contribution to the family’s functionality by changing roles. When the family needs a cheerleader, out come the pom-poms. When the family needs a voice of reason, logic is the order of the day. When the family is embarking on an ill-planned adventure, the younger siblings will often be the ones muttering, “Mapquest says this isn’t a shortcut…”

The benefit of having these folks around–cheerleaders one day, oracles of doom the next–is that the group as a whole gets a wider perspective on any situation. The “after-thought” position takes a broad view, and tries to make sure all the data gets consideration. It only FEELS like these people are contrarians, or to use the pathological term, “oppositional-defiant.” (I am not!)

Violent crime reported in the US 1990-2015

So… at this time, which many of us find trying, I’d like to offer some reason for optimism: The world really is getting better in a lot of significant ways. Let’s start with extreme poverty, which is generally defined as living on less than two dollars day. The 189 UN member nations set a goal in 2000 of cutting our extreme poverty figures in half in fifteen years. We met that goal five years early, despite that stinky old recession.

And what about population growth? It has already slowed down, and is projected to level off around 2070 and then start dropping. As people live longer and education becomes more readily available, women have smaller families. In some countries (the US and UK) this took many decades. South Korea pulled it off in eighteen years. Iran accomplished population stability in ten years. Got grandkids? Spoil ’em rotten, because there will never again be as many children on the planet as we have now.

In other areas, from education, to child mortality, to health, to freedom… we’ve made enormous strides. With fewer children to educate, by the end of this century, we should achieve just about 100 literacy. Consider that in 1900 we were at 26 percent literacy, and now we’re up to 85 percent. Take a bow, us.  More people live in democratic societies than ever before, and what we’ve done with child mortality is miraculous. In 1900, 36 percent of all children died before age five (down from 43 percent in 1800). Now? We’re at 4.3 percent worldwide and dropping.

So, yes, of course. We face big challenges, and there’s plenty of reason to be worried and tired and fed up. But there are more of us than ever before to tackle the big problems, we’re better educated and in better health than we’ve ever been before, we’re safer than we’ve been before, more of us have political freedom than ever before, and we’ve achieved miracles when we work together. My money’s on us, as are my love, my hope, and my best efforts.

Your turn: What do you see–big picture, small picture, anywhere–that gives you hope and encouragement? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of His Lordship’s True Lady, because TRUE LOVE ALWAYS WINS. (Does too.)

 

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Writing Down the Boo-Boos

I’m a shy, introverted person, but there’s one type of group I’m always happy to get together with–a library audience. My usual library talk combines a little bit of autobiography (“So, if you’re inclined to write a book, I hope you give it a try!”), with my gratitude for the readers among us (this means you).

The benefits of reading good fiction are numerous and important. Reading makes us more tolerant, which ought to elevate it to our national pastime in my humble. Reading lowers blood pressure, improves sleep, improves heart health, expands vocabulary and thus expressive and receptive languages skills. If you’re reading good fiction, there is no downside that I can see.

And then I move on to the benefits of writing, particularly writing that expresses our emotions. The ground-breaking research in this area was done about thirty years ago, and we’re learning more year by year. James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology, asked his undergraduates to write for fifteen minutes about their most traumatic experience, or their most difficult time.

A control group wrote about another topic–their dorm room (you hope that’s not traumatic), or a building on campus. Six months later, Pennebaker tracked how many visits students in each group had made to the doctor or campus health clinic. The writers had sought medical treatment MUCH less, and this finding has been replicated many times.

Wounds heal faster when we write about them, especially if we take the gloves off, and write the real, vivid stuff about our suffering. There are a ton of caveats and yeah-buts that go with this line of research (constant bellyaching is not expressive writing, writing when you need to act is not expressive writing, et cetera). You can read Pennebaker’s book, which includes his own story (the depressed professional psychologist who wouldn’t go to therapy).

What’s the relevance of all this information to us? Well, first, we’re human so we suffer, and if writing can reduce the pain and suffering in this world–for free–then I’m all for it. Second, when do we write? Compared to the Regency folks I put in my books, who had no internet, no TV, no smartphones, but who did routinely journal, and maintain myriad, long-distance pen-pal relationships…. we don’t write much.

In this regard, I think the old days were better days. Everything from penmanship to a clever turn of phrase to being a reliable correspondent was valued for people living above subsistence level. We were expected to record our lives and to report them in writing to trusted friends and family. Maybe this was one way those ancestors compensated for a lack of antibiotics, but why shouldn’t we get the same benefit?

Who could you write a letter to this week? When was the last time you wrote or received a real letter? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of His Lordship’s True Lady (on sale from the website store now, from the retail sites on Tuesday).

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The Good Old Summertime

I have been waxing philosophical lately, about Dunning-Kruger effect, workplace inequalities, neuroplasticity (the bit about learning keeps the Alzheimer’s at bay), and migraines of the heart. All quite worth pondering, but also very serious.

Time for a lighter topic, namely, what I like about summer. I can often be heard to lament The Bugs, who are much in evidence in warm weather, but what are a few flies compared to…

Birdsong. I open the house up as much as I can, and that means, I often wake to  birdsong. There’s nothing sweeter first thing in the day, and birds eat bugs, so double wonderful. (That’s a red-eyed vireo, and he sounds like this.)

Yard flowers. I went nuts this year with impatiens, New Guinea impatiens, geraniums, and gladiolus. I sit on my front porch steps and marvel at the loveliness of the flower season.

Kittens. I live in the country, and there’s a feral cat population in the area. Several of the mamas have decided to start their families on my property. I have Plans for these kittens (and their mamas, and Lars Loverboy, if I can catch him) that do not include contributing to the gene pool, which means I have to spend time making friends with those kittens. What a lovely way to take a break from everything.

The greenery. Where I live, it do be green. I love this. I love the big trees, the raspberry bushes, the horses at grass across the road. Doesn’t get any prettier than this.

The fresh air. In winter, I shut the house up, of course, and that means I don’t hear the birds, the stream, the horses whuffling, or even much traffic going by. When I’m not braced against the elements, life and nature are more at my side all day. If the cats start menacing a bird’s nest, I get the amber alert from the birds, and head into the yard, my broom at the ready. Last time the birds sounded the alarm, though, it was a big old freight train of a black snake. (Grace auditions for the 82nd airborne division while hovering over her front yard at a height of fifteen feet, muumuu flapping for all the world to see!)

The lightning bugs. Saw my first one this evening. What magic.

The sunshine. Yeah, I know, we need to wear sunscreen and hats and bug spray, but this past winter was GLOOMY. Week after week of overcast, gray, and cold, much drearier than usual. To see the sun, to see the corn coming up, the winter wheat going golden, the whole mountain leafed out, restoreth my soul.

How do you make the hot weather work for you? To one commenter, I’ll send a print version of Tartan Two-Step, (prequel to Elias in Love) which is also available now as a stand-alone ebook.

 

 

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Profitable in Pink (and green and brown and blue)

I mentioned last week, that if you want to increase the collective IQ of a task-oriented group, then adding smart people won’t accomplish your goal. Adding women will. In fact, if you add people who are smart, but opinionated and domineering, all of those smart people will result in an unproductive group… unless you’re adding smart women.

Companies whose senior management is at least 30 percent female, are more profitable than companies with fewer women in senior management. Companies with a racially and ethnically diverse work force are more profitable. When it comes to the boards of directors, one study found that Fortune 500 companies with the most women on their boards out-performed companies with the fewest women on their boards by a margin of 53 percent on return on investment.

Another study reported in the Harvard Business Review looked at sixteen leadership traits across 7,280 “business leaders.” For twelve out of sixteen characteristics, the women leaders out-performed the men, and in two–taking initiative, and driving for results–women out-scored men by the widest margin.

Olympians Debbie MacDonald and Brentina

Now here (coming up soon) is the punchline: I’ve served on a mostly-female board, for a volunteer riding organization that had hundreds of members. I’ve served on a board of mostly guys for a church of nearly the same size. The riding board out-performed the church board by leaps and one-tempis.

I could go on, but the point is, when my riding board got an award for being highly effective, I shrugged, and thought, “Well, we’re a pretty go-ahead kinda group.” With the church board, I also shrugged, and thought, “I guess this is why my denomination does so much ‘church-planting.’ It’s easier to start your own group than resolve differences within the congregation.”

I never, not once, thought: Maybe women are better at management, leadership, and getting stuff done on behalf of an organization than men are. I thought my riding group was just a fluke. I thought the bogged-down, talk-in-circles church group was normal. The most effective group I’ve EVER come across is the Romance Writers of America, which is comprised largely of smart women. Just another fluke?

One of my all-time favorite books is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn. The premise of this very readable little book–backed up by many examples–is that as a society, we see the new truth only when the cost of supporting the prevailing falsehood gets just too ridiculous. All the data in the world, all the studies and experiments, won’t get an idea accepted until the cost of hanging on to the old dogma grows too high.

I hope, when it comes to racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, we’ve reached that point. I hope the next time I see a diverse group, or a group of women, making something happen despite many challenges, I won’t think, “Well, must be another fluke.”

Because it’s not.

To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of The Structure… well, how ’bout not. How about I send a copy of Elias in Love? When have you doubted your own experience, only to realize in hindsight that you were right, it wasn’t a fluke, and you’re still right?

 

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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.

 

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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.

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